Mar 18 2011 6:07pm

Writing What You Love is Writing What You Know

Howard Andrew JonesI was recently scheduled to speak to a creative writing class at my college alma mater about my first novel and writing in general, so I’ve been debating how best to impart advice. I had to learn a whole lot of writing techniques the hard way, sometimes because I was a little oblivious, and sometimes because I accepted conventional wisdom about writing topics without scrutiny. In the hope that it will be useful to other writers, I thought I’d present the same writing truths I’m planning to cover for those students, a few kernels I wish I’d had when I first got serious about the craft.

1.) “Write what you know” may be trumpeted a lot, but you can’t apply it literally. Otherwise you end up with nothing but stories about grad students struggling with collegiate life. That’s fine if student life is what you really want to write about, but some institutions hand off that sort of expectation like a weighty anchor, effectively sinking poor students so deep that they can’t surface to master the strokes they’re most interested in. Write what you know shouldn’t mean only what you have personally experienced, it should also mean to write what you love. If you want to write about gangsters or spaceships and you’ve done the research, then you can be said to know it. If you need to do more research to better know what you love, make it so. You can then apply your personal knowledge of, say, human relationships, to inform your topic.

2.) Know what every character wants before they walk on stage. I repeat this one all the time because I was so slow to learn it. I used to write little morality plays that required me to position the characters at the behest of the plot. I moved them about like cardboard cutouts until my point was made, rather than letting the plot arise from collisions between character motivations. Once I finally figured out the latter, my writing grew far more interesting almost overnight.

3.) It’s vital to understand the background of your world (be it invented or not), as well as the environment and characters, but just because you have pages and pages of notes it doesn’t mean you need to tell your readers all about them, especially in an information dump at the start of your story. You may never even use the information at all within the finished text. If you know those background details, they can inform the behavior of your characters without squishing the reader flat under a ton of data. Let that information out gradually.

4.) You should understand your weaknesses and work to improve them, but you should still play to your strengths, especially in rough drafts. Does dialogue come easily? Frame a whole scene out like a play and throw the description in later. If dialogue’s the hard part, block in the description first and then hone the speech of your characters.

5.) There is no “one way” up the mountain, no matter what you’ve been taught by teachers or read in books. If you think of “finishing the text” as the mountain’s summit, you need to find a way there. Don’t think that means you must always climb the same way, or that you must always imitate the methods of a favorite author. You must find your own path. Some people have to write everything chronologically, but others write best out of order, or draft the key scenes first and then fill in the gaps. Some outline heavily, and some lightly, and some not at all. And just because you’ve found a particular writing method that’s worked well for you doesn’t mean that, when you get stuck, you shouldn’t experiment with another path up the mountain. Different ways work at different times and in different circumstances. Writing is an art, after all, not production line work where the procedure has to be followed the same way so that an identical product is constructed. I don’t think any of us are striving to craft identical products, no matter what genre we’re working in.

6.) Don’t excuse a plot flaw in dialogue. Sometimes during early revisions I’d notice some small issue that I’d try to fix with an exchange that would let the readers know I had seen the plot flaw myself but mumble mumble handwave it didn’t really matter. That’s a poor solution. If you’ve found a fray in the plot, you may have to pull the thread up all the way back to where it starts, and fix it there. Otherwise you might as well be using duct tape to repair a crack in your window. It might hold things together, but it sure won’t be pretty.

7.) If you’re writing adventure fiction, provide a clear throughline from act to act and scene to scene that can be summed up in a few lines—if it takes longer than that to explain what’s going on, it’s probably too convoluted. A good for instance of a clear through line can be found in Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indy’s after the headpiece to the staff of Ra so he can find out where to dig for the Ark of the Covenant.

8.) Know the difference between procrastination and incubation. In other words, sometimes you’re not working because you feel lazy, and sometimes you’re not working because you haven’t hammered out the problems with the upcoming scene yet. Sometimes you need to retreat from the work a bit and go do something completely unrelated. Robert E. Howard referred to this retreat as “filling the well” and recognized it as a necessary phase of the writing process.

