Ideas and the story

I’ve just seen the cover-roughs for SHAMAN OF KARRES, and it looks good. It was always going to be hard to impossible to follow in the direct footsteps of James H Schmitz with these books. I made an effort but I’m not pretending I succeeded. Still, the appeal of old-fashioned space opera seems to go very much wider than the fans of James Schmitz. We seem to have added a whole new generation of younger fans, who are now reading the original books. And the point is: if not me, then someone else.  They might have done far better… or far worse. But, essentially, me is what the readers got.

They sell well enough. And they’re light, fun books with only a passing resemblance the science part of sf.  Being me, I sometimes use that to explore ideas which aren’t particularly light. The currently fashionable literary establishment idea that ‘turgid’ = ‘thoughtful’ is simply wrong. ‘Turgid’ merely = ‘turgid.’ Besides, even if it is thoughtful, there is not much writing skill required to explain your ideas and concepts in a way that would be a good cure for insomnia.  It’s harder to write a light frothy entertaining romance with absolutely no novel ideas in it: Because it’s not the ideas that actually require skill (having them may require intelligence – but putting them into easily followed clear words is an entirely different matter. That is a skill.) If you manage to blend complex ideas seamlessly into something easy and pleasurable to read… you’re a master-craftsman as well. You’ll probably have the literary establishment saying you’re an airplane read… and not realizing that’s compliment to your writing skill.

Easy-to-read with some ideas that may make you think (if you notice them – they are very much a secondary purpose to entertaining and light as writing goals) is what I strive for, particularly in these books. This one deals with a group of exceptionally unpleasant slavers (Slavery is part of the canon of the Karres Universe) who (read the book to find out how) make their victims into a very valuable commodity – a slave that utterly adores their owner, and will do anything to please them, and worse yet, pleasing their owner gives the slave a great deal of satisfaction and pleasure…

There’s easy no way of freeing that kind of slave.

We all talk about ‘freedom’, but just what it involves is complex and worth thinking about.

I am, in many ways, my cat’s slave ;-/ although she never bought me or enforced this. Well, other than a meow or two (or 17).  My dog is my slave and will do absolutely anything to please me. Yet… I never made her my slave, and, other than a few puppy-smacks on the nose, and the occasional sharp “NO” when she’s about to do something that would put her in danger or trouble, or when she’s about to eat (or roll in) something very unwise (like dead penguin) it’s never been enforced. She loves to please me, to be with me, to sleep at my feet and to defend me to matter what — and being ‘freed’ would break her heart and kill her.  These are choices (although, of course, dogs are sold and owned, but their loyalty is earned), and I try to give back that loyalty as much as possible.

But there really is no reason that science could not somehow harness the neurological drivers of this. There are known examples of changing behavior via completely artificial and imposed means (Toxoplasma gondii and the parasite that changes ant behavior (name escapes me right now).

So: that’s one of the ideas in this ‘light’ novel. Now it is quite probable that I am not the first to use this idea as part of a story (though I submit that it is a lot less common than 98% of the turgid tropes in turgid ‘thoughtful’ and generally wholly unoriginal sf hailed as ‘unique’ (like all the others)) just because it was new to me. In a way that’s what I wrote this piece about.

You know: writing novels, even sf, which was once a place crackling full of ideas-in-fiction, is not about ideas. They might be really, really cool, or brilliant or insightful, or have science follow them, or have devices named after them (Waldos). However, popularity is really about writing skill, and the craft of writing. About being accessible and entertaining to lot of people (even if the story is wholly unoriginal and contains not one thought you haven’t come across in 50 stories).

So: when (as is inevitable, trust me) someone comes to you, saying ‘they’ve heard you’re a writer, and they have this great idea…’  They want you to write it and give them 50% (or more), because it’s a brilliant that: 1)Neither you nor anyone else thought of it; 2)The idea (not the story) is going to make a fortune because it is so unique.  I firmly suggest you tell them NOT to tell you, but to go and write it. Because… it is not the idea that sells (and, trust me, they’ll tell you anyway) and 98% it’ll be a movie trope, and about as original as bell-bottom trousers in 1970’s were.

