Monday, March 14, 2011
The one Writing Rule not to break
Here's a rule that, unlike other writing-related rules, you must never break:
You must be willing to learn.
And I mean to learn everything you can, not just things specific to writing. Everything you learn gives you a wider range of knowledge to draw on in writing. You know the saying 'Write what you know.' But really, the saying should be 'Write what you can learn.'
And you can learn at least a little about anything you put your mind to. That doesn't mean you are going to become a quantum physicist by reading a few low level books. However, you can learn the basics. Or you can learn how Egyptian's built and furnished their homes. You can find out how Paleolithic people made their stone tools and used them.
I can hear you. "I don't write about quantum theory, Egyptians or Paleolithic people. Why should I want to learn about them?"
Everything you learn makes you a better writer. It gives you a wider field to play in. Don't think of them as individual pieces. I can easily see a story that would talk in all three of those divergent pieces and more. How?
A science fiction story in which a ship, using quantum theory as part of its inner workings, travels to another world. The beings there are humanoid, with a technology on the level with ancient Egypt. Some humans from the ship become stranded there and in order to survive, they must go off by themselves. They must learn to become a hunter-gatherer people, and use stone tools to survive until rescue.
I could write that book. And I would use the Grzmek Animal Life Encyclopedia to help create viable alien creatures. I would use the dozen or so books on Egypt to pick out the pieces that would work, without re-creating Egypt itself. I would use the science books to help build up the basics of the ship. This would not be a hard science book, of course. My interest is not in how, but who. I could see a tale of trying to avoid contact with the native aliens, of misunderstanding, mistrust and fear.
I have seen so many writers lately who say they don't like to read and others who hate research. They have their imagination and they know how to use it.
Imagination needs food, and I don't mean just the latest television or anime you happen upon. If that's all you take in, then you are going to limit what you write. You don't have to give it up, like some people claim, but expand beyond those limited boundaries to places where you choose to go, not where they direct you.
I'll tell you something you might not realize: Learning what you WANT to learn is far more exciting than all the 'learn this, there will be a test' stuff you did in school. You don't have to worry about the grade. Sure, you want to get it 'right' in the book if it's something you are using exactly. If you are writing a historical book about Egypt, you are certain going to want to make certain you know about an ankh, aten, lotus, scarab and uta. However, if you are creating your own world in an Egyptian-like setting, you get to take as much or as little as you like and build on it. This works for science fiction and fantasy.
Sure, you could make up a world without knowing about Egypt and how they lived and built. However, the more you know, the richer your own imaginary world will become. Better still, there are ideas everywhere in nonfiction -- ideas you tap at the source, rather than picking them up second hand from some other story you read. When you start from a nonfiction source, you are far more likely to write something unique, rather than only being inspired by the latest book you loved.
However, that inspiration is important as well. Everything you read, watch and learn melds to make you a better writer. If you cut yourself off from a source of information, you are only hobbling yourself. So don't be afraid to read a history, science or other nonfiction book now and then. If you want to learn something, look for a simple book on the subject and if it still appeals to you, move up from there.
You'll be a richer writer for it.