Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Writing What You Know (And why you shouldn't)

In my sophomore year of college I received a token of wisdom that raised my grades on research papers from 3.0s to 4.0s, “Write about what you don't know.”

This went against everything that I had learned up until then, which was, “Write what you know.”

The problem with writing on a subject you know about, is that you are really, really familiar with the basics. When you write about the basics you either skip important concepts because you've heard them over and over again. Or you just paraphrase the most concise expression for that concept that you've heard and your work becomes dull. If you write on a subject that you don't know about, or only know a little bit about, as you research it you find out exciting stuff that experts have learned so long ago it's boring to them. When you write about it that sense of wonder shows through the on page and you've got an exciting research paper. Even research papers need have some excitement, that's why if I put a formula in I wouldn't give the answer until the next chapter. Lol.

In creative writing there is a similar problem with writing a novel that is like what you read a lot of. You either skip some of the concepts that your favorite authors based their books on so that the unstated theme goes more unstated than it is supposed to. Or, in weaving that concept into your book it becomes a dry carbon copy of the original author taking away from your unique writing style and ideas.

I've personally read most of the works of Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ben Bova. Writing something similar would have the problem that between them they've written around a thousand books, adding another would be pointless.

The short stories that I have had published took a completely different route, they blended elements of horror and science fiction. I was never a big horror fan but I had fun writing horror stories but putting a scientific explanation behind them, or at least some of them.

One of the reasons that I didn't get into horror was because I started reading Stephen King. I read Carrie, Cujo, Dead Zone (I liked that one the best), The Shining, and Firestarter. Then he came out with IT. When I read IT I felt betrayed. In the book at around the 1,000 page mark two teenage boys fool around with sex. Okay, little strange but they were the older teenagers in the book. Then at the 2,000 or 3,000 page mark (I can't remember it was a long damn book) the younger kids have a gangbang on a girl that just had her first period. I don't fault King for putting it in but he could have given the reader some kind of warning.

That just hit me wrong and that was the last King book I read. So I tried a few other horror writers, but the ones I looked at (this was early 80s) were trying to be like King and because King hit my hot buttons the others suffered.

I really didn't read anymore horror until I found myself writing it and people started paying me for my science fiction horror. I've since found out about splatterpunk where I might run into something that might hit my hot buttons, but the idea behind splatterpunk is you don't surprise the reader with the gruesome parts you put it all up front and just build on it.

By writing in a genre that I avoided for 30 years, I don't have to worry about my writing reminding someone of a different author of that genre. If some of the voice of my favorite science fictions authors slips in there, that's fine too.

It all goes back to writing about what you don't know, by being a science fiction fan who adds horror elements to my writing the horror parts are shiny and new to me and it forces me to be completely unique.


  1. Interesting perspective. ("It" is my favorite of King's novels though I liked "Dead Zone" and "Firestarter" too, but I can see why it bothered you. Rape is a hard think to handle. I didn't even remember that scene, but I haven't read the book since college. Sorry, I digress.)

    I have a different take on it. I write what I like, but usually combine it with other things I like in ways I personally have not come across before. I think there's a tendency in my own brain to look at things differently than normal people so what I do tends to be twisted in ways I can't say I've seen elsewhere.

    Oddly enough, that's true for my rocket science work, too. I'm always asking questions no one else thought to ask.

    Thought provoking.

  2. It is just like how writers should read heavily and outside their genre, they should also write outside that genre to improve.
    Ian Fleming wrote what he knew, spy stories based on his experiences. He also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, dabbled in romance writing and some science fiction.
    Issac Asimov wrote mysteries as well as science fiction and sometimes combined them.
    And one wannabe science fiction writer also found people liked his horror more than his science fiction, Stephen King.
    So it pays to explore writing in other genres, at the worst you can bring those elements back into your genre, at best you might find you are really gifted in a different genre.