Recently, a writer friend of mine noted that most of my stories involving heterosexual relationships show those relationships to be post-divorce, strained, or shallow, while the ones with homosexual relationships are wonderful, tender, and life-affirming. And he’s not wrong; while there are some outliers (“Bring on the Rain” and “Section 3A” both feature positive heterosexual relationships), I do often write about single or divorced parents. Why? Because I am a divorced parent, and for a long time I was in an unhappy relationship that I wanted to get out of.
So I wrote what I knew.
But here’s the thing: you can’t only write what you know. If you do, you end up with a ton of books about plain-Jane (or plain-Shane) relationships with super-awesome guys or girls, and said plain-person is the only one who can bring the super-awesome person down to earth, whether it’s a billionaire, a sports star, a rancher, a motorcycle enthusiast*, a professor, or a rock musician. People write what they want to be true, because that’s what they know: they’re stuck in boring or dysfunctional lives and they want out.
As science fiction luminary Joe Haldeman once put it:
Bad books on writing tell you to ‘WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW’, a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.
And I’ll go even further**: how many novels or short-story collections have you seen or heard about where the main character is a professor at a small liberal-arts university and the rest of the cast is the “quirky” people they deal with on a daily basis?
As a writer, it helps to know things, but you can’t always write what you know. Here’s six of the best reasons why you shouldn’t.
6. You are not alone. — You aren’t the only person stuck in a bad marriage, or a drudgery-filled job, or a boring personal life. You aren’t the only person who wants to explore extreme sports, or be a vampire, or try out BDSM. While it can be fun to read about these things and imagine yourself in the lead role, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to actually write your own version of the story, making yourself the Mary Sue***. Besides, there aren’t enough young, sexy, aloof, rich CEOs just waiting for that one perfect girl. I mean, have you met a CEO? I have, and more than anything else, he’s too busy to have any time for recreation or dating.
Instead, try… …writing a story about what you wish your life was like now, without any fantastical elements. It’s okay for characters in stories to have healthy relationships, deep friendships, and jobs that they like. That doesn’t mean there’s no opportunity for conflict, but the conflict doesn’t always have to be in the relationship, or at the job — at least, the main conflict doesn’t have to be.
5. You can do research. — Let’s be realistic here: time-travel isn’t real. Warp speed isn’t real. Superpowers aren’t real. But that doesn’t mean you can just make everything up and expect your readers to just swallow it whole without thinking. People who read a lot expect their stories to at least seem like they could happen, and that they occur in a logical fashion. Unless you like weird fiction, which is totally fine.
Instead, try… …using Google. Unless you’re a scientist, there’s a lot you don’t know about a lot of things. And, yes, things that aren’t real may not have websites you can go to to learn all about them, but you can consider the fact that science is moving faster than ever. I may not know anything about quantum physics, but I can certainly look it up and figure out how it might be used. Or, in the other direction, I can look up where technology and science were at a specific point in the past and make a logical guess as to how to make it diverge realistically for an alternate form of history.
4. You haven’t done anything. — Most people have at least played one musical instrument, but most haven’t been in a band. Most people have at least played a few sports, but they haven’t been on a team. A lot of people have been in a fight, but most don’t fight for a living or do martial arts regularly. And all of us have seen guns fired on television, but relatively few have actually fired one. There’s all sorts of experiences out there, and most of us want to write about them.
Instead, try… …doing stuff. Go to the gun range and ask someone to teach you how to load and unload a weapon. Try firing at a target to see what it feels like, and sounds like, and smells like. Take a beginner’s martial arts class so you know what it’s like to be thrown and how to fall correctly, and how it feels to hit something. Interview your boss about management. Go to a rock-climbing gym so you can experience it in a safe environment. Volunteer at a school so you can see what the kids are really like these days — I guarantee they’re nothing like the kids you went to school with. And, most importantly, remember that unless your characters are experts odds are good they’re going to forget everything they learned the moment they’re in a stressful situation****. Write about that, too.
3. Your sex life isn’t exciting. — First, let me get this out of the way: there is absolutely nothing wrong with a so-called boring sex life. For millions of people around the world, sex is simply “insert tab A into slot B and repeat until both are satisfied with the outcome”*****. That said, you might want to write about exciting sex, or BDSM, or sex with a different partner than you usually have, or threesomes… and that’s okay. Just remember that it doesn’t always go well, and that the people in the media representations you’re taking your cues from are actors who are trained to do the things you want your characters to do.
