I had a blast at IllogiCon last week, and am looking forward to MarsCon in Williamsburg VA this weekend. I didn’t’ have access to decent wifi at the last con, so ended up being a little slow to respond to those of you who posted here. Hopefully this weekend will go smoother in that arena.
Regarding the new IGMS anthology, I’m tickled to announce that we’ve been approached by someone who is interested in producing an audio book of the collection. I don’t want to jinx it by saying too much before it’s a done deal, but audio books always make me smile, so keep your fingers crossed.
I’m also (on a completely unrelated self-congratulatory note), pleased to say that when the Tangent Recommended Reading list came out recently, IGMS had 13 stories that were recognized/recommended. We published 27 stories in 2013, so having half of them make the list was immensely gratifying.
I think that’s enough niceties, then. Shall we get down to business? Yes, I think we shall.
“What’s the big idea?”
It’s a phrase you hear often enough, and when you’re writing, it is common for someone to have a ‘big idea.’ As often as not, a ‘big’ or ‘cool’ idea is the spark that will set someone off, starting them down a trail that leads them to writing. And whether it’s your first ‘big’ idea or your fiftieth, whether you’ve published any of them or not, it’s always an exuberant moment.
“I have the coolest idea for a story.”
“I have a million-dollar idea.”
“I have…” etc etc etc.
Ideas are fun, exciting. But if you’re paying attention to the world around you, you’ll also realize that they are far from rare. Ideas abound. They are borderline ubiquitous. That’s half of the reason why established authors inevitably (and if they are gracious human beings, privately) laugh when friends, family members, or strangers in the supermarket offer to share their brilliant idea in exchange for half the money, as long as said writer will just whip off the novel based on their special idea.
So what is it that separates the ideas that work from the ideas that don’t? More importantly to the purposes of Magical Words, what separates the ones that get published from the ones that don’t?
One word: execution. (Which, for those of you keeping score at home, is the other half of the reason why established pros laugh at the generous people who want to share their brilliant ideas: the execution is 99% of the work.)
Obviously ‘execution’ is a huge concept and there is no way to address it in a single blog post (or even a series of them). There’s just too much to cover. But I recently ran into a situation with a novice writer that reminded me of one small but impactful thing you can do in the ‘execution’ department that will stack the deck in your favor (and avoid a deadly trap at the same time).
Let me point out the trap first.
Often what novice writers want to do is build the entire story (and this is a more common problem with short stories than novels, but I do occasionally see it arise in novels as well) with the climax of the story leading to the revelation of their ‘cool’ idea. It’s actually a common trope in certain types of stories–“And when they pulled into the driveway and looked at the outside of the car, there was a hook dangling from the door’s handle, with fresh blood from where the hook had been ripped out of the deranged killer’s arm…”
And for that kind of short, fun story, it works just fine.
But too many newer authors want to use that formula for everything. A while back I taught a class at a local university where a woman wrote a story wherein she described a loving but seriously odd encounter between a mother and her multiple offspring, only revealing at the end of the story that the reason the encounter seemed odd was that the main character was a dog, and the offspring were her brand new litter of puppies. Okay, that’s not a surprise… it’s called cheating. It’s artificially withholding relevant information. And you really don’t want to get me started on THAT subject…
But even in that relatively mundane situation, even where you don’t have a genuinely ‘cool’ idea, you can still do interesting things, present a compelling story—by putting the relevant details up front. Tell us you’re writing a story from the POV of a dog, and then show us why it matters.
Now let’s add a ‘big’ idea to this equation and see what happens.
Let’s say, for instance, that you decided you were going to write a story in a future where teleportation devices had become the standard mode of transportation for people everywhere, and in that world people suddenly and mysterious begin disappearing. In the hands of a newer writer, it wouldn’t shock me at all to see a plot structured in such a way that the people started disappearing, and we didn’t find out until the end that there were teleporters everywhere, and the people were disappearing because of some kind of glitch with the machines. The end.
What you ought to do with this idea, however, is present all the necessary information at the beginning, and then show us the ramifications, the impact, the problems, that arise out of that situation. Let your main character figure out by the end of page two (at the latest) that people are disappearing because of some malfunction in these teleportation devices and then show us how this affects the world as a whole, and the main character in particular.Now it’s not just an interesting concept, it’s an interesting concept kicking the main character in the teeth.
See the difference in the story you’ll inevitably write?
Let me give you a specific example of an entirely different flavor, from an author you know: David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson. Back in 2012, right before the first Thieftaker novel was published, I published (in IGMS) a short story featuring David’s main Thieftaker character, Ethan Kaille, titled “Memory of Freedom.” In the very first paragraph, David wrote, “Ethan Kaille was halfway through this week’s issue of the Boston Gazette when he finally took note of the date on the front page. Monday, 4 August 1760. That made today the seventh. He had been a free man for exactly three months.” So right away, we know when and where the action takes place. Boston, 1760. We also know that the character was recently imprisoned.
Over the course of the next few paragraphs/pages, we are then shown and/or told that Ethan was involved in a mutiny on a sailing ship; that he’s lived a rough life; that he’s currently got a tenuous job at best, working for a street-smart man of questionable character; and that he has magical powers which have cost him greatly in the past, magical powers he’s sworn never to use again. In short, we are told efficiently and immediately that we have an urban fantasy with a twist: a real-life historical setting.
An historical urban fantasy?! Now that’s a really cool idea!
And here’s the key (in my humble opinion): he laid all that out right up front, at the very beginning. Now we, as the readers, get to climb on board with David and with Ethan and explore this big idea together. We are part of the process of discovery; we’re along for the ride.
That’s exactly what readers crave, and exactly what David provided. To be part of the ride. It’s a text book case.
So the next time you have an idea you think is strong enough to support a story (or novel), consider putting it as close to the front of that story as you possibly can. Lay out all of the details—except for one: how does it all turn out in the end? That’s where true tension lays. That’s where the skilled writer knows to put her best surprise.
So that’s my advice, in the Alex-Trebeck-approved form of a question: Where’s the big idea?
If you’ve got an idea that’s truly great, don’t bury at the end, or dress it up in camouflage and make it a surprise. Instead, why not use it to get the reader excited? Why not use it to make the reader your partner?
Where’s the big idea?
I say if you’re smart, it’s at the start.
Edmund R. Schubert is the author the novel, Dreaming Creek, and some 40+ short stories, about half of which are in his collection, The Trouble with Eating Clouds. He’s held a variety of editorial positions, currently serving his eighth year as editor of Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show. He’s co-edited three IGMS anthologies with Card, as well as editing and contributing to the non-fiction book, How to Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. Schubert still insists, however, that his greatest accomplishment came during college, when his self-published underground newspaper made him the subject of a professor’s lecture in abnormal psychology.
He can be found online at: www.EdmundRSchubert.com