Monday, February 18, 2008

Writing What You Know

“Write what you know.” In my fifteen years of publishing experience, I must have heard that phrase millions of times. I can’t imagine how many times you authors have heard it. But what does it really mean? Does that mean that all mystery writers must have stumbled on a dead body and all romance writers have experienced happily ever after? Nope, not at all. It also doesn’t mean that fantasy writers have relationships with vampires, shape shifters, or demons. What it does mean is that you need to have experience with at least some aspects of your book. You need to know and understand your characters; in other words, often the characteristics of a character aren’t too far outside the author’s own experiences or personality (at least in some ways), and often we find that authors set books in their hometowns or home states (Tom Perrotta). Some authors give their characters a profession that matches their own (think Kathy Reichs), while others focus on writing nonfiction—memoirs, or self-help books that they have the platform to defend.

There is one aspect of writing what you know that seems to be frequently ignored, and interestingly enough this is probably the single most important piece of knowledge that every writer should have. And that’s genre. Whether you are writing memoir, literary fiction, romance, SF, or whatever, you need to know, understand, and like the genre to truly be successful. As an agent of commercial fiction I am very lucky that people like to regularly diminish what I do and the books I represent. I suspect anyone who’s not writing literary fiction understands what I’m talking about, and I suspect that even those writing literary fiction have experienced this a few times.

I regularly receive submissions from authors who tell me sheepishly that in a different time in life they were reading such-and-such genre and thought that they could easily write that genre, so here’s the book. And years ago I was attending a small writing conference where it seemed every attendee was working on their memoir. It wasn’t long before I developed one easy question to establish whether or not I felt that memoir might be worth considering, and that was whether the author read memoirs. Do you know that not one single writer was reading or had read memoirs? Sure, some had read one or two, haven’t we all? But no one was reading them to learn what a memoir really was.

Does this mean that because you have spent the last ten years reading historical romances you can only write historical romance? Not at all. I think it’s important for all authors to stretch their creativity and explore new genres and new directions. We wouldn’t be seeing some of the exciting things we’re seeing in publishing these days, like the merging of genres, if it weren’t for authors expanding what they know and taking it in new directions, but I do think all of these authors are students of the genres they are writing in. In other words, they read the genre. Maybe you thought you were writing a fantasy only to discover it reads more like a romance. If you haven’t been reading romance, you need to do that. You need to understand what the genre offers and, most important, what the agents, editors, and readers expect. That doesn’t mean you need to copy another’s work, and it certainly doesn’t mean any of these genres are formulaic, but readers gravitate toward a genre for a reason, and as a writer it’s your job to figure out why and what you will offer them that stretches that.

Jessica

41 comments:

Kalynne Pudner said...

This is priceless advice, Jessica; thank you. I've struggled with genre identification, assuming that a romantic relationship involving the protagonist makes a romance, or a heavy presence of make-believe creatures makes a fantasy. In fact, it's been years since I've read much of either.

There's something cathartic about recognizing one's own idiocy, isn't there?

December/Stacia said...

This is excellent advice, thank you so much for posting it!

Usman said...

Wonderful post, on how we must stretch our imagination and our creativity. At the same we need to understand what we are doing and why.

Flick said...

Oh how my husband wishes I was writing from experience in my erotic stories!

Vicki said...

This is a great post and advice that all writers need to understand.

I love to read many different genres, but that doesn't mean I can write all of them. For me, writing what you know also means doing my research and knowing my voice within a genre or not.

Anonymous said...

I'm taking 'write what you know' to mean 'relate to your experience'. I've never crashed my brother's ultra-light atmospheric glider, but I *have* crashed my mum's car (oops) and I know what it meant to me, and I can evoke similar memories in my readers if I get it right.

green_knight said...

Sorry. Should have signed my last comment - but blogger, in its infinite wisdom decided not to publishe under the Name/URL option

green_knight

Jennifer McKenzie said...

I did this and didn't even know it! LOL. I just figured that I LOVE to read romantic suspense, so that's what I'd write.
When aiming for a particular publisher/line, I've always been told to read authors in that line or publisher.
Seems simple, but it's easy to miss as you point out.

Julie Weathers said...

Jessica;

I agree completely.

