Why Ideas Are Not (That) Important

I’ve got an idea for a story. It’s great. It’s got this wonderful twist, one that turns everything on it’s head. See, what happens is….

But I don’t want to tell you. Not yet. See, you might take it and use it yourself. Then it wouldn’t be anything special when I write it. I don’t want to let this idea go. It’s that good.

Okay. I’m excited. I’ll tell you. See, it’s set in our world, but there’s an alien race living amongst us. They have been for years.

What do you mean, it’s been done before? I haven’t got to the good bit yet. See, this hero character stumbles upon the truth, and it looks like this alien race are trying to take us over. They do stuff like rig elections, and make sure there are all these dodgy additives in food.

Okay, okay, so that’s been done before. But you still haven’t let me get to the proper bit yet. There’s this twist.

You going to shut up and let me finish?

Thank you.

So this hero’s being guided by some secret organisation, and they’re trying to fight these aliens. They don’t want to be taken over. But our hero, he stumbles upon something. And it changes everything.

See, these aliens know that humans are dying out. They’ve known for years. And they came down, not to take us over, but to help us. Instead of wanting to destroy us, they are trying to save us.

Neat twist, right?

light-bulbs-1125016_1280Maybe. But the idea doesn’t make the story. It could be turned into something amazing, or end up run-of-the-mill, or even terrible. It could be a success, but it could just as easily be a failure.

Why? Because ideas are not important.

Okay, that’s an over-generalisation. Obviously, it is important to have an idea before writing, or before creating anything. You need to know, or at least have an inkling, where the story is going. You need to have a starting point, be that an interesting character, some event, or simply a concept (what if we used scent as our main means of communication? Oh, The Simpsons got there first – ‘Smell ya later!’).

But the idea in itself is nowhere near as important as the execution.

Don’t believe me? Think of any story you like — book, film, TV show, doesn’t matter. Now boil the story down to a single sentence, the idea around which everything else hangs.

Here’s one. Young person forced to leave home and fight, eventually triumphing over evil.

Sound familiar? It’s Star Wars, right? Or maybe (if you take ‘person’ to mean ‘person-like being’) it’s Lord Of The Rings. Or countless other stories.

Now think of a concept for a story. Try this one. The world is an illusion.

Cool-sounding concept. It’s The Matrix.

Or is it The Wizard Of Oz, where everything turns out to be a dream? Maybe it’s The Truman Show.

Three very different stories, but they could have come from the same initial idea.

The initial idea isn’t that important. It’s what you do with it that matters.

light-2674160_1280But even that only goes so far. Imagine two writers have the same initial idea, and map out identical story outlines. They have the same characters and settings. But the finished stories would be different. One might be heavy on poetic descriptions, where the other is filled with fast-paced dialogue. One might have a gritty edge, and the other might go for a softer, more family-friendly approach. One might stress the outer struggle of the characters while the other focused on their internal dilemmas.

Same ideas, different outcomes.

There is something else to consider when thinking about ideas. And that is the sheer abundance of them.

Don’t believe me? Coming up with ideas is easy. Look around yourself, or think about the things around you. Pick two different objects. Now combine them.

I’m going to pick a train set and an exercise bike for this example, as they are both things that are (sometimes) in our conservatory. My first thought on combining these is this; the power from the exercise bike is fed to the train set. While I pedal, the train runs. When I stop, the train stops.

Not a great idea, but let’s run with it. Imagine this train set is somehow a real railway system. When I pedal, I enable real trains to run. Obviously, that would take more than one person using an exercise bike. So there’s a whole bank of us, all pedalling furiously, so that the trains run on time. Our hard work enables all those business bods to get to work.

We can’t afford to stop, because then the transport network grinds to a halt. It’s not only about commuters. There are goods to transport as well. And, in this imaginary world, rail is the major transportation system. So those of us pedalling like mad are truly keeping the world running.

It’s a sweatshop.

This idea has legs (like the ones pedalling round and round). It raised so many questions. Are we pedalling through choice, or because we are forced to? Who is overseeing the pedal stations? What happens when the cyclists revolt? What happens when someone realises that pedal power could be used for other purposes?

Another example, again from our conservatory. There’s a plant in a pot on a table, and another in a pot on the floor. Which one is superior? The one on the table possibly has a ‘higher’ starting position, but the one on the floor is larger, and takes up more overall space. They are at different sides of the room. Is this because they can’t stand to be near each other?

