It has always been a source of frustration to me, as a writer, that critics assume the only thing I know how to write about is whatever my last book was on. I’ve found, time and again, that if I write on something else, the first response by those who regard the new subject as their own personal possession is to deny my expertise in it.
It happened just a few weeks ago, in fact, though the critic should have known better as the topic was the very one I am formally trained in. I love irony. But the fact is that writers have to have a broad knowledge of a lot of subjects anyway.
That’s partly because one of the keys to longevity in this field is versatility.
But a broad knowledge is essential even when writing on a single subject. The world you’re building with your words – be it fiction, non-fiction or whatever – has to become real. Only then can you capture the reader and take them on the emotional journey which lies at the heart of all writing. All? All. Including non-fiction? Sure, but I’ll explore that in another post.
The real world is complex, deep, multi-faceted and huge; and to make a real setting for novel or any other writing, the author’s words have to contain more detail than just up-front subject matter, to give it the proper ring of authenticity. Which, in turn, means a lot of research into quite disparate things.
To me, that is ultimately what ‘worldbuilding’ means for authors. Writers who don’t have a wide knowledge in, over and around their main topic risk undermining their stories. Imagine an author writing on (say) an imaginary conspriacy to hide the Holy Grail. They brief themselves on the latest pop-alternate version of the Grail story. But they also have to research their story’s setting, otherwise they risk conflating different Paris railway stations which in reality are about 3 km apart, or having their characters drive down routes that are undriveable.
OK, yes, you know who I’m getting at, and yes, that author did end up richer than Croesus. But hey – look at the people lining up to point out the Research 101 epic fails. And the basic Writing 101 fails.
The onus, in short, is on the writer to be as well informed as possible, and about much more than the up-front topic.
But it goes further than that. Writing – by nature - demands many skills, ranging from knowing how to put the words together to the detaiils of story structure to understanding the necessary technologies to the publishing process to marketing. It brings together a lot of unrelated fields and the author, like it or not, ends up having to deal with all of them. That’s especially so in these self-publishing days where the author is also the producer.
The resulting skill set is astonishingly broad, which might make the author a ‘generalist’. But I think that under-rates writers. To me, ‘generalism’ is a specialty of its own, not least because the ‘generalist’ has to be a specialist in more than one topic. Isaac Asimov once explained that generalists see connections between fields that narrow specialists cannot. I agree.
It’s not a daunting prospect because writers who make a career of their calling find that all of this happens of itself, as they pursue opportunities. The word to describe this phenomenon, which I rather like, is polymath. And, as I say, writers usually end up so by default. It’s the nature of writing.
What do you figure? I’d love to hear from you about this one.
Oh – and quick pop quiz. Whose tagline from the 1990s was ‘I have many skills’?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012