Archive for 'ideas'

Monday, November 12th, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
Dream Projects: Deciding What to Work on Next

(Our theme week got sliced up a bit because I didn’t post last week.  Mea culpa.)

What would I write, if I had no other considerations?  Turns out, that’s a complicated question.  Like Diana, I love everything I’ve worked on, so it’s not like I’m not working on dream projects every single day.  It’s always been my dream to work as a full-time writer, and here I am, doing it.  But projects do get pushed back.  I have ideas that just haven’t cooked up yet and don’t really fit with I’m doing right now.  I’ve been extremely fortunate that since selling my first book, I’ve never really had to stop and figure out what to work on next.  Opportunities have presented themselves, and I’ve had projects to fill those opportunities.

There’s something of a flipside to this, which is that when an astonishing, fringe, crazy idea comes along, I don’t always have the time to work on it.  I can write two books a year.  This is great, because I can be productive, prolific, maintain a one book a year schedule on my series and then do other things, like YA, on the side.  The problem is that while I’m writing two books a year, I get ideas for probably 3-4 books a year.  And my contract obligations make it really easy to pick which ideas to work on:  the ones that have actually sold.  Which means I always have a couple of dream projects sitting on the sidelines because they’re not sold, and they’re not sold because they don’t really fit any category that I’m currently writing in.  I have an epic fantasy I want to write, and a space opera I want to write.  They’re going to be challenging to write (never mind marketing them), so I’ve put them to the side to let them cook a little longer.  And then, sometimes, an idea strikes that’s so immediate, so energizing, that I make room in the schedule, and worry about the rest.  This just happened to me, and I’m now working up a pitch for a YA novel that I didn’t know I’d be writing a year ago.

Someday, the other parts of my writing career will slow down, or a break will come for some other reason.  Then I expect a stretch of time will open up, and I’ll pull out my file folders on those ideas and go to town.

But there’s more:  I also want to write a screenplay someday, and I’d love to write comic books someday.  The reason I haven’t yet is that they’re both entirely different formats of writing.  I’d have to learn a whole new set of techniques, a whole new kind of writing, to do either one of those things.  And that takes time, which I don’t have right now.  But that doesn’t stop me from thinking about both.  I’ve already picked out which story of mine I want to translate to screenplay form — my WASP mystery, “The Girls from Avenger.”  And my comic book idea kicks ass.  I’d also love to write a tie-in for one of my beloved fangirl properties.  I’ve actually gotten close on that one a couple of times.  I expect it’ll happen someday, if I’m patient and prepared.

I may not have time to write every single idea I have, but that’s okay.  I collect and nurture them anyway.  Because if an opportunity ever comes along to go in any of these directions, you can bet I’ll be able to say “Yes,” because I’ve got the ideas tucked away.  Oh yes, I do.

Monday, August 27th, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
From Idea to Outline

This question came from my Facebook feed awhile back, from Tracy:  “I’m curious about your process of going from initial ideas to outline (or if you outline).”

It’s a good question, because it’s one of the more arcane bits of the writing process.  We end up talking more about the mechanics of writing after we actually get the ideas into prose.  But how do we prepare ideas before we actually start writing?  What turns an idea into a story?

There’s a new-writer mistake, especially in short story writing, one I committed quite often myself early on:  You’ve got this fantastic idea, you want to tell it to the world, so you write a story about it.  Bam!  But no, because if the story doesn’t deal with the implications, the consequences, the effect that idea has on the character, the world, and so on, then it actually isn’t a story.  What this new-writer story looks like:  “Hey, everyone, what if there was a secret race of intelligent, space faring duckbilled platypuses?  Ta da!”  (I don’t know what the plural of platypus is, I’m sorry.)  It might be a good description of space-faring duckbilled platypuses, and an interesting idea, but unless something actually happens, or the story has something interesting to say about the existence of space-faring duckbilled platypuses, it isn’t going to go anywhere.  (Lest this idea seem too crazy, a while back Charles Stross wrote an award-nominated story about space-faring lobsters.  But that idea is, as you might expect, a small part of a much larger story.)

“Idea, ta-da!” is really only the beginning of the process.  This is what writers mean when they say ideas are the easy part.

