On Writing What You Know

“Write what you know” is one of those nebulous pieces of Writing Advice that everyone picks up along the way. It’s something that no one bothers to explain, because it seems such a simple concept–sort of like “show, don’t tell,” which I didn’t puzzle out until like 2 years ago, but that’s another story. Because, at first glance, writing what you know sounds pretty restrictive.

Never sold a car? Can’t write a car salesman!
Never been to Europe? Can’t write Europe!
Don’t have a penis? Can’t write a male POV!

All of this, however, is complete and total bullshit. What “write what you know” means, in actuality, is write whatever the hell you want, but know what you’re talking about. If you’re writing a car salesman, and you don’t know shit about sales, cars, or corporate America, maybe you should do your homework. Will it help if you’ve actually done it, or if you know someone who has? Of course. But that isn’t always an option, and you shouldn’t restrict yourself, because no one can do everything.

So what does “write what you know” really mean? It means never stop learning.

I write urban fantasy, and sometimes violent things happen. But I’ve never been in a fight, I’ve never killed anyone, and I’ve never seen a dead body. I don’t actually want to experience these things, but I have managed to gather into the fold people who have. I’m taking a martial arts class, and one of my beta readers used to work for the Sheriff’s Department. The first few drafts of fights and dead bodies were awful and will never see the light of day. Hell, I wrote a sex scene when I had no business writing one and it was terrible.*

The point is this: what you do, as a fiction writer, is write LIFE. I’ve mentioned this before, but it is very fucking important that you remember your role as author. Authors/characters/books/series are popular when readers can relate to them. They’ve got to find something in the character, or the situation, that resonates within them, something that makes them point at the book and shout, “Yes! That! Exactly that!” It’s your job to find the life in a thing and poke it until it’s articulate, then put it out there on the page. So if you’re just bopping along, saying nothing important or poignant about life, no one’s going to give a damn about what you have to say. It’s only when you get the essence of a thing, of an event or a feeling or a person, that people feel that connection.

If you’re a female geologist who’s never left Mississippi, you can write a male car salesman from France. You just have to do some research.

Okay. A LOT of research. But that’s the fun part, right?

Come on.

Live a little.

 

*Disclaimer: I’m not saying go out and have sex if you want to learn to write a sex scene. I’m saying that what you see in movies (porn and mainstream) is not the way it actually works. But if you do want to roll around in the hay for the life experience, please use a condom. End PSA.

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And now: a coherent post about MidSouthCon

Last weekend, I went to Memphis! Which, for the record, is a really balls-long drive from the homebase. I didn’t really do many of the traditional Memphis Things–we hit Beale Street for long enough to grab lunch (BBQ=noms) and get rained on for a while. We drove past Graceland, and I think there’s a picture somewhere on my phone. With all the coffee and the beer I had at lunch, everything was really just a journey between bathrooms.

But then! The con. Let me start off by saying I have never been to a more rockin’ con than this one, nor one quite as sexually-harrassy. Women! At SF/F/comics conventions! What wondrous strange creatures we be! New rule, bros: if what you’re about to say to me (or any woman) would get you slapped by your mama, keep your damn mouth shut. And to the purveyors of fine, free adult beverages at MSC: learn when to cut someone off. Free beer is great! For normal people who know that 14 is probably too many, but unfortunately, some people can’t quite make that decision on their own. So stop serving them before they throw up on my Chucks or into the Pepsi cooler right next to my head. Judging by what went down Friday night, I feared for the integrity of the hotel structure on Saturday night–but apparently all the real asswads got thrown out before they could do permanent damage.

All this aside, I love cons, you guys. Once you separate the wheat from the chaff, you meet some of the most amazing people you might not otherwise get to run into. Hell, I’ve even got a regular con crowd I run with that I very rarely see outside of the circuit (signings, on occasion), who primarily consist of this guy and also this dude. I met him, her, him, the high priestess of steampunk, and almost broke this guy‘s hand (he’s exaggerating, but wrote me a nice note when he signed my book). And when does this happen in real life?

