WordCon Day 5 – The Glorious End

For previous days, links below.

WorldCon Day 4 – and the, er. . .Hugos

WorldCon Day 3 – and Brisbane 2025

WorldCon Day 2 – The Socialising. . .kind of

WorldCon Day 1 – The Rambling

After Saturday’s post though, I want to make something clear – for the vast majority of the Con, I had an absolute blast. One thing I really appreciated is that the con ended how it began for me – with a bunch of fascinating panels with engaging panelists and attendees that held refine and inform my own writing.

That said, I woke still pretty deflated from the Hugos. Some people have suggested anger is a more appropriate response, but me and anger are not a great combination, so I prefer to celebrate the strong lists, the amazing winners, and the speeches. Other aspects need to be learnt from, and analysis of those elements is on a repeat loop in my head. It might be selfish, but I want to keep helping with the Hugos, and I never want to be attached to the kinds of things that were said outside of the winners’ speeches. To that end, I will try to learn from the horrific, but focus on the positives. The Hugos should be about the fans, and the winners are included in that category. Toastmaster is a service to those fans. That service might be meant as an honour, but it comes with obligations and responsibilities, not self-indulgent rights.

So that’s all I’ll say about that – the rest of my focus will be listening and improving to ensure as much as I can, I will be able to push the focus towards the fans in future ceremonies.

With all that going through my head, I missed the first panel of the day. But good news, its all available for another week, so I can still chase that up.

The first panel I did make was Screenwriting 101. I’m not a screenwriter, but its an area I’ve always wanted to get into. The idea of doing an anthology of shorts is absolutely on my bucket list, and now seems to be a better time than any to start learning how to get that done. Key take aways were that, ‘You’re a genius’ is Hollywood for ‘Hello’, and to register all scripts with WGA for protection. Slightly concerning takeaways, but still, useful. There were others as well – a few tips on how to stand out, how to find a niche, and challenge (that I’m sure wasn’t intended) to write a weird horror RomCom.

Challenge accepted.*

The second panel I attended was Military SF with Joe Haldeman. This was a particularly personal one for me, and it did a great job of discussing what matters in military science fiction. The idea that we write it from the context of our own – such as fleets fighting a Naval force in space, and by extension cloaked battles were submarine battles in space.

One thing that really stood out though was the humility and respect with which Joe spoke. Maybe it was because it was in contrast to others of a similar demographic over the con, but Joe was willing to contribute from his own experience and past, while openly acknowledging he was (in his own words) a ‘historical relic’. Now, I’m not sure that’s the case; much of the advice he was giving on the focus of relationships and growing a critical mindset as part of the soldier’s character development.

While I don’t think the ‘historical relic’ is completely accurate, I do appreciate that he seemed to be subtly pushing people to looking at the future of writing and the future of science fiction. Also, Kin-Ming Looi’s Babylon Five setup was amazing.

The next panel was one that focussed on the technical side of virtual cons. It was interesting, and very helpful in looking at the Aus 2025 bid, but much of the technical side probably isn’t that relevant to the con. What I will say is that a key take away for me was the pivotal requirement for integration of a number of different systems. Also, regarding those systems – sometimes some budgetary pain for the sake of a professional frees up many volunteers and efforts for other elements. More expensive, but less stressful and a less resource heavy.

My final session is one that was probably one of the best ways to end the con – a two hour documentary on the legacy of Ursula K. Le Guin.

The doco is apparently available on Amazon Prime (which I can’t check because I don’t have it anymore), and I thoroughly recommend it. From her childhood, to her education, family, and works. It interviews Le Guin herself, in which she admits to the fear of accepting awards and delivering scathing acceptance speeches, she discusses what she did wrong and how she grew in her writing, and beautiful recitals of her own poetry.

It also left me with one question that has played at the back of my mind ever since the Astounding award was given its name last year – why is there no Urusla K. Le Guin award, scholarship, or other formal recognition within the industry? She won I think seven Hugos, six Nebulas, the World Fantasy Award, a bunch of Locus awards, and a bunch of formal literary accolades – yet there is a scholarship with Oregon University and that is all. She has arguably redefined the way we look at science fiction and fantasy, enabling a more accessible genre, and forced people to take it seriously (though this is an ongoing battle). Maybe its just the fan in me planting a whole bunch of bias, or maybe I’ talking in ignorance and something dies exist out there. But if it doesn’t, I think that we, as a community, need to be able to recognise her contribution in some kind of perpetual way. Maybe it isn’t the time, or maybe there are others from more marginalised communities we need to recognise first. I don’t know. But she stands out as a giant of talent, bravery, and change to me. I think that should be recognised somewhere.