I’m still struggling with this one, for I have a hard time remembering that the muse needs downtime. I’m trying to get in the habit of stepping back when I have trouble focusing on a manuscript. I ask myself what the real problem is, sometimes by exploring it with a few questions about the plot that I jot down in my writing notebook. This helps me break up the knot. But sometimes I just need to walk away for a few days, and not feel bad about it.

Surely there’s much more that could be shared, but that’s probably enough for my lecture. I can’t predict if I could have used this information as a young writer without experiencing the hard lessons myself; I’m just hopeful that it can make a difference for some of the students in attendance at my talk. And maybe for some of you out there in the wider world.

Howard Andrew Jones is the author of The Desert of Souls (Thomas Dunne Books 2011), a historical fantasy set in the 8th century Abbasid caliphate featuring Dabir and Asim, characters who’ve appeared in a variety of short fiction venues since 2000. His Pathfinder novel, Plague of Shadows, is set for release in March of 2011. Jones was the driving force behind the rebirth of interest in Harold Lamb’s historical fiction, and has assembled and edited 8 collections of Lamb’s work for the University of Nebraska Press. He has served as Managing Editor of Black Gate magazine since 2004.

2. Ciel
As a new writer myself, I can tell you that this advice is definitely helpful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
3. Howard Andrew Jones
Ciel, I'm glad you found the article helpful.
4. betsweb
This is a great string of advice; thank you for sharing such solid ideas for crafting work. About #2, I've often thought that drawing on character traits from such areas as astrological charts, temperment-typing concepts (like Myers-Briggs), and Ayurvedic constitutions/doshas could be helpful. What do you think? .
5. Lady Atarah
These are great tips and reminders. The one on character motivations, especially, got me thinking. It's nice to read from someone else the things I've been trying to sort out in my own mind and writing. Very encouraging! Thanks for sharing!
Kim B
6. Amaranthine
Great article, thanks! I like your explanation of "write what you know."

@betsweb: I know you were adressing your question towards Howard Andrew Jones, but I thought I'd put in my two cents.
I was recently given a book called "Plot Versus Character" by Jeff Gerke. In one section, the author walks you through the process of using the Meyers-Brigg test for your characters. I was amazed at how much more detailed and lifelike my characters came after I did the test for them; now, for the first time, I know exactly what their response will be to any given situation. I cannot recommend the book and the use of personality tests highly enough.
Wesley Parish
7. Aladdin_Sane
No. 4 - play to your strengths, is one I find helpful. Dialog I've always found easy, description much, much harder. I think it's because none of my characters need to explain their environment to themselves, though they often need to puzzle out their circumstances ... my characters - to the extent that they are characters - are prone to introspection ... and argument ... or should that be AAARGHument!!!! (I would not wish Vheratsho of the Lakhabrech and the North Vineyards on anyone ... :)

And "write what you know" also has a negative dimension - don't write what is easily researchable if you're not willing to put in the research yourself. Every author no doubt has a story of some spectacular boo-boo where they zigged in their research when they should have zagged, and some bright-eyed and bushy-tailed reader with an expert's intimate knowledge of the topic has called them out on it.

FWLIW ... :)
Danelle Mallen
8. astrophilia
I once heard the advice "Write what you know" inverted: "Know what you write." I don't remember who said it and I have a feeling it was someone famous. Nonetheless, I find it helpful and liberating, especially when I'm brainstorming my next story; I think you've touched on that here. Your class will have a good start on writing advice :)
9. Howard Andrew Jones
Betsweb, Amaranthine, I've known some writers that swear by using personality tests. I know others who use role-playing game statistics -- and I tried that method myself when I wrote a game tie-in novel for Paizo's new Pathfinder line. I actually charted up the numbers and skills the characters had so that what I had them doing seemed feasible within the system. But that was specifically because I wanted to follow what was possible in the rules for the game.

