Shake the Box

New ideas are the Holy Grail of fantasy novelists. Be the first one to write the story of a time-traveling vampire who falls in love with a hobbit living under a moon rock and you might just make publishing history.

Already been done? Write it in dactylic hexameter. Why not? They turn poems into musicals, musicals into comic books, comic books into movies these days, and probably movies into poems (though I couldn’t find and examples of that sub-sub-genre.) As far as I know, nobody’s claimed dactylic hexameter in a very long time.

When I sit down to write something I hardly ever have a unique idea. My only alternative is to toss my few once-bright ideas around and see what falls out. Those of us who write fantasy know there are so many cliches in our genre that it’s hard not to bump into a few of them when writing.

Bumping into a cliche isn’t all bad. It allows me to think the same thought that every other writer has thought; “Cliche? Aha! Let’s turn in on its head, then! They won’t expect the elves and the dwarves to be friends!”

Actually, I stole that idea (see #22). “Well, they won’t expect the vampires to be the good guys!” Or: “They won’t expect the dragons to capture human babies so they can raise them to fight other humans!” I could reverse cliches all day.

The Shake the Box method of writing is a useful tool. When I write in Latin, all my stories grow from random elements thrown together in a world where the only rules are the ones I make. In my Fabulae Fatuae (Silly Stories), as I call them, characters named Ursula Pips and Iggy Milo run into Lindsey Lohan, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Miley Cyrus, chickens who want to go to school, dogs who are doctors, evil wizards, bears who love tacos, and pirates who aren’t very good at pirating. They go on quests for shoes, togas, eleven tacos, chicken schools, pet elephants, and chocolate cheesecake.

If this sounds like a lot of nonsense to you, then you don’t know how impressive idiotic ideas sound when translated into a dead language. Latin lends dignity to the most trivial and foolish ideas. The other beautiful thing is that since Latin is a dead language, there are no Romans around to complain if I invent a word for infomercials or decide that the singular of tacos is tacus (masculine, second declension).

I once had a class of second year Latin students who decided halfway through the year that I had made up the entire language. “You give me too much credit,” I said. “I’m no architect of language. I’m just a hack with a monkey wrench, taking things apart and trying to make something new out of the pieces.”

My Latin alter-ego is even responsible for few ideas that made it into my (English) fiction. I have to be careful, though, that I don’t get carried away with the freedom to invent in an anything-goes universe. Even the most ridiculous ideas begin to sound plausible. In fantasy that’s good — to an extent. Ridiculous ideas are better than cliches, much better than no ideas.

But I must also remind myself that however absurd or implausible the idea, someone has probably already thought it. I was looking Amazon a couple weeks ago and ran into a book whose description sounds very much like the novel I’m currently writing. Just reading the description made me feel like filing my entire book away in the Novel Graveyard.

Instead I ordered the book, and a couple of its sequels. As a two-career person, my reading time is rather limited, but I often scold myself for not keeping up with my own genre.

Anyway, the book arrived and I sat down and started to read. As it turned out, the voice, the characters and the plot were quite different from my own. While they both fall into the kid-wizard sub-genre, no one would accuse me of plagiarism. And as I read, I thought to myself, “This is mediocre. I can write better than this.”

What gets a book published — unique ideas or good writing?

I would lean towards good writing. Anyone can shake the box, spill out a plot onto the table. But only a very determined, disciplined writer can fill in the gaps and create a novel.

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