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Write What You (Don’t) Know

That “write what you know” adage is a mixed bag of cats, in my opinion. The technical word for it that they whip out in English classes is verisimilitude — the feeling of truth in fiction. That’s well and dandy, but some people seem to think that means you can’t write about anything that doesn’t happen in real life.

Sorry, what?

I remember reading a picture book with my second grade class full of vocabulary words. It was a retelling of the Cinderella story, but with dinosaurs. Dinosaurs! It was the best thing in the world. (It’s called Dinorella: A Prehistoric Fairy Tale. Talk about a blast from the past, eh? Wink wink, nudge nudge.) It was fantastic, in every sense of the word.

Speaking of, there are entire genres, thousands of stories, devoted to turning “verisimilitude” on its head. Do you think Tolkien ever met an actual, scaly, fire-breathing dragon? He wrote five or six of the darn things. I have never been on an intergalactic spaceship in my life, but darned if I’m going to let that stop me from writing a space opera. I’ve never met a fairy from the Summer Court, but I wrote a book about them. So what if these things aren’t real right now? That’s the thing about words. You can do anything with them. If you want to write a book about cowboy aliens feuding with mermaids, you can do that. If you want to write a book about a cactus’s search for love, you can do that. It’s your brain, dude. Go nuts.

But now that you have your crazy cool world, it has to be relatable. This is what I mean by a mixed bag — there’s got to be some element that the readers can recognize and identify with. I don’t care whether your protagonist has tentacles. Maybe blue spots lighting up on his face is the alien equivalent of a blush, and he can’t stop glowing when he sees the other alien down the hall. Or maybe the protag is a dragon who’s trying to outdo that green-scaled idiot across the mountainside in a contest on whose lair is the most bedecked with jewels.

And not just the characters, the setting, too. Even Mars has crunchy sand underfoot that gets everywhere and annoys the crap out of your characters. Playing in fantastic genres is a lot of fun, but it won’t work if the only cool thing is the genre itself.

Finding Time

One of the things I miss about college is the fact that I could rearrange my schedule to basically whatever I wanted. The classes in my major I couldn’t really do anything about, but I could pick other classes to suit whatever timetable I liked, so I had nice comfortable lunch hours, or my day was over promptly at 3:20 in the afternoon. If I then wanted to spend my time goofing off on the internet — I mean, uh, conscientiously studying and doing my homework — then I could. If I wanted to go poking around town with my friends, then I could. If I wanted to write a whole series of books, then I could. (I didn’t.) The world was my small-college-town-sized oyster.

But I’ve got an actual real-person job these days — ladies, gents, distinguished guests, I am a nine-to-fiver. Part and parcel of the gig is having to plan the rest of my day around that big chunk of time. By which I mean, time management becomes a crucial factor for the writing process.

So while I was reading Books On Writing and marathoning the Mad Genius Club blog during one of my dry spells earlier this year, one of the posts that I found was this one by Larry Correia. The dude is ridiculously successful. He is rolling in money. And he started out writing while he had a day job, and worked hard enough that he could quit his day job, and now his day job is writing. I aspire to be where he is now, and I respect his work ethic; which means I’m trying to have a similar work ethic.

Which is one of the reasons why I decided to buckle down and actually finish that darn draft. And that meant coming home from work and pounding out a few thousand words every day until the draft was done. I described the process to one of my friends — earbuds in, big mug of cocoa, and squeezing as much writing as possible into two or three hours so I could get to bed on time, wake up, go to work, and do it all over again. She was nonplussed, to say the least. She didn’t have the time to spare to do something like that.

But my question is, how are you ever going to get a project finished if you don’t find the time? Heck, make the time. Wake up earlier if you have to, or stay up later (and find a strong alarm ringtone on your phone). I mean, it helps that I don’t have a romantic relationship to maintain at the same time, and that my closest friends live at least 45 minutes away. But even if my situation was different, writing is still important to me, and it doesn’t magically stop being important just because I have an S.O.

And having a finished, polished manuscript is a pretty good feeling.

Frankenstein’s Monster and the Phantom

He was born ugly, and people abused him because he was ugly, so he went on a murder spree. Which character does this describe?

Err … both. Okay.

What about their motivations? The Creature was abandoned hours after his creation, left to fend for himself. He just wanted someone to talk to, right? He was lonely because he was the only person in the world like himself, and even his own reflection frightened him. He learned three different languages to talk to people in, only to hear them screaming at him in three different languages. Even a small child thought he was repulsive. So … he killed the child. Solid logic there, buddy. The next step is obviously to frame an innocent woman for the murder.

