Back in college, when I took an intro-level creative writing class, the professor offered a bit of insight which I think bears repeating: a writer’s goal should be to make the familiar strange, and make the strange familiar.
The back half of this really resonated with me at the time, because I’ve always been deeply embedded in the speculative genre end of things. It seemed to me that this was a useful yardstick for determining the appeal of any given science fiction or fantasy story outside of the most obsessive self-proclaimed devotees. Case in point: the Millennium Falcon. It’s a completely invented piece of futuristic transportation technology, a YT-1300F light freighter armed with laser cannons and capable of faster-than-light movement, all of which is so far outside the sphere of lived human experience that it is, by definition, not relatable. But it is also dirty, and gets made fun of for being ugly, and it has a tendency to break down at the most inopportune times, all of which is highly relatable. The point being, it’s all well and good to be imaginative in filling a story with never-before-seen people, places and things, which is in fact the draw of speculative fiction for most fans. But it also helps to provide some kind of recognizable facet of those fantastic elements.
Later, in another creative writing class, one of my fellow students submitted a story for workshopping which was about a superhero trying to solve a crime committed at a comic book convention. This was circa 1994 or 1995, long before the mainstreaming of those things. And on the one hand I understood where my fellow student was coming from, taking two different things he was interested in and mashing them up for maximum crazy. But to anyone not already well-versed in comic-con culture or superhero tropes, the story was borderline incomprehensible. And I thought back to my previous instructor’s advice and wished my fellow student had adhered to it, either using more familiar police procedural elements to dig into the weirdness of comic-cons, or a more accessible setting for a mutant powered protagonist.
That first writing professor wasn’t even talking about genre fiction when giving the advice, though. Her intention was to address frames of reference in realistic, literary fiction. A writer should be able to describe anything in such a way that the reader can make a connection. Whether writing autobiography from the perspective of an ethnic or religious minority, or writing historical fiction, or writing about the quirks of a highly specialized professional discipline, the ideas should not be so self-contained and self-referential that an outsider is baffled by them. In other words, the self-reflexive question a writer asks should not be “Can I or should I write about this subject? Will anyone else understand it?” but rather “How can I write about this subject so that everyone will understand it?”
The flip side took me a little longer to wrap my head around, but was probably the lesson I needed more. Everyone is at least passingly familiar with the old admonition to “write what you know”, but I’ve often felt as though that advice put me in an impossible situation. I am a cis-het white dude which means that my perspective on life is the default perspective of 95% of literature. I am American, and America has historically dominated pop culture, with a particular fixation on New York City, which was where my dad worked while he and my mom raised kids in nearby middle-class New Jersey. If I wrote exclusively about what I knew, I would be treading the same well-covered territory that countless other writers had gotten to first.
But that’s the trick, of course: write about what you know, but if what you know is overly familiar either due to true universality or popcult oversaturation, then make the familiar strange again. Write about it in a way that’s never been done before. Compare and contrast it to something less common, something not at all obvious.
And it’s important to note that this is good advice at both the micro and macro level. An entire novel about a boy and his dog had better have some fresh perspective to it to validate its own existence. But even a crazy pulpy story crossing over various subgenres can stumble by ignoring the suggestion even for a moment.
I am thinking of a specific novel I once read, which I’m not going to call out by name because (a) that’s not the point and (b) at the end of the day, whatever sins the author committed in writing the book, he still has multiple novels published compared to my zero, so dragging him by name would be highly petty. Still, I will always remember encountering one particular passage in the book where the protagonist fell overboard, sank underwater and had to swim safely to the surface. The author, in order to convey the time it took to reach the air above and also emphasize the physicality of the effort, described … swimming. In purely mechanical terms using very flat prose.
It bothered me for a couple of reasons. On one level I felt like it was an insult to my intelligence. I know how to swim, I know the coordination of limb movements entailed in the word ‘swim’ and I am reasonably sure that even someone who can’t swim understands what it means, so to be told explicitly that a swimming character raised an arm overhead and pulled it back through the water to create forward propulsion seemed condescending at best.
But on another level it struck me as a wasted opportunity, the blandest possible way to progress (or pad out) the narrative. Even if I had no idea how swimming worked, the rote description of it was still boring. It provided no character insight to the protagonist. It added nothing to the mood of the scene. It was the familiar remaining doggedly familiar. Different language, a strange yet well-deployed metaphor, a triggered ironic memory or an unexpected development, any of those could have elevated the material. It was just one paragraph out of an entire novel, but it’s the part that sticks out in my memory most prominently all the same.