When it comes to Standard Writing Advice, right at or very near the top of the list has to be that ancient, dubious bit of wisdom: “Write what you know.”
A person need know nothing about writing to dispense this advice, and it is often non-writers who do dispense it. Sometimes with charity, sometimes with malice. The young writers who listen to the advice may be hurt a lot more than helped. At best, the young writers add to the world’s stockpile of coming-of-age fiction. At worst, the young writers produce no fiction at all. They fear to be exposed as innocent and ignorant.
I was in the second category. I knew I could write, but what did I know to write about? Not much, it seemed. So I pursued experience instead. Such a course keeps you busy, but it’s a losing game. For one thing, you aren’t writing. For another, some experience just can’t be had. That’s most obvious with science fiction or historical fiction. How are you going to experience life on a distant planet or in 12th Century Europe?
Well, you aren’t. Yes, you can read and research, but in the end it isn’t your big pile of facts that will matter. Facts can be accumulated by anybody. In the end, as a fiction writer, you have to create a story out of the facts. You have to create virtual life. To do that, you have to make things up. You have to lie. I don’t care how well you know a place, a person or an era, in the end, to be a fiction writer you have to make things up and the things that you make up must seem as real to the reader as the things you don’t. The story could be set a thousand years ago or next week or at the end of time, but to work it has to seem real; the reader must buy in. The reader must care.
Simply telling the truth isn’t enough. Piling up facts isn’t enough.
People may think they read novels to learn something, but they don’t. They read novels to feel something.
If the truth contributes to the feeling the reader gets from your story, fine. If not, then to hell with it. Make up something that will get the job done. A story is an emotion-generator or it is nothing.
When readers finish your story, they should feel as if it happened to them. If instead they just think it may have happened to you, the writer, then it is a failure. They shouldn’t be thinking about you at all, really, except to find more of your stories.
A fiction writer is an artful liar. If you know enough to make up a convincing lie for your target readers, a compelling and emotion-producing lie, then you know enough, period.
Write about what interests you, what moves you, and then recognize that your job is to be skillful enough to allow strangers into the world that you create out of a few facts and many artful lies.
Well said! I exaggerate a lot, because I like BIG EMOTION and INTENSE FEELINGS. If I didn’t have stories to tell I’d be making stuff up in real life and weirding people out. As it is, I love to make up stories about strangers. I used to live in an apartment building on the third floor. The neighbors below my apartment fought all the time but we couldn’t make out the words to the fights, just the yelling and slamming. I would lay on the floor with my roomate and make up elaborate dialogue and stories about what they were arguing about. I created characters and family members that had set about destroying their relationship. It was a lot of fun.
I think that intense desire to know the stories and when I don’t know them, to make them up, is what drives me as a writer.
I agree, this was nicely put. You’ve got a wonderful way with words, James. Welcome to IWSG. I look forward to more posts.
“People may think they read novels to learn something, but they don’t. They read novels to feel something.” – Wonderfully put! I could not agree more. This was a great IWSG post and your advice is sound. Thanks so much for sharing your insight!
Molly Blaisdell says
Ah, “write what you know.” I like to say, “write what you want to know too..” Thoughtful.