And the Phantom, who was stuck in a zoo as a child and grew up being poked and prodded at, who had to wear a mask to get people to stop screaming at him. So escape to the bowels of a theater, blackmail the managers into giving you oodles of money (which you do … what with? do you go out? do you, heaven forbid, buy some company? nope) — and then take advantage of a teenager’s grief at the death of her father to manipulate her into being your student. Yep, sounds good. And when she decides to marry some other dude and escape your clutches, logically the next thing to do is to murder a few people.

Of course, all of this is massive oversimplification. They’re both fascinating stories with really well-developed antagonists. And Frankenstein especially doesn’t have a single handy dandy moral to apply; Frankenstein the character isn’t a good guy either. And you should see all the people who howl that Christine should have picked the Phantom over Raoul. It seems pretty clear-cut that they’re victims … except for the fact that, you know, being lonely and maligned doesn’t exactly excuse the fact that they murder people.

“You’d think killing people will make them like you, but it doesn’t … it just makes them dead.”

The conclusion? Hats off to Leroux and Shelley, because these books are considered “classics” but are actually readable without choking on a torrent of pretension and condescension. I mean, The Phantom of the Opera was so popular it got turned into an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, with a sequel. And Frankenstein has been turned into so many movies, including my favorite, the parody Young Frankenstein. Is it possible that a parody can be truer to the book than the zillion other “serious” movies? Maybe so. How delightful. In any case, these stories really are classics in the sense that after all this time, they still make us think.

Moral Ambiguity in Antagonists

One of the first things you read in any book on writing, aside from the fact that adverbs are the Devil’s handiwork, is that characters need to be three-dimensional. Our hero needs to have a few flaws in addition to his many sterling qualities; and our villain needs to have some traits aside from a penchant for sinisterly twirling his mustache and drowning kittens. I think when it comes to heroes, or at least protagonists, they need to be relatable above all else. If the hero is pure of heart, a gallant warrior, etc etc, that’s great — but if he cusses a blue streak when he stubs his toe, well then! He’s human! And I am much more interested in him as a character.

But villains seem to be a trickier business. To wit:

There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist. (“Wonderful” – Stephen Schwartz)

We say that we want three-dimensional villains, and then we protest that the genocidal maniac was just brainwashed into committing genocide (cough Loki from the Avengers movie cough). We say that we want interesting bad guys and nuanced good guys, and then we claim that the brainwashed victim was actually the villain (cough Bucky Barnes cough). Show me an antagonist who laughs when he murders people and then has tea with his daughter, and I’ll show you a slew of people who say that he’s just misunderstood. Or alternately, show me a protagonist who does his best in a horrible situation to protect his family, and I’ll show you a crowd who howls for his head.

It’s black-and-white thinking. The same stuff that says “anyone who isn’t perfectly pure and good-hearted is an evil sonovasomethingorother and deserves to roast on a spit.” Sorry? Last time I checked, people were humans, and humans make mistakes. It’s kind of built into the programming.

And our main characters should be the same way — making mistakes, I mean. Big goof-ups that make the plot twist and tangle, little goof-ups that make you laugh, and goof-ups all in between. Which means that bad guys need the chance to occasionally do something good, too.

Yeah, it’ll make us as readers uncomfortable to think that such a bad person can care about family or a stamp collection or gardening. But it reminds us that bad people are people, just like us. And more importantly, that it doesn’t stop them from being bad.

Fiction doesn’t have to be haughty literary stuff in order to tell uncomfortable truths.

Little Black Book

I have a small black hardcover Moleskine that I keep in my purse. Sometimes I write down funny things that people say, sometimes I make to-do lists, and sometimes I write down excerpts from books or songs that I really like, or scribble notes on why x book that I just read or y movie that I just saw is interesting. Sometimes story ideas make their way in there too, but mostly it’s just whatever happens to be on my mind at the time.

I suppose I could call it a journal or a diary, but those words have connotations that don’t exactly apply to my little black book, I think. “Journal” implies that it is a daily chronicle of my life (and I only update mine when I remember to or when I feel like it); and the last time I wrote the words “Dear Diary” I was seven years old. Haven’t done it since. So yeah — “little black book” suffices.

I’ve been writing in little black books since I was in high school. The first was a gift from my father before a family trip for spring break — and some eight years later, I am now on my thirteenth little black book. Mostly I’ve written them in pencil, sometimes in ballpoint pen, and one book I wrote entirely in glitter gel pens of various colors. Fabulous. One of my little black books is a stained-glass Paperblanks journal (bought at the MMOA), one of them is soft green (a gift from a friend); some of them are lined and some of them are grid squares; I have two new ones with the cellophane wrapping still on them that have Tolkien’s Smaug embossed on the covers, and when I finish my current little black book, Smaug is up for number fourteen.

