Lately I have seen a number of posts from writers complaining that they have read or read about a work that uses the same idea that they are currently working on.
Those guys crack me up. Seriously.
I love finding out that someone else has chosen to work along the same lines as me. It means that I am on the track of something that might actually work. More than that, it means that the abraded thread that tethers me to the rest of humanity has not quite snapped. “Oh, thank God,” I says to myself, “I’m still thinking like a human being!”
I think that there is a pernicious myth of the “good idea” that infects a lot of writers, and I think it comes from the logical fallacy of mistaking causality for consequence.
That is to say that when a writer sells a great many copies of a book or a series that has an original idea the assumption is made that it is the original idea that made the work sell so well.
“If only I had come up with the idea of a School For Wizards,” struggling writers think, “I’d be making millions now.”
I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think good ideas sell books. I think that good writing sells books, and I think that one of the characteristics of good writers is the ability to make dumb ideas into good books.
Before people jump all over me, I am not running down Harry Potter. But there isn’t anything inherently salable about the concept.
It’s not the idea of school for wizards that sold the Harry Potter series, it’s Hogwarts, which is the idea made concrete. The characters, the traditions, the Escheresque building itself, the uniquely practical curriculum. Without the work that Rowling put into constructing the entire wizarding world the idea is nothing.
There’s nothing new about the idea of magic, and there is a long tradition of British boarding schools as a setting for fiction. There isn’t even anything particularly original about combining two disparate concepts. The trick isn’t coming up with idea of putting wings on a VW Beetle–anyone could think of that–the hard part is making the damned thing actually fly.
When I sit down to write the first thing I do is go through my nigh-encyclopedic knowledge of genre fiction and film (I have this oddball trick top hat memory–nobody outgeeks the Sensei Of Schlock!) searching for ways in which the theme I want to investigate has been handled before, good, bad, and ugly.
Then I throw out all the good ideas. Good ideas are dead ends. There’s no tension in a good idea, and it’s tension that gives a story it’s power. Going to school and working hard to get a degree, getting a good job, saving for retirement, having a pleasant comfortable life–that’s a really good idea, but it would make a really dull story.
Going into a cavern inhabited by a fire-breathing dragon? Incredibly bad idea, but it could make a really good story.
In Catskinner’s Book I have a narrator who kills a lot of people, a love interest who is a girl with a penis, a supporting character who defrauds federal law enforcement agencies for a living, a villain who gets killed off-screen and turns out to be just a patsy, and I end the book with the heroes going to work for the real villain. Bad ideas, every one of them.
Bad ideas make for good writing. You can’t be lazy when you’re working with bad ideas. You have to fight to get the reader to accept any of your premises, and that means you have to lay your foundation solidly. Writing a story based on a bad idea makes you think.
Just my thoughts.