Write what you want to read, write what you know, but just damn write.
I’ve read a lot of advice about writing. I’ve quizzed dozens of writers about how they do it. I’ve had kindly publishers and agents and assorted industry types give me tips. And now, having been a writer of fiction for several years, I reckon I’m in a position to start dishing out advice myself with all the puffed-up simian surety every slightly drunken expert has.
I am often slightly drunk.
Using the power of my brain, I reckon I can boil down much of the advice I have received to the above the statement. It’s not the whole story — for who could be so bold as to assert such a simple truth and mean it it wholeheartedly! The world is a whirling, multi-dimensional quantum construct whose elements, seen and unseen, are interlinked in ways incomprehensible to our puny mortal minds.
But, you know, that sentence is a good sentence if you want to write a book and, hey, maybe even get it published.
In writing the Gates of the World series, I’m writing what I want to read. I like deep worlds with multiple characters (I’ve written about these “Whole Cloth Worlds” here, so won’t again). I wanted to create a reality that, though fantastical, felt real, and was inhabited by real people. All epic fantasy requires a major threat, so there’s one in there — the nature of which is revealed a little more in The City of Ice — but I’m also a huge science fiction fan, and science fiction often relies on mystery. So guess what, there’s a mystery at the heart of in the Gates of the World too.
The series has been described by a few folks as a genre fusion. It is in some ways, in spirit if not in trappings. To me, it is epic fantasy. Unusual epic fantasy, but it belongs in that box nonetheless. What I didn’t want to write was steampunk. The Gates of the World isn’t Steampunk, at least, I don’t see it as such. It’s not set in our world. Its science is based on magic. There is no yearning for Empire in it. I concede that it does have magic steamships and trains, but that’s it.
I’m writing what I know as well. Yeah okay, I don’t know any unemployed gods or talking dogs, but I do have a lot of brothers. I also have a history degree, wherefrom I draw much of the information for The Gates of the World’s 18th/19th century parallels. For a long while, I deliberately shied away from including details of my own life. Too embarrassing. Too revealing. Too exposing. But there’s no honesty in a book that has no reality at all, even a fantasy, so I took the plunge. There is a lot of me in this series. My struggles with mental health for one, evidenced by Guis’s terrible fate, as well as others.
As for the last clause in my opening sentence, I write every day. I have to. Writing puts food on the table, fuel on the fire and whisky in the jar-o. That part of my statement no longer applies to me in the spirit in which it is made. But it was not always thus. It took me years to get my fiction published. In that time, I followed the “just damn write” part erratically. My first unpublished novel took me six years to not finish. There was much feeling sorry for myself. As time passed, I wrote more, and more, and then some more. The more I did, the better I got. Writing with friends, in a group, also helped. Only by writing can one reach the critical mass of skill required. Thinking about it does not count.
But this comes with a health warning. In writing what you want to read, you’ll certainly be writing what some people don’t want to read. Have you ever seen those adverts for self-published books? The ones that advertise “clean” murder mysteries with “no profanity, no sex”, as if reading about murder is fine, but sex is not? The people that buy those won’t like this book. It has profanity in it, and sex. There’s murder too, but it’s quite bloody, so they won’t like that either.
Even more than basing characters on your siblings or events from your life, it’s a difficult choice deciding to put sex into a book. You’re showing bits of yourself you usually hide in the bedroom. Whatever you write for whatever reason when it comes to sex, readers will assume are your fantasies and/or experiences, whether they are or not. Putting sex into a book makes you feel naked. But sex is a massive part of life. The biggest part. All these trappings of art and culture are baubles hanging off our genes’ naked, selfish desire to reproduce. We can sidestep it a little, we clever apes we, but not completely, and often all we do is hide our desires, not negate them. Leaving sex out of all fiction is wrong. The human universe revolves around it. In this case too, I suppose, I’m writing what I know. It doesn’t make it comfortable, but no art should be entirely easy. However, it will alienate some readers. But then, having no horses in my world will too.
Here’s another good bit of advice, the truncated version anyway — you can’t please all of the people all of the time. So go away and write to please yourself. With luck you can please a whole lot of other people too.