One of my blog readers (Stop laughing! Seriously, I do have some!) said that he appreciated the focus of this blog — helping aspiring writers with advice and examples — but wanted to know more basic information. For instance, he asked, how do I get ideas?
I recall reading somewhere that same question being asked of Isaac Asimov who responded with “How do you not get ideas?”
Most of the times ideas come from a “what if” scenario, especially when you’re writing speculative fiction. Everyone’s played “what if”. My writing has followed that pattern.
I read a lot of fantasy fiction. A common thread in many of these is The Special One who has some prophecy to fulfill and goes through a rigorous training in order to meet their destiny. Think of “Star Wars” for instance. With ARCH ENEMIES, I began with “What if they got the wrong guy? What if he was suddenly thrown into the adventure and didn’t have all those years of training and preparation?”
With THE AXES OF EVIL (the sequel, due out early 2010), I asked “What if he was faced with three prophecies which contradict each other and had to solve all three?”
Those were just the starting points, of course, because then the fun was throwing in the monkey wrenches. I love plot twists and turns and surprising my readers. Usually, that just involves looking at my outline and saying “Things are going smoothly in this part. What can I do to mess it up?”
Basically, the adventure should never be too easy and should never be predictable. I dislike books and movies where I can figure out what’s going to happen next, so I try my best to avoid cliches like the plague. (That was a joke.) My readers have told me that they really like the “Whoa! Wasn’t expecting that!” sections of my books, and the “How the heck is he going to solve this problem?” that isn’t revealed until the very last minute.
Doing that well takes preparation (which I have discussed in an earlier blog entry) because in order to work, all the clues have to be in place. Pulling something out of a hat at the last minute is a cheat and feels like one, especially if you’re writing a book with magic. I’ve seen too many movies and books where the solution is something magical: The “All you had to do was click your heels three times” ending doesn’t reward the hero in the slightest. Take Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” — the hero Prince is fighting the dragon. What an exciting battle! How does he defeat the creature? Oh, the three fairies come in and give him magic. Yawn, boring.
I like my heroes to do something special and unexpected yet completely in character. To be honest, that’s one of the hardest parts of writing, but also the most fun.
In THE AXES OF EVIL, there is a scene where a werewolf who can only be destroyed by a silver dagger through the heart must be killed. There is an elaborate plan laid out in which the the four main characters, armed with two silver daggers, attempt to accomplish this feat. But that’s too easy. Things go awry and soon Terin (the cowardly hero) gets stuck in a room full of werewolves with no weapon whatsoever. “This is great!” I thought. “This is exactly the situation I want.” Of course, it took me another month to think of a solution, but it’s much more satisfying and surprising than if there was just a great battle and the hero managed to stab his enemy.
I was recently given an assignment to write a short story “using pirates and magic.” Arrr! I love pirates! I had no idea for a story, however, so I just began thinking of typical pirate props — parrots, ships, peg legs, treasure maps and the like. Treasure maps led me to “X Marks the Spot” and being the lover of puns I am (oh, you can’t tell that from the two previous book titles?) this quickly became “X Spots the Mark.” What if the treasure map was a fake and the pirate was merely a “mark” for the scam? That began the adventure, but it didn’t lend itself to much of a story — until I brought out my monkey wrench.
Once THE AXES OF EVIL is finished with its editing (that will be the subject of another blog, I promise), I’ll begin work on BLOODSUCKERS: A VAMPIRE RUNS FOR PRESIDENT. The idea for that began when I heard someone refer to Congress as a bunch of bloodsuckers and I thought “Hey! What if….”
Bottom line: My technique is to start with the “What if”, come up with a basic story, and then throw as many unpredictable barriers in the way of my heroes as possible. This does not work for all types of fiction or all types of writers, but seems to keep me happy with my storylines.
Next week: back to interviews!