Speculative Horizons

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Published writers occasionally get asked, often by aspiring writers, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’, or some variation upon it.  On the whole, it’s not a question those published writers particularly look forward to, because it’s almost impossible to answer in any serious way that’s going to be useful or informative for the questioner, and the best frivolous answer was long ago delivered by, I believe, the inimitable Harlan Ellison: ‘Poughkeepsie’.

But I’ll answer it anyway, before suggesting an alternative query that might be more interesting and useful for all concerned. (Note: my answer will not be remotely as good as ‘Poughkeepsie’. You have been warned.)

Where do I get my ideas from?  Anywhere and everywhere, like pretty much all writers.

For example:

I got the idea for my first published story, ‘Farm Animal’, which appeared in Interzone many, many moons ago, from a dream.  (The one and only time this has happened, by the way).

I got the idea for my second published story, ‘Gibbons’, from the personal experience of spending three months in the rainforest of Borneo, studying – unsurprisingly – gibbons.

I got the idea for another story, ‘Flint’, which appeared in the anthology Speculative Horizons, from my non-fiction reading, specifically a book about shamanism and a book about prehistoric cultures.  (Speculative Horizons is a good little anthology in a good cause, by the way, and is close to selling out, so perhaps you’d like to take a look over here for info on what it contains and how to get your hands on one of the last few copies.)

I got an idea for a fantasy novel – which remains only a vague idea, with little likelihood of ever going further – from a map that appeared in a fantasy novel by another author.

I got the idea for my next novel, The Free, from a single, specific scene that popped into my head unbidden one day, and which not only does not appear in the novel as it will be published, but no longer has any close connection whatsoever to the plot, setting, theme or characters of The Free.

So there you are.  Anywhere and everywhere.  It’s completely useless as guidance to an aspiring writer, because the getting of ideas is not – not remotely – the hard bit of being a writer.

I’ve got a suggestion for what might be a better question to ask, and I wonder if it’s not closer to what someone’s really asking when they ask about where ideas come from.

‘How do you turn an idea into a publishable story?’

Now there’s a tougher question, and one that gets much closer to nailing the hard bit about being a writer.  There is a superabundance of ideas in the world, and more often than not in the head of anyone with a serious chance of becoming a professional writer.  90+% of those ideas will probably never make it into publication as stories, or story elements.

For the <10% (or whatever the number is) of ideas that make it from idle fancy to published prose, the process by which that transformation takes place is probably slightly mysterious even to those of us who do it, and no doubt happens slightly differently for every writer, but here’s a possible sketch of what it takes for an idea to become a story.

This is off the top of my head kind of stuff, so your mileage may well vary.  Indeed, it may be complete balderdash. Might possibly be a starting point for thinking about the whole thing, though.

An idea might be anything – a piece of dialogue, a visual image, a character hook, a theme, a scene, whatever – but for the sake of argument (and simplicity) let’s think of it as a single nugget of something – anything – that might become part of a story.  Maybe there’re two aspects to what you, as a writer, can do with that idea which we’ll call exploration and construction, since I can’t think of catchier names for them at the moment.  They’re not remotely as separate and distinct as I’m about to suggest, either, but what can you do?  Without generalisation and/or simplification we couldn’t say much about anything ever, really.

Exploration.  You mentally let that nugget roll, and follow where it leads.  You let it take its own path and see what connections, what consequences, what secondary ideas it can spawn as it rolls along through the back of your mind.  A kind of extrapolative free association, I guess, though it’s not entirely free because – as you’re a writer, and you know that what you’re hoping for here is a story – the chain or web of connections that initial nugget generates will hopefully have some kind of loose coherence and sense and ‘storyness’ to it.

This would be the bit of the process that takes the longest time, for me at least.  That idea nugget can be idly meandering around in my semi-conscious for years, trying to extrapolate itself into something more substantive than a nugget.  This would also be the bit where it’s liable to bump up against other ideas that have been performing similarly thankless gyrations in there for years of their own, and now and again maybe some of those bumps will result in a couple – or a clutch – of ideas that decide they belong together.

