This is the first in my series, ‘How to Follow Writing Advice that Makes No Sense.’ Keep checking back here for more. In the meantime, visit Cow Pasture Chronicles for my guest-post introducing my idea of good Metafiction.
A writer trying to follow advice as is like a kid living with parents who hate each other. Every time you think you’ve listened to the wisest possible words, and crafted your masterpiece accordingly, something contradictory comes along to spank it back to Penny Dreadful status. This profession (like many, I’m sure) seems to depend more on balancing strategies than relying on any single set of them. That advice you are getting may not contradict common sense as much as you think.
Let’s take the classic: ‘Write what you know.’ Anyone who’s ever lifted a pen, even if only as a student, has had their well-meaning Great-Aunt Mabel over his or her shoulder, espousing the timeworn guarantee that ‘writing what you know’ will launch you to the same lofty heights of popularity that she enjoyed in her Bridge club. The problem with that advice is simply this: Some of us don’t know very much. I know how to write, I think—though sometimes better than others—and if you give me six or eight weeks, I can get a recalcitrant English student to do his homework. Usually.
Other than that, ‘what I know’ might not be very literature-worthy: how to change an electrical socket and survive, for example, or how to install a driver so that my new Plug-n-Play printer actually prints. Since many literary agents dissuade literature about writing and teaching, Mabel might have to make do with reading my treatise on how I safely ground my technology. I doubt even she would enjoy it.
Novels that sell often seem to contradict this advice. I doubt, for example, that Frank L. Baum knew any flying monkeys or grumpy tinmen addicted to oil, or that Stephanie Meyer had ever met a sparkling vampire eager to disrespect Stoker.
So, isn’t it true that these successful authors wrote things they didn’t know?
Not entirely: being imaginative may not always contradict advice about writing to our knowledge, because here are some things we all know that can fit into almost any story:
- Characters: those people in your life who behave in unbelievable ways.
- Settings: incredible places you’ve been and seen, that may seem almost fictional.
- Morals and ethics: Lessons you’ve learned—perhaps the hard way—about how to live.
- Emotions: The moments that define you as a person.
It would be a tough audience of readers who wouldn’t respond well to those combinations of a good writer’s experiences… and none of them preclude creating a plotline that you’ve never experienced. If the office bully’s attitude comes from insecurity, there is your cowardly lion; if your Middle East tour makes wonder how civilization ever arose in that climate, you’ve found your planet Arrakis.
When I wrote Starlite Lanes, I had never met a Cuban so patriotic that he would launch his own attack on American soil, but I had met personalities like every member of the county bowling team who stops him. I also knew, more importantly, the love of land and lifestyle that can drive anyone into action.
In that sense, then, I wrote what I knew, so who knows? Maybe even Aunt Mabel will inspire her own character one day.
Comments, please: what classic advice have you followed in unexpected ways?