Bad Advice: Write Like Your Parents Are Already Dead

Because, of course, then you’ll be liberated from the fear of offending them. Or you can write about them, even better, right? You can write about how crazy they were or how they treated you or what they did to keep you from writing. Right?

It’s true that writers need to be a little fearless when they choose their subjects. They have to write violent or dark or–gasp–sexy scenes and if they’re worried what their families or close friends think, they’ll hold back, they’ll soft-pedal things. It’s true that the great writers are the ones who tackle subjects nobody wants to talk about. The ideas and concepts that might make them unpopular.

Right?

I don’t entirely buy it. Oh, it’s good to be a little libertine in your choices as a writer. You want drama and excitement and a little adrenaline to spice up your stories. But there are two reasons I think this is, if not terrible advice, at least worth questioning. The first is that your parents–actually, let’s open this up and say your loved ones, regardless of their legal relationship to you–are the best support staff you’re going to get. They can nurture you and be your best first readers and their stories can inform what you write. One of the best, if not the best moment of my entire career, happened at a dinner table one night while I was visiting my parents.

“Here are my five favorite David Wellington novels, and why,” my father said. Then he went on to list and describe them.

My Dad had read my books. And liked them. He’s passed, now, and I miss so much the support, encouragement, and love he gave me. While he was still alive he got to see me succeed as a writer. He was so proud. I wouldn’t trade anything for that.

Writing is a solitary activity and it can be soul-crushing. The isolation and daily discouragement you get as a writer is your worst enemy. Your loved ones are what can keep you going in the darkest moments. Don’t see them as impediments. See them as resources. If they truly love you, of course they’ll want you to use their stories, to adapt their anecdotes. You can’t write in a vacuum.

The second reason that this particular piece of advice is bad is that strictures and limitations are what make art great.

The pure, free play of the writer’s mind gave us Ulysses, and To The Lighthouse. Those are great books… but they’re rare. And they should be. Most great stories come from some kind of artificial rule, some boundary set up against the author’s progress by forces they couldn’t control.

There’s a reason why the Monty Python movies aren’t as good as the television sketches. Forced to work within arbitrary rules of censorship on state media, the Pythons were forced to go absurd–they couldn’t just make endless jokes about shit and fucking, so they had to get surreal.

Almost all pulp fiction passed through a rigorous gauntlet of editors and gate-keepers, people who either demanded the stories be less salacious–or more so. Then there’s the greatest road block of them all: the readership, in all of its strident demands and capricious wants. I would argue–and I know there are many who disagree–that Lovecraft’s greatest stories are the ones he wrote specifically for the Weird Tales audience. Not the Poe pastiches and noodly nightmares he created when nobody was watching.

Editors refine stories. Audiences push authors to find universal themes, to find why stories are important. Writing in a vacuum would ignore those tensions, pretend they don’t exist.

For the sake of your readership, and your own mental health–don’t write like your parents are already dead. Right the story that’s going to make your father (or mother, or wife, or cousin, or crazy best friend) proud of you.

Unconventional Devices: Direct Address

Any story is a conversation between a writer and a reader. There’s an unspoken agreement you make when you pick up a book–the author is going to tell you a story, maybe even try to make a point, and they know you’re listening and (hopefully) paying attention. That’s a lot to ask from a reader, and sometimes we need to trick you into compliance. Writers use any number of devices to keep this relationship tacit. We distance ourselves from the reader by sticking to a character’s viewpoint (these are the characters words, not mine, dear reader) or by dramatizing events rather than editorializing on them. This distancing, this careful construction of an invisible wall between the two parties, is central to the work of writing.

Yet sometimes we break that wall. The writer directly addresses the reader–either to clarify a point or simply to foreground the work of narration. It can be used for emphasis–the classic example being: “Reader, I married him.” It’s a hammer in the writer’s tool box, and not a very subtle one. Writers differ on their opinion as to its utility. Fashions in writing change, and in recent decades direct address has become a little sinful, a little louche. Writers like Vonnegut and Tom Robbins used it to great effect back in the 60s and 70s–it was practically Vonnegut’s trademark–but as with many things from those decades, it’s now seen as quaint and overly precious.

Funnily enough, it’s made a resurgence in television, with the main characters of House of Cards and Mr. Robot actually treating the viewer as a confidante. It’s clear that the showrunners/writers/director of the show are speaking directly to us here, through the words of their characters. The device has appeared in many movies made since the turn of the century as well–and let us never forget Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

So if our screenwriting colleagues occasionally dabble in direct adress, will we see a resurgence of it in fiction? It’s in the nature of fashions to change.

Should you, as a writer, use direct address? As is true with employing any device, it’s a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly.

Direct address can create that old chestnut “immediacy”, of course. It yanks the reader right onto the page and forces them to acknowledge their half of the literary contract. It allows an author to deliver plot and setting information in a compact, economical form as well, and can highlight your themes. Hell, it puts a neon sign around your theme with a big arrow that might as well say “moral of the story here, get it while the take is hot.”

Which may be the best argument against using it. Do you really want your theme stated so baldly on the page? Many themes and, yes, morals are best viewed through a thin veil of story. Direct address always runs the risk of coming across as overly chummy, didactic, even downright preachy (a true cardinal sin of writing).

