“Codex Ascendant” or Ideas Are Cheap

Frequently when I tell people that I have written one novel and am working on another I am told in return, “I have this great idea for a book…”

Generally when I hear that I find something vitally important to do elsewhere (“I’d love to sit and chat about it, but I need to see if the Science building is on fire”).  Yeah, I’m chicken that way, I’ll admit it, but it’s kinder and easier to say than what I want to say in reply.

No, you don’t have a great idea for a book.  You have a dumb idea for a book.  How do I know this?  Because all ideas are dumb ideas.  Ideas don’t stop being dumb until you actually do the work to make something out of them.

My favorite example is Robert R. McCammon’s Gone South.  It’s a great book, in my opinion, fast paced, deeply touching in places, very funny in places, it’s a solid thriller that deals with deep themes of anger and guilt and love and redemption and holding on to your dreams.

However, if you look at the “idea” of the book, it’s dumb.  It’s about a Viet Nam vet dying of leukemia who shoots his bank manager and escapes into the swamp, where he is hunted by a former circus freak and an Elvis impersonator.  I’m serious.

I couldn’t have made anything with an idea like that.   McCammon, however, is a really good writer and he wrote a really good book.

Ideas are cheap and easy.  No one ever wrote a good book just because they had a good idea.  People write good books because they are good writers.

That’s why I never worry about anyone stealing my ideas.  You want to write a horror/science fiction/romance about a man with an alien mind living in his head and a half-plant hermaphrodite? Knock yourself out.  Let me know how that works out for you.

I had an idea today.  I’m not going to write it, because I’m already writing another book and it’s not my kind of thing anyway.  But I want to use it as an example of where ideas come from and what to do with them.

I was inspecting ladders today at work.  Yes, it’s every bit as dull as it sounds, but it’s important.  In theory one should visually inspect a ladder every time one uses it, but in practice we get in a hurry and just grab it and go.  So we do regular inspections of every ladder on campus, and there’s about thirty of them.  (We like to keep a couple in every building so that we don’t have to schlep them all over.)

So, because I was bored and I’m a congenital smartass, I wrote Codex Ascendant on the top of my ladder inspection sheet–everything’s more fun if you do it in Latin.  (Or, in my case, half-assed Latin.)

I got to thinking about that phrase, though, and I liked the sound of it.  “The Book Of Those Who Rise.”   I got thinking about a listing of people who were about to do something that would raise them up above the common heard, as it were.  Being me, naturally my thoughts turned to violent crime.

Suppose, I thought, there were a series of murders that were unrelated on the surface, because the people weren’t being killed for what they had done, but for something that they were going to do? 

Now, already we have a couple of options here–how does the killer know what is going to happen?  Time travel, divine (or infernal) inspiration, computer simulation, or is the killer just bonkers and the people had no destiny to be averted?

Let’s pick one.  Since I started with a Latin-sounding phrase, let’s make it a supernatural thing.  We start out in the future, when some diabolical intelligence is in the process of taking over the world.  A group of humans manages to overcome this evil thing and binds it in some kind of magic circle, so that it is helpless.

Now, it can’t do anything at that time–it’s immobilized.  But let’s say that it can send its consciousness back in time to what is our present and inspire some poor schmuck to go around and kill all the people responsible for binding it before they learn how to do it.

Got it?  Terminator meets End Of Days.   We can probably pick up the story in the present day with the detective who is assigned to these cases, who is going nuts trying to figure out some kind of pattern when she or he doesn’t have the rest of the story because it hasn’t happened yet.

Great idea?  No, because it’s just an idea.  It’s something that I threw together when I was doing a boring but important job at work and typed out in a few minutes.  Somebody (not me) could write a great book with that as the core concept, but that would involve doing all kinds of research and plotting things out and above all sitting down and writing the damned thing.

Somebody else could take this concept and write a really terrible book.  Edison said that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration, and if that’s true of anything it’s true of writing a novel.  Having an idea is easy, developing it into a book is hard.

Which brings me to what I probably should say when I am told “I have a great idea for book…”

So?  Write it already.


About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in On Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Codex Ascendant” or Ideas Are Cheap

  1. yerpirate says:

    Oh I am very, very much in agreement with you on this! So much! Thanks!

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