Lately there’s been a lot of chatter about what people can/should write…or not. I’ve expressed my feelings before about writing what you love, and loving what you write so this subject seemed like something I should blog about.
TL;DR: My opinion is pretty simple: write what you want to write. Put in the time, effort, and hard work it takes to make “what you don’t know” as real as possible.
The old phrase says, “write what you know” and I think that is something all writers embrace. We write characters with similarities to ourselves or people we know. We write about places we’ve been or that have bits and pieces of those places thrown in. We also write about experiences, dreams, or struggles we’ve endured. That’s all very true, but we also write about characters and places and experiences that we never could possibly know–like worlds with magic, or building a colony on mars, or a high school under attack by zombies. So when people claim they (or others) can’t or shouldn’t write what they don’t know, I call shenanigans.
Speaking from personal experience as an alternate history writer, I have to imagine history taking a completely different turn than it did and what that might look like. No one ever lived it, but my job as a writer is to (hopefully) make you believe it could have happened. This takes a LOT of research and sometimes people disagree with my assessment. Sometimes they disagree with things from my own experiences I wove in. Frankly, whether it’s a new city, zombies or a change of history, we have the tough job of making those things real–making them believable. This requires research. Sometimes a heaping ton of research. So much research you want to give up on the idea all together. But when it’s a story we know we must tell, we push forward and do what’s necessary to give it a voice.
Okay, so with that said, what about writing about demographics that you don’t fit into? Other religions, other genders, other sexualities, other races, other mental or physical health than your own? I say, go for it. Be prepared to work hard at this story, though. Maybe harder than you’ve ever worked before.
Important// Your desire to write something outside your experience shouldn’t be about riding a trend. These experiences belong to real people. Real people are not trends. Zombies are a trend, mental health is not. If you want to write about X because you think it will get you published, then you’re writing it for the wrong reasons. If you want to write about X because that character or story is something you feel you must tell, then take the chance. //Important
You might be thinking, “Won’t I be stepping on the toes of people who lived those experiences?” If done to the best of your ability, I don’t believe so. Ultimately, though, people writing about their own experiences and own communities will naturally be more authentic. And they should be. They should stand as something to emulate, not copy. But this shouldn’t stop you from writing something you don’t know. It is your duty as the writer to put in the time to ensure these characters, places, or experiences are true to life. Yes, you can certainly still “write what you know”. I believe that is true of any story and you’ll intentionally or unintentionally bring in bits of your life or personality to the book, but there are plenty of things you will not know. There will be plenty of things you never even thought about that play into the lives of other people.
Part of researching what you don’t know should involve asking the people who do. This can absolutely seem terrifying and daunting, because what if you offend them? And you might. But you’ll be glad you got their opinion because it will provide invaluable insight. After all, you won’t find everything you need on the internet or in books. Another important tactic to writing what you don’t know is to read novels about the people you’re writing. Even better if you read the books by AND about the people you’re writing. Learn as much as you can.
Important // Even when you talk to people who have lived the experience you’re writing about, please remember they are just one story and don’t represent the whole of that demographic. There is no single story for Black people, for LGBT people, or any one else. There is no “normal”. Everyone’s story is unique. If you ask for like-minded betas to read, remember it’s true there as well. But also listen. Truly listen to the thoughts and opinions of these people and do your best to honor their experiences. If that means total rewrites, so be it. You’ll be glad you did. //Important
It’s not about being brave, it’s about doing your job and not half-assing it.
So let’s be real, even once your story is out in the world, some people will hate it. People will also love it. Even if it’s an experience you personally lived, people will 100% find something wrong with it — something stereotypical and unbelievable about it. It’s not going to be perfect in everyone’s eyes no matter what you’re writing about. At the end of the day, though, you should be proud of the work you put in and the way you wrote your story, whether it was something you knew or something new.
I was brainstorming what to blog and thought putting together some writing resources might be helpful. Since I’m certain that’s been done before, the idea quickly morphed into more of a “what I wish I knew” when I was writing my first query-able novel. Hindsight is always 20/20, but maybe this post can help people learn what took me (and others) a lot longer to figure out. This post is definitely targeted towards writers seeking traditional publication, but I’m sure most points can be applied to all writers.
To start, here are some resources I’ve found helpful that I wish I had from day one.
Okay, this list details some of the things I wish I knew (as well as what some of what my CPs, betas, and writing friends wish they knew- shout out to all you lovely peeps for contributing!):
–Don’t write for the trends. The trends you see published are probably a year or two passed in the publishing world by the time you write them.
–Even if you’re pantsing the draft, definitely have an outline. Your structure and form will fall apart without a map to follow so at the very least pin-point major events– this video series is a great resource.
–Create a world building bible even if you’re writing contemporary. Keeping track of all the details in your world can be daunting, but having a solid list, dictionary, guidebook to look back on is invaluable.
