Sunday, August 21, 2011

Idea Stories

A long time ago I talked about how I built an idea story. The idea came from saying, "We know that people vote in elections using names of dead people. But what if the living voted in an election for the dead." I was satisfied with the story. But it never sold to a speculative fiction magazine or anthology. I think the biggest problem was that the editors wants to see on the first page that this is really a speculative fiction story--wants to have someone casting a spell or projecting their consciousness onto the internet.

Suffrage has a vicious military incursion, matched by decisive explosive violence, followed by brief, intense sorrow, and then the zombies arise in the aftermath and the real crazy stuff starts. I never found a reader who said, "I stopped reading after the second page because I didn't see zombies." Readers glowed about the story. But writers have to take the business as it exists and under those conditions, Suffrage was not marketable without a big named author on the masthead that said, "Oh, yeah, you'll get zombies, baybee." I gave the story to my local university press. I'm glad people got to read it.

Then I formulated another idea story, set on an outlying planet in the reemerging galactic empire. I wrote almost the whole thing, worrying that it might become boring, then watching it become boring. The problem was that, unlike Suffrage, I only took a cursory amount of time to create characters, and the characters were mostly described by their professions. It was like science fiction from the 1950s.

Now I think I figured it out. The two characters from the empire were not just professions. They were student and teacher. Teacher is taking advantage of gaps in knowledge of the reemerging empire, to travel around and do good on a planetary scale. He has had five successes. But the empire is horrified that this loose cannon is interfering on a massive scale with social development--those interventions could have been horrible disasters. So the teacher is an outlaw.

He contacts his student so that he can do another intervention. She has the ability to work inside the empire and get resources to help him. That's the first page or so. She gets to the planet and he points her toward personally discovering the problem that he wants to solve. She agrees. She investigates--where the most ink is spilled.

Then she decides. Then comes the ending.

This story does not have the Suffrage problem. However, when the story was "all idea" it was dead. Adding the drama was the hard part.


Laurie Tom said...

One thing I've started to ask myself when plotting or writing a first draft is: "What is the heart of this story?" Specifically, what is the emotional center?

It's harder to care about a story if the emotional connection isn't there.

John Arkwright said...


You're a wizard! I could never answer that question without answering another dozen questions. Or maybe writing more. Maybe when I get more experience I'll be able to get to that heart more quickly.

By the way, my story got better with the edit. But I think it still stinks.