Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Writing Advice: Write What You Know

Is it a bit presumptuous for a largely unestablished writer to be giving advice?  Maybe.  My publishing credits are a bit thin, after all, and none of my books have seen their way into an editor's hands yet.  But I still feel, like many other fine writers before me, that I have something to say on the topic of craft -- so, if you'll indulge me, I'd like to spend a few posts discussing common bits of writing advice and how I personally implement them.

I'll start with one of the cardinal rules of writing, "Write What You Know".  This is one of those rules that is so often ignored or railed against by so many authors.  "I write fantasy!" they wail.  "My book takes place in a distant universe inhabited by flying spaghetti monsters, but I sell life insurance.  How can I possibly write what I know?  What I know is really boring!"

Well, an obvious solution would of course be to write a story about a star-traveling life insurance salesman who stumbles into a spaghetti-monster-infested world -- which, now that I think about it, sounds pretty fun.

But that's not really the point of "write what you know". 

The real meat of the advice has less to do with factual knowledge, and more to do with emotional truth.  Writing what you know means digging deep inside yourself and tapping in to your life's experiences to find perfect little nuggets of emotion which you can then use to write something compelling.  Writing what you know is what makes your characters stand up on the page and walk and talk and breathe like real humans; it's what makes your writing unique and interesting. 

You can tell writers who don't write what they know because their characters feel flat and the description is trite or full of cliches.  Writers who try to write about what they don't know end up basing their narrative on TV shows they've seen or reference books they've read, and the story loses some of its heart and soul in the process. 

Practical examples are in order, here. 

In my story "Angelfish", about a woman who has to come to terms with her past by helping a child cope with the death of a pet, I spend a lot of time revealing backstory where we see that her father died, her husband left her, and she is unable to conceive children of her own.  All of this could become remarkably Lifetime Movie Network very, very easily -- but I avoid that pitfall (at least, I sure hope I do) by using some of my own life experience to give flavor to Amber's experience:

"I didn’t realize my own father was dying until weeks before the end, even though he’d been slowly deteriorating for years. Years I’d spent lazy afternoons playing pool at the youth center, years I’d spent learning how to macramé at summer camp. I remember being called home one summer, just before I turned fifteen, pulled out of dinner by my councilor and driven into town so I could be picked up by my aunt; I remember having been talking to a boy, nameless and faceless now, whose conversation had been the most important thing in my life just then, when I had to leave. I remember being so angry when we got to the hospital; who gave my father the right to ruin my vacation by dying? I’d known he was sick, but he’d been sick for so long, into remission, out of remission, better days, worse days—it was like a lifestyle, not a disease. I learned that day that death happens on its own watch, unpredictable, unstoppable; there’s an insurmountable gap between dying and dead."

Having had the experience myself of being sent to a summer camp to get me out of the way while a family member was seriously ill (although no one died in my case), I was able to give Amber's narrative some authenticity.  And though I'm not necessarily proud to admit it, I also know something about illness as lifestyle, so it was easy to relate to her emotions here.  That's writing what you know.

The devil is in the details, as they say.  Your characters might be on a distant planet, they might not even be human -- but they'll feel emotion, and it's exceptionally difficult, maybe even impossible, to write an emotion you have never felt. It doesn't have to be identical, of course.  You don't have to have experienced a murderous rage in order to write from the POV of a killer.  But it sure does help to have some idea of how it might feel to escape all the arbitrary rules of society...to cut loose and act on primal, animal instinct...to live a simpler life of survival and struggle.  If you've ever been frustrated at work and felt the urge to through various office supplies across the room, you can probably find a way to tap into that emotion, channel it, warp it, and find the murderous rage you're looking for.

And this all leads to another very important piece of advice that so often gets overlooked.  In fact, I'm not sure I've ever actually seen any writer say this before, so I'm saying it now.  If you want to become a successful writer, you have to do three things:
1.) Write a lot
2.) Read a lot
3.) Experience as much as you can

It's #3 that gets forgotten about, but it's imperative.  The more experiences you can gather in your life, the more strange or interesting or heartbreaking or enlightening moments you live through, the more things you can mine for story fodder.  Go out into the world.  Fall in love.  Get in trouble.  Break your heart, break your leg.  Accidentally catch a trash can on fire outside of the British Museum with a cigarette when you're studying abroad.

...Ok, I might have done that last one.

But you have my permission -- no, my direct order -- to get out from behind the desk and poke your head out into the scary world.  Because if the only thing you know about human inteaction and emotional truth is whatever you've read or seen on TV, you'll never be able to write well enough to touch anyone's life.

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