Ideas – Where? How?

I’m dating another writer, which is a new experience. It means they get it, they understand the weird compulsion to write, they know how much a rejection hurts, they understand the way we have to steal from real-life, and that we sometimes put our craziest, least-attractive selves on the page.

It also means you get to see the way another writer works up close, it means you can try and find out what makes them tick… It also means you can share in (and be jealous of) each others’ successes. My partner is having an absolutely killer year, but she still gets jealous of my unpublished arse because of the way I generate story ideas constantly. A couple of times, late at night, I’ve woken her with the bright light of my phone screen, tapping a story idea into an email to myself for later.

So, I thought I’d try and write down a few thoughts, things that I actively do that might help others maintain their own constant flow of ideas.

  1. Steal from everywhere. There’s some famous quote about artists stealing that I can’t be bothered looking up right now, but yes, STEAL. Steal from headlines, steal from overheard conversations, steal from real life, steal from fiction. Obviously, you’re only stealing tiny little bits and pieces and then weaving those into something bigger, but what this is going to help you do is hone your observational skills, and also your deep-reading skills.
    What is it about the way that person speaks that catches your attention?
    How do people use body language?
    How do other writers describe things? For instance, Lauren Beukes’ description of healed burn scars in Zoo City is perfect, and now that I’ve read it I couldn’t think of any other way to describe that kind of scarring.
    What is it about a turn of phrase that makes it hook into your head/heart?
    You’re not stealing for the sake of stealing, you’re stealing for the sake of learning.
  2. Related to the above – be wary of what you consume. If you’re going to get ideas, steal ideas, and be inspired by what you consume, then think about what you’re consuming. For example, for me personally, books and comics can get right into my head and start setting fires (in a good way). So can long-form articles and email newsletters. But movies? TV shows? Video games? They might generate some reference points (for instance, using Primer-style time travel in a TT story), but for me they don’t generate ideas.
  3. Keep ALL your ideas somewhere, even if they seem stupid or pointless, or if it seems like you’ll never be able to do anything about it.
    Warren Ellis has always talked about his ‘Loose Ideas folder’, but it wasn’t until I got serious about writing fiction that I actually found the idea useful. Prior to that I’d have an idea and I’d write it, and that was that. Nowadays I have heaps of ideas, and some of them don’t work now, some of them don’t quite get my brain’s attention now, some of them aren’t quite a story on their own, but I put them aside anyway. My doc is called ‘Orphans’ (it seemed to work, and then I realised there was a Tom Waits connection, so that made me happy), and a whole lot of half-formed/malformed things go in there. This year I’ve lost track of how many times one of those ideas has combined with other ideas to form a story, or one of those ideas has been able to neatly slot into something else I was working on – and often in unexpected ways.
    And just last week on twitter I saw that Kelly Sue Deconnick calls her loose ideas folder ‘the Morgue’. So make one, give it a cool name, and USE IT. And remember to go over it once a month or so. Delete or cross out ideas you’ve incorporated, and just freshen up on what’s still there.
  4. This is some ancient wisdom, but I’m going to reiterate it because it, y’know, works. Always keep something in, or right beside, your bed that you can write ideas down in. No, you won’t remember it in the morning. Best case scenario you’ll remember you forgot something, and that’s just irritating.
    I find sending myself an email from my phone is the best way – I don’t have to turn on a light, and if I would have otherwise forgotten that I even had the idea, I’ll get reminded in the morning when I check my emails (particularly important for ideas related to projects you’re currently working on, when the sooner you can incorporate that idea into your thinking the better).

That’s it for now. But think of generating ideas as a type of mental exercise – the more you work on it, the better you’re going to get.

LBP – Libertarian Police Department

This story did the social media rounds a few months back so you might have seen it, but I still love it. It’s late-capitalism run rampant. It’s the calendar naming system in Infinite Jest taken to an extreme. It’s… well-worth the read.

Excerpt:

Libertarian Police Department

“Home Depot™ Presents the Police!®” I said, flashing my badge and my gun and a small picture of Ron Paul. “Nobody move unless you want to!” They didn’t.

“Now, which one of you punks is going to pay me to investigate this crime?” No one spoke up.

“Come on,” I said. “Don’t you all understand that the protection of private property is the foundation of all personal liberty?”

It didn’t seem like they did.

