Where Do The Ideas Come From?

I’m told that one of the questions that comes up at cons repeatedly, and the one that authors dread the most is “Where do you get your ideas?”

Because they all want an easy answer. Take a piece of paper and write something in the middle, then write related ideas around it, and then make a story out of it. Use the snowflake method. Write prompts on slips of paper and draw them out of a hat. Sit at your computer and stare really hard at it like a scrying mirror, until the words magically appear.

And what the authors really want to tell the person is “Get a life.”

Literally. You don’t get ideas from staring at a blank screen. Stories come from life, characters come from real people, settings come from real places. Even in science fiction and fantasy, where the world is so vastly different from our own, this is true.

I have never, ever, once in my life got an idea for what to write while I was sitting typing a story. Maybe some people do, but my ideas come while I’m out in the world, and talking with people. Also, many get their start from dreams.

For example, the novel I’m currently revising is “The Eyelet Dove.” It started as a dream, but the dream only contained the characters Maddie and Etienne, without names, and their antagonists were vague, I originally imagined the city being occupied by a neighboring country.

But over the last few years, I’ve learned more about the state of economics, and the growing gap between the working class and the corporate aristocracy. It’s only getting worse, and I’m not part of the corporate aristocracy. The setting and conflict became no longer and occupation, but a civil war to overthrow the monarchy who’s holding the working class down to fund an expensive war that’s not progressing.

I’d originally imagined the story setting to be more steampunk with airship battles somewhat akin to tallships, but then our local aviation museum hosted one of the few (single digits) lancaster bombers that are still in flying order. My Dad wanted to take me to see it for my birthday, and when his girlfriend said, “Now Don, shouldn’t you ask Lindsay what  *she* wants to do for her birthday?” my response was, “I kinda want to go see the plane…..” I am my father’s daughter, and I think these things are cool. This is a WWII plane, and I got to go inside and see it, and talk to the pilots and find out how many people would have been in the crew, how the plane was used tactically, and that it carried the biggest bombs dropped in WWII.

Suddenly now the story has bombers playing a major role in the story, along with WWII style aeroplanes.

So if you’re an aspiring writer sitting staring at a blank screen and whining to yourself  “I don’t know what to write”, stop. Go to the museum. Go to the zoo. Go see a movie, or read a book. Read non-fiction. Click through wikipedia, follow links until you find stuff that intrigues you. Take a course. Take up a hobby. Learn to dance. Go on a trip. You don’t want characters sitting around the page feeling bored and sorry for themselves, why let yourself do it?

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Review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The Forever War

I really expected to like this one – it’s a Hugo and Nebula award winner from back in the golden age of science fiction. Only I didn’t. Glancing at reviews, no one seems to have picked out the greatest flaws in this book.

It was interesting, had it’s moments, and I laughed a couple times as the author’s extrapolations of where we’d be fifty years from now. For example, he figured by the 90’s we’d be way past mars and have a military base on Charon, one of Pluto’s moons. On the other hand, he also anticipated that we’d have electronic money transfers by the year 2115 or something like that. I suppose back then they were hopeful that exploration and human curiosity would be the leading drivers of innovation, rather than convenience.

That wasn’t what disappointed me though. Those things – see, those are the same as H. G. Wells’ man eating orchids and anything else he wrote about that we know can’t exist now. I don’t have a problem with that.

It was the story crafting that lost me. See, the theme of the story is embedded in the setting. The extrapolation of the progress of culture is the point of the novel. The fact that the main character was going away, losing time, and coming back, fifty, a hundred, seven hundred years later, was the macguffin the author used to show the theme. The problem is the plot has almost nothing to do with the theme.

The main plot is the romance between the main character, William, and his fellow soldier, Marygay. The plot does nothing to further the point of the story. Furthermore, the main character is not in a position to affect anything to do with the state of the world, so he’s not exactly the idea candidate for a main character. The only reason William goes back to view the changes that occur in the world each time he returns from a mission is so that he can observe the state of the world now. The theme is wedged into the plot, like an after thought. I was expecting the plot to eventually have some link to the theme, and it never did. There are those that argue that, well, it does, sort of, but should a story’s plot only touch on the point obliquely?

