Tuesday, October 11, 2011


A commonplace among authors (and common advice to those aspiring to write) is that ideas are "a dime a dozen." Meanwhile, one good idea can occupy an author for months, even years.

And yet, when readers email and con-goers inquire, the most frequent question asked of authors -- by far -- is "Where do you get your ideas?" (When the impetus is a random encounter, upon learning that I'm an SF author, the query becomes, "Where do you get your crazy ideas?") 

That's fair.  No matter how well an author handles the craft of writing, or even the world-building, what sticks with most readers is the premise or the plot. The idea, that is. The inspiration side of writing, not the perspiration side.

For example, what would John Varley's Titan be without the idea of a sentient world?  Or Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series without the idea of everyone who ever lived being reborn simultaneously on another planet? Or Eric Flint's 1632 without the idea of a modern West Virginia town being transported intact into the Europe of the Thirty Years War? Or Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park without the idea of cloning dinosaurs from ancient DNA? Or (in another genre) any of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes without the idea of a private detective versed in science, logic, and attention to detail?

A Really Great Idea can carry a story, even with less than stellar execution. I recently reread the Riverworld series.  The careless repetition of material bugged me -- but the idea still blew me away.

How about a Really Great Style without a good idea? Can style carry a book? I don't think so. Certainly not for this reader.

So where do science-fiction ideas come from? The classic, glib answer, inasmuch as no one really knows,  is "From a vault in Schenectady." I don't know the provenance of that explanation, but I do know where I first encountered it: discussed at some length, tongue very firmly in cheek, in the forward of the Barry Longyear collection It Came From Schenectady. The cover alone is sufficient reason to own this book.

(And once you do, be sure to look inside the cover. Longyear is a master. If you're unfamiliar with his work, he's perhaps best known for the novelette "Enemy Mine," basis of the 1985 movie Enemy Mine. [That said, "Enemy Mine" is not part of this collection.] In that film, Louis Gossett Jr. puts in the best performance of the Other until Andy Serkis as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy -- and Gossett had neither CGI nor motion-capture technology.)

And if you're without a key to the vault? I find walks helpful. My neighbors know that it's nothing personal when I wander past them in a daze -- that I really am in another world.

So if you'll excuse, me, I'll be off on another walk

1 comment:

Yokota Fritz said...

Confabs with friends; as I'm drifting off to sleep, or maybe when I'm in the shower. Or sometimes during a long bike ride. Voice recorders are super handy to capture those ephemeral snips of thought so I can daydream on them later.