The Big Idea: Josin McQuein
Today’s metaphor for ideas comes to you from Josin L. McQuein, author of the new YA science fiction book Arclight. And what is that metaphor? Hint: They are small, they are many, and if you are not careful, they are coming for you — or at least at you, in their multitudes. Prepare yourself.
JOSIN L. McQUEIN:
I got my first big idea when I was an idiot.
I was a teenager, and had come to the conclusion that getting paid to make stuff up was the best invention of all time, so I was going to be a writer – YAY!
Honestly, that was entirety of my thought process. I wanted to write a novel. Any novel. The characters didn’t matter. The plot didn’t matter. Someone hand me a pencil and get out of my way. Unfortunately, those things that didn’t matter kind of did, and there was no story without them. Besides, novels were too long – I’d never be able to write that many words.
I was stuck.
Then the ants came.
They came by the thousands, descending on a rain forest hikers’ hostel in South America, skittering down walls in the pitch black of midnight. They terrified with their silence and their numbers. They spread out, filling every space, and covering every surface – human skin, included. And as they spread, they consumed. With one unimaginably tiny mouthful multiplied by a seeming infinity at a time, they devoured all of the vermin in the hotel – rats several thousand times their size, and scorpions who, by right, should have been the higher predator.
Even the hikers weren’t immune, because no matter how many they stomped, or sprayed, or torched, there were more ants waiting to replace the dead, and they had absolutely no aversion to trying a bite or twelve of human-on-the-run. By the time the sun came up, the hostel had become a battleground, barely held, where the humans chose to make their stand against the horde. In the silence that followed the struggle, they found themselves less victors, and more survivors left behind in a place that was fundamentally changed.
They were changed.
They had seen the superiority of human ingenuity fall to something that, in its individual form, was miniscule – insignificant. But together, all of those teeny tiny pieces became something fearsome and unstoppable.
And that became the big idea that mattered – the one that said “big” was the wrong way to go.
Rather than having a society fall to ruin beneath their own Tower of Babel, I wanted to go the other way, touting the brilliance of things that got smaller and smaller until those things could slip between particles, and alter the fundamental definition of reality.
Viruses were tiny enough to fit the bill, but those had been run into the ground lately. I wanted something different; I wanted my devourer. I wanted my ants with their singular focus and hive mind. And I had just enough knowledge of fact and fiction to create a use for them by pairing them off with nanotech run amok.
I started pulling scenes from different pieces I’d kept for years, and stitched them into a sort of Franken-novel that made absolutely no sense. (Zombies in space! Now, with extra vampires! Don’t ask about the unicorn. Seriously, you don’t want to know…) But it was a real start, and bit-by-tiny-bit, those ridiculous pieces transformed into something else.
A new setting came with hearing descriptions of the claustrophobia accompanying gradual blindness. Instead of starting the characters in a void, they were now on the edge of one, watching their world grow darker by the day. They’d fight it, of course, clinging to the daylight world they knew, but would also always be faced with the inevitability that the darkness was coming for them.
Local and world news fell into the mix, highlighting the dangers of viewing the world through the lens of a single opinion held by a single person. I wanted to explore how quickly paranoia can turn to mass madness, and how a charismatic individual with motives that seem logical, or at least well intentioned, can destroy a community. And with that, a queen stepped up to lead my little hive.
Each new idea bumped and jostled the others into line, creating the friction required for conflict, until, one day, I read through my notes and scribbles and realized they were all running together on a thousand tiny feet. Things clicked. They were no longer random pages or paragraphs or things I’d hastily written down while half-asleep. They’d become something both massive and cohesive, with a momentum I couldn’t stop.
I had characters! I had a plot! (I had an over attachment to ellipses, but I swear I’m getting help…) The important part was that the girl who couldn’t write a novel, now had one in her hands. And in the end, thanks to all of those little ideas, I finally had a big one.