With MiniWriMo come round again, I’ve been thinking about what to write this month – which led me led me to look back on what I have written, and, more specifically, how those stories came to be.
Sometimes, story ideas come about fully-formed, like little gifts from fiction heaven. (And isn’t it peachy when THAT happens?)
Other times, it takes a lot of forethought and muscle on the writer’s part – like, conjuring one’s inner Frankenstein to hack and sew words together and scream at the Gods until the Thing takes a life of its own.
And then, sometimes, the process falls somewhere in the middle. A little prompting, a little “hmmm-ing”, a little pen-to-papering, and then… hey, look. An idea begins to grow.
For me, this often takes the form of a “What If” story.
What If… Bad Was Good?
In April of this year, my flash fiction story, DEFIANCE, appeared in Plasma Frequency Magazine.
DEFIANCE is a fun little piece. Written in late 2012, it predates – I swear! – the Syfy show of the same name. While both the story and the tv show involve alien invasions and pockets of humanity that remain, erm, defiant, that’s pretty much where the similarities end (at least as far as I’m aware – I lost interest in the series halfway through the first season. Sorry Rockne).
In my DEFIANCE, the main character is a soldier in Earth’s resistance against aliens that have enslaved most of humanity. Poised for a sniper attack on the roof of an old elementary school, Jackson recalls his pre-invasion childhood of classroom tantrums and frowny-face notes that made his mother cry. While we learn that it was his inherent defiance that got young Jackson separated from his mother in civilization’s final hour, it was also what spared him from slavery – and presumably it is what helps him thrive in an alien apocalypse.
So how was this a “What If?” Back in 2012, my six-year-old had a disciplinary record that could put any teenaged hoodlum to shame. He is a brilliant child and the apple of my eye, but our boy was (and still can be) a holy terror to his teachers. A year later, he would (finally!) be diagnosed with Aspergers/Autism Spectrum, but at the time the “whys” of him were a mystery. One of the labels bandied about was Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which is another way of saying “irascible, recalcitrant little butthead syndrome”.
On the verge of seeing my baby expelled from first grade, I spent one afternoon crying into my hands until, when my own brand of stubborn kicked in, I poured myself a glass of suck-it-up and sat down at my computer. “What If,” I pondered, “being a born butthead was a survival skill? What would that look like?” An hour of fevered-typing later, the world of DEFIANCE had taken shape. Murky shape, maybe – it is only 800 words long, after all – but lo, I’d invented a possible future for my son that wasn’t all bad.
WHAT IF can offer new ways of thinking about old problems – and conjure up kick-ass stories, too.
What If… Left Was Right?
Science Fiction is an especially appropriate Petri dish for “What-Ifs”; it is, after all, speculative by definition. What if we had the technology to…? What would the future be like if ?
My story, GHOST-WRITER (published this month in Scigentasy) tackles the Sci-Fi challenge of “What If” in a couple of ways. The primary question, dealing with possible technologies, comes from a note-to-self I found while flipping through old files in search for story ideas: [sic] what if someone’s brain hemispheres suddenly switched dominance?
For those of us who aren’t psychology nerds, “lateralization of brain function” describes the different but complimentary personalities of the left vs right sides of the brain. Though the subject has long made my geek happy (google split-brain experiments), I had recently read a book that was a game-changer for me: My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor, in which a neuroanatomist describes how her life was enriched by a stroke that disabled her left hemisphere. Free from the constrains of language-labeling and logical thinking, Dr. Taylor describes a world she perceived as free-flowing, creative, and spiritual.
With my, “What If”, inspired by Dr. Taylor, I tried to imagine what it would be like not to lose the functions of one hemisphere or the other, but to have the hemispheres up and trade places – prince and the pauper-style? Would wacky hjinks ensue? Would the body even notice, short of some vertigo, a Matrix-like glitch? The brain is superbly plastic; science has shown that under the right circumstances it can recover from grievous wounds, basically re-wiring itself to restore lost functioning.
It was from this line of thinking that GHOST-WRITER was conceived. In it, my neuroscientist, Carla, has invented a means of restoring function to brain-damaged patients by getting the remaining, healthy hemisphere to annex the dead tissue and graft its own programming there. Though the titular “Ghost-Writer” project is still in its exploratory stage, wrapped up in the proverbial red-tape, an inoperable brain tumor and a pending divorce compel Carla into taking matters into her own hands.
All fiction can be a “What If” playground; as writers, we can pose the question and invent answers within the parameters of any genre. Science Fiction just happens to lend itself particularly well to pushing the boundaries of possibility.
What If… Maybe Was True?
For this reason, a lot of Sci-Fi doubles as social commentary: if we can imagine a future or world or an alternate universe with even a minor shift in our cultural norms, what would that look like? Sometimes this socio-political exploration can be overt, with plots that cover the author’s agenda like a dancing green alien’s chemise (*cough* Star Trek *cough*).
In other cases, like with GHOST-WRITER, the questioning can be more subtle. My “What-if” about the brain’s hemispheres was my primary reason for writing it, but because my main characters are gay women, the story naturally raised questions about the future of gender and sexual politics, in particular same-sex marriage (which was not recognizedl in most states in 2011, when GHOST-WRITER was written).
So I wrote Carla and Maggie as a married couple –more significantly, I chose not to comment on it. I wanted to create a future where same-sex marriage is not only legal, it’s a non-issue. And I wanted to allow for fluidity, too: when Maggie turns down a date with another doctor it is for emotional reasons – not because he’s a he.
These were little things – I think I said more on the topic by not saying much – but the fact that beta readers were surprised when Carla’s spouse turned out to be a female pleased me, because it means my take on “What If” here had the power to challenge assumptions. And that’s, well, something.
What’s great about “What If” is that it inspires us, as writers and readers, to consider possibilities. Not necessarily large or paradigm-changing ones; we should not expect, when we sit down with our laptops or pens, that what we write will save a life or change the world. But, then again, we can always ask: – What If it could?