29 April 2009

Write what you know

Sometimes we Onions are invited to venture out of the House and into the real world to talk to groups of writers who aspire to be published. And often the brief is to talk about what publishers are looking for. And, oh, it's such a tricky question...

In preparation, we gather up the wonderful books we have worked on for show and tell, we make notes about our personal experiences of reading and writing and editing and working with writers, and we cast about for inspiration from others, for meaningful advice that might resonate and give aspiring writers practical tools that will help them become better writers.

And for inspiration, often this Onion returns to a blog post by Arthur A Levine. Plastic Flowers and Channelled Raisins is the text of a talk Arthur gave to writers and illustrators in Florida in 2006.

Here's a snippet.
"...people often ask me how I stay responsive to wonderful new manuscripts when I read so many every week, every day. The good news and the bad news is that the really special ones stand out as distinctly as real flowers in a shop full of plastic imitations. And it’s just like that really. The actual, living flower, has a smell. It isn’t perfect, its colors can be off a bit. But it’s REAL and you know it."
Yes. Actual living flowers. With a smell. Perhaps imperfect and a little off-colour - but yes, REAL.

Arthur has a plethora of excellent advice in his talk - and it begins with the oft-quoted advice: write what you know. Take a look.* It's worth it.

*The blog posts aren't separated so you have to scroll down past the first entry to get the the Plastic Flowers and Channelled Raisins post.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link. That's a great article!

I also enjoy Cheryl Klein's writing. She's an editor who works with Arthur and I was really inspired by her recent post about working on Marcelo in the Real World. Recommended if you haven't run across her blog yet.

jonathan said...

Of course, there is also the argument that "write what you know" is the wrong way around and therefore limiting. Perhaps "know what you write" is better. Otherwise Tolkien would never have written about Middle Earth because he can't have known much about it to start with.

Or perhaps the quote just doesn't quite work for speculative fiction.

The Alien Onions said...

Jonathan -
Hmmm interesting. I think it works for speculative fiction in a slightly different sense. If a writer of speculative fiction doesn't know their world inside out and back to front, the readers won't believe in it. Just because you create it, doesn't mean you don't know it - I guess is what I'm saying. Tolkien clearly knew Middle Earth in more detail than I know the real world.

I always feel like 'write what you know' is an injunction to writers to get out there and know a lot - to know people and places and ideas so that when they come tumbling out in your work (possibly in some totally unknowable world or situation) they feel real.

Also - I think that empathy is a type of 'knowing' in a way. And good writers are great empathasiers - they think themselves inside the heads of their characters to such a degree that they 'know' their thoughts and emotions even if they are foreign to them in their everyday lives.

This may all sound a bit like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs - but you'd be surprised at the number of submissions we get where the author has not only not experienced a situation or thing first hand, but they're not able to empathise with how someone in that situation might actually feel. I think the other Onions would agree with me that if a writer has only sympathy for their characters - rather than empathy, or if their aim is to make the reader sympathise not empathaise with their characters then the book isn't a living flower (to draw in Arthur's metaphor).

If we take 'write what you know' to mean 'write what you have literally experienced' then we're subsribing to a school of sort of 'method writing'(and I for one don't want Dustin Hoffman writing YA). You can know a lot in your imagination - but you have to really listen to it.

Gosh - that turned out longer than I meant it too! Thanks for getting me thinking on this cold morning, Jonathan. And thanks for the original post, JW.


jonathan said...

Good points Susannah, I agree. Your comment that "is an injunction to writers to get out there and know a lot" is pretty much what I meant by "know what you write".

I'd hate for someone to think, "well all I know about is fast cars and football so any book I write has to be about those things". But clearly if they choose to write a story about bicycles and chess instead, they'd need to learn about those things.

Although as I write that I realise that if those are the things the author-to-be is passionate about, then they are probably a good place to start.

Now I'm turning myself in circles so I'd best stop thinking too much about this and go learn more about the world in which my story is trying to be set.

Natalie Hatch said...

Thanks for the article I've forwarded it on to a few friends.