Second Hand Writing



Yesterday I was trying to explain to my husband why I don’t like most Urban Fantasy and the one thing I could come up with was “most of it is second hand writing.”

This required explanation and I gave it, and then it occurred to me it might not be a bad idea to give it here.  The issue doesn’t even affect urban fantasy, only.  It affects a lot of genre writing.  A lot of non genre writing, too, if you take the distrait, vaguely hopeless tone most “literary” fiction adopts these days as its own genre mark.

One of the reasons Larry Correia’s Monster hunter grabbed my attention was his first scene, which was many things, but it wasn’t the standard opening scene for Urban Fantasy, even though it had the same gross/horror effects (which normally put me off, btw, but the way it was written and the fighting back was good enough to keep me reading.)

So, how do we get second-hand writing, and what did he do differently.

It starts with how most urban fantasy has become a genre more codified than ballet.  I found it really runny when Dave Freer told me I’d written urban fantasy in space when I did Darkship Thieves.  Part of the reason I was so amused is that I wrote the first version of it before I’d even read the first urban fantasy.  But he was right, as far as the code went: mouthy female, check; problems with the world, check; meets attractive monster, check; discovers special powers in herself, check.

So, was it second hand?  Well, no.  I wasn’t trying for Urban Fantasy, the mouthy female doesn’t have a thing about the world in general, only her father – there’s a reason for her to have problem with her father – and in the end she’s having way too much fun, which seems not to be allowed for most UF heroines.  (I’m talking of the mass-produced stuff.  Of course there are exceptions.)  If I was ripping anything off it was the golden age sci fi of my youth, and giving it new twists

In the same way Larry Correia to an extent used his own life, his experience as an accountant, and how many times anyone in that position wishes to throw the boss out the window.  His main character is not a mouthy female, it’s a middle aged accountant built like an ill tempered mountain.

So… to avoid second-hand writing, we just add new stuff?  Cool.

No.  It’s not quite like that.

Look, most of us can’t write first hand about slaying werewolves or sleeping with vampires (though I’ve heard some stories from people who are young and dating that—never mind.)  Most of us can’t take a rocket to Mars.  Most of us have never solved a crime, and those who have but aren’t writing police procedural are at a disadvantage too.  And for historical, the problem applies in spades.  Anything you write will necessarily be second hand.  You can’t sail in a pirate ship of the regency (or earlier) and you can’t go to an audience with Queen Elizabeth.  You certainly can’t be in the Theater and watch the first run of Hamlet.  Life is full of these little disappointments, and #2 son refuses to build a time machine.  (I know, I know, I raised him very badly.)

So, you’re condemned to second hand writing, right?

Wrong.  The term came to me because #2 son was describing a UF author’s reading at the convention last weekend.  He was telling me how the author views it as her duty to use her books to fight sexism and racism and presumably other things ending in ism like prism and botulism.

Sorry – perhaps I’m jaded – but making noises about the important message in what is in effect undead porn gets on my nerves.  If it were true it would reveal the author as a startlingly naïve forty something year old.  But of course it’s not true, it’s the noises she makes to make her house thinking she’s “important” and “smart.”

Nothing against that.  Did it myself for years – not the same way.  I would have ended up that declaration with “and other things that end in ism like chicken and parasol” (don’t ask, this is one of the favorite ways for my kids to make a joke.  Utter absurdity.  It’s rubbed off.)

The problem is that I have a feeling she does believe it.  Not originally, but she has convinced herself of this.  She has an excellent education and therefore needs to convince herself what she’s doing is high brow and  “Important” like Kit Marlowe writing the stage directions for his plays in Latin.

And there is the devil.

Second hand writing sets in when you’re writing not for your reader, but at your reader.  It can be brought on by your extreme need for “message” but it can also be brought on by a cynical desire to hit all the high points of the genre and follow “the formula.”

Laurell K. Hamilton doubtless had never slept with a vampire either (probably) but she was writing what I think were her inner fantasies, at least in the first three books.  And she was young enough that the clubbing scene and the eyeing hot guys wasn’t that far in her past (or her future, hiss meow.)  Her voice comes across as fresh and authentic.

