There’s a particular piece of writing advice that got under my skin early on in my writing ‘career’:
Write what you know.
I have gone through stages of agreeing and disagreeing with this statement, but ultimately, the spirit of this tenet wins out. After all, readers will only read your book, will fall in love with your book, if there is an element of truth in it. Not necessarily Truth with a capital T, but truth in the sense that what you’ve written is convincing enough to pull them in and keep them in your book. And to be convincing you have to, in a sense, write what you know.
My early stories were all directly lifted from or in response to things that were going in my life. I wasn’t very creative; my main characters were author avatars, and the people around me and their actions served as inspiration for secondary characters and rough subplots.
I quickly became bored with writing these stories. Though I am of the belief that every experience, from the mundane to the singular, holds the potential for inspiring a new story, there are only so many stories you can write about making banana pancakes before your mind craves something new.
As a young and aspiring author, I’ve had a hard time accepting the idea that I should write what I know since, honestly, I don’t know much. After all, I’m only twenty-five. And I’m impatient. I don’t want to wait around until I have enough Life Experience Points in order to start writing, but neither do I want to burn myself out trying to gather up experiences like they’re Easter eggs and I have to find all of them before they start to rot and reek to high Heaven.
In my experience, an Easter egg hunt has never been fun. And an Easter egg hunt is not writing.
Instead, a much more useful piece of writing advice came when I took a Creative Writing class while studying abroad in Sydney during my junior year of college. The writer Nakkiah Lui visited our class, and during her talk she gave us a variation on the theme:
Write what scares you.
If you’ve written drama but have never written comedy, write comedy. If you’ve written romance but have never written horror, write horror. It even goes into different forms: if you’ve never written poetry, write poetry; if you’ve never written a play, write a play.
In addition to giving you more writing practice (something every writer needs), writing what scares you also allows you to expand your horizons, allows you to gain life experience even if you’ve never experienced these events yourself. By putting your best effort to produce good writing in areas outside of your expertise, you’ll gain Life Experience Points and get better at writing.
There are a million more ways I could break down the advice to write what scares you, but I’ll end this way:
As a young writer, I feel strange talking about writing and giving advice, even on this blog, an ostensibly personal space in a public arena. But in my limited experience, a healthy amount of fear is a good indication that I’m going in the direction of something worthwhile. It might not result in a publication, or even in a story that I can show to anyone while I’m alive, but it results in something, that will lead to something else, that will lead to something else, that will lead to something I can be proud of. But I never would have gotten there if I didn’t go in the direction of my fears.
So what’s a writing fear you’ve been working on conquering lately? Let me know in the comments!
This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.
25 thoughts on “Author Toolbox Blog Hop: On youth and inexperience”
I’ve struggled with the write what you know piece of advice as well. Ultimately, I think it boils down to what you can communicate, whether that comes from experience or observation. Nice post!
Write what you can communicate is definitely another piece of the general theme of “Write what you…” advice. As long as it’s all convincing, people can write pretty much anything! 🙂
I think the crux of the argument in write what you know is to use real life experience to get readers to identify with a character and see part of themselves in them. Possibly essential in psychological thriller genres as it is that association that invokes mental attachment. You can also gain a plethora of character information by people watching in different environments. Early morning coffee shops at filled with people from parents that have just dropped off kids after the school run to the elderly. Each if these contributes to writing if you watch the behaviour; it might be relief the kids are out of the way for a few hours, sadness as an elderly man is now having coffee alone. Similarly commuters on trains often behave in patterns of isolation; the smartphone news feed, a paper or book to avoid engaging with other commuters. This is likely to be entirely different to how they behave off the train, or on the return journey if the office has been for a lunch time drink. In fact everywhere you ever go is loaded with information to draw into characters to capture the reader in a semblance of identification….hmm, ramble alert!
Reading is also important too; as King says if you are not an avid reader then writing is likely to be flat and based on what you think rather than seeing what others do and learning from it. It helps you find that elusive voice.
Fear is also healthy, providing it doesn’t paralyse us. I am filled with trepidation when I post my own writing because a blog is an open public space where comments can flow from strangers. However, learning from good comments (positive or negative) is invaluable to improve. I say good comments because there is a mantra in writing feedback;
“Good ‘negative’ feedback is better than bad ‘positive’ feedback.”
Good post and excellent for a discussion 🙂
Thanks so much for your comment! (And for rambling! I love rambling!) I agree with you that the advice to “write what you know” was probably meant to be more a guideline to creating a convincing story rather than a cut-and-dry “write only what YOU have experienced personally,” which is how I characterize it in this post. Observation and reading are important ways of gaining information and details that can bring a story to life.
I do have some trouble with voice, and it’s only really recently that I’ve started reading with voice and point of view in mind. Reading widely also means that I can avoid cliches in my genre.
Thanks again for a great comment! I appreciate it 🙂
Ha-ha, you should not have said that! I often end up writing potential blog posts in comments! In fact I saw it somewhere that if a comment goes over three sentences then you have clearly enough to say to create a post. Although so far this one would just be gibber jabber!
Voice is a tough one to just latch onto. I feel there are two ways; one is lucky and the writing just suddenly takes on it’s style and the voice flows though it; the other is where the writer is trying to find their path. Maybe not in the zone or preferred natural genre. That one takes more time and perseverance methinks.
I remember my very first story. I have yet to edit the book; but I loathed the starting two paragraphs. On the third one the style suddenly changed and I was no longer thinking about what I was writing, but just doing it. I believe that was when my narrative voice began speaking.
