Writing: “How do I write fiction about things I haven’t experienced?”

Too many would-be writers allow themselves to be held back by ‘rules’ like ‘Write about what you know’.

If authors would only write about things they’ve experienced, there would be no science fiction; authors would only write from the perspective of characters of their own gender, race, and age or younger; there would be no books from the perspectives of rabbits (like Watership Down) or other animals; all books would be set in the same location the authors have lived in; all novels would feature contemporary times; et cetera.

I’m a white male in his late forties, married with two young children, and write suspense fiction about and/or from the perspectives of:

  • a Dutch white female freelance assassin, specialised in disguising homicide and close quarters combat
  • a Dutch white male blind jazz musician, strategist, and martial artist,
  • a Jamaican black male Rastarian session musician who grows cannabis,
  • an American white female DEA agent with a drinking problem,
  • an American black male DEA agent living in the Netherlands
  • a Colombian male DEA undercover agent,
  • a Dutch white male biker,
  • a Chinese blind man in his late seventies,
  • a Dutch female lesbian sculptor,
  • a Chinese deaf-mute enforcer for a triad,
  • a Japanese male Yakuza posing as a club owner and martial arts instructor,
  • a Japanese male undercover agent for the DEA,
  • a Canadian female professor of music,
  • a French party girl caught in a stifling marriage,
  • a Dutch legless biker running a bar,
  • a Dutch nomadic pickpocket caught in a web of lies,

And that is not all of my characters, just the major ones.

While I do write a lot of stuff from personal experience, I write about shooting guns while being fired at (I handled a variety of handguns at a shooting range, but I’ve only been shot at by Nerf guns); sustaining gunshot wounds and fleeing from the law; being blind and playing saxophone in a full jazz club; dying from drowning in my car at the hands of an assassin; dying from being stabbed in the throat and suffocating on my own blood; being a woman and having sex with a man; detonating a bomb in a parking lot across the water; being interrogated while spreadeagled naked on a bed and tied to the bedposts; being force-fed whisky while held motionless in a vacuum bed; et cetera.

I could go on, but it’s clear that most writers have to write about stuff they haven’t experienced in person. That’s why it’s called fiction. Writers imagine stories and make them as close to the truth as possible, and readers immerse themselves in stories that gives them experiences they could never have, on worlds that may or may not exist.

There’s a necessity on the part of the reader called ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’, where the reader will believe what the writer tells them, as long as the writer fills the story with the verisimilitude necessary to keep believing. The reader has never flown a dragon, but when the writer writes about the main character flying a dragon, the reader imagines themselves astride the broad neck, inhaling the dragon’s sooty exhalations, feeling the smooth scales under their buttocks, the wind rushing through their hair, and the exuberance of flying unprotected miles above the earth through cold clouds that leave a sheen of water pearls on their leather jacket.

But it’s a tough job getting readers to keep their disbelief suspended. One wrong word, one author intrusion, one mistake, and the whole illusion comes crashing down and the book gets tossed in the waste bin. That’s why good writers treated with such high regard for their ability to enthral with mere words.

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OPINION: Verisimilitude in Fiction, Redux.

As I mentioned in this article, I’m a stickler for verisimilitude. I found some discussion on the lack of realism in fiction, which is not the issue:

What many people are looking for in fiction is verisimilitude: the story has to ‘ring true’. Actions have to be believable. Behaviour has to be consistent. Actions need to have consequences.

It’s not the same as realism, as reality will have unbelievable action, inconsistent behaviour, and the consequences of actions are sometimes completely lacking or not in relation to the action.

Verisimilitude—like justice and honesty—is an idealistic concept: we think we know what the truth is, just as we think we know what justice is and think ourselves to be honest. However, truth is different for anyone; justice is an ideal that is rarely found in real life; and if you’re honest 24/7, you will be severely lonely.

Truth is relative, which is why it can be applied to fiction. If the author poses a kind of truth that is supported by the story, the reader will suspend their disbelief, trusting the author to deliver on their promise.