What I'm currently doing is thinking about the characters for long days, sort of walking around with this one or that one in my head and thinking about how they feel about this or that and things they might say. I could probably stand to be more organized about it, so maybe I should take a look at some of the methods you suggest.

Amaranthine, what do you think of Mr. Gerke's book? The last writing book I read and really loved was Pressfield's The War of Art.

10. Howard Andrew Jones
Oh, and Betsweb, thanks for the compliment on the shirt. It was a favorite of mine and I was sad to have to retire it this year.
11. Howard Andrew Jones
Lady Atarah, I'm glad I might have sparked something for you. It took me years to figure that one out. I used to move my characters around like statues to tell little morality plays. I wish I could go back in time and say something to younger Howard on this topic, but who knows if he could have appreciated it?
12. Howard Andrew Jones
Aladdin_Sane, as a writer of historical fiction I can completely relate to the worry someone is going to know something I don't and call me out on some aspect of history or culture that I overlooked. I suppose science fiction writers have to be wary of that as well, although even writing in an imaginary world if you're using metallurgy or horses or leatherworking you can get some detail wrong and get called out on it.

And I think characters who argue are far more interesting than characters who seem always to get along, although, of course, if all they do is argue that can get tiresome as well. The original Star Trek handled this well. McCoy and Spock could bicker, but they'd stand together with Kirk when things got bad.
13. Howard Andrew Jones
astrophilia, thanks for your kind words. I hadn't heard the advice turned backwards before, but I like it!
Joe Romano
14. Drunes
Excellent advice here. It got me off my duff and egged me to start writing again. Thanks, Howard!

Oh, about a hundred years ago when I was in college I had a shirt like that, too, except mine was blue. I was heartbroken as well when I put on a few pounds and had to give it away.
Michael Burke
15. Ludon
Fine advice. A lot of it I've been learinig by doing.

I'm not published - yet, so you can take this for what you think it's worth. I can give an illustration of how your characters can clue you in if you are running against point #2 - Know what every character wants before they walk on stage. And this illustration also shows (I believe) that a character's immediate wants can change with the flow of the story so I'll add that your characters can tell you if you need to take some time to think about what they want.

In one scene I was struggling with my lead characters. I found myself not believing anything they said. At least, I was not believing they meant what they were saying. The deeper I got into that chapter, the less I believed them. I set the thing aside for a few days then when I went back to it I realized that I was not letting them do what they'd want to do in their situation. They - as non-Human characters - had just become the first of their race (since the time of the legends) to visit what their religion says was their Cradle World. They didn't want to get bogged down in the second-string social issue I had plotted for them to deal with, they wanted to explore their Cradle World. Once I let them go and explore, the story flowed again. However. I tricked them by slipping that issue into that chapter then let it get resolved in a later chapter.

Thanks for this entry. I've enjoyed it and everyone's comments.
16. Howard Andrew Jones
Drunes -- glad you got some use out of the post. And I shed a tear in honor of your paisley shirt.

Ludon -- that's exactly the kind of problem that finally clued me in to what I was doing wrong with my scenes. Except I had the same problem over and over and over before I finally figured out what the solution was.

You know, another good point is that if you don't like any of the stories a magazine publishes, they probably aren't going to like anything that you write. I don't know why it took me so long to figure THAT one out. I guess I'm a slow learner!
Sim Tambem
17. Daedos
Thank you for the advice. It is appreciated.
18. Francis V. Bendeguuze
This article is greatly appriciated. I'm pleased to see I've learned more than I thought, and point 5) will definitely be of direct aid to me in my own writing.

Oftentimes I feel uninspired and worry that the quality or end result will be harmed if I don't use the procedures I was taught, or rather told to use. I think that problem will diminish after reading this article.

Bookmarked for re-reading :)

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