Saturday, January 19, 2013

Where Do You Get Your Crazy Ideas?

On a site where I sometimes visit, there arose a discussion about writers interacting with fans. That sometimes, writers will respond with a joke to a heartfelt, earnest inquiry, and is this not cruel to the newbie who doesn't know any better than to ask?

Listen to really famous people go off when they get asked really inane questions by reporters who should know better. Watch the Beatles just before Ed Sullivan. Or Dylan any time after about 1967.

I spoke to it from my minor celebrity status, and today's post is, more or less, what I had to say.

To set it up: For those of you who aren't aware of it, science fiction and fantasy writers are often asked one by the laity. There are some variations of it, but the most common version is, "Where do you get your crazy ideas?"

There are other questions writers get, most notably one that arises from a conversation like this: Hey, I have this great idea for a sci fi story. Here's the deal: I'll tell it to you, you write it, and we'll split the money we make on it, okay? 

Non-writers don't understand why this isn't a good deal for the writer; they believe that the idea is paramount. They also believe what they have come up with has never been done before. In case you are one of these folks, let me be as gentle as I can be here: Ideas are cheap. Most writers have notebooks full of them they won't live long enough to write. And if it is worth doing, somebody, somewhere has written it before, you just haven't seen it. What changes it is the processor who translates it from mind to page.

Back to the original question:

The first time I went to a science fiction convention, I was already a pro. Sort of. I had sold two stories, neither of which had been published yet. Maybe four people there had any idea I was a budding writer, and nobody had asked me to speak, to expound on the subject.

As I sat in the audience for a panel at that decadent Miami hotel, I began to feel a certain amount of despair listening to the writers on the panel. While it was true that there were some heavyweights in the field up there, they were all so fucking brilliant that I knew if I'd been offered a seat, I couldn't begin to keep up. I mean, every question that audience had? The writers had answers off the tops of their heads, bam! No hesitation, clean, quick, and I was stunned by this. The guys were all geniuses! Literate, memories like steel traps, whick-whick-whick, Zorro, carving zees everywhere!

Despair. In this company, I'd be fighting way above my weight, I'd get creamed. Out of my league.

Then I went to a few more panels.

Then a few more conventions.

Then I had the head-slapping, come-to-Jesus moment: It wasn't that they were all eidetic intellectual giants ( though some of them were passing bright), it was simply that they had heard all the questions before.

Over and over and over and over and over.

If you get the answers to the quiz in advance? You can toss 'em off and look very much the sage.

All of which goes to this point: When you sit up there, you speak to a passing parade. There is a constant, moving line of newbies who ask, because they don't know. (Ignorance is not stupidity, you can cure the former, but not the latter.)

You can't, however, cure the ignorance in the time allotted -- especially when you don't have the answer.

If you can make a living writing fiction, you don't get to bitch about your job. A lot of folks would kill to swap places with you. But after you have heard the same questions a hundred times, you might be tempted to riff on the answers. Like the guys who used to run the Jungle Boat ride at Disneyland. First, they played it straight, then they started to do comedy, and the funny variations were way more fun.

What somebody who asks "Where do you get your crazy ideas?" really wants to know is, What's the secret? Where is the short cut? The one that gets me from where I am to where you are? 

What is the exact nature of the creative process?

They want a simple how-to to a question that doesn't have a simple reply. Because the answer for a lot of us is: I don't have a fucking clue. And I don't really want to poke at it too hard and maybe screw it up; enough that it works at all.

Harlan sometimes says he gets a package of ideas every week from an idea service in Schenectaday
. Zelazny used to joke about leaving milk on the back porch for the brownies. I sometimes tell people there's a cable TV show on Wednesdays at two a.m., Ideas for Science Fiction Writers. You get a laugh, and at least that's entertaining. 

I don't have a fucking clue? That's not much help. (Shazam won't do it, by the way.)

I like dogs, I am patient with children, I love talking to my nine fans. If I make a joke when someone asks a question at a panel and the questioner doesn't get it, somebody there will explain it to them. In an audience full of fans, no matter how esoteric a reference you make? Somebody there will get it.

Crazy ideas? I suspect there are many answers to that as people who get them. You have to find your own.


Anonymous said...

Wise advice, but maybe not so simple.
My own constant question isn't about ideas. It's about how to improve the technical aspects of storytelling. The answer I usually get is "read a lot and write a lot".
The problem is that if I wanted to learn to compose music, no one would say "listen to a lot and compose a lot" without first adding a step of how to acquire the tools to do both effectively. That's where the simple answers fall short for me.
I'd read thousands of F&SF books and short stories and written perhaps three hundred thousand words of stories so far but I saw, at best, a marginal increase in my storytelling ability. I'm missing the tools and I've begun reading books on "how to write" to try to add them at this late date, without knowing which are good books and which are books just trying to make a buck (one book on how to write was over half about how to get an agent).
Perhaps the question of "Where do you get your crazy ideas?" is the person wondering why their own stories aren't as interesting as yours and what they're really asking is "How can I find the right ideas for ME to write about?" or "How do I write these well-used ideas better?" Maybe they're looking for the tools.
Then again, maybe they ARE newbies with standard questions. Something to think about.
- JM

Steve Perry said...

Simple is not the same as easy. Here's my best advice:

What any writer who has any success at it can offer to a newbie is what has worked for him or her. What Joe did might not work for me; what I did might not work for you. What you do might not work for anybody who asks you.

There are all kinds of ways to get skills. Take classes in literature. Take a journalism class. Read what other writers have done and try some of those tip. There's no easy answer because it's like any other skill; sweat-equity is the investment you have to make, and how much of that it takes varies from person to person.

"A protagonist overcomes obstacles to reach a goal."

That's the formula that drives genre fiction. Nearly every story you ever read will be built on this. If yours doesn't have this, it isn't likely to work.

(These obstacles get bigger as the tale progresses, and the last one is the biggest. If the protagonist overcomes it, s/he triumphs. If not, they lose, and while tragedy has its uses, endings where nobody lives happily every after don't sell nearly as well as those where they do. If you are good enough to know when to do it and get away with it, you don't need my advice.)

There are three basic plots: Boy meets girl; the little tailor; the person who learned better.

Get a copy of Twain's essay on Fenimore Cooper and read Twain's rules for good writing. They haven't changed since he wrote them down.

Get a copy of Strunk & White's *Elements of Style* and read it cover to cover. Use what you learn. Go back and read it again every so often.

Read a lot, and not just in your chosen genre. Stories, books, plays, fiction, non-fiction, catsup labels. Try to figure out what you like about a story, what works, and what doesn't. Great fiction helps, but so does really bad stuff, because you can see the strings easier.

These things will give most of the tools you need to become a proficient writer, at least from where I sit, and past that, it is practice. Three hundred thousand words is about thirty percent of what a lot of folks think it takes to get you to your ten thousand hours ...