A few months ago I wrote a post where I pretty much brainstormed a story real-time.    The idea was:  What if all children in the world under the age of ten vanished?  A newer writer might depict the event itself, what it would be like to watch the children vanish, and end the story there.  But the really interesting stuff happens after, doesn’t it?  It’s harder, digging into the implications of that event, seeing what the world would look like ten years later, and so on.  It takes time, it takes thought, it takes thinking about some traumatic and uncomfortable ideas and scenes, but you have to go there and include that emotion if you want the story to affect people.  (Children of Men is one of the best science fiction movies of the last ten years.  It’s about a world where no children have been born in 18 years, and does a great job depicting the cultural implications.  One of my favorite scenes shows an elementary school that has been abandoned and is going derelict, overgrown with weeds and falling apart.  It’s a gorgeous, true detail that really added punch to the story.)

So, idea isn’t story.  What do I do to turn an idea into a story?  I brainstorm.  I think about it, I write stuff down, think some more, write more stuff down.  I try to figure out who my main character is early on — who will be most affected by the idea.  I follow that person around for awhile.

Eventually, a scene will emerge from this muddle of ideas and scrawled notes.  It’s not always an important or climactic scene, it may just be an image, and it may not even make it into the final story, but it will be important for the brainstorming/outlining process because it finally takes the idea and puts it in a context, puts it in a world.  Once I have a scene, I can start imagining what came before that, and what came after.  If I’m doing this right, by this time the initial idea is part of the background noise, because the real story involves the characters, settings, events, and scenes that have emerged from all that woolgathering.

For example:   The idea behind my Kitty werewolf series is that a world with vampires and werewolves would need its own talk radio advice show because Dr. Laura wouldn’t be able to help these beings with their problems.  By the time I got to the first story — about a werewolf radio DJ being stalked by a bounty hunter while she’s on the air — the initial idea had moved firmly to the background.  Exactly where it needed to be.  It’s a wonderful background, but I needed a character like Kitty to tell stories about for the idea to really go anywhere.  The novel didn’t happen until I imagined a very specific scene:  Kitty at a nightclub, dancing in celebration of her first little victory.  That scene appeared early on in Kitty and The Midnight Hour, which is a book about a young woman learning to stand up for herself.

And that’s how I go from idea to story outline — “werewolf radio DJ” might be a fun idea, but it took writing several short stories and doing a lot of thinking to get the novel-length idea of “young woman learns to stand up for herself.”  That last theme gave the structure to the outline I subsequently wrote.

I’d be interested to hear about other people’s processes.  Like I said, it’s a stage people don’t often talk about, and I’m curious to hear how similar or different my process is from others.

Monday, June 4th, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
Mining Dreams

Another question from Facebook:  Gregg Chamberlain asked about the “benefits and drawbacks of keeping a dream journal as a source of ideas?”

A deceptively simple question, because this topic actually comes up a lot.  Do writers dream about stories?  Do we get great ideas from dreams?  If dreaming is our subconscious mind talking to us, then it ought to be just full of strange and beautiful images, ideas, connections, and characters.

Alas, I’ve found it isn’t so.  I kept a dream journal for awhile when I was in college, but this was mostly to keep track of my intensely bizarre and detailed dreams for my own edification.  Because I do have intensely bizarre and detailed dreams, filled with medieval wars and alien invasions, magical powers and deep conspiracies.  But I’ve never knowingly based any of my writing on my dreams.  Because my dreams don’t make a whole of sense, and trying to make them make sense, enough to build a story out of them, isn’t a project I’m willing to take on.  I like writing about the world as I see it.

Dreams — even my long, detailed ones — are not narrative.  They’re chaotic, they jump around in space and time, characters change identities in the middle of them.  So while dreams may be a rich source of images or feelings, or snippets of ideas, they’re not actually a good source for stories.  An idea gleaned from a dream would have to be adjusted and manipulated until it was unrecognizable for it to make sense as a story.  And if that process works for you, that’s great.  But ideas aren’t stories, not by themselves.

So, that’s my answer, but I know other people have different experiences:  do you remember your dreams?  Do you write them down?  Do you mine them for stories?

