Why “Write What You Know” is Such Bad Advice for Writers

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Ask around for tips on how to get started as a novelist and you’ll probably hear this piece of advice.

“Write what you know.”

It’s supposed to be helpful, in suggesting that you mine your own experience for ideas. Much better than chewing through a forest’s worth of pencils while you strain for that “original” idea.

But there are a ton of reasons why WWYK is a terrible idea.

Sci-fi would be off the table, for a start. Unless writers had personal experience of living on Mars or travelling through time.

Ditto horror, although that one is a blessing. I mean, if you know what it’s like to live through a zombie apocalypse, you should probably be seeking counselling rather than writing books.

And it would mean most first novels by writers under 25 would be set in university creative writing departments.

Either that or they’d describe ordinary upbringings in middle-class homes where the biggest conflict a character would have to grapple with was finding decent wifi.

Even for older writers, WWYK isn’t necessarily any better. Unless your career has been spent in the police, the armed forces, the intelligence services or something equally exciting like extinguishing oil rig fires, you’re going to struggle.

Unless your life has been a whirlwind of torrid love affairs or rage-filled excursions into vigilante justice, the vast jungle of human emotion will be off limits to you.

Perhaps this explains why there are so many books in the category known to high-brow audiences as “literary fiction” (and to the rest of us as “those books where nothing happens for 300 pages but the author clearly swallowed a thesaurus) where the story takes place over three generations of north London intellectuals.

And what’s wrong with research anyway? Nowadays there’s this little writing resource called the internet.

Before starting a book set in Kazakhstan I knew precisely nothing about this central Asian republic.

Half an hour later I was taking a virtual walk around Sara-Arky International Airport, checking out the typography of the logo above the passenger terminal.

Or you could ask around. I’ve interviewed army officers, pharmaceuticals professors, hypnotherapists, opticians, garden designers, murder detectives, gun shop assistants, farmers…and you know what?

They’ve all been delighted to share their expertise with me. For nothing. (Though I think it’s only polite to include them in your acknowledgements.)

Here’s my prescription instead.

Write what fascinates you.

Write what you care desperately about.

Write what you wish you knew.

Write what you’ve always wanted to read.

Write what you love.

But above all, write.

What I’ve learned in my first year as an indie author

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The four, naked, unarmed men stood shivering on the edge of the cliff.

That was the first line of the book that became Trigger Point, my first novel.

I wrote it on 29 March 2015. By hand. In pencil. In a notebook. Old school.

By the time Trigger Point came out, on 29 October 2015, they had gained clothes. They were still forced, at gunpoint, to jump a 300-foot chasm over the churning North Sea to the relative safety of a column of rock called Old Tom. (Which I made up. The rock, not the sea.)

Since then, I have been working feverishly, as though accepting my own destiny as an author, swimming for my life in a torrent of words.

I have completed three more thrillers in the same series, a 50,000-word draft of a vampire novel, and am a third of the way through the first book in a second series. In all about half a million words.

I thought I’d pause to reflect on what I’ve learnt in the last 14 or 15 months.

The first thing I learned is that the best way to develop your own style is to read lots and write lots, as Steven King says.

There are many, many books about writing.

You can buy style guides. Or pick up one of those quirky collections of esoterica with titles like ‘Cludge and twaddle – a dictionary of out-of-the-way British slang’. Or invest in one of the ‘How to’ genre. The latter are aimed at aspiring novelists, like I used to be. Practising novelists being, I assume, too busy writing them to read about how to do it.

The trouble is, you can spend so much time reading about how to write that you forget to do any writing yourself.

The best books to help you improve your craft are those of other writers. Other novelists, that is. But also poets, lyricists, essayists, even good journalists, of the type you find writing in the New Yorker, for example.

I have been earning my living as a copywriter for thirty years, give or take. So the business of crafting sentences to convey meaning, and even arouse emotion, is not new to me.

However, what is new is the experience of writing the product itself, rather than a sales pitch for the product.

The terror I felt as a writer of direct mail and advertising – that people were itching to delete my work – was still there when I began writing novels. That anxiety led me, I now see, to cling to a lot of the techniques I had honed in my career as a copywriter. The overshort sentence, the super-brief paragraph, the staccato rhythms.

It took me a while to relax and realise that, while these are still incredibly effective tools for a writer of fiction, they are not the only tools. And that many of the techniques I might avoid in copy are fantastically well-suited to long-form fiction.

I also have a tendency to over-explain. But readers are not idiots. They are perfectly capable of taking A and B and getting to G without my laboriously itemising C, D, E and F. A friend from the Salisbury Writing Circle, Gina, works in the theatre. She gave me an excellent piece of advice:

Come in late, leave early.

Meaning, if a key piece of action take place on a windswept moor, begin the scene with the actors already there. Outlining the process of buying train tickets and selecting hotel accommodation nearby is unnecessary.