Instead, try… …focusing on what can go wrong. I don’t mean “breath play goes wrong and someone gets choked to death” (although, I mean, that is a viable story idea). I mean, think about the last time you had sex and it didn’t go the way you wanted it to. Maybe someone couldn’t perform, or you fell off the bed, or there was rug burn, or you tried to do something kinky and your partner was like “what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Ultimately, sex isn’t supposed to be about the things you’re doing; it’s supposed to be about the people doing it. Yeah, writing a novel about sex requires actually showing the sex, but you can make it much more realistic by making the characters realistic… and what’s more realistic than making mistakes?
2. Your characters don’t talk to each other. — I want you to pause for a moment and think about how many TV shows, movies, and books could have been 75 percent shorter if people had just talked to each other about what’s going on. CinemaSins calls this out all the time — while the “pronoun game” is generally accepted as “a way to talk about a lover without revealing the person’s sex”, fiction has changed the narrative by using pronouns to hide who a person really is and what the true intentions are. Now, how often does that happen in real life?
Instead, try… Never. At least, not without someone immediately saying “who do you mean?” People communicate all the time. Usually via text, e-mail, and Facebook, but it does happen. Except when it doesn’t, and misunderstandings happen. Still, in a dire situation, a real person would be very clear about who is doing what and where. Don’t make your characters bad communicators for the sake of the plot — that is, unless you’ve established that they are from the get-go. Then it might make sense.
1. Your characters are all white. — There’s a lot of discussion (I’m not going to dig into that part of the internet because I like my sanity) about writing from the point of view of the other (where “the other” refers to “someone who isn’t you”). I have challenged myself to write characters, both POV and not, who are women, non-white, non-heterosexual, and non-neurotypical. It’s difficult, and it requires research and workshopping, but it can be done. However, people tend to write what they know. I happen to be a cisgendered white heterosexual male, and of the 21 short-stories I’ve published between 2009 and 2015, 17 feature white main characters and 16 feature heterosexual main characters.
Instead, try… …doing something different with your main character. I’ve published four stories where the main character is bisexual, gay, or asexual; I’ve published two where the main character is a black man; I’ve published one where the main character is an Asian teenager (at least, I intended it that way, although I didn’t specifically call it out); and I have two where the main character is a child growing up in different circumstances than myself. Oh, and seven stories aren’t specific about the main character’s race, although when a white person writes a story it is assumed that the POV character is also white. Try something different. Challenge yourself.
With all this having been said, don’t be discouraged that your story might exist already. There are only a few basic plots in the world, and for the most part your story is going to fall into one of them. While they’ve been distilled down to seven, or six, or even three, this list of 36 is pretty comprehensive, and most of my stories (published and not) fall into one of the categories.
Write your story. Hell, write some of what you know. But just remember that there are thousands of books out there — more every minute with Amazon’s self-publishing tools — and if you can’t distinguish yours from everyone else’s, no one’s going to read it.
Got an idea for a future “Six of the Best” column? Tweet it to me @listener42.
Josh’s book, The Clockwork Russian and Other Stories, has been called “intelligent, compelling, and always entertaining” by award-winning author Sean McMullen, and “thought-provoking” by Big Anklevich, editor of the Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine. You should read it and find out why.
* I’m extremely hesitant to read any book about a motorcycle club because I know I’ll be ticked off by the stereotypes that these books most likely will contain. Remember, bikers have been known to protect the victimized. Just because someone looks like the media’s idea of a biker doesn’t mean that person is automatically in need of saving from… well… whatever.
** Farther? Further? Whatever.
*** The traditional Mary Sue is perfect, but that doesn’t mean Bella Swan in Twilight isn’t also one. While she isn’t physically exotic or emotionally unimpeachable, she is the inciting factor to all the action in the story, and she is wanted by everyone despite being “just another girl”. Mary Sues have evolved somewhat over time.
**** I was on the wrestling team for a year in high school. I learned the holds and moves in practice, but every time I got into a match I forgot what I was supposed to be doing and concentrated on just completing one hold or one move. Sometimes it worked; usually it didn’t. Same thing happened when I took jiu-jitsu.
***** My brain went to a very strange place just now. Baymax was there.