Meg Rosoff on How to Think Sideways

For our Thinking Sideways Contest , we’re asking you to take one of your favorite stories and flip it on its head–using a fresh perspective to retell it in an exciting new way. In There is No Dog (which you can start reading here on Figment), Meg Rosoff does just that, exploring what the world would be like if God were a teenage boy. Looking at the world with fresh, new eyes can be tricky (and a little trippy), so here’s Meg on how she does it.

For 15 long years, I worked at the coal face of the advertising industry, hating pretty much every minute of it.

After five years I calculated that if I lived to be 100, I’d have only wasted 5% of my life.  After 10 years, it was 10% waste.  Even 15% didn’t seem SO bad.  But then I sat down to write a book, and something very strange happened.

All those wasted years of advertising started to come in handy.  I realized that I’d learned some incredibly valuable lessons about writing novels from writing ads, the most important of which can be summed up as: THINK SIDEWAYS.

THINKING SIDEWAYS is pretty much non-negotiable if you’re trying to figure out how to sell instant tea granules to a housewife in the industrial North of England–for the simple reason that nobody, not one single person, actually wants to buy instant tea granules.

So how to convince someone to buy them?

THINK SIDEWAYS, i.e., convince your potential consumer that without instant tea granules, her sex life will suffer.  Her husband will fall in love with the vavavoom 25-year-old next door and move to Monte Carlo to live on a yacht.  Without instant tea granules, her children will end up taking the grandchildren and moving to Perth, Australia–for no particular reason at all.  Without instant tea granules, the sun will not shine, the accounts won’t add up, tsunamis and earthquakes will sweep the neighbourhood.

Unbelievable?  Sure, but in order to sell most products it’s the only way.

In writing, THINKING SIDEWAYS isn’t the only way, but it’s quite a useful way.

Add zombies to Pride and Prejudice and you get Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which has sold over a million copies in 20 languages).

Jean Rhys thought sideways when she imagined Mr. Rochester’s first wife in The Wide Sargasso Sea.  Herman Melville thought sideways when he wrote a book that assumed readers might be interested in page after page of detailed explanations of how to render whale blubber.  JK Rowling thought sideways when she imagined a seven-book series about a boy wizard (the 13 publishers who turned her book down, however, were not thinking sideways at all–“A boy wizard?” they exclaimed. “No one’s done it before, it must be a bad idea.”)

What about a boy-meets-girl story in which the boy turns out to be a vampire?  That’s a bit of a sideways step.  Or a book in which God turns out to be a 19-year-old boy?

I wrote that last book–utterly delighted by the mere thought of God as a lazy, sex-mad, and totally self-centered teenager.  Suddenly the whole structure of life on earth seemed to fall into place.  After all, creation achieved in six days wasn’t going to hold a candle to a proper creation (i.e., one carried out with forethought and careful planning, preferably not by a kid-God too lazy to clean up his room).

THINKING SIDEWAYS in the writing of There Is No Dog wasn’t easy.  I began with Genesis and all I had ever learned about the Greek and Roman gods, mixed in a bit of  orthodox Judeo-Christian thought, and made up some of the links myself.  It took quite a lot of sideways thinking to come up with a nearly extinct anteater-penguin sort of creature called an Eck, who carried a great number of the book’s most difficult theological questions.

At times, I thought too far sideways and had to pull myself back.  At times, the book sat in a cul-de-sac and I couldn’t think of anywhere to go.  At other times, I felt like ripping the whole project into tiny pieces and flushing it down the toilet.

THINKING SIDEWAYS requires persistence.  You have to train yourself to tilt your head a little bit to the side and squint at the world; to see it from a slightly different angle.  You have to be a little more audacious, a little bit bolder, a little bit more original.  It’s not the sort of thing you can achieve overnight.  Some people are born thinking sideways–they’re the lucky ones, the naturals, the writers or painters or lawyers who always approach a problem from an angle that no one quite expected.  The rest of us have to work at it.  Over and over again.

The rewards of sideways thinking can be pretty fantastic.  You might find yourself with a fresh perspective on some of the oldest, most over-written subjects in the world–love, for instance.  Faith.  Life and death.

And if you can come up with a new way to look at an old subject, you’re halfway to becoming a writer.

The other half, of course, is practice.  Because in order to be a writer, you need to start with an original vision, and then summon up the stamina and persistence to keep going, week after week and month after month with all the hard work of shaping a story until it just . . . somehow . . . works.

And then you have a book.

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