Rereading the high school little black books is a study of second-hand embarrassment. It’s one thing to remember the things I did as a teenager, but seeing those thoughts spelled out on the page is different. On the one hand — cringe-worthy, it really is. On the other hand — I remember being that kid, and the last thing she would have wanted was someone telling her to take a deep breath and relax. And it’s nice to have a record of how much I’ve changed. I can only imagine what I’ll think of Book Thirteen in five more years.

I haven’t been meticulous about this. I only just started dating the entries as I write them. But there are things that I wrote down that I probably wouldn’t remember otherwise. Watching the sun rise by increments on Myrtle Beach; sheep grazing on a sheer cliff edge just past the guardrails of the twisting road; the rolling green landscape as seen from the window of a train. I remember them better because I nailed them down with words, pinning them like butterflies to cork, imperfectly preserved but still here. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Writer’s Block and Books On Writing

I’ve read approximately thirty different books about the process of writing. Whether it’s formatting in order to snare a publisher, literary devices and the erasing of adverbs (fight me, I love a good adverb), or the characterization of villains, I’ve probably read more words about writing than I’ve finished in first drafts.

Which is, of course, the problem.

Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. I’ve learned this the hard way. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) tends to encourage the worst parts of my procrastination habit, and going indie means I’m accountable only to myself; I don’t even have the artificial deadline of a month. On the one hand, I make my own schedule! On the other hand, if I’m not feeling like staring at a screen for hours at a time, I can easily pick up a book someone else has already written and just fantasize about how awesome my book is going to be. I’ll be a New York Times bestseller, just you wait! … I just have to actually do the work first.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, when it comes to my own writing projects, Books On Writing are resources that are only to be used for specific instances. If I need a technique for first-person narration, maybe I’ll crack open The Elements of Style for that one chapter. But it does me no good to sink deep into a book about editing when I haven’t even finished the first draft; and it definitely does me no good to read a book about independent publishing when I haven’t even finished the first chapter yet.

So reading Books On Writing is one thing to avoid when I’m actually trying to, you know, write. Or when I know I need to write but I don’t feel like it. That particular state of wretched boredom is how I think of Writer’s Block. It’s not that I can’t write; I can; I just would rather do anything else at the moment.

It’s hard going when you don’t feel like doing it. There were long stretches where I didn’t write a word at all. But getting into a routine helps (mug of cocoa, earbuds, movie playing in the background, and go!). So does telling a few people that you intend to finish this one, so that they can help you hold yourself accountable. And rereading the last bit you wrote can help you get back into the mood of the story. But mostly what you have to do is just put fingers on the keyboard and put something down. Anything. It’s a first draft, it doesn’t have to be good — but it does have to be done. And you’ll be surprised at the freedom that gives you.

Truth, Justice, Freedom, Reasonably Priced Love, and a Hard Boiled Egg

Today is the Glorious 25th of May. For those of you who have read Nightwatch by Sir Terry Pratchett, you know what this means – for those of you who haven’t, suffice to say it’s now an anniversary to remember that writer’s works.

In brief, the 25th of May is a crucial date in the novel, in which a few brave men did the job they didn’t have to do, and died in the attempt. I highly suggest you read it. It’s the single darkest Discworld book, but it has some wonderfully awful puns in there too, and it’ll make you think.

Actually I suggest you read all of the Discworld books. (Don’t start with The Color of Magic, though. Start with Mort or Guards! Guards! or The Wyrd Sisters. There are flow charts. I’m serious.) They’re cleverly written, but not in such a way as to make you feel stupid while reading it. The characterization takes stereotypes and turns them on their heads, with humor and with thoughtfulness. The footnotes are truly hilarious. The plotlines expose the pettiness and awfulness of people, then say, “it doesn’t have to be that way,” and then show how it can be better. In short, the Discworld series is everything I look for in a book.

I discovered the Disc through Neil Gaiman, actually. It’s a funny popcorn linearity as to how. From the Stardust movie coming out in 2007, and reading that book before seeing the movie, to recognizing Gaiman’s name on the spine of Good Omens in my high school library – and then recognizing Pratchett’s name on the spine of Carpe Jugulum, also in my high school library. I was fourteen, and Agnes Nitt was exactly the protagonist I needed. The rest, as they say, is history.

