The Idea of an Idea

Thoughts on Writing/I Make Up Worlds #1

#imakeupworlds - this is a tweet thread originally posted on Twitter on Wednesday 22 April 2020.


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"I have a great idea for a story. You write it, and we'll split the proceeds 50/50."

What is an idea? Do some people have an idea of what an Idea is, and what it means? What is idea in relationship to story? How do we turn an idea into a story?

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Standard disclaimer: I do not have A Program. There is no Secret Handshake. I'm going to tweet some of my thoughts based on my experiences and my opinion. Not even all of my thoughts! Just some of them!

I'm adding a tweet number for my own convenience. This is threaded.

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If your ideas are no good, why don't you write MY ideas?"

Here's the idea of an Idea valorized over the work. I know many writers who've had similar experiences with people who think the Idea is the single most important part of a story.

An Idea of itself is not a story.

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Part of the work is how to turn an idea into a story.

Part of the work is understanding that a single "Idea" can be taken by every different writer and turned in a different story because the work of making it into a story "individualizes" the idea as part of that process. 

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Ideas are, in their way, cheap. Envisioning how to use an idea combined with execution (often through trial & error, mistakes, rewriting & revision) is the hard part.

Part of it might be instinct--I don't know--but part of it is trained repetition.

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Speculative fiction has often been called "the literature of ideas." As well, what some people claim constitutes an "idea" has in the past sometimes/often been limited to what I'll call "nifty concepts" usually based on science.

But story ideas are huge & everywhere.

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For example, here are four possible idea vectors:

Concept

Character

Plot

Landscape.

How do you use that idea to create the narrative or a focus for a narrative?

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Let's say I want to write a pandemic story. Topical!

Now obviously most stories need concept, character, plot, and landscape. But one way to help yourself learn how to dig the story out of the idea is to situate your idea in one place first and build out.

For example:

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Will my pandemic story build out from a conceptualization about response or the disease itself? Does a corrupt government purposely infect a confined vulnerable population to get antibodies for the rich? Does a competent government race to mitigate a virulent breakout?

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Will my pandemic story build out from a character's specific journey (which is also an idea)? A woman in 1918, unable to attend medical school, becomes the de facto town doctor. A youth escorts her endangered friend cross country to safety.

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Will my pandemic story build out from strongly plot dependent reasons? Can a makeshift relay of determined people get the vaccine to the snowed in village in time? People unknowingly infected spread out across the country. What happens?

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Will my pandemic story build out from the idea of landscape and all the different ways that changes of this magnitude ripple through a world.

Do I want to show a world that breaks down into anarchy, or a world that builds networks of care across fragile social eco-systems? 

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I'm making these up as I'm typing them right now because I have so much practice turning any idea or nifty concept or flash of image into a possible narrative setup. 

There's less to mystery in turning an idea into a story and far more to practice.

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I can't emphasize enough how useful it is to come up with multiple stubs (I just made up that way of phrasing it). Poke at them; write 1000 words; make notes. Many of them will go nowhere but the practice is gold because maybe you figure out what lost YOUR interest.

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In the earliest stage of having a basic idea and trying to figure out how to turn it into a story it can be helpful to figure out your starting place, your angle (if you will), to get a solid grip on that story ledge and work out from there.

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Next Wed 4/29 I'll discuss:

"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged." (Peter Brook)

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The Boundaries of Fiction

April 2020

Kate Elliott

Too often these days I remind myself that if I wrote this timeline in a book—if I HAD written this timeline in a book—I’d’ve been told it was too unrealistic, too much of a cascade of unbelievable coincidence and train wreck and cartoonish villainy. No one really says things like that out loud and gets away with it. Right?