But anyway, on following this I did what is appropriate at the end of a Con. I went and got a comfortable chair, a glass of Dubliners, and hung out in the virtual bar for a bit. It was a bit quiet to start with, but soon a bunch of local Kiwis appeared which resulted in a nice, quiet, decompression from the week.

In the end, there were some great experiences and I met some fantastic people. Yes, there was a horrific butchering of a role by an actual historical relic, but to focus on the winners, the future of SFF looks fantastic. Learning and networking alike were far more exhausting and successful than I ever expected and the technical execution was not flawless, but ridiculously well done as the first virtual WordCon. For New Zealand, I hope this is their legacy. For me, I’m just glad that overall, I got to enjoy my first ever WorldCon, even if it was from the comfort of my own home.

Onward to Washington – likely also from the comfort of my own home.

~Nathan

*Challenge pitch:

‘All Kraken wants is a breeding partner – they didn’t mean to find love. Now they must try to reveal their true form to their lover, without the lover freaking out – or worse, attracting the attention of their lover’s tentacle obsessed younger sibling. Octodad meets The Little Mermaid

WorldCon Day 4 – and the, er. . .Hugos

Hey, so this is coming out a bit earlier than usual because I am absolutely exhausted and probably won’t have the capacity to do this later.

Also, because I think its important to address my first ever Hugos, one in which I was able to participate in behind the scenes.

For those that didn’t see it, Arkady Markady’s speech really summed it up in her acceptance speech for Best Novel. To wildly paraphrase, she described the night as a contrast between a simplified, nostalgic past and a complex, difficult, and exciting present and future. There wasn’t anything malicious in the ceremony, but the throwbacks to the 1950’s and 1970’s award ceremonies was. . . problematic. Let me make this clear – I hold a lot of privilege, and am pretty hard to unnerve. But even I felt uncomfortable in much of it, and felt that it would probably have made plenty of others even more uncomfortable, upset, or worse.

But there was an up side. Speeches like that of R.F. Kuang calling out the problems in entering the writing world as a woman and a marginalised community – the harassment, pigeon-holing, and racim – and that of Jeanette Ng (who by all rights needs to be nominated for a 2021 Related Work Hugo for her acceptance speech) were amazing. Ng’s speech might not ripple into another name change for an award as her 2019 speech did, but it was just as powerful. And as is becoming tradition (twice is tradition, right?) she ended with an awesome hat.

In that sense, it really was a Hugo in two parts. George’s stories were clearly dear memories to him, but talking so highly of people who are known to have massively damaged diversity in SFF was (to put it mildly) a failure to really understand the modern SFF community.

This isn’t meant to be a criticism of George, but if we take out the diversity in the award winners of 2020 (link here), we can list maybe three or four winners. The classic gatekeepers kept out the voices of so many literary masters who will now never be known. They were Georges idols and peers. They are probably great memories and stories for him. But they are a reminder of damaging people in a damaging time that continues to impact modern works.

As someone who was involved in the show, and someone who both attended and contributed for the first time, it was an eyeopening experience. It might be a little bias of me, but I don’t want to put any hate on the volunteer team either. Having seen the work that went in behind the scenes, I felt genuinely bad for some of the people who had their work represented this way. I don’t know what opportunities or skills they had to change what was the final show, but I do hope that for Washington 2021, Chicago 2022, and WorldCons in the foreseeable future learn to look forward, rather than relish a selective past in the way they organise future ceremonies.

~Nathan

Links to previous days:

WorldCon Day 1 – The Rambling

WorldCon Day 2 – The Socialising. . .kind of

WorldCon Day 3 – and Brisbane 2025

WorldCon Day 3 – and Brisbane 2025

Evening all!

Another day, another early morning with tech and script checks for the Hugos. Really keen to see these done for real tomorrow, and REALLY hoping we can pull off the first digital-only ceremony with minimal hitches!

