Write What You Know–Write “From the Inside Out”

Canadian ForestWhen I first heard the writer’s edict “write what you know” I rejoined: but I write science fiction—I write about the unknown. What I still had to learn was that by describing “the other” SF really describes “us”. We explore ourselves through our relationship with the unknown. We do this by ensuring that all our plotlines reflect theme.

Write About What You Know

How many times have you been told to write about what you know? And how many times have you trusted that advice? Well, how interesting is that?!? We think our lives are dull, boring, and mundane. We write – and read – to get away from it, don’t we?

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Nina Munteanu

Well, yes…and no…

In the final analysis, even good “escapist” writing, like some science fiction, despite its alien settings and creatures of imagination, is grounded in the realities of our every-day lives, which form the basis of human nature. Love, ambition, trust, hate, envy, honor, courage. All these are universal human traits which the writer taps into and ultimately writes about.

“In the 19th century, John Keats wrote to a nightingale, an urn, a season. Simple, everyday things that he knew,” say Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux in The Writer’s Guide to Creativity. “Walt Whitman described the stars, a live oak, a field. They began with what they knew, what was at hand, what shimmered around them in the ordinary world.”

Writing about what you know isn’t about literal truths; it’s about what you know inside your heart. Write from the inside out. Write about what excites you; what frightens you; what angers you, makes you sad, happy. As SF author Marg Gilks says, “You know more than you think.”

Twisted Truths & Inner Knowledge

Writers can use our own knowledge and experiences in everyday life and translate them into something far from ordinary. You start with universal experiences.

Get Emotional

What excites you; what frightens you; what angers you, makes you sad, happy. These are emotions we all feel. When we give our characters experiences similar to our own, we breathe life into both character and experience and provide the reader an anchor for her heart.

Get Sensational

You know how it feels to have your knees shake with fatigue after a long climb or the hair-raising trepidation of walking into a dark place. Use these sensations to make your writing more sensual with added dimensions of reality.

Get People Around You

My neighbor has a funny way of focusing his gaze slightly off me when he talks, like he can’t look me directly in the eyes. When he approaches my house to deliver the paper, Dennis strides with a lilting gait as he listens to hip-hop on his ipod.

Drawing from what you observe and know of the people around you is one of a writer’s most treasured resources for character description. I always carry a notebook with me no matter where I go, even if it’s only to the grocery store.

The Magic of Storytelling

A writer is like a magician. You play upon what readers all “know” then surprise them with the unexpected.

Unleashing your imagination and letting it soar while grounding yourself in the realities of universal truths is the stuff of which stories are made. This is what most of us mean when we say “write what you know.”

“Unless you are writing about a personal tragedy,” says Tina Morgan of Fiction Factor, “you will have to use your imagination. Use the creativity that drives you to write in the first place. Take those feelings you have every day and amplify them. Make them more intense, more vivid. Before you know it, you will be ‘writing what you know’.”

“Next time you hear ‘write what you know,’ ” says Gilks, “you’ll realize that you know an awful lot about what matters most in a story’s success. It’s waiting only to be shaped by your imagination.”

Write Real

Literary Agent, Rachelle Gardner, provided a great definition of “write what you know” on her blog. Here’s an excerpt:

Most people think “write what you know” means you have to put characters in situations you’re personally familiar with. If you’re a mom with five kids, you should write a mom story. If you’ve fought cancer and won, you should write about that. But in my opinion, that’s not what it means.

Write what you know means write with authenticity about thoughts, feelings, experiences of life. Be honest. Write from a deep place. Don’t write from the surface. Whether you’re writing about parenthood or cancer or anything else… be real.
Rachell Gardner

Don’t reflect what you know from other people or the media… write what you know from your own inner life.

An excerpt of this article appeared in CBC’s Canada Writes.

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Nina Talks Writing on Dragon Page

michael-stackpoleSome years ago, I was interviewed by Michael Stackpole (New York Times bestselling author of over 40 novels, including “I, Jedi” and “Rogue Squadron”) and Michael Mennenga (CEO of “Slice of Sci-Fi”) on Dragon Page Cover to Cover.

michael mennengaWe talked about my book “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and what new writers fret over. A lot of the discussion focused on how to handle rejection and I shared my “bus terminal” model (also in my book), which worked very well. For details on our discussion about the industry and craft of writing, listen below:

 

 

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The Bus Terminal Model:

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webHere is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer, Chapter R:

One way to see your way through rejection is to find ways to distance yourself from your story once you’ve sent it off and to see the whole process of submission-rejection-acceptance as a business. The very best way to do this is to submit lots of stories and to keep submitting them. With novels, this is a little harder to do but you can certainly be working on the next one once you’ve submitted the first.

When I was writing short stories, I kept a list of what and where I submitted, along with the most important item: where to submit NEXT. At any given time, I made sure that I had at least x-number of submissions out there and each story had a designated place to go if it returned. As soon as a story came back from magazine A, I simply re-packaged it and sent it to magazine B. The critical part of the list was to have a contingency for each story: the next place where I would send the story once it returned. I was planning on the story being rejected with the hope that it would be accepted; that way, a rejection became part of a story’s journey rather than a final comment.

I ran my submissions like a bus terminal. A story was in and out so fast it never had a chance to cool off. And, since I had five other pieces out there, I could do this with little emotion. I was running a fast-paced “story depot”, after all. All my stories had to be out there as soon as possible; if they were sitting in the terminal, they were doing nothing for me.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Limestone Genre Expo—One of Kingston’s Gems

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Nina Munteanu and Halli Villegas

I recently attended the Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston, Ontario. Held at the St. Lawrence College campus—ideally suited to a literary festival—the expo featured panels, readings, and workshops.

