You are at a party. The host introduces you to a person and makes a hurried exit. Your heart sinks because you know what’s going to happen. The person asks you where you went on your last holiday and you have a millisecond of hope that a conversation is possible, a hope that is dashed before you can extract even a milligram of enjoyment from the feeling. Before you can answer, the person says, “I went to…” and all hope is officially abandoned.
The holiday is just an intro. You will now hear a life story. What the person did, how they did it and, particularly, how well they did it. No experience not experienced, no opportunity missed, every slight righted and each comeback line – because they have always had one instantly at the ready when required – repeated.
You know you are being fed a line, but the person is oblivious to your uncomfortable reaction, and plows on regardless. You are appalled and, if you are a writer, fascinated, because this person clearly believes his or her own bullshit. You should actually be grateful.
I have always had a resistance to writing advice, particularly from writers like, say, Stephen King, who writes three novels every day, then goes off and has breakfast. Hardly inspiring for someone like me who took more than 20 years to write one book. I want something practical and possibly achievable, like ‘write one sentence per week, but make it a good one.’
However, there is one piece of advice I do like. That old chestnut, ‘Write what you know,’ is my favourite, though initially I denounced it as stupid. My novel is about time-travelling 18th century convicts. What did I know about them? I knew they were from the 18th century and I knew they travelled through time. Not really enough to fulfil that particular piece of advice.
But eventually my brain kicked in and I realised it’s not about what you know, it’s about what you know.
It’s all about the human condition. If you know how a human being ticks, it doesn’t matter if your characters are caught in a TimeStorm (book promo), creeping around the darkened halls of a magical high school, looking for a missing wife or being handcuffed to a bed. You are writing what you know.
And – this is the best part of being a writer – if you don’t know any of this stuff you can make it up.
This is because all fiction writing (and I suspect a great deal of non-fiction) is bullshit. It’s just stuff you make up. You can embellish your story, make it profound or worthy, set it against real events, base it on real people, find the ‘truth’ of your situations and elicit genuine emotion from your readers. But it’s still bullshit.
The advantage you have over our party friend is that your readers have willingly paid you to deliver them a large amount – in my case 103,000 words – of bullshit. They want not only to read your bullshit, they want to believe it. They want the real world to disappear every time they pick up or switch on your book
But to do this, you must write with absolute confidence. You must pretend that your story is real. You must be convinced and convincing with every word you set down. The people in it must be real. The situations, however contrived, stupid and unbelievable, must also be real and your characters must behave in a way that enhances the world you have created. While reading, your reader must – I say again, must – be able to say, yes, that could really happen!
And the only way to ensure this works?
You absolutely have to believe your own bullshit.
Great post! I’ve not long ago come to that same conclusion about “write what you know.”
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You’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s about understanding human nature first and foremost.
Absolutely – find the human emotion in any situation and it becomes believable. Or make it up, and get me to believe it because you’re so convincing. Either way, as a reader, I’m happy. As a writer, I just imagine how I would feel in any given situation, think about how a different person might feel (cos people are different, after all) and then write it. That’s the intention, anyway!
I love your posts, they don’t pull any punches about a lot of writing advice. I’m inspired to keep writing my own B.S., have fun with it, and hope it sells.