Monday, February 13th, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
In Which I, Just Now, Come Up with a Story

A story can’t just be about a cool idea.  It has to be about the implications of the cool idea — what does it mean, who does it affect, and how?  Many writers talk about how ideas are cheap — ideas are the easy part. (Though a talent for coming up with truly wacky, out-there ideas that no one has ever seen before is a treasure.  A person with this talent must still find ways to express such ideas in a way that interests other people.) I think this is true.  I have notebooks filled with ideas — scrawled notes, a paragraph or two of description, a character sketch that must have seemed marvelous when I wrote it down.  But without a story to hang the idea on?  It stays in the notebook.

How to do that?  How to take that strange, funny idea, big or small — What if my dog could talk?  What if everyone under the age of ten suddenly vanished? — and turn it into a story?  Not just a story, but a story that other people want to read?  (I’ve started telling myself that writing is easy.  It’s writing things that other people want to read that’s the hard part.  It’s the difference between being a hobbyist and being a professional.  If I want to be a professional, I can’t forget about my audience.)

When I’m turning an idea into a story, I try to find the character:  who would be most affected by this story?  In the idea above — what if everyone under the age of ten vanished — the obvious choice is the mother of one of these vanished children.  But what if I didn’t take the obvious route?  What if I chose a father as my main character?  Or the childless local police detective who’s set on the case?  Oh, doesn’t that feel fraught?  And that’s how the story grows.  I start with a limitless number of paths leading away from the idea, and I travel down the one that rings a little crystal bell in my brain that says this is the one, this is the story I want to tell.

The story is about that childless police detective who suddenly finds herself living in a childless world.  Of course she must discover what happened to the children, and as the writer I must make decisions about what happened to the children, how they return, or if they return.  And there’s another crystal bell:  maybe the children don’t return.  The story takes place ten years later, and the mystery has never been solved.  New children have been born, but there’s an entire generation — now aged ten to twenty — missing.  Junior high and high schools lay silent.  Colleges are faced with a decade of empty dorm rooms.  What will Texas do without high school football?  And so on.  Maybe that’s the story:  have people picked up and moved on?  Is the detective still working on the case?  How does she move through this world with no teenagers?  Now my story isn’t about the idea, it’s about my character:  what does she want?  How does she grow and change?  What conflict is she dealing with?  How does that conflict resolve?  Maybe she solves the mystery of the lost children — but it doesn’t resolve her personal conflicts the way she thought it would.  Maybe she doesn’t solve the mystery, but finds an unexpected peace despite this.  I’ll probably need another plot twist — someone from a federal agency she’s been working with or against, an external disaster that prompts my character to action.

At this point, I start to encounter what the story is really about:  coping with loss, with an unsolved mystery, with survivor’s guilt, with failure.  I need to start thinking of the scenes that will best show all this, and draw the reader into this rather horrifying world.  Maybe the original story starts to change — maybe it’s only children five and younger who vanish.  Maybe that would best illustrate the story I want to tell.  Or maybe I should make it worse — children under fifteen.  Maybe I need two main characters — one who lost a child and one who didn’t — to best illustrate themes I want to portray.

In the course of writing, I’ll circle back to the idea again and again.  Both the story and the idea will evolve.  By the time I’m done, the original idea that started the whole thing will most likely be invisible, because the heart of the story — my characters and how they deal with loss and a changed world — will be the real reason people want to read it.

Monday, January 10th, 2011 by Carrie Vaughn
Ideas vs. Execution

I’ve had a couple of encounters/conversations recently that I wanted to share, because they let me emphasize something important.  In one conversation, a writer wanted me to discuss which of her ideas for future stories was the most marketable, so she could concentrate on those and not on ideas that wouldn’t sell.  In another, a person tried to explain to me that publishing was dominated by big names because they got to the best, most original ideas before anyone else.

Now, this last one is flat-out wrong for a variety of reasons — the big-name authors are big because of name recognition, branding, and sheer reliability in writing on a regular schedule the kinds of books that people want to read.  As to the previous conversation, I responded that she would do better not to worry about the ideas and spend her time actually writing, and improving her writing, so that her stories are solid no matter what the ideas are.  You can have the best idea in the world, but if the story as a whole doesn’t convey the idea in an interesting and engaging manner, it still isn’t going to sell.

Publishers buy stories, not ideas.  They buy completed manuscripts (at least they do from previously unpublished writers).  Same thing with copyright:  you can’t copyright ideas.  You copyright completed literary, artistic works.  It’s all in the execution.