The festival was well attended by local, Canadian and international authors, editors, publishers, and readers—all committed to exploring literature, the arts and to having a good time.

Authors included Tanya Huff, Nancy Kilpatrick, Caro Soles, Violette Malan, Rick Blechta, Matthew Bin and Eve Langlais, among many others.

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Science Fiction GOH in 2016

Publishers included Exile Editions, Chizine Publications, Bundoran Press and others. Exile Editions recently published their anthology “Cli Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change” in which my story “The Way of Water” appears.

I was Limestone’s Science Fiction Guest of Honour last year; this year I got to relax and I sat on three panels.

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Nancy Kilpatrick

In “Alternative Histories to Cyberpunk“, I was joined on the panel by Matthew Bin, Maldonado Skaff-Koren, Eric Desmarais, Michael Romaric, Dominic Bercier, and A.A. Jankiewicz with moderator Sean Moreland. We mostly discussed the literary device of alternative timelines and unanimously concluded that visionary science fiction that “failed” to predict the future was successful alternative “history”. This theme continued in the science fiction panel.

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcoverI brought up the notion of history’s quantum properties, a braided flow of multi-dimensional and entangled realities. This served as premise for my alternative historical time-travel fantasy The Last Summoner, which takes place in fifteenth century Poland. On her fourteenth birthday, the baroness Vivianne Von Grunwald discovers that she can change history as an aeon; but she soon realizes that, while she is able to change some disastrous historic event, its entangled “destiny” indelibly moves closer to the original consequence than her intended one: yet another disaster. My scientific approach to alternate history is what excited me to write this, my only fantasy so far among a dozen science fiction novels.

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Caro Soles

In the panel “The Science behind Science Fiction” I was joined by Katherine Prairie, Anita Dolman, Matthew Bin, Lisa Tooey, Kristen Kiomall, and A.A. Jankiewicz with moderator Caroline Frechette. We discussed the utility and risk of using pseudoscience in a science fiction story, a genre known for expectations of accuracy and prescience. In 1979, Ray Bradbury wrote: People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it. Predicting the future is much too easy, anyway. You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same. To hell with more. I want better.”

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Tanya Huff signs one of her books

Depending on whether the story is considered hard SF or soft SF, this level of accuracy in both actual science presented as premise and ability to predict science and technology will vary. Given that science fiction is largely metaphoric, the predictability of an SF story is secondary to the story’s value as metaphor and allegory. The consensus of the panel was that the audience determined the importance of precision and accuracy. In the final analysis, if the story is grounded in its own consistency, anything is possible.

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Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot)

In “Women in Genre” I was joined by Violette Malan, Nancy Kilpatrick, Eve Langland, Alyssa Cooper, Janet Kellogg, and Liz Lindsay with moderator Sandra Kasturi. The banter was by turns fun and edgy, all lubricated with good humour by all participants. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy of which 90% feature a “strong female protagonist”, I brought up the controversy of what, in fact, determines a good female lead in story. Why do so many heroines still provide just a kick-ass version of a male hero? Why are so many female protagonist heroes still defined by the rules of what makes a male a hero? Where are the real women?

Politics south of us aside—along with Margaret Atwood’s all too realistic Handmaid’s Tale (currently playing on Bravo TV), we discussed the recent push-back in Texas on the all-women showing of “Wonder Woman,” which prompted many heated tweets. The Atlantic recently published an article on the film—and surrounding events—entitled “Wonder Woman, Heroine of the Post-Truth Age.”wonder-woman-movie-poster

Wonder Woman is set at the height of World War I, but is otherwise a decidedly modern movie,” writes Megan Garber of The Atlantic. “It stars a woman (Gal Gadot) and treats a man, Steve (Chris Pine), as its damsel-in-distress. It has managed, even before its release, to enrage men’s-rights activists, which is quickly becoming a reliable measure of a movie’s modernity.”

wonderwoman-golden lassoWonder Woman uses a unique weapon, the Golden Lasso, known as the Lasso of Truth—because it compels anyone wrapped by it to reveal the truth.

When William Moulton Marston—scientist and inventor of the polygraph machine— created the Wonder Woman character, he envisioned a warrior who was also an investigator of truth. “Frankly,” he said, “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” He believed that a world that gave women more power—politically and otherwise—would be more peaceful, more empathetic, more worthy, writes Garber. “And so Wonder Woman is a work that is decidedly at home, across its dimensions, in the world of 2017—a world that is on the one hand newly recognizing women’s widespread capabilities, but that is on the other deeply anxious about ‘alternative facts,’ about ‘fake news,’ about politically weaponized lies, about falsehoods that are uttered with no seeming consequence. The princess’s lasso, that shimmering metaphor for objective truth, is a symbol of aspiration; seen in another way, though, it is a symbol of despair. Here, in this wobbling weapon, is “wonder” as in awe; here, too, is “wonder” as in uncertainty. Here is a tool of truth that is decidedly ambivalent about its own powers. “How do I know you’re not lying to me right now?” the princess asks the spy. And the only way she can know for sure is to trust, paradoxically, in magic.”

Magic is OK, though. It is, after all, the stuff from which we draw when we write.

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Nina Munteanu, Science Fiction GOH at Limestone Genre Expo 2016

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.