HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION: Lesson 8: "Storing Up Nutty Ideas For Winter"

Republibot 3.0
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We haven't done one of these in a bit, and they're kind of fun, and in re-reading some comments on the older entries I found some additional tips that probably need a bit more exposure. Today we'll talk about storing up nuts - or nutty ideas - for winter.

There's a common perception that stories appear fully-formed, like Ymir licked out of the ice by the giant supernatural cow Auoumbla, or (in less hilarious fashion)Athena born from the head of Zeus. This *does* happen, it's happened to me on occasion, and there are some writers who actually do it consistently. It's as anomalous, though, as anomalous as a giant supernatural creatorless cow. While writing is more inspiration than, say, installing aluminum siding or balancing your checkbook, there's still a whole lot more mundane stuff in it than most people assume. The old saw about 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration? Kinda' true. As we've discussed back in the first issue of this series: the idea is not the story. The story is what you build to house the idea.

So what do you do if inspiration strikes, but you don't have a story, or you've got a story but not some neat idea to house in it? Well, obviously, you hold on to what you've got and store it up for winter.

With me, generally what happens is that a story, or a fragment of a story will pop into my head, generally when I'm distracted and in a somewhat sensory-deprived state, like in a shower, or sorting out ratchet wrench attachments or suffering from highway hypnosis on a long car trip, or whatever. Sometimes it comes in a dream, as with "The Truth About Lions and Lambs," and "Tahiti Is Still Beautiful." Sometimes it's just a cliche I want to rip apart, like in "Superheroes are Gay" or "The Man Who Would Not Be King," or "Bubba's Burger Barn," thought to be fair the last two of those are things that puttered around in my head for decades, so they don't entirely fit the profile.

More often than stories/ideas, though, I come up with scenes, like you were saying. They're funny or creepy or just neat, and I play 'em out through the car trip or socket-resorting or in between songs in the shower, and then I just sort of file them away in my head for future use. I generally *DO NOT* have any purpose for these in mind when I think 'em up, they're not tied to a story or anything, just bits. If they're good, I remember them and throw them into whatever my next story is, more-or-less randomly. If they're not good, or just don't fit, then I just hold on to 'em. Undoubtedly I forget some along the way, but if they're forgettable, then I shouldn't be boring the reader with 'em, now should I? There's a natural filtration aspect of memory that can be good or bad. Generally it works well for me, but I'd advise you to write stuff down for future use just in case you were a binge drinker in school, or have a really busy life now.

Anyway, some of these bits can be pretty lengthy, like the whole "liftoff under fire" sequence from "Internal Bleeder," but a lot of 'em are just short things like a slapstick piece where Bob Wilson knocks out one of his bodyguards in "Bob and the Allegory of the Cave." All the "Undead" stories were inspired by once scene I have yet to use, actually. I keep trying to find a place to slip it in, but thus far it hasn't fit, and it'll be entirely predictable if that seed grew a tree of an entirely different species.

More often than scenes are turns of phrase. Writing is good, but it's always nice to have some memorable wordplay. Growing up in the middle of nowhere, with a foreign parent in a somewhat multiracial extended family, watching nothing but 40s movies, 60s SF, and 70s BBC crap on PBS, and mostly reading only the Bible and Hardy Boys novels, I tended to get beat up a lot at school, but I also developed a kind of odd way of putting words together on occasion. In college it turned out to be an advantage in writing term papers and stuff, since if the paper was entertaining to read, the Prof was more likely to pay attention and give you a good grade even if your central premise was whack. Because a well-written whackjob paper is way better than the hundred poorly-written whackjob papers he has to read at the same time. Eventually I discovered that girls would let me touch them if I had a band, so I got to writing songs, mostly because I'm too untalented to play songs by other people. Eventually I discovered that girls will let you touch 'em *a lot* if the words are memorable or funny or just strikingly inscrutable. Songs are really nothing but clever wordplay.

(NOTE: I am *not* talking about poetry here. Poetry is hard. Songs are easy. The worst thing that ever happened to rock was the whole Simon and Garfunkel 'Singer/Songwriter/poet' thing, with so much pretension you need a snorkel to get through it while still breathing.)

So when a clever turn of phrase comes to me, dialog, or a title or whatever, I make a point of trying to remember it, and at the first opportunity I write it down. This is maybe a little easier for me simply because I've been doing it for a quarter century with song lyrics, so I've always got a notebook around and a pen, but it's really something that you, as an aspiring writer, need to get the hang of and develop into a habit. Then you can haul these things out at your leisure and throw 'em into your stories, either while you're writing them, or after the fact when you're editing them. You know, take out a stiff line like "When I was a child, my fantasies were shaped by our crappy local TV station playing old movies and SF shows" and replace it with something with a bit more punch like "I was a lonely kid who watched way to much TV, and as a result each night I dream in UHF." More memorable, right? Maybe not exactly the way people really talk, but Neil Simon had a good long run with dialog that in no way represented human speech. Ditto that Shakespeare guy. "Naturalism" is one of those bugaboos in art: don't feel constrained by it. You wanna' write SF, right? So how naturalistic does it really need to be?

Bottom line: something neat or catchy pops into your mind, write it down. Even if you don't have a use for it now, you *will* need it someday.


Republibot 3.0 is the head writer and editor in chief for the Republibot website, and in twenty-seven years of cranking out amateur Science Fiction, he's never sold a single story. Only a fool would take his ramblings on 'how to write' seriously. He can be reached at