Monday, May 29, 2006

Write What You Don't Know, Damn It!

In my recent mini-rant about one of my contributors from hell, Heidi (Hey, she's got her own planet, and she does a great web comic!) wrote:

"How do you tell someone that their life sounded boring?"

And that's a very good question. Of course, often it's not the life that's boring -- it's the writing.

There's much commotion right now abou SPADE AND ARCHER, Joe Gores' upcoming prequel to the stone-cold Dashiell Hammett classic THE MALTESE FALCON and much hype about the fact that Hammett was a real-life San Francisco private eye, and Gores was a real-life private eye (well, a repo man).

Oh, the synchronicity!

Oh, the absolutely perfect suitabilty!

Oh, the bullshit.

Fact is, the reason to look forward to SPADE AND ARCHER (and make no mistake -- I AM looking forward to it) is not what either Mssrs. Hammett and Gores may have done before they became writers. It's not what they were -- it's what (and how) they wrote that matters.

I mean, what picklehead would dismiss Chandler or Macdonald (or a slew of other great P.I. writers) simply because they weren't private eyes in a past life? In fact, in many ways Marlowe and Archer are far more "real" -- or at least more believably developed -- than Spade (or even the Op or Dan Kearney) ever was.

Because when it's just you and a book, the real-life experiences of the author are vastly overrated. It's what's on the page that counts, not how it got there. You ask me, talent and creativity and research (and a genuine understanding of people) trump mere experience any day. Gimme a good honest writer with vision making it up over a bad writer without a clue rehashing "reality" any day.

"Write what you know" is possibly the worst advice to give a new writer, particularly if -- experience aside -- they don't know shit.

Go ahead, write not just what you know. but for god's sake write what you can find out or imagine or feel as well and you may be a writer yet. If you can't do that, and only have "what you know" to lean on, don't bother wasting our time.

So look forward to SPADE AND ARCHER because Joe Gores is simply a great writer -- not because of anything else.

(By the way, it's sort of funny to watch the Fedora Brigade lick their lips over the outcoming SPADE AND ARCHER -- many of these same "purists" were jumping all over Robert Parker for daring to finish off POODLE SPRINGS, claiming he had "no right.")


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you saying that I wasted three years of my life working as a PI just to write this shit? Damn, I wish someone had just told me to write what I don't know.

Actually, I completely agree with you. "Write what you know" is one of the most debilitating pieces of advice ever given to young writers.

But...I think that the problem is, people take the advice to mean, "write the literal facts that you know," which leads to self-indulgent semi-autobiographical fiction about navel-gazing writers.

If taken to mean, "write the emotional truths that you know," then it is actually excellent advice. Much of the really bad writing that we see (and that we've written) stems from trying to 'imagine' emotions that are foriegn to the writer. Truth is, PIs and astronauts and rich people and beggars all share similar emotions. Far more connects us than divides us. Writers (especially new writers) get into trouble when they start imagining that their characters are aliens from another planet, just because they have different life experiences than does the writer and the people that the writer has had contact with in real life.

Which leads me to my final point (and then I'll shut up). If "write what you know" actually motivates writers to go outside and experience real life, then it may indeed serve a valuable purpose. If a writer's life experience consists of sitting in his mom's basement writing what he doesn't know, while occassionally heading out to the coffee house to smoke clove cigarettes with other writers and talk about writing...well...

So, spend some time out in the real world with a wide diversity of real people. Write the literal facts that you don't know (researching, as needed). And write the emotional truths that you know.

8:57 AM, May 30, 2006  
Blogger Flip Dixon said...

I agree with you. For once, you seem to be saying something intelligent.

A rather distrubing trend in the book industry is the requirement that the fiction writer have a PLATFORM to write fiction! Which essentially means they want forensic experts writing forensic thrillers, cops writing cop books, lawyers writer legal thrillers, nymphomanicas writing erotica, and so on.

The inevitable result of this thinking are books like "Remains Silent." Or how about "Retribution?"

Enough said.

8:54 PM, May 30, 2006  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Yeah, that old "write what you know" saw always seemed pretty limiting to me.

Experience alone is no replacement for writing well. Yet think of all the hoops of hype novelists have jumped through over the years just to establish their "cred." Everyone from Hemingway and Hammett to pretentious wannabes who couldn't write their way out of a paperbag going on (and on) about their real-life experiences -- well, it gets tiresome after a while. And often, more than a little ridiculous. I mean, it's fiction, damn it. It's SUPPOSED to be made up.