Most ideas’ll never emerge from this exploration, for whatever reason.  They’ll sadly wither, or go into hibernation, or be entirely forgotten, casualties of a Darwinian struggle for conscious attention fought out between all those aimlessly rolling nuggets.

Construction.  This bit might happen after or in parallel with the Exploration bit, I guess.  It’s the more conscious bit of the process, where you try to bolt the scaffolding of formal story onto and through an unruly, half-formed idea that’s grown into something with potential.  It’s where you try to make sure various tedious sounding but actually quite interesting things like closure, arcs, resonance, plot logic, coherent characters etc. etc. are in place to form a skeleton for your lovely, lovely idea to drape itself over.

Some of those formal considerations will quite likely emerge naturally from the Exploration stuff, given that as I said it’s not an entirely random or unstructured process due to the obsessive nature of writerly thought; even your subconscious starts to think in terms of story structures eventually.  But more often than not, you end up having to impose a certain amount of cold calculation on what you’re doing, if you want to end up with something coherent.

I guess all I’m saying is there is a sub- or semi-conscious bit and a conscious, considered bit to the whole thing, which is neither particularly revelatory or insightful.  Mildly interesting to muse on how this whole thing happens, though.

For what it’s worth (not a lot), my entirely unsustantiated guess at bits of the process that might cause problems for an aspiring writer (and published writers too, he says sheepishly, holding his hand up): not giving the Exploration, semi-conscious bit enough time; not having got into the habit of thinking dispassionately and instinctively enough about the Construction bit.  Once you’ve had a bit of practice and got your head in the right pattern of thought, it becomes much easier to recognise a more or less satisfying character arc, or closure or resonance, but if you don’t instinctively know what it feels like to write or read such things, it can be tricky.

I think.  Maybe.  Oh, I don’t know. How do you turn an idea into a publishable story?  Shrug.  Go ask someone else, please.

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Two little things to draw your attention to, if I may be so bold:

A new(ish) review of The Edinburgh Dead for your reading pleasure at The Bookbag (“As good as I found Ruckley’s fantasy writings, his crime writing is even better. A master of all trades indeed.” !)

Secondly, Speculative Horizons, the cool anthology edited by Pat St-Denis to which I contributed a fantastical story of Stone Age shamanism, has sold very respectably, and stocks are now running low.  To celebrate (and publicize, of course!), Pat’s running a giveaway where you can snag a free copy of this worthy book.

And if you don’t win, or can’t wait, you can pop over to the Subterranean Press website to order a copy, or get it from your preferred internet bookseller (e.g.), and enjoy the creative output from me, Tobias Buckell, Hal Duncan, L E Modesitt and C S Friedman.  It’s a fundraiser for cancer research as well as an enjoyable little story collection, so all in a good cause!


Thought I’d resurrect an old tradition around here – not that something that’s only happened once before, long ago, really qualifies as a tradition – and provide a randomish smorgasbord of odds and ends to mark the festive season.  So, without further ado:

For Movie Fans (and Superhero Fans), the trailer for one of the latest in the apparently endless sequence of movies based on comic books.  Thor, which I confidently predict will be the highest grossing superhero-fantasy-Norse mythology mash-up of 2011:

Considerably more promising than I thought it might be when I first heard it was in the pipeline, but I’m saying that from a position of low, low expectations. Vastly more promising, in my humble yet obviously expert opinion, than the other big budget superhero trailer doing the rounds at the moment: Green Lantern.  Still, trailers are only trailers; who knows how the final products will measure up.

For Book Fans, and in a somewhat self-serving spirit entirely out of tune with the season, my author copies of the Subterranean Press Speculative Horizons anthology edited by Patrick St-Denis turned up the other day, and things of compact but considerable beauty they are too.

The limited edition signed copies are very pleasing, with a whole page of signatures bound into the book.  Enough to make a chap giddy, to be keeping such august authorial company:

Available from the Subterranean Press website (where those nifty limited editions reside), or from the usual online venues, should anyone fancy a post-Xmas treat.

