Reading about Writing: Re-evaluation

Part 1: Re-evaluating my July Challenge

Things have got way busy and my schedule is shot to shit, so I’m doubling the time scales and including August too. It is now my Summer Writing Challenge.

Part 2: “Write what you know”

I was reading some more of On Writing on the train on the way to Liverpool this morning and I came across this section of what Stephen King has to say. This is something I’ve definitely come across before, and beyond recognising that this doesn’t mean I should be writing exclusively about Shropshire-based people struggling with first jobs, or archaeology students in Leicester, or annoying little brothers who leave their older sisters’ cars stinking of cigarette smoke after getting free lifts everywhere (it’s okay, he doesn’t read this blog), I’ve never really thought about this concept in much depth.

I mean, I write fantasy. Of course I’m not always writing what I know. I’ve never slain a dragon or cast a spell or led an army against a city. But I am a person with feelings and thoughts and I know other people with feelings and thoughts, and I did a degree in ancient history and archaeology so I do at least know a little about different types of societies and a different type of warfare and courtyard houses and lost-wax bronze casting and letter forms being seen as magical in an early literate society, and so quite a lot of what I write is stuff I know, or based on what I know, built up with imagination.

That’s about as much as I’d thought about it before today. And I guess Stephen King isn’t really saying anything I didn’t know on this count, but he does say it well. He points out that a plumber might not know much about flying to other planets on a space ship, and that’s where imagination might come in, but a plumber does know a lot about plumbing – and could therefore tell a good story about a plumber flying to other planets on a space ship. The point isn’t that you write what you know, but that you bring your knowledge to what you write. King phrases it as telling the truth in something made of lies, but I think I prefer to think of it that way.

I spent ten minutes or so on the train jotting down bullet points about what I know. Sure, the first few bullet points were things like “being a student” and miscellanea about ancient Greece and my job and Shropshire, and yes, I can bring those things to what I write. I did so for Ailith’s Gift – a story set in an early medieval version of Wroxeter, pretty much as it probably was at that time, in the shadow of a dragon (that bit was imagination) who lived on top of the Wrekin which has crags on the southern end of the summit which really do look like they might be home to a dragon.

But knowledge of early medieval Shropshire or how a phalanx marches or how an archaic Greek courtyard house functions aren’t really the kind of knowledge that’s most important. Because the next few bullet points are a lot more personal. They’re not things you can read a Wikipedia page about and get right. They’re complicated things involving feelings and experiences. One of my bullet points recognises a flaw in my father, a contradiction in his character, which really hurt when I first discovered it because, at the age of 21, I finally twigged that my Dad is a flawed person like everyone else and there are some things he can’t face and can’t deal with. And I can put that into a story. Another bullet point examines one of my own flaws, something that’s come into stark contrast this year when I compare what I’m doing and what decisions I have made to what my brother and my sister are doing and what decisions they’ve made. And that’s something I can put into a story. Into a character. One of my bullet points deals with a hardship I’ve been living through for the last four years and how I have always felt a step behind it, never really knowing how to deal with it, but somehow managing to cope or at least fix things when they go badly wrong. And that’s something else I can put into a story.

That’s really what it’s about when we say “write what you know” – or “bring your knowledge to what you write”. I can look at what I know about those I know best – myself, my family, my friends – and put parts of their struggles and contradictions and fears and approaches into characters.

With this in mind, I made another note in my notebook. Thinking back to the Penal Colony story I was working on in May, I came to realise that I stopped in part because I got bored on my protagonist, Fiarra. She’s not real enough. The personality I gave her was superficial, only skin deep. She was just another protagonist, with drive to change things and a barely debilitating level of anxiety that never got in the way long enough to derail what I was planning. It was, I now realise, exactly the kind of flaw that the kinds of people who make Mary Sue tests warn against, only I didn’t realise it because I didn’t make her blonde and liked by everyone and let her win in everything.

And maybe putting a little more of me into her won’t exactly make her a fantastic character, but I think it will make her a bit more believable, or at least make her a bit better to practice with while I learn to write better characters. So that’s what I’m going to do: put something of my flaws into her, give her something that’s holding her back when she could be out there being the hero, and see where that takes the story instead.

Part 3: “Everyone is a protagonist in their own story”

This was what I read on the train home from Liverpool this evening. And as with “write what you know”, this isn’t a new concept to me. But again, King manages to phrase it in such a way that the full force of the meaning of that phrase is realised. And here’s where another re-evaluation of the Penal Colony story is in order, because I wasn’t treating any character but Fiarra as a protagonist in their own stories. They only did things when I needed something from them to move things forward for Fiarra. I was treating them like sets in a play, to be wheeled on at the appropriate scene in order to give Fiarra’s stuff context. Sure, I gave some of them motivations and backstories and even modes of speech and likes and dispositions. All paintwork on the plyboard. Pretty paintwork, sure, but still just set dressing.

Before I start writing the Penal Colony story again, then, I need to step back and work through my secondary characters. The Governor must have a plan for what she’s doing. Several plans, branching plans, back-up plans, short-term and medium plans. She’s the sort of person who has a pretty good grasp on what she wants and which steps she needs to take to get it. And as the antagonist of the story, even if she’s very much in the background for the first half of it, she needs to be a protagonist from the other side of it. Then there’s Deego, who has a story of his own running parallel and intertwining with Fiarra’s. But there’s also Laik and Prentor and Siril and Teyt and Corun, who don’t have subplots just about them, who sit there waiting in the wings to be wheeled on when Fiarra’s story demands it. And I need to do better with them too, or maybe even, for some of them, cut them out.

It’s clear to me now that I’ve got such a long way to go, not only with this story but also with writing in general. I’ve made steps today, but there’s a lot more thinking to do for Penal Colony, a lot more writing to do, and a lot more learning.

I guess it is true: the more you know, the more you realise how little you know.

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