If you happen to be that ‘idea’ person (even if yours are the 2% that are startling and original) just remember, it’s not the idea. It’s the writing.

Image by ElisaRiva from Pixabay


  1. Great.
    Now I have an anthromorphic candlestick singing in my head about the existential angst he feels when unable to properly serve his master.
    Thanks for that.

  2. I Am Not A Writer.

    But even I know that a “great idea” isn’t a story and there’s plenty of work involved in “building” a story around the idea.

    Oh, and I’ve heard some of these “great ideas” and as a long time SF/Fantasy reader have known that the “great ideas” have been used before.

    Of course, in some cases those “great ideas” are nonsensical ideas. 👿

    1. I’ve had ideas that took decades to become stories. Though it can take different reasons. Because I had not shaken loose an idea from its ancient setting — it ended up in the Victorian era. Because a character was needed to take action, and until she showed up, I didn’t even have whether it was a male or female. Because I had to wrestle with setting up the entire world for an idea that was purely philosophical.

  3. I think there’s an underserved market here. I know I have ideas I would love to see embedded in popular stories, especially for kids and young adults. I also know I lack the skills or the energy to develop them at this point in my life(1). I couldn’t afford to pay a competent author to produce propaganda for what I believe in, but I expect there are richer people who could.

    (1) I’m lazy. I also have to juggle a job and family, with four teenagers and two babies as well as a wife.

    1. Two practical problems with propaganda for hire. One is that the process is complex and subconscious enough that the writer is going to be embedding bits of their actual worldview in the story without being aware. Second, how do you verify that the work was done and settle the contract? The worker, the payer, and the most available arbitrators would have decreasing levels of ability to judge, and obvious propaganda can be very ineffective.

  4. The fungus that controls ants is a species of Cordyceps (there are several) and it controls other species than ants. Also, the horsehair worm drives it’s victims to kill themselves when it is ready to reproduce. Parasitism is fascinating.

  5. You’d have to use a writer whose worldview is close enough to your own, and whom you can trust (possibly because they want repeat business). I can see myself offering such a deal to Dave Freer, if I had the money. I can’t see myself doing it with Eric Flint or Tom Kratman, because in both cases significant parts of their worldview are too far.

  6. I had a neat idea the other day: What if, for whatever reason, a time-traveler cannot die before he is born? Travelling into the past would make one un-killable. This is not necessarily a good thing (e.g. buried in a metal box for a couple of centuries until someone finds you [a Dr. Who or Torchwood episode; poor Capt. Jack]).

    There are an awful lot of stories possible with that simple idea and most of them are not very interesting.

    Another one: Time travel is relatively easy. The necessary synchronized space travel is not. Time travelers tend to end up in outer space somewhere that they don’t want to be. Other than a good way to kill off a series of protagonists, not a very interesting story idea.

      1. I feel as if I should understand that, but I don’t. I wrote a really long thing then decided this is not the right forum so I deleted it.

        1. The inertial frame of reference in which you “stay put” while traveling in time can be distinguished from all others.

    1. One thought that I had with DC’s League Of Superheroes is that Superman/Superboy were part of the League’s past so what does that mean when Superboy “guest-stars” in the League’s comics.

      The League’s history (and existence) depends on Superboy “growing up to become Superman”.

      So does that mean that Superboy couldn’t be killed by any menace that he faces in the future world of the League? 😉

      Oh, it was established in the DC universe that if Superman (or others) traveled into their past, nothing they did could change the past. 😀

      1. There is a neat book about that issue. No matter what you do, something happens to prevent the past from changing, regardless of how unlikely it was. One can use that property to “cheat” by setting up a time-loop that had the outcome you desired. Once in place, it couldn’t be upset.

        I don’t recall the title or author. The protagonist was an OCD clean freak. The time travel mechanism was some sort of (silver?) alien thing that one could travel through instantaneously – split the two ends apart and one gets time travel. I _think_ it starts with him wanting to build a space hook and when he gets hauled in front of congress just says “fine, I’ll build it elsewhere” and leaves.

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