Truth is stranger than fiction, which means a lot of things but in terms of writing fiction I take it to mean that oftentimes we seek in fiction a sense of patterning, of reassurance. A solved mystery can be reassuring. A heroic venture that succeeds can be reassuring. Family found; lovers reunited. Tragedy’s catharsis. Anger’s depth. Violence as impact. Not always victory or happiness but a recognized sensibility. Even horror can give the reader or viewer what they hope for or expect from the experience. But the lurching staggering gait of our out of control event cycle doesn’t stay inside the boundaries of fiction. It’s too real.

So I send my best wishes to you all that you can find whatever respite you need, some safety, enough toilet paper and medications and food, distance socializing if you wish for it and space to grieve for what is lost. And some joy and satisfaction along the way.

The good dog Finn sends his best wishes, in one of my favorite photos of him at the end of the this newsletter.

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First things first.

Here is some GREAT NEWS that I am SUPER EXCITED about, so excited I have to use CAPS.

KING’S DRAGON is finally available in audiobook form.

I know — audiobook sales have tumbled due to people no longer needing them for their commutes. But if you have been waiting for the audio version of KD, or if you just want to try it out because it feels like a good audio time, it’s here.

The voice actor is Shiromi Arserio, and I love her narration. To me it beautifully captures the tone of the work.

Here’s a link to Tantor Audio’s book page, with a sample, and links for Audible.

You can also find it on Libro.fm (if you want to support indie booksellers rather than purchase through Audible).

I will say this: Tantor licensed the rights to the first three Crown of Stars books. If they sell well enough, they’ll record the entire series. So if you’re interested, now is the time to get the audio version, and if you know people who are looking for audio books right now, let them know! Thank you.

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What am I doing? Writing, natch.

I had hoped to send email last month (March seems like a year ago) with a fantastic newsletter subscriber-only giveaway of 5 print Advance Reader Copies of UNCONQUERABLE SUN. And there are ARCs sitting in the Tor Books offices, which can’t be sent to me, and thus I can’t give them away to you.

However, there is a giveaway on Goodreads! 50 copies available, so for those interested, you can find the entry form here.

Obviously I hope many of you will pre-order or buy UnSun (my shorthand for the book), if you haven’t already. If you can. I hope libraries will also carry it for those who can’t afford to buy a copy; I love libraries and checking out books from libraries is also a great way to support writers.

The Macmillan page has links. Here also find Bookshop (indie) and Libro (audio indie).

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BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE.

Here are the page proofs of SUN, with my patented highlighter system to help me keep track of all the names, places, things, details, foreshadowing and set up, and easter eggs (gotta find them all).

Seeing the book for the first time in all its typeset glory ranks right up there (for me) with getting to see the cover for the first time. Bask in it!

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Finn wants you to all to know: Keep your heads up and your eyes on a more hopeful future.

February 2020 Brings News

I’m sad I did not send this on 02/02/2020 because obviously why wouldn’t you want to? But I didn’t. Which is a lesson of itself: Don’t beat yourself up for the things you didn’t get done in an arbitrary time frame you set for yourself, when those things aren’t life threatening or crucial.

This month’s newsletter involves . . . . news.

First, I received so many entries for the giveaway for the ARC of The Book of Dragons that I decided to give away both my ARCs. Anthony and Kendra are the winners. Thank you all so much for entering. I appreciate each and everyone of you.

This is not the end of giveaways! At some point soon I hope, nay even expect, to receive ARCs for UNCONQUERABLE SUN. When I do, I’ll be holding another giveaway. We shall see how many ARCs I am able to give away (depending on how many my publisher sends me). Keep your eyes open. I’m hoping they’ll come in before the end of this month.

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AUDIOBOOK NEWS!

Macmillan Audio will be producing an audiobook of UNCONQUERABLE SUN, which should publish on the same date 7/7/2020 for those of you who prefer audio. The narrator is Natalie Naudus. She’s an experienced voice actor and has recorded over one hundred audiobooks. Very excited about this!

Preorders available at Audible.

But wait! There’s more!

At long last I can announce that audio rights for the first three Crown of Stars books have sold to Tantor Media. King’s Dragon is being recorded by voice actor Shiromi Arserio. I was able to chat with her about pronunciations, and it was great, so I am also very excited about this.

