Last year, during my “Burnout” period, Kit suggested we run a series of tips on how to write Science Fiction. That seemed like a pretty good idea, and as today is a slow news day, I thought “Why not start now?”
Some caveats: I’m not a teacher. I’m not a professional writer. I’ve never sold a story, I’ve never made a dime, and I’ve had my stuff rejected by fanzines and even (Lowest of the low) college newspaper ‘aspiring writer’ supplements. I’ve been writing, on and off, for a quarter century, but aside from some sporadic moments of inspiration here and there, I really don’t think I was any good at it until the second half of 2006 when I was writing my novel “Home Again,” and suddenly things just sort of clicked and I could do it.
As such, I’m not sure that I have anything of any merit to teach you, and I’m not sure I *could* teach even if I had something worth telling you. I am, however, arrogant enough to try. This will be a continuing series. I’ll pass along my pointers and observations in no particular order, as they occur to me, for whatever little my thoughts are worth.
Feel free to ask questions or make comments below. If something requires expansion or explanation, or just rambling wise-ass comments, I’ll be happy to do it.
LESSON # 1: Have a story.
A trap that I fell into a lot as a young robot was this: I’d come up with some brilliant idea, and then I’d call up all my little hambone friends and say ‘I’ve got this great idea’ and I’d tell it to them, and they’d be all ‘Oh, R3, you’re sooooo cool and creative, it’s really weird that you can’t get a date,’ and I’d say, ‘Yeah, what’s up with that?’ and then their sister would come on the phone and say ‘Well, for starters you weigh 135 pounds you beanpole, and secondly you’re a robot. Ewww.’ So I’d get back to my idea and fiddle with it for a week or two, and if it was a *really* good idea, I’d even take a bunch of notes.
And then I’d never write it.
Shortly thereafter I’d do the same thing again, sometimes multiple times in the same weekend if there wasn’t a good episode of Dr. Who playing on PBS. Idea, phone, “Yer so kewl,” hang up; Idea 2, phone, “Wow, you‘re on fire this weekend,” hang up; Idea 3, phone, “You‘ve got to stop calling me, it‘s 3AM and I‘ve got to get some sleep, look, just write it, and I’ll read it on Monday,” hang up.
And then I never write ‘em. I’d never write *any* of them.
Why? Two reasons:
First) I didn’t know the difference between an “Idea” and a “Story.”
An “Idea” is not a story. If I say, “Hey, what if the Nazis nuked New York and won World War II,” (Which was one of my more infamous early idea) that’s an *idea.* It’s not a story. A *story* would be the characters and events that lead up to that, or, conversely, it might start out with the disaster, and show the characters reacting to events that arise from it. A story is about people doing things, an idea isn’t. An idea is a hook to hang a story on, but it is *not* the story itself.
This would seem to be self evident, but it really isn’t. We’ve all read terrible, terrible stories where someone’s got a shiny central idea, but completely fails to make it interesting in any way; or has some really massive writing chops, but the whole thing just falls flat because there isn’t really an idea there, so it’s just two hundred pages of talking about nothing. We’ve all read terrible fanfic where the alleged ‘idea’ is crew of the Galactica dress up as baseball mascots and have group sex. We’ve all read terrible fanfic where the central idea is absolutely fantastic, but it’s destroyed by being written as an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It happens, a lot. And not just to us unpaid geeks with delusions of fan boy grandeur.
Harlan Ellison once told me how much it annoyed him to be at a party, and some investment banker or used car saleseman would come up to him, and say, “Hey I got me this idea that you could probably use in one of your crazy sciencey fictioney stories. How about I give you my idea, and you can write the story, and make a million dollars and then we can split the money?”
“Oh, great! So I get to do all the work, and you get to take half the money, that sounds fair.”
“Well, no, it’s not like that, I’d be giving you the idea…”
I paraphrase a bit. It’s way funnier when he does it, of course, but it ends with him deriding the imaginary partygoer about how he doesn’t want his piece of crap idea which has probably been done a zillion times anyway. His point was that ideas are plentiful, free, and easy. There is no monopoly on them. Read a newspaper, watch a bird hop around in the back yard, vacuum the carpet: there’s ideas in any of those. The world is literally awash in story ideas.
Granted: some are better than others. The whole “Mascot Sex” thing is never a good idea, and anything involving the human heart at war with itself is *always* a good one, but there is no real shortage of ideas. The real magic is in the telling.
Example: “Twelve Monkeys” and “Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann” are effectively the same goofy time travel tale. Yeah, there’s substantial differences, but the basic hook - idea - is the same: Dude travels through time, stuff happens, the ending casts new light upon everything we saw up until that point. One of them is, literally, the best time travel story ever filmed, and the other is a mostly-forgotten Mike Nesmith blow off. So what’s the difference? Obviously, the difference is in the way you tell the story.
So don’t sweat the ideas. The ideas will come. Carry a notepad, or a little recorder, and just jot down the ideas when they come to you. Store them up for when you have a story to go with the idea.
And then don’t tell anyone about your ideas. Why? I’ll explain that next time.