For Podcast Fans, I offer a couple of the more unusual items from the long list of stuff I’m subscribed to, in case there’s someone out there who shares my peculiar combination of interests.

The Norman Centuries.  An excellent, straightforward narrative history of the Normans.  For fans of medieval history, this is rich pickings.  Most folk – round here anyway – know the Normans as the conquerors of England, but less generally known is their habit of conquering all sorts of other folks, wherever they went: the French, the Italians, the Byzantines, the Sicilian Muslims.  Just about everyone they came across, really.

The Ink Panthers Show.  Exactly the kind of thing, in many ways, podcasting was invented for.  Two guys, with occasional semi-random guests, talk to each other about … well, about almost anything they feel like talking about, really.  They’re both comics creators, so that comes up now and again, but a lot of it is just about what’s going on in their lives and families.  I find them pretty personable, articulate and funny.  Once – if – you get on their wavelength, it’s a pleasant listen.  It’s mostly quite family-friendly, but sometimes strays into slightly more adult or non-PC areas, so consider yourself so advised.

For Fans of Ye Olde Classical Music … well, this (in case any overseas visitors don’t know, by the way, the chap introducing things is Matt Lucas, one of the current movers and shakers of British comedy):

You can only wonder what the neighbours thought …

And, come to think of it, I’m going to repost the musical clip from that long ago first iteration of the Christmas Miscellany, just because I still think, as I did then, that it’s one of the nicer sounds on the web and sounds to me suitably restful, reflective and contented for the holiday season.  How’s that for keeping a tradition going?

And For Everyone Else: well, just my best wishes for the festive season, however you choose to spend it, or celebrate it, or ignore it.  I’ll be back and blogging once the inevitable gluttony-induced lethargy and inertia wear off.  Happy Christmas!

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Climbing back into the blogging saddle after a bit of a late summer break.  And … er … early autumn too, I guess.  Amazing how time flies when you’re not paying attention.

Two public service announcements:

For those involved in the publishing lark, a starred review in Publishers Weekly is an object of very sincere desire.  So congratulations to Patrick St Denis, Subterranean Press, me, C S Friedman, Tobias Buckell, L E Modesitt Jnr and Hal Duncan: Pat’s Speculative Horizon anthology joins the ranks of books to have snared one.  Kewl.  I call this a public service announcement because, of course, having been informed of the independently verified quality of the product you’ll be curious about how one might partake and I can provide the answer.

And for those involved in the eating lark, an update on what I’ve had for dinner recently.  I’m sorry about this – I’m not really given to inflicting this microscopically self-absorbed sort of thing on blog visitors – but I can’t help myself.  Had haggis a couple of nights ago and it was –  as it almost always is – jolly nice; but it was but a dim little twinkle of tastiness compared to the novel experience I had the evening before.  This is going to sound ridiculous, but: I ate me some roasted pork belly* for the first time in my life, and it was meltingly delicious, with crackling to die for.  I’m giving it a starred review, right here and right now.  So as a public service, I have this suggestion for all the carnivores out there who have yet to sample this delight: go buy yourself some pork belly and get roasting.  You can thank me some other time.  (And I promise to refrain from further discussing my dietary habits here until a decent period of time has elapsed).

*I cannot hear or write, or even think, the phrase ‘pork belly’ without thinking of this film.  The two concepts are inextricably and permanently bonded in my head.  And I’m not the only one: the connection’s acknowledged in an article Google uncovered for me, which has the tantalising, delightful aim of providing ‘a brief overview of the pork belly market and what you need to know to get started trading in it‘.  Apparently the correct full title is Frozen Pork Belly Futures. Isn’t capitalism amazing?

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Three unrelated items, except that they’re all very loosely about writing, I guess.  Sort of.

