Good/Bad Advice: Write what you know

Fun bit of advice for anyone doing uni – READ THE ASSIGNMENTS! Turns out these journals I’ve been doing – which were the assessment piece for every other subject in this course – is not for this one. Its my own fault for making assumptions, but if I don’t need to do the journals, I’ll be focusing my time on things that actually get me a pass mark.

In the meantime, this is a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. I want to do a few takes on common advice, so ideally this will be #1 of many. But it IS mostly opinion, and if you have another take on it I’d love to hear it. After all, diversity of opinion is what drives understanding much of the time. And that’s what this is meant to be about; understanding advice to that is helps, rather than restricts writers in practicing the craft. If it doesn’t help, feel free to disregard!

Today’s advice under analysis is a time-worn phrase – ‘Write What You Know’.

The origins:

This bit of advice is attributed to a few different writers, but generally its accepted that the first recorded use of the quote was from Mark Twain, who ironically has a history of writing well outside his own experience, even if the core of his writing always comes back to them somehow. Hemmingway and a few others seem to get an attribution every now and then, but generally, Twain gets the nod as the original (though I’d hazard to guess he got it from someone else beforehand too – it seems to have been around a while), specifically while discussing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The variations:

Plenty of variations on this exist, from ‘write what you want to know’, ‘write what you don’t know’, and my personal favourite (credited to Ursula K. Le Guin), ‘write what you know, but remember you may know dragons’. There is a great list of variations at LitHub that goes through various authors’ interpretations on this as well, but guaranteed if you ask ten more people, you’ll get ten or more different variations.

The good:

The advice is great for writers who are stuck trying to write someone else’s style. I’m certainly guilty of trying to write like my literary idols when I first started, even though they had a very different experience and process to me. It certainly can be done, but I’ll never write exactly like Pratchett, McCaffery, Le Guin, or Sanderson.

But that’s ok, because I don’t have to write like them. The ‘write what you know’ advice I received was essentially that I don’t have to write like someone else, when I can draw on an experience of my own and go from there. It was freeing to know that the perceived guardrails of writing like an established professional existed purely in my mind. Write with my voice, from a perspective that I know.

Essentially, the interpretation of ‘write what you know’  that I first stumbled across was ‘its okay to write your own style that starts from your experiences’. But starting from my experience doesn’t mean I have to stay there. Another aspect of this interpretation is that good writing impacts emotion – and emotions are common across various experiences.

As an example, a recent piece I had a minor level of success on was about undeserved, yet overwhelming guilt. It involved an astronaut dealing with a fire on a interstellar mission (in the interests of self promotion, found here). I have never been on a shuttle, and the only fires I’ve dealt with have been of far less significance. What I have done is tried to talk a friend out of suicide, only for him to kill himself a few weeks later. The knowledge I did all I could to help didn’t do much to discourage the guilt and grief of the period following that. Similarly, I’ve never been alone in space for eight months at a time. But I’ve been isolated from family and friends on the other side of the world for six months, and that (to put it mildly) sucks. I wasn’t writing from experience in space, or any knowledge of space travel in that story. What I knew was the emotion, and that’s what I was trying to convey. Its also the highest I’ve ever placed in a Furious Fiction comp, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

I’ve heard similar stories from other successful authors as well, along the lines of , ‘I don’t know what it is to experience ‘x’, but I know what it is to experience ‘y’, and the two elicit a similar emotion’. I think its season 13 episode 15 of Writing Excuses in which Howard Taylor discussed a similar idea in a much better way than I can.

The bad:

The problem occurs when the advice is taken as a limitation on what can be written, rather than a starting point. When it is taken to mean authors are not allowed to write outside their direct and lived experience. When anything that might need any amount of research is excluded.

The reason this is a problem is because many writers, such as myself, write to learn. We write as therapy and we write from ignorance to explore possibilities and pathways we never thought possible. Taking the advice as ‘you must only write from your experience’ is seriously limiting, and stunts the growth of craft and skill.

For me personally, this really go in the way of my writing for a really simple reason – I don’t like writing about my literal experiences. I can’t write about some of it, and I’ve tried writing parallel experiences such as travel stories. They don’t work for me, and I don’t particularly enjoy writing them. If I wrote purely about my experiences, then I wouldn’t be exploring any ideas, I wouldn’t be enjoying what I write, and my writing journey would have ended there.

