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Helsinki Bus Station Theory for writers

Guest post by Ian McHugh

Helsinki Bus Station Theory is the creation of Arno Rafael Minkkinen, employed as a metaphor for the career of a photographer. It goes like this: Helsinki Bus Station has a number of platforms and a number of different bus routes start from each platform. All the buses from a given platform follow the same route out of the city centre and stop at the same stops for the first part of their journeys before heading off their separate ways into the suburbs. For the sake of the metaphor, each bus stop represents a year in the life of a photographer.

So, you – the new photographer – get on a particular bus at a particular platform and, after three stops – three years of work – you decide to get off and try out your portfolio at an art gallery. The curator tells you that your work reminds her of a certain famous photographer, whose bus started from the same platform, some time before yours. Dismayed that your work is apparently derivative, you decide to go back to the station and get on a different bus. After three stops, you get off, try your new, different portfolio of work at a gallery and… the same thing happens. So you go back to the station again and again, and every time the same thing happens and you wonder how on earth any photographer can create original work when everything seems to have been done before.

And the lesson is: stay on the bus.

If you stay on the bus then, after a time, your bus route – your career, your work – will start to diverge from the other routes that started from the same platform. Your distance from the artists who inspired you will increase, your skills will develop and your own original style will become more distinct.

I come at the same thing from a somewhat different angle when I’m teaching writing. I call my take the Highway To Hell Theory of Formulaic Art, which I use to draw the distinction between employing structural formulas and story archetypes in your writing and producing boring formulaic stories. To best appreciate the theory, it helps to have a working knowledge of the back catalogue of AC/DC but, similar to Helsinki Bus Station theory, it’s not critical to have been there to get the point.

In a nutshell: there’s a reason why AC/DC can knock out the same album seventeen times in thirty years and yet still pull off songs that are new and unique and awesome while remaining inescapably Akka-Dakka. They know the magic formula. Substitute AC/DC for any prolific author of genre fiction. One of the points I make is that it doesn’t matter that other people have employed the same archetypes, the same rules of thumb or the same techniques that you’re using, because, as you keep working and keep writing, your own voice will develop and your work will become increasingly recognisable as uniquely yours.

And the rule applies at a more immediate level: with the story that you’re writing right now. Say you start writing your story and then someone comes along and you tell them about it and they say, “Oh, that sounds like such-and-such novel by so-and-so”. (See my friend Gord’s story “The Egan Thief” at Flurb for an offbeat account of his experience of this very phenomenon.) So you abandon your story and start a new one. What happens? Same thing, again and again. And what are you left with? A trunkful of half-finished stories that have gone nowhere. Stay on the bus. Finish the damn story. And then you’ll find out that, sure, what you’ve written has been done before but not in exactly the same way. And the more stories you write, the bigger that gap becomes between what you’re doing and the same things that have been done before.

Staying on the bus applies to submitting your work, too. Your work will be rejected a lot, and the only way to succeed is to persist. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected twelve times before selling, Twilight was rejected fourteen times. There’s a story that the number in the title of Catch-22 corresponds to the number of publishers who rejected it. Frank Herbert went one better with Dune. These are all books that went on to sell millions of copies. Ursula Le Guin keeps the copy of her first rejection letter for The Left Hand of Darkness (subsequent winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards) on her website, which reads:

“Ursula K. Le Guin writes extremely well, but I’m sorry to have to say that on the basis of that one highly distinguishing quality alone I cannot make you an offer for the novel. The book is so endlessly complicated by details of reference and information, the interim legends become so much of a nuisance despite their relevance, that the very action of the story seems to be to become hopelessly bogged down and the book, eventually, unreadable. The whole is so dry and airless, so lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have had is entirely dissipated by what does seem, a great deal of the time, to be extraneous material. My thanks nonetheless for having thought of us. The manuscript of The Left Hand of Darkness is returned herewith.”

Stay on the bus. In your writing career as a whole, in the story you’re writing right now, in sending that manuscript out to market, stay on the bus.

One Thought on “Helsinki Bus Station Theory for writers

  1. So this is clearly a ‘Finish’ metaphor!! And my slightly rusty Finnish tells me that Stay on the bus is “pysyä bussissa” – which is literally, stay IN the bus – actually much more accurate than staying ON the bus – unless you’re in rural India perhaps, yes?

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