If the author fails to support the truth they pose, the story will become ‘unbelievable’ and reviewers will say the book isn’t ‘realistic’. That’s not the case: the author just didn’t manage to support the truths they posed in the story.

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WRITING: ‘What the hell is a blurb?’ or pitching your book

From a discussion on writing blurbs (also known as the pitch), I’d like to share some of my ideas on a ‘formula’ for writing a pitch.

The difficulty with writing a pitch is that most novelist have trouble figuring out how to ‘sell’ their book. I’m taking the blurb of my novel Reprobate as an example on how write a pitch:

First things first, the blurb is not a synopsis of the book, but the blurb has to provide incentive for the reader to read the book.

What is also useful if you write the blurb like a pitch, with three different stages:

Stage one, the elevator pitch: Describe your book in one sentence, preferably less than could be spoken in one short breath. For example: Hungry white shark terrorizes beach community. Lone undercover cop battles terrorists in highrise office building.

Stage two, the story pitch: Try to tell, as succinctly as possible, what happens in the first part of the book that sets up what will happen next.

Stage three, the promise: This book is X genre and part of a series. The author is a gynecologist and therefore qualified to write about this subject. This book is highly recommended for easily excitable readers with short attention spans.

If your three stages work well, the first stage poses a question that is answered in the second stage with another question that is explained in the third stage.

My ABNA pitch (in 2010) for Reprobate was:

REPROBATE is the first novel in a series featuring female commercial assassin Katla Sieltjes, a specialist in making homicide appear as ‘deaths without suspicious circumstances’. The setting of the story is the Netherlands, in particular Amsterdam.

Blessed with an almost non-existent conscience Katla Sieltjes views assassination as an intricate and rewarding occupation. Hidden behind her alias Loki, Katla receives anonymous assignments, negotiates the terms with principals through electronic means, all to protect her identity.

Resigned to remain single for the duration of her career Katla meets the enigmatic blind musician Bram Merleyn when he enters the gallery where Katla has just killed the owner. Deciding that the blind man won’t make a reliable witness, Katla spares his life. After stalking the blind man to gain information whether he is truly harmless, an opportunity presents itself for a new introduction and Katla becomes intimate with Bram who is unaware of her real occupation. While the relationship between Bram and Katla blossoms and starts to affect both their lives, the suspense mounts to exciting heights as Katla accepts a difficult high-risk assignment from an unreliable principal – not only her possible exposition and fragile relationship with Bram are at stake, but her very life is in peril as Katla scrambles to get back to zero.

Through the developing romance between Katla and Bram, and their interaction with a supporting cast of unusual characters, the reader gains insight in the business of a commercial assassin as well as detailed knowledge about the life of session musicians; local information about the famous Dutch capital; the narcotics trade; motorcycle gangs; mehndi bridal tattoos; martial arts; and the brutal effectiveness of disciplined violence.

The strength of REPROBATE lies in authentic details and psychological depth of the characters, mixed with fast-paced action and a realistic plot.

My final description for Reprobate follows my formula, but uses text from the pitch:

Assassin Katla breaks her own rules when confronted with an unusual witness…

Blessed with an almost non-existent conscience, Katla Sieltjes, expert in disguising homicide, views assassination as an intricate and rewarding occupation. Hidden behind her male alter ego Loki, Katla receives anonymous assignments, negotiates the terms with clients through electronic means, all to protect her identity. Her solitary existence satisfies her until she meets a blind musician whose failure to notice a ‘closed’ sign causes him to wander in on Katla’s crime scene. And Katla breaks one of her most important rules—never leave a living witness.

Reprobate is the first novel in the Amsterdam Assassin Series. With authentic details and fast-paced action, featuring an uncompromising heroine and a supporting cast of unusual characters, Reprobate gives a rare glimpse in the local Dutch culture, information on the famous Dutch capital, the narcotics trade, computer hacking, motorcycle gangs, mehndi bridal tattoos, martial arts, the psychology of social engineering, and the brutal effectiveness of disciplined violence.

