There are so many books on writing I’ve encountered over the years, and it seems like there’s a new one every week. In over twenty years of teaching writing, I’ve read an awful lot of them. Some are written by authors of a certain genre who will, in the course of the book, dismiss another genre in which they don’t write. As a writer who enjoys being interstitial, I find that sort of promoted ignorance to be useless if not offensive. Don’t write a “how to” book on science fiction in which you slam romance writers for relying on tired tropes. SF has its own list of exhausted tropes, starting for my money with endless alternate histories of war. But that’s a reflection of what I do and do not enjoy in my fiction reading, and not an assessment of a sub-genre per se.
Some of my pals in the Liars Club have talked writing books with me from time to time. Jonathan Maberry did me a great service once in directing me to Don Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, but as he championed that book to me, I’m electing not to focus on it under the assumption that he might want to talk about it here.
Instead, I’m going to promote a fine book by David Morrell: Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing. This is a Writer’s Digest book that has subsequently been repackaged and retitled as The Successful Novelist. Morrell was on the faculty at the University of Iowa back when I was a student there. I met him through another writer, Joe Haldeman, who was in the graduate writing workshop. Joe became a great friend, and from time to time in his company I would run into and chat with David Morrell. In the years since I’ve read his work and really enjoyed it, so it was with great pleasure that I approached his book on craft, wherein he reveals as much about himself as Stephen King did in On Writing.
One thing Morrell emphasizes in this book–and it’s something I’ve found missing again and again in fiction submitted to writing workshops–is how your best fiction taps into your personal world. The personal–what you really believe, who you really are–must inform your fiction. If you think that, because you’re writing something set on a planet in the Cat’s Eye Nebula, what happens in your novel isn’t going to draw upon your personal demons or your relationship with your father or your innate distrust of authority figures–if in fact you consciously try to keep that stuff out–you will write a shallow, unengaging piece of tripe. Oh, it’ll have a plot. It might even sell to a publisher. But your central characters will have all the dimension of an index card.
What is in you is a collective experience that must inform your work. How you are damaged, if you will, is going to cause you to do things in your stories that nobody else would ever think of doing. You want to let that out, not suppress it. We are, all of us, some variation of walking wounded. “Write what you know” looks like that. Resist it at the peril of your work. Thus speaks David Morrell.
When I read a book on writing that makes me reassess and contemplate things to this extent, that’s a damn fine book on writing. And that’s just one of the points that David Morrell makes in his. Go read and ye shall receive. Here endeth the lesson.
Gregory Frost is the bestselling author of the Shadowbridge duology, the historical thriller, Fitcher’s Brides, and the short story collection Attack of the Jazz Giants & Other Stories. His most recent fiction appears in the YA anthology The Beastly Bride, edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, and in Full Moon City, edited by Darrell Schweitzer.