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The 5 Best Pieces of Writing Advice I Didn't Get in School

#2. Don't Be Consumed With Being Original (The "Ice Ice Baby" Test)

I've never had writer's block for the same reason I've never had the lasagna at the Olive Garden: It just seems terrible and I don't want it. But from about 18 to 28, I did mercilessly reject a lot of my own ideas for not being original enough. It wasn't writer's block. If you pointed a gun at my head, I could have written those ideas, but I made a decision to only write what I liked. There's a difference. And it was a bad decision, because "not being original enough" is usually a bad reason for not liking something. There are countless important stories in the world that follow the same structure over and over, whether it's the Bible or Superman or Star Wars. Don't let similarities stifle you. Indeed, they're liberating.

Blake Snyder wrote a great, but sometimes maligned, screenwriting book called Save the Cat, which includes his beat sheet where he lays out the essential framework of a three-act play or movie. It works equally well for novels, and I used it for Notes from the Internet Apocalypse. Is that cheating? No. You can break the rules, you can do whatever you want, but you should find a certain comfort knowing that there is a structure that produces stories that work, whether they're Schindler's List or Legally Blonde. And there's another important realization: Despite identical structure, those movies aren't anything alike. There is plenty of opportunity for you to be you.


Who can forget that scene where Elle Woods liberated Dachau?

But how do you know when you're a plagiarist and when you're doing something that merely reflects other elements while retaining your own soul? I came to that realization later in my writing life with the help of J.K. Rowling. I mean, think about Harry Potter. Aren't the muggles like Roald Dahl characters, isn't some of the gross-out humor Pythonesque, isn't Ms. Umbridge's pen a heck of a lot like Kafka's torture device in In the Penal Colony, and isn't the quest to destroy horcruxes while resisting their corrupting influence noticeably reminiscent of Frodo's journey to destroy the Ring? Yes, yes to all, but Harry Potter is still an awful lot of fun filled with compelling storytelling. So how do you tell? Well, in an earlier article and a lecture, I laid out what I like to call the "Ice Ice Baby" Test:

Essentially, I think sampling in music is an excellent analogy. Take a great song like Beck's "Jack-Ass." Sure, he takes the opening of Them's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and loops it prominently, but that's only the starting point. He overlays new chords and melodies to create a piece of music. Conversely, look at Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby," which is built on Queen and Bowie's "Under Pressure." Ask yourself, what is the enjoyable part of "Ice Ice Baby"? It's the bass riff, right? It's the part of the song Vanilla Ice had absolutely nothing to do with creating. And that's how I feel about writing. No one reads Harry Potter looking for Rowling's Kafka allusions; it's just mixed in with her own original story about a school where strict rules of conduct are laid down and then repeatedly broken for the good of one special boy.

So yeah, before you kill your own ideas as cliche, maybe write them out a bit and see if you're building something worthwhile and new on the backs of your influences.

#1. Ask "What Do You Want Your Readers to Feel in the White?"

Of all the tips I learned on this list, this is the only one taught to me by a professor at an actual school. Still, it was an undergrad program, so I don't think that ruins the conceit of this article. At Cornell, I was lucky enough to have Professor Dan McCall as a writing instructor and thesis adviser. Unlike most writing teachers, Dan would read the students' short stories out loud to the class himself. He forced you to hear your own words, not as you polished them in your delivery, but how they existed on the page. By doing so, he showed you the sounds your writing made. He let you know what kind of mark your prose was leaving on the world.

So it makes sense that the piece of Dan McCall advice that I took with me most was that every writer should be aware of what they want the readers to feel "in the white." He was referring to the end of the piece, that white space between the last line and the bottom of the page. If a piece of writing is any good, you should be left feeling something there.

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Dan didn't explain what to do when the last line was all the way at the bottom of the page.

If all this advice did was make sure you ended your stories strongly, that would be enough. After all, who doesn't like a powerful ending? But much like good writing, this advice is a trick. You can't end strongly by worrying only about the last few sentences. It's like sticking a killer punchline onto a poorly told joke; it won't work. If you're really concerned about what your readers will feel in the white, then you have to make sure you're setting up an ending from the very beginning, and if you're doing that, well then you're worrying about every part of your book.

Dan died this past year, before I could tell him my first novel was going to be published, but not before I got permission to give one of my characters his name. The character's a clairvoyant with an encyclopedic knowledge of science, history, and pop culture, but he's not half as impressive as the real Dan McCall, a man who could redirect both you and your writing with just a raised eyebrow or a sarcastic laugh that somehow still comforted as it pointed you a better way toward home.



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