Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Harnessing the Wild Idea

The creation of "Run from the Stars"

By Bob Billing

2001, Bob Billing 

One cold morning I had a wild idea.

I'd been trying to write SF on and off almost all my life, with varying degrees of success, but this was it, this was the big one, this would lead to fame and fortune.

It didn't.

My first novel died horribly, choked under a pile of rejection slips. I put it away and wrote other things, some of which found their way into print in newsletters and fanzines.

A decade later I dug out the manuscript, dusted it off and read it again. The writing was terrible but the wild idea still amused me. And the character that the idea had created kicked me really hard and said, "Write something better then. I'm waiting."

Jane was back in my life. She was the daughter of the wild idea, the female character who, despite her diminutive size, wins in the end by a mixture of raw brainpower, feminine wiles, total disregard for the rules, playing characters off against one another, outrageous stunts and, when all else fails, mayhem. Diplomacy, according to Jane, is the art of getting your own way without actually having to hit anyone.

All I had to do was set her up against two men who were prepared to do anything, including starting an interstellar war, to get what they wanted. The images began to flow and the words rattled onto the page. The wild idea was running - now it had to be tamed, fitted with bridle and harness and set to pull a cart loaded with well-made scenes.

With fingertips still blistered from the first round of rejection slips, I though it might be a good idea to get some professional advice before I went too far this time. An extensive search of the web brought me to www.jbwb.co.uk - the site operated by Jenny Hewitt. Jenny is a published author who runs a critique and advisory service for newcomers to the business. I hesitated for a while; some people in the literary world regard SF as the disreputable end of fiction. However, Jenny was charm itself and I sent off a couple of chapters (with a fee) for critique. She replied almost at once by e-mail, pointing out a number of minor flaws and one big one - I had a tendency to get on with action or dialogue without explaining to the reader where the characters were.

Encouraged, I pushed on for a while despite self-doubt and a certain amount of head-shaking by friends and family. Mecifully I ran across Holly's website and read the "One Good Enemy" article.

Now I was jolly well going to finish this thing. I ploughed on to the ending, determined that I would enjoy the story whatever anyone else thought about it. I was going to have slightly dotty characters, guards that argued when they should be guarding the prisoner and a senior spaceship designer who brought three dogs to the office. If my family didn't like it they could write their own books. This was my lovechild and it was going to live.

Six months later I had 120,000 works of rollicking space operetta. I packed the whole lot off to Jenny for critique.

Oh dear.

As the lady said it pays to have a thick skin if you want to write. Jenny's report contained two paragraphs on why the novel was brilliant. And seven and a half pages on what was wrong with it. When I stopped hitting bystanders, the roof, the bottle and the prozac, I realised that Jenny's analysis was accurate and pointed the way to a much better book.

Then began what came to be called 'The Great Rewrite', which took most of a year. Almost every scene had to be ripped apart and reworked for one or more of three reasons.

1)      Working with Jenny had given me a much tougher, crisper style and I had to rework a lot of flabby passages.

2)      I'd developed a bad habit of wandering between third and first person where the unspoken thoughts of the leading characters were involved.

3)      I'd overcooked some emotional scenes until they were ruined.

The first was easy enough to sort out - shorter sentences, ruthless mass executions of redundant words and chopping away at unnecessary rambling description until the keyboard ran red with the blood of fallen paragraphs.

The second was harder to fix and touched on the SF author's worst nightmare - the pluperfect tense.

We've all been there. The first time someone tries to write SF it comes out more or less like this:

Colony ships had been sent out from Earth in the 22nd century. They had found alien life on a planet of Alpha Centauri. Jim "The Knees" Hackenbush had had a row with his mother and he had signed on for the colonies where he had discovered that he had the ability to communicate with the aliens via coded body odours.

Had enough?

The next thing that happens is that some kind soul will explain the difference between showing and telling, and our aspiring author will swear off the pluperfect for life. Which is the wrong thing to do, because there is an opposite error and I was committing it.

Imagine a scene where our hero walks into the kitchen only to find that instead of a bright-eyed furry face greeting him there is a mangled blob on the floor. The wrong way to proceed is to lurch between persons:

Horace looked at the corpse, his anger mounting. I'm going to kill the cat for doing this to my gerbil.

Much better is to accept that the pluperfect has a proper use:

Horace looked at the corpse, feeling the hot, salt anger at the back of his throat. The cat had done this to his gerbil. The cat would die.

In the end every possible construction in English has one or more proper uses. There are no "right" and "wrong" ways of writing, any more than a piano comes with right and wrong notes. But phrases - or notes - can sound awful in the wrong place.

The third and final problem - that of overblown emotion - was the hardest to put right. In the end two chapters went through fifteen rewrites. But with a lot of help from Jenny, I made it.