–Read the genre you’re writing in before writing. There might be common themes or cliches you encounter that you can then consciously subvert or work out of your own story.
–Reading your genre will also help uncover comp titles to use in pitch contests or your query letter.
–There is no one way to write or one way to edit. Forget what you were taught in school or intensives about “the right way” and do what feels natural to you.
–Don’t compare yourself to other writers or their journey to your own. Everyone has a different path–we’re in this together, not competing against each other.
–If you and your CP/beta aren’t getting along, don’t continue the partnership. There are so many writers out there looking for readers, someone else is bound to be a better match. Maybe even your best friend.
–Don’t be afraid of conferences or workshops. While it might be expensive and scary, the networking is priceless and you’ll probably learn a whole lot (about writing, about other writers, about the industry), too.
–Try contests, they can be very helpful, but remember most writers are discovered from the slush pile.
–THE BOOK might not be this book. Keeping learning, keep writing and eventually you will get there.
–Embrace the writing community. Make friends, join groups, go to meet ups– do whatever it is you can to be involved and help yourself grow.
–Don’t send a query right after you’ve written it. Revise, edit, and have that sucker critiqued by as many eyes as you can get on it.
–When a CP or beta gives you feedback, listen to them. Even if you disagree, hear them out. You are too close to your writing to always see the problems and the things you might disagree with now could be the best edits you make later.
–Agents are people, too. They might seem like the rock stars of publishing, but they’re just like you and me. Don’t be afraid of them or idolize them– show respect and be kind like you would with anyone else.
–Take a break from writing. Once you’ve finished your draft, walk away. Work on a new project or take a break all together. It’s better to edit with fresh eyes.
If there’s something you wish you knew, I bet others would agree. Share your thoughts below!
It’s back to school time and I was thinking about that cafeteria map from Mean Girls and how it sort of relates to writing. Not the whole labeled cliques thing because we’re all one big, wordy family, but just that there are different types of writers.
Everyone’s got a different way of writing and sometimes people float between two or more groups–just like in school. Here’s the types of writers I’ve noticed:
Purple Proser- Everything they write is beautiful. Magic comes out of their fingers. The story might be mostly description and rambling thoughts but it is the best long-winded poetry ever.
Dialogue-aholic – These people write more like screenwriters, fast-paced and heavy on the dialogue with intermittent description blocks and although you’re left wanting more, you know you love it.
Marathon Sprinter – Going full throttle at every junction, these people get. stuff. done. They plot fast and draft fast, but still know the writing journey is a long one and conserve their energy for the long haul. (Thanks for this one, Darci!)
Speed Demon- Or what is more commonly know as pantsers. Once they have an idea ready to write, it needs to be written–there’s no time to waste–so they go for it and with amazing speed.
Turtle Typer- Slow and steady wins the race and that’s a motto all plotters live by. It’s not about rushing to the finish line, but meticulously planning every character, every action and following the outline to a tee.
Class Clown- Funny beyond all reason. Puns, jokes, play-on-words, they’ve mastered it all. The voice drips off the page and you can’t help but laugh from beginning to end.
Love Bird- Need a happily ever after or a good cry? The Love Bird has got you covered. Their romances are so real, so poignant and moving that you fall in love, too.
Scream Queen- These writers can pull off some incredible twists whether they are unexpected villains, or plot shockers, or regular old scare-the-pants-off-you horror, they always seem to have a surprise in store.
Do any more writerly types come to mind? Feel free to share!
I’d always been told to keep it to myself.
Keep it locked away.
What might happen if it fell into the wrong hands? I didn’t want to know. That could be catastrophic. A disaster great enough to dissolve worlds and destroy life as I knew it.
Securing the door–all eight locks–I made sure nothing could escape, no matter how hard it tried. It was mine to protect, mine to hide. The air was thick and musty, like the lingering heaviness after a storm. An unbearable stillness filled the room and the banging from inside the door echoed like long forgotten thunder.
Let me free, it screamed.
I stopped, wondering if anyone was privy to the truth. Did they know what was hidden here?
Behind the door, there were murmurs. It was rowdy and unrelenting, in constant demand of being let loose. The screams and shouts might be muffled, but they still pleaded for attention. Begged for it. All I could do was pretend they were but memories from another time and will myself to forget.
Let me free, it screamed again.
If somehow it was unleashed…Could it be?
I stared, wondering if there was a way to unhinge the locks and let it out as it wished. Perhaps then it wouldn’t yell so much, wouldn’t cry so much, or cause me such worry. But this was earth-shattering, something that could break walls and create them just as easily. Letting it escape wouldn’t be so simple. It would be a challenge unlike any other, too difficult to handle, too much for me to take.
So, I stepped away, letting it’s howl sear into my brain.
I’d keep it locked up like I’d always been told.
Hidden from everyone but me.