Albert Einstein famously said, "God does not play dice with the universe." His point (made in response to the randomness of quantum physics) was that the universe must behave according to laws that are observable, absolute and, ultimately, predictable.
While God (and Oprah, more on her later) may have the luxury of operating within this kind of well-ordered universe, the vast majority of us must get along as best we can by doing exactly what God can't be bothered with: playing dice. That, or roulette, blackjack, Texas hold 'em, slot machines or insert-your-favorite-game-of-chance-here.
This observation was inspired by a good friend's recent experience in a discussion at a well-known author's online writing forum. My friend responded to the request for "favorite writing rules" with several that have helped him, and was subsequently taken to task for some of them. Not only by the well-known author, but by his henchman as well, and in not one but two separate responses.
I left a lengthy comment supporting my pal which basically boiled down to calling bullshit on the author, his henchman, rules in general and the futility of following them specifically. It probably wasn't the most mature or well-reasoned response in the history of these things, but it did get me thinking.
As someone who's spent a great deal of time and money searching for rules by which to live a successful life, I feel I can speak with some authority when I say my search has largely been futile, and I suspect most other people's have been as well.
This isn't because we suffer from a shortage of so-called experts, each one offering (usually for a price) one or more rules that promise to help you earn more money, make wise investments, find true love, improve your marriage, land a dream job, enhance your career, write your novel or find an agent/publisher for that book you just finished.
No, the world is packed to the rafters with these folks. At best, their rules reflect the mysterious combination of hard work and good luck that happened to come up aces for them once upon a time. At worst, they're recycled platitudes that were pulled out of their ass and/or thin air.
This is why I do a slow boil every time someone like Oprah says something along the lines of "The universe responds to intention." In other words, if you want something badly enough and send out that desire to the universe, the universe has no other choice but to pony up and respond by delivering exactly what you asked for, like some great cosmic Santa. I would argue with Ms. Winfrey that the universe does not respond to intention so much as your personal staff and the entertainment industry respond to hundreds of millions of dollars, a terrific amount of perceived power, and your own stated wishes. Mere mortals and those whose lives relegate them to watching daytime talk shows must hazard a much steeper climb.
Back in the 1980s, Bally health clubs ran a commercial featuring Cher, in which she told us "if great bodies came in a bottle, everybody would have one." I believe the same could be said for best-selling novels, number-one pop songs, record-breaking movies and larger than average penises. If it were possible to cook these things up simply by following a recipe, they'd be as common as apple pies and chocolate chip cookies.
And yet, as writers we're among the most desperate of anyone to believe that the next book of rules or seminar or guru will be different. It's a perfectly understandable desire. Authors who have books to their name and a list of rules for sale must have their acts pretty much together. They must know what they're talking about.
Alas, I don't believe they do -- at least when it comes to passing along some great and powerful secret. This became clear to me upon reading Stephen King's On Writing. I opened that book with great anticipation, figuring that if anyone could describe the process of successful writing it would have to be Mr. King.
Instead, he pretty much admitted that even he doesn't know how he does what he does so well, and didn't have much more advice for hopeful writers than could be found in any number of other books on writing already out there. Read copiously, he advised us. Be a compulsive observer of human nature. Tell the truth. Write every day. Eliminate adverbs and cliches. He might as well have added, "Finish your vegetables."
It's not that King's instruction wasn't generous and well-intentioned. It was. But after finishing On Writing I came to believe that either there was no secret, or if there was, even he wasn't going to let the rest of us in on it.
Critics will probably consider this post the sour grapes of a bitter and disillusioned has-been to-be. If that helps them sleep at night and wake up in the morning refreshed and ready to face another day, I'm happy to be of service.
My point isn't that nobody knows what they're talking about and everyone is full of shit. Quite the opposite. I'm a big believer in learning the rules and playing by them, then breaking a few when it suits your purposes or you're feeling especially ornery.
But I do believe writing is as slippery and mysterious as life itself. And just as there's no formula for success in one there's no ten easy steps for the other. In the end it is, like everything else, largely a numbers game for all but a fortunate few whose number has already been called.
Seek out advice, but consider the source and its agenda. Use what suits your purposes and leave the rest by the side of the road. Look at what's already worked and build on that. Don't take "no" for an answer and stay at the table. Keep playing for as long as you possibly can and hope like hell your number comes up, too.
And keep in mind that everyone -- even and especially those you allow to teach you -- is making it up as they go along.