Fuelling Creativity: Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors on Ideas
Cat Rambo, Django Wexler, Greg Bear, Jason M. Hough, Myke Cole, Ramez Naam
Moderator: David Hulton
Is there a process to coming up with ideas, or do they hit you like a bolt of lightning with total clarity?
RN: Never a fully-completed idea. It evolves with time. It’s never fully formed until the story is written.
DW: Has more ideas to write than he can actually write, adding up faster than he can get rid of! Sometimes it’s super-clear, and sometimes it comes together easily, but sometimes it’s much weirder. (Like his Hidden Library series, came from the idea of a very creepy Dumbledore)
MC: “Writer’s need to live life like they’re hunting it.” You cannot control how inspiration strikes. You cannot control how inspiration strikes. All you can control is the work. Sit down and come up with ideas. Be okay with coming up with bad ideas. Keep doing it until you come up with a good idea. If still can’t, then construct one. Have faith. (Books: Gemini Cell: if Harry Potter went to the Navy Seals instead of Hogwarts). The point: However you come to it, control the one and only thing you can control, which is the work. Do your work. “Do it well. That’s all that you can do.”
GB: Have ten million crackpot ideas and sufficient courage to turn them into a story. When you have a whole raft of crackpot ideas, you can pull them out when you need them. Fantasy ideas often come from the mythic consciousness. SF ideas come from the same, but have to work in a different way. Ideas come from the same thing: You need pure arrogance, to believe in yourself. Surround yourself with people who give yourselves ideas. Get rid of the ones who don’t believe in you. And you must believe in your characters, too.
CR: Agrees, most writers are very arrogant. Problem is not getting ideas, it’s not paying attention to them. If you stop paying attention to them, you’ll stop getting ideas. If you get an idea, write it down. Tells students, “My unconscious mind is much smarter than I am and produces all sorts of things. My job is to pay attention to it.” Pay attention to the weird shit that your mind throws at you. There is gold there.
JH: Agrees, write it down. You don’t want to lose those things, you never know when you’ll use it. Keeps an idea spreadsheet. As for ideas that come randomly that need to be written down and captured – those are the lightning bolts. Others come from brainstorming.
Do you have any advice for writers for how to get started?
RN: Do the work. Don’t wait, don’t overthink, don’t plan, just start. Have 1) Structure and 2) Accountability. Structure: Have a place to do the work. Accountability: Have people that will follow up with you to make sure that you get the work done.
DW: You have to write. Have to give yourself permission to write bad things. Sit down in a chair and do it. A certain amount of planning can be helpful, but overplanning can kill it.
MC: Don’t just talk about writing; write the novel. Don’t build castles in the air. Knows he’s getting into the meat of his story when he’s thinking about his characters, not the world he’s set them in.
GB: Still, must understand the culture of the character you’ve put in the book. That culture will shape that character if the world is your own creation. The chars have to be changed by the world they live in. All our chars are human, but they are not precisely like us.
CR: Don’t worry about that. Just sit down and write the goddamn story. It is so much more fun to talk about writing than it is to write. “Writers just fucking write.”
Nothing is original anymore. How do you make the writing fresh when we live in a world where so much is already out there?
DW: Nothing is original, period. Just don’t worry about that. That’s the best thing they can do. If your characters are different enough, they’ll make for an interesting story.
RN: If you read a lot in the genre you write in, you’ll notice how there’s something you want to see that isn’t there.
DW: Never do something just because there’s a market hole; by the time you finish writing it, that hole may have already been filled.
JH: If there’s something out there already like what you want to write, you may want to tweak yours. However, if you gave the same high concept to five different writers, you’d have five different books.
What’s the difference btw a good idea and a bad idea?
GB: If it sings in your head and won’t let you alone, that’s a good idea. RayB says, “You can’t chase cats; they’ll run away. But if you turn your back on them, they’ll come back to you sometimes.
DW: Sometimes a character doesn’t work in one setting, but works somewhere else.
How do you get the inspiration to go back and edit after your crappy first draft?
MC: You don’t. Difference btw professionalism and aspiration: what makes a pro writer is that the pro writer sits down and does the work even when it sucks. It’s not being unkind to yourself; give yourself a second to wallow, gather your strength, then get to work.
CR: One thing that is very helpful is to build some time away from the book into it. Try to put it away for at least a month or so. Don’t procrastinate; build time into your schedule to let it cool off.
JH: But remember, there’s no rules, only tools. He steps away from the story until it’s been two days since he hasn’t thought about the story.
GB: Go away, and when you think of how to make it better, then you can go back and fix it. Books do not look pretty right away. Learn how to rewrite. Take all the feedback that works for you, and leave the rest.
RN: For every person who’s finished a draft, there’s a thousand people who have never finished a novel. So congratulate yourself on that, too. Likes to get feedback.
DW: Process is very personal. Once you finish your novel, start a new book the next day. Sometimes you odn’t want to spend three years revising a novel, but you can’t make that judgement the next day. Most of all, what matters most is that you need to keep going. But there must be something writing related the next day. Once you stop, it gets harder to restart.
After you’ve finished that first draft and you come back to revision, do you find yourself doing massive story edits, or just grammar/spelling edits?
GB: Yes. All of those things. A lot of adding and cutting and including the sensual elements comes through rewrites.
CR: The other thing about revision: thinks of it as coase grade sandpaper; the bigger revisions first, the smaller revisions come along
DW: Depending, it may help to outline first.
How do you balance an intensive work job with writing?
DW: The secret to writing is that it goes on in your head every day. Find a time to write it down. For him, that’s first thing in the morning. But it doesn’t need to be a lot of time.
MC: Decide what you want to do with your time. But as he began to get serious about writing, he got rid of more things in his life. You must accept that there are no guarantees of success right away. Ask yourself the hard question: What do you want to do? There may be hard choices and things you want to do that you’ll have to wait for.
MC: Let the Elephants Run – the theory that the creativity is in our DNA.
How do you focus on one idea at a time?
DW: Writes things down. Dwells on them for a little while, writes it down to get out of his head, saves for later. It helps that he’s
GB: Sometimes they’re not quite related and they work together when multiple ideas come together. See what happens.
CR: You can work on more than one project at one time.
What do you do when you have multiple ideas and don’t know how to put them together?
GB: Start stories, finish stories, just plain keep writing.