Writing Fiction By Ignoring It

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Serdar and I are always discussing where our inspirations come from, and as we’re both Death Star-laser-focused on our current novels, that’s foremost in our minds. We’re fired up to know where our ideas come from, how to improve them, and of course understanding them so we can share them. Fortunately, we have a common conclusion.

The best way to write fiction is to read, watch, and listen to anything but fiction.

I’m aware you’ll probably want an explanation for this, so take my metaphorical hand and let’s wander into the weeds.

When you’re reading fiction you’re getting lessons in things like how to write. There are examples of portraying emotions, plotting a tight story, and so on. You may be inspired by some of the ideas, but inspiration from someone else’s fiction can only take you so far because those ideas come from that given author.

If you only take inspirations from fictional works that you are at best A) deconstructing them (worthy but at times limiting) or B) imitating them (which we have enough of, thanks).

So where are the best fictional inspirations? Simple.

Anything outside of the fiction you’re reading, and preferably radically different.

Seek ideas from other sources.  It can be music or video games, it could be the history of state parks or a cookbook.  Expand your horizons in any way but reading fiction.

Here’s where a lot of my ideas come from for fiction:

  • Richard Florida’s research into cities and megaregions. If you’ve ever noticed I like inventing big cities and complex social arrangements, this is where it comes from.
  • My work in psychology and psychobiology. Pay attention to my fiction and you’ll notice a major emphasis on social and political structures that may seem a wee bit organic if you will.
  • A fascination with maintenance of society and culture. How any human institution, culture, or nation survives and prospers is of great interest to me, and I have a “thing” for tales about “how some group of weirdos keeps it from going to hell.”
  • An interest in positive religious and philosophical experiences. This comes from my personal studies but also M.A.S.H. – Father Mulchahey was a huge inspiration, and he can be seen in my past and present work. There’s almost always one humane philosopher or cleric in my tales.
  • Buddhism and psychology. How people work interests me, of course, as does the impermanent nature of our minds and how we affect ourselves and others.
  • A love of culture and all the little things like where toys come from or the history of fonts.
  • Food. I love food and cooking, and you’ll always find it mentioned in my works because food tells you a lot about a setting, and exploring food in a setting helps you worldbuild.
  • A fascination with worldbuilding, of course. How you make a setting come to life has obsessed me for years.
  • Music. I often find songs that inspire me, in various styles, and those energize me. I know people who make whole playlists for their works.

So there’s a smattering of my (mostly) non-fictional and (sometimes) non-written inspirations. Now, a challenge for you.

What are your inspirations on written fiction that aren’t strictly fictional and/or aren’t always written? I want you to write them down, post them, and link back to me. Then go challenge your other friends to do the same.

Let’s learn from each other.

-Steven Savage