The biggest news of the weekend is that I got to pitch my novel to a real, live editor! During dinner! In front of four other people! Three of whom are published authors! I didn’t puke on her shoes, and she didn’t call the cops, so I think it went well.

Next up: ConCarolinas, Charlotte, NC, May 31-June 2. Especially if you’re a writer, you should definitely check this one out. It’s got a really low creep factor, and despite being a little on the small side, pulls some really big names (like USA Today Bestselling Kalayna Price and New York Times Bestselling Carrie Ryan). Oh yeah, and FREAKING TIMOTHY ZAHN is this year’s literary guest of honor, so come on, people. It’s like $40 for the whole weekend, and so ridiculously worth it.

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MidSouthCon

ALL HAIL GLEN COOK, THE MAN WHO INVENTED MY GENRE

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…and also other things. God, I love cons, you guys.

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Protip: Yoga doesn’t cure writer’s block (which doesn’t really exist anyway)

What do werewolves and writer’s block have in common?

Neither of them exist.

That being said, I have been experiencing technical difficulties with my current project. It’s a good idea, has a solid backstory and setting, and, I think, is totally do-able. And it was, for about 15,000 words, before I slammed face-first into a brick wall. And I’ve spent the last–let me check my watch–forty-five minutes staring at this document.

I added a paragraph. Deleted a paragraph. Added two. Deleted one.

Did yoga in the hallway.

Added a paragraph. Hated it, but was too apathetic to actually delete it. (I think that’s what rock bottom looks like.)

Ugh.

So what in the bloody hell is the problem here? Let me give you some background on my writing habits: I write dark fantasy, with both literal and metaphorical guts, where people don’t get what they want, and no one gets the luxury of riding off into the sunset on a dappled pony with that sweet, beautiful widow who was determined to do anything never to rely on a man again. I write adult books with adult themes, with violence and tears and tinglies in the underoos.

This book? It’s young adult. And it’s ROMANCE.

The question that keeps popping up in my head, whenever I think about writing this book, is this: just who do I think I’m kidding here? I didn’t like being a teenager, and I don’t like romance. Hell, I don’t even remember a good deal of ages 15-18, not the specifics anyway, and what of it I can conjure from the fogged-glass nostalgia of my memory does not, in any way, resemble a romance novel. Those years have jagged edges, and I don’t like thinking about them, and I don’t like getting into that headspace.

But the first 15,000 words–they poured out like water. The prose flowed and ebbed like any good tide, the words coming out in a way that they hadn’t in many months. And then… then I stopped to think about it, and the words, well, the words…

They just kind of… dried up.

And I’ve been staring at this motherFRAKKING document for the last almost-hour, and I hate it. I hate it with the pure, blistering passion of flame. I’m tempted to give it up–I’ve got other things to work on, plenty of other things–and I even gave up an adult fantasy (the usual fare) to work on this, because I thought, there it is, right in my head, and it’ll be easier than the adult book, it’s more straightforward, less convoluted, it’s just a girl and these two boys and a decision to be made between duty and destiny and–

OH GOD DID I JUST SAY THAT

If I don’t finish this book, it will be the third aborted start since NaNoWriMo. Where did my discipline go? Why do I keep throwing started drafts (all in the 10-20k range, bee tee dubs) to the wind?

Am I too nervous about querying? I have manuscripts out there, floating in the magical Agent Ether. I spent so long grinding away at this last one, I got so wrapped up in the world, that I keep thinking about the characters and hilariously evil things to do to them in sequels. I have ideas–I’m fucking boiling over with ideas–but getting them down on the paper is making me twitch.

Gentle readers, I know not what to do.

…Besides resist hurling my computer across the room.

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Retreat, Hell! or, On the Importance of Having Writer Friends

This weekend, I spent four days in a cabin in the woods with four other women, limited internet access, and no phone signal.

IT WAS AWESOME.

