What To Write


Mark Twain said:  “Write what you know.” I have four addendums to that:

  • Write what you want to know.
  • Write what you are passionate about.
  • What is your background?
  • Write what you read.

Elizabeth George writes best-selling mysteries based in England and she lives in California.  I write about myths and legends because they interest me and I’m willing to do the research to learn more.  I believe that if I can find material that interests me, it should interest some readers.

Usually your background will dictate what your story is about.  That’s not to say that since you haven’t ever gone into space that you can’t write science fiction, but it does mean that you know something about the physics of space flight if that is going to be in your manuscript. Think about when you read the book jacket for a writer you never heard of.  If they’ve written a thriller that’s set in Antarctica and in the bio it says they spent three years studying ice formations in Antarctica you’re going to give the author more credit.

I think it is even easier than that:  you will most likely write whatever it is you enjoy reading.  The best preparation for becoming a writer of mysteries is to have read a lot of mysteries.

Some words of advice here:  start with something simple.  Don’t try to write the Great American Novel on your first try.  I am constantly learning more about writing and am polishing my skills every time I write and it’s nice to be able to learn and make a buck at it too.  As I learn more, I can write more difficult plots and characters.

And now some words of caution.  I’ve said you should write what you know and you should keep it as simple as possible, but be careful.  A common problem with new writers is thinking that their life story will be extremely interesting to the reading world, the fictional memoir I discussed earlier.  This is my third addition to Mark Twain’s saying.  There is nothing inherently wrong with writing about yourself, but be realistic about the possibilities of someone else wanting to read it.

Writing about something you care about very deeply has the advantage of adding passion to your prose.  It also has the disadvantage that some writers can’t separate themselves enough from what they write to adequately judge its content or style.  I have watched writers waste years on the same manuscript, trying to polish the editing, doing rewrites on various subplots, etc. when they were not willing to accept a fundamental problem with their story:  the basic idea wasn’t that interesting.

I have seen many writers become too emotionally attached to bad ideas.  Remember I mentioned earlier that open-mindedness is a very important trait for writers. Too many writers get tunnel vision and fail to objectively evaluate their own work in terms of someone who has no emotional attachment and is seeing it for the first time. Just because you feel something, that doesn’t mean you can get the reader to feel the same thing.

There is a problem every writer faces when approaching his or her first manuscript:  You are trying to do something new.  Most wise people when trying to do something new use the KISS technique– keep it simple.  You are trying to juggle two glass balls:  the story and the writing.  The simpler you make the story, the more attention you can give to the writing.

That sounds rather simplistic, but I have seen many writers get in over their heads by trying to write a very complex first novel and the writing suffers as they wrestle with the story.  Most first novelists can do one or the other well, but very few can do both well.  Since you must write well, give yourself a break on the story.  When I was still unpublished and got hooked up with an agent, his first (and only) comment to me was to simplify the plot of the manuscript he had looked at.  I had too much going on and was not a skilled enough writer to keep it all going.  I did as he suggested and that book was the first one we sold.

In fact, I’ve come full circle.  I’ve written a couple of series of books that have done well but are very complicated, with complex story-lines involving a large cast of characters and generally rewriting the entire history of mankind.  Talk about difficult.  I’ve also written some thrillers that were quite complicated.  The next book I write that’s not under contract is going to be a very simple idea and story line where I can focus on giving my characters the depth I used to devote to the plot.

One thing to be careful of with your first novel and one of the reasons first novels rarely sell:  often the first book a person writes is an expunging of personal demons.  Thus the book holds great emotional weight for the writer but it might do the same for the reader.

Another problem:  perfectionism.  Some people think that the writing has to be perfect.  They spend an inordinate amount of time on editing and rewriting.   Sometimes, you just have to accept it’s either good enough, or that the horse is dead and can’t be brought back to life.

I am going to go on here on my soapbox a little bit longer.  I just finished looking at a couple of dozen “novel submissions” for a contest I am judging.  I have yet to see one that was not about “love, death, divorce, child abuse, broken hearts, etc. etc.”  Nobody said, “hey, I’ve got a great science fiction story here.”  Or a horror story.  Or a thriller.  There’s nothing wrong about writing about love, death, etc. but none of the writers were up to the task.

Go to the bookstore.  Look around.  What is the largest section?  From the bookstores I frequent, the answer is:  Computers.  Second largest?  Self-help.  Ah– what is self-help about?  “Love, death, addiction, child abuse, broken hearts, etc. etc.”   And last I checked it is non-fiction.

Remember why people read fiction: most of the time we read to escape “death, abuse, addiction, broken hearts, etc. etc.”  We read primarily to be entertained.  Yet, here are all these aspiring writers trying to write what I call The Great American Novel.  How many of these types of books are on the bookshelves?  Maybe 10 to 20 percent of the hardcover new releases.  Less than 10% of the paperback original releases.  You figure it out.

