The Big Idea: Garth Nix
Not every book has a predictable genesis. Indeed, A Confusion of Princes, the latest novel by Garth Nix, is one of those whose beginning is best described as a series of detours, resulting in a book. Come, walk with Nix as he retraces his steps to get to the published work.
I’m not sure any of my novels have any one big idea. I like the concept of a humongous idea striking suddenly, after months or possibly years of lying around doing not much at all, allied with the popular belief that post-lightning all you have to do is retreat to a darkened room and bash out the words, a kind of a minor bureaucratic tidy-up after the brilliance of the lightning bolt.
Maybe it does work like that for some writers. But for me the ideas are more like sparks of static electricity. Mostly small, and myriad, and occasionally annoying. They are also not random, but generated by the act of writing (in which I would include daydreaming, note-jotting and open-mouthed musing to say, the neighbourhood cat). The writing generates more ideas, in turn inspiring more writing, which generate more ideas and so on.
In the case of A Confusion of Princes, it would need the psychoprobe of classic science fiction to identify and separate all the ideas and the seeds for those ideas. This is because it took me a long time to write this book, while I was also writing other books, so I can’t remember. (To tell the truth, even when I write a book quickly I find it difficult to identify the genesis of any particular idea. Usually I just make something up that sounds plausible.)
It also got complicated because something unusual happened with A Confusion of Princes. Typically when writing a novel I start very thinly with a half-seen character and a clouded situation, and some ideas about the setting. I will then write a bit of prose that makes my initial thoughts more concrete, and leave it for a few months, sometimes longer. Occasionally, like a chef returning to a dish, I will drop back and stir things around, make some notes, maybe write a bit more. Six months or a year down the track I will write an outline for the rest of the book, an outline that I will not actually follow, but that I need to write in order to be able to depart from it later on. It is a zen outline, the act of writing it being of significance, rather than its content. When all that is done, I will write the book, a chapter at a time, revising backwards as I go along, until it is done.
With A Confusion of Princes I got sidetracked after the initial phase, in which I had written a prologue (which never made it into the book) and nothing else. It seemed an excellent idea back in 2007 that I should take that bit of prose, and the few notes of setting I had already worked out, and expand upon them to create the background for a massively-multiplayer online game that I was developing with my old friend and fellow game design lunatic, Phil Wallach, with whom I have worked on a number of overly-ambitious games. After all, I thought, the game would in due course help promote the book.
Over the next three years or so, Imperial Galaxy drank up vast amounts of our money, time and the imaginative energy that I would have otherwise invested in the novel, ultimately with what might charitably be called very limited success, possibly making it the most expensive and least-useful piece of marketing for a book ever. (But we enjoyed it, and if we could afford to, would do it again. Though I might keep the next game design separate from a novel in progress . . . )
But what of the ideas? This is after all, not a “Dumb Idea” piece, though some (i.e. my accountant) might think being diverted into the game was exactly that. What I set out to write was a book about power, and the corruption of power; the nature of Empires and rulers and the ruled; of growing up in a Galactic Empire; falling in love and the redemptive powers of being loved; and what it means to be human and superhuman, when being superhuman might also mean being subhuman or indeed non-human. I also wanted, as per usual, to write the kind of book I liked to read when I was 16 and 32 and 48 (right now), and in this case, I wanted to write a science fiction adventure with more than just the adventure, like the books I loved and still love by Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton, amongst others.
When I read one of the early reviews, in Kirkus Reviews, I thought perhaps I had managed to do that, at least for that reviewer, who finished their piece with the following: “Space battles! Political intrigue! Engineered warriors! Techno-wizardry! Assassins! Pirates! Rebels! Duels! Secrets, lies, sex and True Love! What more can anybody ask for?”
Well, I guess you could also ask for a complete game based on the book. But lacking that, you can still play the beta version of a portion of a fragment of the game, at www.imperialgalaxy.com — where you too can be a Prince of the Empire.