Don’t “write what you know”…

“Bad books on writing and thoughtless English professors solemnly tell beginners to “Write What You Know”, which explains why so many mediocre novels are about English professors contemplating adultery.” Joe Haldeman

“Write what you know” is one of the most commonly repeated pieces of advice given to aspiring writers, and one of the most dangerous. Dangerous, because it’s often taken to mean that your first novel should be a thinly disguised autobiography. This may seem like an easy way to start, writing about the things that are closest to you, but in fact the opposite is true. Fictionalising your own life is a very difficult trick to pull off.

There are a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, we are not really very good at being objective about ourselves. That’s why people don?t like to hear their own voices on a recording: because how we sound in our own heads is very different to how we sound to other people. “To see ourselves as others see us” may be a gift, but it is also a bit of a shock. However self-aware we might think we are, it is difficult to portray ourselves in fiction with any great insight or objectivity.

That’s not to say that we believe ourselves to be perfect. Most writers try to depict themselves “warts and all” (but you should beware the ?Mary Sue?). Unless they are very skilled, though, their character will begin to take over, demanding attention like a small child. An author’s incarnation in their own story distorts everything around them. When you write fiction you are creating a world; your power is absolute. You can turn the sky red, set the seas on fire. You are God. As Flaubert said, “An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”

(Our lack of objectivity has another side effect: people generally don’t like to read fictionalised versions of themselves written by others, even if the writer thinks the portrayal is complimentary. Be very careful if you are thinking of basing characters closely on your friends and family. They may not be flattered, or respond in the way you expect.)

There’s a bigger problem with basing your story on your own life though, one that goes beyond character and lies deep in the nature of art itself. Take for example Michelangelo’s David, widely considered to be one of the finest sculptures ever made. That giant marble body appears life-like, idealised perhaps but nonetheless realistic. In fact he is unnatural, his upper half abnormally large compared to his lower. David is 5 metres tall, and as we gaze up at him from the perspective of a mere human he would look wrong if he shared our proportions. It is because he is exaggerated that he is beautiful.

Art by its nature is artifical, and fiction is no exception. Even the most “realistic” dramas, kitchen sink plays or soap operas, are heightened, manipulated and composed. If they actually imitated real life they would seem strange to us, they wouldn’t feel true, they wouldn’t look right. The great novelists describe, discuss and dissect what is to be alive, to be human, but not by mirroring it exactly. Instead, they distil our experience, concentrate it into essence, so that we can better understand it.

The risk in turning your life story into a novel is that you will include things just because that’s what happened. This is fine for history or biography, but makes for very dull fiction. Incidents that are important to you, because you were there, because it was you to whom they happened, will seem irrelevant and uninteresting to your readers if they don’t form part of a coherent narrative. You may find, too, that reality cramps your imagination, that it stops your story from really flying.

Of course it’s not impossible to write a good autobiographical novel, just very difficult. As a child during the Second World War, J.G. Ballard spent two years in an internment camp in Shanghai. This experience is described in one of his best novels, Empire of the Sun. However Ballard was in his fifties when he wrote it, with a score of books already under his belt. He also made significant changes to real events: his protagonist, unlike Ballard, gets separated from his parents, and must fend for himself at the camp.

Ballard’s childhood haunts all of his work, but he did not attempt to address it directly until he was at the height of his powers. The novel is an entirely different genre to autobiography, and this is why writing an autobiographical novel takes great skill: because it is one form masquerading as another. Beginners are advised to start with something easier, like telling a story they have made up. Or if you have had a fascinating life and simply want to share it with people, then write a memoir.

So if you are not going to write about your own life, what should you write about? The answer will be in my next post…

Make sure you’ve got enough fuel for the journey

“So now I tell you how we fly to America. The first time we started we get-a half-way across when we run out of gasoline and we gotta go back. Then I take-a twice as much gasoline. This time we just about to land, maybe three feet, then what do you think? We run out of gasoline again. And back we go again to get more gas. This time I take-a plenty gas. Well we get-a half way over and what do you think happened? We forgot-a the airplane. So we gotta sit down and talk it over. Then I get-a the great idea. We no take-a the gasoline, we no take-a the airplane. We take-a the steamship. And that, friends, is how we fly across the ocean.”

(Chico Marx in A Night at the Opera)

Everybody, they say, has a novel in them. For the vast majority of people, though, that’s where it stays. As any aspiring writer will tell you, it’s not starting that’s the problem, but finishing it. Most people reading this will have an unfinished novel hidden away somewhere. These aborted efforts not only represent wasted time, and ideas that will never see the light of day, but they also profoundly demotivating. It”s hard to start again, unless you have a clear idea what went wrong before, and what you are going to do differently this time.

The last thing you want is to end up like the Marx Brothers: you’re halfway there, but you run out of gas and have to go all the way back to the beginning. So if you’re serious about finishing your novel, before you write a single word, make sure you have enough fuel to last you the whole journey.

What do I mean by fuel? Well, to start with, you will need considerable reserves of time. Writing eats up time like a jet engine burns petrol. If you don’t make space in your life for writing, then it will take you years to get to the end of your novel, and the chances are you won’t finish it at all.

Finding time isn”t easy though. Most of us spend half of our waking hours earning a living, and your writing time might have to be squeezed into evenings and weekends. How will you manage this, and still find space for friends and family? Do they understand what you are trying to do, and support you in it? If you have other commitments, or hobbies, you may need to cut back on them, or drop them altogether; is this something you are prepared to do?

Having answers to these questions, or at least thinking about them, is vital preparation for writing your novel. Even if you are lucky enough to be “time-rich”- retired, maybe, or financially independent, or living with a partner who can support you- it is unlikely you spend your days just staring into space. Whatever you were doing before, you will have considerably less time to do it now.

It is also important to remember that a novel is a long-term commitment. How long exactly varies from person to person, depending on how much time you allocate and your writing speed, but you probably need to think in terms of a year at least. Can you sustain your efforts over this length of time? A common mistake of first-time novelists is to throw themselves into their project, writing every spare minute, then find that they run out of steam a month or two in. A regular, steady pattern of work is far more effective in the long haul.

Another resource you will need is willpower. How much do you really want to finish your book? It doesn”t matter what drives you, whether it is the burning desire to tell your story, the hope of making the world a better place through your fiction, or simply the urge to prove a point to that teacher from school, the one who said you would never amount to anything. (Personally I find that a well-developed sense of guilt, nurtured during a Catholic childhood, helps keep me going when things get tough.) What is essential is that your drive is strong enough to last the journey.

Reflect on your motivation for writing. If you find that it”s not clear, or powerful, or that it begins to evaporate when you think about it, then it is unlikely to sustain you to the end of your book.

There are other resources you will need to call on. Support is crucial, from family and friends of course, but also from other writers. If you have a rich reading history, it will expand your ideas of what language and story can do, and help you when you get stuck. I will address both of these issues in more detail in future posts.

Don”t get so preoccupied with your fuel supplies, though, that you forget your airplane. It is the idea, the story, that carries you to your destination, and this too has to be strong enough to survive the journey. If you are not absolutely in love with your idea, head over heels, crazy in love with it, then you might be better going by steamship instead.