'How could the Outsider have chosen such a bungler? ...When had he ever offered a single sacrifice, however small, to the Outsider? Never! Not one in his entire life. Yet the Outsider had extended infinite credit to him... Certainly he would never be able to repay the Outsider for the knowledge and the honor, no matter how hard or how long he tried.' (Gene Wolfe, Nightside The Long Sun)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

'Well, oil up your whip and make sure you’ve got a good, stout chair...'

Dear Contestant,

I was one of the judges who read your story; the editor has asked me to write you and explain why it isn’t here… You had a good idea there, you have a way with words, and you worked very hard. You probably felt you deserved to win; and in a very real sense, you were right. But there were other writers—the new writers whose names and stories appear in this book—who deserved it more, including many who deserved it in a way you didn’t, writers who entered stories of professional quality, and not just good, solid, amateur fiction…

The fact is that it’s very easy to get a good idea for a story. The world is full of them; there’s an idea in every dust mote and every broomstick, and there are scores if not hundreds in every man, woman, and (especially) child you pass on the street…

When you write a story of your own, you start with a good idea. You try to get the style right for the particular story you’re writing (because no one style is right for every story). You work hard, because you notice that the harder you work the better the story gets. Then you discover that your story doesn’t have the effect on others that you know it should, and you don’t know why. I’m going to tell you—watch my lips.

You didn’t really do much with your idea. You unconsciously assumed that because it was such a fine, strong, sleek, and even potentially dangerous idea, it could run the story by itself.

Let’s change the metaphor. There are tigers in zoos and there are tigers in circuses. The tigers in zoos are strong and sleek and beautiful, and potentially quite dangerous; but they don’t do anything. The tigers in circuses are no stronger, no sleeker, no more beautiful, and no more dangerous; but they do things that surprise us and perhaps even frighten us a bit. We see them in action. People pay to get into circuses, but zoos are free. Now do you get the picture?

If I could give you just one piece of advice for the story you’re going to enter in the next contest, it would be this: Think of yourself as a wild-beast trainer, and your idea as a big cat in your show. Walking out onto the stage and saying, “Hey, look at my lion,” isn’t going to cut it. So what show—not what kind of show, that’s amateur talk—are you going to put on? Is your idea going to jump through a hoop of flame? Is it going to climb onto the shoulders of two other ideas and roar?

Well, oil up your whip and make sure you’ve got a good, stout chair, because somebody’s going to have to make it do that, and that somebody is you. You’ve got an idea in your head, and that’s good; now let’s see you put your head in the idea’s mouth.

-Gene Wolfe, 'An Idea That...' (1986; in Castle of Days, 1992)

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