“So I have this idea for a book and I’m not sure if it will be good or not –what do you guys think?”
Short answer – I think you should write the book first.
Long answer – This may come as a surprise to some people, but it’s quite difficult to form judgements about things that don’t yet exist. Also, as any writer who has ever written a pitch or synopsis will tell you, ideas in isolation tend to sound astoundingly shit. You may have gutted, reassembled, stitched together, slapped around and polished your book until it is your perfect, golden Frankenstein-baby, but the moment someone asks you to describe it on a single sheet of A4 paper your brain refuses to cooperate. The blank page has never looked blanker. Everything you thought was interesting and fun and perceptive about your book suddenly translates to “This is a pile of boring drivel that has been done a million times before by people who are better than me.”
Still not convinced? Still want to come back here and tell us all about your marvellous, wonderful idea? Well, let me show you something.
Better Books Than Yours – Expressed As Vague Ideas.
- Two men go for a walk around Dublin. No, seriously – that’s it. But there’s like symbolism and shit and it’s like the Odyssey but not. It’s like, earthy – there are fart jokes.
- Um…so there’s this girl and this boy and they grow up and she marries some other guy and he gets really pissed off and bangs his head against trees and acts weird. And then she dies. Oh, and she has a baby, and then the baby grows up and gets married to the weird guy’s son who is sickly. And the weird guy hangs out screaming at windows and stuff, looking for her mother’s ghost. Yeah. Something like that.
- So there’s this French woman – and she gets married and then reads a bunch of romance novels and kills herself. That’s kind of it, but there’s more to it than that but yeah – it’s like a commentary on the bourgeoisie or something.
- Couple of guys go out to the desert with a car full of drugs and they’re looking for the American Dream but there is no American Dream – just a burned out nightclub in North Las Vegas. I guess it’s kind of an allegory. With lizards. And they’re tripping balls the whole time.
- Middle aged man kidnaps his twelve-year-old stepdaughter with every intention of raping her. And does. Repeatedly.
See what I mean? The first four sound vaguely foolish and the fifth one would make most sensible people cross the street to avoid you.
That’s the magic of ideas. Gene Wilder may have crooned convincingly about it, but in reality Pure Imagination won’t get you very far. You also need words. Now go away and write them and stop wasting everyone’s time.
“What books should I read if I want to be a writer?”
All of them.
I admit, this isn’t humanly possible, but there is no reason not to try. If you don’t recognise at least three of the examples in the last section then you’d better read some more books.
And if you don’t like reading books then why the squealing fuck do you want to write one? This has always bothered me – I honestly don’t understand this. Why the hell would you want to do something – ostensibly for fun – that you’re not that interested in and in some cases actively dislike? It would be like me wanting to learn to fly a plane, even though I get airsick at the slightest turbulence and it makes my ears pop. It makes no sense whatsoever.
Look, you don’t need a degree in English Literature. You just need to be a reader. You need to be well and widely read, emphasis on the second. While there are many useful how-to books out there to help writers avoid the common pitfalls of fiction there is no substitute for watching the masters in action. If you want to know how to create sympathy for an unreliable and unpleasant narrator then Nabokov and Anthony Burgess have books that can help. (Lolita and A Clockwork Orange respectively.) If you want to know how to convey the passage of time effectively then try Evelyn Waugh or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. If you want to communicate a quiet character’s internal struggles with the requisite subtlety then try Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf or George Eliot. You want to see character voice done well then read Alice Walker’s Pulitzer winner The Color Purple.
And don’t say you need to read those books because they’re ‘not your genre’. If you’re a genre writer then all the more reason to broaden your horizons – there are few things worse than writers who never explore anything outside their own narrow, obsessive spheres of interest. Sit around in your own fug for long enough and you’ll start to stink like the mother of all Dutch ovens.
It’s perfectly okay to hate the classics too – just so long as you know why you hate them. I know plenty of people who loathe Wuthering Heights for the very same reasons other people love it – bucketloads of pointless screaming, gratuitous ghosts and terrible people making life awful for one another. Personally I can’t stand Nathaniel Hawthorne – I think he’s a wordy fuck and about as subtle as a shovel to the back of the head. It’s fine – you’re allowed to love, you’re allowed to hate, so long as you read.
“Do you think there’s still a market for vampires/zombies/werewolves/yet another book about swapping bodily fluids with a billionaire?”
Okay – here’s what you do if you want the inside track on publishing. Do you want to know what’s going to be the next big thing? Is it going to be dystopian futures? Is it going to be billionaire vampire menage erotica? Unicorn porn?
Of course you do. So let’s get started.
You will need:
One small goat. (Alive. Preferably free from blemish so as not to offend the Gods.)
Rope. Quite a lot.
Goat tranquilizers? (Check with your veterinarian.)
Possibly some kind of blunt instrument, just to be on the safe side.
No, you know what – fuck it. A gun would be kinder.
A quiet corner of the local abattoir.
Some kind of altar.
Several very large and very sharp knives.
- So first shoot your…oh Jesus, no. Fuck this shit.
Yeah, okay. You probably get the point I’m making, right?
If you prefer the vegetarian option you can employ an equally Roman method of prognostication – simply gazing into a mirror in the hope of eventually seeing the future.* It’s as pointless and ineffective as sacrificing a goat and rummaging through its entrails for answers, but it is a hell of a lot easier to clean up afterwards.
Alternatively, you can take three little words to heart and stop worrying about the next big thing.
Repeat after me.
Nobody. Knows. Anything.
Once more, with feeling.
Nobody knows anything.
I can’t take credit for these wise words. They were the words of William Goldman, author of The Princess Bride. Goldman was talking about the movie business when he said this but he may as well have been talking about publishing, or any other branch of the arts driven by fashion.
Nobody knows a single, solitary goddamn thing.
You see, publishing is largely the business of throwing shit at a wall and seeing what sticks. Occasionally if a really adhesive turd hangs a magical landing everyone goes into a frenzy and makes stickier kinds of shit to throw at that part of the wall. (Wow. I apologise for the incredibly disgusting metaphors in this section.) This is why publishers went crazy for Young Adult novels after the success of Harry Potter, or why every romantic hero these days has billions in the bank and a raft of unconvincing psychological issues that mean he has to have sex at least five times a day.
This is also why everyone is profoundly sick of vampire novels.
Does that mean you shouldn’t write a vampire novel? Well, fuck no. If you have a vampire novel in mind and you think you can make it work, do it. Write it. Trends come and go. Good stories have a habit of sticking around. Now go away and write one.
* These fortune tellers were known as speculari, from where we get the word ‘speculate’. Most city speculators actually know about as much as their etymological forefathers, which is a nice thing to think about if you feel you don’t have enough grey hairs yet. That and asteroids.