Write About What You DON’T Know

I love to write, but I am wary of the old saying: “write what you know.”  Wow, that would sure limit steampunk, fantasy and all fiction.  Most people immediately recognize that writing and imagination suffer when hemmed in by an absolute adherence to our own mostly-boring lives and experiences.  Drinking a cup of coffee in the morning is not the stuff of a great book, but tossed into the imagination of a great writer, exploring the translucent shades of life and character infused in the act of drinking that cup of coffee, it can be–but the writer must leave the world of easy, mundane fact and plunge headlong into the gray unknown in order to find it.

I love this popularly readjusted version of the aforementioned saying: “write about what you don’t know.”

When I write, a huge part of the joy involves the research (which does get tedious, and threatens to be never ending) I need to do to establish the setting of my story. This is more necessary in the historical fiction genre than in speculative fiction, but I did have to learn about a slew of topics in order to present my steampunk world effectively (even if I choose to ignore the facts on occasion, which the subgenre allows (my brutally overloaded zeppelin does need to defy all physics and laws of gravity and lift to fly, and fly fast, you see)–but whatever set of new rules you invent for your world, you had better damn well stick to them). I studied zeppelins, hydrogen, static equilibrium, steam engines, turbines, gunpowder, 18th Century muzzle-loading cannons, the Victorian/Edwardian era culture and clothing, the Great War, the British empire, bustles, John Bull top hats, airspeed, empennage, baggywrinkle and the Coriolis effect. Granted, I write about things I am interested in, so the histories and British empire parts come easy, but much of it is new to me, especially the science. Two of my three main characters are female (and one is a female half-Martian, to boot) and calculating the thoughts and feelings of the opposite sex is an adventure. ADVENTURE is the word. As I embark on every new book, it is an adventure. It is all new to me, and that is what makes all the of the work, all of the hours of isolation, FUN. And, hopefully, I make it possible for the reader to participate the adventure and the FUN.

Sebastian Faulks summed up this sentiment nicely and gives good advice to carry along the road to getting published: “Write about what you DON’T know.  Research.  Invent.  Write about people of other ages, sexes, nationalities and periods in history.  Then find a book you think is similar to yours.  Write to the author care of the publisher and find out who their agent is (this info is usually on the author’s website these days).  Good luck.”

Steampunk Fairy

Who is the steampunk Tinkerbell above?  She has obviously dropped in on a convention.  I don’t know who she is, where she came from or much about fairies.  I don’t know what the story is here, but what a great story.  I want to know the story, and do the research to find out what it might be.  What a fun adventure in the offing!  (I actually don’t know where this picture–posted on Pinterest–was taken or who is in it, but I love the costume).

Coffee Mug O Imagination

Coffee Mug O Imagination

Here is the coffee–what would Joseph Conrad do with this?


On Luck and Failure: TOR.COM posts excerpt from Romulus Buckle

Warning: this blog post may ramble on but I don’t know – I haven’t written it yet.  Tor.com posted an excerpt from Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders today. (see http://www.tor.com/stories/2013/05/romulus-buckle-a-the-city-of-the-founders-excerpt ) It is the first excerpt posting from my first published novel – and seeing it on Tor.com raises an uber-wonderful, ‘I’m the badass who killed Grendel’s mother’ kind of response from me.  In a way, it feels like I have finally arrived.  But before I blow my own horn too much, I shall stride recklessly into the Writer’s Pantheon and kneel before the altars of Luck and Failure.  I’ll tackle the Devil of Luck first.

