The Big Idea: Jon McGoran
Big ideas sit at the heart of many novels (there’s a reason why I call this feature “the big idea,” after all). But not every good idea — or big idea — makes it through the culling process on the way to the writing of the actual novel. Jon McGoran talks a little about this process in relation to his newst thriller, Deadout.
I love big ideas. Almost everything I write starts out with one. Many writers will say that character is the most important thing, and for the finished product, I think that’s probably true. But nothing gets me excited about a new project like a Big Idea. And one of the things I like best about Big Ideas is the way they lead to other ideas.
As a writer, I love (and sometimes hate) to write. But my favorite phase of any project is that initial Big Idea stage, the honeymoon, when the ideas are coming in a rush, anything is possible, when the early research is leading me off in all sorts of directions. As I start to outline and give the story structure and focus, it gets a little more like work. There is an element of sadness, too, as some of my littler ideas get left by the wayside (with every intention — rarely realized — that I will come back for them some day).
That’s a sadness I deal with often. I’m one of those writers who is constantly having ideas that I think are big. Usually they are story premises that hijack my energy and enthusiasm. (Sometimes, oddly, they are novelty gag items. Go figure.) I write them down or leave a memo on my phone (thank you, iPhone voice recognition!). Then they go in a folder on my computer.
The odds are not good for them. I mostly write novels, and chances are slim that any one of my daily Big Ideas will make the cut and become the focus of a six-, nine- or twelve-month project. It pains me to see them go to waste. So, if I can work in more than one idea — without detracting from the story — so much the better.
The Big Ideas for my novels Drift and its sequel, Deadout, came from my day jobs. For many years, I’ve been involved in writing about and advocating for issues of food and sustainability. Over time, I noticed that the food stories I was writing during the day were becoming more frightening and bizarre than the mysteries and science fiction I was writing at night. It started with things like irradiation, dangerous chemicals, and factory farms. But when genetically modified organisms (GMOs) started taking over our food stream, I realized food politics could be a great theme for a thriller.
Partly this was because GMOs represent such a paradigm shift in how food is grown, because they seem so inadequately tested, and because they’ve quietly taken over so much of the American foodscape. But a lot of it is because GMOs are alive, and once they’re out, they’re out. As a human who eats food, I found it alarming. As a writer who likes Big Ideas, it made me wring my hands and cackle with glee.
The GMO story already reads like a thriller — big corporations using their political and economic power to quietly spread bio-engineered new life forms across the globe and onto unsuspecting consumers’ dinner plates. That’s a great (or terrible) starting point. The more I thought about it, and the more I researched it, the more story ideas I saw.
At the same time, I realized a lot of people didn’t know much about GMOs, how pervasive they are or even that they exist. It was like a perfect storm: a rich premise with lots of potential, and an important issue that begged to be explored.
In addition to GMOs, Deadout focuses on colony collapse disorder, the mysterious syndrome that is causing much of the world’s honeybee population to disappear. It also expands on many of the other themes in Drift, including corporate misbehavior by biotech behemoths and efforts to push GMOs through foreign aid and trade agreements, issues I explore even further in the third book in the series, coming out next year.
These are topics I’ve written about journalistically, and even satirically, but fiction —especially novels — allows a writer to reach different people and explore issues more deeply. Still, while I might love my Big Ideas, I try hard not to let them get in the way of the narrative. Because no one will ever see them if they don’t keep reading. And besides, for me, ultimately, the biggest Big Idea is a good story.