The problem is that almost everyone else is writing discount Laurell K. Hamilton.  They’re borrowing the snarky voice and the attitude, and the set pieces.

“But Sarah,” You’ll say.  “Heinlein used set pieces for years.  There was the boy who goes to new land and makes good, just in space.”

He sure did.  But there was to all that a strong element of Heinlein himself, and of the way he’d been raised (at the opening of the west.)  And if you read the sf of the time, you’ll find the voice was all his own.  This too was fresh and new.

I’m not saying to ignore the conventions of the genre or the reader cookies (come to the dark side.  We have cookies.)  In Urban fantasy, the sexy haunted monster is now something people expect, right?  You can do that.  It’s a powerful archetype, anyway.

But you can twist it.  You can have an accountant who throws his boss out the window midway through a working day, because the boss has become a werewolf. And you can have the supernaturally experienced mentor be a hot female with family secrets.

Or you can have whatever your circumstances are, and whatever plugs you in.

At one time – I must have been about 12 – I was watching a life of Shakespeare mini-series and Shakespeare tells Marlowe “Where are you in this?” about a play.

This is the old “Write what you know” advice.  Most people take this to the extreme in one of two ways.  Either they inhale “write what you know” to such an extent that (if they’re writing sf/f) their fantasy or future seems poorly grafted on the type of really boring stories of childhood or youth that all of us have suffered through from relatives; or else they write themselves – literally themselves – into the main character.  This last is usually one of the sins of males (I found this out teaching a young writer’s class.  All the girls were writing these inchoate emotional feeling pieces.  All the boys – at an age where disguise was beyond them – were writing stuff called “how I saved the bank from being robbed.”  I’ve since seen this a lot in more grown up writing) but I could name, off the top of my head, five females who do that too.

That’s taking “write what you know” rather too literally.  What it means, at least to me, is to take your own experience and meld it with the genre tropes and with the story you wish to tell (the genre tropes should never BE the story you wish to tell) and then run that way.  Things like Shakespeare describing a housewife chasing a chicken, something he must have seen; the badinage between fellow drinkers…  and doubtless porting the feeling of being fifteen and madly in love – that’s where you put in who you are.

For years I couldn’t write a truly American character.  I had to set all my characters in the past or the future, because if I tried to write about growing up in America it came out reading odd and second hand – because to make it authentic, I was porting in every cliché ever.

This read wrong to me, and so I didn’t do it.

Then about five years ago, I could.  Why?  Because I’d gone through it with my kids growing up, and I’d internalized a lot of “how things are done” in an individual form.  Even though I’d never lived through it, I sort of had.

This is what I mean one should do with fiction.  Even though you’ve never slayed a werewolf, almost all of us were in a massive fight at sometime, right?  And even though you’ve never kissed a vampire, you probably could tell us stories.

Bring that feeling of the moment, the immediacy, the thoughts, to the alien.

And don’t sell your storytelling birthright for a pot of message.  Maybe you really do want to fight sexism and racism and prism and botulism, but even if that truly is your aim – and you’re about twelve.  Because surely you’re aware that it takes more than books to change the world, and also that if those first two are the ones you want to fight, you’re coming in late and your choir robe is askew – you’ll do it more effectively by letting your feelings create and form your world, and having the book BE a reflection of your beliefs, than stopping to think “Oh, I must have a good guy who is black, and my female must be stronger than my male, and…”

Of course, both of those are more painful.  You expose yourself, on the page.  But you know, writing is like that, and if you’re not going to do it right, why do it at all.

Sit in front of the keyboard and put yourself on the page and your stuff will read fresh and new and not as though you just picked it up, discount, at salvation army.