This e-book features a glossary.

You can see the repeated elements. And it’s a lot shorter, because pitches to agents are 150 words max, while ABNA pitches are (were?) 300 words max.

Analyzing your pitch/blurb:

Take the first part of the blurb from Reprobate:

Blessed with an almost non-existent conscience, Katla Sieltjes, expert in disguising homicide, views assassination as an intricate and rewarding occupation. Hidden behind her male alter ego Loki, Katla receives anonymous assignments, negotiates the terms with clients through electronic means, all to protect her identity. Her solitary existence satisfies her until she meets a blind musician whose failure to notice a ‘closed’ sign causes him to wander in on Katla’s crime scene. And Katla breaks one of her most important rules—never leave a living witness.

If you analyze this blurb, you see:
Who is the protagonist? Freelance assassin Katla Sieltjes, who considers herself ‘blessed’ by being unburdened by a conscience. So she kills without remorse, which is not a common trait in a protagonist.
What does the protagonist do (what is the status quo? She lives a solitary life, apparently enjoys killing for profit, and takes great pains to remain anonymous
What is the conflict that changes the status quo? A blind man walks into her crime scene, and Katla breaks her own rules and spares his life. And Katla becomes dissatisfied with her solitary existence.

That ‘conflict’ happens in the first of fifty chapters. So, you don’t need to ‘tell the whole story’. Just give a reader enough that they may think, ‘hey, this might be interesting’.

The second part of the blurb is:

Reprobate is the first novel in the Amsterdam Assassin Series. With authentic details and fast-paced action, featuring an uncompromising heroine and a supporting cast of unusual characters, Reprobate gives a rare glimpse in the local Dutch culture, information on the famous Dutch capital, the narcotics trade, motorcycle gangs, mehndi bridal tattoos, martial arts, computer hacking, the art of social engineering, and the brutal effectiveness of disciplined violence.

The second part is the ‘promise’. What can the reader expect? The first book in a series (so if they like it, there is more), the heroine is unusual (a remorseless killer is often the antagonist, but rarely the protagonist), and she’s not the only unusual character.
Amsterdam is famous all over the world, but the blurb offers a rare glimpse in the local culture and information on a host of other topics, which may or may not be unknown/interesting to the reader. And it contains brutal violence (so the reader won’t think it’s chick-lit and complain about the violent bits).

What the blurb doesn’t do is tell what happens after Katla breaks her rule. Breaking rules is always a risk, and the reader can figure out that there’ll be consequences. Only, to know the consequences, they’ll have to read the book.

If you apply the analysis to your own blurb, see if you can figure out what you’re telling and what not.

Other articles on writing blurbs:

Four Easy Steps to an Irresistible Book Blurb.

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Painkillers Put My Writing On Hold For A Moment…

I’m not writing at the moment. Which is strange for me, because I’m always writing and always having fun with writing. However, I have problems concentrating on my fiction when my life is a mess.

November 22th, around midnight, just as I was about to go to bed after a long day, I got abdominal pains. At first I thought it was indigestion, but the pain got worse and worse, and I couldn’t find any position to ease the pain. Sitting, standing, lying down, nothing worked. And the pain got worse, like a hot poker stabbing the left side of my back.

I’m not unfamiliar with pain, even excruciating pain, but this was worse. This wasn’t a sharp pain for a moment, but an enduring sharp pain that I couldn’t ignore. I swallowed paracetomol and diclofenac and those painkillers did exactly nothing. Standing bent over under a hot shower eased the pain somewhat, but it was three in the morning and I couldn’t sleep in the bathroom stall under a pulsing spray.

My wife woke up at half past five when she heard me downstairs, crying and moaning as I sat on the toilet with a bowl on my lap to throw up while I had diarrhea. I was pale and sweating, close to passing out from the pain. And I still didn’t know what was going on.