And here’s why I love NaNoWriMo so gosh-darn much: you meet like-minded people. I have an ever-expanding circle of writer friends (and, cough, beta readers, cough cough), and it just tickles me all to pieces. I moved to town in early 2010, and I was here for a year before I met any real, serious writers. A friend of mine suggested I do this November thing, and now I’m in critique groups, I’ve got six finished (okay, four salvageable) novels under my belt, a handful of short stories, and a positively ridiculous group of people to beta read/plot bounce with me, all of whom are freakishly brilliant in their own ways.

So a gaggle of us went to YALLFest this year down in Charleston, where I got to meet/squee over the lovely and highly amusing Caitlin Kittredge:

Image Ahem. More importantly, the keynote speakers, Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, spoke at length about the usefulness and importance of having writer friends, and then started on about “writer retreats.”

The group of us exchanged meaningful glances, and upon our return to town, the Groupon holder started looking for cabins in the mountains so we could do just that.

Fortunately for me, I was smack in the middle of the umpteen-billionth revision of this novel that I wrote two years ago (BUT AM I BITTER? NOOOOOO), and I was able to get the whole damn thing wrapped up in 12 days. To be fair, I’ve revised the darn thing about every 6 months or so, usually followed by a desperate round of queries, all to no avail. (You, constant readers, will be among the first to know if someone offers me representation for anything.) So after a really awesome, heartbreaking rejection from a really heartbreakingly awesome agent at a heartbreakingly awesome agency, about a month ago, I decided to go through the thing ONE. MORE. TIME. with a fine-toothed comb. Because she rejected for reasons other than “not my thing,” which were enumerated to me in a heartbreakingly awesome email.

I finished it today, and I await only my beta readers to catch up with me.

The other four girls were in varying stages of the writing process themselves, one drafting a short story, one plotting a novel (which sounds RIDIC, you guys), one in the early first-draft stages of a novel, and one in the first round of revisions. There was a lot of idea-bouncing, a lot of problem-talking-out, a lot of arguments about who’s captain of which team in my book, some mountain climbing, some hottubbing, and a great deal of wine. It counts as a win.

So that’s kind of the point of all this: writers, get yourselves some writer friends. It’s nice to have friends, of course, but it is insanely nice to have someone who Gets It–who understands when you say you can’t because you have to write, who offers to hold your hair back when that very first rejection ever makes you get so drunk it becomes a problem, who will go with you to cons and sit through panel after panel after panel, and who, occasionally, will introduce you to other writer friends of theirs, some of whom are published and living the dream.

I’m not going to lie to you guys: it takes a village to write a novel. Every step in the creative process benefits directly from someone asking questions, poking motivations, suggesting grisly murders and tragic backstories, arguing that it’s “who” even though you could swear it’s “whom,” telling you what doesn’t make sense and what scenes need to be cut or switched or rewritten or set on fire.

And having them be awesome enough that you can spend four days in a cabin without phone or reliable internet is pretty nice, too.

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On Ruining Lives

At our regular Thursday night NaNoWriMo write-in, one of our participants started asking questions about horses. This led to her confessing that she felt bad for her main character, and was trying to throw her a bone.

When you start to feel bad for your main character, be meaner. Because here’s the deal–I’m going to share some epic writer secrets with you guys.

Without pain, there is no conflict.
Without conflict, there is no growth.
Without growth, there is no story.

That’s it. There’s your golden goose egg of How It’s Done. The difficulty, of course, comes in the execution, in the language, in the evocation of pathos, in the feeling of connection that the reader must have with the protagonist. No one wants to read a book about a guy who’s having a nice day. We want to read a book about a guy who’s having a nice day until the subway he’s waiting for to take him to work has been hijacked by ninja monkeys who are holding his girlfriend and his grandmother hostage, and he’s got to figure out a way to save them both, punish the monkeys, and get to work on time. That’s a story.

No one writes a comic book about Peter Parker snuggling with MJ on the couch and watching The Notebook. They write comic books about Venom kidnapping MJ and Aunt May and forcing him to choose between the two. And, you know, possibly forcing him to watch The Notebook while he’s trying to figure out what to do. Now that’s mean.

Writers ruin fictional lives. It’s what we do. Deal with it.

