So about seven years ago, I began what has turned into a bizarre binge of writing. I had managed to produce five novels in ten years, of which one was complete crap and the other four at various levels of better. I’d basically stopped writing and had settled for endlessly rewriting.
Then I wrote The Voyage of Ginger Glass, which was “almost” published by Dell a few years ago. And then four other Jacky Clothilde novels, two novels with Clay Gilbert (the fighter pilot, not the published author, whom I did not know about until after), one about a school of magic, one about an elf and a dwarf in Lovecraft’s dream world, one about a gangly teenager in the Middle Ages, one about a time traveling detective; am I forgetting any?
At some point I realized that I was compensating for the lack of decent reading material. I was writing instead of reading. I was writing what I wished someone would write.
Do not get me wrong. There are clearly a lot of great writers writing. No doubt there are many really good writers no one’s heard of; among those you have heard of, Ms. Rowling, Mr. Pratchett and Mr. King leap to mind. (I didn’t know about Clay Gilbert at the time—I mean the author, not the fighter pilot.) And friends of mine were eager to suggest novels I should read, lots and lots of novels.
The trouble is, as I got older (I am now 5,923 years old), I had less and less patience with the clever (predictable) plot, the cute (all too cute) setting, the homage (bordering on worshipful flattery) and so on. It seemed like writers were increasingly eager to fit five winning ideas into a story—a steam punk school of wizardry where the characters all have the names of mid-20th century film actors, anyone?—and were forgetting what actually made a good story.
To me, that comes down to this, and it’s not so much a recipe (there is no recipe) as a manifesto:
- Find a main character the readers will like and want good things to happen to
- Give her or him friends who are interesting but seem like real people
- Give them all motivations that come from their actual lives, not from your Hollywood-ized imagination
- Put them in a setting that is interesting and deep and which makes sense on its own, and
- Present them with a difficulty that they can overcome only by coping with a variety of complications and with a variety of problem-solving strategies
You could come up with other lists. But think of the Harry Potter novels, the Dark Tower novels, The Color of Magic, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, or the noir detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (and not the horrible imitations produced in later years). They satisfy all of these to the fullest degree.
What they didn’t do was:
- Give me a main character I disliked; whiny or self-centered or so flawed I spent the entire novel yelling at him or her
- Surround the protagonist with paper cut-outs (the evil wizard, the doting mother, the loyal friend, the sniveling betrayer, the beautiful aristo who falls in love with the hero for no explicable reason)
- Motivate them in ways that could have come out of the tenth hour of a writer’s meeting on Episode 53 of a Lifetime drama (the assassin acted out of a misguided need to please his horrible mentor, and once he’s been killed in the act, his honorable but hot-headed brother is compelled by honor to avenge him; the simple village girl who falls in love with the hero for no obvious reason is compelled to complicate things in every possible way just to get his attention; the betraying junior officer was, of course, passed over for promotion and honors by the hero, who’s an outsider and is therefore, of course, hated by the cowardly insiders in the garrison, etc…)
- Place them in a setting bought in the the dollhouse section of the Wal-Mart toy department, or
- Encumber them with (a) the exact same plot from 14 billion previous novels or (b) a plot which changes every twelve pages.
I am really ticked off about this. I have a whole rant yet to unload on you, gentle reader(s). And I will, but this is enough for now.
Write things I wish I had written. Don’t write things that send me back to the laptop to write my own.