Hey look, The Big Idea is back — this is a feature in which authors of newly-released books tell you a little bit about one of the big ideas in their book, and how they managed to work with it as they wrote their book. This feature used to be on Ficlets, but since I don’t work there anymore, I’m bringing it here. One less link for you to click through.
(For you authors editors and publicist who are wondering how you can get in on this action, I’ll be posting a new “how to” entry soon. Until then, just check out my publicity guidelines.)
To inaugurate the Whatever run of The Big Idea, we have At the City’s Edge, by crime novelist Marcus Sakey. Sakey made a huge critical splash with his first book The Blade Itself (“Sakey’s brilliant debut is a must-read,” said Publishers Weekly in a starred review), and seems well on the way to repeating the trick with City (“just as good as Sakey’s stellar debut,” says Library Journal).
Today Sakey reveals what he defines as a big idea — it’s not the one sentence you can pitch a movie with — and how that big idea grew from a wacky, nutty idea: Doing research on the city of Chicago, in the city itself. I know! Research? Who does that anymore? Apparently, Marcus Sakey. Good on him.
I don’t have big ideas.
Really, I don’t, not in the Hollywood “high concept” way, not in an a-ha! moment way. You know:
“A-ha! What if scientists extracted DNA from prehistoric insects and cloned dinosaurs that ran amok?”
or, “A-ha! What if a disgruntled cop rigged a bus to blow up if it dropped below a certain speed?”
or, “A-ha! What if an unloved orphan discovered he was actually a powerful wizard responsible for saving the world?”
I wish I did have big ideas. That last one especially. Man do I wish I’d had that one.
What I have instead is a string of little ideas. Observations about a situation, bits of dialogue, a flash of character. Incomplete notions rather than perfectly formed a-ha! moments.
For example, when I began writing AT THE CITY’S EDGE, I had only a vague idea of the story I would tell. I knew that I wanted to write a book that was political without being partisan. I wanted to talk about greed and ambition and self-interest, and about how ancient those qualities are, how little has changed since wars were fought with sticks. And I also wanted to ride around dangerous neighborhoods wearing a bulletproof vest.
My wife loves that last part.
Anyway, I took those bits and about a dozen others, and I started rubbing them up against each other in the hope that something would spark. I read memoirs of the current war—there are some wonderful books out there, visceral and personal and timely—and researched the way that we treat our soldiers on their return. I pestered cops in four cities, interviewing them about street gangs and urban blight. I rode with Chicago’s Gang Intelligence Unit, the CIA of the CPD, through a world I’d never known existed.
And somewhere along the way, my snarl of small ideas knotted into a big one.
I would write a book about a soldier. A regular soldier, not Rambo, just a guy who went to Iraq, had some rough experiences, and ended up discharged. And when he got home, lost and confused and hurting, he would find himself in the middle of another war. A war in his neighborhood that bore a lot of similarities to the one he’d left. A war between seemingly implacable forces, with regular folk caught in between—some of them people he loved.
Of course, it took me a couple of months to get there. I lost a lot of sleep, drove my wife crazy, and made some false starts. But that seems to be the way the process works for me. I can’t go in with a big idea. I have to unearth it as I go. And there’s something I have come to love about that fact, a process of discovery that keeps things fresh and exciting.
But I still wish I’d thought of that thing about the orphaned wizard.