Regarding the day’s events though, I had the pleasure of hearing local Canberra author Sam Hawke read part of her Ghost Novel – the unpublished manuscript that was meant to follow City of Lies, before another path was taken.

City
Image: samhawkewrites.com

Before that though was a group for networking, which while I thought it would be a session on networking, it was actually one better – the practical experience. A room full of like-minded writers, publishers and editors all looking to connect, which like the bars last night, was something I thought I would miss out on at a digital con. The other advantage was that when I had to leave for ‘How to Create Believable Characters in Unbelievable Situations’ with Charlie Jane Anders. The take away from this was all about the experiences, relationships, and traumas of a character. No matter how weird, wacky, or wonderful we make someone, these things give them grounding and enables at least some kind of relating to and understanding of the character.

This is where the day went a bit pear shaped – things happened, everyone is ok, but I had to put the Con aside for a bit. I managed a bit of the Fairy Tale Contract Law (in which we determined Fairies want the eldest for the inheritance, the youngest always completes the quest because once they’re done there’s no need for more kids, and that the Fairy Mafia is run by the Goosefather).

But the BIG thing that happened was the evolving of a discussion that had begun on day one.

In short, I made a comment about Canberra running for WorldCon 83 as Yes We CanCon 2025. Apparently someone else – in fact a few other people – had a similar idea, and a mutual friend put us and a bunch of others in a room to discuss the idea seriously. While Canberra unfortunately doesn’t have the capacity just yet, Brisbane does. So it’s official – we’ve started the wheels turning for Aus2025 in Brisbane.

Now, much of this discussion happened over the bar, which may have inspired my bid for a logo:

Huggles

Thankfully, the far more talented Kat Clay came up with a better temporary logo – there are a few other elements we want to incorporate, but they need to be done properly. That said, I think Kat’s design is a pretty darn good. So without any further rambling from me, go find it, go support it, and lets get behind the first Aussie WorldCon since 2010!

 

Bris Twitter

 

WorldCon Day 2 – The Socialising. . .kind of

Evening all!

Good news: The day 2 recap is a little more organised than Day 1.

Bad news: . . . I did a bunch less stuff because I was hanging out in the chats, doing the whole socialising thing.

But anyway, onto the day!

First of all was a slightly different experience – rehearsing the Hugos. I originally signed up as a volunteer because as it’s my first WorldCon, I figured it’s a good way to throw myself into the convention. Turns out, it still is, albeit among a more technical crowd. Its certainly been an eye opening experience to what goes on behind the scenes, and I’m keen to see the final result (while REALLY hoping I don’t screw anything up).

Three sessions I went to were readings; Joe Haldeman, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Becky Chambers, and intermingled with the panels and Retro Hugo ceremony. I’ve read the first two, but it was a bit of a new experience to listen to them read. For the Becky Chambers reading, it was my first introduction to her work, and it’s now pretty clear why she draws such a crowd. I won’t discuss these too much as these are pretty straight forward.

Regarding the Retro Hugos, this year for 1945, unfortunately I couldn’t really get the stream to work. But I’ve heard it was great, and get the opportunity to check out the video later. For the results, they are recorded here.

What I did get to was modern criticisms on Science Fiction, with Canberra’s own Cat Sparks. Locus Magazine was well represented on the panel, and gave some great advice on professional critique vs reviews.

I also went to the Democratisation of Access to Space course. I’ve just started putting together a non-fic article on the question of a modern Space Race, and there were some really good stats that came out of it. The G8+China owning 89% of new space organisations, and 88% of the world’s space budget. The analysis of democratic index applied to science fiction worlds of the future, from Start Trek, to the The Expanse, to Elysium, was fascinating.  The rest didn’t quite go the direction I was hoping for, but was interesting nonetheless, and I’m looking forward to reading the paper that goes alongside it.

What To Do Until Your Ship Comes In was fantastic, made in no small part better by the first six minutes threatening to turn into Proud Dad Hour by Sean McMullen talking about fellow panelist Catherine S McMullen. What I really liked about this though was the different avenues panelists took to their path – throwing themselves into the world in which they wanted to work, taking work that gave them the space to think, or just taking ones that gave them control over hours – meant there were many paths for people to follow. Importantly though, were the points that none were perfect. Sacrifices were made, and if you’re happy to make them, fine, but it can be damaging to ignore them. Oh, and don’t expect your ship will come in. Work for it, but don’t rely on it.

