From physics to fiction: the necessarily speculative nature of ideas

From a US/LHC particle physics blog via an editor friend on Facebook: "All of our theories are probably wrong. And that's okay."
Just because someone spends some time developing a new idea, that doesn’t mean that they are doing so because they think it must be true. This may sound silly: if they don’t think its true, then why devote so much time to it?

One answer is that it could be true. Thus we should figure out what falsifiable implications it would have if it were true so that future experiments can cross it out. However, there’s a deeper reason to pursue ideas that one isn’t necessarily “married to.”
The point is that good ideas have value just because they’re good ideas, even if they are necessarily speculative.
This dynamic translates to writing and publishing without much mind-bending.

I'm finishing up a huge project. Unemployment is looming. Between me and my next job there are hundreds of ideas, any and all of which have the potential to blossom or fizzle. I honestly don't believe there's any such thing as a lousy idea for a book. There's ideas that are in the wrong head at the wrong time. Or in the right head at the wrong time. Or in the wrong head at the right time. There are ideas that get championed and ideas that don't, and the difference doesn't come down to good or bad, it comes down to what the author is willing and able to do with it.

Book ideas are, as the physicist said, necessarily speculative. Don't let a friend, family member, or rejection letter rob you of that journey. A few spectacularly speculative ideas that have turned into deliciously successful books:

The Interrogative Mood by Pagett Powell

The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 1) and by Lemony Snicket (The rest of the series seemed like a great idea after the first one made a bazilion dollars!)

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

St. Burl's Obituary by Daniel Akst

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

The Lovely Bones by Alice Seybold


Thanks for this, Joni. I noticed that a lot of my favorite books were on that list, too. :)
Mark said…
This reminds me of a similar formulation in Engineering: "all models are wrong; some models are useful." I think this is broadly right (if it were perfectly right, it would be self-contradictory!) No matter how skillfully you try to figure out all the details, the actual implementation of an idea is generally a bit different from the way you imagined it. But the working out helps you get there.

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