Rebellious Thoughts on the Start of the New Year …..by Alex Beecroft

 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.

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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.

50 comments

  • Word.

    That was lovely, Alex. Thank you for articulating so many complicated, recsonant thoughts so carefully. In fact I JUST wrote a piece about “Knowing what you write” so this meme must be ripe in the zeitgeist! “Writing what you know” has become a sign that’s outlasted its utility and territory. It’s lazy, pernicious advice because it is often misleading and generally offered to people who won’t spot the trap till they’ve been nabbed. Could not agree with you more, even about not agreeing. 🙂

    Marvelous.

    Reply
    • Hee! Thank you, Damon 🙂 Yes, when I was young and growing up with the dream of being a writer, part of the allure of the thing was the absolute freedom. You could make your own universes and populate them as you liked, creating anything at all that you wanted. I don’t like the idea of people taking that freedom away.

      Which doesn’t mean that you should never take advice, of course – just that you should be in ultimate charge of what you take or leave, rather than trying to please all the writing pundits on the planet.

      Thank you!

      Reply
  • Great post , Alex!
    I particularly love the reversion “know what you write” It’s my pet peeve as a reviewer, actually, when I read a book and get the impression that the author hasn’t done his/ her homework. I don’t know how a sailboat works, for example, and I don’t necessarily want to know, either. But I want to feel at home in what I read, and if something strikes me as not quite right, I’m not above looking it up. When a simple Google search brings about three author’s mistakes in the first paragraph, I tend to get really impatient.

    Then again, I’m a new author too, and still awaiting my first edits. I’m curious to see what might be seen as inadequate – I like my semicolons, I tend to form long sentences, and give me adverbs and adjectives any time.

    Someone told me once I should trust my instincts with my writing. Your post comes down to the same, and as for me, it’s the best advice ever.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Feliz! I completely agree with you – it’s an author’s job to make the reader feel as if they’re in a safe pair of hands. The author does that by knowing enough about what they’re writing about not to make the sort of egregious mistakes that throws the reader out of their suspension of disbelief. If the author doesn’t do the research, then the reader can’t let go enough to be thoroughly immersed in the experience of the book.

      I wasn’t really talking about the advice that you will get from your editor. I think it’s safe to assume that a professional editor will know what they’re talking about unless they give you cause to doubt it. I was really talking about the sort of advice you get on “how to write” blogs.

      I’ve never had the kind of advice from professional editors that I’ve seen on writing blogs and am reacting against here. Generally by the time you get to a professional editor your book has already been accepted – with the long sentences and stylistic quirks – by your publisher. So you can trust that your editor already likes your book and your style, and will only be pointing out stuff that you would be well advised to think about again.

      I hope I haven’t given the impression that I don’t trust editors. I do – at least, I have enormous respect for all the editors I’ve ever worked with. It’s the internet style gurus I don’t trust, and I don’t think they’re the same people at all.

      Yes, that’s the core of it, I think. You have to trust yourself. If you’re being published, then you must have good reason to! Congratulations 🙂

      Reply
  • All hail your exhortation, “So be yourself, and be yourself splendidly! Let’s have some variety, and let’s have some verve.”

    I’m stomping and cheering and giddy with “Oh, Very Well Put, Alex!”

    Reply
      • You make me all squirmy! You’re one of the most consistently readable and deeply interesting writers out there — every new book an event in my reading life. Hearing such kind words from someone I respect so much reinvigorates the effort to stay true to myself in my new projects! Thank you.

        Reply
  • Fabulous post, my feeling is that you have to write what moves you, you can write to a formula, provided you serve your muse at the same time. Stifle your muse and it will produce a story that is ‘flat, unprofitable and stale.’

    As for the condoms…well in the C18th they were made of sausage skin – lamb’s intestine and that is just EWWWWWW don’t go there! You have to have a balance between responsibility, and what is historically fitting. As an old bat, who remembers the dawn of the post pill paradise, the attitude back then tended to be that sex with a condom was like taking a bath wearing your socks! Condoms in an MM story set before the early eighties strike me as anachronistic…and we didn’t know about aids until then. In space opera I tend to have some sort of totally bug zapping lube! But what matters in a sex scene is what it tells you about the people involved in it, not the mechanics at all. Josh Lanyon is the past master of this – everyone should read his master class on this from his manual on writing MM romance!

    Reply
    • Thank you! I absolutely agree, writing to a formula is quite compatible with writing what you love to write, as long as you love that formula yourself. I’m a total fan of genre fiction, and I think that the ‘formula’ (in the sense of boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy regains boy & they live happily ever after) can actually form a creative challenge that is helpful to an author. It’s only forcing yourself to write to that formula if you hate some aspect of it that can cause problems.

      I honestly don’t see what the fuss is about condoms either way. I think there are much more important things for the writers to focus on. Though, of course, whether they’re used or not can be a point of characterization. And it might be fun to have an 18th Century condom in an appropriate novel. I quite enjoy grossing people out with Georgian facts, and the scene where he took it off and washed it and then folded it up again for later would be an amusing one. They did have syphilis to contend with in those days, after all, and that was a killer too.

      But yes, ultimately your sex scenes ought to be doing much more story-relevant things than just educating people about safe sex or not.

