“Write what you know” is one of those tiresome bits of advice that beginning writers are forever having thrown at them.
As a science fiction writer, I’ve always rejected this particular maxim out of hand, because, after all, I’ve never been a homeless street musician who ends up sharing a cheap hotel room with an eight-tentacled orange alien, but that’s how my novel Andy Nebula: Interstellar Rock Star begins.
If I limited myself to writing what I know, I always figured, I’d be stuck writing about the life of a freelance writer and actor in Regina, Saskatchewan, which, while it is not without interest, is never going to win me that Hugo Award I’d so dearly love to have.
I’ve disliked that bit of advice ever since I wrote my first short story, Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot, when I was 11, and I disliked it all through my teenage years, as I turned out my first three (unpublished, and going to stay that way) novels: The Silver Sword, Ship from the Unknown, and Slavers of Thok.
I just had the pleasure of being the preliminary judge for the Saskatchewan Writers Guild’s Write On X writing contest for children and teenagers. I read 138 entries from students aged 15 to 18 from all over the province (at least, I assume they were from all over the province; for anonymity’s sake, they didn’t have names or addresses on them). There were some excellent stories, the 25 of which I thought were the very best I passed on to the judges who will pick the award winners (and no, I’m not going to tell you which ones they were; those of you who entered will have to wait like everyone else for the final decision!).
While reading these stories, I suddenly realized that, in fact, everyone writes does write what they know; after all, you can hardly write about something that isn’t in some way present within your mind. What influences the quality of the writing is how you know what you know.
I came to the conclusion, about halfway through the pile, that what a lot of the young writers knew came from television and movies.
TV and movies are really big on car crashes. They’re easy to stage, they’re dramatic, and they offer the special effects guys an opportunity to make the car explode in flame halfway down the cliff (even before it actually hits anything, sometimes, which is a pretty good trick). If the plot is flagging, throw in a car crash.
At a rough estimate, I’d say at least a third of the stories I read featured car crashes. The victims varied: sometimes they were new girlfriends or boyfriends, sometimes they were other family members, and sometimes the narrator him or herself was involved. But after about the 20th story involving a car crash, I couldn’t help but sense a (probably) TV-inspired pattern.
Other life-threatening situations were also popular. I read stories about cancer, anorexia, diabetes, bicycle crashes (a nice change from car crashes, I admit) and falling through the ice. Alcohol and drug abuse showed up, too, as did a fair helping of physical and sexual abuse, homelessness, prostitution and child pornography.
Sadly, it’s quite possible some of these writers were writing from first-, or at least second-, hand experience, but I think it’s equally likely that a lot of them were drawing on TV depictions. I’m not saying teenage writers shouldn’t use these elements, and, indeed, many of the stories that did use them were well done and were represented in the 25 finalists I chose; but I do think they should be aware that they’re plowing an already well-plowed field when they do, and they’re going to have a tough time creating a story that isn’t an awful lot like dozens of other teenager-penned stories out there. (Teenagers were also writing these same kinds of stories when I was a teenager. I guess it’s an angst thing.)
The stories that really piqued my interest in this contest were the ones that revealed an imagination at work plowing new fields, imaginations that appeared to have been nurtured by more than just TV and movies. With a well-fed imagination, you can “write what you know” even if you’re writing about aliens or dragons, because you know those aliens and dragons; you’re able to imagine them so strongly that they’re as real to you as your neighbors (maybe more so).
And how do you create a well-fed imagination? That I can tell you that in three words:
Read. Read. Read.
I look forward to reading the future published work of some of the young writers who entered the Write On X contest this year. But I hope they will nurture their imaginations a little more richly, so that when I read their first novels, there’s won’t be a car crash in sight.