Don’t Re-Invent the World by Ryan Miller

Soooo, I've been a fan of today's guest blogger for a long, long time. Ryan Miller is a good friend from college that I lost touch with until recently. We reconnected over our love for children's literature. Since then, he's become one of the Muses' biggest fans.Currently, he's the executive editor at the San Luis Obispo NEW TIMES and the Santa Maria SUN

Seriously, guys, Ryan is one of the funniest people I've ever met (c'mon just look at that portrait) and I can't imagine a better man to step up to be Mr. Friday for a week. So put your hands together for Ryan Miller...

Thank you. Yes, hello. This is Ryan Miller. You probably remember me from some of my comments here at the YA Muses blog, like “I totally agree, Bret.” Or maybe, “I convinced my city librarian to get several copies of Under the Never Sky.”
Yes, I’m that Ryan Miller.

Of course, considering such bon mots as those, it will come as no surprise to you to learn that I’m a professional writer. A journalist, actually. That means I write about stuff that really happens.
Sounds great, huh? Yeah, it is—except when I try to write about the other stuff. You know, the stuff that doesn’t really happen. Fiction, it’s called.
Journalism is easy, see? You just talk to people and write down what they say. Maybe you throw in a description of what they look like or what they’re wearing. Or you can observe an event and just report what happened.
You’re essentially transcribing life, and what could be easier than that? It’s all right in front of you, like pennies to be plucked from the sidewalk. Just scoop up that visual detail and drop it in your pocket to be used later.
The sound of the source’s laugh? Grab it. The color of his eyes? Take that, too. The smell of the dingy parking garage where you’re meeting? OK, Woodward, jot it down. Put it all in your article and sell some papers!

Fiction, however, has no ties to reality. It’s all made up in your head. To write something fantastical, you have to sit in front of your computer and think as hard as you can think, sometimes building entire worlds from the ground up. You have to decide which way gravity goes and probably create colors that have never been seen before, like grallow or purnk.
Or so I used to think.
I’ve tried for years to write a story, and it’s a good one. It’s got ghosts and giant animals fighting and a hero who can’t see—but I get paralyzed by the sheer scope of what I’m trying to do. I had a sneaking suspicion that it was easier than I was making it. Not much easier, but a bit. And then this Bret guy goes and talks about Bruce Coville and slipping details sideways into your stories, and I would have smacked myself in the forehead if I weren’t worried that such a move would take out the light bulb going on up there.
Here’s the thing: I already do that. The detail slipping, that is.
There’s a mantra we journalists use (we narrative journalists anyway), and it goes like this: “Show, don’t tell.” What does that mean? Well, instead of saying, “the guy was angry”—which, admittedly, can be a judgment call—we can write, “when the red creeping up his shaking face finally reached his cheekbones, he flipped the table over with a roar.”
OK. Maybe that wouldn’t be much of a judgment call to label that anger, but still—which was more fun to read? More descriptive? More informative?
So suddenly I’m looking at how I write every day about the stuff I see, and I’m looking at my much less successful attempts to write about stuff I’m just pulling out of my head—because, hey, all journalists have a novel in them somewhere—and I’m realizing I’VE BEEN DOING IT WRONG.
The fiction part, I mean.
Because if I can slip something sideways into one of my news stories, and—if Bret can be believed—I can also slip something sideways into a bit of fiction, the two genres aren’t that far removed from one another.
As I realize these things, more light bulbs spark to life. The air above my head resembles a landing strip, and I hope no 747s are in a holding pattern anywhere nearby.
So that weird-looking dog I saw lapping up water from the gutter on my way to work? It can find a home in the desert city I’ve been trying to populate for years. So can that woman hurrying to catch the bus. And the smell of the gyro place a few blocks down. I just have to tweak a few details.
Because that’s what it’s all about, right?
I mean, JRR Tolkien didn’t need to create a place for his hobbits to spend time when they weren’t hiking to Mordor and mucking about with rings because houses already exist. He’d seen them. A lot of them, probably. He simply made the doors round instead of rectangular, sort of shoved them underground a bit, and—voila!—he’s a genius. (But he might not be a good example, since he kinda did create a couple of races, an entire creation mythology, and several languages for his stories. Show off.)
JK Rowling didn’t invent wizards, she just took what she already knew about the “fictional” people group and put her own spin on them. MT Anderson didn’t make up whales or stilts, but he did couple them together. HP Lovecraft … nah, I’ve got nothing. I was just trying to keep the “authors who go by their initials” thing going. Also, Cthulu creeps me out.
My point is that I’ve been trying to figure out a way to chip this block of stone I have into something I can put under my cart to make it roll, all while leaning against this sleek chariot I use every day. Get it? I don’t have to invent the wheel. Neither do you. We can just, you know, make it glow at night, whistle when it spins, and leave marks in the road that resemble eels on land. Or something.
Ooh, land eels. I’ll have to remember that one.
Here’s another way to look at it. Even Dr. Frankenstein didn’t just try to conjure his creature out of thin air. The story I want to bring to life is like a body. And there’s already a skeleton waiting for me. There’s even a little muscle on it. Some tendons. Maybe a bit of cartilage. All I have to do is flesh it out by choosing skin tone, eye color, muscle tone, general build, hairstyle. The fun stuff. The details. At the end of the day, I’ll have a unique creation that I didn’t have to make from scratch—and thank goodness, huh? Because who knows where to find a quality femur these days?

Ryan Miller is a journalist and editor living on California's Central Coast with his wife, two daughters, and a baby on the way. His freelance nonfiction work has been published in Longshot (formerly 48 Hour Magazine, in which his work also appeared), Mothering, San Louie, and California Northern. His fiction work hasn't been published anywhere. He collects thimbles, first-edition YA novels, loteria decks, dragons, teas, and collections.


You make a very import point that can be missed if one drives by too fast. There are so many unique ways to "do" the known. You mentioned a few of the obvious.

With The Last Air Bender series, people could "bend" the elements to their will. Though it was not called "magic" it was certainly very magical.

In my own WiP, NEVERLOVE, there's nothing really new under the sun. I'm just fleshing out my story, with its familiar tropes, with my own unique perspective.

So most excellent post, Ryan. Most excellent in deed.

Love this, Ryan! And let it be noted that I would read a novel you wrote in a heartbeat. Especially if it features land eels.

I agree with Amy above. (See, that's MY genius comment, mes bon mots....)

Yes to all of the above! I come from a journalism background, too, Ryan, (though, ahem, not as successful a background as yours) and totally agree that the journalistic eye for detail and good description is invaluable in creating a believable fictional world.

Thanks for wrapping up our guest blog week with such an excellent post! As Angela says, "most excellent indeed."

Great point! Use the world around you. As a journalist you've got a bigger world than some of us. Get right on the land eels story. I want to read that one!

But really, using what you've got is a great idea. It's just a matter of looking at it with a different set of eyes.
And Brett's right-you are funny. Must have been a blast in college!
Great post!


Right on. Great post! But you have to admit, round doors and hobbit holes are pretty revolutionary. :)

@Angela: I hadn't thought about bending as an example. Good one!

@Amy: I'll be sure to keep the eels away from any running mice I see.

@Beth: We'll both be in Bartlett's someday, I'm sure.

@Katherine: Thank you! I was honored to see my words on this site!

@BOOKS: You should have heard Bret. I still laugh out loud at stuff I remember him saying.

@Michelle: If I win the lottery, I'm getting a hobbit house, so yeah. I agree.

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