The Big Idea: Janice Hardy
Posted on October 6, 2009 Posted by John Scalzi 11 Comments
Writers: Remember that story you wrote, the one with the great idea that you wrote really really badly? Don’t throw it into the shredder — keep it. Why? As Janice Hardy proves with her new novel The Shifter, good ideas are worth keeping — becuase good ideas can keep until you’re ready for them.
The big idea for The Shifter crawled out of some really bad ideas and flashes of insight over a number of years. If was definitely a long process, and not a single stroke of inspiration, and I think a good example of how ideas can come from anywhere, merge in your brain, and turn into something really fun and interesting down the road.
About six years ago I had an idea about a boy who could heal, but had no control over it. He’d bump into people and pull their injuries into his own body, then not be able to get rid of it. A trio of evil men would find him, and offer to take his pain away and put it in a box they could later use as a weapon. This poor boy would have to stop them somehow and save the day. I named it The Pain Takers, and quickly outlined about ten pages before realizing it was a terrible story. I tossed those pages into a folder, stuck it in a drawer and forgot all about it.
Flash forward a few years.
I was at the 2007 Surrey International Writers Conference just outside of Vancouver to pitch a fantasy quest novel I hadn’t yet realized was almost as ghastly as The Pain Takers. The presenters kept stressing originality, and it didn’t take long for me to accept the fact that my Generic Prophecy Quest Novel #12 wasn’t very original and would never sell. I came home all fired up and eager to find something original in my box of lost ideas.
I found The Pain Takers, and it was still just as bad as the day I made those notes. But the core idea of healing by taking pain stuck with me. Healing is such a staple in fantasy, but you rarely see consequences associated with it. It’s usually just a divine laying of hands and everyone is hunkey dory. But what if there were consequences to it? What if instead of traditional powers, healing was the magic in this world? And like all magic, it would have its good and bad sides.
I kept thinking about those pain takers and how they’d exist in a society like this. What would their role be? How would they get their pain and what would they do with it? One morning I had my first flash of insight and realized these guys weren’t stealing pain to be evil, they were just buying it to make a profit. They were pain merchants, and this was a world where pain was bought and sold like any other commodity.
Everything started to fall into place then.
What I needed now was a way to make pain portable. I came up with a metal called pynvium that could be enchanted to absorb the pain of others. Healers would heal by drawing pain from someone, and then inserting it into this magical metal. That metal would then be melted down and forged into things that could be sold. Weapons and defensive items would be enchanted to flash pain to hurt others, who in turn would need to go to a Healer, and the cycle would start all over again. I loved the idea that you could help someone, then turn around and use that to hurt someone else.
Where there’s big money to be made, there are always people who suffer by those trying to make it. Since pynvium was a limited resource, healing would no doubt be expensive, and the poor likely wouldn’t have access to it. They’d be the perfect group to exploit, so pain merchants would offer to buy their pain for cheap, then turn around and sell the pain-filled items to the rich for a lot of money. I couldn’t see pain merchants spending money on trained healers, so going to a pain merchant would be a risky proposition. They could kill or cripple you as easily as heal you. But if it was your only choice? Such fun. I really loved this world. It was dark, it was gritty, it was filled with all kinds of awful possibilities to play with.
Now all I needed was a character to put it into it.
The second flash of insight occurred at this time. I caught a rerun of an episode of Joss Wheadon’s Firefly. Part of the show’s history is that there was a civil war and the main characters were on the losing side. I adored the idea of a failed war for independence, and wanted my city to have been through something similar. A city that had once been rich and powerful due to its wealth of pynvium, but was now under occupation by enemy forces stealing those resources for its own use. Its citizens beaten down, with lots of orphans whose parents has fought and died for freedom they never achieved.
I knew instantly that my protagonist, Nya, was one of these orphans. And that she was the one with the rotten ability to shift pain between people, and this was a bad skill to have.
Weapons and war had figured prominently so far, so it made sense that the man in power would see her as someone he could use as a weapon. So Nya had to keep her ability secret to avoid capture. But the story needed more than that. Nya needed more crappy luck heaped upon her. She had a skill that could both help and hurt, one that could make her a lot of money in a world where she really needed it. So what would be the worst thing I could do to her?
Two things popped into mind. One, she didn’t have the ability to sense pynvium, so she couldn’t put her pain into it. That made her unable to get a job as a healer, where all the legitimate money would come from. That kept her poor and struggling, having to rely on odd jobs to get by, same as hundreds of others. It made her day to day life hard. Two, I gave her a little sister who could heal and sense pynvium, who was living the comfy and prestigious life Nya dreamed of – training to be a Healer at the Healer’s League.
I’d done a lot of work so far, but I still didn’t have an actual story. Nya had skills she couldn’t reveal without winding up in prison or worse. She had a sister who was her only family, who’d she be willing to do anything for. It wasn’t hard to see this was where my story was. I had to do something bad to the sister, and the only way Nya could save her was by using her shifting ability. And doing that set her on a path that ran right between the two most powerful and dangerous forces controlling her city.
And that’s when things go horribly, horribly, wrong.
The Shifter: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s
Read an excerpt here. Visit the author’s blog.
Is this post just another example to prove what a bastard you are in not allowing others to promote their work and ideas?
I’m going to read the book anyway.
I really enjoy the Big Idea posts that not only get talk about the big idea of a story, but how the author arrived at it (despite not even being close to a writer myself). This one has some of the most details I’ve seen along those lines. Thanks, Janice!
Not to diminish this excellent idea at all, but the original one doesn’t seem all that terrible to me either. :-)
Amazon seems to have this book marked for ages 9-12…. is this a YA book?
Sarah, It’s middle grade. YA is for teens. middle grade is for that 9-12 age group. stuff like… lemony snicket, harry Potter, Narnia.
Love books about “when things go horribly, horribly, wrong.” Adding this to my shopping list. Thanks!
I’ve read this book, and highly recommend it for young readers. Really original premise, great writing and wonderful voice.
Great stuff, Janice!
On a related note: There are those who can heal others, but when they heal they feel the pain the other would feel as they healed. Fortunately, pain relievers, pain killers, and alcohol work. Unfortunately, they also addict the user if over used. How would you use this?
Damn it, Scalzi. Quit making me add books to my wish list.
“becuase good ideas can keep until you’re ready for them.”
It is funny to hear about an idea for a book sloshing around in someone’s head with the title Shifter. I have a book idea that I have been sitting on for a few years. It involves creatures called shifters. (They are sort of bionic T-1000s) I have no idea whether I will ever be able to put something together out of it that would be worth trying to publish. In the meantime I have turned it into a feature of my blog to try writing it in 1000 word posts every few weeks. I am about fifty pages in.
I just finished reading “The Shifter” and it was excellent. Janice does such a great job with description – in showing the reader, not telling. I recommended this book to my sister who teaches 5th grade. She read the first chapter to her students and they were enthralled, begging for more.