The Big Idea: J.C. Hutchins
Posted on December 2, 2009 Posted by John Scalzi 12 Comments
Writers are often asked where their ideas come from, but any writer knows that coming up with ideas is only a small portion of the battle. The major portion of the writing battle is showing up — putting your butt in the chair and doing the work of getting the idea out of your head and on to the paper or monitor screen. J.C. Hutchins knows all about this: His novel 7th Son: Descent is jam-packed with ideas, but for Hutchins, the proof was in the writing — actually getting it down and seeing how all those cool ideas work in the real world. And how did they work? Hutchins will be pleased to fill you in.
Fiction writers excel at two things: masturbation and lying.
Lying, that’s the fun part — finding the Big Idea, and then dumping gobs of sweat equity into crafting a superstructure and characters that convincingly supports it. Even when a mythology is based on facts, there’s always a clothesline upon which a writer hangs half-truths and outright lies. Invent authentic secret history and technology to accommodate, say, the conceit that human cloning has been around for at least 15 years, and you’ll get buy-in from the reader. Snag that, and you’re gold.
In contrast, masturbation passes the time, but doesn’t move the needle. Writers love to fondle those wonderful ideas they’ve yet to commit to paper. Man, it’s going to be such a good book, crammed with such great concepts . . . as soon as there’s time to write it. You even have a Moleskine notebook and pricey fountain pen and a stack of receipts as tall as a Venti Doucheacino Latte to accompany those spiffy notions. Hell, you’ve pud-pulled about your future success so much, you’ve made a playlist of the music Spielberg will use for the movie soundtrack.
When I was conceiving 7th Son: Descent back in 2001, I was a compulsive mental masturbator. My ideas weren’t entirely new, but I reckoned their presentation could be: A story set in present day in which human cloning — and the recording of a human’s memories — had been a reality for nearly 20 years. Seven men, unwitting participants in this experiment, each with identical childhood memories but unique skill sets, are assembled to stop a global threat they’re unqualified to combat. A well-funded villain so cruel he’d make Blofeld wet the bed. Stolen Russian nukes. Dangerous mindwipe tech that could make an assassin anyone or anywhere. Monster truck-sized conspiracies. Automatic gunfire. Fate Of The World stakes.
But I was all talk, no action. I was Wanky McWankerton, in love with words I’d yet to write. I did this for nearly two years. If every sperm is sacred, God wasn’t irate with me — he was effing thermonuclear.
The kick in the nads that eventually moved me from wanking to writing hinged on the villain. I knew how he would threaten the world — those nukes weren’t a red herring; they’d be used later in the story — but floundered when it came to who he’d be. I finally realized my seven everyman clone protagonists needed a villain that contrasted and enhanced their extraordinary origins. It’d up the ante for them as characters, add an emotional “this time it’s personal” angle to the story.
So I made the villain, a man code-named John Alpha, the very man they were cloned from — the man whose childhood memories they shared. This provided some great potential for emotional conflict, and would give a logical reason for the government scientists to assemble the seven clones — after all, they were armed with insights about Alpha no one else had. Further, the villain could mastermind a vendetta against the heroes and the experiment’s scientists . . . all while laying the foundation for a scheme that would decimate the world’s economy and create global chaos. My Big Idea was so big, I wound up writing a trilogy. (The publication of the sequels hinges on the sales success of 7th Son: Descent.)
Groovy. My noggin was chuggin’, but I needed a spectacular opening; a catalyst to bring the government scientists out of hiding and enlist the help of the seven clones. Aha. Murder the U.S. president, using an unlikely assassin. The mystery behind this bizarre slaying would propel the first act of the novel, introduce our heroes and readers to the crazy-ass tech that would fuel the rest of the book and series, and give me fodder for Descent’s opening lines: “The president of the United States is dead. He was murdered in the morning sunlight by a four-year-old boy. . .”
Boom. Once those words popped into my head, I started writing. While the years of concocting idea after idea was helpful, it was absolutely unsatisfying in comparison to rolling up my sleeves and crafting the tale. Lying. I got to tie up those fact-based clotheslines and hang lie after lie upon them, manufacturing secret histories and technologies that would support my Big Idea — human cloning isn’t near; it’s already here — and building characters who would react realistically to that revelation and rise to the challenge of taking down their psychopathic progenitor.
In the midst of this, I made sure each of the seven protags represented a facet of the human cloning issue. The POV blue-collar type frets over issues of identity, the priest has an intense crisis of faith, the geneticist wigs over the ethics, the insane messianic computer hacker does the Snoopy dance because he’s a living conspiracy theory, and so on.
I also saw opportunities to explore some relevant sub-topics: nature vs. nurture, classic Pandora’s Box and abuse of power stuff, the concept of “if I’d taken another life path, where would I wind up?”, etc. I tried to squeeze some character-driven gray matter in my conspiracy-soaked popcorn potboiler.
7th Son: Descent shouldn’t be in print, actually. It was rejected by agents in 2005, was released as a podcast a year later, and thanks to the support of thousands of fans, finally got on the radar at St. Martin’s. It was released in print a few weeks ago. It’s fitting that a story that was nearly never written due to all my wanking would require such a circuitous seven-year-long path to publication. I am karma’s bitch.
But the experience taught me that Big Ideas are only truly worthwhile when you — surprise! — actually follow up on them. Less talk, more action. I’ve swapped my Moleskine and fountain pen for loose leaf and Flair felt-tips. I deleted that movie soundtrack playlist years ago. I’ve traded my Starbucks visits for Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru.
I’ve gotta rush back to the house and computer, see. I’ve got more lying to do.
7th Son: Descent: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s
Listen to audio and read excerpts of the novel here. Follow J.C. Hutchins on Twitter.
I reviewed this for – of all places – Mystery Scene. Let’s just say JC will be pleased with my take, but when I pushed back and said, “Is this crime?”, Kate Stine herself said, “You WILL review this.”
Had fun. When’s the sequel?
Sounds great, but now I want to write a novel where the priest does the snoopy dance.
Enjoyed the original podcast of this story immensely. It was compelling listening and I breezed through the episodes of the first volume in a couple of days. The publishing process has put an extra layer of shine on the story and it’s well worth a few of your dollars / pounds / euros!
Ha! “Wanky McWankerton”! Love it! Describes me and my imagined writing life to a T.
“Venti Doucheacino Latte” Love it! What kind of looks would I get if I ordered that at St*rbucks?
Well JC, that explains my need to take a shower after every writing session.
Loved the podcast version, and I bought the paperback on release day but saved it for a post-NaNoWriMo treat. I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s changed in the edited version. Good choice for a “Big Idea” piece.
Not-writing as masturbation? BWAH. Hilarious.
Thanks for sharing this with us. And good luck with the book!
Sounds a lot like Ghost Brigade with a clone of the villian trying to stop him. I intend to check it out.
Does it count as wanking it, if you are writing your big idea novel on your blog at a very slow rate?
Listened to this when it was a podcast…it’s probably still wallowing in my iTunes for that matter. Really enjoyed the story. Glad to see Hutchins published now.
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