Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Anatomy of an Idea

Two days ago I got a very interesting email, from Technology Review, asking me to submit a story for a forthcoming issue. Since I'm always interested in non-SF venues for SF stories, and since I'd never heard of Technology Review, I started researching. The attractive pay scale also spurred on this research.

The magazine is published by M.I.T. It's not a professional journal, but rather a vehicle for relaying the latest developments in many fields of technology to an interested public. They have also published the occasional piece of fiction, by invitation. I read two of the stories, by Bruce Sterling and Greg Egan. Bruce's ("The Interoperation") dealt with the future of CAD, Greg's ("Steve Fever") with a horrifying and poignant outcome of nanotechnology. The editor who contacted me specified near-future, technology-driven hard SF, although it appears from the magazine that this includes biotech. A good thing for me, since I can no more write about CAD software than I could fly.

So what next? They want a story from 1,000 - 1,500 words, not my favorite length but I have written them before. That short a piece suggests only one or, at the most, two scenes. How does a writer plan such a story?

I began by looking through my "idea folder." This is a paper-and-pen file, not electronic, of high entropy. There are scrawled notes on whatever paper was handy when an idea struck me; some of these are now cryptic and/or indecipherable. There are articles torn from newspapers or magazines on scientific developments. There are opening scenes for stories that got no farther than the opening scene; most of these are hand-printed on yellow-legal-pad paper. It took me a few hours to sift through all this, segregating the ideas that appealed to me now (as opposed to the sometimes hare-brained aha! moment when I conceived them) and also fit the magazine's parameters. Or could be made to fit them.

Step two is research. Usually I start a story with a character (a dwarf, an elderly retired cybercriminal, a child engineered to not need sleep), but not this time. I don't know if reversing my usual process will work. Right now I'm researching African sleeping sickness, counter terrorism, and the BioFlash (a pathogen detection device). The idea is that reading about these things will lead to a character I want to write about. Or not.

I'll report in on this endeavor as it progresses, or doesn't. This is a sloppy and uncertain way to work compared to, say, outlines, but I can't do outlines. So this is it.


escoles said...

Excellent! Technology Review is a big deal. I think of it as Popular Science for people who are too embarrassed to read Popular Science. In purely mercenary terms, it will expose you to an audience whose members have a fair amount of disposable income who are interested in new ideas -- you see it in a lot of faculty mailboxes at engineering schools.

Now all you need to do is crack Forbes....

Peggy K said...

Totally excellent! Technology Review is the MIT alumni magazine, so I suspect the primary audience is the thousands of scientists and engineers who have MIT degrees. Since it also has very good coverage of new technology, there are also non-MIT tech-loving people who either subscribe or read the articles online. So overall the audience is heavily tech-focused. There is at least one biotech-related article in every issue (and this month's cover story is about brain injury suffered by soldiers in Iraq).

none said...

Outlines seem so practical on the face of it. Yet I find them stifling. Organic writers unite! ;)

g d townshende said...

I'm looking forward to learning more about your progress on this!

marcinko said...

I find the process fascinating.
Good luck with the story.
Dog pic to come... : )