One of the most confounding pieces of writing advice that gets thrown around haphazardly is “write what you know.” On the surface it makes sense: draw from personal experience so that your familiarity with the material lends a sense of authenticity and verisimilitude. However, when you think about it a little, it would seem to preclude a vast amount of possible stories. If you’re supposed to “write what you know” then how are you supposed to write fantasy, sci-fi, or even historical fiction. Moreover, many of those genre writers seem to do just fine without having personally experienced their own settings; Tolkien never set foot in Middle Earth.
In a recent post, I talked about flow and the effort it takes to achieve it. Today, I want to talk more about that, specifically about making your writing space “sacred” and creating a “closed-loop system,” particularly with regards to distractions, vis a vis your phone.
In that post about flow, I discussed the pomodoro technique, which helps me focus. To quickly recap, I work for twenty-five minutes then take a five minute break. The problem is that I was using my phone to do this, and during my five minute breaks I’d usually check social media or any messages. Seems harmless enough, right? I’d briefly check my phone for a few minutes then set it aside and work, and then repeat.
This January I was commissioned to write two short articles. It had been awhile since I did the freelance thing, and these pieces were outside the niche that I’d been carving for myself recently, but I said yes because it was an opportunity to make some quick money after Christmas. Also, the publisher has always been a pleasure to work with. And, I mean, it’s pretty hard for a writer to turn down a paying gig. However, I soon realized that taking on these sorts of projects was holding back my career. I was chasing the quick nickel instead of the long dollar.
When I first started my writing career back in 2013, I didn’t understand the value of specialization (among many other things). My passion had always been to write novels, ever since I was little kid, but I didn’t have a voice, didn’t know where to start. So I decided to follow the path laid by many other writers before me that I’d admired: journalism. I did a six-month internship at The Walrus magazine then embarked on a brief freelancing career.
I was interested in a lot of different things and figured it was all just writing. I chased after every possible pitch. I wrote articles about food banks, homelessness, women in the Canadian film industry, Newfoundland traditions, food, and immigration. I said yes to any opportunity.
This taught me two important lessons: 1) in order to be a great writer, or anything really, you have to focus on one very specific thing, and 2) to do that, you have to say “No” a lot.
In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown shows very simply the power of focusing on one thing vs several things. You can try to do ten things to the first degree, or you can do one thing to the tenth degree. Doing the former means you’ll spread yourself thin and only really nibble around the edges. The latter means you’ll end up actually mastering your chosen field.
There was no way I could write about immigration one week, food the next, and somehow find time to write novels in the meantime without my work suffering.
This begs the question: How do I find my niche? It’s easier said than done. Some people know from the start what they want to do. For example, you may have always wanted to be a sportswriter and every step you took from high school was in that direction. On the other hand, like me, you may have a lot of interests and can’t decide. In that case, I’d suggest doing a lot of things until you find your niche. After writing enough things that I wasn’t interested in, I managed to deduce what I was interested in.
Once you’ve reached this point, you’re ready for step number two: Saying No.
Focusing on one thing means that you’re gonna have to say no to things that don’t contribute to your long term goals. And you’re going to have to say no a lot. Like a lot, a lot. What’s more, as you gain success and notoriety in your niche, more opportunities will come your way. You’re gonna need to parse which ones are right for you.
This is difficult for two reasons. 1) Turning down opportunities feels wrong. Like you’re being lazy and unappreciative. This requires discipline and focus. And 2) Knowing the right time to say no requires sound judgement.
Warren Buffett, who is worth an estimated $82 billion, says that the thing that separates successful people is that they say no to a lot of opportunities. Buffett owes approximately %90 of his wealth to just ten investment stocks. Therefore, there is a tonne of value to be found by drilling narrowly and deeply.
Or, consider Stephen King. After Carrie, he had to a choice to publish either Salem’s Lot, which would cement him as a horror writer, or Roadwork, which was more literary. King wasn’t afraid of specializing so he went with the former. I think that’s worked out pretty well for him.
So, whenever an opportunity comes your way, you have to ask, “Does this contribute to my long term goals? Am I chasing the quick nickel or the long dollar?”
That was the mistake I made when I said yes to those commissions at the start of the year. It wasn’t a bad opportunity, just not the right one for me. I don’t want to sound ungrateful or snobby, like it’s beneath. It just didn’t fit in with my long term goals. I was chasing the quick nickel.
