Writing Advice #6: Write What You Know (Kinda)

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog on MySpace devoted to writing advice for teens. Over time, it evolved into a general blog on writing advice for everyone. I blathered on and on, answered questions, etc. Since then, I’ve pointed people to that blog when they’ve sent me questions on writing, but I know that MySpace isn’t always the most, uh, reliable repository for such things. Plus, if you’re not on MySpace, you can read the blogs, but you can’t comment on them.

So once a week (probably on Wednesdays), I’ll be reprinting my writing advice blogs here on barrylyga.com. I’ll go through and edit them a little bit, too, and I might make some merges/changes, so they won’t be exactly like they were on MySpace, but they’ll hopefully still be helpful to people who are interested.

Here we go!


Hello again, everyone! Another week, another blog.

Before I get started, I want to apologize in advance — I’m going to make references to The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl and Boy Toy in this blog. I try to keep my books out of the Writing Advice columns because I’m trying to help people, not sell books to them! But my books serve as a good illustration to this week’s topic, so I’m going to discuss them a tiny bit. if you find that pushy, well, sorry. No one says you have to buy either of them. (If you want to read them, but don’t want to put money in my pocket, go to your local library. That’ll teach me.)

Anyway. This week, we’re going to talk a little bit about that old canard “Write what you know.” This is, often, one of the very first things young writers are told and often it leads to moments of complete terror and panic.

“But… But I want to write about the rebels of Zyrus V and their ongoing struggle against the tyrannical Debrifiv Empire, an interstellar despotic realm ruled with an iron fist by a species of intelligent vanilla pudding pops! How can I do that if I have to write what I know?”

Or:

“But I’m only seventeen and I want to write about a guy in his thirties who’s dealing with the death of his wife.”

Or:

“I don’t know anything!”

Even worse, sometimes the reaction is not panic, but is, rather:

“OK, if I should write what I know, then that’s ALL I’ll do.” With the result that you get a lot of stories that read EXACTLY like the author’s life. Thinly-veiled autobiographies pretending to be fiction. These have a whole host of problems of their own, two of which are BIG issues:

1) Getting hamstrung by reality
2) Using reality as a defense

Those are two very nasty problems, and I’m going to talk about them another time. For now, just file them away.

OK, so I’ve thrown out some information here. Let’s take a look at what it all actually MEANS.

“Write what you know” does NOT mean “Hello, young writer! You must write only that which you are completely and totally familiar with AND, furthermore, you must do so in a manner that is utterly and completely enslaved to what actually happened.”

Ugh. No! If that were the case, then no one would ever have to do research and the only books we’d have available would be autobiographies. And most of them would be badly written.

“Write what you know” is not a specific command. It does not mean, “You once played football in high school. Therefore you may — and MUST — write about that.”

Look at it this way: Let’s say you DID play football in high school. Now think about what that meant to you. Think about experiences that may be SIMILAR to playing high school football. Experiences that evoke the same emotions and sensations.

As a high school football player, you know what it means to be a part of a team. Maybe that was a good thing — you learned how to work with others in order to succeed. Maybe that means you could apply that feeling to, say, a novel about a soldier in an Army unit. You do your research on the military, you filter your experiences through that research, and you’re off.

Or maybe your experience on the football team SUCKED. So you know what it’s like to be the outcast, the one person on the team who doesn’t belong. Maybe you can use that experience to channel the feelings of a young space pilot who is an outcast in his intergalactic squadron…because he’s the only human in the fleet.

In my first book, I used my teen years as the basic template, but I added a LOT to the mix. I made Fanboy an only child, for one thing. (I had a younger brother and five step-siblings!). I made Fanboy’s Mom pregnant, just to up his angst a little bit. I made him much more of a loner than I was, with exactly ONE friend. In short, I “wrote what I knew” and then amplified and extended it. As a result, the book resonated with people who read it — there was a solid foundation of real emotions and experiences upon which the fiction rested.

That first book also had a LOT of comic book references in it, and the main character is a budding comic book artist. Now, I can’t draw a straight line to save my life, but it wasn’t too long ago that I was a struggling writer. And I was — and am — a huge comic book fan. I applied the same fears, misgivings, and worries that I had as a writer to Fanboy’s quest to succeed as a comic book creator. The result was something utterly believable and compelling to the reader. I was able to apply my knowledge of comics to Fanboy and make his passion come alive for the reader because it was a passion I shared.

In my second book, Josh — the main character — has gone through a hellish experience that I never had to live with. But I came to realize that I did have certain similarities with him. Like me, Josh was a perfectionist about his grades. Like me, Josh was watching his parents’ marriage fall apart. Even though I never had the terrible past Josh had in the book, there were enough similarities between the two of us that I was able to make Josh come alive. Josh is obsessed with baseball and math…and I’m not. So how did I make that work? Well, it was easy, once I realized how to do it. EVERYONE has an obsession. And we all react to them and perceive the world through the lens of our obsessions. I love comics, so whenever I thought of a comic book reference, I realized that Josh would think of baseball or math instead…and I just went from there.

“Write what you know” can sometimes seem limiting, and it IS limiting…if you take it literally. But once you realize that you can take what you know and apply it to a broad range of what you DON’T know and make those foreign feelings REAL… Well, hell — then “write what you know” is easy and very, very powerful.

Oh, and if you think that you don’t have enough life experience to write a good story, remember this bit of wisdom from the great Flannery O’Connor: She said that anyone who survives childhood has enough material to write about for a lifetime.

You’ve survived, right?

So get writing.

Comments

  1. I really like your blog BTW… But I’ve done exactly what this states. I wrote a romance story about teenagers in Marching Band. I picture the school as my own and I modeled the main characters after myself and a guy I like currently. Also I modeled the other characters after people in my band. So it ended up being like my life currently. 🙂

  2. Also the main character (the one modeled after me) had a hard childhood. But that is changed when the character moved. She became happy… Until he father found her and he family. Her father was very… Very abusie. I’ve never expirianced that before but there are enough similarities to make the character good. (Sorry I keep leaving two comments. I just keep thinking of things to say. 🙂

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