I guess one of the things that surprises me most is how easy it is to come up with ideas for stories.
I wrote about this before. I used to be worried I would never have enough story ideas when I began to write. Now I have too many. I suppose that’s growth of a sort. Or being wised up to reality. Or something.
But what I want to talk about today isn’t how easy it is to come up with story ideas. It’s how hard it is to determine which stories deserve to be written and which stories don’t. That’s not always easy for me to do. But over the years, and with I admit some confidence, I have reached a point where I think I can look at a story idea and say, “No, I’ll let someone else write that one.”
I think this decision making process operates simultaneously on many different levels. Not surprising since writing itself is an organic process. Part of it is genre related. No, I don’t want to write a SF story today. Or, no, I don’t currently see I have anything new to say with that story idea; it’s been done to death already. Or, again, no, I’ll pass on this story idea because…let’s face facts…I’ve moved beyond that point and am now engaged in saying different things than what that story calls for.
Because, you see, the story comes first. You can’t make it into something it’s not. That never works no matter how hard you try.
I suppose it’s a cold-hearted culling process that goes on here, and a learned one. I am not saying these story ideas have no worth. I am saying I have so many other story ideas to explore I’d rather see them developed first. Okay, I guess when you get down to it I am saying certain story ideas have no worth to me. There is some definite snobbery at work here. That doesn’t mean another writer can’t, or shouldn’t, develop them into something stellar. They can, and they probably should, do so.
They just aren’t for me.
I suspect you know where this is going. I am currently working in the western genre. No secret there. It’s also no secret I have railed, and will continue to rail, about the cliches and stilted story lines I continue to see in this field from writers who should know better. But, you know what? Maybe I was wrong. Maybe they don’t know any better. Maybe they never will. But I am not complaining. Because they stick to their field and what obviously works for them, it leaves me with a lot of running room. And, to be fair, the stories they write are popular and people do like them and do buy them. So they must be doing something right.
But they are not for me and they never will be because while science fiction is twelve (and by extension all other genres) I am no longer twelve.
I mean, seriously. Do we have to see another story about the Noble Savage? The Virgin Schoolmarm? The Laconic Cowboy? I am on record I want to see other voices, new interpretations, different perspectives.
Is that asking too much? Sometimes I wonder.
I will give you a personal example. Maybe it will help you understand what I am trying to say here. Several years back when I was running a western community on Live Journal someone actually confronted me and argued homosexuals had nothing to do with settling the West. Absolutely nothing. Now I want you to think about that a moment. This individual might well have said women had nothing to do with settling the Old West, or Native Americans, or African Americans, or Latinos, or…well, you get the idea.
In this person’s worldview the stereotypes we have been fed for decades was the only truth.
Long story short, I want to change that. I don’t mean I want to change that person’s mind. Nothing is ever going to accomplish that. I want to change the underlying idea of what makes a western a western because I want the genre to thrive and grow. I want it to thrive and grow because I am working in this genre and it does me no good to be in a genre that’s spinning its wheels and calling that progress.
Fortunately, all this is changing. Although, I admit, not fast enough to suit me. There are a lot of new, good writers out there who are challenging the Old Guard. I call them Cactus Turks because they tend to be young, prickly, obstinate, and they openly challenge authority. Thank goodness for that!
Because otherwise we’d be stuck with the same old story about a handsome sun-tanned cowboy on a palomino who safeguards a widow and her blond-haired son from the evil robber baron who owns the deed to her ranch. Hoo boy. Like we haven’t seen that one before, right?
Let someone else write that story. It’s not for me. And it’s not for the new guard of writers in this genre who are doing better work than I am and pushing the boundaries far wider than I could ever hope to imagine.
So. My advice? Be bold. Take chances. Run risks. Piss people off with your fiction. I see a lot of safe fiction out there in many different genres. They’re all guilty of it, not only westerns. Let’s get out of that rut. Get off the well-lighted roads and strike off into the dark woods and see what you can find. You’re a writer. Be bold.
So that’s my point about why I am so careful about choosing story ideas. There are a lot of story ideas out there. As a writer you always have to make a decision for yourself, your reader, and, yes, the health of the genre, whether or not you are going to pursue it. You may not always get it right. In fact, since this is writing we are talking about, you will probably get it wrong more often than not. I know I do. But I keep trying. I don’t give up. I have seen it in my own fiction. The stories I first started to write in this genre are very different from what I see now. I take more risks now, challenge more beliefs.
Once again I am only speaking for myself, but I feel if I am not doing that then I am nothing more than a stenographer. A stenographer looks at the surface features. I am a writer. I try to dive deeper.
But, come what may, these are the headwinds we are faced with today and they are fierce and unrelenting. Believe it or not there were millions of people other than the traditional White Christian Male who worked and lived and died in the west. No, really. It’s true. Just open a history book.
Better yet, open your mind and write.