Sunday, 22 May 2011

Soaps and sagas peopled by aliens.

I was reading some old writing articles the other day and came across the 'write about what you know' advice. I think it should be amended to 'write about what you'd like to know' and what others might like to know...
The former overused adage, I believe, can easily block a writer and tie him/her to the mundane things in life - a perfect reason for a reader to become bored and put a story to one side.   People read to learn something or be entertained and unless you can add an element of difference, they will soon be unengaged.
The latter phrase 'write about what you'd like to know' may encourage a writer to think more about what makes interesting reading and may help to stop the same old tired plot lines being re-hashed.
After all, stories about futuristic scifi, vampires and ghosts would have never been written if we steadfastly stuck to 'what we know'. And writers like Stephen King and Dean Koontz would be drawing unemployment checks!
Readers want to be taken out of their normal everyday worlds whatever the genre - whether it be soap stories, romance, adventure, mystery, or thriller. These genres still need some 'out there' plotlines or at best some exageration (or almost unbelievable aspect) of everyday life.  Even the soaps, meant to be a representation of ordinary folk and ordinary life, stretch our sense of credulity to the limit. 
Of course, introducing fanciful aspects is where the imagination comes into play. And this leads directly away from the 'write what you know' adage and invites you to ask the 'what if' question. For me this is the most exciting part of writing - allowing imagination to soar to the heavens.
I believe the 'what if' question should become the most asked question by fiction writers, whatever genre they write in.We need to make our stories as different as possible if they are to be noticed.
Having said that, readers do still need some elements of familiarity and stories still need to be believable - i.e. could it really happen like that? So 'write what you know' should still be in the mix.   I mean, what's wrong with setting 'kitchen sink dramas' in a futuristic world peopled by aliens??
What do you think?


  1. I think...I like the way you think!

  2. An interesting Blog and I'll be back for more!

  3. Of course we should only write what we know. Stories about Time Lords, wizard boys, hobits or Vulcans would never catch on.

  4. I once read a great interpretation of the 'write what you know' rule. It was by Maeve Binchy, I believe. She said, you may not know what it's like to be confronted by a gunman in an alleyway in downtown Kowloon, but you know about fear. Just take the emotions you know and put them into situations which would produce them.

    It works for me. I write fantasy, so literally interpreting the 'write what you know' rule wouldn't get me very far. I don't know about being exiled to another world, but I know about being a long way from home and having to make a new life. I don't know about being attacked by a vampire, but I do know about pain and fear and blood everywhere (long story and it didn't involve a vampire).

    If you're willing, it's easy to take the essence of your life experiences and use them in different contexts. You just have to have the guts to dig into your own psyche and it can be pretty scary in there!

  5. That "write what you know" is perhaps the worst advice ever given to writers. Like a lot of such things, the intent is good, but the result is perhaps flawed. What I'd suggest instead is to "write what you can convince the reader you know." If we "wrote what we knew" very few could write a murder mystery (unless we'd murdered someone), few (if any) could write a story set in the future or distant past (unless they had a time machine), few could write from the pov of an animal or the opposite sex, and so on. But, if you write it in a way that the reader accepts the character, situation, whatever, then you've succeeded.

    BTW, just found your blog and it rocks!

  6. Very good points. I wonder just how many authors only write about what they know.

  7. I think the sci-fi concept of extraterrestrial plants taking over humanity by replacing them with 'pod-people' is just as believable as the general ongoing soap scenario of everyone in the same street working in the street, marrying neighbours from the street, only inviting neighbours to every wedding, christening and funeral (presumably because they have no friends or family outside the street.) Not to mention the ideas that someone can be in financial ruin one week, then investing heavily only a month or two later, when the scriptwriters have 'moved on' or indeed, putting up every day with a civilian death rate that far exceeds that of many warzones.

    Fantasy comes in many guises, and the 'write what you know' rule applies more to the concept of using your own personal experiences to make our work 'realistic' even when not 'real, more about knowing how people would act or react in a particular situation than actually writing about only those situations we have experience of.

    If we all wrote only from and completely from our own experiences, there'd be some bloody boring books out there, wouldn't there?

  8. I'm with you! I think you should write what inspires you, what will get you through to the end!