Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Writing Wednesday: How Important is Experience?

If you've ever Googled "how to be a writer," chances are you've read something about using life experiences in your writing. There is, in fact, an entire school of thought that writers shouldn't write things they haven't personally experienced because if they haven't lived what they're writing, they don't know what they're talking about.

As a genre writer, I obviously disagree with this. If I only wrote about things I'd personally experienced, there'd be no dragons or wizards or sword fights to the death. No one get shot or stabbed or blasted with magic. If all writers followed this advice, the whole world would be trapped in realistic contemporary fiction forever, which I'm pretty sure is one of the levels of hell.  (No offense to realistic contemporary writers, but come on. The world needs variety!)

But while I may never have actually been an ancient, future seeing dragon (I know, I know, I'm sorry to dash your hopes), I do know what it's like to lay careful plans that depend on the whims of other people. I know what it feels like to try very very hard and still fail. I also know what it feels like to win, to hate, to be head over heels in love, all that breadth of human emotion stuff. And this is what I think writers are really talking about when they say you have to live something before you write it.

Now, obviously, there are extremes. No matter how well I understand fear, my life has never really been in danger. I've never been a hostage or been mortally injured (at least not outside of a hospital without morphine). I can only speculate what it feels like to truly fear for my life. Likewise, I've never killed anyone, or even wanted to kill someone. As a very safe and privileged white woman in America, I've thankfully never had to experience any of these terrifying, extreme emotions, which means I can only imagine how my characters feel when I put them in these horrible situations. 

But that's what writers do, isn't it? We imagine. We ask "what if?" and play pretend on paper for an audience, some of whom may actually have experienced the horrors I'm describing that I've been fortunate enough in my real life to avoid. But even though I've never actually lived what I'm describing, it's my job as an author to make it feel real, even for the people who've actually been there. 

That's the challenge these writers are trying to conquer when they say you have to have experience to write. Again, though, I don't agree, because I believe that the power of the writing imagination trumps all. Obviously it's easier if you've lived the emotions you're trying to describe, but that's all it is: easier. Life experience is an aide, not a requirement for good fiction. After all, if we allowed our stories to be limited only to our own experiences, what kind of dull, unimaginative writers would we be?

So now that I've cleared that up, how do we actually do it? How do we imagine situations and feelings we've never experienced accurately and sincerely enough to convince readers that these things are real? 

Unless you're writing your autobiography, this is a challenge all writers, and since it wouldn't be a Rachel Aaron post without a list, let's look at some solutions to this problem.

1) Empathize with your characters.
This should be check point #1 for any kind of writing, but it's never more important than when you're writing a character whose emotions, goals, and experiences are outside your realm of experience. The ability to put yourself in your character's shoes both logically and emotionally, to really try and see your fictional world from their point of view, is key to creating a sincere and realistic experience, especially if said experience is as new to you as it is to your readers. Don't be afraid to really get down with them in the trenches and try feel what they're feeling. 

If they're a well formed, properly motivated character, this shouldn't be hard. Good characters are people, and as a social species, we're always interested in why people do what they do. If you're having trouble getting into your character's head, I recommend revisiting their GMC (or making one for them if you haven't already). You might discover that your character's goals and motivations need adjusting to "click" into your world, but once you unlock them, empathize with them as hard as you can.

Bethesda the Heartstriker, Mother of the Year!

Even the most terrible, rotten, villainous person has logic, emotions, and reasons for what they do. (Hello, Bethesda!) They have a history, things they care about. If you find out what those are and try your best to understand them as people, not just as plot mechanisms, the emotions and actions those well rounded characters add to your book can not help but feel sincere, because they are. That person you created is now real in your imagination, sometimes even more so than people you've actually met, and that real experience, the truth of who they are and why they fight, will always come through, even if the place they're coming from is one you've never personally been to.

2) Do your research.
While I believe empathy is the most important part of imagining your way around an experience gap, there's no substitute for good old research. Whatever unknown sensation or situation you're trying to imagine--being taken hostage, getting stabbed, surviving in the arctic, living as a race or sexual orientation that's not your own--someone out there has lived it and written about it. Go find that first hand account and learn from it. 

You don't have to copy it exactly (actually, please don't do that. Even you're borrowing their reality, this is still your book, which means your fingerprints and sensibilities as a writer need to be on every bit), but first hand accounts can be an invaluable source of insight and details you never could have come up with on your own. This is especially vital if you're dealing with complex, sensitive issues like domestic violence, sexual abuse, or the experience of minority groups.

Obviously, if you're a straight person writing a gay character, you're going to want to go read about the experiences of actual gay people before you try and put yourself in their shoes. That's just being a responsible writer, not to mention you will get called the hell out if you get the big stuff wrong, and rightfully so. There's so much information out there about people's real experiences with stuff like this that there is no excuse to present a blatantly unrealistic or shallow version of their experience.

But research doesn't just help with the big stuff. It can also be a goldmine for the little finishing details that add that extra layer of reality and authenticity to your scenes. For example, if your story features a dead body and you've never smelled a dead body, go read a forensic account of what one smells like. It might only be one line, but that extra gory detail can be the difference between "Character sees dead body" and "Holy shit, that's a dead body!"

