Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Straw into Gold

Over on their shared LiveJournal, Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear periodically post interesting discussions about process, and it's always worth following along. Today's post, though, really hit me where I live.

Monette says: Writers' brains are an infinite series of alchemical laboratories, all busily engaged in the process of turning lead into gold."Lead" in this case means input of all kinds: sensory, intellectual, emotional. "Gold" is a story that works. But one of the most interesting kinds of transmutation is the one where the "lead" is itself a story (i.e., somebody else's gold), and the gold is a new story.

This is something I find myself doing a lot. I often start with a bit of historical trivia or scientific concept or what-have-you, but as a story develops it invariably adopts the architecture of something I've seen or read. The process is sometimes intentional, but more often completely unconscious. I can't seem to help it. I've just consumed so much popular culture in the last three and a half decades that I think in terms of story.

Bear describes her realization that the male leads in one project duplicate the interpersonal dynamics of The Man from UNCLE, and that two other characters are the unintentional linear descendants of William Katt's character from The Greatest American Hero.

I'm constantly discovering this sort of thing about my own stuff. When I transposed the story of the U-571 sub disaster into a nuclear-powered spacecraft in a Chinese-dominated alternate history in The Voyage of Night Shining White, the commanding officer--a eunuch--and the ship's physician somehow end up having the same interpersonal dynamics as the two protagonists in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels.

But that's not a typical example, I'm afraid. I mean, O'Brian's novels are at least respectable. Usually, my influences are at the other end of the spectrum, the end that Bear describes as the "deep-fried Twinkies" zone. Paragaea is a perfect example. When I was in the final stages of writing the novel, I realized something surprising about the characters. A female protagonist, who sees the world around her in rational terms, having a more sophisticated scientific grounding than her companions. A male protagonist, who is just a likely to assume that something unnatural is the result of magic as science, but doesn't really care all that much, since his solution to most problems comes at the point of his sword. And a big cat man, usually affable but capable of considerable aggression when his friends are threatened, and who doesn't like large bodies of water.

My friends, I realized that I'd just spent a considerable amount of time and effort reinventing the wheel that was Thundarr the Barbarian.

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