You may be better off distancing yourself from your narrative, if only a little. Consider the effect you want to achieve. Are you going for polemic, are you a firebrand who needs to thump a pulpit? Or do you want a dreamier feel to your story? For anyone writing fantasy (of any flavor) direct address can be dangerous. It can shatter the illusion of a secondary world, make it look false and brittle. And for horror stories it’s downright lethal. Horror is all about seductive immersion, about luring the reader into a quiet corner and then springing nightmares on them. Direct address can kill mood and tone faster than anything.

It’s always been the opinion of this writer that writing is about choices made thoughtfully and with care. I won’t tell you not to use direct address, reader. I just hope you’ll use it with care.

Finding the Heart of a Story

It’s hard enough just putting a story together. Keeping track of all the details, making sure it all makes sense. There is an endless series of decisions that have to be made before the story comes together, before it feels like it’s done. But there’s one question a lot of writers forget to ask along the way.

Why are you writing this?

Why must this particular story be told?

Just a relation of events, a list of “this happened, then the next thing happened, then one more thing happened” is never enough to justify the work that goes into a project. You need to find the heart of the story. The thing that gives it life. The reason it exists in the first place.

A story without a heart is boring. It may be readable, but it won’t be memorable. You need to find the heart, and everything in your story has to serve the heart. It’s a tall order, but it’s absolutely crucial to good writing.

The heart doesn’t have to be that complicated. A really interesting setting can be enough. A character dynamic you haven’t seen used before. Even just some witty dialogue. It should be something fresh, though, something altogether new or at least a fascinating new take on an old idea. It should be the kind of thing you loved about stories when you first started reading them. The first purpose of a story is to entertain the reader, and if the story’s heart is big and strong enough, you can be guaranteed to be successful at that level.

But say you want to go deeper. More meaningful. Locating the heart of the story is vital to making something great. This is where themes really come into play. A theme that shapes an entire story, that completely informs it, is a great heart. Theme can be tricky, though. Some writers like to just start composing, in the hope of finding an emergent theme. That’s a dicey game, of course. What if the theme never shows itself? You can write an entire novel and realize it has nothing to say. Other writers like to start with a theme, and then build a story around it. It’s a great strategy but it carries its own risks–if you make your theme too obvious, you may come off as preachy, or even guilty of special pleading.

Risks are inherent in all writing, though. The heart of the story, the why of the story, is always a leap of faith. You hope you present your meaning in a way that is comprehensible and–more importantly–resonant. You have to close your eyes and just pray that your story strikes home. It will not always be successful. There will always be people who don’t get you–or choose not to. Yet this is exactly why we write, isn’t it? The hope that someone, at least one reader, will feel the heart of your story beating, and be charmed by it, or alarmed, or simply compelled to hold it close. Finding the heart of your story is a desperate attempt to connect. And sometimes, it really works.

Theme: The Unintended Parable

I want to share a story about one of my failures as a writer.

I intended, once, to write a short story about a woman working in an organ farm. A place where brainless clone bodies are grown in vats, so that their organs can be harvested to save the lives of people waiting for transplants. One of the clone bodies starts kicking the side of the vat, and the woman freaks out. It turns out that it’s just a loose wire–easily fixed–and the body goes on to save dozens of lives.

I thought it was a good, creepy image that I could turn into an unsettling little story. Then I actually tried to write it.

I realized after the first draft that the message of the story was very clear: it’s wrong to grow clone bodies in vats, even if it saves lives. It doesn’t matter why you do it, it’s terrible and awful and disgusting. There’s only one problem. I don’t think that. I honestly believe that cloning is going to lead to enormous advances in medical science. I’ve known people who needed transplant organs and couldn’t get them. They died, horribly.

I tried writing a second draft, changing some details. I added a scientist who comes in and gives a speech about how the clones could save lives. I added a coda where a little girl gets a new kidney and gets to see her tenth birthday.

The story, with the clone kicking the side of the tank, was still awful and nasty. The message was still clear.

A third draft didn’t help at all. The clone kicked the tank. Rhythmically. Mechanically. Like a robot. I couldn’t shake the fact that this little gesture, this meaningless twitch, made the clone human. Made its existence an atrocity.

Okay, why am I dwelling on a story I eventually decided not to even finish? Because there’s a point here about theme.

Theme, what your story is “about”, may be the hardest part of writing. If you try to force it, you often come across as didactic or preachy. The usual advice is that you shouldn’t worry about it. Write the story you want to write, and theme will take care of itself. This is good advice ninety-nine times out of a hundred, and it’s how I usually operate.

At least… I did until I tried to write this story. Now I sit up nights worrying about theme all the time. Did any of my earlier books spread a message I personally disagree with? I’m not a huge fan of gun violence in real life, but I kind of fetishized Laura Caxton’s pistols, and the rocket launcher in Monster Island. By writing all those books about the end of the world, did I inspire people to think there is no future, that we don’t have to worry about climate change?

The unintended parable is one of the great risks a writer runs when they choose not to think about theme at all. I’m not saying you should write a book with the intention of sending a message–as well all know, that’s what Western Union is for. But maybe spare a thought, once you’ve finished your outlining, for what your story says. What it means.

You might save yourself a lot of regret later.