Write What You Don’t Know

[published in Kamena Magazine, 16/04/19]

Writers are creatures of comfort, rituals and rhythms that we are loathe to break. There’s a fair logic behind many of these: getting stuck with writers’ block is a nightmarish hell, akin to having all your sinuses block up simultaneously while also being creatively constipated. These little tricks are our last defence against the dark. If we get up at 7am to write 1,000 words before going to work; if we light a scented candle and pour ourselves a cup of camomile tea; if we close the doors, blinds, put our noise cancelling headphones on and listen to Hans Zimmer soundtracks on loop for three hours; if we do all this maybe we’ll be safe.

But, as a writer, as someone who is continually teaching and re-teaching themselves the craft of writing, there is nothing worse than being safe, and often the main issue young writers have is a wholehearted devotion to a specific genre and style. They’ll specialise early and “write what they know”, which often means that they’ll narrow their reading down into that category too as a consequence. There’s only so many hours in a day – why meddle with literature that is wildly different to what you want to be writing? But do this and you’ll find yourself regurgitating the same forms that have been used for decades. Master the craft of writing by putting your 10,000 hours into writing purely sci-fi, and you’ll be able to write the books your heroes wrote. Yay? Nay, because those books have already been written, the line in the sand has already been pushed forwards, and you’re lagging behind with work that could, at this point, have been written by an algorithm.

The idea of advancing writing is a difficult one, because the “height” of writing doesn’t exist. In science, it’s easy to see where there are things that have not yet been discovered. There are gaps in the equations, there are unsolvable problems, and there’s the latest in technology that stands out as the highest point that string of technology has reached. Science is more linear. Writing is weird, constantly rewriting and fixing itself, going back to old tropes, reworking them, coming out with something new. And that concept of the “new” is one that is even more daunting in itself than the “height” idea: how on earth can anyone write something that’s never been done? Theories such as the 7 Plots – the idea that all stories that have ever been written can be distilled down to one of 7 basic plot outlines – make it seem like any endeavour to be original is ultimately futile.

And if you stick to what you know, then yes, it is. Because all of that has already been done. To write originally, you have to combine new elements, new concepts to create your own alloy. Read classic romances to find out how tension is built between lines of dialogue, in the words that dare no be spoken; read sci-fi and fantasy to see how a place you’ve never been to can feel so familiar; read horror to see how writers can force you to look at the page, force you to keep reading even when you don’t think you want to, how good writing can override the reader’s sense of agency.

But don’t just read these: write them. There’s immense value in writing outside of your comfort zone. I’m not suggesting you go out and write a full novel in a style you can’t stand, because that would probably be more pain than it’s worth. But writing a simple short story in a style that is unfamiliar to you as a writer can teach you so much, and can help point out the shortcomings in your own work. For example, you can often get away with writing awful dialogue in fantasy because, well, it’s fantasy, why shouldn’t they speak like that? But in contemporary fiction, dialogue has to be entirely believable, and different characters have to have different vocal ticks to distinguish them from one another. Forcing yourself to write a form that pushes at your weakest points means that not only will you confront the issue, but you’ll have to work through it, practice it, even if only for that one meagre short story.

Don’t abandon what you love, what makes you itch to start writing. But if you find yourself stuck with what you’re doing, if you can tell that something is wrong but you can’t quite figure out what, take a second to stand back. Go on a literary and creative holiday into a new form – take a break, take a breath, and when you’re ready, get back at what you really love, full of new ideas and new talents.

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