“Where do you get your ideas?”

(The death march is over: the manuscript will be in my editor’s inbox on Monday morning. So I’ve got time to blog again …)

One of the questions that every SF author gets asked sooner or later is “where do you get your ideas?” For better or worse, I seem to get a double dose of it; ideas are my particular speciality, or so it said in the last fortune cookie I opened. So I thought I’d give the game away by explaining just where they come from.

Unlike Roger Zelazny I don’t leave a glass of milk and a plate of cookies out by the door; unlike Harlan Ellison I don’t use a mail order supplier in Poughkeepsie. (Or is it the other way around?) I don’t invent invent neat new ideas at all. Instead, I trip over them—because they’re lying around in heaps. The trick is to pick several up at the same time and smush them together until some of them stick to each other—creating something new and interesting.

Generating ideas isn’t some mystical talent that you have to be born with: it’s a skill you can develop. The first step is to throw your net far and wide, and see what comes back to you. I spend a couple of hours every day skimming news sources (most of them on the web, this century): everything from the daily newspapers and New Scientist to The Register by way of places like Hacker News and Slashdot and BoingBoing and then to more recondite islands in the sea of blogspace.

But grabbing tidbits from the zeitgeist is only the first step. The second step is to try to fit them together in new and interesting patterns. This is free-form brainstorming, and it’s something I tend to do at the pub, when I’m not busy drinking beer. Pubs are, disturbingly, where I hatch most of my best idea-sculptures: possibly it’s something to do with the disinhibiting effects of alcohol, or maybe it’s just having company to yack at.

Here’s a random idea for a novel that occurred to me last Wednesday at 10pm. (I’m not going to use it; feel free to borrow it!) We have, over the past couple of decades, seen something of a boom in computer-generated imagery in film. CGI has made a vast difference to special effects in recent movies and TV shows; it’s now good enough that it is in principle possible to use CGI-animated characters as protagonists. Back a few years ago, it’s what made the armies of Orcs possible in the Lord of the Rings movies. Today, it’s good enough that Arnold Schwartzenegger is going to be starring in more Terminator movies—without leaving the governor’s office. Video motion capture (in which a computer image recognition system captures and digitizes the body movements of a living model) and re-skinning of a CGI rendered avatar make it possible to map the likeness of an actor onto the motions of a nobody. You don’t even have to be alive to star in a film these days, as Richard Burton knows.

Now, let’s consider the economics of movie-making. In a front-line Hollywood blockbuster today, the fees commanded by the stars can easily be the biggest single line item in the budget, eating up 30-50% of the cost of the movie. Special effects are relatively cheap, at 20-30%. Wouldn’t it be nice to roll up the cost of the stars into a line item under CGI? Not so fast: these days, most stars (or their agents) take a lively interest in the intellectual property implications of their likeness. But dead stars … must compete against other dead stars. Not only is it possible to take a long-dead actor like Richard Burton and re-animate him: this is going to have implications for what the living can charge.

Where’s the novel in this mish-mash of ideas about movie-making and the economics of technology?

Well, there are several angles you can play. For example:

  1. The classic whodunnit: A star has died under suspicious circumstances. The detective must investigate—[insert your chosen protagonist here]—and discovers the truth: they were murdered by a studio exec because—[insert your motive relating to the cost of using a CGI body double here].
  2. The Sterlingesque near-future cautionary tale: The tech to animate dead skins has run to completion. The studio/star system has broken, because it’s possible to have Lillian Gish, Bruce Lee, and Harrison Ford all starring in your rock-bottom Machinima production (clapped together in eight methamphetamine-fuelled weeks by a crew of punks using Playstation 4s running the bastard offspring of MovieStorm). Our protag is confused and goes on a bildungsroman through the sour underbelly of post-copyright-collapse Bollywood.
  3. The creepy literary romance: in which our protagonist, whose life bears unhealthy parallels to a postmodernist amped-up 21st century of H. P. Lovecraft, falls in loves with a dead 1980s film star and starts making movies in which a Mabuse-like villain with his own face kills her time after time. (The whackiness? Oh, that’s just what ensues when some young punk steals his mobile phone, which is recovered by the police, who assume they’ve got a killer on their hands.)

Ideas! Ten a penny! New ideas, one slightly careless owner, get ’em cheap while they’re fresh!

Ideas, hah. The real challenge in this line of work is being able to weed the productive ones from the chaff, to decide which you’re going to spend the next six to nine months turning into something that people will pay for.

Remember: ideas are the easy bit. The rest, as the man said, is perspiration.


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