Write What You Can

Everyone has their list of island books, the novels they would want to have with them if stranded on a desert island, and that list says a lot about them.  I used to use it as a sort of litmus test when meeting new people, but nobody in my industry seems to read anything but programming manuals anymore so I had to give it up.

My list: Dune, Neuromancer, Snow Crash, The Cryptonomicon, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Ready Player One.  What does my list say about me?  Well, for one thing, it begs the question why I am a crime fiction writer when I obviously love science fiction so dearly.  The answer to that is a resounding, “I don’t know.”  I even came to write my first detective novel via science fiction.  Roy Doyle was originally a time traveler stuck in 1946.  When my agent couldn’t figure out how to market that story, I cut out all the science fiction and, in the process, found my voice for writing about detectives and criminals.

That still doesn’t explain why my writing voice is so radically different from my reading preference.  Anyone who has ever had trouble finding a voice, as I did for so long, will tell you that when you find it, you don’t spend a lot of time questioning it.  You just start using it.  I continue to dabble in science fiction but I never feel the same “click” I do when I’m fomenting a murder mystery.  That genre just feels so natural to me I’ll probably never be able to work comfortably outside of it.

The other possible reason for the dichotomy between what I read and what I write is that I don’t find a lot of the crime fiction I read to be very compelling.  I read a lot of crime/mystery fiction and, while many of them are good, most have the airy weight of something that is essentially redundant.  The only really innovative detective novel I’ve read in the last ten years was The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon.  And that one?  It’s built on a speculative fiction chassis, an alternate reality in which the refugees of the Holocaust were given land in Alaska as a temporary homeland after the fledgling state of Israel collapsed in 1948.

Maybe I should put that one on my island list.  And, as long as we’re talking about Chabon, I have to add Summerland, the best baseball fantasy story ever told.  (Yes, I’m one of those guys who doesn’t like The Natural.)  But that’s the problem with the island list.  The more you think about it, the longer it gets.

To circle back to my point, your Creative Writing 101 instructor pounded the phrase, “Write what you know” into your head freshman year of college and every book on writing will tell you the same thing.  Does that mean that, as forklift operator, all your stories should revolve around warehouse management?  No.  What those instructors and books should be telling you is, “Write with authority.”  And the best way to write with authority is to find a voice that feels natural in your brain and sounds right on the page.


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