Monday, February 06, 2006

Where the Heck is Schenectady? Finding SF/F Ideas – Part I: [Bleeping!] Read.

Since I've started up teaching at the Loft again, I thought I'd structure my blogs around my syllabus. The bonus is, I'll actually get some thinking in before class time, which has got to be a first for me. Also, since my lecture style is… shall we say... "organic," I can potentially point my students to this page and they can read what I MEANT to say during class.

The title of this blog comes from an old skiffy joke. Writers often get asked the question, "Where do you get your crazy ideas?" According to legend, Ray Bradbury replied that all science fiction ideas originated in an idea factory in Schenectady, New York, and any one could get one for only three dollars a piece.

It's an easy, flip answer for a question that is, particularly for the nascent writer, a difficult one.

Neil Gaiman has a wonderful essay that is his answer to this question.

My answer builds on Neil’s. I think that beyond imagination and asking questions, which are, in fact, the key components in getting story ideas, a science fiction and fantasy writer has to hang out in the places where they can become exposed to the raw material for ideas.

First, you HAVE to read.

I know, it seems fundamental, but the truth is, you really have no business writing if you don't read. You really ought to read the genre you want to publish in, though, admittedly that’s not always necessary. It’s not just a matter of professional courtesy. Asking new writers to read is more than a clever marketing strategy to get them to buy my books (and, anyway, if you sign-up for my class, you get them for free.)

In science fiction and fantasy, in particular, there's a lot that has gone before. What may seem like a new idea to you might actually be number one on the grand list of over-used science fiction clichés. That's not to say you shouldn't use it. You should just go into writing it, knowing what you're writing against. After all, Orson Scott Card did quite well revisiting "the game turned out to be real," when he wrote the original novella for "Ender’s Game," which later became a best-selling and award-winning novel.

Also, there's no point in reinventing the wheel. Science fiction and fantasy readers have short-handed a lot of your work for you. You can just say "jump ship" and we know you have some kind of tesseract engine that works as your FTL. If you didn’t understand what I just wrote, you need to read more science fiction, starting with Madeleine L’Engle’s WRINKLE IN TIME.

But, perhaps more importantly, reading is a great cauldron for ideas.

I know that a lot of people worry unnecessarily about their ideas getting stolen, or accidentally stealing someone else’s idea. You must remember that ideas themselves cannot be copyrighted. And, frankly, no matter how brilliant your idea, there isn't anything new under the sun. Besides, even if six writers sat down to write, "the game turned out to be real," not one of them would write the exact same story. All of them could be beautiful and publishable. In fact, they could all end up in the same themed anthology, and no one would be in violation of the copyright law. As Neil says, really, the idea itself is not REALLY the important part so much as the writing down of it.

"Can I steal that idea?" is a phrase heard a lot in my writer’s critique group. All of us know that writers borrow, build-on, expand... other writer’s ideas all the time. It's what Virgil did for Homer. Also, it's called being part of the science fiction continuum. All published writing is in conversation with what has gone before and what will come after.

Reading someone else's ideas SHOULD inspire you.

That's not to suggest you can write a story about Miles Verkosegan and expect it to be published. That's just fan fiction (fanfic), and it can get you into legal trouble. But, it's perfectly okay to think about what it is about that character that interest you so much and try to put those qualities (or that situation or whatever it was that turned you on) into a character (or situation or whatever) of your own making.

For example: a very good friend of mine, Lyda Morehouse claims to have been inspired to write her the first novel in her AngeLINK series by an episode of X-Files.

Obviously, there's more to it, but you have to look for that spark of inspiration anywhere – and seize it.

Next: Part II: Does Blood Pool in Zero G? Or SF/F Ideas Lost in Space...

1 comment:

Zoe said...

I often steal my own ideas. I'll come up with an idea that will end up not working, but then later I'll take a piece of it and create a new idea out of it, and then I'll combine that idea with another to create something new... I've tried to track where some of my story ideas originated, and it's almost always a long and complicated path.