I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus

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.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing, Poetry, Who I am and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus

  1. LindaGHill says:

    Thank you, Misha. I don’t like where my novel is going (the new one) and you’ve just explained why. Not a bad enough idea. Seriously, I can’t thank you enough.

  2. I think maybe you just wrote a great synopsis/blurb for Catskinner: “…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.”


  3. jeffro says:

    (GDW was kicking around an idea for a game about a school for wizards at one point. Heh.)

    And Lewis Pulsipher will tell you, ideas are basically worthless.

    The thing about doing something similar as someone else… I use that as a means of “checking my work” like I would in math class. Did I go deeper than the other guy? Did I make an obvious mistake that should make me feel mortified? What is it that the other guy does that is way better than me? It’s really instructive.

  4. sknicholls says:

    I like the way you think…seriously…the way you process information. I need more bad ideas.

  5. Green Embers says:

    I love it when you write an op-ed on topics. I can’t help but agree. This is something that I think more people in general need to understand. Since you mentioned Harry Potter, I now like to remind people that Harry Potter and Star Wars Episode IV share a very common plot. Young boy growing up with extended family finds out he is special and goes off to get trained.

    One of my friends who I worked with was writing this fantasy novel. He would always be telling me his big ‘original’ ideas. I would tell him, oh that is like this fantasy book, or this other fantasy book. He really only had ever read a couple different fantasy books, so wasn’t exposed to other ideas and always thought he was doing something ‘new’. It was at this point I realized there is very little you can do that is ‘new’, the best thing is to just write and make it good.

    So here is to bad ideas! 😀

  6. Pingback: Closing The Doors… | The Literary Syndicate

  7. Dr. Mauser says:

    Bad ideas, like looking for the ship’s cat when there’s a monster on the loose.

    Oh, and don’t crush that dwarf. Use the pliers.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Maybe yes, maybe no, Mr. Danger.

      And Ripley’s choice to risk her own life to save Jones is a perfect example. It’s the kind of bad idea that many of us would have acted on without a moment’s hesitation. (I personally would not like to think of myself as someone who leave another living creature to get eaten by an alien.)

  8. Pingback: Don’t Panic If Your Story Idea Isn’t Fresh | Creative Mysteries

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