One of the great misconceptions that readers (and non-readers) have about writers is that “ideas” are valuable. “Where do you get your ideas” is to a writer, of course, that most useless of questions, much like asking an artist where he gets his canvas or where she gets her clay. It’s just there, and if it’s a mystery to you, then you need to look at the world (and possibly art, whatever your “art” is) a lot more.
So writers are never out of ideas, and in fact generally have the opposite problem. One of my great regrets is that if I were able to become a full-time author right now I could easily write for the rest of my life and never run out of “ideas.” Conservatively, I estimate that there are at least four entire novels and five short stories, apart from the novel I am actually drafting and the one I am revising that I could be working on from the ideas I have now. I will have more.
In fact, the problem I now have come face to face with is in the novel I am revising. It was pointed out to me by my editor that I had been sloppy with my portrayal of black-powder weapons. Well, guilty. I wrote them well enough to fool the average reader (and myself, and at least one other history teacher) but not well enough for this editor’s readers. Guilty as charged.
While I haven’t gone fully into this revision yet (mostly because I’m drafting that other novel, see above) a LOT of ideas — a lot of really COOL ideas — on how to solve this have been flitting around my head. The problem, and the point of this post, is that I have reached the point of what I must call The Law Of Diminishing Cool. In other words, most of the things I can do to make the guns more awesome in ONE direction are completely inconsistent with the ways the gun is already cool in ANOTHER direction. For example, I could reduce the guns’ loading time by making introducing cartridges, or making them breechloaders. But if I do that, I lose a really cool scene featuring a ramrod. Breechloaders don’t NEED ramrods. Or, as it turns out, there really was once a repeating air rifle that saw military service! Lewis and Clark took one with them on their expedition because it didn’t need gunpowder! The Austrian Army was, at about the same time, fully equipped with them! But if I make them do THAT, I lose a really cool scene that relies on the guns having a muzzle flash. Air rifles don’t HAVE muzzle flashes.
There’s no easy way around this, although I am both looking forward to and dreading the thought process I need to solve this problem. But you can’t just ignore it. Too many famous franchises have ignored this. They can, because people will watch them anyway. But when they do, you get really stupid consequences and lack of continuity, like in Star Wars, where the original series establishes that Force use runs in families, but then the prequels decide that Jedi are essentially Space Monks who can’t have families, but on the other hand, they also want potential Jedi kids to be trained from approximately age 3, and they ALSO want to keep Jedi from falling to the Dark Side.
Now all four of those ideas, taken separately, make some sense. It’s cool to have Jedi abilities run in families, so that Luke must take down Darth Vader. It’s cool that the Jedi are enjoined against attachment, so that Anakin can’t just marry Amidala and live happily ever after. It’s cool that Jedi must be trained from a young age. And it’s sensible that you don’t want Jedi falling to the Dark Side.
Together, these ideas are a mess. If Jedi have to be trained from a young age, wouldn’t it be best if their parents started it, and had a good idea of who they were? And if you DON’T want Jedi to turn to the Dark Side, and the Dark Side is “quicker, easier, more seductive,” wouldn’t you HAVE to train everyone, just to avoid Sith?
The answer to this is that a writer has to practice discipline. As much as you want to, you can’t just do all the ideas at once. That way lies Star Wars. I mean madness. I confuse those these days.
4 thoughts on “The Law Of Diminishing Cool Stuff”
Author Harlan Ellison once quipped that his classic response to where he gets his ideas is that he orders them in a six-pack from Sears.
As far as being chastised by an editor, that’s what they are there for, to point out where the mistakes… *ahem* …how to improve the novel by adding and changing certain details.
I once got virtually yelled at for my depiction of a light plane crash by one of my readers who is an engineer and private pilot. Another friend politely criticized me for talking about a gun’s “clip” when I meant “magazine.”
When I was much younger, I took a number of film classes and had the privledge of listening to cartoonist Chuck Jones (Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry) speak. He said that he took a beginning art class and the instructor’s first words were something like “You have a thousand bad drawings in you that you’ll need to get out of the way before creating anything worthwhile.” He said the class cleared out upon hearing that, but a nail sticking out of his chair caught on his clothes and he couldn’t get up. Hence his decades long career at Warner Bros.
It’s probably why I write most of my fiction on my blog instead of crafting knowledgable essays. I need the practice.
Fair enough. I wasn’t complaining about the editor calling me on it; I can absolutely see what he means. Seeing how to fix it the best way is a much different thing.
Well, are all these the exact same gun or are there a few different models in service in the same time period like there have been since the invention of firearms? 🙂
Well, that’s a good question, and you hit on something important: the answer is that it is complicated. More complicated by the fact that it’s established that the guns are partly magical. Yet more complicated by the fact that it’s been established that the original source of that magic is lost and what remains is badly understood. Something could be done with that idea, but exploiting it would not solve the inherent Conflict Of Cool Stuff I’m facing.