Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On writing what you know

There is a piece of advice often given to new writers that goes like this: "Write what you know".

Does this make you feel limited? Probably so, as you're wondering just what you know well enough to write about anyway.
Any less daunted? Not really, as you don't know yet how to construct a book properly because you haven't yet done it so how do you know about any of it anyway.
Wondering if you know anything well enough? Probably.
Feeling suddenly stupid and worthless? Likely.

Oh, the self defeating thoughts do go on, don't they. It is just one of those things humans are particularly good at. 

But having such thoughts isn't something you should ignore Just as the advice of writing what you know isn't something you should ignore. Your self defeatist attitude is just another piece of writing fodder so store it away and look into yourself for what else you've experienced.

What you know from the very start that can be used to write a book will be a list something like this:

  • You know yourself enough to know you want to give writing a go. 
  • You know you friends and family enough to deal with them (I say deal as not everyone gets along fabulously).
  • You know the animals around you enough to deal with them too. 
  • You know your history.
  • You know pain, love, fear, desire, logic and a lack of logic, the complexity of life, hunger, greed... etc.
  • You know how people normally react in certain situations.
  • You know basically what rules of the universe can and can't be broken.
  • You know beauty and ugliness.
  • You know what it feels like to dream and to wake. 
  • You know what it is to be a victim.
  • You know what it is to be a winner.
  • You know what it is to be adventurous or foolhardy, to take risks on a whim and ignore advice.
  • You know the balance between bravery and terror, between self-defeatism and rebellion, love and hate.
Again, the list could go on. And it doesn't even include any of the skills you've built up over your years of studying and life experience. When appreciating the advice of write what you know always start at the foundations of what it is to be human. If you remember that you are constructing humans or understandable beings out of words then you should be able to get started in constructing characters.

Also, don't forget that you don't have to write exactly the circumstances you experienced to gain any of this knowledge. As with most fictional writing, it is that you express these emotions through your characters and express your understanding of the world that is important. Not the grounded realism of the event or circumstance. Readers want to look into the soul and mind, not read a list of this happened and then that happened.

So everything you've ever experienced is fodder. Make your characters do whatever they need, move about on their own logic (not the narrator's or yours), see the world through their own ideas with their own mental restrictions. And you can do it because you know what it is to be blinkered and not know everything that is going on around you. You should be able to construct an appealing character just by applying these vulnerabilities.

If you don't know or understand yourself and others in this way then writing isn't your art. There are other arts out there, other crafts and ways to be creative that will likely suit you better and make you happier than slogging away at making your characters real when you can't grasp enough information to base them on. All value in creativity does not lie in writing, in fact it might be far more useful to humanity as a whole to be creative in math or science.

The reason why this advice is so useful to those starting out is it doesn't just advise you on character construction but also world construction and on genre. This is the bit that involves your skills and knowledge, the bit that had you feeling quite miserable.

If you have absolutely zip of an idea about basic science then please, whatever you do, do not try to write science fiction unless you are completely prepared to learn a lot through research and apply it. Without adequate scientific knowledge your world construction will not be believable enough for the avid fans of the genre. If you cannot imagine fantasy scenes in other people's works and dislike the illogical flights of fancy then please do not write fantasy as in fantasy you will have to explore in-depth all that you didn't understand and dislike. Your dislike and inability to connect will transfer through to the tone of the text and destroy all the good work you put into it.

Writing what you know in terms of skills doesn't just mean write on what you have studied well but also write on what you appreciate and understand. Usually, you will find an indication of your interests in the types of books you read. Now, not everyone reads only one or two genres. Sometimes a reader reads multiple genres.

I myself have read and continue to read from these:
  • Fiction
  • Literature
  • Horror
  • Fantasy
  • Science Fiction
  • Biography
  • History
  • Historical Fiction
  • Alternate History
  • Crime
  • True Crime
  • Mystery
  • Popular Science
  • Comedy/Humour
  • Comics
  • Manga
  • Plays
  • Poetry
  • Romance
  • Classics
  • Theses
  • Journals
You probably now understand the problem I faced when deciding which genre I should write in. But to jump start you ahead of where I was, look at the books you have collected. Which ones are your favourites? Which ones do you understand the most with regards to back stories, genre trends, plot devices and character construction? Which type of book have you collected above all the others?

For me it ended up being fantasy, science fiction and horror with a fair smattering of crime, true crime, mystery and popular science. So what else was there for it but to chuck them all in a blender along with bits and pieces of a few others and see what came out?

The only problem you will face when writing a book without a distinct genre is that many publishers won't know what to do with it. But you can still write it and hope a publisher will pick it up. One way to encourage a publisher to pick up your work is to make sure you directly and unwaveringly target a specific audience. Don't write while you are unsure of how it will sell or read if you want it to be bought and read by the masses of readers out there. Do if you don't mind taking the time to test yourself and cut your teeth on something, saleable or not.

If you only come up with one or two genres to pick from with regards to your favourites and most collected then you should find it easy to start writing. An audience is already out there that appreciates just plain crime, romance or horror, for example. There are also pre-prepared audiences for paranormal romance (fantasy combined with romance), science fiction and fantasy blends, science fiction or fantasy combined with crime and so on. Between two genres most blends have been successfully explored and sold so an addition to these shouldn't be hard to sell to a publisher as long as it is appealing and well written. 

Side note: Don't blame the publisher for their not picking up your work as they run a business based on continual high-stakes gambling and will generally only pick those books they believe will give them a good return on their investment. They won't publish just anything in hope of a sale. As with most forms of gambling there are methods to make sure you come out even or on top and these methods are applied by publishers, and not just through pickiness. It is up to you to provide them with a fantastic piece that's also saleable.

As to world construction, familiarity with not only a subject but with what it is to be human should allow you to build a complex world for your complex characters. To start out the world is best constructed from your knowledge on a subject, whether you gathered it recently through research or through years of study and experience. Just as your characters become the most life-like and appealing if they reflect your own experiences. Genre is easily governed by the world you've constructed through knowledge and preferences even if you cannot pick which genre to approach before constructing a world.

From here, the writing, editing, submitting, rejection, rejection, rejection and possibly finally acceptance falls on you. It isn't anyone else's fault what you write, how acceptable it is, if it is unaccepted, if it is but doesn't sell well or anything else. It is yours (unless the publisher is one of those dodgy ones designed to take an author's money and do little else - yes there are dodgy little companies out there so watch out). But the good thing is that even if you fail you can dust yourself off and keep on going to find success, as long as you haven't managed to offend everyone about you in the process of being rejected. So be nice and keep writing.


  1. I remember getting the old "write what you know" speech very often when I was younger I remember thinking that kind of advice did me little good. I was as uninteresting as anyone could get. It never occurred to me until much later that "what I know" actually amounts amounts to the sum of my experiences, dreams and understanding of people.

    I started writing Space Opera-maybe in tune with the notion that if what I "know" isn't worth writing about, I'd write about what I don't know... well, this kind of folly wasn't an entirely bad thing since it lead me on quite an interesting journey.

    Your post is good advice, especially for those who would give up for not realizing that everything they need To Write already exists inside them.

    1. Thank you :)
      I too went on an awkward trip into supernatural crime before learning what I was comfortable writing. It was just because I chose an almost right genre rather than the right one. I’m much happier with how I’m writing and what I’m writing now than ever so I think I’ve found my stride.
      It is a sad thing when a prospective writer gets discouraged and quits before following through with their dream. Especially after hearing advice that is always given with good intentions but can be a little overwhelming at times.