Robert J Sawyer has a great article on how to choose and create an effective main character, here: http://www.sfwriter.com/ow02.htm. He explains that your main character should be the one in the best position to illustrate the purpose of your story. Plot, I believe is the same – you choose a plot to illustrate your point, to make your story a cohesive whole. As I learn more about the craft of writing, I notice these things more, and they annoy me more.

Did it get a Hugo and Nebula because the readers of the time were less discerning? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s simply that what they considered important about the novel was different. There are people who are nuts for Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and I didn’t care for that one either. I supposed that’s just not the time period I’m nostalgic for.

Back to H. G. Wells.

Music and Writing

On one of my forums, the other day, someone posted an open question – if your novel were a particular genre by a particular musical artist, what one would it be?

My answer:

“The Eyelet Dove would be industrial/electronic, played by abney park.

But most of my characters have theme songs too:
Michel, the badass ace pilot – Indestructible by Disturbed
Roland, admiral of the air, and Michel’s father – Road to Freedom by Chris De Burgh
Maddie, the poor street orphan – Downtrodden by Abney park
Etienne, the leader of the people’s revolt – Letters Between a Little Boy And Himself As An Adult by Abney Park
Simone, the brothel madame and former prostitute – Natasha Dance by Chris De Burgh
Claire, a young woman fighting her way into a man’s role in the air corps- The Grudge by Tool

The song for the climax though, is Farewell, by Apocalyptica.

And yes, the playlists on my Ipod are organized and titled by titles of works in progress and character names….”

I, like many other writers, get pretty into the music I listen to. I can’t write with the wrong music in the background, but silence is ok, too. I know people who can’t listen to songs with lyrics while writing because they start to transcribe the lyrics without thinking.

When I was younger, I used to invent stories to go with whatever songs I was listening to, if they weren’t songs that already told a story (those have always been my favourite.) Even now, I can’t listen to music while I’m at my day job, because I get to into the music and distracted.

Everyone’s different, though.

Book Review: Havemercy, by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennet

Debut novel of Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennet, and like Peter S. Beagle and many others have said, it doesn’t read like a debut novel.

Overall, I loved it. It’s the first in a series, so I can forgive them for not killing *all* the characters I would have killed, if it were me writing it, because I know two of the characters I would have killed are POV characters for the next book. And one of the major plot points that was forshadowed and not resolved is centered around one of those two characters, so I expect to see that resolved later as well and forgive that as well.

I love the setting – but then, I’m a sucker for combining technology and magic, so the dragons were right up my alley.

Favourite scene: the exploding dining room table.

My biggest beef with the story was I bought it for the dragon on the front, and the dragon was barely in the story. Her first scene, even was an excercise flight around the city, and it felt like the scene was only there to get her into the story. She was really cool when she was there, but, like I said, barely there.

My other beef would have to be the lack of female characters – strange for a book written by two female authors. All four POV characters were male – and having two of them homosexual didn’t make up for it. Not even really any significant secondary female characters.

But the ending, and the body count at the end was satisfactory. I was starting to wonder about the body count, but they were just saving it all up for the end. And then they really came through.

It’s very political, mostly about relationships, and though I figured out one major plot twist between Rook and Thom at least 100 pages before I got to it, that’s ok, it was a good plot twist. Maybe a bit cliche, but it was well executed, and the characters made it unique.

The characters are some of the most memorable characters I’ve ever read, too. Rook, especially – somehow they managed to do badass from a first person POV, without the character ending up ruined by emo. There was lots of emotion, from all the characters, but this character’s emotion was all anger, he never once let himself sit down and feel sorry for himself. He was a complete asshole, but I loved that character.