From the Why i Write Tumblr
Asking a writer why they write is a strange question – it will often illicit a shrug or a nervous laugh. “Oh, it’s just what I do.” But digging deeper into that sentiment, I see that my own reasons for writing have to do with a desire to understand and articulate the world around me, and that I’ve been doing that for probably my entire life.
George Orwell wrote a famous essay called “Why I Write”, which was first published in Gangrel, in 1946. A lot of what he says will ring true for many writers, as it does for me. Orwell writes that, “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
I think, as writers (and artists in general), we feel compelled by the stories in our heads, whether those stories are of real people and events, or of completely fictional imaginings. There’s a sense of social responsibility, almost – that stories left untold will fade away into oblivion, and that this is a great tragedy that must be prevented at all costs.
But there is also an aspect of ego, too. Orwell acknowledges this in his essay, and I’ll acknowledge it here. I write because I believe I have something important to say, and that others might learn if they take the time to hear it. I write because I believe that life is bigger than just the sum of my experiences. I write because I desire a legacy the stretches beyond the frail walls of my own body.
Big Concepts and Trunked Novels
I’ve always written and told stories. As a child, most of my games were stories of some sort – whole imaginary worlds with rules unto themselves. I think in part, a lot of this had to do with wishing for a life that was more filled with things like friendship and adventure than it was. I was very definitely “the weird kid” and as I got older and that became more and more my ingrained social status, my stories grew even bolder, even more filled with the kind of things I wanted in my own life. My own worlds were a place where I could control the story. I could be the hero, instead of the victim.
Because of the types of books I read and programmes I watched, I think I’ve also always thought of stories in a kind of commercial way – with big concepts, series potential, sell-the-movie-rights. I’ve always imagined how my books would fit in a bookstore and where they’d sit in the library. I’ve never seen writing as art in the same way as, say, paintings hung in a gallery. To me, it has always been a viable and highly desirable career, one that I was always going to pursue alongside my other adventurous career choices.
One day, I was joking around with our old black cat, Benji, and I came up with this idea that he was a detective who solved crimes for other cats. I wrote a story about how he worked for the Alleyway Cat Detective Agency, and was called upon by a rich Persian cat named Miss. Priscilla Brouvier to find her stolen treasure, the Golden Catbiscuit. Benji followed a series of clues before eventually finding the cat biscuit and accidentally eating it.
I read the story in class and my teachers were quite impressed, not just by the length of the story, but of the complexity of the plot. I even wrote two sequels, one where Benji fled to Egypt to escape punishment for eating the cat biscuit, then found the missing Pharoah’s treasure stolen from the museum, and was a hero once more! And another where he was back at the Alleyway agency, solving the murder of a prominent dog politician with a shady history. I had plans for a whole series, a TV cartoon series, merchandise … the whole deal.
Next, when I was 10-11, the teacher gave everyone in the class a treasure map. We were told that we’d discovered this map in the attic of our school, and we had to create a story around its discovery and what we did afterward. I started work on an adventure tale of five kids who went to a far-off island in search of the treasure. I actually never handed in this assignment because the short story I was supposed to be writing had spanned into a fully-formed novel, the first part in an ongoing series. The story was mostly character-driven, following the teen-dramas of this group who didn’t always get on together as they fought monsters, survived on this island, and fell in and out of love. I never had a boyfriend, or a friendship like the ones in the book – it was pure wish-fullfillment – creating the group of mostly individuals I always wanted to go on adventures with.
I proceeded to work on this novel series through most of high school. I finished the first four novels, plotted ideas for 50+ books (clearly inspired by long-running series like Goosebumps and Sweet Valley) and had a significant chunk written of a few of the later books the interested me. even, at one point, sending the first book to a publisher, who sent me a (very nice) rejection letter in return.
The final couple of years of high school and most of university were taken up with writing and editing Paragon, a book about a top secret organisation who did something I didn’t know what it was (in hindsight, not a great way to write a book). Despite the obvious problems with this book, it was good enough to land me a pitch appointment with an editor at HarperCollins in my last year of university, and was the catalyst for me pursuing publication as a serious option.
The rest of the story is several years of back and forth with editors and agents, lots of, “you’re an awesome writer, but we can’t publish this book. Send us another one!” a book deal that fell through, and finally deciding to self-publish in 2013 – the best writing decision I ever made. I am still writing series books, although I no longer have the desire to produce a 50+ book story on anything at all.