‘Write what you know’ is not good advice when it limits what is allowable. I hear this a lot from people, and have seen it cause anxiety where it shouldn’t along with

The ugly:

The most depressing use of this advice I’ve seen is when it used as a weapon. I won’t mention names or specifics, but I once came across an author who thanked another author for their advice on writing a specific demographic. The first author had a book deal on a manuscript that included the demographic and noted that the advice really helped get the details right.

The result? The second author harassed and abused the first. It got heated and very nearly went to a courtroom, despite the fact the book in question had never been read by the abuser.

The worst part? The author doing the abusing – they were coming from a place of experience. They have suffered from some terrible discrimination in the past and have suffered for people trying to write the experience of this demographic and getting it wrong. Yet here they were trying to silence a voice that could potentially be an ally, and arguably had been an ally for some years. This take on ‘write what you know’ actually diminished the support for the second author’s demographic. The first author arguably had the right experiences and knowledge to support as well, and had been widely accepted as such in the past.

Thankfully, this was years ago and I haven’t seen it flare up since. But still, to see advice meant to allow expansion and uniqueness used to bring another author down was very depressing. Thankfully, it rarely seems to be used this way. Most of the time I’ve seen it used this way, its resulted in the accuser discovering the subject of their abuse actually did have the lived experience (if you ever get to hear body horror author Claire Fitzpatrick speak, she tells a great story about getting an abusive review for going ‘outside her lane’ while writing about her own specific and unique experience).

There are certainly cases of writing outside experiences that are way off target, but I think most of these come from people who don’t start from a place of knowledge, or actively go for a subject with which they are not familiar, with little to no interaction with subject community. That’s different – its the exact opposite of write what you know. It writing what you don’t know and hope no-one calls you out. That is not a great strategy.

Conclusion:

Write what you know has deceptive origins. Its literally written by a guy who wrote a book which drew from his experience, yet expanded far beyond it as well. Likewise, many of his stories were quite different to his, at times seeming unrelated to, his own experiences. But the themes and emotions evoked always came back to something tied to his views and perspectives. If he truly stuck to writing what he knew, then this was taken in the vein of writing the feelings he knew that others would relate to as well.

There are many variations on this advice, some restrictive and occasionally its used as a way to shutdown other authors. If its restricting how you write, then its best ignored. Advice should hone and expand what you can do, not hold you back and restrict you. That said, if you can use it as a way to strengthen your writing and give you a way to connect to your readers, then its absolutely a good piece of advice to take. Which is why I like Ursula K Le Guin’s variant – only you know your story. It might be dragons, murder, or a romance, and the details might vary greatly from your won experience. But only you know your story, and if you you write that, drawing on your own emotions, perspective, and/or voice,  then you really don’t need to be told to write what you know. You’re already using the advice, and doing so to its maximum benefit.

 

A Hero’s Journey – Furious Fiction May 2020

I haven’t shared a Furious Fiction story for a little while – quite frankly, they didn’t make it past the internal Quality Control assessments to justify making them public.

This story was different for a couple reasons – first of all, it felt like it hit all the buttons I wanted it to, so that was nice. Secondly, it managed to make the Long List for the month, which is a first for me and still has me giddy with excitement! But without further ado (ad while I quickly double check the list again to make sure I haven’t imagined this), here are the conditions and the story!

Conditions:

The story’s first word had to be FIVE.

The story had to include something being replaced.

The story had to include the phrase A/THE SILVER LINING

 

A Hero’s Journey

 

Five faces stare at me through the hatch. Relief washes over them, and I’m wondering how long before they realise. It’s hard, with the smoke billowing around them, but they are there, and they are alive.

They can’t see my hand. They can’t know its an inch away from emergency release, though it has to be going through their minds. Surely if they were in my place, they would do the same?

Except they’re not. They never have been and never will be. There are seconds before the fire breaches the compartment and the shuttle is lost. Its easy, I tell myself. Move my hand an inch and the fire is sucked out into the darkness and stars behind it.

Along with those five faces.

If even one was this side it might be easier. I would be saving them, I would tell myself, not just me. I would be able to convince myself it was a noble deed. Or if I was on the other side. Surely its easier being a hero when you only have to sacrifice yourself.

But the reality is that the only person I’ll be saving is me. Everyone else I’ve known for the last few months is of the wrong side of the bulkhead.

Maybe if I open it just for a second, just long enough for one of them to dart through. Jen’s small, quick. Surely she could make it? A tragedy sure, but one replaced with at least one other survivor?