I don’t think I’m the only person who cried when they found out Sir Terry had passed in 2015. He was clever and kind and angry, and he felt like a third grandfather to me despite never having actually met the man. His books have outlined my life for the past eight years, and I expect that they will continue to do so even if there aren’t any more new ones. No, I still haven’t read The Shepherd’s Crown. I know that I should. But it still feels too much like saying goodbye.

As a fantasy/sci fi writer, Sir Terry reached thousands of people. He never talked down to the reader. His characters felt real. There was wit and warmth and kindness in his words. And if I can aspire to a quarter of what he accomplished, I’ll consider it a job well done.

Fantastic Species: Elves

When it comes to fantasy creatures, elves and dwarves are pretty much the go-to nonhuman species for populating a world. (Aside from all the cattle-munching dragons, that is.) And as per the Tolkien world that shadows everything we do in the genre, elves are graceful and wise and as old as time, usually archers and amazing dancers; and dwarves are basically humans but with a rustic Viking aesthetic and a penchant for anvils. Elves can never be wrong, but dwarves are usually about as wrong or right as the rest of us plebes.

Which is interesting, because in the original Lord of the Rings books, Gimli the dwarf is a smooth-talking, graceful diplomat; and Legolas the elf is a big cheerful lug with a bow. And in The Silmarillion, the slim volume that’s packed with more murder and mayhem than A Song of Ice and Fire (if less graphically put), elves are just as likely to mess up catastrophically as humans are.

This begs the question: where did that stereotype of Ancient Wise Elves and Surly Dwarves come from? And the answer is: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. Cate Blanchett is amazing, but when you know that Galadriel took part in the slaughter at Alqualondë, it’s a little harder to see the Queen of Lothlorien as always right about everything.

(Caveat: I have never played a single Bioware Dragon Age game, so I can’t speak for the elves in those stories. If elves are treated differently there, I’d love to discuss the difference!)

So once we know that the Ancient Wise Elf is a stereotype, what is the literary utility of a character like that? Someone who has lived through every age, who scorns mortals for their brief lives, who is never wrong about anything — what function does a character like that have in a story? If you need an elder to impart advice to your young hero, sure, that makes sense. But it makes even more sense for your elder to be wrong about something. (Cf. Dumbledore and Old Ben Kenobi.) And it might just be me, but if some fantastically beautiful person told me my life was as brief as an insect and they knew the answer to all of my problems … well, that sounds awfully condescending, doesn’t it?

When it comes to know-it-all characters, for me the satisfaction mostly comes in showing that character that they actually don’t know everything. And when it comes to immortal characters, there’s even more satisfaction in showing that they can be surprised by something. So that’s it, really: the role of the stereotype, at least in my view, is to break it.

Literary v. Genre Fiction – Fight!!

Sometimes literary works (I mean literary in the sense of “described as a classic in English high school classes”) can be interesting. And I suppose as someone who’s trying to make a living out of writing I should be more defensive of literary works. But I confess: the only assigned book aside from Shakespeare that I really enjoyed in high school was Catch-22, which is about as vulgar and silly as a literary book ever gets. I would much rather read a million books about dragons than ever read The Scarlet Letter again – and, of course, there were precisely zero books in the curriculum that included dragons. It feels like the people who sit around deciding what books children ought to read in school specifically choose them for their dull qualities.

Is that true? Maybe. I enjoyed English classes in college a lot more, partly because I got to choose the type of English class. But I maintain the position that the way we study things as “classics”, and sneer at genre books, is … kind of detrimental, actually. Tolkien and Harry Potter deserve to be examined with the same care as F. Scott Fitzgerald, with regards to the craft as well as their impact on our culture. Does a book have less worth because it appeals to a wide variety of people? Tell that to Shakespeare, who was the very definition of wide appeal in Elizabethan England. His popularity with the unwashed masses is the only reason we still know his name today. To study his work for his literary skill is a good thing; we can learn from him. But to hold him up as the pinnacle of literature! universal! et cetera et cetera ad nauseam! doesn’t make any sense. (For more reading on the “universality” of Shakespeare, I recommend reading Shakespeare in the Bush.)

Literary works have their place on the bookshelf, certainly. After all, I wrote my senior thesis on Les Misérables, which is probably one of the biggest literary novels in French. But I think that looking down on people for reading genre fiction is essentially telling them “no, you shouldn’t enjoy reading, you should wade through this difficult bog of prose so that we can give you a gold star.” It seems counter-intuitive to me.

What books were you forced to read in English class that made you want to throw up through your nose? Or conversely, what books were you forced to read in English class that you actually enjoyed? Tell me in the comments!