Do You Write What You Know?

What do you think about the old adage of writing what you know?Hosseini Quote

I asked that a couple years ago in a post, and I’ll ask it again. That question still conflicts me.

Back when I was reading Margaret Atwood’s biography, I remember pausing over her process, considering the way she frequently pulled from the familiarity of her own life to write intricately woven stories. She used Canada as a setting, places she’d been, streets she’d walked, people (or at least an outline of them) that she once knew. Her experiences influenced her fiction—and still do to this day.

However, Margaret Atwood is also known for her speculative works, which are based in the future, just a few of many possible alternative conclusions (scary as her worlds would be) of our current trajectory. She doesn’t know the future or which elements of the future in her novels will eventually (if ever) come to pass, and yet, the fearsome thing about her work is that it is easy to believe it could happen.

So, going back to the first question I wonder: Which is better? A mix of “write what we know” and “write what we’d like to know,” or should we change our approach entirely to “what can we imagine?”

According to BRET ANTHONY JOHNSTON over at the Atlantic, we should go with the latter. When he started writing away from the familiarity of his own life, he found that “the shift was seismic.”

Delving into the deeper unknown and pursuing the more difficult, untreaded path is never easy.  I am a notorious perfectionist. The problem I have with writing what I don’t know is that I run into the feeling that I should know it. Then I start researching. Then I expand that research. Then I have this tendency of trying to know everything about everything and nothing gets written.

But I also have frequently submersed myself into the speculative world, envisioned a future that is not my own, of which I know absolutely nothing, and it has been a freeing lesson in creativity. In this world, my characters and the environment have rules, but they are not necessarily the same rules by which I live. Instead of pushing my own agenda upon them, the well-lit paths of my own past, for instance, I get to witness a new kind of life: one that is not my own to live, yet one that I will live anyway, through them.

In that sense, maybe our characters do know best.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pull from the aspects of your life that you do know. It’s entirely possible to bridge the gap between both worlds, writing authentically about the strange, abstract unknown while still drawing from familiar outlines: the sprawling sunset you witnessed on a mountainside, learning a language in a foreign country, meeting a person that all but confounds you. These are real experiences, but your characters don’t have to meet the same fate as you.

Abstract elements are combined and reinforced within the tangible nature of fiction. It’s not so much about what we know—it’s about what we could possibly know, and what we continue to learn, with each and every day that we experience the mundane, the novel, the risks.

So my conclusion? Write about the possibilities.

Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things.
Stories aren’t about actions. Stories are, unto themselves, actions.

-Brett Anthony Johnston

On Margaret Atwood and Writing Advice

We Have the Powah!In May of last year, I went to hear Margaret Atwood speak at a literary festival in Tallinn. As I stood in a line stretching far into the streets of Old Town and watched her settle into the spotlight via an outdoor screen set up for those who wouldn’t fit into the building, I clutched the book I’d brought for her to sign and waited, barely daring to hope I’d be fortunate enough to make the cut. Each time they opened the door, a few lucky ones managed to creep past the door wardens — and each time, I would count the people in front of me.

In the end, I was one of the lucky ones. I rushed up the steps with another girl and entered the room, my heart pounding, and though I was stationed somewhere in the back and could hardly see her, I could at least say I was there, in the same room. Probably the only time in my life I’ve been starstruck.

This past weekend I checked out an unauthorized biography on Margaret Atwood (the biographer had communicated with Atwood a couple times in the process of writing it, so it wasn’t necessarily unapproved). The biography humanized her, brought her down to the writer level I’m familiar with — an author who had to start somewhere, trying to balance the academic and creative writing life, confronting the challenges of taking an unconventional career path. An author who never gave up.

Ultimately, we can learn a lot by listening to successful writers. Or by watching them at work. So what I gleaned from my brief encounter with Margaret Atwood and her writing wisdom was this:

Place is powerful

One of the things that stood out to me — in both the talk she gave and the biography — was the discussion of place. And though I feel this is perhaps a topic for another day, I started thinking about why we write what we write and how place, being such an integral part of our identities — whether consciously or otherwise — constructs our narrative identities. And not just place as space, but place as culture and society and home. Margaret Atwood began writing and studying literature at a time when Canada didn’t have a national literature. She was pivotal in the movement to establish the Canadian literary landscape. It was and still is intrinsic to her writer identity, and you can feel it in her novels and the characters and their movement through these literary places. What, then, can we say about how places affect our own work and identities?