You can’t pre-order King’s Dragon yet, but here’s the link to keep an eye on its status. If you are an audiobook lover and want the entire series to eventually be produced in audio format, then I recommend buying the early volumes and, if you like them, encouraging your audiobook-loving friends to get them too.

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In the meantime I posted three older essays of mine on Substack. If you haven’t read them and are interested, they are:

The Omniscient Breasts: The Male Gaze Through Female Eyes (2012)

It’s Amazing the Things We Know That Are Actually Wrong (2012)

Is Fantasy Writing Gendered? (2016)

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No newsletter can be complete without the requisite photo of Fingolfin, High King of the Schnolder, aka Finn the goofball white schnauzer. Did I mention previously that the reason white schnauzers are white is because schnauzers have an undercoat and an overcoat, and for reasons unfathomable to me but surely having something to do with recessive traits, white schnauzers have no black, black/silver, or salt-and-pepper overcoat, only the silky soft-as-baby’s-hair white undercoat. Believe me, he is so so soft that people often just stand with their hands on him saying “he’s so soft!” No, really, they do. I do it too.

Here’s Finn at “camp” with a friend, aka I take him once or twice a week to a dog day care so he can spend the day playing with other dogs off leash in a safe, monitored environment. It’s great.

As always, thank you for reading.

Kate Elliott

It's Amazing the Things We Know That Are Actually Wrong

(originally published in June 2012 on A Dribble of Ink)

[2020: As I re-read this before posting in January 2020, I reflect on how I would write this now, but I also think it’s useful to post it as is as a reflection of eight years ago and what elements of this discussion have changed and which have remained more or less the same.]

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I wanted to write a post about diversity.

It could open something like this: In a diverse world, is fantasy and science fiction literature open to the largest possible view of the world and its cultures? If not, why not? What am I as writer, as reader, and as viewer doing to promote and highlight a more realistic view of the world’s diversity?

But such an opening already presupposes that I’m writing from the stance of a cultural hegemony centering around Euro/American settings and its structural, political, historical, and religious backdrops. The phrase “a more realistic view” already situates me within a US-centric sphere. It begs the question: More realistic than what?

The instant I say “diversity” what I mean, whether I want to or not, is that I’m writing to an audience in which the default mode lies in being male, white, and mostly straight. Or, to quote writer Aliette de Bodard, the [phrase] “‘importance of diversity’ boils down to ‘why white people benefit from seeing POCs in fiction.’”

POC, for those of you who may not know this acronym, in this instance stands for ‘people of color.’ I agree with Bodard, and I want to add that for the purposes of this post, I’m speaking of diversity in its largest sense, to include gender, gender identity, ethnicity, race, religion, nationality, language, class, ability, and so on.

I’m weary of having this conversation over and over again.

Guild Wars 2 Concept Art

My first novel was published in 1988. I’m still having and reading the same conversations about the representation of women, of people of color, of LGBTQ people, of non-US or non-Western cultures in fiction. There’s more “audible” talk than I personally recall from before about the Anglophonic bias in our field and the obstacles that writers from outside the Western Anglophonic regions face (although this conversation was happening back when I broke in also, albiet in a more limited sphere). However, I’m not able to speak to how writers and readers who aren’t situated in the big US/Canada/UK/Aussie/NZ markets feel about their in/visibility.

With the rise of social media, there are definitely more diverse (i.e. not white and/or male and/or heterosexual and/or Anglophonic) voices involved in this discussion than before, but the default really hasn’t shifted much. If it had, I wouldn’t still be trotting out the word “diversity.” Instead, the field’s literature and depictions would simply be more diverse.

You know what?

It’s amazing the things we know that are actually wrong.

