Tuesday, February 07, 2006

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

One of the things that can scare nascent writers about science fiction is, well, the science. Even professional SF/F writers, like my mentor Eleanor Arnason, have been known to choke when it comes to the nuts and bolts part of the story.

First of all, don’t let "getting it right" stop you. Remember – William Gibson wrote his groundbreaking cyberpunk novel Nueromancer on a typewriter, and while having almost no experience with a computer. All you really need from the science is the spark for the idea.

In fact, a quick side story about all of that.... I had the honor of being at the pre-award banquet for the Hugo the year that Eleanor's "Stellar Harvest" was nominated in the novelette category. She had named me her alternate, because she didn't want to deal with going to the award ceremony. I talked her into going. Which was funny in and of itself since my name was listed on the guest list and on the reserved chairs, and I actually had to tell the guards at the door that Eleanor was _my_ guest.

At any rate, being the sort of person I am, I instantly recognized all the luminaries in the room (I regularly scan the photos of LOCUS so I’m never caught with my pants down, as it were.) At any rate, the editor of Analog came up to Eleanor in a kind of fanboy way and started telling her how much he loved her work. I could see her slinking away from him, so I took on the role of introducer, even though he and I have never met. I said, "Eleanor, do you know Dr. Stanley Schmitt?" She brightened instantly. He immediately chided her for not sending more of her stories his way. She gave a dismissive wave of her hand and said, "My stories aren't technical enough for you." Dr. Schmitt never missed a beat. "Eleanor," he said, "Let me be the judge of that."

The point of this story is that the story elements -- like character and plot and theme -- are far more important to most editors than the preciseness of the physics (or chemistry or biology or math). Now, that’s not to say you have a license to not TRY to get the science as right as possible, because SF/F fans (your readers) will notice egregious errors and be more than happy to corner you at a convention and explain the way gravitational physics REALLY works.

I think the key to writing successful science fiction stories is to be enthusiastic about the science you're writing about. I don't think about science every day, though I'd like to. One of the ways I keep myself open and receptive to the seed of a science fiction story is to hang out where ideas germinate.

If you're struggling to find SF ideas, (or if, like me, you just like to hang out where the smart people are,) I'm going to suggest that after you read the New York Times in the morning (or whatever your post-coffee gathering ritual is) you check out some scientific web sites – or, like I do, keep a few of these magazines in their print form in the bathroom for quick perusal.

Popular Science
Popular Mechanics
National Geographic
Science News

There are many, many more I could list, but the articles in these magazines are written in such a way to make you the kind of vaguely informed dangerous that really promotes a good science fiction idea. That's to say, they aren't terribly technical and they leave out the details that would probably send your idea down in a flaming wreck.

Half-assed ideas are the ones with the most wriggle room. Go for it. Make your characters real and the situation believable and the science won’t matter. Get it close enough, and then find an expert to fix what needs fixing. Or just pray that with enough hand waving, the editor will be so charmed by your work that s/he won’t give a crap that your science is wonky.

Next up -- Part III: The Magical Forests of Schenectady, or Hunting Down and Capturing Fantasy Ideas

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 clich├ęs. 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...