First, a wise and insightful (by which I mean complimnetary about my work, obviously) review of Speculative Horizons, Patrick’s St Denis’ anthology coming from Subterranean Press in a couple of months or so.  Apparently orders made through the Subterranean Press website get priority, so that should probably be your first port of call if interested, but it does seem to now be avilable for pre-order through the usual online channels (such as here and here) and they should be able to fill your order assuming it doesn’t sell out elsewhere first.  Either way, get your orders in!  Buy, buy buy!  Or not.  No pressure.

Second, one of the things I like listening to on my tiny little mp3 player: recordings of convention panels.  Yeah, I know.  Most folks like up to the minute tunes from popular musical combos; I like convention panels.  What can I say? (In fact, the truth is, to my knowledge there is not one single piece of music on my mp3 player.  Not a one.  It’s podcasts from top to bottom. Weird, huh?)  Anyway: panels.  You never quite know what you’re going to get with them, but that’s part of the fun.  Wordpunk radio has put out a few recordings from the recent Alt.Fiction event in Derby (which I’d recommend, by the way: I was at the 2008 version, and it was good fun.).  Here they are:

The Publishing Panel

The Writing for Comics Panel

The Authors from BBC Books Panel

The Fantasy Panel

It’s just like you were there yourself!  Virtual conventioneering!  There might be more to come for all I know, but those are the ones they’ve released so far.

Third and finally, I wasted a good two minutes with the entirely pointless I Write Like gizmo.  Here’s the verdicts:

First chapter of Winterbirth: I write like Margaret Mitchell.

Second chapter of The Edinburgh Dead: I write like James Joyce.

The blog post preceding this one: I write like Dan Brown.

So there you have it … wait, What?  Winterbirth is stylistically indistinguishable from Gone With the Wind?  Holy cow.  And as one of the legions of well-intentioned folk who’ve started but never finished Ulysses (and I even quite liked the bits of it I read, just couldn’t bring myself to see it through to the end, and my attention span’s much, much too short these days to launch another attempt on it – in fact, come to think of it, there’s a blog post somewhere in the category: ‘books I really quite like, but despite that never finished’) … anyway, I promise – promise – you The Edinburgh Dead is not remotely Joyceian.  Not remotely.  And surely if my blog posts were Dan Brown duplicates, I’d have an awful lot more readers, wouldn’t I?  And a bigger house, come to that.

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So, as mentioned a few posts back, I’ve got a story in Speculative Horizons, an upcoming anthology from Subterranean Press. It’s edited by Patrick ‘Fantasy Hotlist‘ St Denis, and he’s using it in part to raise some funds for the American Cancer Society.  Which is A Good Thing.

Sub Press are donating 10% of the cover price of all pre-orders to the ACS, and they’ve now extended the period for which that condition applies until the end of June 11th, i.e. if you place a pre-order via this link before close of play Friday, you’ll get not only the book but also the warm glow of supporting a good cause.  And behold, there’s some good stuff in there, as the blurb makes clear:

Speculative fiction is wide in scope and styles, and Speculative Horizons showcases the talent and storytelling skills of five of the genre’s most imaginative voices:

In C. S. Friedman’s “Soul Mate,” it’s love at first sight for Josie at the arts and crafts festival when she meets the handsome Stephan Mayeaux. It all sounds  too good to be true until her newfound boyfriend starts to act strangely and unexplained occurrences begin to take place around her.

In Tobias S. Buckell’s “The Eve of the Fall of Habesh,” contragnartii Jazim must carry out one final assignment before the armies of the Sea People lay waste to the city he loves.

L. E. Modesitt, Jr. returns to the universe of his bestselling Recluce saga in “The Stranger.” A young herder’s existence will be forever changed by the unexpected arrival of the black-clad man recounting tales of angels living on the summit of the Roof of the World.

In “Flint,” Brian Ruckley introduces us to a young and inexperienced shaman who must venture into the spirit world to discover the source of the sickness which afflicts his tribe before they are all wiped out.

Talk to any cop working for Homicide, Narcotics, or Vice, and they’ll tell you that they get the worst cases imaginable. But in Hal Duncan’s “The Death of a Love,” you realize that they have nothing on Erocide