29 thoughts on “Second Hand Writing

  1. So what is the opposite of Urban Fantasy? Suburban Fantasy – which I’m sure I’ve read somewhere, or Rural Fantasy? Hmm… seems a story with a big green tractor that’s been vexed by Brownies because the farmer’s wife forgot the milk saucer might work…

        1. And you two are withholding the name of it why? There may be some here who would be interested in trying a new author. I’m just sayin’…

          1. John Ringo’s Princess of Wands, and then Queen of Wands. Christian soccer mom with troubled marriage becomes paladin. I identified with Barb rather strongly while I was married. Sigh…

          2. That’s actually the series title: Confessions of a Demon-Slaying Soccer Mom. I really enjoyed the first few books (and so did my sister-in-law, who reads very little), but I’ve forgotten which I have and need to find them again.

    1. Cyn Bagley describes her writing as Rural Fantasy. More small town than truly rural, but unless your writing a survival against nature story it is hard to write something very interesting without quite a bit of interaction between people, and it is definitely not suburban, so I’ll let her stretch the definition of ‘rural.’ 😉

      1. Oh, now I really need to go look for hers. My work in progress involves a pixie fleeing through the Alaskan Bush (the whole write what you know part, there) with a reluctant fairy. So I guess it qualifies as, er, rural fantasy.

    2. Actually, if you delve into the mythology of the deep rural regions of many areas, you could probably very easily come up with Rural fantasy ideas. All you would have to do is flesh out some of the boogie men of the stories that old grannies used to tell children to scare them into behaving. You might borrow from some Amerind lore as well, and kind of meld them together.

        1. I LIVE around some of these people, so it comes naturally. The local YMCA camp has a story about an infertile couple going to a witch to get pregnant, and birthing a monster, who is supposed to now be roaming the woods terrorizing everyone she/it comes in contact with (when not eating them). They’ve been telling that story for over 40 years.

  2. “You expose yourself, on the page.”

    And then you try to find the people who are fascinated by that exposure, and would do it themselves – if they knew how, or if they were brave enough.

    It is a painful way to live – but, hey, someone’s got to do it, right? All I know is that a scene never takes life – or flight – until the writer gets into it, personally, obsessions and all.

    I love watching it happen – think Frank Herbert and Dune – where did that come from?

    I’m trying to learn to do it myself.

  3. I keep having PC impulses. “Must have some gay characters.” Next thing you know, I’ve got a spoiled rotten and very nasty Prince . . . “No wait! You can’t be the Bad Guy! You’re gay!” “You got a problem with that, Toots?”

    D*** it, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to go . . .

      1. I have never written a gay character, or at least one that was noticeably gay in the story. I have a character *I* know is a lesbian, but it is never mentioned in the story, and the fact that she at times plays a slut/hooker either to gain information or draw a target into an isolated area to assassinate him tends to obscure that even further.

    1. Glad I’m not the only one who runs into that. “Let’s see, are there too many Europeans? Well, maybe.” Start writing. Common sense stalks up. “Oh, come on! You know darn well that there are not that many people from the Third World with the knowledge and discipline to be in a unit like this one. This ain’t the UN, for Bog’s sake!” *Thwap!* “Write characters, not quotas.”

      I had a gay character inform me that no, he’s celibate and carrying a torch for the MC, thankyouverymuch. The gay character is over there, being discrete and professional. Hey, how should I know? I’m just the author.

  4. Exposing yourself on the page is a good way to put it. My current WIP is stalled because I’m afraid to write the next chapter. It’s gonna tear my heart out because it sort of mirrors an experience I had, but it sort of adds something I wish had happened but didn’t, but it’s gonna break my MC’s heart as well…

    Say what you want though, it’s definitely not second-hand.

    What drives me crazy though, is when authors recycle their own stuff add nauseum. I don’t want to mention any names but I’ve been following one author for about fifteen years now. Every POV character in his writing will at some time or other (and probably every other chapter) think to themselves “If [event] doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t that’s all.” I mean I’ve read that sentence (or some variation thereof) more times than most preschool teachers have read See Spot Run. It drives me nuts.

    1. Albert Payson Terhune (honk if you remember him):

      “But a collie down is not a collie beaten.”

      And he had A LOT of collie books…

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