Not every Big Idea works for a book — but just because a Big Idea fails in that way does mean it can’t inspire other big ideas, some of which might fare better. Francis Knight, author of Fade to Black, explains this concept further.
Fade to Black wasn’t born of one Big Idea, or rather it was, but that got shot down in flames fairly early on (and rightly so). But this book, which was one of the first I ever started, but which simmered on and off on a back burner for three years, is where I began to learn my writing process – that is, I write best with a cascade of small ideas that turn up organically as I go, born from what I’ve already got down.
The original Big Idea was fairly simple – I’d been reading a lot of Philip K Dick and other noiry SF, watching too much Bladerunner and The Crow, and thought, hey, I should give that a try. A futuristic dystopia, should be fun. With a cynical protagonist, yeah. SF, no problem. Ha blinking ha.
But I gave it a go, and wrote out my Shiny New Idea in the blaze of words that occurs at such times, and I gave it, with trepidations, to my writers’ group. Who quite fairly pointed out that my ‘future tech’ was…implausible. In a way that reduced at least one to stifled giggles.
Damn. So I put the MS on the back burner for a bit and wrote other things, but my mind kept coming back to it, turning it over whenever I was between projects. I mean, I had a setting, some basic tech I could use, and I had Rojan who’d turned up out of nowhere in a spew of bile and lechery and was actually quite fun to write.
And little ideas kept coming, a bit more each time I spent a week or so on it. What if…what if instead of the future, this was an alternate world? One where magic and tech had progressed simultaneously? How would that work?
What if the techies had grown tired of the mages lording it over everyone and in a sudden coup, egged on by the local church, executed most of them and banned the rest on pain of, well, pain?
What if the mages had been powering everything, so now the techies and their church friends had to find something else to power the city quick? What if the thing they came up with wasn’t quite as benign as they first thought and ended up poisoning everyone?
What if they tried to hide their mistake, or at least one of the results of that mistake?
What if the techies weren’t just techies now, but in charge and getting a bit power hungry? Not to mention twisted by the local theologists so that they could lord it over everyone.
What if some years later, Rojan, physical coward (he prefers to call it ‘Not Stupidly Masochistic’) and feckless womaniser, had a magic that he really didn’t want to use, because it would hurt, a lot? No to mention get him executed. But what if he then had to use it? Worse than that, what if it meant he had to be *gulp* responsible? Can a feckless womaniser, liar and cynic really be the guy to take the “hero” role when he’d rather be at home in bed with a warm woman and lots of booze?
And that’s when the whole story came together – when all those what ifs ganged up on me. Rojan the feckless met pain magic, and realised it screwed with his life in ways he’d didn’t realise he could be screwed.
Each time I wrote a bit more, a few more what ifs would turn up, and those what ifs would party and get drunk and do naughty things in the bedroom, or possibly in the Jacuzzi, and breed more what ifs. And with each one, the story and the world grew more alive. And lo, it came to pass that I realised, about half way through, that this is how I write best. Letting the writing carry me along and bubble up more ideas – that the act of writing begets ideas, and more writing.
It still took me a while to finish, between other projects, but those other projects went better and faster because I’d realised how to write the best way for me. Because, let’s face it, there’s as many ways to write a book as there are writers. Possibly more, because not every book works the same, but knowing your own basic process – I need to get words down to ferment ideas – helps tremendously.
So Fade to Black may have started with a Big Idea that died an early death, but it gave me a Big Idea that’s become invaluable to me. It taught me how I write.