“Writing What Speaks to You”
by Jay Wilburn
We’re supposed to write what we know. All my stories would be about being a teacher, stocking shelves at a Wal-Mart, cooking at Waffle House, or watching Internet porn. I’d have no alien or zombie stories unless it was about a teacher being abducted or eaten. In most of my teacher stories, the principal ends up dying. I’m sure there is nothing to that though.
To be fair, that advice mainly refers to using what you know to fill out the believable sections of your story to make the extraordinary seem more grounded. It means to not overlook the stuff you do know as good pieces for story. If you live in a small, Southern town, consider writing your hardboiled crime novel set there instead of a more traditional city setting you’ve never visited. If you don’t know anything about police procedure, you can research, interview, and extrapolate. Or you can pull the story into the lives of the cop’s quirky Southern family which you do have extensive knowledge of. We each have corresponding equivalents to these setting, job, and environment elements that can serve a story in ways that all the outside research in the world may not touch on in the same visceral way. The details you know how to communicate from having your hands and teeth on it for a number of years dig down into a readers heart in a different way.
Better than writing what we know may be writing what we feel. This could still be writing what you know, but I think it goes to a bone level knowledge. Writing about pain, loss, or what you fear is more powerful than extrapolating those feelings from the outside. Those feelings can be overlaid on other situations or lives in a story in a way that convinces the reader that the characters are feeling something real and bigger than the flat page.
This can then be taken to writing what you actually care about. I taught elementary and middle school for a combined sixteen years before taking the leap to being a full time writer. Teaching kids to write is a monumental task. Beyond the nuts and bolts of letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs is getting to any level of content. Then, it was back to words, sentences, and paragraphs formed in any intelligible way. I’d spend forever pulling any level of substance out of them, then we edit, then we revise, and then we rewrite, then we repeat, and then we publish by stapling their one or two paragraphs of contrived writing on the bulletin board. Or I could make them mad about something and they would write me angry volumes that we just had to organize into sentences and paragraphs.
The same is still largely true of adult writers of every stripe. The trick as adult, professional, fiction writers is to write about what we care about in a subtle way that does not come off as preaching a sermon. Unless you are actually writing a sermon, but even then subtlety and the art of building a strong argument serve well too.
I started out writing about zombies. I actually started as a kid writing crappy fantasy and sci fi knock off stories on notebook paper that I seldom finished and never let anyone read. My pro career started with zombies. My first check for writing read in the memo line “PAYMENT FOR ZOMBIES.” Those still may be some of the most beautiful words in the English language. I still rank I Love You very highly, but Payment For Zombies is very special to me on an individual, personal level.
I moved away from zombies as my writing career progressed. I had no shame in them and jumped on writing a story about them every time an opportunity presented itself. I was just looking for other work and other tones to my voice. In the process, I think my zombie stories got better and started getting more attention. I started using tricks from other genre’s tool boxes and created better and more creative stories in every genre I explored.
“Dead Song” came out of that wild exploration. The short story is a weird, little anti story that drew some serious attention. I took another look at it and decided there was a lot of untold story behind it. I very quickly discovered that there were connections in the tale that I had not considered. I started book one of the Dead Song Legend thinking the whole epic tale would be one, stand-alone novel. After the first couple chapters, I thought I was dealing with a trilogy. After a couple more chapters, I stopped again and outlined out the entire span of the Legend, if I were to tell it in its entirety and I came up with twelve books.
I finished and published book one along with the five song soundtrack. Both are linked below.
The book deals with drag queens, zombies, music, family lost, family chosen, and identity. Tiny Jones is a gay man that ends up with multiple identities he chooses for himself or that are partially chosen for him. Almost every character in the story goes by a stage name – an apocalypse name. They all have different reasons for hiding or reinventing their identities. Identity is what we share with people about ourselves, but it is also what we hide.
The relationship between Tiny and Satch in the story represents every relationship from family to friends to more. They reveal and hide. They push and pull. They are stronger and weaker together. Their lives and relationship impact the lives and relationships around them. They deal with a world that in some cases has stripped away problems around race and sexual orientation because of a focus on survival. In other cases, the thin, social parameters that held some of those prejudices in check have been stripped away and they are more raw and less confined. Through it all, they find life between the music people still write, play, sing, and perform when they want to do more than just survive.
All of these issues speak to me as a writer, as a reader, and just as a person. The Dead Song Legend is the story that speaks to me. It is the story that sings to me.
Check out the latest book and music from a new series by Jay Wilburn:
The Dead Song Legend Dodecology Book 1: January from Milwaukee to Muscle Shoals –
The Sound May Suffer – Songs from the Dead Song Legend Book 1: January –
Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in Conway, South Carolina near the Atlantic coast of the southern United States. He taught public school for sixteen years before becoming a full time writer. He is the author of the Dead Song Legend Dodecology and the music of the five song soundtrack recorded as if by the characters within the world of the novel The Sound May Suffer. Follow his many dark thoughts on Twitter @AmongTheZombies, his Facebook author page, and at JayWilburn.com
© Jay Wilburn. All rights reserved.