On Friday I posed the question: Write what you know; good or bad advice? I invited Enchanted Spark readers to comment so I could post the replies on Sunday. I got four great answers. I’ll add my thoughts at the bottom. Here they are:
I’m always back and forth on this idea, because I feel it can go both ways.
I prefer saying “write what you love” because when a writer creates something they are passionate about, it tends come through on the page. However, I often hear the advice to “read as much as you can in the particular subgenre you want to write” – implying to write what you know – but I find sometimes this has a negative effect and creates more of a derivative work than an original idea.
Personally, I like taking some from both pots – what I know and what I don’t. Writing what I know gives the project confidence and passion, while including elements that need research tends to brings a sense of “newness” to the idea.
I think write what you know is pretty good advice but I’d fine tune it to write what you like because there is always research. Of course, where sci-fi and fantasy come in, nobody really knows that stuff, it’s whatever you dream up. Sci-fi, though, has to sound feasible.
I agree with a lot that was just said. I see it as a two pronged form of advice. Write what you know keeps one from sounding like a fool. But it is also a reminder that what is familiar and enjoyed is much easier to get on a page.
But the call to write what you know should never scare anyone away from branching out into any genre that might interest them. The level of research an author is prepared to pour into a project is not a direct correlation to its success. It might only determine where it might get shelved in a bookstore.
Say an author plans to use Mark Twain as a character in a fiction story. An expert on Twain can likely craft a historical fiction full of intricate details of his life. An alternate history or historical fantasy can take a very detailed knowledge of Twain but change some the situations of his biography and free themselves from the finer nuances of his history. But then there are stories that rely more on the character of Twain that he has become in popular culture, and an author with less research can place him in a straight up fantasy. Each story would require the author to “Know” Twain, but the comfort of that knowledge can create very different and still successful books. And in every case the reader would likely be comfortable they are reading about Mark Twain.
We can leave it to the few esoteric scholars to complain that Twain would not address Merlin in such a manner as he does in your story, but then you didn’t write Twain-upon-Avon for them anyway. Write what you know: A good story.
“Write what you know” is good advice, but not a rule to follow blindly or exclusively. (An art teacher once taught me to learn the rules and then break them. I think this works here too.)
We’re more likely to put our passion and personalities in something we know. For me, the words flow more easily. The words have more life. And I don’t run as much risk of having written a piece where readers think, “wow, what an idiot, that author knows nothing about xyz.”
When writing fantasy or science fiction, such as a story about dragons, I think the rule can still apply. Writers can (and maybe should) have some idea of what else is out there even if the topic isn’t factual or realistic. One can write what one knows about dragons from other stories but also what one knows in one’s heart.
At a certain point, a writer should bring something new. We don’t want to read the same stories over and over again (at least not too similar anyway). Research brings new topics to life and new life into old topics.
The problem I have with the advice is when it comes to publishing. I feel people say “write what you know” with a certain amount of smugness like that’s the golden key to being published. But what if what you know or love is something a million other writers are sending to editors and agents? What if you’re writing vampire stories at the tale end of the vampire fad because you love vampires and that’s all you want to write? Agents and editors are tired of vampires so your story will most likely be past over.
Or worse, what if what you love is something no one else loves? I think satyrs are pretty interesting mythological characters, and I have a satyr story I can’t sell to save my life. I realize the first few incarnations of the story were terrible, but as I honed it, it became one of those “We like it, but it’s not what we’re publishing now” stories. Satyrs aren’t a thing. But I really love that character I created.
I find myself constantly torn between what I want to write and what I think other people want to read. It’s a very tricky balance.
I’m not even sure how to respond to this. There are definitely days I don’t push through and I wallow in self-pity. Then, there are days I am thankful for all I have accomplished and I work through it. I imagine even those who are successful have the same motivational issues. It’s just plain hard to sit down and write. Sometimes, even when I have an idea to write about, I don’t want to write. I’d rather do almost anything than write (read, watch tv, facebook, go out and play in the snow, yeah, right!, or even twiddle my thumbs) In the long run, we just have to make a decision to do it, whether we’re into it or not. It’s all about looking at the long term goals. Do we want to be an author who can be taken seriously? Or do we just want to be mediocre all our lives?
Just like we shouldn’t directly compare our writing to another author, we should definitely avoid comparing paystubs. When the dumptruck of money arrives in my driveway some day, I will be pleasantly surprised, but it is not an expectation.
With my current project I have had up and down weeks and scrapped my beginning after letting a group of strangers shred it on the internet. To cheer myself up I read those stories that did work, that people enjoyed and told me they enjoyed them, be they family, friends, betas, or professors. You got this far with some encouragement, hang on to that and push forward. We want to read what you write next.
Other than checking emails or looking up a date/fact, I try to stay off the internet until I’m done my writing goals. Otherwise, I always seem to come across something negative that depresses me and affects my goals for the day. On the days I’m not so self-disciplined and I do get depressed from the internet, I tend to switch over to other writerly things that need to be done outside of actual writing (getting caught up on emails, updating my website, things like that).
Ooh, I like Holly’s advice to stay off the Internet until she’s done with her writing goals.
I’m like Dave, above, in that the money part of it isn’t even a factor in my writing right now. Those numbers are really pretty good sounding. I’d like to make some money writing. It would definitely feel good. Lord knows I could use it, but TIME is my biggest challenge. I still need my day job, so with everything else that needs to get done time is limited.
After pushing and pushing in November to blog every day and also work on my story, I still found my total word count to be a little depressing. It was a lot better than I had been doing, but still paltry compared to “real writers.” At this rate I’ll finish a novel in about three to five years. Haha. I don’t want to wallow in self-doubt but I am going to wallow from time to time.
So to keep going (which I am trying to do right now) I find the following helpful: A.) Don’t spend too much time comparing myself to anybody else. This is in total agreement with Holly’s advice. Just set goals and meet goals and then do other stuff. B.) No matter how much of a struggle it is right now. It can get better. I can get better. I can learn more about how it all works. I can make the most of what I write. The only way it won’t happen is if I stop. Breaks are going to happen, but no stopping!
Yoda says, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
As far as getting writing done, there really is “do or do not.” You either do it or you won’t. Just write. As far as success goes, there should always be, “try.” Keep trying and keep trying and keep trying. Because failure has almost always been part of success, so try you must. Always.
What made me keep working this time was the blizzard on the East Coast. Julie had everything for the episode edited except for the last part I was still writing. I knew she’d be shoveling snow and the power might go out, and she wouldn’t be able to edit if I didn’t get it to her before Friday morning. So after a bit of boo-hoo I got back to work. I’m so glad I did because it means we’re publishing the first release of the New Year on time! I’m only one away from my sales goal for the month, so all the sales of Episode 5 will be cream…as long as I didn’t make readers mad with Episode 4 😀
But other times when I don’t have a natural disaster looming, I turn to humor. My current favorite inspiration is below. NSFW!!!!!