Similarly, once the action has concluded, don’t drag the reader along as you walk the characters back to their cars and sit next to them as they drive the three hundred miles home again.

From the master of character-based action thrillers, Lee Child, progenitor of the Terminator-esque Jack Reacher, I learned this wonderful mantra:

Write the fast stuff slow and the slow stuff fast.

That’s kind of related to Gina’s point. If you think of a car bomb exploding, or a deceived wife realising her husband has been cheating on her with her best friend, don’t gloss over these moments with a few words of exposition – “telling”.

Your reader needs to inhabit these key scenes fully. So take your time. Provide details. Show.

Take the deceived wife. You could just say, “Sarah read the texts on Geoff’s phone. She saw what had been going on under her nose. She was filled with a mixture of disbelief, anger and sadness as she realised Geoff had been sleeping with Marina”.

Or you could take your time:

Sarah’s eyes skittered down the long list of texts between her husband and her best friend. Her stomach jumped as her eyes registered the words – “sexy” … “doesn’t suspect” … “hard” … “tingle”. Fighting the urge to throw the phone against the wall, she placed it back in his jacket pocket. She sniffed, and looked up at the ceiling, wide-eyed, then fished a paper handkerchief from her sleeve to blot the tear that was rolling down her powdered cheek. Her teeth were clamped together hard enough to make her jaw ache, and she willed her cheek muscles to unclench themselves. He would pay. They would both pay.

On the other hand, if a six-hour flight is uneventful, as one in a book of mine was, don’t even bother talking about it. It’s slow stuff. So write it fast. Or cut it altogether. “Atlanta was twice as hot as Boston,” is enough to move the reader along with the protagonist from Massachusetts to Georgia.

My writing mentor, Katherine Wildman, introduced me to Anne Lamott, a Californian writer. Not literally: that would have been awesome. No, through her book, Bird by Bird, an autobiographical description, and dissection, of the writer’s life. The book is packed with advice, much of it pants-wettingly funny, but the line that stuck out for me was:

Write shitty first drafts.

In discussions at my writers’ group, the subject of procrastination comes up often, as I’m sure it does whenever two or more writers are gathered together. We will talk about our favourite places for writing, finding the right “mood music” or the right materials, about waiting for the muse, or the moment to be right.

I say, “we”, but actually, I don’t. I just plonk myself down anywhere with my MacBook and start writing.

I think what holds a lot of writers back is the fear of writing something shit. So they write little or not at all. Far better to accept that your first draft will be no good but plough on anyway. We compare our writing to that of the greats, forgetting that what we see of theirs is the final draft, not the first.

So I just write. I refuse to edit as I go. I save that until the entire first draft is finished. When I go back and read it I am struck by instances of terrible phrasing, bad grammar, wafer-thin characterisations, clunky dialogue and all the rest.

But you know what?

It doesn’t matter!

Because it’s never going to see the light of day.

What I do have is a good story. And that is what people want.

Then, I can work methodically through the first draft, correcting, improving, pruning, rewriting, refining and strengthening. Plus, I have first readers, and an editor, and a proofreader, so there will be many pairs of eyes on the manuscript before publication.

But only I can tell the story the way I – or the reader, or the story itself – want it told.

It’s a faster and more productive way to write as well. I stay locked in creative mode for the entire time I’m writing. No breaks to Google “undetectable plant poisons”, “how to load a Glock 17” or “FBI interviewing protocols”, just solid storytelling.

In fact, I have devised my own technique for skating over these research details: I type in ALL CAPS so I have a visual marker of where some fact-checking is needed.

I’m learning fast. My plots are more watertight, my action scenes are stronger, my characters are more believable and my dialogue is more naturalistic. And, as a consequence of pushing on, and writing every day (my target is a thousand words a day), those first drafts are getting less shitty with each chapter.

Which is a fitting place to close, with one final piece of advice.

If you want to be a writer, there is one, fundamental, inescapable, simple activity you must do.

Write.

Introducing the third Gabriel Wolfe thriller

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My new Gabriel Wolfe novel is called Condor. I’m thinking of launching it at the end of July, just in time to catch the beach-reading reading season.

The story begins with a terrorist attack on a London bus. Gabriel is caught up in the bloody aftermath and decides he’s going to find out who ordered the attack, and kill them.

The trail leads to the Brazilian rainforest, where a Frenchman named Christophe Jardin is running a pseudo-religious cult as his private plaything.

All goes well until Jardin reveals he knows all about Gabriel’s background. At that point Gabriel is plunged into a nightmare he needs all his resources to escape from.

If you’d like to be part of my Reader’s Group Inner Circle and help me launch Condor, just drop me a line. I send you a preview copy and in return you provide a review – good or bad – on Amazon launch day.