And in the end, it's what's on the page, not in the author's bio, that counts.

So I'm with you, Sean. Sure, hands-on experience, be it occupational, sexual, racial, cultural or whatever -- of course that all matters, and you should use it (and anything else that's not nailed down) in your writing. But if that's all you've got going for you, that's not saying much. A lot of people may have interesting lives but that doesn't make them writers.

In fact, another particularly annoying refrain is that old "everybody has a story in them" schtick. I dunno -- the notion of a story lodged in the body, like an appendix or a gall bladder maybe -- well, it makes me wonder. Should we be tampering with it? Maybe it's there for a reason.

Nope, maybe it's best to just leave it there. And if it absolutely needs to be removed (like if it gets infected or something) perhaps it would be best, if you don't know what you're doing, to get someone else, a qualified writer with the proper tools, or at least a qualified physician, to perform the surgery.

After all, who really wants to see some rank amateur's guts ripped out and spilled all over the page -- especially if they were self-removed?

I tell ya, as an editor who's had to wade through a slew of books and stories the authors felt just HAD to get out that it ain't that pretty at all.

Coincidentally these are usually the same writers who take any editorial suggestions or comments as personal attacks. And the ones most likely to ultimately sneak over the border into publication using vanity presses of one kind or another.

Oh, and Plot Baby? If I've said something you've taken exception to, or disagree with, feel free to challenge me instead of taking little potshots at me. This ain't the White House, after all. I can take discouraging words, if you've got 'em, and I've even been known to admit I'm wrong upon occasion.

12:57 PM, May 31, 2006  
Blogger Flip Dixon said...

I accept your challenge, Kevin. I will be posting a few criticisms on my own blog shortly.

1:26 PM, May 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yup. Re: "writers going on (and on) about their real-life experiences"... I was listening to a writer bitch about an editor the other day. It seems the editor didn't buy into a particular scene, and the writer's lame rebuttal was, "but this REALLY HAPPENED!" It may very well have really happened, but he obviously didn't write about it in a believable way.

He's a guy with real-life experience, who assumes his experiences make him a good writer. The editor was even willing to work with the guy, but the guy copped attitude. He actually said, "I guarantee you, (name of editor) has never had a gun to HIS head. And HE wants to tell ME how to write it?"


9:27 PM, May 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of my university teacher once told me: "Mimesis is not imitation of life. Sophocles never met Oedipus". I think it goes for every type of fiction. Flaubert was not a woman, and yet madame Bovary is a very believable adulteress. What matters is the authenticity of the universe the writer creates, not it's relation with anecdotal events in the real life of the author.

12:55 AM, June 03, 2006  
Blogger Keith Bodayla said...

I hate "write what you know." I took a short story writing class freshman year in college and to my suprise "write what you know" never was mentioned once by the teacher. In my book that makes him an excellent writing teacher.

Most of what I've written, I don't "know" it. One is about a serial killer, which I'm not. Another is about a greedy cop. There's another that's a western and I'm from New Jersey and can't ride a horse. But people still seemed to like them.

Someone, I'm trying to remember who...I think it might have been Neil Gaiman, who said that no one person knows a lot and most don't know too much that's interesting to read about. But we all know love, hate, jealousy, pride, vanity, rage. We know about that stuff and can always write about it. Everything else we can just look up, that's why libraries are there. (I'm paraphrasing quite a bit here, sorry.)

I know about anger and revenge which are the serial killer and western stories at their most basic kernel. I know about greed. I knew enough to know the story I wanted to convey and filled in the gaps with a little research. Just because you don't know the proper name of the gun that I cowboy would use doesn't mean you can't write a western, it just means you call it a thingamagig until you can look it up.

I guess I'm repeating a bit of what others have said. Sorry for that. I just wanted to say that I agree. Writing isn't about putting down the intellectual facts that you learned in Biology, it's about writing down the facts in your heart that you learned when your best friend slept with your girlfriend. (Unless you write non-fiction, then you really should write what you know.)

10:03 PM, June 03, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From what I've read Carroll John Daly was a xenophobe who would barely leave his house. Hardly the stuff of hard-boiled fiction. But that's the way it is. I agree with you totally -- just write, and if it's realistic enough it will come across. Jules Verne didn't write from experience either.

5:16 PM, June 22, 2006  

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