Writing what you know is good advice

From her biography, I learned that Atwood has based many of her stories on places she’s worked and people she’s known and, ultimately, on herself: her emotions and fears, her interpretation of social issues, her surroundings. Though characters inevitably take on their own lives and personalities and stories move in their own directions, Atwood’s literature is born from personal experience. For instance, her arguably feminist literary stance sprouted from difficulties she faced in a much more narrow-minded, sexist era. The places she has written about are places she has lived. (She herself has said it is essential to her that she know the setting.) Her own interests also prevail, time and time again: biology, environmentalism, bugs. Margaret Atwood has lived her experiences and written about them, and people pay her to read about them.

Having a good network of friends is essential

Atwood faced very different circumstances than I do now, but much of her success and creative drive was influenced, in part, by surrounding herself with creative people and maintaining her relationships with them. Many of her unique projects (which sell for quite the money these days) were collaborations with other creative types, and she went on to exercise her own creativity through the experiences — literary and otherwise — she shared with them. Additionally, she corresponded via letters with several friends who went on to give her genuine and fantastic feedback (detailed, honest, and ultimately essential to her work). I read some of the reviews she received regarding her novel drafts, and I was astounded by the intelligent attention they paid her work. It’s something we should all aim for in our writing groups.

In the end . . .

“If I waited for perfection… I would never write a word.”
—Margaret Atwood

After her talk, which focused on a range of topics from her latest work to modern feminism to the story she’s hidden away in Norway for the next 100 years, we got in line for the book signing. As I waited my turn, I wondered what I should say to her, if anything. What can you say to someone who has influenced you profoundly in a few mere seconds?

Writers meeting our favorite authors is often a dream come true. They have written words that have touched us, signed their names upon books that have spoken our own. Sometimes, we get lucky enough to listen to the exceptionally talented, as they sit gracefully in front of a huge crowd, and talk about their process, their ideas, their writing.

So when I did finally reach the small table and met her (very blue) gaze, I decided that perhaps my presence there spoke for itself. That her work, which I’ve read at various times in my life and for various reasons, had already spoken.

It still speaks to me.

And through me, even now, it’s reaching you.


Which authors have taught you something valuable or inspired your writing life? Let me know in the comments below!

 

Writing 101: Writer’s Notebooks

Writing 101: Writer's NotebooksWe had a wager in the Sarcastic Muse offices. I bet Michelle that I could write a (passible) Writing 101 post and she disagreed. Actually, I think the phrase she used was ‘over my cold, dead body’. Anyway…guess who won? (Free tip: never cross a horror writer).

A writer’s notebook is, after an over-active imagination, the most essential tool in a writer’s arsenal.  They serve as a repository for thoughts and observations, and become fertile ground we can grow the seeds of ideas. So, why is there so much confusion between writers over their relevance, especially in this age of smart phones and instant access to obscure information?

I’ve always been the first to admit that nothing works for everyone, but EVERYONE needs a notebook. It doesn’t matter what format it takes (paper, digital, a series of audio-recordings. You can write everything down your trouser leg for all I care), but it does matter that you have one and that it’s to hand when you need it.

One thing I don’t understand is the fervent belief held by a lot of writers I speak to that notebooks are archaic, a throwback to the days of yore when writing was a pursuit oft done in the pale yellow glow of candlelight. I know a lot of writers who tell me they don’t need one; they can keep all their ideas in their head. Their biggest argument is that anything they are likely to write down is available somewhere on the internet and what’s left can easily be remembered.

Our brains are fantastic pieces of kit. They process information at an alarming rate, more so today than ever before. And with that constant stream of distraction, remembering our daily observations to the level of detail we require as authors, as well as keeping track of every snippet and intangible thread of an idea, is nigh on impossible. But you claim you can…

I’m not a sceptical person but I’m calling B.S. No one has that good a memory and most of us can barely remember what we had for breakfast ten minutes after eating it, much less the subtleties of how it tasted, the smell, and the feel of it on our tongues.

Why risk losing that one perfect idea or metaphor? Write it down.

“But, write it where?” I hear you ask.

And I say: “You’re trying my patience…” (Refer to free tip above).

What is a writer’s notebook?

