Every story has a beginning — or at least, that’s what Hollywood tells us when they launch the umpteenth superhero reboot. Those aren’t really beginnings, though. They’re rethinkings, sometimes without much thought. The actual beginning of a story is that little flash of inspiration, the mini-epiphany that hits you and you say, “Dude, I could totally write a story about that.”
I’ve gotten into the inspiration behind The Daedalus Incident and it’s sequels more than a few times around the Internet — you can find the story here and here if you’re so inclined. It’s funny, though, because I had basically stuck with that one story idea for almost a decade before it finally got written — and then when it did, I found all these other ideas came to the fore, as if my idea-brain suddenly became unstuck.
Ideas come from anywhere and everywhere. The notion behind MJ-12: Inception is perhaps only a couple years old at the moment, and I can honestly say I don’t remember where it came from. I do remember emailing the incomparable Paul Weimer about it a few years ago, before The Enceladus Crisis came out, asking if there had been other Cold War superpowered spy thrillers out there. (I ask Paul these things because his knowledge of SF/F is truly impressive and comprehensive.) He pointed me to a couple titles, but there was nothing that really mirrored what I wanted to do.
And so here we are; the first MAJESTIC-12 thriller comes out in September.
I admit, I was a big Tom Clancy fan back in the day, though he lost me around Clear and Present Danger. So I had some thriller-y roots in my reading. But again, I can’t point to the genesis of the idea itself. It just…
I have other ideas on the shelf, too. I have three separate notions for stand-alone novels: One inspired by frequent trips to Vermont, one that came about after a particularly lovely Christmas, and one that hit me as I was reading about teens feeling intensely pressured by social media. Why I can pinpoint those, whereas I’m not sure about MAJESTIC-12, I can’t tell you. The brain works in mysterious ways.
My short fiction has been much more targeted in terms of ideas. In the case of my Pathfinder serial and “On a Kansas Plain” in Cthulhu Fhtagn!, the topic and setting were dictated by the publisher. (I have another story like that coming out this summer, in point of fact.) “Confessions of an Interplanetary Art Fraud,” in Unidentified Funny Objects 4, was a writers-block-breaking exercise that, looking back on it, may have been very loosely inspired by the hijinks in Guardians of the Galaxy. When I saw the call for submissions, I cleaned it up and, to my surprise and delight, it got in.
I have another humor story I’m noodling on now (yes, with the hopes of getting into UFO5) that came to me as I was in a particularly funny work meeting where all kinds of marketing-speak was being gently mocked. I won’t be so gentle.
Finally, my upcoming story for Geeky Giving, the hard military-SF story “Mind Flight,” was part dictate, part inspiration. The only real “ask” from the organizers was that it would be cool if it had something to do with the human brain or neurology, as Geeky Giving is a drive to raise funds for the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona. And honestly…I had nothing. Nothing in the drawer already written, nothing popping to mind. So when they offered to send some info on Barrow’s work, I totally jumped at that.
When I got to some of the stuff on machine-neural interfaces, the wheels started turning. And…well, the story comes out in a week-and-a-half, and I don’t want to reveal it all yet. Here’s an interview I did with Geeky Giving if you want to know more.
So…what happens after that? When the idea hits and I’m all inspired and stuff?
It immediately goes into a Word file or, if I’m away from a laptop, into a Notes file on my phone. My short-term memory is a sieve, so I gotta get it down before it goes away. I remember being at the Nebulas in 2013 when I had ideas for The Enceladus Crisis that I absolute, positively, had to get written down. It was 3 a.m. Didn’t matter.
Next, I tend to flesh that out into a page or two of freeform notes and riffs. Explore the nugget of the idea and start tacking on some very broad notions. Maybe that initial idea is a character, maybe it’s a setting or a plot. Whatever it is, I try fill in the other two bits. Got a character who can gain someone’s memories as they die? That’s powerful. Where and when is he hanging out? What’s going on with him? (You’ll find out the answer to that question on Tuesday if you pick up a copy of The Daedalus Incident in mass-market paperback and flip to the MJ-12: Inception excerpt, by the way.)
After I have that, I tend to let it simmer on the back burner for a while so long as there’s no compelling reason to attack it right away (i.e., a short story submission deadline). At the moment, I’m doing final revisions on MJ-12: Inception, outlining MJ-12: Shadows, awaiting revisions on a short story and starting to form up my UFO5 submission. Oh, and it’s my super-busy time at work, too. So anything on top of that tends to have to wait.
Once I have the time, or deadline, I outline. For novels, that’s the full Excel treatment — you can read about it here. For shorts, I’ll do a quick outline in Word that’s more of a chronological flow. The only exception I’ve had to the outlining thing was “Confessions of an Interplanetary Art Fraud,” which was a total seat-of-my-pants story. I still don’ t why I did that.
Anyway, once the outline is done…it’s all “Chapter 1” and let’s write this puppy. And that’s where the fun really begins.