Saturday, 21 August 2010

Write what you (don't) know

Quite often when I'm chatting to people they'll turn round and tell me that they've always wanted to write a book, and the next question, naturally, is: What would you write about? Disappointingly, nine times out of ten the answer is: Me.

The most trumpeted advice on where to start writing a novel is WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. It's also the worst piece of advice I've ever heard.

How many of us 'know' things that other people would be willing to pay to read about? Unless you're very fortunate, your life will have been a mixture of work, eating, sleeping, looking after the kids, with just enough excitement (holidays) and melodrama (holidays/falling out with other family members) to keep it from being too boring. When I started to think about writing a book the first decision I made was not to write about what I knew. Fiction is about pure invention and using your imagination to write about what you don't know.

Of course, some people can get away with writing, or not writing, about what they know. Katie Price began her career as an author by not writing at least three of her four biographies, before turning to fiction and not writing a string of best-selling chick-lit novels that have added to her prodigious fortune. If you've lost an arm and a leg to frostbite on some Himalayan peak or to a crocodile in the farthest reaches of a  Bornean swamp there's a fair chance someone will be interested in your suffering and the scent of gas gangrene before breakfast. Leslie Thomas used the defining moment in his life to write a book called The Virgin Soldiers about conscription in Malaya and didn't do too badly. Ditto Andy McNab. But generally, for mere mortals who haven't risked their neck on the field of battle, writing what you know isn't a good idea

A lot of very good writers have fallen into the Write What You Know trap, usually in their first and worst book. The main character's life will miraculously mirror their own and the mundane minutiae of their lives will inevitably put the brakes on the pace until it resembles that of a geriatric three-legged tortoise. Many more will have a Write What You Know manuscript festering away in a drawer that requires a clothes-peg over the nose to extract.

Then again, maybe it's a stage you have to go through, like puberty or hankering to play golf? I've just remembered that the first piece of serious fiction I ever wrote was a story about the death of an old man who'd lost his nose at Gallipoli and a young boy brought up in the sixties pinching apples, aping his comic book heroes and guddling trout. It wasn't very good, but I enjoyed writing it and I suppose, in a way, it was a tribute to my grandad and the comrades who were less lucky than he was.

Maybe you just have to get it out of your system.

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