It's feedback, not howl-back
Setting up their stalls

Make me believe

The US agent Nathan Bransford asked his blog readers what was the worst writing advice they'd ever been offered. His comment trails are always long - it's a consistently interesting blog - but this one made a python look stumpy. After I'd recovered from quotes like "Remove all your commas; editors don't like commas and they pull the reader out of the story," and "Any sentence that uses 'was' is written in passive voice" (more on that one here), I was interested to see that the bad advice quoted which most resonated with other commenters was "Write about what you know".

I'm not the only writer who'd be well and truly out of a job if "Write what you know" became too universal an orthodoxy. My bookshelves would be pretty empty too. But it comes up time and time again, doesn't it: Aren't you supposed to write what you know? Wouldn't you be wiser to? What do you say to the command that you must?

And it doesn't only come from with festival questioners facing a panel of historical or sf/f novelists, or men writing women (women writing men don't raise nearly so many eyebrows, but that's another blog post altogether). A writer friend horrified her agent by saying she was going to set her second novel in 19th century Canada: it was part of the reason that agent is now her ex-agent and the Society of Authors contract-demons have yet another fan. Her new agent loves the book.

As so often, I suspect it comes about from writing teachers - agents, editors - being faced with writing which is basically a watered-down, second-hand version of the current Big Names. "Don't try and do things you don't know how to do," they say. "Stick to something you can write first-hand."

But what if the last thing you want to write is your own surroundings? All writers were readers first, and didn't we read to be somewhere else? To move on from our world, or fly it altogether? For every beginner writer who's overjoyed to discover his own life is deemed worth documenting, there'll be one who's put off for life because she's not allowed to write dragons. So I'd say, if something's hard to do, don't tell beginners not to do it. Warn them it's not easy, then teach them the beginnings of how to do it. The only motivation that really gets a writer learning is a red-hot story they don't quite know if they can write.

And it's not just beginner writers. For every teacher/agent/editor who has good reason to be fed up with second-hand Lee Child and third-hand Rowling, there are two who are fed up with lightly fictionalised accounts of office affairs, post-divorce pratfalls, and war to the Sabatier knife over the colour of the Aga. (Can you tell I've had a bellyful of Mum Lit to report on lately?)

The thing is, just because you can guarantee the authenticity of not only the adulterous feelings you're writing, but also the geography of the Piazza where your heroine impulsively buys a tumble-down palazzo, doesn't make it a better book. Either it works as a story, or it doesn't. I hugely admire writers who can make funny or feeling novels from their own lives, but that, too, is much, much harder to do than it looks.

It does, of course, depend on what you mean by "what you know". Questioners tend to assume it means your kind of life/street/voice/era. But of course "what you know" could be love/hate/parenthood, or leaving your man for a woman, or walking across the Rockies. Set any of those in another century, or on another planet, and it'll still be "what you know" in a very important sense. An awful lot of writers find that stories spring from rubbing together the known and the unknown until they start to smoulder: what if you'd missed that plane? If he'd followed you to Japan? If you'd bought the big house, then not conceived? "What you know" is a component in those,too, but by definition so is "what you don't know".

The question's also pernicious in this world of readers who can't cope with verisimilitude - "truthlikeness", as Wikipedia defines it: the people who judge fiction only by how exactly it reproduces facts, and are outraged when they discover they've been seduced into believing something that "isn't true".

How I would love to hear more authors than Graham Swift say, "Bugger research", or stand up and say they never went near a library or a map: that they made it all up. After all, "what I know" is really very dull: my life is no different from that of millions of other people, and as I edge closer to being a professional author it's even less suitable material for fiction. "What I come to know", whether I come to know it by imagining, by researching or by dreaming, is all far, far more interesting.

So to every writer who's being told by a teacher, or a parent, or a writing friend, 'Write what you know', I offer, free, gratis and for nothing, an alternative:

WRITE WHAT YOU WANT, AND MAKE ME BELIEVE YOU KNOW IT!

Comments

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Rachael King

Hoorah!

That's all.

Paul Lamb

I think the "write what you know" dictum originally applied to novice writers who needed to begin learning their craft. They weren't ready to write their Middlemarch or their Moby Dick, so they needed to get their legs with something they could master. I'd always understood this advice to be something you grew out of, not something that guided your career. (I certainly couldn't be writing the novel I'm in the midst of if I had adhered to that suggestion.)

I think this kind of advice speaks to the need by many unsure writers (perhaps more among commercial fiction writers) to have some absolutes to which to cling. "Don't write in passive voice." "Avoid adverbs." "The culprit in a detective novel must be introduced in an early chapter." And so on. I think it spares some writers the need to think for themselves. The best advice I can think of is to "write what the story demands." Everything after that is just suggestion.

Emma Darwin

LoL Rachael!

Paul, I do think there's value in writing what you know as an exercise, a demonstration of the kind of immediacy and verisimilitude which you should be bringing to ALL your writing, even if you'd rather be writing dragons. But, as you say, unsure writers, which includes unsure writing teachers, cling to these things as orthodoxies. And before you know it, it becomes the only acceptable way to write well, along with banning adverbs and long sentences. And when teachers are peddling such things as orthodoxies, rather than exploring the reasons why they might, sometimes, be things to think about, then the writer who doesn't fit them is either dismissed, or dismisses him/herself, or simply and quietly fails to get anything out of the class. The friend whose agent (admittedly, a notoriously useless agent) was so horrified is not a beginner - she has an MA from one of the best of the Masters courses, and her first novel had just got a contract with a small publisher. In my experience soi-disant literary writing-teaching can be just as doctrinaire, they're just doctrinaire about different things. And the cookie-cutter samey-ness of what agents are starting to call the 'MA novel' is the result.

Pete

What a great argument for historical (or science) fiction. Bravo to you.

mary mccallum

Bill Manhire - one of NZ's poet laureates (we change every year)and head of the prestigious International Institute of Modern Letters - says, 'write what you know and write what you don't know.' I've always come back to that.

Catherine

Have you read Jim Crace's novel "Being Dead"? He writes so convincingly about the process of decomposition that it seems as if he had advanced knowledge of forensic pathology, but apparently he made it all up.

Paul Lamb

Catherine, your example of the Crace novel Being Dead is particularly apt for this discussion. I don't think a writer who would adhere to the "rule" that one must write what one knows could even imagine a story in which the two protagonists are dead throughout, much less write it. And can you imagine an agent or editor who is an adherent to the tired rule being pitched such a story idea?

Litlove

I would probably say 'write what you believe with all your heart to be true.'

Writer

Stephen King made the observation that to be a successful writer you must be able to lie, and to lie well, spinning a story out of one enormous lie results in fiction (as opposed to non-fiction). In such cases "write what you know" is the opposite of that, because you risk stopping just before the good bit - the lie, the embellishment, taking the facts and twisting them into a believable untruth.

womagwriter

Thank you.

Emma Darwin

Thanks, Pete.

Mary, yes, that's just what I mean - it's from the friction between what you know and what you don't that the sparks start to fly.

Catherine/Paul, I haven't read that Jim Crace, but I can well believe it, having heard him speak. I shall recruit him to my list of 'bugger research' writers. And can that man write! (Besides, he gave me my first-ever pub credit and writing prize, so I love him forever for that as well.)

Litlove, I think that's very apt, though there's always then the challenge of making sure readers believe it to be true, at least while they're reading.

Writer, that's a good point. Rose Tremain makes a similar one - that it's when you leave the research behind that the imagination really starts to work, and it's only those worlds - the ones which have dropped their real-world-fact tethers - which can come vividly alive for the readers.

Womagwriter, you're welcome!

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