Next was yet another favourite – Asian Women of Horror: The Experience of Perpetual “Otherness” Through the Lens of Dark Fiction. This might not be one that would immediately seem to appeal to me, or even be targeted at my demographic, but anything that looks through the lens of dark fiction or discussed the Other is immediately on my list. And this had both. Not only that, but it featured Prema Arasu, who is fast becoming an academic I have the highest respect for. Her perspectives on the monstrous being expressed in specific ways, and the idea of negotiating otherness as one who is in a small diaspora were not only enlightening, but also play directly into my own studies. If these topics interest you as well, look for her PhD to be completed in a couple of years. Should be a good one.

Now, at this point a few things happened. First of all, I started making a curry only to discover the past is meant to sit overnight. Then I discovered I that I had forgotten to eat all day, but my amazing wife who always takes care of me had already ordered me dinner. Then we had another delivery – a vacuum chamber and pump that I can use to make better dice! Yay!

Something else happened here as well though that was much more con-like, and I really appreciated more than I thought I would. I went to the virtual bar, and started chatting, only to find some great conversation among fans and writers alike.

I’ve really enjoyed the virtual concept so far, but I miss meeting new people. I didn’t think it would be possible to wander into a Discord and start talking to strangers, but it was fun, meaningless conversation that really gave the feel of an in-person con. It also lead me to the next two events – a book launch of Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy Volume 2 and another for Sally McLellan’s Somewhere Else.

In all, it was a smaller, slower day. But the result of that was that it was far less hectic, led to some great socialisation, and now I have s batch of curry paste, just waiting to be thrown over something tomorrow.

~Nathan

WorldCon Day 1 – The Rambling

Hoooooo-kay. My first WordCon, Day One taught me a few things. First of all, waking up in excitement at 3am is not a good way to begin (so apologies for the inevitable typos and rambling). Also, I need to be far more organised, and while I want to get to absolutely everything, this won’t happen. Trying to attend multiple sessions simultaneously is . . .problematic. But more on that later.

First of all, a summary of how we got here.

The World Science Fiction Convention (don’t be fooled by the name; Fantasy, Horror, Steampunk, and a bunch of other genres are also represented) aka WorldCon 78 aka CoNZealand – was meant to be hosted by Wellington in New Zealand this year. Well, is still kind of is. CoNZealand is still running the business end, its just that we get to experience it digitally.

Now, there are pro’s and cons to this. My selfie with Toastmaster George RR Martin was a little different, for example:

Selfie

But on the plus side, there are no queues, no-one judges you for having a gin in the middle of the day, and when a session isn’t quite what I’m after, it’s so simple to jump into another other and see what’s around. Also, I was able to sit in a bunch of different Discord servers and enjoy multiple conversations simultaneously. All from the comfort of my own home, with no travel costs.

There is a downside too. I like meeting people in person. I wanted to get some books signed. I just want to visit New Zealand and Hobbiton at some point. But even with all of that, and a few technical glitches, I’m a big fan of running the digital option at future cons. I hope future WorldCons have this feature.

But anyway, onto the Con Experience!

For the first few hours, I was fulfilling my volunteer duties as a roving moderator. Funnily enough, the first session of ‘Meditation for Trekkies’ didn’t result in any issues. What it did result some enlightenment on the Jewish history of the Vulcan salute. Apparently as a child, Nimoy saw a Rabbi make the symbols as part of a religious ceremony, and adopted it as part of his character.

As a whole, the meditation was a relaxing way to begin and set the tone for a great day.

Next on my schedule Future Laws. Now if the meditation put me in a relaxed mindset, the Future Laws panel gave me all the right kinds of headaches, dealing with difficult, knotty, and complex legal questions. Discussing questions of liability when it comes to AI and self-driving cars, the idea of cascading effects of precedent leading to legal conservatism, and tech companies leading the legal system in setting the expectations and responsibilities of tech. In short, it was fascinating.

Next was the opening ceremony, with a special appearance from one Jacinda Ardern:

JA

And George pre-selfie talking about frogs, elephants, and potentially jumping out of a paper mache Kiwi (though it was unclear if this was a fruit, a bird, or a citizen of New Zealand).