What are my books Really About?
All fiction comes from an essence of fact, an essential nugget of universal truth. Without this truth, we wouldn’t have the need to devour stories. Larger-than-life characters and fantastical settings (whether they are made-up worlds, small English villages where murderers abound, or a marriage where your wife is a psychopath) allow us to explore real-world problems in a safe environment. Stories help us to understand and articulate the world and our place in it.
When I am thinking about an idea for what will become a story, it usually starts with the glimpse of a scene or setting with some characters in it, or a vague, overarching concept of the world. I talk about this a little in my blog post A peek into my writing process.
I like to use alternative worlds to explore human issues that are relevant in this world, both on a macro and micro level. When you read the Engine Ward series, you probably can’t help but notice the fact that I’m using the industrial world of this alternative London to explore themes like the impact of technology on the natural world, the way technology can disconnect people, the battle between religion and science, the nature of belief, what can happen when power is given to certain types of people, etc … I like the setting to be almost a character in itself, with a story of its own to tell and real problems to solve.
But a great setting doesn’t make a good book, and once I have a concept for the world, I start to think about the characters within it and the true, human story I want to tell. This is the micro-level, and the point at which the fictional world starts to cross into my own life and experiences. What is the journey these characters will go on? What is the theme I want them to explore?
At its heart, the Engine Ward series is about friendship. I wrote the first two books in this series because I wanted to explore the way loyalty to those you love can cloud your judgement – how you can be so certain of this person you know so intimately that you cannot see the reality until it is too late. How you could have helped, but didn’t, because you were paralysed by your love for them.
I’d recently gone through this exact situation with a friend, and it was playing on my mind a lot, and that emotional experience became the central focus of the relationships of Nicholas, Aaron, James and Isambard. In a fictional world, you can take these emotional experiences to extremes, and it’s a really fascinating way to kind of test your own real world responses and feelings. In The Sunken, Nicholas’ loyalty to Isambard blinds him to the changes in his friend, and in The Gauge War, you see the manifestations of those changes, and realise how different things might have been if Nicholas, Aaron and James had stood up to Isambard sooner.
I don’t have any inherently “evil” characters in my books, because I find the concept dull. Everyone, even the antagonists, have deep and profound motivations behind their actions, it’s these motivations that make writing about them so fascinating. I get to live inside their heads for a while – how cool is that?
Writing to Understand
Which brings me to the crux of the question of ‘why I write’. There are two reasons:
- I’m an adventurer at heart, and writing is about exploring new worlds and meeting fascinating people. When I write, I get to play through situations and explore places that I might never encounter in real life. I get to slay dragons and vanquish demons and fall in love a thousand times. Writing is adventuring on steroids.
- But I also write to understand. With the themes in my books, I try to use characters and plot to find a way to articulate my own experiences, partly so that I can help myself to become a better person, partly so that I can help others to survive difficult situations and understand themselves a bit better.
Writing the first draft of The Sunken/Gauge War (they were originally one book) helped me to better understand the situation I was going through with this friend, and to find a way to deal with it and with the guilt I felt over what had happened. The book is also about drawing together and understanding my own views on religion/science, technology/nature, and power/innovation. The third book in the series, Thorn, is something I wrote when my whole world was in a state of flux and I was trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. You can see the main character going through those same challenges while she struggles to figure out her place in the world.
In my next fantasy book (which is a completely new series) I’m writing to understand another set of emotions. It’s digging into some pretty dark places, but it is so, so good to be able to put some of those things on paper. I probably won’t have that book finished until early/mid next-year, but I think it will be one of the best things I’ve ever written.
I never feel as if I’m finished. As soon as I add THE END on to a story, I am itching to start the next. Every day I have new experiences, and I learn new things that I want to weave into stories. Every relationship is new fodder for characters and understanding the depth of the human experience.
I write because not writing would seem like giving up. And I am not a quitter.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this rambling exploration of the depths of my brain. If not, don’t worry, we’ll be back to our regular scheduled programming tomorrow. BTW, if you want to see all my articles about writing, you can click on my column Writing Runes.
If you haven’t read it yet, you can pick up The Sunken, my dark fantasy novel, on Amazon now!
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