Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Writing Novels and Things #10: Write what you (don't) know

I've been meaning to write about this for ever, and I think I wrote it down in a notebook somewhere (writing tip: be organised with your notebooks - it's all very good writing things down, it's excellent, but it is only an effective planning/idea-generating exercise if you can find the notebook when it comes time to do some writing), but I lost it and had to write about short stories and stuff instead. (Another writing tip: try to avoid overly long parentheses - well the sentences between the parentheses - as these can derail the flow, and more importantly the meaning, of your sentences.)

The reason I've been wanting to write about this for ever is because the old adage.. ,

'You should write what you know,'

... is one of the pieces of advice that people love to bandy around about writing. It would be a commandment, if Creative Writing were a religion. Creative Writing is not a religion. Anyway, yes, it's a little bit of a universal truth. But is it universally true?

Not really.

I remember reading an interview with Phillip Pullman (I honestly am not in love with him or anything), where the interviewer asks him how on earth he, an old man, could get into the head of Lyra, who is, in fact, not an old man. He says this:
People often forget that there's such a thing as imagination. What imagination does is to take the things we know and play with them so they're not always recognisable.
  And then he says this:
Some people would say "Always write about what you know". I don't think that's good advice at all. Nor is the advice to write what you think people will like. I think that's just silly. We shouldn't bother about other people at all when we write. It's none of their business what we write.
He's an opinionated man.

Anyway, yes, he says is perfectly. If people genuinely wrote what they knew - their lives - and this was what publishers wanted, there would be millions of books all about boring office jobs and watching X-Factor. There be some of those, but not many.

The job of a writer is to make everything mean something. Conversations in real life rarely go anywhere, they're just to fill time or for entertainment's sake. They don't help move forward the plot of our lives, and they are filled with stutterings and affectations and repetition and stutterings and affectations... Ha! And the same goes for our actions. We make dinner and it doesn't affect our relationships. We brush our teeth and go toilet and call our mums and it doesn't mean anything.

In One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde, a fictional character comes into the real world and is completely confused. So many things happen, and she can't tell if any of them are salient to the plot or if they just, you know, happen. It's impossible for her to solve the case she's working on because there are so many clues that could be meaningless. And time passes so slowly; if she wants to wait for something that's happening in an hour, she has to sit through that whole hour. In the fictional world, it take three words: 'An hour later...'

What that book, and Phillip and I am trying to say is this: fiction is not real life and real life is not fiction. And that is OK.

I'm taking quite a literally approach to the 'write what you know' maxim when I say it's rubbish. In essence there are, in fact, good things to take from it. As Phillip says, we 'take the things we know and play with them,' in fiction. You may know how feelings work, or certain professions, or certain sciences and fantasies, in the real world, but really these should just be tools that you use in forming your fiction. Like... knowing how to spell? Stuff like that. You don't, when you write fiction, write down a long list of the words that you know how to spell. That's not fiction, and neither is a blow-by-blow account of the daily minutiae of your life. Not that you were going to write that either...

And thus we get to my point. When we start writing fiction, we should start with our imaginations. We create a story. From there, everything else hangs: character, dialogue, voice, our real-life experience, word-play, sentence construction, and so on. Your reader will thank you and, I can guarantee, be much more interested in the things that you know.

(Big thanks to the articles below for reminding me that I wanted to write about this (and also for their contents, which I slightly stole).)

Writer Unboxed
The Atlantic

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