The Big Idea: Lawrence M. Schoen
It’s no surprise that we enjoy the books we read — it’s the reason we read most of the books we do. But do we find joy in them? It’s a small but telling distinction, and one that Lawrence M. Schoen has thought about in the context of Buffalito Contingency, the second book in his science fiction series featuring a hypnotist who goes by the name The Amazing Conroy. What does Schoen mean when he’s talking about joy in this case? He’s here to tell you now.
I wish I’d written a “Big Idea” for my first novel, Buffalito Destiny. That book followed naturally from a series of stories in which my protagonist – a stage hypnotist known as the Amazing Conroy – went from working in sleezy alien lounges to becoming one of the richest individuals on Earth. That first novel was all about stripping him of his wealth and putting his feet back on the path to his true destiny. Conroy spends much of the book being acted upon before he makes the choice to seize control over his future. The “Big Idea” was right there in the title.
Book Two, Buffalito Contingency, is something else entirely. In many ways I had my protagonist back at square one, but with a couple hundred thousand words of published backstory that I couldn’t contradict. In addition, I was hampered by tone – these stories are intended to be light and humorous, which limits the extent to which an author can put his characters through the meatgrinder in the name of raising the stakes. Initially, I sat down to write the novel much like I’d written the previous short stories, and quickly discovered – as better writers before me have learned – that a novel isn’t simply a longer, more complicated short story. What was I to do? I had a book I wanted to write – heck, I’ve got big plans for Conroy, at least another five books – and while I had characters and plot threads and a narrative engine, some essential bookness was missing.
The solution I went with was to consider the question of what makes a book work, at least for me. If there’s a “Big Idea” behind this novel, it’s in the answer to that question. So here goes:
As Peter Graham has observed, and as David Hartwell has elaborated, “the golden age of science fiction is twelve.” When I was twelve I was reading Burroughs and Heinlein and Zelazny. Those authors introduced me to that coveted Sense of Wonder, and more often than not what I’m trying to accomplish with my own storytelling is to recreate that feeling, for myself as much as for my readers. Whether by bounding across Martian deserts, traveling because I have a spacesuit, or moving through the worlds of shadow, what I want to recapture, even more than wonder, is joy. There is a raw delight that comes through such tales, a pleasure which to me has always been the defining aspect of science fiction. It’s an integral part of what I see as the contract that exists between author and reader, which includes such other bits as the hero winning the day, the villain being defeated (or reformed), and all the loose ends accounted for and tied up with a neat bow by the last word. It goes back to the notion that the author has the obligation to not disappoint. I want readers to be in a better mood after finishing one of my stories or novels, and not be muttering that the time and money could have been spent on a brew or two at the corner bar.
For the reader to access that joy he or she has to be able to relate to the protagonist. Conroy is smart, but he’s not brilliant. He has his talents, but also some blindspots. He’s the protagonist, but not necessarily a hero, just like so many of the rest of us. And one more thing: he’s always written in the first person. That’s a requirement I’ve had for these tales since I wrote the first one, “Buffalo Dogs,” back in the twentieth century. A first person narrator carries a lot of limitations, not the least of which is that the reader only knows what the character knows and experiences. There are no cut-away shots to something happening downtown or elsewhere in the galaxy. There’s a tremendous urge to fall victim to the dreaded as you know, Bob style of info-dump, just so you can get some concept into the character’s head. And there’s the trick of laying out the pieces of a puzzle in such a way that the reader has a chance of putting it all together before the hero does.
But the payoff makes it all worthwhile. You get the immediacy of being inside your protagonist’s head, feeling what he feels, learning as he learns, and quite rightly you get to tap into the raw joy that the character experiences living the adventures of the novel. You’re John Carter wooing the beautiful princess and fighting off six-limbed giants. You’re Corwin walking the pattern of Amber as centuries of forgotten memories come flooding back. Or in my case, you’re a hypnotist working your stage act beyond the edge of Human Space, bending the perceived reality of alien beings for pay a couple hours every night, and sampling exotic cuisine because more than just being a xenophile you’re also a foodie.
Beyond that, the plot can be simple or complex; there can be subtext and a deeply meaningful message or not, all depending on the whims or needs of the author. I have nothing against those bits, and at times my unconscious writer’s mind may slip them in all unbeknownst to me. But the thing is, I didn’t need them when I was twelve, and if they were in the books I was reading I don’t know that I noticed them at the time. What is essential is joy. It’s the unabashed fun of a good yarn, the satisfaction that comes from resolution, and the pleasure that you feel in your heart when you’ve turned that last page. If I’ve done it right, you’ve got a smile on your face at that point. And you’ll come back for more, just like I did.
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