So now my mind’s going off in all kinds of directions. Plants are intelligent. Maybe they have the ability to move themselves. Maybe the plants have been planning a takeover, rebelling against their treatment at the hands of humans. Eventually, they will start selective breeding programs, producing humans with more pleasing features, or ones that grow quicker. Maybe they will find a way of breeding humans through budding. Then some mad plant scientist will create a hybrid, part plant and part human. Fauna sapiens or something.

Sounds like it might end up as a comedy, but again that depends on the execution. Compare Day of the Triffids to Little Shop of Horrors.

See? I came up with a cool idea, and others have already beaten me to it. But that doesn’t matter, because the idea is only the starting point.

It’s what I do with it that is important. And that’s when the real work starts.

‘Life Story’ – new short story

Life Story is a new short, free to read here.

Everyone tells stories. When you tell someone what you’ve done that day, it’s a story. When you relate a tale from your childhood, you’re a storyteller. But stories always have an angle. And sometimes, the stories we tell are fabrications.

But any story, once told, is alive.

You are the story you tell.

Read Life Story here, and check out more free shorts here. And, as usual, I’d love to know what you think.

What do you read?

What do you read?

I’ve never been a fan of that question, and my standard response is to say ‘I read books.’ Yes, this answer is glib, and it’s also inaccurate, or at least incomplete. Ignoring the whole issue of what a book is (is it a physical thing, or are we ready to accept mobi and epub files as books?), I read other things. There are posts and articles online, and magazines. When I get a new CD I’ll read through the accompanying booklet. And I’m one of those strange people who actually reads instructions when they get something new.

But when people ask what you read, that isn’t what they want to hear. Usually, they mean to ask ‘what kind of fiction do you like to read?’

I find this really hard to answer.

Loads of books!

I could say I enjoy speculative fiction, but many are unfamiliar with that term. This means I have to explain that it is fiction that stretches the imagination, often in alternative settings. It encompasses fantasy and science fiction, as well as horror. But this includes a plethora of sub-genres, and there are many books in this wide-open field that I have not enjoyed. To be honest, some high fantasy bores me, and hard military sci-fi often veers towards a gung-ho attitude I struggle with. And while I am drawn towards darker fiction, I appreciate the occasional blast of humour, and a light-weight ‘fun’ read can be an excellent mental palate-cleanser.

But I enjoy other types of fiction too. I picked up one of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books a few months ago, and greatly enjoyed it. James Clavell’s Shogun is another recent read that impressed me, especially in the way the romance is handled. Then there are all the fantastic classics. Wuthering Heights is a favourite, and I enjoy Thomas Hardy’s novels. And there are the ‘literary’ authors on my list of favourites; Iain Banks, Cormac McCarthy, Douglas Coupland, Chuck Palahniuk.

Then there are newer authors, ones I have come across because of the e-book revolution. Chris Ward, Barry Hutchinson, Sean Platt & Johnny B Truant, Mark Dawson, Rick Gualtieri. These are authors whose writing I enjoy, and who tell good stories. What particular flavour or story, what genre, isn’t important to me, because I trust them to entertain me. Maybe they’ll make me laugh, or maybe they’ll make me think. They might take me on an exhilarating thrill ride, or they might make me shiver with dread.

I think I’m drawn to characters more than plot, but I’ve read Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse books a few times, and it is the mystery in each that draws me in. I might say story is important, but American Psycho is wonderful because of the way Bret Easton Ellis uses language, and the way he writes such a compelling but nasty character with only the barest of linear structures. The story is secondary (at best) to the character, and the ideas behind the writing are more important than the narrative drive.

I enjoyed Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose, but I’m not sure if this was because of the mystery, or the amount of information it contained, or the challenge of reading something that made me think. Or maybe it was because the book is one of those ‘must read’ books, and I wanted to know what I thought of it.

So you see my problem with the question ‘what do you read’. I read different books for different things. I am drawn in by exciting stories just as much as well-crafted sentences or wonderfully-drawn characters. Sometimes I want a roller-coaster read, other times I want to drift into a new world. Sometimes I want to be challenged, other times I want popcorn. I can forgive clumsy prose if the story pulls me along, but I also appreciate artistic use of language.

Every book is unique. Every book that appeals to me does so for its own reason, and each book I read gives me something new.

So maybe saying ‘I read books’ isn’t such a flippant answer after all.

New short story – ‘The Pinnacle’

It’s time for another short story. The Pinnacle is the story of two once-friends on a climbing trip. Or possibly it’s about maturity verses remaining carefree. Then again, it might be about the lengths people travel to protect what they believe to be important.

No, scrap all that. It’s close to 1000 words for your enjoyment. Read into it whatever you want.

