A tortured friend of mine has a constant dream of becoming a millionaire by writing a best-selling novel. He has a million plot ideas, the kind that always come to him in a bar after about the third gin and tonic. They are slick, clever, boffo ideas, they come to him in full color, often in 3-D, they make him walk around the barroom in tight circles, pulling at his hair, spontaneously ordering rounds for the house, and usually babbling "Brilliant! This is brilliant!"
He has only one small problem: He can't write -- and we're not just talking about penmanship. So he keeps coming to me with his ideas, usually out of breath, and he'll say, "Look, I'm letting you in on this because I respect you. Let's write this blockbuster together. I give you the plot and all you do is throw in all that dull stuff in between. We split the million 50-50."
I say, "Dull stuff?"
"Yeah," he waves dismissively. "Like where the hero walks across the room and blows his nose. That stuff. You know what I'm saying?"
Yes, I knew what he was saying. He was talking about the mortar that holds all those bricks in place on the new walls of the Camden Yards stadium. He was talking about the paint that turned Da Vinci's blank canvas into the enigmatic Mona Lisa. He was talking about the salt water that holds up all the fish in the ocean. He was talking about the soul of art, the mystery of the universe, the meaning of life and he had just rolled them all up and tossed them into a handkerchief under the general heading of nose-blowing.
Once I thought as my friend did, that the only thing it took to write a story was an idea. I was a high school kid when the writing bug first got me and even without the gins and tonics I found it extremely intoxicating to dream up plot line after plot line. I was good at it and fairly cocky about it, enough so that I often gave away two or three story lines a day to friends who were always impressed.
But then one day I read a novel called "Fail-Safe." Written by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, it was nothing extraordinary although it was on the best-seller list, which gave it an immediate cachet as something profound and important. Along with "Seven Days in May," it was one of the first generation of political thrillers and its wildly moralistic premise captured the World War III paranoia that existed in the early '60s: An American plane carrying a nuclear weapon accidentally gets orders to drop a bomb on Russia and cannot be recalled because of a so-called fail-safe system. The Russians, naturally, are outraged and don't believe the American explanation that it was an accident. They prepare to launch nuclear weapons of their own, to mobilize for all-out global war. To prevent it, the American president agrees to drop a bomb on New York City to make everything even.
Can't you just see some guy in a bar spinning that little morality tale off the third stool from the end?
As I started to read that book I thought how easy it would be to come up with such a slick plot line. Stuff I was already doing! But then I got to Chapter 5, a chapter called "The Flayed Bull." It dealt with the nightmares of one of the central characters and it showed and discussed the tremendous moral misgivings of this man. It went into immense psychological detail of his dream about a flayed bull, a vision of himself actually.
The chapter had absolutely nothing to do with the central action of the story and yet it had everything to do with the motivation of the characters and the believability of the yarn. Even as a high school kid with eyes on fame and fortune I sensed that the intellectual power of this little chapter made the story a story and took it out of the realm of clever idea. I was incredibly discouraged because I realized that a writer needed to be able to go inside his fictional people and to do that you had to know your fictional people really well, and to do that you had to actually develop thoughts and philosophies. And to do that you had to sweat.
It would be three decades before my friend mentioned nose-blowing, but when he did I immediately thought of what Burdick and Wheeler did in Chapter 5 of "Fail-Safe." It kept that book from being just a barroom idea -- although badly written barroom ideas do get published more often than they should and occasionally make their way to the best-seller lists.
That is why it's probably wise to take any piece of writing advice, especially regarding fiction, with at least a grain of salt, or preferably a salt substitute. Tips on story and novel writing have never been in short supply, but for my money the best advice has always come from British novelist and essayist W. Somerset Maugham: "There are three rules for writing the novel," he said. "Unfortunately no one knows what they are."