No. Reality replaces hope before I even finish the thought. Fire follows fuel. Opening the hatch just invites the flames through. It’s a guaranteed death for all of us. This was its just a guaranteed death for them.

My fingers brush the release. Would that be such a bad option though? There’s no guilt if I go with them. The mission is a failure anyway, and eight months alone on the way back is nothing short of terrifying.

Through the smoke I get a last look at their faces – pleading, acceptance, anger. It’s a mix of expressions. The hatch it getting hotter now. Its moments away from breaching.

I take one more look. Five faces, staring at me. No relief this time. Tears, stoic-ness, anger – a myriad of emotions replace the hope they had just moments ago.

One button. One moment. And five faces float away, a starving fireball accompanying them into the void. One face remains reflected in the silicate window. One face strewn with guilt, relief, tears and self-hate.

I had survived, sure. I would go home and see my family, and probably get some kind of award then retire on a decent pension. But watching those five faces disappear, even knowing I didn’t have much choice, survival doesn’t seem much of a silver lining.

Journal – Week 9

Week 9 already (or probably Week 10 by the time I post this). Hooo boy. Good thing I work well to deadlines.

That said, this week I hit the 10.5k minimum required for the subject, and I’ve been working hard on both revising and getting towards the end. Getting a decent wordcount isn’t as much a challenge for me as getting the right words into it though, so this is very much the make-or-break period for me – getting the editing right.

What I’ve been focussing on is layering theme and foreshadowing. For both, I’m a firm believed that subtlety is key. No-one likes a preachy story, and when foreshadowing tells the story for you, it can make the rest a bit redundant. As a side note, I’m talking about the surprising-but-inevitable type of foreshadowing. Having a signpost or promise being less subtle is quite a different thing.

But anyway, onto the journal. Because I have an ending to write, as well as a draft exegesis (which I misread the assessment for, and now have about two and half weeks to get a 3-4k essay done. Draft only at least).

 

Journal – Week 9

This has been my ogre week – developing layers to flesh out the story and frame it in a way to put forward the message I want it to convey. There is a long, convoluted pitch that goes through some of the more detailed components of the theme, but essentially it comes down to discussing the interplay between how an individual sees themselves, how they way to be seen, and how society sees them. It’s about conflict of identity between society and self. But as a theme, I want it to be subtle enough that readers can make up their own mind between the importance of self-determination versus the needs and expectations a society places on an individual, in this case as a consequence of the change the individual has wrought in society. The back and forth of each impacting the other is really the crux of it, and that is what needs to be layered in for comparison. Using the suggestions by Alderson and Rosenfeld (2016), I’ve tried to make the dialogue a little more sparse and used it, along with combining foreshadowing and narrator voice, to take a three-pronged approach to conveying theme.

I’ve also used and developed poetry as an express method to introduce culture and tone at the start of each chapter, which has given me the structural crutch of chapter numbers – one for each deity (plus maybe a bonus to add to the climax). Poetry has both the benefit of drawing from previous subjects as well as being made more powerful by foreshadowing. To give a powerful, immersive start to each chapter enables maximum worldbuilding that subtly adds to the theme without using too many words.

 

References:

 

Alderson, M, & Rosenfeld, J, 2016, ‘Developing theme scene by scene’, Writers Digest , vol 96, no 2, viewed 16 May 2020, https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.cqu.edu.au/apps/doc/A439832456/AONE?u=cqu&sid=AONE&xid=36dc2c75. Accessed 17 May 2020.

Bugeja, M, 2000. ‘Foreshadowing empowers poems,’ Writer’s Digest, vol 80, no 12, pp.44–45.

Journal – Week 8

Okay okay. . .I’m really excited because I’ve actually made some progress in this story, and instead of writing about writing it, I want to take this opportunity to actually talk about what its shaping up to be.

Also, I’ve settled on a title. With the story centering around themes of the interplay between self-perceived and societally-perceived identities, I’ve gone with a simple one.

‘Unchosen’

After accidentally killing the God of War in a heist-gone-wrong (seriously, who even knew they could die?!) Kithna is hunted by the priest of pretty much every remaining god. After all, its not really in their best interests to have the knowledge of their mortality free to roam the human world. 

Except for one. The Lady, as she seems to be known, can’t be a god – the (former) immortals are known as the Brotherhood for a reason – but she clearly isn’t human either. What is far less clear is what she is trying to achieve, why she is offering to help Kithna, and whether Kithna will accept that help, or stick to her tried and true modus operandi – running as though her life depended on it. Which, if the Brotherhood keep at it, it does.