The meaner we are to our characters, the more impossible situations we put them in (and then, of course, giggle while they try to work their way out of them, sometimes failing), the more they grow as people and the more interesting they are to watch.

An easy way of achieving this–if you don’t write alarmingly violent books like I do–is mentioning something up front in the narrative that your main character Would Never Do. Then, of course, you make them do it. That? That’s the black moment. That’s the point at which your character is at their lowest, where they have to make their hardest decision, where they scrape off that awful pupa and emerge as a beautiful butterfly. Or something. It’s usually followed by a metric fuckton of rationalization.

WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS.
Harry Dresden kills the mother of his child in order to rid the world of Red Court vampires. (Changes, Dresden Files #12 by Jim Butcher)
Though she is a protector of the innocent, Jill Kismet knowingly kills an innocent during a firefight. (Heaven’s Spite, Jill Kismet #5 by Lilith Saintcrow)
The Doctor, knowing that Rose will get to spend the rest of her life with the alternate-dimension version of himself, gives her up because her happiness means more to him than his own. (Doctor Who, “Doomsday” by Russell T. Davies)
Miriam Black gives up on Louis, the only person who never gave up on her. (Mockingbird, Miriam Black #2 by Chuck Wendig)
Nora Sutherlin gives Wesley Railey up because she thinks she’ll never be able to give him what he wants and needs, nor will he ever be able to give her what she wants and needs. (The Siren, Original Sinners #1 by Tiffany Reisz)

The list. It goes on forever. Because that’s what makes a good story. You get that nail-biting, gut-wrenching moment of decision, that point at which your breath sticks in your throat because you can’t believe he might OH MY GOD HE DID NOT.

That’s the thing you want. That’s the thing you’re shooting for. Abuse them, shoot them, stab them, break their hearts, abandon them to harsh landscapes, kill their best friend in a freak mattress accident. Kick them when they are down.

We want to read about someone’s triumph, someone’s hero story, someone overcoming the odds to come out on top of an impossibly terrible situation. That’s why Raymond Chandler’s advice to send in a man with a gun is so good–because someone might get shot.

You want to be nice? Go work at a soup kitchen.

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On Compelling Fiction

You guys, I don’t ever go in the romance section.

No–that came out wrong. I totally spend time in the romance section when I’m alphabetizing and updating the front list with new books and pulling books to send back to the publisher.

So I guess I go into the romance section if I’m getting paid to do it.

And here’s the weird thing: my aversion to romance doesn’t make any sense. I like love stories and I like sex. I mean, these are good things, right? So what the hell, man? Why does the thought of reading a romance novel make my eyes roll so hard that they’re in danger of getting stuck?

It comes down to tropes: romance, unlike science fiction, fantasy, or western, is an actual plot type. When you tell me a book is a romance, I know a few things about it. I know that there are two leads, [generally] a male and a female. I know they’re either going to have ICA (a little thing J.R. Ward graciously introduced the world to–“Instant. Cosmic. Attraction.”) or they’re going to hate each other for a third of the book and then have crazy hot monkey sex. I know that at some point there will be a sundering of our lovers. And I know, without a shadow of a breath of a doubt, that they will get back together, they will make whatever didn’t work before work, that they will ride off into the sunset on a pretty Appaloosa pony and live happily ever after.

Or something like that.

My beef with it isn’t that the genre has tropes–every plot type does. Revenge plots have a person who was wrong, the offending party, and some kind of societal-law-enforcement representative. Quest stories have a MacGuffin. Thrillers have a ticking clock. Mysteries have a crime. The classical definition of comedy requires a joining with society at the end; tragedies call for a separation from society. I could go on, but I won’t. (You’re welcome.) So TROPES aren’t the problem–it’s the certainty of the tropes.

Where’s the risk? Where’s the danger? The unnecessary heart-pounding acrid-tongue adrenaline rush of uncertainty? And if you make the circumstances shaky enough, if you let your readers know early, often, and hard that you’re all out of fucks to give and you might not kill Hermione, but you will sure as shit kill Cedric Diggory who was just a sweet Hufflepuff and never did anything mean to anyone so Dumbledore better WATCH THE FUCK OUT–your readers don’t know what you’re going to do in pursuit of those things we know you’re going to do.