3) Chase experiences.
With good empathy and proper research, you can create very realistic scenes even for things you've never experienced. That said, if you can experience something personally, you should always go after it. I'm not saying you should go out and go out and do something dangerous like drag race or get shot (please don't!), but if you've never fired a gun, and you have a character who does, it's not a bad idea to go to a shooting range and get that experience for yourself.

No matter how good your imagination is (and if you're a writer, it's probably pretty awesome), actually experiencing something for yourself--especially physical things like the recoil of a gun or actual deadly biting cold--gives you a wealth of information to draw from. There may even be details you notice that none of your research mentioned because the people writing the first hand accounts were not themselves writers. No one is better than writers at noticing things and describing them in new ways that spark the imagination, and if you can harness that for yourself, you will always have more to work with than if you'd gotten the information from others or simply made it up.

So if you're a writer, and you get the opportunity to have a new experience, go for it. Even if you're not writing a book about it right now, you never know when the weirdest details will suddenly become vital. The larger you can make the pool of your experiences, the more you have to work with, and who doesn't want more? Even bad, tragic things that happen to you have a silver lining because they're broadening your horizons. 

That's part of what makes being a writer so amazing: we waste nothing. Our lives are a toolbox that we use to create beautiful, moving, incredible, and (even with experience) still almost entirely made up scenarios that touch people in ways only really good stories can. We have the power to become someone else's life experience, their unforgettable moment, and that is a magic we should never waste or limit.

4) Never let anyone tell you you're too young/inexperienced to write.
This last one is more personal than practical. I started getting serious about writing straight out of college, and the number one thing people told me was that I was too young to write anything good. They implied that, because I hadn't lived "long enough," my stories would lack depth and meaning. They said I didn't know what I was doing.

This of course turned out to be complete bupkiss. Of course I didn't know what I was doing. No one does when they start, but I learned. I read better authors and studied my craft. I wrote and rewrote. I finished a book and got rejected everywhere, so I wrote another one. Every time, I threw myself into my world and my characters until I had something that felt real, and eventually I got good enough that I was able to convince others. 

That's every writer's story, young or old, and when I was done, what I had learned from my experience was that the people who tell you you can't write or make good stories without experience are only saying that to you because they're telling themselves the same thing. They're using the idea that there's an experience level on authorship to excuse themselves from having to actually take the terrifying leap of faith and work that writing demands. They are afraid, and they're trying to make you afraid, too. But the truth is, if you wait until you have "enough experience" to be a writer, you'll be waiting forever. A lifetime isn't long enough to personally feel all the emotions and experiences contained in a single novel. Even worse, it doesn't actually matter, because writing isn't reporting. It's imagination. Our imaginations, and no one is too young for that. 

You can't take the sky from us. (Art source)

So if you're a writer struggling with a perceived lack of experience, I hope this post helps you realize that you not only can write good stories, you absolutely should. Because the only experience that really matters in writing is the writing itself, and the only way you get that is by actually sitting down and doing the work. So empathize with your characters, do your research, chase the life experiences you can get, and never let anyone tell you don't have what it takes to write. It doesn't mater if you grew up in a box, imagination is a universal part of being human. Don't be afraid to use yours.

Thank you as always for reading my post! If you liked it, please follow me on social media (Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr/Google+) to get updates as they happen. My husband Travis and I blog about the craft and business of writing every Monday and Wednesday, and I very much hope you'll join us! 

We'll be back next week with more. Until then, keep writing!

❤ always,


Kessie said...

I've learned that when people say "write what you know", it means emotionally. When I was a teen, I had never been in love before. So I explored every other emotion--friendship, anger, hate, fear, bliss, you name it. Then when a story demanded romance, I approached it almost mathematically and hit the tropes. I've gone back years later to see how I did, and man, I got it so right. Sometimes tropes are just the way to go. :-)

Raza said...

Hi Rachel. Another winning post this one, after the GMC one that I read last. Your point about experience is spot-on that would-be writers convince themselves that they can't write as they don't have the experience. The solutions you have given make sense and can give any writer willing to work a big lift.

Keith Li said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keith Li said...

Hi Rachel,

Great post!
I've also learnt a cool trick from...uh, I forgot where lol but I learnt that our brains don't actually know what's real or not.
Without going to deep, what's really cool about this for us writers is that we can leverage off this innate ability of ours!

So if your character is lost in the woods being hunted by a lone serial killer with a 20cm kitchen blade then you can, as your stated in point 1, put yourself in the character's shoes by literally closing your eyes and FULLY immersing yourself (visual, aural, smell, touch etc) in that environment.
Feel the breeze of the cold wind scrape your skin, hear the crunching of leaves and barks under your feet as you run, smell the moist in the air, feel your legs ache as you try to run and not make so much noise at the same time, and overall, feel the rush of trying to stay alive!
And if you can leave yourself immersed for a minute or more, your body will actually believe it's real and respond accordingly. As writers, we can then write down that visceral feeling, then filter through our characters given their personalities etc, and onto the page!

Alternatively, you can just draw from a similar experience from when you played Hide and Seek with friends and remember the feeling of not being caught and draw from that!
Anyway, great post!