Good ideas and lots of them are definitely important.  Pushing the envelope, putting new twists on old tropes, and creating that character or plot twist that no one’s ever seen before, are definitely things I strive for.  They’ll make your writing more publishable, definitely.

But unless you can back it up with a good strong manuscript that someone actually wants to read, those great ideas won’t do you any good.  This is why putting in the time, going through all that effort of sitting at your keyboard day after day, getting feedback, and learning to revise, is so very important, because that’s what gives you the tools to be able to do justice to your brilliant ideas.

Nothing can substitute just doing the work.

Monday, August 10th, 2009 by Carrie Vaughn
Go Big or Go Home

I could also call this post pushing the envelope.  Or being crazy.  Being original, being different, how to make your work stand out.  I’m a great admirer of ideas that are just so wild, so unbelievable, that I have to step back and wonder how the author thought of it.  I wonder if some authors have a natural talent for coming up with the outrageous — and then making me believe it.  I wish I could do that.  I have to work at it.

Several years ago, I came across guidelines for a theme anthology that sounded so cool:  All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories.  I decided I really wanted to write a story for it.  I wanted it to be big and cool and fun.  Because dude, zeppelins!  But this also came along at pretty much the lowest emotional point in my writing career to date.  I had never sold a story to a theme anthology.  I decided I was terrible at writing about themes.  I just couldn’t come up with any good ideas.  I spoke to one of the editors about this.  He told me, “Don’t go with your first idea, or your second idea.  Go with your fifteenth or seventeenth idea.”  Here’s why:  your first few ideas are probably going to be the same ideas that lots of other people come up with.  Those are the ideas floating in the general cultural awareness.  Zeppelins!  Hindenburg!  Steampunk!  Those are the obvious ones.  So you have to dig deeper.

The next day, I was at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (this was all taking place at the World Fantasy Convention in Washington, D.C.), thinking about what I could do for the zeppelin anthology, and saw a display of pressure and space suits.  And I had a revelation.  The guidelines for the anthology didn’t say the story had to be about zeppelins, it had to be about lighter-than-air craft.  The display of pressure suits reminded me of my favorite story from aerospace history:  the record-breaking parachute jump of Captain Joseph Kittinger from 102,000 thousand feet.  From a helium weather balloon, a lighter-than-air craft.  I decided I would write about Project Excelsior, and I could almost guarantee that no one else would think of that idea.  My story would be fresh, original, and very cool.  My story, “This is the Highest Step in the World,” sold to the anthology, and I couldn’t have been more pleased.

This is just one way of pushing the envelope.  This also works with plot.  When you’re trying to figure out what happens next in the story, don’t go with your first impulse, your first idea.  Because that’s the idea that’s on the surface of your brain, that’s been absorbed from everything else you’ve read and seen in movies and on TV.  That’s the idea that’s going to be floating in everyone’s forebrain, and there’s a chance it’s going to end up seeming cliche and familiar.  So go farther.  What else could happen?  Then, what else?  What’s the strangest thing that could happen next?  The silliest?  The most tragic?  What could happen that would actually subvert some of those familiar tropes?  What if your heroine’s love interest isn’t the obvious alpha male?  What if the climax of the story isn’t a big fight scene or courtroom scene, but something else?

This is where brainstorming can be an author’s most useful tool.  You may come up with 10 ridiculous ideas for every usable one.  But then you may take a second look at one of those ridiculous ideas and decide it isn’t so ridiculous.  It’s outrageous, maybe.  But it may also be the thing that really puts zing in your story and makes it stand out.

Which brings me to my voice.  I have a little voice in my head that I suspect comes from the same place as the voice that tells me not to put my elbows on the table and not to swear in front of my parents.  The polite voice, the conventional voice.  When I’m writing, coming up with a new plot twist or idea, this voice will say things like, “Oh, you can’t possibly do that, it’s too outrageous, no one will believe that, it’s too weird.”

When I hear that voice, I know I’m definitely on the right track, and I should definitely use that idea.  The first time I noticed that voice?  When I decided to name my werewolf main character Kitty, and the voice said, “Oh, you’ll never get away with that.  It’s outrageous.”  But how could not go with the outrageous?  I did, and it worked.

Be outrageous.  Use the seventeenth idea instead of the first.  Don’t be afraid of going big.