I was one asked too (going back to experience) how can you write about a graveyard at night if you don’t go and sit in them. I know graveyards, I know the night too, but the fundamental thing that turns “Oh its a graveyard at night” into “I really don’t want to be there” is imagination. In my case a mind palace (old system made infamous in a fairly recent Sherlock Holmes movie). You actually enter the scene and live there. I find that’s when my characters really flow and I feel like a biographer rather than a novelist. If you people watch well then you have no need to worry about mannerisms as they naturally take hold… as for genres…I cross them all the time too. Not sure its old school “correct” to do so, but if that is the path the story takes, then as in real life, that’s where it goes.
Obviously just my humble opinion 🙂
Hello fellow young writer! I’ve always taken “Write what you know” to be more about emotional truths than anything literally, since there are things like alternate world scifi and fantasy (which is what I write). Write what scares you is definitely good advice too.
Hello to you, fellow young writer! I agree that the “Write what you know” advice was probably meant to be more abstract that simply “Write what you have experienced directly,” especially when it comes to more genre fiction. I guess it just always frustrated me because I still feel like a lack of experience works against me, so I’d much rather throw myself into the unknown rather than try and gather up as many knowns before starting. But! Different strokes for different folks 🙂
Hi! I think that’s great advice. Doing anything that scares you leads to good things. 🙂
What’s that quotation? “Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear?” I see it on social media all the time 🙂
To “write what scares you” had led me to writing in different genres and enjoying shorter forms – it also created stories I could share on different writing platforms (check out my authortoolbox post about that for more info). And by combining “write what you know” and “write what scares you” I have to completely rewrite my YA trilogy – but it’s a lot better story for it.
“Write what you know” can be tricky advice to follow, but it can add a lot of emotional depth to our characters for no-one experiences things the same. Besides, if we only write what we know in a literal sense, all stories would be about doing laundry and cleaning house while thinking about murdering Charming in so many creative ways 😉
I think part of what we know naturally plays out as we write. Our background and experience contribute to our characters and their experiences. I do very much agree with writing what scares you. For me, their is a careful balance though as I want to make sure my writing sounds and reads genuinely. Great post!
Write what scares you is excellent advice. Maybe that’s why I write romance? LOL I am not a young writer, per se, but I am new to writing seriously so I am, sort of. It feels like there is so much to learn. I think write what you know is advice that should be taken in very small bites as you expand what you know, by reading, living, learning and dreaming.
You know, I loved the flow of this post, its honesty – it gripped me and made it my own. And in all truth, these feelings are what I can commiserate with because I have been there, am there still. I loved the advice from Lui, which is so sooo relevant and I advocate it myself.
But also what helps with “write what you know” is research. My first completed novel (as in, first draft finished and uploaded on my blog and currently working on the editing) is set in Texas, in a ranching community. I love the country and I love cowboys, so I wrote about a cowgirl because, you know, sister-solidarity. But the thing is, I have never been on an American ranch and my Texan accent is a wholehearted attempt with a half-brained result. But I had a story, so I studied. The internet is a wonderful place, full of primary and secondary resources.
Circling back to Lui’s advice, here’s my addendum: Never be afraid of writing about things you DON’T know.
Because once you overcome your nerves, in the word’s of Victor Melling, “You will wear the crown, be the crown! You are the crown!”
Writing what scares you and writing what you know doesn’t need to be contradictory advice. Writing what you know stems from the need to make writing sound and feel authentic. As a fantasy writer, this means that no matter how much magic is in a scene, the characters should still feel like real people. Their thoughts, feelings, and reactions should remain true to life.
Writing what scares you refers to pushing your own comfort level and expanding your boundaries. This goes deeper than just picking an unfamiliar setting or genre. Writing what scares you is about finding your own limits, writing more emotionally powerful scenes, writing characters that go deeper into their demons, or even taking on themes that might be contraversial.
I’d like to add write what you love. As we all spend many hours writing and rewriting novels, I think it’s important to write about something you love. I live in a ski resort, and my first 3 novels take place in a ski resort. I lived on a sailboat for a while, and my upcoming novel takes place on sailboat. So, I know about skiing and sailing, but I also love the activities and that helps me keep motivated.
Thanks for sharing today. It’s alway good to think about these things and question them.
I like “write what scares you,” and what Kristina said, “Write what you love.” Also maybe, “write what you have access to learn,” and, “write something that challenges you,” because otherwise, as you say, it can get boring. 🙂
What scares me? What I’m doing now is out there. A mystery mixed with sci-fi. Never been here before in a novel. The sky’s the limit in this one.
Anna from elements of emaginette
I have always said don’t just write what you know, but write what you want to know and what you care about. If there is something you want to experience but haven’t, research it and sometimes that research ends up forcing yourself to do it (if possible.)
Being young can feel like it’s working against you, but as a fellow youngster (29 is still young… 🙂 at least to me,) it just means you have more time to become the writer you have always wanted to be.
Love the advice to write what scares you—because what scares you and what you make of the challenge is uniquely yours and will have tremendous power and energy in it –you’re also sure to learn tons along the way, too!
Writing what we know can be as simple as learning something new through research. There are no barriers but the ones we apply to ourselves.
Anna from elements of emaginette
Such good advice! One of the future works I have planned for is based on two ideas that scare me, both nightmare What-If scenarios regarding my children. Funny thing is, that story is the one I’m currently most ready to write. We spend so much time thinking about and planning for what scares us that those stories practically write themselves.
Write what you want to know about.
My next book is a total departure from my usual fantasy, paranormal path. It’s a WWII thriller and the only romance is through love letters. I’m not sure how to write it, but it’s been inside me for two years, maturing and waiting for the right time. I guess the right time is now.
For me “Write what you know” has always been about the emotional core of a thing. I’ve never learned swordplay or most of the things my characters in fantasyland know/do, but I DO understand love, heartbreak, grief, and loss. Those are the experiences I’m drawing on.
Of course, there’s also the variant “Write what you WANT to know”, which I absolutely love.