In the last two years I have been very lucky.  I wrote a steampunk adventure novel.  My well-established and successful writer friend, Julie Kenner, kindly offered to open a few agent doors for me at the start.  If those agents passed, I was ready to pound the pavement once again (as I have with dozens of screenplays and a prior novel).  Adrienne Lombardo, a young agent at Trident Media Group, loved the book and signed me on as a client.  Needless to say, I was thrilled–I was suddenly on the same client list as one of my favorite writers, Michael Ondaatje–even if he was at the top and I was on the bottom of the list.  Adrienne submitted the manuscript to her top wish list of publishers and one bit: 47North (Amazon’s science fiction imprint) offered a 2 book deal for the start of the series.  It has been a great experience since then, with City of the Founders and Engines of War written and edited (Engines of War awaits one final proofread) and just about ready to be hurled on the unsuspecting public by a crack marketing team.  I have been trying to succeed as a writer since 1991.  If my lucky streak started in 2011 (late 2011, by the way) then you can do the math, but it has been a lot of slogging.  In the prior twenty years I have waited tables, worked in bookstores, read scripts at Universal, written B-movies, worked at IKEA, taught film production classes, worked in a television art department (I was not suited for that), wrote and directed a no-budget sci-fi bomb, written for children’s television, worked in broadcasting (the profession I trained for), and probably some other jobs which I can’t recall at the moment.  All the while I was writing, with a few breaks when the shadows of poverty, self-doubt, depression and frustration waltzed in and beat the crap out of me, but in the end I somehow managed to keep going.  What else could I do?  I was a writer.  Persistence in the face of misery is the mission statement on the first page of the writer’s job description.  I was (and still am) terrified of succeeding too much at my day job, getting the promotions, getting the money, getting comfortable, and waking up ten years later with a nice car and ten years of nothing written.  Don’t get me wrong–I understand that many writers, most writers, never get a shot with a big publisher, no matter how good they are, no matter how hard they try.  I am lucky.  But its a writer’s brand of luck.  A Faustian bargain?  I Don’t know.

I step before the altar of the Devil of Failure.  Ah, we writers know thee well!  A beautiful God of the opposite sex, beguiling, lips pouring forth promises only to rip them away and demand, with pitiless eyes, that we abandon all hope.  My life, like the life of everyone else, is rife with failures.  I can’t describe them all here or I would overload the internets. Writing-wise, I possess boxes full of drafts of my unproduced screenplays, a drawer acting as a sepulcher for a fantasy novel I have been not-writing since I was in high school, and binders and computer hard drives loaded with a Russian WW2 trilogy I have been writing and researching–including a battlefield tour of Russia–for 8 years.  Years ago I had a Hollywood movie agent and penned high-concept screenplays and pitched them at the big studios and everybody “liked” the scripts but nobody wanted to option them.  I would be treated to lunch at the who’s who café tables on Sunset Boulevard or the studio commissaries and then putter my Hyundai home to Burbank and pound the keyboard in a bachelor apartment I could not afford to pay the rent to live in.  I noticed one thing, though–I had written a very small story, a tiny, character-driven script about an old man and a plane.  It had no bells and whistles at all.  No high-concept, very little action, no sex, no bling.  And I LOVED it.  My movie agent at the time told me that the little old man script had sold her on me, motivated her to sign me on, more than the high concept action script I had written.  Every studio where she arranged a pitch meeting she sent ahead both the old man screenplay and the action screenplay.  Every meeting–every one–was with action-oriented companies and development executives, and almost every meeting turned towards how much they loved the old man and his plane script; it wasn’t the sort of thing they did, but they (or their script readers, at least) loved it.  I learned something from that.  I resolved to write only stories (the ones I wrote for myself, not the ones others paid me to write) I loved–stories that could live in my head for years and never release their grip on me.  Despite the immense size, scope and bogging-downness of my Russian WW2 trilogy, the story and characters haunt me; they demand that I spill every last drop of blood for them, and I do so gladly.  Romulus Buckle has the same bear-hug on me; the series is my ode to the old Saturday afternoon matinee movie serials and the great, larger-than-life adventure films like Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Zorro and Indiana Jones, which have delivered so much fun into my life.  “Our being is descending into us from we know not whence,” Ralph Waldo Emerson says in The Over-Soul, and I would say that a writer’s stories emerge in a similar fashion, descending into us from we know not whence, pouring into our consciousness from the dark, mysterious, magnificent undercurrents of our minds, and the more of ourselves we genuinely give to them, the more they give to us, the characters speaking, fleshing-out, making choices, sharing with us their lives.  If there is failure to be found anywhere in this realm of dreams-come-to-life, I do not see it.

My first novel is coming out in July, the second in November.  Sure, my luck could run out.  Sure, the series might be a colossal failure, a no-seller, a dud, a donkey-turd, a bomb.  And if it tanks I shall pick myself up (after a brief wallow, face-down, in the aforementioned writer’s misery) and keep writing.  I’ll laugh in the smirking, victorious, taunting faces of Luck and Failure, and make them my muses.  I am a writer.  What else can I do?