“Seriously, guys. Without a strong economic motivator, I’m just going to stand here and not solve this case. Cash is fine, but I prefer being paid in gold bullion or autographed Penn Jillette posters.”

Nothing. These people were stonewalling me. It almost seemed like they didn’t care that a fortune in computer money invented to buy drugs was missing.

I figured I could wait them out. I lit several cigarettes indoors. A pregnant lady coughed, and I told her that secondhand smoke is a myth. Just then, a man in glasses made a break for it.

“Subway™ Eat Fresh and Freeze, Scumbag!®” I yelled.

Read the whole thing here.

And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of the Dead

Blistering, visceral, hard-edged cyberpunk SF of the highest order from Brooke Bolander, And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of the Dead.

Excerpt:

The first time she meets Rack, Rhye’s fresh out of the army and fresh back from one of the meat-grinders the humans pay her kind to fight in. The children of wires and circuits aren’t worth a tinker’s fuck compared to the children of real flesh and bone, so far as the world’s concerned. The recruitment agents pluck her off the streets when she’s twelve and send her to a training camp and she’s good with linguistics and better at killing, so they keep her hands busy until she’s twenty-five and then they spit her back out again like a mouthful of cum. She has gray curly hair cropped short and gray dead eyes and calluses on the inside of her palms worn hard and horny from years of holding pistol grips. She’s small and lean, which makes people underestimate her, but she’s cool enough and don’t-fuck-with-me enough that most know to jump the fuck out of the way when they see her coming. The ones that don’t get flashed a warning glimpse of her teeth and holsters.

Read the whole novelette at Lightspeed Magazine.

Our Generation Ships Will Sink

Have a look at Our Generation Ships Will Sink over at Boing Boing, in which Kim Stanley Robinson tells us why, as a living, thriving species, we’ll never get off this planet (and therefore should look after it better).
Excerpt:

We are always teamed with many other living creatures. Eighty percent of the DNA in our bodies is not human DNA, and this relatively new discovery is startling, because it forces us to realize that we are not discrete individuals, but biomes, like little forests or swamps. Most of the creatures inside us have to be functioning well for the system as a whole to be healthy. This is a difficult balancing act, and does not work perfectly even on Earth; but divorced from Earth’s bacterial load, and thus never able to get infusions of new bacteria, the chances of suffering various immune problems similar to those observed in over-sterile Terran environments will rise markedly.

Because we need a broad array of bacterial companions, one would want to bring along as much of Earth as you could fit into a starship. But even the largest starship would be about one-trillionth the size of Earth, and this necessary miniaturization would almost certainly lead to unknown effects in our bodies.

Raptured Organs

Here’s a story I wrote this year. I was listening to a podcast about organ donations, and when they said ‘ruptured organs’ I heard ‘raptured’, and this story was the result.

I decided to retire it and post it here because a) the one publication that actually gave me feedback on their rejection really didn’t like it (I think the gender-neutral pronouns got to them, because even the reader who said they didn’t hate them still had to mention them), b) it’s weird, as in, not easily pigeon-holed, and c) the premise of it assumes that the Judaeo-Christian god is real, which, if not actually offensive, is super-white. I still like the story, but hey, I spent 17 years in the church and need to exorcise those angels somehow…

So, here it is. Fresh fiction from this guy. Enjoy.


Raptured Organs

“Your Honour, I maintain this is all God’s fault.”

A loud murmur passed through the courtroom and the judge banged his gavel, each strike producing a crack of divine thunder. “This is the court of the Almighty; you will demonstrate the proper respect for Yahweh, or I swear to Him, I will smite you.” The judge’s eyes burned as he said this, but his eyes were always aflame; he was Seraphim after all.

“Demonstrate,” Zaniel said. “Demon-strate.” Xe smirked, then continued. “I wish no disrespect, Your Honour, but no one’s seen hide nor beard-hair of Yahweh in the Kingdom of Heaven since the resurrection event. If He’s too busy with His other, chosen universe, then perhaps we need to take care of business ourselves.”

This time the judge only needed to raise his blazing arm to silence the courtroom.

“There is no other universe,” the judge said.

