Writing From Experience

It’s the old adage of writers, when asked by aspiring writers for advice, to ‘write what you know.’ If I had a penny for every time I was told that, I wouldn’t be a millionaire, but I’d certainly be able to afford a few of the books on my TBR list.

It seems like an odd piece of advice at first. I mean, what did JK Rowling know about being a wizard? Unless there’s something she’s keeping secret, absolutely nothing. What does anyone know about being a paranormal creature, having a superpower, going in to space, living in another world? Nothing.

But that doesn’t matter. That’s the sort of thing you can invent, because nobody knows what they are like. You tell me that being a vampire involves craving blood and shrinking away from the sun, I’ll roll with that. Tell me it involves brooding and sparkling, I’ll roll with that too.

The things we relate to in stories are not the fantastical, the otherworldly. These are the things that make it colourful, unique and interesting. What we relate to is the human element – how a character feels as they explore the fantasy world they live in, how a paranormal character reacts to the loss of a friend or lover. And this is where we can draw on our own experiences.

I’ve read plenty of bad writing in my time. I’ve read some horrendous purple prose, obnoxious characters or characters that change personality to suit the needs of the plot, but most bad writing happens when people try to take their subject matter outside of what they know.

A family friend has been subject to some discussion lately. She dabbles in writing, how seriously I don’t really know, but seriously enough to want people to read her work. I’ve read a couple of her works. While she’s far from terrible, her writing doesn’t particularly ring true. You can really, really tell when she’s writing about things she has no experience of. It’s a shame really, because her actual writing isn’t bad – some elements could do with polishing, but that’s the sort of thing that comes with practice. If only she’d write about things she’s struggled with, loved, hated in her own life – I think she could have done something really interesting. She may yet.

My current WIP is scifi. It deals with things I’ve never experienced, and never will. That’s science fiction by its very nature. It’s a genre that’s notorious for bad writing because of that. While I don’t profess to know everything about writing, there are a number of things I’ve done to try and avoid the pitfalls of the scifi genre.

Primarily, the story is about freedom and friendship. The struggle of one character fighting to save another, and her friend, who’s in love with her and determined to keep up with her, despite not liking where the road is taking them. So it’s set in a future dystopia, half in a computer game reality. That doesn’t matter. The core of the story could be transposed into any setting.

And though I don’t know what it’s like to spend half your life in a computer generated reality, I do know what it’s like to love someone. I do know what it’s like to have a best friend who you adore, but who loves you in a way you can’t reciprocate. I do know what it’s like to struggle to be with someone against difficult odds, and all the complicated emotions that come with that.

Because I know these things, and can draw on those experiences, I have the heart of my story on which I can hang all the dressings of science fiction settings and futuristic concepts. The dressings can be shoddy, but as long as the heart of a story is beating, you’ll always have something worth working with – something a reader will want to find.

One thought on “Writing From Experience

  1. Joanne... says:

    Great stuff, and oh so true. I’ve had people tell me they don’t like The Lord of the Rings because they can’t get into elves and dwarves and wizards (and hobbits). Of course, the books aren’t about those things – they’re about love and good and evil and hope and despair. The details may not be things we “know”, but the true essence of a story can be.


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