That's one reason horses and history figure into my work frequently. These are things, which come naturally so it's one less thing I need to create.

Even though I am writing fantasy now, being familiar with medieval practices and military tactics helps. Strong military campaigns are timeless.

I think even drawing upon your emotions helps make the work real. When I'm going through a valley, I just remind myself it's all grist for the mill

Christine Fletcher said...

Great post, Jessica. I thought I was writing mainstream adult fiction. Turned out it was really YA. I was so ignorant, I didn't even know there's a YA section in bookstores. So, on the advice of my agent, I started a "crash course" in YA reading. LOVE IT! So much so, my second YA is coming out in April.

BTW, we get the same kind of dismissive comments: "When are you going to write for adults?" (ie, when are you going to write a real book?) Invariably spoken by someone who's never read the genre.

Mark Terry said...

I have something of a caveat here, though. My advice tends to be, "write what you're interested in," which may not necessarily be what you know... yet. That's why you do your research.

I've written a couple books about terrorists and yes, I do have a background in chemistry and biochemistry and microbiology, the type of terrorism I was writing about, but no, I am NOT a terrorist or know anything (although...), but I have talked to or met or corresponded with people who are experts on the subject as well as read books and blogs and articles on the subject.

So, although I don't have aspirations to become a terrorist (well, on most days), it is a subject I'm interested in.

And I'm interested in politics, and that's the focus of one of my recent books as well.

Aimless Writer said...

Great post. I think the term "write what you know" stymies some writers. Your post puts this more in perspective and frees some writers to let their imagination take over.
I read all genres. Some to intrigue, some to inspire and others to scare me silly.
But have I ever seen a dead body? Um, lets try again, Ever witnessed a murder? No. Do I write about it, yes. Set in NJ because when I send my character to the beach, I know how to get there.
Again, great post. I think you just set some imaginations free.
:)
Mark: I've read your books and think your vast background in chemistry gives you more insite into the possiblities of what terrorists playing with chemicals could do to us. It gives your book that "realism" that makes us believe. (and scares the pants off us!)

Kim Lionetti said...

I thought it might be enlightening for authors to know that it works the same way for aspiring editors. When I interviewed for my college internship at Berkley Publishing, I was excited to see that they had two of my favorite authors on their list: Nora Roberts and Dean Koontz. Unfortunately, when I brought this up in my interview they informed me that Dean Koontz had just left for another house. Oops! But I think the comment still helped me get a job there. It showed that I was reading the type of books they published.

Years later, when I was in the position of hiring assistants and interns, I would alway ask "What do you like to read?" It's a question every editor will ask a potential hire. I would say that 70% of the time the college graduates would say "Faulkner", "Tolstoy" or "Postmodern literature." They were looking to impress, but going about it the wrong way. It's important to know your audience. Research, research, research.

Anonymous said...

It's also very important for aspiring writers to know what it is that they think they want to write. I do workshops for this type of writer, and the variety of reasons that people want to write a book is mind-boggling, to put it mildly. All too often, they don't even know whether the book is fiction or non-fiction! Genre? What's that?

And then there's book length. Hah! I've had people tell me they've already 'written' the book or are nearly finished with it. When I ask how many words, you'd think I was speaking in a foreign language. I've had estimates of 20 pages, single-spaced, to 180,000 words, and it's not done yet! Whoa!

Sometimes, I find people who really can write, and have a decent plot to go with interesting characters. All too often, however, they have no concept of spelling, punctuation or grammar. A sentence? What's that?

Still--every now and then, there's a winner. Makes it all worthwhile.

booklady said...

I write romance but, not surprisingly, my husband does not. As I was kicking around ideas for a particular plot one day, my husband broke in. "I know!" he said. "You can make this romance really different! Have them *not* get together at the end. Or, even better, have one of them die. No one will predict that!" Needless to say I thanked him for his suggestions, and then proceeded to completely ignore them. He's welcome to write his own book in which such things happen, but it won't be a romance. Which is just fine with both of us.

Karen Duvall said...