 

Anyhoo, without any futher preamble, here’s the journal entry (even if its almost a week late. . sorry)!

Journal – Week 8

One of the biggest struggles I’ve had over the course as a whole is my tendency to write long. I naturally want to write a 100k, or at least part of a novel-length story. I’ve noticed that this tendency is coming out quite a bit in my current story and with the readings focusing on delivering the promise, this has highlighted a problem with my structure. Basically in its current form, the story is setting up to deliver in about fifty chapters time. What I need is it to deliver within the parameters of the assignment.

Using the elements suggested by Kress of the characters, conflicts, problems, and tensions(2011, p. 47), I think there is a reasonably simple solution that both fulfills the requirements of the assignment as well as that horrible nagging internal voice that wants the series of novels to spill onto the page. That is, by setting this up as a stand-alone short story (requirement of the assignment) while structuring it simultaneously as a first act (Whitcomb, 1999). In the same way that the prologue to Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World reads as both its own story and a setup for the series, my artefact will be a self-contained story concluding at the second scene involving the protagonist and deuteragonist facing the same problem as the beginning, but with the context changing around them demanding a change in their views and response. In that sense, to make it a story in and of itself, there needs to be significant transformation usually not found in the first act (James, 2011).

This also means I have to clarify the promise made – at this stage it isn’t clear and needs some editing anyway, so this fits nicely with the current state. What else fits is that the whole artefact promises a larger world and conflict, and is leading nicely to delivering on the possibility of it. Considering the initial  position of the protagonist as one who has rejected (and been rejected) by the world, wishes it was different, but refuses to act to change it, I’ve decided the initial promise will be focused on her willingness to change it. I haven’t got it exactly yet, but something along the lines of providing a world-changing event caused by the protagonist with be the promise, with the acceptance of that role in guiding it (which will change both the identities of both society and individual) as the as the short story promise, and the potential for a greater, more existential conflict as the promise for the continued novel.

Its getting late to make big structural changes, but I think this fits nicely with what I have, and will be able to be editing in to add layers, rather than redirecting the story in a major way.

 

 

References

 

James, Steven, 2011. ‘Story trumps structure: forget three-act structures, formulas for plot, and even beginnings, middles and ends. Write better stories by propelling your protagonist through a transformation your readers will never forget.(WRITE BETTER)’, Writer’s Digest, vol 91, no. 2, p.36, viewed 10 May 2020, https://go-gale-com.ezproxy.cqu.edu.au/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA284015242&v=2.1&u=cqu&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w

Kress, N 2011, ‘Satisfying Endings: Delivering on the Promise’, in Elements of Fiction Writing – Beginnings, Middles & Ends, pp. 47 – 61, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, viewed 09 May 2020, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip,sso&db=nlebk &AN=4182 70&site=ehost-live&authtype=sso&custid=s3716178&ebv=EK&ppid=Page-__-47

Whitcomb, C 1999, ‘Conquering the three-act structure’,. Writer’s Digest, vol 78, no. 4, viewed 10 May 2020 from https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.cqu.edu.au/apps/doc/A54239278/AONE?u=cqu&sid=AONE&xid=168a2fce

Journal – Week 7

So if you thought you might get something other than ‘I’M SO FAR BEHIND!’ . . . then sorry, this isn’t your week. But I am getting closer to being back on track. I managed to get the edits for my short story ‘Trench’ done, I finished a structural report for a novel with Odyssey (it’s a fantastic novel and didn’t need much, just took me a while to get to writing it), and got stuck into another structural report. So thinks are starting to get back to normal (ish).

What is means is that for the next five weeks, I get to focus mainly in the dissertation, and get to ensure it has the elements to make it (hopefully) more than just a uni assignment.

 

Journal – Week 7

 

Ideally, I wanted to be in revisions by now. Sitting about halfway through the first draft therefore has me a little disappointed, but that said the progress of the last couple of weeks has me almost caught up regard to word count. I think it’s a safe bet to say the first draft will be rougher than most, but John McNally’s chapter on perseverance (2010) is a strong motivator in getting something down.

This week’s focus therefore, has been primarily just to write whatever comes out. I can make it fit the narrative I need it to later, but at the moment I need to write to get the story down.