      Reply
      • Like I said, you rock girl. If you want any help with gross out historical facts I am your woman – they were THE way of keeping the horrors I taught under control, cries of ‘that’s disgusting! What happened next?’ were a sign of success. But don’t get me started on the appallingness of the London Dungeon and its trivialisation of the horrors inflicted by the state in the name of justice, I’d need a soap box and a season ticket to Hyde Park Corner!

        Reply
        • *g* Thank you! Heh, and I don’t think I ever grew out of that childish horror/glee reaction at some of the funny disgusting things people did in the past. But yes, torture and ingenious, abhorrent cruelty does not fall into the same category for me either.

          Reply
  • Hi Alex,

    As a new author, I have bewildered by all the advice, but I have followed one simple thing – I’m buggered if I’m going to stop writing what I love.

    Sue xx

    Reply
    • LOL! I love that attitude. It is a bit bewildering and sometimes even fraught trying to come to terms with all the advice out there, but it certainly sounds as if you’re going to be fine 🙂

      Reply
  • Great post, Alex. I’ve been pondering all sorts of reader comments on blogs this last year about the kind of things they like and don’t like. In the end, I decided it was all so contradictory that I may as well write things that I want to read, and just hope someone else does too.

    My muse won’t let me write anything other than gay romance right now, and I can’t see the point in fighting him. Like others have said, though, I write what I know from observing human beings, and the rest just takes a bit of diligent research.

    Reply
    • Thanks Josephine 🙂 Yes, I started off reading all the blogs and trying to avoid doing anything that people said they hated. Then I found that there wasn’t anything left!

      I absolutely don’t see the point of your doing anything else than writing gay romance. I think your stuff is fantastic, and we could do with as much of it as you care to provide 🙂

      Reply
  • Thank you for your great post, Alex. I am wrestling with all those things you mentioned, and those in the comments that followed. I never thought writing the second book for publication would be harder than the first. I always hated to conform. That said, I still think you can conform and set your muse free at the same time – I just have to learn how!

    And write what you know? Always took that on a broader scale. You just have to know the human condition. I may not be a gay man, but I’m pretty sure they want someone to love them, too. Just like me.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Finn! I know what you mean about the second book being harder. There aren’t any expectations on you with the first, either for you to try to conform to or to have to rebel against. I think that part of it actually gets worse each time, though you get used to the pressure in time.

      I do agree, there must be a way to do both – to be commercial at doing what you love. But finding the way is a tricky one 🙂

      Reply
  • Wonderful post Alex. I was nodding my head off agreeing with you (as opposed to merely nodding off. 😉 ) As a reader, I love a wide variety of genres, writing styles and characters types. I believe it is possible to sense a genuineness and authenticity (or lack of) from the writer as I am reading. Adjectives? Yes, loads please – so long as they are used to bring settings and characters to life rather than take the place of character and plot development.

    I can’t imagine being a fiction writer and NOT writing to please myself first. What’s the point if putting heart and soul into a piece of work if you can’t stand back yourself and say, “yes, yes, well done!” The main reason I didn’t pursue commercial art when I was off to college is that I didn’t want to sit and design what somebody else told me to – so I found another career path I enjoy but still paint and draw as a hobby for my own satisfaction. Is it possible to please yourself, your publisher and your readers? Of course, however I would rather wait for inspired work from a talented author than read something that ends up being disappointing because they churned it out “on demand”. (I do realize some of this has to do with making a sole living from writing vs. not, which is a whole separate subject!)

    My hat is off to all of you authors, I can barely compose a coherent blog post here without combusting. 🙂 Seems I really must watch Inception…….

    Reply
    • I think there’s an appetite among readers for more variety than publishers are willing to try giving them. You’ve only got to look at the enormous popularity of things like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or the Lemony Snicket series to see that – as long as the writer can handle their style well – readers love books that bring the language right up in your face and then play with it. I suppose – on the downside – it’s just a lot harder to do well than the stripped, transparent prose.

      The main reason I didn’t pursue commercial art when I was off to college is that I didn’t want to sit and design what somebody else told me to

      That was very wise of you, I think. That dilemma of how to balance the needs of your heart and soul with the production of something that will be commercial enough to sell is a tricky one to negotiate. Everyone who produces artistic work professionally has to struggle with it, and I feel it’s very easy to gain the world and lose yourself. It’s a constantly shifting balance, and you’ve got to get good at dancing along it 🙂

      Inception is worth watching just for the eye candy and the action scenes – Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a sharp suit, beating people up in zero gravity, and Tom Hardy taking out a small army on his own, while being ever so slightly camp 🙂

      Reply
  • Great post, Alex! I know we must have a lot in common if you’re quoting from Inception and Babylon 5. 😀

    I especially like how you’ve pointed out all the contradictions floating around out there in the m/m genre: alpha/betas yes, alpha/betas no, condoms yes, condoms no. Too funny!

    I think you’re right about the “write what you know” being a form of thought control, and I love the rephrase, “know about what you write.” No restrictions there, but it does imply taking that basic responsibility to do the research, and that’s important.

    Reply
    • Thanks Val! Hee! I’m glad to know the B5 quote found a fellow fan 🙂 Kosh was such a cool character. And I loved Inception, though now that I re-watch it I wish they had spent less time on the tedious bits with Dom and his dead wife, and more time on the team, particularly on Eames and Arthur being snarky and badass together.

      I want to know if anyone in the world tells male writers what they should and shouldn’t be writing about? It would feel less annoying if I could be sure it wasn’t a form of sexism at work.

      Reply

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