Essentially, a writer’s notebook is anything you can use to store ideas, inspiration, observations, etc… Traditionally, it was, as the name suggests, a paper-based notebook that, like a faithful lap dog, never left its owner’s side. Since the advent of pocket technology (excluding calculators…okay, not all calculators…55378008…hehe, takes me back), many writers have made the shift to a digital format and use note-taking applications, cloud storage and digital cameras to capture much the same thing. The only real stipulation is that it must be of a format that can be easily transported, the reasons for this will become clear.

Types of notebook

Paper-based

This can be anything from an old, school exercise book (very fashionable again these days) to a £100 luxury, hand-bound, leather tome. I know writers with pockets full of 3 x 5 index cards which serve the same purpose.

My own notebook is paper-based: a durable, leather-bound, customisable Midori Traveler’s [sic] Notebook. It is lightweight, a little too big to be classed as pocket-sized but the ideal size for me. My reason for staying paper-based is two-fold: one, I write faster than I can type and so stand half a chance of writing down my thoughts before they’re gone; and two, it never runs out of battery power…well, almost never, there was one time….

Digital

This type seems the most common these days and even I have a back-up in digital format. Smartphones are astonishing things and, with a plethora of note-taking apps on the market, a migration to digital seemed an inevitability. Couple that with the ability to take and attach photographs and even voice notes, a digital notebook is a very powerful tool indeed…until the battery runs out.

Audio

A frequent sight in the 1980’s (for those of you born in the 21st century, that’s just after the extinction of the dinosaurs) was a suited businessman/woman recording their thoughts into a hand-held Dictaphone for a secretary to transcribe later.  Although not as popular these days, audio-recorders are another great way to record those ideas and observations and I know a few who put them to good use. The only real issue with audio is that browsing through previous ideas is more labour intensive than other media.

What makes a good notebook?

Two things make a good writer’s notebook:

  1. Portable – a notebook to capture ideas is useless if it’s still sat on your desk at home. Whatever you choose to use should be small and lightweight enough for you to take it everywhere.
  2. Something you’ll actually use – you have a notebook/audio-recorder/phone, you have it with you when that idea for the next bestseller hits, you don’t want to write on those pretty pages/have the confidence to talk into it with people around/know how to use the app. Really, I despair. What good is a notebook you are uncomfortable using? None at all.

Tips on keeping a notebook

1. Take it everywhere with you (and I mean EVERYWHERE)

Inspiration can come at any time and capturing it while it’s fresh is paramount. To do this, you need your notebook with you wherever you go. I have a panic attack if I’m more than three metres away from my notebook (five metres from my phone).

2. Learn how to use it

You don’t want to be consulting the user guide when that idea strikes, you need to get the idea down. Learn how to use any parts of your chosen platform before you actually need them.

NOTE: This doesn’t typically apply to paper-based notebooks but, if it helps, the pointy end of the pen/pencil is where the writing comes out.

3. Use it

Now you have a notebook, it’s time to use it. But, what type of things should you write down? Well, anything really. Write down anything that inspires you. Oh, you want me to spell it out for you…I suppose a few examples would be okay…

  • Brief synopses of story ideas;
  • Quotes and snippets of overheard conversation;
  • Descriptions of people and characters;
  • Newspaper and magazine clippings;
  • Character quirks;
  • Sketches – maps, people, objects etc.;
  • Names;
  • Story titles (trust me on this one);
  • Dreams (oh, shut up!)
  • Lists. Lists (you know who you are); and
  • Anything you find that interests or inspires you.

As well as being a place to capture ideas, notebooks should be used to expand on those already recorded. Sometimes an idea occurs to us that is only half-formed and not enough to create a story with. But, as idea after idea is recorded, we can start drawing links between them. Suddenly, half-formed ideas become a short story, or even a novel. Your notebook is the best place to make this happen.

4. Review it

It’s no good writing in it if you don’t go back and read through what you’ve captured. Make a habit of reading through (listening to) your notebook regularly. I tend to do this with a highlighter, marking the observations and ideas I want to revisit sometime.

That’s it from me folks. I’ll be back next week with more Writing 101 tips on finding inspiration.

P.S. Michelle’s fine.

P.P.S. Maybe…

P.P.P.S Stay tuned to find out.


