In my last post about doing long-form vs. short-form work, I singled out a few reasons on my end why I picked the former over the latter, and what I felt it had done for me. Here, I'm going to talk about some of the things I ask myself that help me settle on the subject matter for a long-form story.
1. How rich is it?
By "rich" I mean this: How deeply can I dig into the idea? How much storytelling fuel does it provide me with?
Obviously this is going to vary widely depending on the person doing the digging; if you aren't a student of modern politics, for instance, you're not going to see as much potential in a counterfactual story about JFK or MLK not getting assassinated than someone who compulsively reads most every piece of respectable nonfiction published on those subjects. You always bring something to the table. But what's already sitting on the table also matters deeply.
Right now a friends of mine and I are discussing a story that revolves around a single, very simply idea, from which an absolutely staggering amount of material could be gleaned. We don't know how it's going to be executed, but we do know it'll be possible to go buckwild with it.
2. How normative is it?
My original definition was "how broadly does the idea affect things?", but that only works for obvious what-if stuff. The real meaning of "normative" seems to be "how broadly does the idea force us to reassess things?"
The real what-if for Flight of the Vajra* wasn't "What if matter could be made as malleable and programmable as computer code?" (although that is in there), but "What if humanity, after providing itself with unimaginable physical comfort and material power, couldn't figure out what the hell to do with itself after that?" I thought that stating the question that way — making the nascent dilemma explicit — was the better way to frame the story.
3. How urgent is it?
Fishing metaphor. Sometimes, you land what seems like a kicking good idea for a story, and it just lies there at the bottom of the boat. Then sometimes you land what to other people would be a relative minnow, but it just won't stop thrashing around in your mind. It nags at you to be told the way a bad toothache forces you to head for the dentist.
Urgency is subjective, in the same way that curiosity about subject matter is subjective. Why you are drawn to tell a particular story is deeply personal, and may in fact be one of the best things to listen down into. If I want to tell any story, whether about the near or far future, it's because I have some emotional skin in the game, however remote. I don't want to tell a story about a technical accomplishment alone, because anyone can do that. There has to be something about it that insists that I be the one to say it, and that what I have to bring to the table will matter.
4. What can I bring to the table?
This last part, I keep coming back to a great deal lately. Most people think of creativity as a matter of inventing things — making stuff up — rather than synthesizing things. What comes out of our own experience and person-to-person relationships is at least as important, if not more so, than the stuff we invent. The latter has to be enriched by and transmuted through the former.
I don't think any of the books I've written now, I could have written when I was younger — no, not even if someone had handed me an outline of the books and said "Here, run, with these." The story was only half the story.
I'll have more to say about all this in yet another post.
Other Lives Of The Mind