GRRM

One of the best parts was going through the design of the Retro and contemporary Hugos. The incorporation of navigation techniques, constellations, art styles and indigenous culture across the two designs made for stunning bases well and truly worthy of the Hugos.

One of the other best parts (there were many) were the winners of the First Fan awards. I didn’t even know these were a thing, but it’s a great concept. WorldCon runs on volunteers and fan communities, so acknowledging that is a nice touch. As a bit of a newbie to the community, I don’t know enough to give worthy and respectable run downs, so I’ll just list them below.

Hall of Fame: Roger Sims

Posthumous Hall of Fame: Chad Oliver

Sam Moskowitz Archive Award: John Carter Tibbetts

Big Heart Awards: Janice Gelb and Stephen Boucher

Well done to all!

I’ll also apologise for not listing the rest of the guests – if I did, I would pretty quickly run out of space! But they’re all awesome. And one of them has an Allosaurus skull, which as a former dino-nerd, was awesome.

Okay. Next item.

Welcome, New Professional Writers.

Now, this was great as a place to hear about writers who are the start of their careers and can tell us what we’re in for if/when the rest of us make it as authors. Photogenic pets are a must, and social media is a necessary evil.

Trashcat                                   Aliss

My ‘photogenic’ requirements

But there was a bit of a distraction when an agent decided to offer advice in the chat. Not just any agent either, but Joshua Bilmes of JABerwocky, who is very high on many people’s query lists (including mine). In that sense, it became almost a duel session. New authors, and an experienced agent. Perfect mix for some really good advice.

But it also led me to the false belief that maybe, just maybe, I could attend multiple session. So I spent the next hour was spent trying to straddle the ‘What to expect when querying’ and ‘Who, what, when, and/or where inspired you’ panels. There was some good advice in both, and a very cool knife from Kaaron Warren in one of the sessions, but I should have learnt then that I would struggle to appreciate multiple sessions at once.

Spoiler: I didn’t.

The next two session, ‘Small Press: Leading the Way’, and ‘The Death of Genre’ were great, but I lost so much context and content from jumping between the two that it finally convinced me to stick to one.

That said, I did catch some great comments about the community of small publishers, the collaborative process, and the agility of small presses to adapt, simply by virtue of not having to alter the momentum of more staff, more processes, etc. It was also very interesting to hear about what work and what doesn’t, and how much that often depends on the engagement of the author in the process as well as the publisher knowing the audience and avenues to go through.

The Death of Genre panel was very much into the perception of stories – genre as a way to sell, as a way to label, and as a way to convey context to the reader. Personally, I’m not convinced genre is dead or meaningless at all, though it may be that genres as we understand them may need updating.

Other areas of discussion were how covers invoke ideas of genre, and which genres seemed to mix together nicely. In all, it was informative, I just wish I could have given my full attention to each panel.

So, having learned my lesson. . .I passed out at my computer. I won’t mention which panel it was, but it was a fantastic one that was very interesting. I was just exhausted. In my defence, I had woken up at 3am, and it was an intense first day. So I had a nap, waking just in time for the BEST PANEL OF THE DAY! ‘Representing the Other’.

This is a topic that is very much of interest to me. As someone who holds a lot of privilege purely through the luck of genetics, I’m always very cautious of writing other demographics. Knowing how to support marginalised communities without getting in the way or appropriating culture is very important to me, and hearing about ethical responsibilities, how and when to approach sensitivity readers, respecting the emotional labour of those sensitivity readers, and getting a bunch of book recommendations was awesome.

Considering I’m already at 1200 words, this is becoming a little less of a summary and more me tiredly blabbering about what a great time I had, so I’ll summarise the rest in a few lines;

Are we in a simulation: Consensus of ‘does it matter?’ and, ‘Yes, No, Maybe’. Also had me geeking out at all the philosophy talk.

do-you-like-malcolm-in-the-middle-yes-no-maybe-12424069

Planning and Attending Conventions in the Age of COVID-19: Virtual has advantages, but misses the chance interactions and social side. VR and AR are at least 5 yrs out. Masks are good, but need to be thought through (taking lipreading into account, for example).

Then there was a party, but the best part about a virtual con was that while I can go to the bar, I can also do it while sitting in my tracky-dacks, at home, in the comfort of my own bed. Goodnight.

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.