 

Do all of you have a writer’s notebook? Do you use it? What format does it take? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

For more Writing 101, check out these links:

Writing 101: How to treat your Beta Readers

Writing 101: How to be a Good Beta Reader

Wherein the New Contributor is Introduced, Justifies His Existence, Gives Thanks and Shares Some Advice

me

Wow! Just look at this place. It’s all shiny and clean. I can’t believe they’re trusting me with the keys. Pfft, they’ll learn soon enough.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes!

Hello everyone and welcome to my first post here on Sarcastic Muse. I’d give you the tour but Amanda is experimenting in her horror corner and I’m not even certain I’m safe in there.

But, I digress.

As you’ve all no doubt gathered, I’m Chris Musgrave. The new guy with the overactive imagination, drafted from many highly-qualified applicants (well, just one actually) to fortify the horror/fantasy department in case of zombie outbreak (did I mention that I have an overactive imagination?). Anywho…I’ve been writing for nearly twenty years now, mostly in the genres of horror and fantasy with a brief venture into the murky world of graphic novels.

I’m currently working on the second book in my urban fantasy series, Harlequin. The first book of which is due out (hopefully) in April 2015. Between that and other projects, I write weekly tip (Tuesdays) and flash fiction (Fridays) posts over at my blog: Chris Musgrave – Writer in Training.

What can you expect from me?

I’ve spent the last twenty years writing, rewriting, banging my head against assorted objects in the pursuit of ideas,  and generally getting it wrong. This writing lark can be a lonely and difficult occupation, and I wouldn’t want you to make the same mistakes I have.

What you can expect from me is advice, advice on what has and hasn’t worked, the tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years and, if you’re really interested, help on most writing topics from crafting horror to editing flash and much much more.

Thank you

We have some amazing writers here at Sarcastic Muse (and I’m here too, still not sure how that happened) and even more amazing readers. I just want to take the opportunity to say thank you to all of you for giving me such a warm welcome and for the time you take in reading our posts.

Advice

Before I go, I’d like to share with you a few pieces of writing advice that I’ve picked up over the years. They’re written here in no particular order:

1. Write

Kind of goes without saying but to be able to call yourself a writer, you really should be writing. It doesn’t matter what you write or how often to set yourself clear goals and stick to them. Get the words out of your head and down on paper/screen/sticky notes. Don’t worry about quality just yet, just write.

2. Read

Reading should be like breathing to anyone serious about writing. Read like your life depends on it, read whatever you can get your hands on. Ignore genre, ignore what others have said about the thing you’re reading, ignore that guy sitting opposite you on the train who keeps giving you funny looks because you’re a grown man reading Twilight…on second thoughts, he might have a point about Twilight. You get my point. Read good books and learn from them. Read bad books and learn from them too.

3. Edit

This is where you add the spit and polish to your work. This is where it gets tough. When you write your first draft, do it in a way that gets the story from your mind onto the page. Forget about repeated phrases, forget about quality of the grammar/spelling (this goes for you too, Michelle), forget about plot holes. Just write. When you edit, you have to break each sentence down into its component parts, question the necessity for every word and, here’s the hard part, you MUST cut away all the crap. I don’t care how long you’ve spent searching in your dictionary and thesaurus for that word, I don’t care if you LOVE that last sentence. If it doesn’t fit the story, it has to go.

4. Get yourself a good team

Writing may be a lonely pursuit but that is only true to an extent. If you want to be successful as a writer, you have to get your work out there. That means that, brace yourselves, someone will have to read your work. I’ll just give you a minute there…are you alright? Do you need a cup of water? Just take deep breaths, it’ll all stop spinning soon. You good? Great. Writers need reader, but before that, we need people we can trust. Writer’s groups are essential. They give us support, an honest opinion, test readers. They also give you that much needed boot in the rear when you find yourself procrastinating. Trust me on this.

5. Finish your work

How many manuscripts do you have on your desk? On your hard drive? How many of them are finished? See what I mean. When you first start a project, everything is shiny and new and you can’t wait to launch right in. By the time you reach the midpoint, you’re already looking for something else, or you’re doing anything that doesn’t involve finishing your project. It happens to all of us. Some call it block and give up, others pursue other projects making empty promises about returning to it one day. Stop that now, sit down and get it done. I don’t care…stop crying. You’ll thank me when you have your book deal…preferably with money.

So, that’s about it from me. I better go and find out what that screaming is all about over in Amanda’s corner, or “The Lair”, as she likes to call it. See you next Monday….

…what’s this box of fingernails doing here…?