Come on. It’s not like Voldemort was ever going to win. No one ever thought that. But that’s not the point. That’s not what made Harry Potter compelling stories. It was all that other messy shit on the fringes. It was Snape’s has-he-hasn’t-he double (triple?) crossing, it was that bitch Delores Umbridge, it was Fred (or George, I can’t ever remember) dying. It’s Ron and Hermione. It’s all THOSE things, all those messy little lives getting in the way of The Quest.

The mention of romance novels has a point, little ones: I finished Tiffany Reisz’s THE SIREN last night, and damn but if that wasn’t good. Smut alert–it’s BDSM erotica done fucking right. It’s erotic fiction and very much not a romance, despite the fact that it is published by Harlequin and sits merrily twiddling its thumbs and practicing its half-hitch knots in the romance section. The author said she thought of it as “dark like Story of O but funny like an Aaron Sorkin tv series. I’m really mixing my genres here.” And while I usually do whoa-hands when people compare themselves to Sorkin, I get it on this one. And you know what? That’s LIFE, folks. Life is dark and funny and tragic and beautiful and desperate. That’s life, and that’s good fiction.

And that’s compelling fiction. We’re writers, here, so let’s just stop beating around the bush. What we do is serve up life to people. Maybe it’s about the best musician on a planet that has genetically engineered dragons, or it’s about what might have happened during the missing 27 years of Jesus’ life, or it’s about a wizard private eye who’s just had his family threatened, but it’s all life. We serve up a slice of life-pie, and sometimes pie has a long manky pubic hair lying on top of that frothy canned whipped cream, and you know it’s from a line chef at that Waffle House on I-85 in central North Carolina that you know is housing some kind of demented inbred clinic-bombing hair monster, but damn, but you wanted that pie.

So you stopped. You ordered pie. And now here it is. That’s life. That’s what happens.

And since we’re here just in time for National Novel Writing Month, here’s some free advice, my little mustardseeds: do not ever, for one bloody goddamn second, forget that your characters are PEOPLE. They are human beings and they are assholes and sweethearts and racists and lazy and generous and wonderful and messy. God, we’re messy. Write your characters as messily as you live–people cry and when they do it’s hideous, faces red and blotchy and upper lips covered in snot and you cry so hard you think your ribs will break but that’s what the fuck happens. So that’s what the fuck you write.

They say “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” That doesn’t mean you have to cry while you write–or laugh or throw things or whatever (though it helps)–it means you find that emotion you’re writing and you mine the everliving fuck out of it. You dredge up nasty memories, if you have to, to put your readers through the same painful, numbing, heartcracking thing your character’s going through. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been hurt, we’ve all been pissed off and frustrated and in love and so sad that even pictures of pigs in pajamas couldn’t make us smile.

Use it. Use it hard and use it without mercy. The reader picked up your book, didn’t he? It’s his fault, then, really. Because he wants to feel this shit. So make him. Make him feel it, every last breathless inch of it, and make him hate you and beg for more.

That’s how you write compelling fiction. You make people, real people, and you put them in situations where they have to make hard decisions, and they fuck up, they do, but that’s okay because they’re people. They have sex with strangers and pull the trigger when they shouldn’t–or don’t when they should have–and they say things they can never take back because it’s all down on paper now, they’re totally fucked. Your reader has to care about your characters, and readers can’t care about what isn’t real. (Secondary characters are people, too!)

Your job, as the writer, is to ruin your protagonist’s life in any way you can manage. Characters stuck in a tree? Chop it down. Set it on fire. Have the face-eating slothbeast that lives in its upper branches come rollicking down and start eating faces. Everyone knows that. Oldest advice in the book.

But it’s also pretty gratifying to hear one of your readers tell you they just want to shake you because they’re so mad and oh my god when will you be finished with the next one?!

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