The Devil’s Advocate: Everything You Know about Writing is Wrong

I always dress in my 18th century formal attire when I write.

How-To Write Fiction? Advice is everywhere, from books to magazines to the Internet. Most of this advice focuses on plot, character development, and style. If you’re an aspiring writer, you’ve probably gone over these before. But while I can’t argue that plot or character isn’t important, I consistently find a broad discrepancy between how writers are told to write and how things are actually written. The very best authors seem to have attended very different classes than I did. Conversely, if you study the basics of writing like a chemistry lab student studies the periodic table, you’ll often turn out fiction that is just plain blase. Sure, you might get lucky and get a “Good job!” or “Hey, I enjoyed that!” But honestly, who cares? The only words a writer wants to hear is, “Hey, when is the next part coming out? I can’t wait to read the rest!” Generating that kind of excitement, the kind that gets people to dress up in ridiculous costumes, is every writer’s wet dream. But the how-to books won’t get you there, and in many successful pieces of fiction, the basic ingredients of “good writing” are missing entirely (see: H.P. Lovecraft). Writing a book isn’t like baking a pie. It isn’t a science and shouldn’t be treated that way.

Here’s a quick synopsis of a popular young adult novel: At birth, a child is delivered to uncaring foster parents. When the child reaches a certain age, they meet a mysterious stranger who takes them far from the home they grew up in, revealing to them their special parentage in a world of magic, monsters and mystery. As the story progresses and the child enters young adulthood, they learn of a prophesy, that only they can save the world from a great evil.

Is it Harry Potter? Or is it The Golden Compass? The synopsis works for both. And yet, there is stark difference between the success of Rowling’s books and the success of Pullman’s. While the Harry Potter series sold a whopping 450 million copies, Pullman’s His Dark Materials sold only 15 million (still an incredibly high number). Of course, random factors are involved, like luck, timing, and the success of the films, but those factors alone cannot account for the difference. Even if you were to divide the Potter series into less than half, since there are seven Rowling books to Pullman’s three, Harry outsells Lyra by a factor of 12! Looking back at writing basics, the case could be made that Pullman’s character, Lyra, isn’t quite as well developed as Harry, or that his style isn’t quite as polished as Rowling’s. But I find the opposite to be true. On strictly technical terms, Pullman is a more accomplished writer. His numerous accolades attests to that fact. So how do we account for the difference in sales? Is it just a random numbers game? Did Rowling hit the literary lottery? I don’t think so. I believe, and most people would agree, Harry Potter is a better series. Why?

One word: ideas

What makes people want to read a book are the ideas the book contains. Like Jerry Seinfeld once said, who based his comedy on the obvious, people like things that are interesting. Start telling a person about a book and what’s the first question they ask? What’s the book about? That’s it. They never say, “Oh, how is the writing quality?” or “How are the characters developed?” What people want to know is, does the book contain information they want to process. And when I say ideas, I am not referring to grand literary themes, but every single concept, from the smallest kernel of a thought up to the main plot points. What makes Harry Potter great? Owls that bring the mail and chocolate frogs that jump and Bertie Botts Every Flavor Bean. Sorting hats and quidditch. Pullman also has a number of fantastic ideas, like souls that take the form of animals and a knife that cuts through dimensions and intelligent elephant-like creatures that rove around on wheels formed from giant seeds. But his ideas and characters were not as numerous, charming or clever. Rowling’s greatest talent is her ability to conjure up ideas. When Rowling talks about how she came up with Harry Potter, she first mentions the birth of the idea, which came fully formed into her mind. Since she’d been writing from a young age, she already knew the basics, so the rest was easy. Star Wars is another great example of the power of idea. The story is purposefully cliche, based on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but Campbell never conceived of light-sabers or Darth Vader. Of course, a story is not an encyclopedia of interesting tidbits. A good writer takes a good idea, like a raw mineral, and forges it through plot and character into a cohesive narrative. If the writer is truly brilliant, these ideas will flow seamlessly and feel inevitable, never incidental. But where, oh where, do good ideas come from, you might ask? Well, this is where no how-to book will help. There is no magic formula for literary success. And what constitutes a good idea from a bad one is so subjective, so prone to variables of culture and taste, Douglas Adams’ Deep Thought would need a billion or so years to calculate it. This is why, whenever a best selling author is asked about their success, they look totally baffled by it. You never hear a Stephen King or a J.K. Rowling owing their fortunes to a set of literary guidelines. But this isn’t to say that, as aspiring writers, we are entirely helpless to the whim of Fate, waiting around for a million dollar idea to strike.

If you’re serious about writing, elements of plot and character should come naturally. After all, writers are readers, and we know what we like and why. It’s the idea that separates the dreamers from the doers. Over the years, I’ve gathered a few kernels of wisdom that have helped me capture that all too elusive idea. So here’s my set of guidelines to add to the masses, in order of what I feel is most important:

1. Love what you write.
While it is important to consider reader tastes, too often we forget the most important demographic of all: ourselves. If you don’t love what you write, nobody else will. If you don’t honestly love an idea, if it doesn’t come from inside, you won’t make it work. Only J.K. Rowling could have written Harry Potter. Only you can write your masterpiece.

2. Live life.
Whether your novel is about romance between zombies or the adventures of squirrels in space, all fiction is about life. Life dictates your writing, which is a good thing. Instead of trying to fit some successful mold, embrace your existence. Don’t just write. Ride a bike, make love, hike naked through the woods. Ideas are hidden everywhere, and the ones that come from life are the most genuine.

3. Talk to real live human beings.
Forget the Internet. Meet people in real life. If fiction is about life, characters are about people, real people. Even if you write about thousand year old vampires, they must possess an element of relatable humanity. In Flatland, Edwin Abbot’s main character is literally a square, but you can believe in the story because of the square’s human attributes. An idea can be anything, from a MacGuffin to a plot device to a new kind of character.

4. Read books.
Lots of them. Reading is good for learning technique, but more importantly, it gives you perspective. You will find there are no absolutes in fiction, no right or wrong way. This will you give the courage to find your own voice and trust in your own crazy ideas.

5. Don’t just do something, sit there!
Remember when you were a child, how on-fire your imagination was? Ideas seemed limitless then. Children are more creative because they have time to be bored. Too often in our rush-rush lives, we forget the importance of doing nothing. Find time to stare into the abyss. Sip tea quietly and contemplate your exact location in space and time. Great ideas sit at the cusp of madness.

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