When I was in college, I remember being told by a guy that there were no women composers before the 20th century. He added that even counting the few from the 20th century, none mattered regardless because women simply did not possess the genius to compose. It was what his music history classes as they were taught in that era revealed. The invisibility of women as well as his ignorance and dismissal of any musical tradition outside of Western Classical Music constituted part of his world view.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

The beauty of such assertions and the unspoken and unexamined assumptions behind them is that they are mirrors that reflect themselves back on themselves.

People’s assumptions get in the way of their ability to think past received wisdom.

To my mind, this is a fundamental problem when it comes to suggesting there should be more diversity in portrayals of character and culture in, say, epic fantasy or fantasy in general. People’s assumptions get in the way of their ability to think past received wisdom. It can get in the way of a reader’s ability to read a work if it seems to them to violate what they are sure they know. It can get in the way of a writer’s ability to think outside his/her normative ideas about what a fantasy world that is “authentic” must look like. Assumptions create obstacles that impede the introduction of more diversity of experience into a world and its characters.

Let’s say my unexamined understanding of the European Middle Ages means I view the era as a monolithic block where the oppressed women of the time were in constant danger of having sexualized violence perpetrated on them, where women had no lives outside of their relationship with a man who gave them guardianship or money, and where they could barely be said to have personality because they were too oppressed and socially inferior and ignorant to have personalities. If this is what I think I know, then my attempts to read—much less write!—a fantasy story with women who do not fit those limited and limiting parameters will fail. Understandably so, since to write outside those assumptions means my normative ideas will have been transgressed. How unrealistic a more “diverse” story will seem to a reader or writer whose views of the past are mired in these sorts of errors. How flawed, even though it actually isn’t.

Art by Daniel Dos Santos

Attempts to add “diversity” into such a scenario then remain trapped in the same box, regardless of the axis of diversity: The “diversity” becomes an ornamental or utilitarian element being forced onto the “real” underpinnings of the world (which remain in such a case as the default male, white, Western, straight, whatever), rather than being an intrinsic part of the creation.

To me, humans are pattern makers: We structure the landscape around us into patterns to try to make sense of it. I mean landscape in the largest sense of the word, not just the physical environment but also the historical, spiritual, political, cultural, and relational environment. Human beings are “band animals.” We evolved in groups, not as individuals forging alone through the Paleolithic wilderness scorning companionship and cooperation as sops for the weak-willed. We mostly are in constant interaction with others, for good or for ill, and there is plenty of both good and ill to go around.

Every culture, and every group of people within a culture, tells stories about the past and present that help define how people see themselves. I think that people naturally create a narrative about who they are and where they fit in the world as a way to try to understand the immensity of the world and the relative insignificance of their own small, personal life within the greater whole.

What has this to do with diversity in fantasy?

Diversity is not an ornamental element. It’s not something “we” need or ought to “add” to our stories to fulfill some moral quota or to get critics off our backs. That’s not what “a call” for diversity means. The writers and readers who are already writing and seeking “more diverse” fiction don’t need to be told or have anything suggested to them. They’re living it.

The stories people tell make and reveal patterns. They unfold and invoke a vision of a world.

By that I do not mean that our stories are a mouthpiece for our views of the world or that our characters are speaking for us. They aren’t (with, I am sure, some exceptions). Nor have I any interest in telling people what to write. I figure people should have the freedom to write the story that is in them to write.

Stories reveal something of what aspects of the world are visible to us and who and what we deem important. That is why I believe it is such a simple but profound act to truly stop and think through—and then think beyond—the foundational assumptions out of which one creates a narrative.

The Book of Dragons ARC giveaway

for newsletter subscribers only!

As a thank you to those of you who subscribe to my newsletter, I’m giving away an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) of The Book of Dragons anthology, edited by Jonathan Strahan.

This is an uncorrected proof, not for sale, a chance to read the anthology well ahead of its publication date in July 2020.

The anthology will have illustrations by Rovina Cai, and poems and stories by a long list of illustration names, as seen here:

[directions to enter removed so that they only exist in emailed form]

Good luck!

Kate Elliott

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