When you write in genres where violence can and does happen, it's difficult to give a first hand account of how it feels to be shot or beat up or blown up if it never happened to you. But I think realism is key and getting that visceral response from readers brings it home. Which is why I interview victims of violence, but those aren't always easy to find, and those you do find may not be willing to discuss their experience with a stranger. So I bought this great little book from Paladin Press called "Lead Poisoning: 25 True Stories from the Wrong End of a Gun" by Chris Pfouts. Wow. It's fabulous for getting that nitty gritty edge into your characters' experience. The book is out of print and hard to find now, but you may find a copy on eBay. But I'll never give up mine. It's priceless. 8^)

Linnea said...

Interesting post. I guess I'm a rebel and although I've heard 'write what you know' for years it simply doesn't work for me. I love to read murder/mysteries but couldn't write one if my life depended on it. I write historical fiction and so I don't write what I know, I write what I learn. I have an insatiable taste for historical nonfiction and that feeds my desire to create.

J. M. Sabel said...

Great post, Jessica,

I think in many ways it's like being an actor. You bring a part of yourself to the character you're playing. You do research to create a believable character.

As a writer I bring a part of myself to each of my characters. The emotion in my books come from my experiences, the same way an actor's does when playing a role.

I create a believable story in the much same way. I do research to understand the period in which I'm writing and how my characters would act. Although a great deal of that research includes the time in which the characters lived, some of that research includes having read other books in the genre in which I write. It keeps me fresh and inspired.

But my creativity comes from dreams. Dreams I'm sure are influenced by what I have read and movies I've seen. But also being open to the universe. It's imperative that I am. I'm a historical, paranormal fantasy writer.

Diana said...

Thanks for this topic! When I took my first stab at my first manuscript, I tried to force it to be "literary." It was boring and ugly. I looked at those first 50 pages and thought, "I wouldn't read this. I hate this type of book! Why should I expect anyone else to read it?"

I reworked it into a romantic comedy and I'm MUCH happier with it.

Chumplet said...

I read and enjoy multiple genres. When I started writing a couple of years ago, I started with romance but who knows where I'll end up?

My life experience is varied, too. There's so much to draw from, the possibilities are endless.

This post reminds me of the line actors say during interviews: "Thanks for the Oscar, but what I really want to do is direct."

Anonymous said...

This post is spot-on. What so many writers fail to realize, however, is that anything you want to know, you can: RESEARCH.

A great place that is overlooked for research purposes are court rooms. Most are open to the public. If you have time to sit through a few days of a crminal trial, do it. It's fascinating. Even better, from my point of view, is misdemeanor court and drug court. It's a great way to people watch and get ideas for your characters....

Anonymous said...

Research is key. I'm a surgeon in my other life which has given me ample opportunity to see blood, guts, violence, etc. There are plenty of mysteries and thrillers that are positively cringe-worthy precisely because the descriptions of violence to a body or its aftermath are incorrect. This doesn't mean you need to hang out in the ER, but for God's sake, don't take your medical cues from "House" or "Gray's Anatomy."

J. M. Sabel said...

xyI agree with the post made by the surgeon. I have a masters degree in nursing. I cringe when I watch some of those medical shows. Do your own research, if you want to make your story believable.

J. M. Sabel said...

I don't know how the xy got into my post. Maybe it's a paranormal thing. LOL!

Mark Terry said...

Crack me up! My wife and I both used to work at a major metropolitan hospital and we both love "House" but it's got as much to do with real medicine as Star Trek has to do with NASA.

I just love patient rooms with glass walls! And physicians doing lab tests! Or any insurance-scared hospital keeping someone like Dr. House on staff!

Anonymous said...

And yet, patients ask if it's real...

Ana said...

I'd be interested in a list of "the masters" for each genre. I'm always worried that I've missed someone extraordinary.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to mystery/suspense,
I love some of the early ones, to see where the genre's been: Dashell Hammet, Raymond Chandler and John D MacDonald. And I've got a soft spot for George Higgins, mostly for his dialogue.
Speaking of (pardon the pun), the two others I like for using dialogue to show/don't tell a story are John O'hara and Ring Lardner.

Diana Castilleja said...

It was kind of funny. I wrote, and submitted, and didn't know until it was accepted that I wrote Romantic Suspense. I've since learned how to break the genre nuances down for my voice, and I love writing what inspires me... which means almost everything! LOL

Anonymous said...