This is the end of chapter 31 as it originally stood. Jane had a brief affair with Alan Cook then broke it off. Alan reappears in her life and is shot.

Alan looked blankly at her, his lips moving as he tried to form words. Then for a moment he seemed to be at peace. "Jane, my love..." He whispered.

"Oh Alan, Alan, don't die," she screamed, "for God's sake don't die!" All at once she dropped the teleportal, tore off her goggles and gloves, and threw herself on Alan, weeping and kissing him, promising him anything if he would only live, that she would resign from spacefleet, or run away, and marry him tomorrow, and she would be a farm girl again for his sake.  

It's so emotional that most readers will simply switch off at this point. Of course that's the way Jane is feeling - but what I'd done wrong was to throw buckets of warm, scented syrup at the reader and drown them in a welter of passion.

After a long series of e-mail exchanges with Jenny and a lot of rewrites, I set things up in advance by slipping in the idea that a traditional Arcturian wedding dress is green and gold. Then Alan turns up with an engagement ring - emeralds on a gold band. Jane doesn't find this until after Alan's been shot and is dying. The scene came out like this:

Alan looked at her, his lips moving as he tried to form words. Then for a moment he seemed to be at peace. "Green and gold," he whispered.

Jane laid her cheek to his. "I know. I found the ring. I'm sorry." No, sorry wasn't enough. "I'm utterly ashamed of what I said to you. What I did was wicked."

Now we're almost down to the bare bones of the story, telling what happened and what was said. The reader can infer all the emotion that's needed.

Worse was the scene about two chapters later where Jane, blaming herself for Alan's death, takes her ship right outside the galaxy. In the original version this ended with Jane attempting to kill herself:

She hung the locket that Alan had given her about her neck, then went forward to the day cabin, and took out the bottle of wine that Alan had brought, and two glasses from the galley, and for a while she poured and drank, then unsteadily made her way back to the flight deck to sit in the command seat, for the very last time. The ship was utterly silent now that the faint whisper and hum of the life support systems was finally quietened. In the stillness she slowly became aware of the sounds of her own body - her breathing, the beating of her heart and the swish of blood in her ears - but she chose to give them no attention. By simple force of habit she clicked the seat harness closed about her, giving thanks for its familiar, comforting embrace.

The warnings were repeated on the panel in front of her. Four rectangles flashed scarlet, each labelled "TOUCH HERE TO RESTART SYSTEM". She closed her eyes and ignored them.

Consciousness slipped away from her. She prayed that it would be for the last time.

Being kind, all you can say is that it's a nice scene. But it's out of character for Jane - if her lover got killed she'd not want to die, she'd want (her words), 'To get the beggar that did it and nail him to a tree with blunt bloody nails"'  I'd got so carried away with the scene that I'd hammered it into the novel willy-nilly even though it didn't fit.

However, the logic of the plot demanded that Jane come back changed, so she had to get very near to the edge. A lot of rewrites later I ended up with this scene: 

She didn't want to die like that - she didn't want to die at all - but she had to find Alan again, to apologise, to make it all up to him.

Her fingers hovered over the partial pressure control.

She had to sleep now. Sleep, reduce the setting and sleep, sleep away the millennia.

She wondered if Alan would be there when she woke up.

That's how it now stands, deliberately ambiguous about what she's done.

Curiously, the one passage which has survived from almost the first draft follows on from this.

As the ship slowly turned, the entire span of the galaxy came into view, filling the glass from edge to edge, but now Jane was fifteen thousand light years above the great disk, and seeing the spiral arms laid out in their majesty as a vast diamond tapestry in front of her.

The endless curving arches of stars burned on, ageless and silent in the darkness, returning to the unwinking glory of the complex, terrible core. Somewhere, out there, in that stark, cold beauty was a region whose diameter was barely one hundredth of the whole galaxy, which was everything that every human had known. Out there, in a space that she could blot out with her thumb, on five hundred worlds, every man, woman and child, save her, lived and died, and rejoiced and mourned, and fought and made peace. And still the awful majesty of the stars burned on, tearing her soul apart with their unchanging loveliness, in the depths of their silence speaking the truths she couldn't bear to hear.

I'd like to call this the "Galveston Strategy" in honour of the song. The lyrics contain hardly any emotional words, apart from the rhyme of "afraid of dying" with "tears she's crying." But the song as a whole evokes the most powerful emotions, mainly by what it doesn't say.

Similarly, it's possible to write fiction in which emotion is hardly, if ever, stated but which ties knots in the reader's heartstrings.

It takes a lot of heartache, hard work and endless rewriting to harness a wild idea. But once it is harnessed it can carry your story along.

And who knows where it might take you?