But, as always, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

Read the story here, and don’t forget the full list of short stories here.

When Novelisations Work

A few weeks ago I wrote about the problems of film novelisations, using Star Wars as an example (and you can read that post here). It’s time to redress the balance, and write about a book-of-the-film that works.

ET_WilliamKotzwinkleI first read William Kotzwinkle’s novelisation of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial when it came out, back in 1982. I remember enjoying it, and I can also recall thinking that it felt like a ‘grown-up book’. It had some rude words in it, and for a young boy this was a definite plus-point.

As far as I can tell, it is no longer in print, and my copy disappeared long ago. However, I came across an audiobook version on Youtube a few weeks ago, and gave it a listen. And I really enjoyed it.

I think the ‘rude words’ I remember occurred in a scene where Elliot and his brother are arguing, and one of them uses the phrase ‘penis-breath’ as an insult. Nowadays, that’s not too shocking, but this was the eighties, and I wasn’t yet a teenager. It was one of those phrases that contained the proper biological term, so it was almost okay, but it still pushed the boundaries. It’s a phrase I can imagine children using. They might not understand why it could be insulting, or what it implied, but it was definitely not something you wanted to be called. It wasn’t a phrase many parents would allow their children to use.

In the book after that insult is thrown out, Kotwzinkle gives us a glimpse into the mother’s thoughts. She wonders where her children could have picked up such a phrase, and worries about what else they might be exposed to. And underlying this (and much of the mother’s musings) is a feeling that she’s losing control. She’s a single mother of three children, holding down a job and trying her best, but maybe that’s not good enough.

This moment highlights why Kotwzinkle’s ET is more than just a reminder of the film. He gives us rich insights into the characters’ thoughts and emotions. He doesn’t simply describe what happens on screen, but translates those subtle facial expressions into an interior dialogue that breathes life into the pages.

Kotzwinkle does this for the character of ET as well. In the film, the alien comes across as child-like — he’s smaller than the children, and he shows a bemused wonder at much of the world around him. At times (such as when he samples beer and becomes drunk), he’s there to provide comic moments. But in the book he is an ancient scientist, specialising in Earth’s plant-life. He is intelligent, and he cares greatly for plants and all other life. When he becomes drunk, he is confused, and we feel for him.

He also feels drawn to Mary, the mother. This might be hinted at in the film (it’s a long time since I’ve seen it), but in the book he becomes infatuated with ‘the willowy one’. When he is dressed up (a ‘comedy moment’ in the film), Kotzwinkle has him wondering if Mary will accept him if he looks more like a human. This interior dialogue turns a light-hearted break in the action into an internal struggle, and draws us closer to ET.

The film, like many of Spielberg’s others, is a ‘children’s film for all ages’, and I can’t help but think that Kotwzinkle was aiming this book at an older audience. Where the film saw things through the eyes of the children, especially Elliot, the book focuses more on ET and Mary. It’s a subtle shift, but one that helps make the book more rounded. Children can still read the book, and enjoy the story of ET and Elliot. But older readers are able to understand Mary’s worries, and are presented with a far richer story.

Kotzwinkle has written many children’s books, so he must have known what he was doing. And I would imagine he was given the freedom to go where his writer’s instinct led him. Whoever commissioned this novelisation must have known they were hiring someone with literary credentials, and they let him do what he had to do.

Yet he doesn’t stray the events in the film. Like the Star Wars novel, it’s almost a scene-by-scene rendition. But it takes the visuals and the dialogue as a starting point. It delves into the characters, using the palate of words rather than visuals and sound. It uses the strengths of writing to turn Melissa Mathison’s screenplay into a proper novel.

Maybe the Star Wars novelisation is an anomaly. I haven’t read enough books like this to draw any firm conclusions, but I did listen to the Dark Star audiobook recently. This was written by Alan Dean Foster (who also wrote the Star Wars novelisation), and much of this book is concerned with the characters’ internal struggles. It manages to turn a surreal film with a minimal plot into something intriguing and engrossing. In the film, characters stare off into the depths of space. In the book, we delve into their thoughts, their desires and their fears. It still retains the humour of the film, but adds a rich underbelly, much as Kotzwinkle’s ET adds another layer to Spielberg’s film.

Both books show that movie novelisations can stand up as novels, and can even, in many ways, surpass their source material.

Oh, the audiobook version of ET I found is on the ‘Audiobooks for the Damned’ channel on Youtube. If you have any interest in 80s films (from blockbusters like Back To The Future and Terminator to cult classics like Scanners and the aforementioned Dark Star), and a few hours listening time spare, check it out.