Recently, Lynn Shepherd wrote a piece suggesting that JK Rowling should stop writing and step aside to make room for other writers, so others can have their chance.
Others have thoroughly deconstructed that piece. Amanda Green in a guest post over on Sarah Hoyt’s blog, Larry Correia, a blogger at the BBC. It’s not my intention to do so here. No, my intention is to look at what such an attitude can do to ones writing.
Writers write. They create worlds in their head and set them down in tangible form for other to read. Because of this, ones attitudes and beliefs about how the world works find their way into the story whether one wants them to or not. Oh, some writers are good enough that they can write a convincing tale contradictory to their own beliefs, but it takes extra work to do so. So what effect does a belief that the successful should just step aside so that others can “take their turn” have?
Stan Schmidt, then editor of Analog, once gave me the most important writing lesson I ever received, and he did it in six words: “The essense of story is conflict.” That lesson, incorporated into the manuscript he had just returned (which, as you might imagine, lacked that conflict, thus his comment), led to its being my first professional sale. (“The Future is Now”, currently available as one of the two stories in FTI: Beginnings.) Conflict can be external, (Beowulf against Grendel’s mother) or internal (Hamlet against his own self-doubt). The character can win their conflict (Beowulf again), or not (Hamlet).
“Please, sir or madam, will you step aside so that I can have what I want” is not conflict, not unless the answer is “No” and the protagonist, instead of whining about how unfair it all is, goes out to attempt to win what he or she wants anyway.
From the dawn of time, the heroes in literature have always challenged the powerful. Sigurd did not ask Fafnir, “Please sir, would you stop hoarding gold and allow others a chance?” No, he killed the dragon and took the gold for himself (and thereby took on Andvari’s curse, but that’s another story). Frodo and company didn’t ask Sauron to please step aside and allow others to rule. No, they raised an army and set out to destroy Sauron’s ring and, not incidentally, Sauron himself. Hipomenes did not ask Atalanta to please stop running so fast so that he could catch up. He used Aphrodites’ golden apples to distract her so he could win.
If “please step aside so others can have a chance” is really how you think the world works, or should work, then you need to take a close look at your fiction because that can lead to very boring fiction or fiction that causes readers to scream, then hurl the book across the room.
Your characters need to climb mountains, metaphorical if not real. They don’t need the mountains to step aside for them. And one of the best ways to have characters climb mountains is if you, yourself, go out and climb your own mountains, metaphorical or otherwise, and however it works out–win, lose, or draw–you can use it as fuel for your stories. Whatever happens, in the words of Neil Gaiman, use it to make . . . good . . . art.