Andrew Reid is both my writing buddy and my agent bro (we’re both represented by the fabulous Juliet Mushens). He writes genre twisting fantasy no doubt coming soon from a publisher near you, and he recently had a story featured in an issue of Dark Fiction Magazine. He has kindly written this guest post on the wonderful Princess Bride and the numerous confusing paths of writing advice.
Inhale this, but do not touch.
I smell nothing.
And so begins the battle of wits. The Princess Bride is one of my favourite movies. It is an absolute triumph. Almost everything about it should fail, from the clunky, clichéd dialogue right down to the rubber monsters. It has an instrumental track played exclusively on a Casio keyboard set to “Trumpet” mode, and a swordfight so heavily choreographed it’s a wonder the swords ever touch. And yet somehow, all of that just makes it more awesome.
I was going to write a blog post about how boring the concept of an odourless, tasteless, undetectable poison is, with a view to talking more generally about how we can learn from all the exciting, awful and very, very real things that are out there in science and history for us to learn about. But as soon as I started thinking it I realised that The Princess Bride kind of demolishes my point. It takes what would be a lazy shortcut (untraceable, undetectable poisons being, essentially, consequence-free for the poisoner) and uses it to set up one of the best scenes in the movie. The exchange is sly – both men are smiling, but neither is happy – and the sudden introduction of real, genuine death as an outcome invests the viewer immediately in the battle of wits that follows. That the battle is ridiculous, with Vizzini red in the face and blustering wildly, is immaterial. It’s genuinely suspenseful, even after the hundredth watch, and as a result it’s devastating to my argument.
So what I really want to talk about is awesome things and the removal of impediments to them.
There is a lot of advice out there about what you should and should not do as a writer. A great deal of it boils down to the incredibly useful maxim of sit down, write, finish what you start. Chuck Wendig talks a great deal of sense, in amongst the swearing and manatee sex anecdotes, and so does Gareth L. Powell. An even greater deal of it is just well-meaning churn that you can safely ignore.
Some of it is actually pretty damn unhelpful.
One of the big things doing the rounds among aspirant fantasy writers (much like myself) a few years ago was the idea of a “well-rounded magic system”. You’ve got to have one, was the thrust of things. It has to have rules, and those rules have to be consistently applied.
And really, I don’t have a problem with magic systems. I do kind of skim the sections where people explain to each other how they work (the Mistborn books went by damned fast) but I also know some people really, really like them. Each to his or her own, I say. What I do have a problem with is when one gets hoiked up onto a pedestal as a necessity for modern fantasy writing.
Got an idea for a magic system? Super. Go for it. Is you magic wild and untamed? Brilliant stuff. Go for it. Magic has been blasted out of the world by an eldritch calamity and the survivors struggle to live in a world where their powers are faded to nothing? Cracking. Go for it.
If you have an awesome idea that you love and you want to create it so hard that you wake up at four am going yes I want to do this right now I cannot wait then do not let anyone convince you otherwise.
Bonus caveat the first: the above is limited to awesome ideas. Awesome. Not offensive. Everyone writes for themselves first and foremost, but if you’re writing something hate-filled then you should probably take some time to think on why that is. Life’s too short to spend time fulminating because other people are different to you.
Bonus caveat the second: Write your heart out, but be prepared to either edit what you end up with beyond recognition, or even to bin the whole thing off. Every time I open my drafts for editing, I tell myself that everything is negotiable. – Andrew Reid