We went to the hospital an hour later, with our sleepy children in tow because we couldn’t find a sitter on Saturday morning. I had to give a urine sample, which had blood in it, and my blood glucose was spiking at 10.6, so they told me I probably had Diabetes type 2.

Great, but I was still in pain. Moving about seemed to give me some relief, but I was unsteady and delirious. They took me to the emergency wing, where I was put in a bed and examined. It was there that I learned that my pain was probably the result of a kidney stone.

As the pain suddenly diminished, the consensus among the doctors were that the stone had shifted and no longer blocked the urethra, so I could go home. I could come back when the stone blocked my urethra again.

I asked what we were supposed to do about the stone? ‘Drink lots of water and orange juice to flush your kidneys’, was the only advice. I got more diclofenac and a brochure and was sent packing. At home I could finally sleep, but I felt like I had been stomped in the back with steel-nosed boots.

Over the week the pain slowly lessened. The Monday after the weekend of pain I had my blood tested again for glucose, but it had dropped to 7, so I didn’t have Diabetes type 2. Which was a relief.

Monday, December 30th, the pressure in my back began to build again. I called on my physician, but the first moment I could have my kidneys scanned with ultrasound and x-ray was the next Friday. So my New Year’s Day was pretty much spoiled by stomach cramps and nausea. At Friday morning the ultrasound showed that my left kidney was swollen, filled with urine and blood, so they also took two x-rays of my kidneys and bladder.

I called my physician in the afternoon, but they were clearly too busy with other patients, so finally I got a message that they had taken a cursory look at the X-rays and report from Radiology, but they’d have a referral letter for Urology ready for me the next Monday.

So I suffered through another mostly sleepless weekend, called the hospital on Monday and made an appointment for Tuesday at eleven. With no immediate need for the referral letter, I stayed at home and went to my physician Tuesday at ten to get my referral letter.

The referral letter had not been made yet, my physician wanted my urine to check for blood and… The sleep deprivation and pain took its toll and I cursed her for wanting to do more tests and reneging on her word that the referral letter would be ready. Due to my anger she referred me to her younger colleague to write me the referral letter.

In the office with the younger colleague, I found out a few things. A) I should’ve been taking my diclofenac with two paracetomols, that would have increased the effectiveness of the diclofenac and diminished my pain, and B) when I told her I had been drinking three liters of water a day, as per advice of my physician, she told me I should’ve stopped drinking more than absolutely needed when the pain began…

I got my referral and at Urology they told me that my six-millimeter kidney stone was an average size and their usual advice was pain management for a month. However, since my left kidney was swollen with fluids (because I had followed my physician’s advice to drink three liters of water per day), they deemed the kidney stone an urgent case for removal. So I got an appointment for early the next morning when they were going to break up the stone by using ESWL (Extracorporeal Shock Wave Lithotripsy). In the meantime, they prescribed Tramadol, an opiate to reduce the pain so I could finally get some sleep.

At eight the next morning I rode my bicycle back to the hospital for the ESWL treatment.

The process for ESWL is: You lie on a water-filled cushion, and the surgeon uses X-rays or ultrasound tests to precisely locate the stone. High-energy sound waves pass through your body without injuring it and break the stone into small pieces. These small pieces move through the urinary tract and out of the body more easily than a large stone.

I would receive three thousand high energy sound waves, which feel like someone is whacking your lower back with a small hammer. The intensity of the whacks is increased in increments, from 1 (the least painful intensity) to 6 (the most painful intensity). The first few increments were easy, and while the pulses became more painful, I easily managed the last thousand pulses at the highest intensity. The nurse who handled the ESWL was pleased with reaching level 6, since most people can’t handle anything above level 4 or 5.

My wife drove me to another hospital, where I visited an orthopedic expert for recurring pain in my wrist (caused by an irritated tendon in my wrist), and afterward I could take public transport back to the first hospital to retrieve my bicycle and cycle home. Three hours later the pain increased and I was retching, pale and sweating again, close to passing out. At half past eight in the evening we asked a neighbor to sit in our house in case the children woke up and rushed back to the ER at the hospital.

