Blast from the past posts from before the Weasel crawled into the Hadron Collider … I wrote this a VERY long time ago… sometime around 2005…
I’ve been reading essays by several other authors recently, mostly at the new site www.storytellersunplugged.com, (2020 note – I am considering revamping and renewing that site) and I’ve noticed a trend I can appreciate. More and more I see people taking the old tired clichés that you hear from veteran writers and bending them closer to the truth.
Write what you know. Sure, that makes sense. It isn’t always important that you know everything about what you are writing, but you need one of two things to pull off credible fiction: A solid background in your subject matter that allows you to paint images with words that others will share, in some way, and appreciate, or a natural ability to put enough power behind the words that, even should a reader know you are full of crap on any given subject, the prose carries them past it anyway. At it’s best this talent leaves readers with a vague notion they just missed something, but unwilling to turn back to search for it if it means giving up on the next part of the story or novel.
That isn’t what I mean, though. What I mean is, it isn’t enough to write what you know if you want to leave a mark. If the subject leaves no marks on you, then it’s unlikely to do much better with a wide readership. Write what hurts you. Write what really scares you. It’s been said many times that writing is therapeutic. I don’t believe this is true unless you apply it to the issues that torment you. This can be taken too far, of course. If it’s too painful, that pain will transfer, and your readers may not appreciate it.
A work that was like this for me was a very powerful novel titled “KINK” by Kathe Koja. Oh. My. God. Digression warning – but I WILL get back to this.
When I read that book I was standing on the quarterdeck of a US Navy ship in a drydock. It was sort of sad; the ship was on its last stretch of inhabited time, and I was nearing my last stretch of time as a sailor. The sea and I go way back, and despite the crap one must allow to be shoveled over their head to be part of the US Military, I sometimes miss it. There were nights standing out on the deck of the ship (you weren’t supposed to go out there at night, but we went out to smoke anyway) where we’d stand, talk, watch the stars, watch the phosphorescence that the ship’s screws churned up, think up song lyrics or write poems in our heads. I had quite a creative group of sailors on the ships where I served. There were artists, musicians, and mixtures of both; there was even another writer, though I don’t know what happened to him. If Mike “Hand Man” Walsh reads this – or anyone who knows where he can be found – I’d love to know if he kept at it. Last I heard he was fixing boat motors for fishermen in Alaska, though he’s originally from Seattle.
Anyway, the damned POINT Wilson. It’s this. I was on watch, alone, late at night, and I decided the time had come to read KINK. I finished the novel that night, standing there in the dark with only a small fluorescent lamp to see by. More than once I cursed at the book, slammed it shut and walked out of the guard shack to pace up and down the deck and think – not about the book, but about situations where I’d been lied to, hurt, ridiculed, made a fool of, and felt EXACTLY as I felt for the characters in the book. It’s about relationships. It’s about trying to add a third party into a near perfect two-party relationship. Triangles form. Angles dissolve. Nothing is ever quite as it seems, and you spend your time wondering what really is, and is not happening. It leaves marks.
I had been through quite a lot at that point in my life. I was also writing. I did the Star Trek novel during that period (CHRYSALIS – Voyager #12) and I wrote the first and second book of my Grails Covenant Trilogy. The thing is, I wasn’t writing what I know at that point. Not like I should have been. The Star Trek novel got panned in some areas for being too literate – going too much into the heads of the characters instead of delivering straight action. You see, I was TRYING to write what I needed to write, but Star Trek wasn’t the place for it. I wasn’t writing anything like what I found myself reading that night. I felt like I knew Ms. Koja in a way that was remarkable. I don’t feel that such a piece of fiction could be written except through personal pain. I don’t even know that it would have the same effect on just anyone who read it, but man…I wore out some shoe leather pacing up and down the non-skid deck of that ship alternately telling myself no way was I going back to read THAT book, and rushing back to feverishly force myself through more pages hoping things would get FIXED. I wonder what Kathe (she’s a lovely lady, and her husband is an unbelievable artist. If you aren’t familiar with her work, I’d recommend (first) Skin – which I also loved).
There is no fixing a thing like what happened to those characters, but their situation did improve, eventually, and move on, which life also does. What happened in the book, and the women who shredded my heart early on in life that left me unprepared to face it so brutally, aren’t the subjects here today. Not really. The point is that book was powerful. The experience of reading it was powerful.
What do you know that others don’t? What do you know that left marks, and that you can find a way to share? The magic formula, of course, is to find a way to populate a book with characters of that magnitude of “reality” without giving up the notion of entertainment. If KINK had a flaw, it was that the experience of reading it left me drained and unhappy. Not because it was a bad book, but because it did what it set out to do so very freaking well, thank you. It couldn’t happen without the author opening windows that must have been painful to open. It couldn’t happen by accident. I would hate to meet the person who could just imagine emotion like that without having experienced it, because no therapy in the world would help such a person, and no one could protect those he or she loved. Living through it helps you build walls, I suppose, and writing about it helps you put in some windows, doors, and get fresh air in your lungs. But it isn’t easy.
So, the next time you sit down to write, don’t think about the market you’re after. Don’t wonder how you can put new life into old vampires. Don’t try to figure out what would be “really cool and gory” or what will fit some niche you see open before you. Sink in a little deeper and look for the marks. You’ll find them all over the inside of your memories; I can almost guarantee it. See if you can pry one of them loose, or a bunch of them, and arrange them in words that make sense.
I won’t promise the piece will sell right off the bat, or at all. I don’t promise you’ll get accolades. I do think, however, that if you are going to make a mark in the bigger world of literature, the mark has to start somewhere deep inside, and when it surfaces, it will bring things with it you have to be willing to face through the eyes of whatever protagonist you inflict it upon. I believe you’ll find such writing is the most rewarding, and the reactions it receives from readers are the most memorable.
Of course, I believe a lot of strange things. Some of them I write down.
If you want to experience the book that had such a lasting effect on my work, you can buy KINK by clicking the co re image below.
I have now had the DISTINCT honor of publishing the unabridged audiobooks for both , SKIN, STRANGE ANGELS, and the horror classic THE CIPHER – all by Kathe Koja. You can find these and all her audiobooks at:
At the time I first wrote this, they were wrapping up filming on the only produced film I’ve scripted. I wrote this from the outline provided by director and star Rosanna Jeran … and now the movie can be downloaded from Amazon. It’s a weird one – more like a very long music video- and it’s possible I broke the “F-bomb” record in the dialogue… but there are a lot worse ways to spend an hour and a half…
My novel Deep Blue had just come out in paperback from Five Star back then – now you can get it in eBook, Audiobook, or print…
(Originally published online at Chizine.com in the column : From the Shadeaux)