I recall the phrase in an article that caught my eye one long ago day: “Pathology is a truth seeking business.” The most prolific statement I had read in years. Mind racing, shy but determined to contact him, my voice quavered as I left my name and contact information; I was equally exhilarated and terrified. Not only did he prove to be the most intelligent, kind, and soft-spoken man I have ever met, he was also—as luck would have it—as fascinated by my writing career as I was of his medical career. When he opened his personal library to me, to a storage of medical study that I would not otherwise have had access to, I knew I was entering into an amazing new world. If I respected him on my way in, I viewed him as a god on my way home.

One particular book (from which the mass of my research was acquired) had me crying for weeks. (A newborn with multiple stab wounds was by far the hardest.) But I learned; oh, did I learn. Not only did I absorb the information presented, but also found another mandatory aspect: resolve. The mindset required to confront, to shut down the part of one’s psyche that could not bear to look deeper, in order to see beyond the horror, and find clues…the “truths” he had spoken of. I would study a photo for hours then close the book to make notes. When I had gone as far as I could, I would read on to find out whether I was accurate. This research taught me well beyond images and education; it put me in the heart of my characters. All of them.

When the book was finished, he graciously read every page to ensure I had not failed. (I’m proud to say he found no errors!) His wisdom, his kindness, and efforts…As a writer, I shall remain eternally indebted to this great man and the work to which he has devoted his life and heart.

To those who are both (doctor) and writer, yours will be the books I seek first from the shelves.

…with the exception of my favorite: Dean Koontz, whose amazing talent and personality could not be hidden in pseudonym. Right down to his book dedications, he shines. May he live forever.

Angie Fox said...

LOL Diana. I know the feeling. I haven't been brave enough to attempt literary fiction, but I did try to write an overly serious book or two before I cut to the chase and let myself have fun with a light paranormal romance.

Chessie said...

Write what I know is an interesting crux for me. I write Romances that are far flung dark space adventures.

I found early on, I have to "know" my alien planets and cultures in a very real and detailed way before I can plot action in those settings.

In a way it is like historical research, but I have to dig the information out of my imagination, but I can't just make it up.

If I've got a creature that looks like a mix between a llama and a draft horse with long hair, it has to have evolved in an environment where every feature of the animal is a genetic advantage. So the microclimes and the animals that inhabit them have to be meticulous drawing on my own biology experience, and my cultural anthropology experience for the planetary cultures. Everything has to make logical sense to me, or I don't believe it.

I can't pawn anything off as, "Well they're just alien."

It's tough, but it is a lot of fun.

AmyB said...

Love this advice. I once wrote a story that really spoke to my heart, and I wasn't sure why, because on the surface it didn't seem to have much to do with me personally. When I finished the first draft and settled down to revise, I figured it out. The story was a rewriting, in metaphorical form, of a life-altering event from my own personal experience. And I didn't even realize it while I was writing.

Karen Duvall, thanks for the rec. I ordered a copy of that book.

Linda said...

I ran across a woman who was trying to get her romance published and not having any luck. While I'm not a romance reader, when she described the book, my first thought was that it sounded outdated. When I asked her further, it turned out that she had been having trouble getting published in another genre and figured romance would be a no-brainer. The last time she'd read a romance was in the 1980's. She had no idea how much it had changed since then.

It pays to read the latest releases.

Kelly said...

Right on! This is great advice.

I'd been working on a self-help psychology book proposal for some time, getting stuck on the comp titles section. I had to keep trekking to the bookstore and checking Amazon.com to figure out what the comp titles were. I didn't own any of them and I wasn't reading those types of books. I'd even buy some to read for comparison, but had little enthusiasm for them.

Then, I had a breakthrough moment -- I decided to scratch the proposed traditional self-help book format and go with a different mind-body format. Lo and behold, I had every comp title on my bookshelves, well-read and much-loved. I'm sure this was the right decision.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Misque Writer said...

BookLady wrote: "As I was kicking around ideas for a particular plot one day, my husband broke in. "I know!" he said. "You can make this romance really different! Have them *not* get together at the end."

You made me laugh out loud. My husband gives me the same kind of helpful advice and "surprise ending" ideas! :)

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