I guess you know you’re a writer when you get punched in the face hard enough to lose some teeth and the first thought that enters your head is, ‘I can use this in a story.’
Well, maybe not the first thought. I think the first thought was, ‘Oh Jesus I’m gonna die here.’ Because at this point in my life I’m sixteen, and in a really notorious bar, and this guy is still hitting me in the face. Back then I was a bit of a brawler, some might say a troublemaker, but only amongst my peers. I think this is the first time I seriously thought I was going to get pounded into an early grave. I didn’t, obviously. Luckily he backed off – I had a fractured cheek and missing teeth, probably looked like I’d had enough – and cut me some slack, but it could have ended so differently.
I’m not even sure why I’m sharing this with you. I just quite liked that opening paragraph (even when writing blogs I’m trying to get the first line right). And yes, that incident has beaten its way into my writing ever since. It’s like that man hit me so hard the echoes are still rippling through my life. It got me thinking about that old chestnut – ‘write what you know’ – and how when I was younger I used to get really angry when people said it because I wanted to write about monsters and aliens and all kinds of stuff that I could never truly know. It took me a while to work out what they were actually saying.
Nowadays I write about monsters all the time. About gods and aliens, ghosts and demons, all kinds of stuff that is inherently unknowable. But at the heart of what I do are the truths of my own experience, the things I absolutely, conclusively know. This is especially true with my characters. Alex, in my Escape From Furnace series, is a teenage tearaway, a troublemaker like I was. I didn’t set out to write about myself, because by the time I started writing I was older, I wasn’t that guy any more. I started writing about this version of me who didn’t get pulled back on track like I had, who took a different path, who ended up being a proper criminal and sentenced to life in prison.
I knew Alex. I knew what his life was like. I knew how much he hated himself for the things he did, how much he wanted to be saved but resented the idea of anyone saving him. I knew how his first response to any threat, any criticism, was aggression, anger, violence. I knew that past the bluster was a streak of cowardice, an instinct to put himself before anyone else no matter what the consequences. Alex isn’t a good person when the story starts. And I guess I knew what that’s like too, not being good. It wasn’t easy looking back at that part of my life, about getting to know that version of myself again. But I think it’s why the book works. Nobody is 100% good, everybody has dark sides of themselves. Look at your own faults, past or present, be honest with yourself, share them with the people that you write about, write them as you know they really are. Your characters will feel so much more real to you, and to the reader too.
Because I was so honest with myself about who Alex was, the Furnace books became almost a bonding experience. It’s hard to explain, but I wasn’t looking down and writing about this guy, I was him. I knew that if he didn’t break out of Furnace, then I’d never truly come to terms with who I used to be, I’d never fully let myself heal. I would forever be the ghost in his cell, or he the ghost in mine. When I look back at the weeks where I was writing Furnace, I don’t remember anything from the real world, but I recall every sound and sight and smell from inside the prison. It was more real to me than my own life. That’s what ‘writing what you know’ is all about, I think. You take something of your own life, something that means so much to you, and you use it. It makes everything genuine.
It’s the same with The Fury. My favourite character in the book is Brick, a guy who has anger management issues. He wants nothing more than to be happy, to be accepted, but he won’t ever let anyone close. That comes from my teenage years too. I vividly remember the anger – anger at the world, anger at myself, anger at not being able to control anything. It’s a time in your life when everything changes, and it’s terrifying. Brick felt alive to me when I was writing The Fury because I knew his story. In so many ways it was mine too. His behaviour, his motivation, is real.
The great thing about writing what you know is that it gives you no place to hide. You’re forced to look at your past, at the defining moments in your life, the difficult times, the impossible times, the ones you thought you’d never escape from or would always be hiding from. You have to confront the versions of yourself that you don’t show the world, that you don’t even like to think about. But writing is power. Writing gives you control. When I finished the Furnace series I hadn’t just come to terms with that version of myself, that ‘Alex’, I loved him. We’d been through so much together that I knew why he’d been the person he was, why he’d done the things he’d done. The same with Brick, I understood why he – and I – had been so angry. And yes, by the end I loved him too. When you go to hell and back with somebody, how can you not?
Write what you know. Let your other selves step out into the light. Write them into a story and listen to what they have to say. It makes for incredible writing, because these are people you know inside out. Their decisions will seem real, because they are real. But in terms of your own life, too, it’s an exhilarating and liberating experience. It lets you know yourself, it lets you forgive yourself, it lets you heal. Nowadays I don’t look back at the difficult parts of my life and feel ashamed, or embarrassed. I look back and see the versions of me that might have gone on to do incredible things – break out of Furnace, or save the world. I know it’s just fiction, but there’s a truth there too, a very welcome one.
I just wish I could thank the guy who knocked out my teeth.
About the Author
Alexander Gordon Smith, 33, is best known as the author of the Escape From Furnace Series, made up of Lockdown, Solitary, Death Sentence, Fugitives and Execution.
His new series, The Fury, has just been released in the UK and comes out in the States in 2013.
He also wrote The Inventors - which was runner-up in the national Wow Factor Award - and The Inventors and the City of Stolen Souls, both of which were co-authored by his eleven-year-old brother Jamie.
He is the author of two creative writing handbooks, Inspired Creative Writing and Writing Bestselling Children's Books, a number of screenplays that are currently in development, several non-fiction books and hundreds of short stories and articles.
Gordon is the founder of Egg Box Publishing, an independent, non-profit imprint designed to publish and promote talented new writers and poets, and is the co-owner of Fear Driven Films, a production company filming its first feature in 2013.
He is also the founder of Inkling Studios, a brand new venture which specialises in creating books, films, television programmes and computer games for children and young adults. He actively encourages people of all ages to read and write, and runs creative writing talks and workshops across the world. In 2009 he was named by the Courvoisier Future 500 as one of the most promising young entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom.
He is called Gordon, rather than Alexander, because his Mum and Dad liked the name Gordon but didn't want his initials to spell GAS, so called him by his middle name.
Follow Gordon on Twitter
About the Book
Imagine if one day, without warning, the entire human race turns against you.
Every single person you meet becomes a bloodthirsty, mindless savage, hell-bent on killing you – and only you.
Friends, lovers, even your mum and dad, brothers and sisters – they will turn on you, and they will murder you.
And when they have, they will go back to their lives as if nothing has happened.
The world has the Fury.
It will not rest until you are dead.
Cal, Brick and Daisy are three ordinary teenagers whose lives suddenly take a terrifying turn for the worst. They begin to trigger a reaction in everybody they meet, one that makes friends and strangers alike turn rabid whenever they are close. One that makes people want to tear them to pieces
Cal and the other victims of the Fury – the ones that survive – manage to locate each other. But just when they think they have found a safe haven, a place to hide from the world, things get worse.
Some of them begin to change…
They must fight to uncover the truth about the Fury before it is too late.
But it is a truth that will destroy everything they know about life and death.
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