Recently, I’ve become fascinated with the concept of the “flow state”; a frame of mind where you become lost in a task. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one…Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
To be sure, it’s certainly not a new or novel concept. Throughout history, people like Newton and Michelangelo would become so engrossed in a project that they’d forget to eat, bathe, or even sleep. That might be a little extreme, but I’m sure I speak for a lot of you when I say that I’d like to be a little more focused when I sit down to write. I can’t tell you how many times a writing session has been derailed by the many distractions of the internet.
If you have any kind of feel for the zeitgeist then you’ve noticed that the horror genre is having quite the moment nowadays. There have always been successful horror movies like Paranormal Activity or Saw that spawn lucrative imitators, etc. but presently there are releases that are also enjoying heaps of critical praise like Get Out, Hereditary, and The Witch. Some critics have labelled these “elevated” horror, but I think that’s a condescending and unnecessary classification. Any horror fan will tell you that the genre has always enjoyed a wealth of sophisticated material, despite being unappreciated by mainstream critics. Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny the quantity of quality in addition to the box office remuneration.
Last weekend I attended a panel on world building in genre fiction. There was a lot of interesting discussion, including one question a lot of genre writers grapple with constantly: When does world building stop? As in, when does world building become tedious exposition. After all, the reader doesn’t want an encyclopedic presentation of your lore; they want a dramatic story. I’m not sure about the precise numbers, but I’m willing to bet The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings have sold a helluva lot more copies than The Silmarillion.
When it comes to world building, I think the biggest challenge genre writers face is knowing when to stop, recognizing what they can, and should, leave out. The analogy I often use is that the writer is like a chef and the reader is their customer. When most people go to a restaurant, they don’t care about the work that’s gone into the dish. All they care about is the meal. What kinda soil did these turnips grow in? What sorta grain did this cow eat? Most people don’t care about this. They wanna eat their steak and veggies in peace. Likewise, do I really need multiple paragraphs on the history of every little village your adventurers pass through? No.
Sure, there are foodies and the whole farm to table movement of people who are really interested all that extracurricular stuff (The Silmarillion does sell copies). However, that’s extra. If you make flavourless food no one is gonna eat it no matter how much you tell them about the acidity of the soil.
Hemingway said “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” Easier said than done. This is difficult for genre writers because there’s the fear that leaving out certain bits of information will leave the reader confused.
So, let’s say you’ve committed all these hours to drafting your writing and have developed a robust universe for your characters to experience. What sorta techniques or principles can you deploy to avoid falling into exposition traps.
David Simon, showrunner of The Wire and other great TV series, makes a great point when he observed that the viewer “loves being immersed in a new, confusing, and possibly dangerous world that he will never see. He likes not knowing every bit of vernacular or idiom. He likes being trusted to acquire information on his terms, to make connections, to take the journey with only his intelligence to guide him. Most smart people cannot watch most TV, because it has generally been a condescending medium, explaining everything immediately, offering no ambiguities, and using dialogue that simplifies and mitigates against the idiosyncratic ways in which people in different worlds actually communicate. It eventually requires that characters from different places talk the same way as the viewer. This, of course, sucks.”
Don’t be afraid of ambiguity. Andrew Stanton (writer/director for Finding Nemo and Wall-e) said don’t give the audience 4, give them 2+2. Don’t be afraid to let your reader work for their meal, so to speak. Let them fill in some of the gaps. That’s part of the fun.
When Han Solo tells Luke Skywalker the Millennium Falcon is a great ship because “it made the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs,” we don’t need to know what the Kessel Run is. We think, “oh this must be some kinda inter-galactic smuggling thing,” and now our imagination starts expanding this universe even more. Or we might even think, “this guy sounds like he’s making this up,” which builds character. It’s not necessary to see Solo for any of this to work, if anything it might ruin it for a lot of people.
So, ultimately, it all comes down to storytelling. Most people don’t care about your homework. World building is a means to an end. Figure out what that end is and don’t worry about your readers understanding every inch of your setting.
This weekend I will be launching my debut novel, After Dark Vapours. It’s obviously a very exciting time for me; publishing a book has been a dream for me ever since I was a little kid reading Goosebumps. Likewise, I’ve been lucky to have experienced an outpouring of support and enthusiasm from friends and family. Perhaps the most common refrain I hear, especially from bookish friends, is that they too have always wanted to write a book. If you’re reading this and also feel the same, believe me when I tell you that if I can do it, you can do it. So, with that in mind, I’d like to give you all some advice that I wish someone gave me when I started writing: