Write What You Know?



“Bad books on writing   and thoughtless English professors solemnly tell beginners to

‘Write What You Know’,

which explains why so many   mediocre novels are about

English professors   contemplating adultery.”

~~Joe Haldeman

You hear this from many corners: Write what you know.

But – what is it that you KNOW?

If you take this literary, does that mean you can’t write about grief if you’ve never lost someone close to you? Does it mean you can’t write about betrayal if you’ve never been deceived?

I know a few writers who react to this statement in that way. So I ask (again): What is it that you KNOW?

“Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of   free time.”

~~ Howard Nemerov

Writers are naturally curious. Or that’s my impression from the hundreds I’ve met. Writers seem to love learning. Many have a wide range of life experiences. There’s nothing wrong with writing from your experiences. That’s a great start.

Many writers take their own experiences and expand those into new directions. Much advice is given to newbie writers about starting with your own experiences when creating your first stories. This is valuable advice.

One of the gifts that’s helpful to a writer is being able to put yourself into other situations and be able to make those emotional connections that one would feel in a given situation. Actors do this—well, the great one do. Writers can and do take advantage of this also.

“Most beginning writers – and I was the same – are like   chefs trying to cook great dishes that they’ve never tasted themselves. How   can you make a great – or even an adequate – bouillabaisse if you’ve never   had any? If you don’t really understand why people read mysteries – or   romances or literary novels or thrillers or whatever – then there’s no way in   the world you’re going to write one that anyone wants to publish. This is the   meaning of the well-known expression “Write what you know.”

~~ Daniel Quinn

The statement, write what you know, has been used so much that it has become cliché. And yes, it is open to many interpretations. What I’m suggesting is that writers try to see beyond the simplest meaning, whatever form that might take.

“You write what you know because—like   there’s another choice? The trick is to try and know as much as possible.”

~~ Lois McMaster Bujold

Some have explained the statement to mean what interests you or what you are passionate about. Whether you see this side of the meaning or not, writing what you’re passionate about helps to put fire into your words, and that tumbles down to impact your readers.

Don’t listen to anyone else, but look inside yourself to discover what ignites your own fires.

I’m not saying you should ignore the market. Every writer should understand what’s doing well in the genres he or she writes. But that doesn’t mean you have to write to those markets. (Repeat this last sentence at least three times.)

Sometimes publishers and agents are looking for what’s selling, but they are always looking for good stories, no matter if that’s a hot topic or not. And you never know—your story might be the one that will start the new hot trend.

“Creative   writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered   the words “Write what you know” is confined to a labor camp.   Please, talented scribblers, write what you don’t. The blind guy with the   funny little harp who composed The Iliad, how much combat do you think he   saw?”

~~ P. J. O’Rourke

Maybe you have something you NEED to say or write about. Something you feel strong enough about that you want others to experience this in some way. Writing from a need is similar to writing from your interests or passion.

The only caution I would give to those who write from a need is to make sure you don’t come across as preachy or like you’re giving a lecture. One of the primary functions of fiction is to entertain, and that what most readers are expecting.

“Don’t   write what you know—what you know may bore you, and thus bore your readers.   Write about what interests you—and interests you deeply—and your readers will

catch fire at your words.”

~~ Valerie Sherwood

Some have attributed the quote “write what you know” to Mark Twain or to William Faulkner. Twain also said “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

What you write about concerns people. What you write about are human emotions and the human condition. Even if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, this is still true. The connection you are building between story and reader needs to be an emotional one. In my opinion, my dear writer friends, this is writing what you know.

CHALLENGE: What’s your understanding of the quote “write what you know”?


Making Choices

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“Choices are the hinges of destiny.”

~~ Attributed to both Edwin Markham   and Pythagoras

Writing fiction, like life, is about making decisions. But before putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard, there’s a universe of possibilities. After defining what possibilities you’re working with in 2012, you have some choices to make.

This is a “tumbling down” effect. First you have your dream. You explore your possibilities. You make decisions based on your possibilities.

Many writers might next ask: How do I know which choices are the “right” ones for me? Instead of thinking in “right” and “wrong,” take a peek at what your intuition and muse are saying to you. Ask yourself: What possibilities am I most drawn to? You don’t have to be concerned about asking or answering WHY. Listen deep inside yourself and stay with the possibilities that you’re passionate about, ones that you can’t leave behind.

“The doors we open and close each day   decide the lives we live.”

~~ Flora Whittemore

Try using some of the tools you use to create stories in making choices about your possibilities. Explore each possibility as you would a story idea. What makes this an exciting or challenging possibility for you to work on during 2012?

What would your possibility look like if you created a storyboard or visual collage?

Think about what each possibility GIVES you. What does each TAKE from you?

Journal about each possibility and envision yourself in December 2012. Where has that possibility taken you and what have you done with it?

Brainstorm either alone or with friends, family, or your writing group. As the ideas and suggestions fly, what possibility or possibilities connect with you?

“Follow   your instincts. That’s where true wisdom manifests itself.”

~~   Oprah Winfrey

You learn from each choice you make, no matter if, looking back, it might have not been the smartest one you could have made.

Trust your intuition.

Follow and pick the possibilities that you find challenging. Ones that will fire your spirit and light your mind.

The possibilities that appeal to you, that you are drawn to, that your muse is pushing you toward are the “right” one at this time and place.

You only have to make a choice.

“In any moment of decision the   best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong   thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

~~ Theodore Roosevelt

CHALLENGE: Prioritize your list of possibilities. What’s the number one and two items that you want to achieve or begin to achieve in 2012? How did you come to these choices?





“A new baby is like the beginning of all things –



a dream of possibilities.”

~~ Eda J. Le Shan

Many of you might be thinking in terms of New Year’s Resolutions or setting goals for the coming year.

What I’m proposing is that you take a step back and first consider possibilities.

Think of possibility as life-giving oxygen for your dreams, as the light that helps you through the difficult times.

“Limitations live only in our minds. But if we use our   imaginations,

our possibilities become limitless.”

~~Jamie Paolineti

Possibility is like a blueprint for your vision and dreams. What amazing things are just around the corner in your mind?

Spend some time brainstorming, pondering, and journaling about YOUR possibilities… Think BIG. I dare you!

No matter how crazy the possibility write it down, tell a trusted friend, or say it out loud to your furry friend. Do all three, if you wish. Make it REAL in some physical form.

“The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act   and not react.”

~~ George Bernard Shaw

This is a journey in discovery. Do it…don’t wait. Today is a time to take action.

Keep a list of your possibilities with you this week, this month. Put the items in different order. Play with the possibilities on your list.

“Nothing limits achievement like small thinking;

nothing expands possibilities like

unleashed imagination.”

~~ William Arthur Ward

Once you’ve had a chance to breath in your possibilities, think about the small steps (baby steps) that take your possibilities from dream to reality.

CHALLENGE: What’s on your list?

Happy 2012! May each of you have a year of peace, joy, and fulfilled possibility.