(NOTE: While I do feel incredibly self-service for nattering on about myself at time, I'm pleased to announce that 2010 is the 10th year of continuous work on one of my long-form stories, this one being GUNMETAL BLACK, or GMB for short. As of this writing I'm into novel 6 of 10, and more than halfway through. That such an occasion exists, I thought, was reason enough to set aside my usual modesty and toot my own horn.
So . . . toot toot.)
One of the questions all writers dread hearing is "Where do you get your ideas?" I have no answer for this questions and no one's as yet bothered to ask me, so instead of plowing that furrow again, I'll instead tell you a little bit about how I use my ideas, and how one idea pulls in another and pulls in another until they become one big idea.
You know how in chemistry they teach you that atoms form compounds and stuff like that by sharing electrons? Chemistry was ages ago for me, so forgive me if I don't explain things with a lot of learned finesse or anything, but it goes something like this: Atom A lacks an electron to balance it out, but Atom B has one electron to spare. The two atoms join together, sharing the electron between them, and eventually linking up with Atoms C, D, and so on. Eventually, you have a compound, and if you have enough of the compound, it becomes something you can hold in your hands.
That's a lot like how I write. I get a whole bunch of ideas, or half-remembered ideas I had and never developed and they all sort of smoosh together . . .and eventually you get a story out of them. Some of the later ideas are purpose-built for the story, and some just come from that folder where you leave all the stuff that you worked on but didn't feel strongly enough and decided you'd get around to it someday.
Ten years ago, for something I was doing for a friend, I came up with a character, initially designed to be her character's opposite number. Visually, and in terms of character, I tried to just take her character, pick elements that would make the character antagonistic to her character.
Naturally, nothing happens in a vacuum, and we are all of us the sum of our influences. So this proto-character started taking on elements of cool things as he began to take shape. Take one pinch of brilliant amorality from people like Diabolik and Hunter Rose, take a bit of the single-minded ruthlessness of Golgo 13, take a few visual cues from Strider Hiryu and Heaven knows what else, shake well, add a dash of cinnamon, bake at 450 for 5 hours and, unbeknown to me at the time, GUNMETAL BLACK'S main character, Kienan Ademetria, sprang to life.
I should add, I had no ambition to plug him into the great huge meta-story he now inhabits. That came later. At the time, I had the barest idea of what he was all about. I knew he was the galaxy's deadliest assassin, I knew he had two fembot bodyguards named Vain and Mirage, and . . .gosh, that's pretty much all.
But as in our atomic model above, ideas attract ideas. Kienan's origins (themselves a weird amalgam of Batman and Superman's--he's the last survivor a doomed planet who trains himself to the peak of physical perfection) were set in my head, as was the notion plied his trade in a region called the Frontier, which was a bit of a Wild West-esque backwater of space not necessarily under any central authority's control, Kienan worked for a Triad-like criminal organisation, and Kienan had several dalliances with women in his past, one of whom was dead, the other, so far as he knew, he'd killed when she'd turned traitor.
It wasn't much, but it was a start. The mise en scene of the story was taken largely from an idea I had for a big space saga I was going to write back in 1992-93, as were a few characters that I'd had kicking around through the 1990s. But before any of the heavy lifting came up, my conception of Kienan as a character started to change.
Oh, not the conception of him as a brutal, ruthless assassin--I liked that part, not least because my last character was so goody-good, the idea of writing a character that wasn't made it seem like it would be a nice psychic break from all that and a chance to do something new.
Two things, though--here's where most of the "master thief" and "genius criminal" stuff got dropped, as was his tendency to run off at the mouth. I decided that if I wrote him as this utterly brilliant guy that there wasn't going to be a lot of tension in any of these stories, so maybe the thing to do was to just make him slightly smarter than everyone thinks he is. Ruthlessness and cunning, I thought, would give me the edge I was looking for.
I realised I was writing a story that was probably going to be fairly dark even under the best of circumstances--blacker than a coal mine at midnight at its worst--and so I walked a fine line between portraying Kienan as a driven, though evil, character, and not making him an utter bastard (as these were the early 2000s, I had plenty of examples in comics alone of what I didn't want to do floating around) so the notion of him killing hookers or being a serial rapist was exactly what I didn't want to write about.
But how do you write a moral story about an amoral killer? Well, the easiest way is for him to lose all the time, but if you do that, there's no tension. We know the villain will never succeed, so it gets to be a bit Coyote and Road Runner. So I decided to play it in the ways of Kienan may win in the short term, but there's always a price to be paid--and maybe we wouldn't know that it was coming at the time, but would be a nice hole card to pulled later on. This also solved the problem of Kienan killing most of his opponents--like dragon's teeth, killing one usually created a few more problems down the road.
So I had that going for me, and I wrote a few more short stories featuring him to kind of get a handle on what I was looking for in terms of tone, and as I went a few more bits of the underlying mise en scene and mythology clicked into place.
I still didn't have a title for this enterprise (or the idea that it was , but thankfully I had a vast collection of coloured pencils and a very mind-numbing stretch of jury duty, during which I decided to fill up one of my sketchbooks with titles ideas.
And sure enough, "Gunmetal Black" popped into my head. It was a nice image, and it played to the mood of the story equally as well as the fact that Kienan carries guns. And as I always take the path of least resistance when it comes to titles (fun fact: All GUNMETAL BLACK titles are music-related, and most often a bit of lyric or a song title. This is rather wonderful for me as there are few things I hate more than trying to come up with titles. The two others are a certain question I'm frequently asked regarding GMB. Also, broccoli.) the first thing that sounded right was what stuck.
So I started writing the first novel--finally. Then one became two, and two became three, and that was about the time someone started asking where all of this was going.
I didn't have an answer the first couple times. But, as I was driving in my soon-to-dead car, listening as the tape deck devoured yet another painstakingly-crafted mixtape, it all clicked into place. Where it would go, if not exactly how I'd get there, and a few major status quo shifts I could do on the way there.
As I stated here before, GMB doesn't follow the usual arc, wherein your main character starts on the periphery of the action and gradually spirals in closer until they're in the heart of the main story. GMB draws a straight line through several plots, some short-term, some longer-term, and one that specifically touches most every plot to one degree or another.
This unconventional way of telling what one person called the "overarching metaplot" gave me an enormous freedom to tell GMB stories. If I wanted to do an intimate, personal story, I could. If I wanted to tell it in nested flashbacks, it's possible.A story where the main character doesn't even show up? Oh yeah. If I wanted to tell the entire story from the point of view of the person who ends up murdered at the end of it, well why not? The versatility the concept offers is something which helped to keep things fresh over the story's first decade and kept it from feeling like too much of a grind (something this big will always feel at times like a slog, though.)
Whether all of this works or doesn't I leave up to the reader. In its first decade, GUNMETAL BLACK has found quite a few fans (where they come from and what they take from it is something of great interest to me) and I hope when the time comes where the end is written and we've seen what comes from Kienan's prophesied trip to Earth, they'll have found the journey worth it after all. I certainly hope they have.