I confessed a couple of weeks ago, that I have difficulty with historical romances for many reasons, but Alex Beecroft is one historical writer whose books I can understand and relate to. The first of her books that I read was an Age of Sail adventure, Captain’s Surrender. As I followed her heroes, Midshipman Joshua Andrews and Captain Peter Kenyon, I fell in love with them because they seemed so real and so different from many historical heroes that I read about before and since then.
This post by Alex is another example of how she doesn’t follow anyone’s path but her own.
Christmas and the dead time between the holiday and the first of January is an ideal time for a writer to reflect on their creative life. And the New Year itself is of course the traditional time of year for deciding on changes of attitude or behaviour which are going to make this year better than last.
I’ve certainly been doing a lot of soul searching during the dark days of winter, and since I was at a relative’s house where I had access to the internet for less than an hour a day, I’ve also been doing a lot of reading of some old favourite books. As I was doing so, and pondering what to write for this post, the conviction slowly grew over me (rather like a bad case of mildew) that I was going to talk about the reams of advice that is daily given to writers, and what we should do about it.
For example “Write what you know.”
I’m sure this one has been covered here before. But if I wrote about what I know from my personal experience, I would certainly not be able to write about the experiences of men in the 18th Century British Navy. Despite appearances, I’m really not that old, and I’ve never been nearer to the armed forces than having a daughter in the Air Cadets. My experience of military life is limited to ironing her uniform shirts.
If I re-phrase this “know about what you write,” I’m happier – because of course that gives the author the chance to decide on a story and then research the hell out of the subject until they can make a good stab at imagining what it must be like for their characters, in their world utterly unlike that of the author.
If I twist the saying round a little and look at it askance, I can acknowledge that a lot of what I write has flowed from my personal experience. Just not in any simple, literal way. I may not be a gay man, but I drew on my own experience of damnation and salvation when I was writing Peter’s road to Damascus experience in Captain’s Surrender. I changed what needed to be changed to fit the experience to the situation, but the core of it gains some of its power from the fact that I know intimately what it was like, going through that. But I know that because I am human, and I can give it to him as an experience because he is human too.
In that respect we all do write what we know when we write about what it’s like being a human being. But I suspect that’s not what the people who use the phrase mean. It has some relevance, but it also has lots of ways in which it’s used as a way of trying to control what authors write – trying to control what they think and what they make. In a subtle way it’s a form of coercion, brainwashing, censorship, and now that I’ve sucked what I take to be the real meaning out of it, I’m going to throw away the husk and not let it trouble me again.
This is where I come to the “rebellious thoughts” of the title. In summary it’s only one rebellious thought, and it is this: Authors, don’t pay too much attention to other people’s helpful advice. You’re the artist. You’re the one with the vision and the muse. In the end, you decide what to write about and how to express it. If you don’t write the stories that are in your heart demanding to be told, and write them in the way that you want to write them, what the hell’s the point of any of it?
I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen writers given the advice to cut down on adjectives. I get the impression these useful little words are soon going to be banned altogether. And I myself have been advised to cut back on my semi-colons. Yet I was reading Patrick O’Brian’s “The Letter of Marque” over the holidays and laughed out loud when I came across this paragraph:
He was a gentle timid little greyish-brown man, round and greasy, easily moved to tears: he was utterly useless as a combatant, since no words, good or bad, could induce him either to attack or defend the ship; but he understood the whole range of naval cookery from Constantinople to Gibraltar; and although his maids of honour brought Rosia Bay to mind rather than Richmond Hill, they went down wonderfully well; while he could also turn out a creditable suet pudding.
I suspect the style gurus would have an apoplexy over this. How many adjectives? The entire paragraph is one sentence, good grief! It breaks all the rules, running on and running over with exuberance and fun like that. Yet Patrick O’Brian is – according to The Times – “The greatest historical novelist of all time,” and I return to his books again and again, to be swept away and ravished by his prose every single time.
My point being of course that I’m going to carry on ignoring the writing advice of anyone who would have tried to prevent the greatest historical novelist of all time from being published on the grounds of his style. Particularly when it’s a style that I adore. There is not – despite what might be inferred from the ever present advice to streamline and make prose transparent – one single, universally agreed upon, good writing style to which we should all aspire. So be yourself, and be yourself splendidly! Let’s have some variety, and let’s have some verve.
The same goes for subject matter. We’re not lacking for people who will try to tell you what to write. Women, you ought to write about women. Authors, you ought not to write about big hunky alphas with feminized betas. Authors, we love big hunky alphas with feminized betas, you totally ought to write about them. If you write sex scenes without condoms you’re being irresponsible. But sex scenes with condoms are icky and break the mood. You ought not to have an unhappy ending. But you ought not to be predictable. You ought to spice things up. You ought not to include so many sex scenes because they get boring… etc etc.
Now I don’t want to suggest that you shouldn’t think about these things. You should. I think it’s important to know the arguments for and against writing what you write. I think it’s vital to hone your skill, until your characterization, pacing, setting, plotting, dialogue and other scenes are as wonderful as you can make them. (Read lots of great writers – see how they did it, and how very different they all are from each other.)
I believe you have a responsibility as an author to treat your subject matter with all the care and respect of which you’re capable, to do no harm and, if possible, to do good. But I also think it’s possible to get too anxious about pleasing everyone else, to the point where the only person you’re not trying to please is yourself.
My feeling is that a muse is a capricious and temperamental thing. It’s easy to decide that you ought to write a particular subject, you ought not to write something else, but it’s a lot harder getting your muse to play along. As Dom Cobb says in Inception “It’s my subconscious. I can’t control it.” You can’t force yourself to care about things you don’t care about. Nor can you force yourself to stop loving the things you love. All you can do, by worrying too much about what you ought to do, is to block your inspiration at the source – and what good is that to anyone?
Of course, me being me – the person for whom Babylon 5 alien ambassador Kosh’s proverb, “Understanding is a three edged sword” might have been made – I have to acknowledge that it’s not as simple as that. Saying, “oh, to hell with it” and going your own way has consequences. Your exuberant prose may make the editors at your preferred publishers reject you. Your gleeful experiment to see how many clichés you can pack into a single book may meet with ridicule. Serious people may think that you are irresponsible, and irresponsible people may think that you’re far too serious for their tastes. It may be that you end up self-publishing, with a dedicated following of five readers, one of whom is your mum. But you will have the consolation of a body of work that you are proud of, and a writing experience that is full of integrity and enjoyment.
On the other hand, if you’re writing for a living – if you’re trying to be commercial because you need the money – then you’d be well advised to ignore this advice to ignore other people’s advice, and work out your own compromise between your artistic yearnings and what sells.
My conclusion is that for writers, as for other artists, there isn’t one true way that fits all. We’ve each got to find our own way, while rejecting the advice that shrivels our tender muse like a snail on a pinch of salt. I hope that my rebellion is going to make me trust my own vision, and help me to follow my writing path with a bit more zest this year, and I wish you lots of luck in finding and following your own, whatever it may be.