Saturday, April 5, 2014

Write what you READ, not what you know!

How often, as aspiring authors/writers, have we been told "write what you know", as if this simple piece of advice is the be all and end all of all writing knowledge. Many disagree with this statement (surprise, surprise - that would be moi) - honestly, where would we be if Stephen King followed this piece of advice and instead of writing about a young troubled pyrokinetic girl in highschool, he wrote about a struggling teacher who wished to be a writer!

So I really don't think much of this piece of advice in the literal sense, and I imagine many SF/PR writers would agree with me. Now that being said, I don't deny there is a nugget of truth in it, that is, as writers we often draw on our own experiences and of those around us in order to properly develop our characters and strengthen our writing. This is an essential part of being a writer, however I think my issue with this advice is how it can be interpreted as a "rule" and often newbies can fall into this "I must write what I know only" trap.

Connected to this, is also the common advice given to aspiring writers/authors that we should write short stories too in order to bulk up our CV for publication. As a person who bought into this line - hook line and sinker - I think the below quote struck a cord with me.

Roddy Doyle, in an interview with the Guardian, had this brilliant piece of advice:

If I want to be a writer, like you, should I start by writing short stories? Are they easier or harder?!I find short stories harder to write than novels. But that's just me. When I started writing, I wrote novels – because I loved reading novels. If you want to be a footballer, do you pick up a tennis racket? Probably not. You should start writing what you really want to write, not what you think will be easier. It's the desire to write that will keep you going, not the easier choice.

From this I believe the more accurate piece of advice for any writer is NOT "Write what you know", but
rather "write what you READ". Write the stories you want to read, in the form you love to read. So for me, I tried to write short stories so I could get some publications under my hat, but it was often such a struggle. I kept thinking, this should be easier as it's shorter than a novel and I can go back and rewrite it until it's "perfect" (I think you can see why I don't get published if I'm waiting for perfection!). So, partly due to my perfectionist-procrastinating ways, with a dash of low writing self-efficacy, I kept thinking as I wrote my short stories. . . this could be a novel. And I should have listened to myself!! *headdesk*

So I have come up with a few telltale questions that should reveal whether you should write short or not or whether you're in short story denial (as I was):

(a) Look at your book case - do you have more than two short story collections (short stories bought when in school don't count!)

(b) Have you actually read them?

(c) i. When you buy on Kindle, do you go first to the books or to the singles section?

(c) ii. When you go into a bookshop, do you go straight to the short story collections (to see if your favourite writer has released a new volumne or to pick up the latest Short magazine) or do you go straight to the fiction section? (or even better, you didn't even realise that there was a short story section!!)

(d) If asked who your favourite short story writer is - (after a five minute panic pause) you remember Raymond Carver wrote some short stories (which you have never read) and also Stephen King did too didn't he?? (ahem, although, you've only read his novels).

These are the questions to ask before you go into writing short story, because trust me, there are some  amazingly talented short story writers out there - who read, write, and truly love short stories! Like any truly talented artists, reading their work is effortless, and so we can be fooled that this form should be effortless to write - it is not - so don't think this is an "easy route".

So whether it's short story or novel, or whether you're a Science Fiction or Romance nut (or both!!), write what you read!!

For those interested in great examples of the form - check out these great magazines!


The Bohemyth

Number Eleven Magazine

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