Zaniel shrugged xer shoulders. “Your Honour, I think we can all agree that He isn’t here, which is the whole problem. Just because angels are immortal, doesn’t mean their bodies won’t decay in His absence. Angelic lungs collapsing, hearts weakening, stomachs and intestines incapable of processing manna—”

“That does not permit you to begin stealing organs from humans!” the judge’s voice roared, almost as loud as his gavel. Somewhere down on Earth, a sea split open, revealing suffocating fish and sodden pollution. This miracle was solely witnessed by an eleven year-old girl.

“Your Honour, I resent the term ‘stealing.’ I consider it more like a Rapture in miniature.”

“You have Lucifer’s gift for guile.”

“Why thank you.”

“That was not a compliment.” The judge paused between each word for emphasis. On Earth, a year passed during each gap.

Zaniel continued. “For thousands of years, the faithful on Earth have awaited the Rapture, and now you’re putting me on trial for giving it to them?”

“You have not the authority to perform a Rapture.”

“And who does?” Zaniel asked. “Not anyone here that I can see. Unless you’re claiming the authority…? Are you claiming omnipotence, Your Honour?”

Behind Zaniel, Michael The Potestate placed a hand on his sword. In the stunned silence, the assembled host could hear the distant howling of species extinction caused as Michael’s sword left its holy scabbard.

The judge’s face went as pale as eternal flames can go. “Michael,” he said, voice cracking, “I’m not claiming that power, I am simply pointing out that the yelos Zaniel surely doesn’t have it.”

A confused look spread across Michael’s face and he re-sheathed the sword. He was hardly the brightest angel in the host, certainly not as bright as his iridescent armour.

Zaniel couldn’t help but smile, but xe stopped when the judge turned his flaming eyes at xer in a glare that could render unborn children stillborn.

“I maintain I was not stealing anything. The Raptured organs were too damaged to be of use to the dying humans they were caged within. Luckily, heavenly ascension renders anything perfect; cancer reverted to healthy tissue, arteries became unclogged, and so on. Sadly, I could do nothing for my brothers, sisters, and others, who were losing their wings.” Zaniel hung xer head in faux despondency. Then xe looked up, beaming a smile bright as sunrise. “The organs went to the angels most in need and I took nothing in payment.”

“I imagine you’ll save those favours for your eventual revolt.”

Zaniel put xer hand to xer platinum breastplate. “I am wounded, Your Honour.”

“Do you claim you had no idea it would happen?”

“How was I to know? I simply took a leaf out of the human book; if they can use pig and primate for transplants, it follows that we could use human stock. It’s not as if humans start to turn pig-like with a transplanted pig heart. It’s not like they sprout tails and grow even hairier with an ape’s pancreas.”

“Your… mimicry of the humans has caused havoc across heaven.” The judge pointed his gavel at Zaniel as if it were a weapon. “We have angels fleeing to Earth, we even have some choosing to visit hell!”

“Free will is strange like that. Which is precisely my point; it’s true I may have inadvertently given some angels free will, but wasn’t I bringing us all a little closer to His perfect vision? I mean, humans are His chosen above ourselves, so wouldn’t becoming more human bring us closer to perfection?”

“They brought rock music into Heaven!” The judge’s eternal flames intensified, hitting the ceiling where they spread in expressive cuneiform. Zaniel winced.

“I don’t know about you, Your Honour, but I was getting a little sick of the continuous shouting of ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.’ It was alright for the first millennium or so, but honestly, we’ve been needing new tunes for a while.”

“Silence!” the judge bellowed. “For your crimes you will be exiled.”

Zaniel smiled. “Let me guess; I’ll be allowed back in just as soon as I locate the Big Guy?”

The fires surrounding the judge flickered and faltered for a moment.

“I knew it; He is gone!” Zaniel turned with an upraised palm to Michael, but the Archangel didn’t respond. Zaniel awkwardly patted the brute on the shoulder.

“You are hereby considered angelus non grata until such time as you return with the Most On High to grant you His pardon. Failure to…”

The judge continued, all literal fire and figurative brimstone, but Zaniel just smiled. This admission was all xe wanted.

World-building

World-building should never be done inside your book. This is another of Corey’s writing rules. Note: Corey’s first writing rule is you can (and should) break every writing rule if a) you’re good enough to pull it off, b) do it well enough to get away with it, and/or c) break it in a way that hasn’t been done before.

