I'm going to pontificate.
“Write what you know,” right?
Absolutely, if you want to write boring stuff.
I think “Write what you know” is one of the worst pieces of advice you can give an aspiring writer. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most common pieces of advice given to aspiring writers. Every decade brings its crop of young novelists whose books sound like they all grew up on the same block and took the same drugs. Their authors wrote what they knew, and guess what? In this highly interconnected world, they all knew the same things. And a few years later, nobody cares much about those things.
Okay, I think we should start with what we know. Learn how to structure a novel or a story with material that's familiar, easy to write about. Everyone who's not David Mitchell should write at least one, and probably two or three, drawer books – books that will be finished, read proudly once or twice, and then buried forever in the bottom of a drawer. My first drawer book was called The Wrong End of the Rainbow, and that was the best thing about it. But, boy, was it about things I knew.
And it taught me a lot about what a novel is.
By the time I'd written my second book, which was also all about things I knew, I realized that I was never going to get any better, and that I was going to get very bored with writing, unless I started writing about things I didn't know – things I had to imagine. Kinds of people who'd never intruded into my safe, middle-class world. Opinions, biases, outright bigotry I never could share in a million years, around which whole world views had been built. New places, where basic assumptions are different, where the conventional wisdom we honor here is almost unrecognizable.
I think that once we've gained a sense of how a novel or a story works by writing about what we know – stuff we're comfortable with emotionally or geographically or behaviorally – then we need to get up on tiptoe. Ransack the imagination for things we really have to stretch to reach. It's harder, and there's probably a bigger chance that we'll fail, but we'll be getting an aerobic workout and hoisting free weights at the same time. We're going to get stronger faster. We'll probably be able to handle more things, harder things, new kinds of situations and characters. New kinds of language, too, if we also stretch our prose.
Like many thriller writers, I started with the bad guys. Bad guys are the opera of thrillers; they have the most extravagant personalities, they do the most out-of-the-ordinary things. The goal I set for myself in my first few published books was to come up with bad guys (they were mostly guys) I had never read before, who had a sufficiently strong gravitational field to curve the world of the book around them.
Los Angeles got too comfortable, so I decided to write about another culture, complete with another language and a radically different perspective on life. The four Bangkok thrillers have made me work on tiptoe every inch of the way, just trying to keep the Thai characters true. (I have a couple of helpful Thai readers who point out the most egregious errors.) And the moral climate of Bangkok, which is unusually rich in gray areas, was also a rewarding stretch. I think seeing the world in black-and-white is a luxury of the well-fed, so it's energizing to explore the spaces in between “good” and “evil.”
My point here isn't that I'm cool or that I'm a particularly good writer. It's just that I'm handling material now that I wouldn't have dreamed of touching eight or ten years ago, and it's because I made a conscious decision to write on tiptoe. Everyone has read series that went stale, that turned into dioramas of familiar characters and settings. The writers of those books weren't stretching themselves. They were writing what they knew. It's the quickest way I know to mummify your writing.
Tim -- Sunday
Tim -- Sunday