>> Saturday, June 4, 2011
So, honed and screened with a cold practical eye and some objective conjecture, you come up with a fantastic idea, an idea so full of potential and cleverness and creativity that the story will all but write itself. (Heh heh, if only!) Even if the rest of it is slapped together, the glory of this idea alone could get this book sold.
Well, I won't lie to you. That's happened. I don't know any reader who hasn't curled up with a book that had a fantastic idea only to leave disgusted, sometimes even a little sickened with the caliber of the results. Mostly, the results aren't that extreme, but leaving a reader feeling "meh" with an idea that sparkles is not what this series is about. It's about making a story live up to the potential of the idea. People have sold half-ass books that had unreached potential, but the only way you are likely to be remembered twenty years, heck, five years, down the line penning such things are as an author to avoid by disappointed readers.
Even a half-assed idea, if written well, beats that. But. You get a better book with a better idea if you make sure the rest of it is on par with the premise. Of course, like writing a book, doing so is easier said than done. Where do you start?
I like to start with venue (note that this is my preference; it's not the only choice). So ask yourself, where and when should this story be set? To determine the answer you need at least two things: what works with your idea and what works for you? The first part is self-explanatory; the second might not be.
Sometimes, of course, venue IS the idea: Imagine you're a yakuza kumi in Tokyo who's escaped the bloodbath that destroyed his entire gang with his leader's nine-year-old daughter and they have to escape the city, if not the country, without getting killed, for example. Chances are you're talking about the present or near future/recent past and, of course, Tokyo. Often times, however, things aren't so clear. In a drastically male-dominated society, a girl is raised like a man but is eventually exposed as a woman. Rather than cower in her gender-based role, she uses the power she garnered pretending to be a man and her very impressive skills to carve out a spot for her in a unforgiving environment. Where and when can you set this? On earth, you can choose from any period of time ever and find oppressively male dominated societies (including the year we're in now) and in nearly every culture. For science fiction or fantasy, the options are equally broad-based.
So, how do you choose? Well, I suggest starting with the second question: what works for you? What do you read? What do you know? What are your interests?
If you're really not interested in history and or willing to treat it with some objectivity, I'm begging you to forgo setting it in a historical locale. No, seriously. For those of us who love history (and I do), having the past mangled past recognition by the well-meaning is torturous. Setting it in the past is fine, however, if you know the culture and the limitations. For instance, in most cultures, making our little lady a stand-out in hand-to-hand combat is a real challenge, not so much because women can't kick butt (with some limitations) but because, through most periods of time up to and including today, soldiers live in close quarters. You just can't get away without that kind of secret in most fighting venues. Make her a thief or an assassin, someone in the underworld, however, and you can do so. (Just, for mercy's sake, don't have her taking baths and smelling sweet in the 1600s. Really.) But it will sound contrived as hell if you don't (a) really know your period and (b) not just the literature of the times almost exclusively geared to the upper classes. You have to know about the underworld if you're using it or you shouldn't be using it. And you need to know the language, the dialects, the habits and trends of the time, clothing and contemporary events.
Ditto for using a modern venue but an exotic culture. Don't use mass media or (seriously) any biased base to determine the appropriate culture to set your work and, if you use one, you need to know it intimately (and I don't mean a trip wandering through). Living there for some time is optimum. Studying them in depth might work, but use a variety of sources and be careful you don't wander in with your preconceived notions at the fore. Ideally, you set such a story in a culture you know well, understand, can even see from both sides. Ask flit, oppressive places are closer than you know.
If you want to go the science fiction/fantasy route, as I do, that doesn't mean you don't have to do any work. World building takes far more effort than setting things in a convenient locale. You get to make the rules, but you have to keep them, too, and the rules have to makes sense (usually in comparison to actual history). Sounds easy, it's not. But, the freedom and options available to tailor a world to fit an idea is certainly part of the charm. It's one of the reasons I so often write there. Note that, by doing so, you limit your audience. There is still a rather sizeable faction that thinks science fiction and fantasy is hack work and nothing like literature. Just sayin'. For many who love reading this kind of thing, this is the only place to work.
If, after looking at your own abilities and interests, you still find the choices overwhelming on where to put your clever idea, look at the idea itself. Sure, it might work anywhere, but what aspects did you want to highlight? "Male-dominated society" can go several different extremes from repressive sexually to women being property to being "apparently" equal but still having the deck stacked against them. You need to know what kind would best serve your purposes before you pick one. Find one where a woman coming to the fore is a challenge but not laughably impossible.
In the end, you need to find the setting that works best for your work, rural vs. urban vs. nomadic, perhaps. Modern or futuristic or fantastical. Find what will let you milk the most from your idea, what will give you the most opportunity to let that idea shine. When you've got something, do your research (or world building) to make sure you can portray it correctly.
Then it's time to do my favorite part: make characters.