The second objective has been to get to key beats in the plot. So far the protagonist has simply been running away from each conflict that seems to find them. At some point, they need to engage with the new world in which they are intrinsically tangled and take a proactive role in the outcome. Thankfully, the protagonist is very much a ‘doer’ in the sense used by Jockers and Kirilloff, which gives her a stronger sense of agency and greater ability to be portrayed as a layered, three-dimensional character.

I’ve also decided to bring in extra characters to change the impinge on the protagonist’s simplistic view of the world and challenge some motivations, which will hopefully solve my aim for Week 8 – bring in the cultural world-building.

 

References.

McNally, J, 2010, ‘Perseverance’, in The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist, University of Iowa Press, pp. 13-16, viewed 03 May 2020, https://moodle.cqu.edu.au/pluginfile.php/3244587/mod_resource/content/2/McNally%2C%20John%202010%2C%20Perseverence.j.ctt20mvgmb.7.pdf

 

Jockers, M, &, a Kirilloff, G, 2018. Understanding Gender and Character Agency in the 19th Century Novel, SocArXiv, viewed 02 May 2020,  https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/sw85m/

 

Journal – Week 6

After a couple weeks off, I managed to get a fair amount down in words this week. This is my third attempt to get a story going for my dissertation, and thankfully it seems to be working. Unfortunately, it means that I’m having to compress much of the development as I really should be close to editing by now.

As much as I love the work of Pratchett, I’ve tried not to write like him for two reasons. First of all, he was a freakin’ genius. Best leave that alone rather than screw it up with a sub-par dedication. Secondly, I’ve always found his style to produce a different story than the one I wanted to tell.

That said – time is a thing, and it keeps bringing deadlines closer. So I’m leaning into aspects of Pratchetism, and finding that aside from an abundance of footnotes, it doesn’t read a derivatively as I thought. Though I suppose that will be up to everyone else when its published (*hopefully* as a novelette, but at the very least on this website). When it is, I hope you enjoy it as much as I’m starting to enjoy reading it. Until then, have a journal entry!

Journal – Week 6

While the change in my story has meant a significantly different plot and protagonist, it remains similarly complex in the sense that I need to stop trying to condense a novel into a novelette and just write the story within the parameters I have. So when Kress gives options of backfill, flashback, or a continuation of story time (2011, p. 21), the most obvious choice for me is a continuation. Push through, get the story written, then pepper with backstory as required later.

A bit of an experiment I’m using to create backstory with footnotes, in what is becoming an evidently more Pratchett-inspired style than I initially intended. The other element I need to include shortly though is the antagonist – in this case, Toris, a Zeus-styled character, head of the at-risk Pantheon of the story. Toris sits both outside the society he influences and is the centre of it as a point of worship. To achieve the aim of demonstrating the two-way influences of social and individual identity, I’ll need to lean into the Pratchett-esque style and intend to make Toris a relatable villain (Cockrell 2006).

While it has been a bit of an accident, I think this sets up a nice parallel to the theme. Toris is viewed as a kind, generous, and strong deity. Yet in realising his own mortality as a very real possibility, he becomes paranoid, selfish, and absorbed in the single task of eliminating the protagonist (who poses the risk simply by existing). He will never be an average person, but the fear of death and fear of the unknown experience will make him vulnerable to the same pitfalls as those that worship him, and will therefore have an unintended impact on them.

Essentially, while not technically a ‘man’ I’m aiming for the tone set by the following Pratchett quote:

         It was much better to imagine men in some smoky room somewhere made mad and cynical by privilege and power, plotting over the brandy. You had to cling to this sort of image, because if you didn’t then you might have to face the fact that bad things happened because ordinary people, the kind who brushed the dog and told their children bedtime stories, were capable of then going out and doing horrible things to other ordinary people.

–    Sir (P)Terry Pratchett, Jingo

 

 

References

Cockrell, A 2006. ‘Where the falling angel meets the rising ape: Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’’, Hollins Critic, vol. 43, no. 1,. Gale Academic OneFile, viewed 26 April 2020 https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.cqu.edu.au/apps/doc/A146741916/AONE?u=cqu&sid=AONE&xid=a89cdfe7.

Kress, N 2011, ‘Chapter Two: The Later Beginning – Your Second Scene’, in Elements of Fiction Writing – Beginnings, Middles & Ends, pp. 20 – 25, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, viewed 25 April 2020, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip,sso&db=nlebk&AN=418270&site=ehost-live&authtype=sso&custid=s3716178&ebv=EK&ppid=Page-__-20.

Pratchett, T 1997, Jingo, Gollancz, London