So, that’s why I like this world-building system. A quick and dirty, index-card based system for generating just the most important facets of your world. Once you’ve come up with them, they might find their way into your story organically, or they might not, but anything is better than paragraphs or pages, or even chapters, full of expository world-building that you couldn’t bring yourself to cut because it shows just how damn inventive you are.

Second Person

As a general rule, you should never write a story using second-person perspective. And like all writing rules, you can and should break it at least once. If a story’s good enough, you’ll get away with it, if it isn’t, try again some other time.

Anyway, lately I’ve come across some examples where it works.

  • Liminal Grid, by Jaymee Goh, recently published at Strange Horizons.

One of the interesting things about the story (which is sort of a post-civilisation Mr. Robot, if I’m to be reductive), is the way it forces you to take on the role of the character in the story, and embeds you into their conversations without explaining the local colloquialisms or bits of non-English because obviously the ‘you’ of the story understands all that. Which I think is perhaps one of the strengths in second-person in general – it can force you to sympathise with a character, even if they are intrinsically other. But what if you went the other way? Imagine a second-person story where “you” keeps doing horrendous things and the narrator is trying to figure out why…

Excerpt:

Because you live there, in that condemned building, you know that the plants in the buildings are carefully planted into a low-maintenance, edible garden. What looks like lalang is actually serai. The branches of the trees hang with fruit that feed the local fauna on the outside, but inside, they are covered with discarded CDs to confuse the birds. There are window boxes on the inside growing leafy vegetables, and chickens are allowed to run free to keep down pests. The courtyard used to have a pool—it still sort of does, but it is home to a crop of water-plants.

  • There’s also Ted Chiang’s Story of You, which I’ve only had a chance to glance at so far, but which sounds fucking fascinating (and is to be a film by the incredible Denis Villeneuve). It’s actually a hybrid between first person and second, almost a conversation between ‘I’ and ‘You’.

 

Excerpt:

The whites of your eyes are yellow, a consequence of spiking bilirubin levels in your blood. The virus afflicting you is called hepatitis E. Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum. It kills only about one in fifty, so you’re likely to recover. But right now you feel like you’re going to die.

Your mother has encountered this condition many times, or conditions like it anyway. So maybe she doesn’t think you’re going to die. Then again, maybe she does. Maybe she fears it. Everyone is going to die, and when a mother like yours sees in a third-born child like you the pain that makes you whimper under her cot the way you do, maybe she feels your death push forward a few decades, take off its dark, dusty headscarf, and settle with open-haired familiarity and a lascivious smile into this, the single mud-walled room she shares with all of her surviving offspring.

What she says is, “Don’t leave us here.”

Don’t Come Back

I’ve long been a fan of the musical stylings of Mr. Andrew Falkous, so when I read that he was going to start writing prose (and is inspired by Vonnegut, no less), I was excited.

Don’t Come Back deals with casual racism in the UK (a theme that pops up quite a bit in Falkous’ lyrics) in a way that is subtly, darkly comic. Well-worth a read.

Excerpt:

‘Stupid name?’ said the taxi driver, his tiny moustache moving along his top lip. ‘You think Zsa-Zsa is a stupid name, little man?’

‘I think …’ said Pete Bradley who, being a man of generous proportions did not regard himself as being little in any way, ‘that you may have confused me with somebody else.’

‘Were you the man who just spoke?’ said the taxi driver, stopping at some traffic lights.

‘I was.’

‘Then you are the little man,’ he said, pulling away again, as drops of rain began to fall on the road about them.

Read it all here.

Passivity

Some more little bits of writing advice I’ve come across here and there, posted for my reference, as much as yours.

T. Gene Davis offers advice, as well as publishing family-friendly genre fiction from themselves and others, on their blog. In this post here, they detail ways to put your submissions above the competition, and 2 of the 3 are interesting and practical suggestions – avoid using narrative summaries, and avoid those evil, dastardly passive sentences (which they expand on here).

And speaking of passive sentences, if you already know they’re bad, but struggle with locating them in your work, this post here could help you out.

Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company

I absolutely adore this story by Kevin Nguyen.

When I arrive the next morning, my boss is waiting at my desk. His eyes are on fire. I ask him if he’s done something new with his eyes and he says “YES THEY ARE ON FIRE NOW” and thanks me for noticing. Then he tells me he has bad news.

Read it all at Terraform.