At the hospital I got an IV drip with Diclofenac and Fentanyl, which took away aaaallll my pain. I drowsily answered their questions, but while the pain had been extreme, I could expect some pain when I’d be flushing out the crushed kidney stone. When the fentanyl drip was empty, the pain returned, and they gave me three doses of morphine, but the morphine only diminished the pain somewhat without removing it altogether, like the Fentanyl.

Still, there was not much they could do, and my pain was not harmful, so I was sent home again. So that’s the situation I’m currently in. I feel ‘okay’ most of the time and the rest I’m between cramps and outright pain.

Next Wednesday the urologist will check my kidneys for progress and determine whether I need more ESWL treatments. Meanwhile the drugs make me drowsy, so I put my fiction writing on hold until that pesky stone has left my body.

I hope to resume writing on the Amsterdam Assassin Series and my stand-alone novel In Pocket by the end of next week. In the meantime I will rest and read when I’m not too dizzy, so if you have anything you want me to read, this would be a good time. Although I’m pretty sure I’ll be too cantankerous to write positive reviews…

Edit:  So, the CT scan found six stone fragments forming a queue in my urethra and Wednesday February 12th I went into the hospital to have them removed. Thankfully under complete anesthetic, they inserted tubes through my male organ to reach the bladder, where they burrowed through the urethra to the left kidney, crushing every stone they found with lasers and flushing them out, leaving a JJ shunt between the kidney and the bladder to prevent the urethra from collapsing as it healed.

I woke up after the operation with an IV drip and a catheter that continuously gave me the urge to urinate. After a drug-induced sleep between Wednesday and Thursday, both IV and catheter were removed and I was discharged. I felt fine until the drugs wore off, then I felt extremely violated…

Since I’d been too stoned to pay attention, I missed the part about the drugs I needed to take at home, so I spent Friday in increasing bouts of severe abdominal cramps and went back to the hospital on Saturday, where they told me (haha), I should’ve gone to the pharmacy to pick up my Oxybutinine, which would relax my abdominal muscles and at the same time make me too stoned to concentrate on even the most mundane tasks.

It’s Wednesday the 19th now and I’ve been stoned 24/7 and not by choice. It’s no fun taking drugs when you’re not allowed to relax and go with the flow. Instead I have to concentrate getting through the day taking care of my children… Well, two more weeks and they’ll remove the JJ shunt and I’d be able to stop taking drugs…

UPDATE:

March 5th my JJ shunt came out. The procedure should be relatively painless. First they put some numbing gel on your genitals, then a hollow tube with a light and camera goes inside and through the hollow tube goes a flexible snake with pliers at the end that grab the shunt and pull it out.

The problem is that the JJ shunt has two curls on either end, so there’s some resistance as the pliers pull on the shunt as the upper curl (in the kidney) uncurls and straightens so it can pass through the urethra. Got that picture? Good.

I could follow through a monitor as the camera inched closer to the curl in my bladder. The pliers opened and after some maneuvering the pliers closed on the end of the curl and started pulling it toward the camera tube. Then the slippery shunt escaped the pliers and sprung back.

I can tell you right now, that doesn’t feel good at all.

Second attempt, and the shunt is almost at the camera tube when the beak of the pliers let go and the shunt sprang back. Like someone uses your innards like a slinky. Spooooinggg.

Then I lost my cool and snapped at the assistant, “Can you hold tight on the damn thing?”

She excused herself and the third attempt went fine, the JJ shunt slithering out of my body like a reluctantly evicted squatter. They asked if they should throw the JJ shunt away, but I had them lock the bastard into a specimen bottle so I’d have something to gloat over.

So now I could stop with the drugs and get some clarity again. Should help with going back to writing fiction again!

JJ Shunt