Friday, 21 December 2018

Writing Ramble: On Writing What You Know

I've come to think most traditional writing advice is terrible.  This is one of the weirder lessons you learn as you go on: it's largely nonsense spread by liars.  Case in point, that most idiotic adage, which endless authors of countless tiresome, basically autobiographical novels have followed: "Write what you know."

Are you an astronaut?  A ninja?  A rogue brain surgeon who's a secret agent by night?  A super-intelligent orangutan pirate?  Or any combination of the above?  No?  Then don't write what you know.  Most people's lives are boring to other people, which is the precise reason most dinner parties are awful and we had to invent books in the first place.  Even interesting people don't spend the majority of their time doing interesting things interestingly.  The point of fiction is not that we can describe our adventures in doing the washing up and taking the kids to school and that time we got our head stuck in the railings and had to be rescued by the fire brigade.  One of the purposes of fiction is to transcend and so make a modicum of sense of the messy, tangled, nonsensical matter of human existence.

But that's not really my point.  My actual point is, "Write what you know" is dreadful advice, but it doesn't take a lot of tweaking to be make it excellent.  This also took me a while to figure out.  The correct advice, obviously, should be "Use what you know to make stuff up better."  Which is to say, tear your life up mercilessly, since it's your job as a writer is to use every available resource in the service of creating good fiction.  Go at your memories with the sharpest scissors you have, pluck them apart, squash them like plasticine, burn out the ones that don't work with a soldering iron.  Wait, no, maybe not that last bit.  But the rest definitely.

Yet again, it took me rather too long to work this out.  Looking back at some of my earliest work, there are definite absences and vagaries that could have done with a bit of an injection of personal experience.  But I think that's true of most writers, and at least I reckon I'm getting it down now.

Case in point #1: My story The Only Way Out Lies Farther In*, recently published to a surprising (for me anyway) degree of acclaim in top horror market The Dark.  An awful lot of personal experiences went into that one: the maze and country house setting that open it were drawn from a recent holiday, the overriding theme of believing a childhood rupture has left you adrift in a broken reality pulls on a nasty bit of trauma from after my parents' divorce, and there's plenty more in there as well.  But getting it to work as narrative, and a narrative I personally could tell without my brain exploding, meant mashing a lot of elements together from all across my life, then mixing in a good deal of fiction, and most importantly, taking it all out of my own head and stuffing it into that of someone I'd made up.  It sounds simple put like that, and actually it sort of was.  Sometimes things make a certain intuitive sense, even when they don't make much actual sense.

Case in point #2: I've said in various places that my just-out novel The Bad Neighbour contains a lot of autobiographical components, and that's true, but it's also a lot less based directly on my own life than people have occasionally assumed.  There are bits and pieces aplenty, but crucially they're mostly not the bits and pieces anyone would assume.**  There are, I think, only two elements that are drawn unedited from personal experience: one is a catalogue of house-hunting horrors, all of which are described exactly as they happened, and the other is a fairly minor detail that was the genesis for the whole book.  Spiraling out from those ingredients, everything is a mishmash of my experiences and those of friends and those of friends of friends and total fabrication, in no clear order.  It's all grist for the mill, as they say.

I guess I should finish up by admitting that I'm not being entirely serious.  Obviously we'll always need writers who can make the mundane fascinating, who can conjure up the minute and intimate in a way that makes us feel understood.  That's yet another of the amazing things fiction is capable of, and sometimes that means sticking awfully close to personal experience.  But on the whole, for most people writing most kinds of fiction, I do think my version's better: those personal experiences are great material, but they're only a fraction of what's out there for you to draw on.

* Another bit of awesome writing advice no-one ever gives you: making up absurd titles is weirdly therapeutic.

** Interestingly, most of what the one or two more negative reviews found implausible was basically true.  It turns out that people with not a lot of money to spend really do buy houses they know have problems.  Who'd have thought it!

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