I am really starting to believe that this is the number one problem most new novelists have:  they pick very difficult subject matter for their story.  The craft of writing is difficult enough.  The more difficult the topic is, the better the writing has to be.

The bottom line is that you need to have an original thought/idea that will spark you and others.

About Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer is a NY Times Bestselling author, graduate of West Point, former Green Beret (including commanding an A-Team) and the feeder of two Yellow Labs, most famously Cool Gus. He's had over 60 books published including the #1 series Area 51, Atlantis and The Green Berets. Born in the Bronx, having traveled the world (usually not tourist spots), he now lives peacefully with his wife, and said labs, at Write on the River, TN.

Posted on December 2, 2011, in Write It forward and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. Great post, Bob! There’s lots of things about what you’ve said here that I love and agree with, but I’ll follow your advice and just keep it simple and say that nothing beats just a good, well-told and sincere story. That’s what I like to read, and, dammit, that’s what I want to write, too. :)

  2. Excellent advice, Bob! Now if I could just find where I left my last original thought… ;)

  3. Lisa Wields Words

    Great post and a lot of food for thought as I dive into a new idea.

  4. This reminded me of a writer in the critique group I used to belong to. He’d heard “Write what you know,” so he figured he would put his occupation in a thriller. Problem was that he was a human resources guy, and the occupation was pretty much the wrong thing for the type of thriller he was writing. It made it three times harder because the character’s job did not allow a real reason for this guy to have run into all the trouble he was in.

  5. Yes Bob, the first time is a killer and if we live to tell about it, we will be content leaving it in a dark file drawer or deep sixing it to the trash :)

  6. A question: is it possible to write “The Great American Novel” and be entertaining at the same time?

  7. A few years ago at UCLA, I heard Michael Connelly speak. He made it very clear that writing murder mysteries did not make him a 2nd-rate writer. Most of us who enjoy and write in that genre are in full agreement. There’s nothing better than a well-written thriller or mystery or fantasy to take us out of the real world of pain and suffering. As a psychiatrist, I can vouch personally for that. Thanks! Art Smukler MD http://artsmuklermd.com

  8. Bravo, Bob!
    A truly excellent post – it should be required reading for every new writer, as well as required reading by established writers prior to embarking on each subsequent book in their writing careers.
    Your observations and advice, both a consequence of first-hand experience, resonate with undeniable truth.
    Thank you!

  9. Sometimes “write what you know” is deadening advice. I’ve worked in corporate jobs for the last couple of decades and the thought of writing a story set in the corporate world makes me want to break my keyboard.
    However, working in various corporations, in different economic climes, has provided me with insight into people’s motivations, behaviour and emotions – and often these are people I would not choose to associate with outside work and sometimes in situations I’d run a mile from otherwise. I can use this knowledge when creating characters for my own fiction, to understand what they might do when put under the pressures of my storyline.
    Nothing learned is ever wasted. It just has to wait for its moment.

  10. I love this blog post. I had an interesting revelation about my writing when I wrapped up my final Golden Heart submission. Up until this particular book, I’d been skirting around the deeper emotional elements that would pop my characters and push the story forward. I had come close with the 3rd and 4th novels, but the 5th really unlocked what had to happen. And it took battling 4 other stories to get to that point, a lot of craft classes, and a revise and resubmit from the editors of the line I am targeting to help me realize the most important things to focus on in my stories.

    Characters drive the story. Keep them on the page. Let them tell it. Don’t go nuts with external plot devices. Sort of like filming Lord of the Rings. They kept most of the focus on the MAIN characters–in particular Frodo.

  11. Thanks, Bob, for this post. I felt you were speaking to me. My first novel, still in my drawer, is one where I tried to work out my personal demons. It has some good elements, which I may rework in the future, but it’s also a story I worked to death. I wasted a lot of years trying to make it salable. But were those years wasted? I think not. Because of that experience, I learned a lot. I learned not to be so precious with my material. To keep moving forward, learning, experimenting, and venturing into the unknown. For me, it meant letting my imagination rip. My second novel, which I’m now pitching, had me doing a lot of research as the subject matter was not familiar to me. I approached it with a similar passion, so I enjoyed the ride. I’ve already had interest in this one, so I believe it’s only a matter of time. While I’m waiting, I’m applying what I’ve learned to my next projects.

  12. You gave me pause with this post and it refucused my thinking on what is wrong with my first novel that is currently being edited.
    I am also not getting past the front door with publishers with my basic outline, so I will rethink the premise as well. Thanks for your insights and clear thinking.Johanna

  13. I was writing a post to this effect, but you’ve said it better than I could. I shall revise and point this way.

  14. Excellent post. And great advice! So true. How does anyone start to learn to do something new, especially something creative: KIS.

    I know I read to be entertained, and that’s also why I write…to entertain others …and myself. :-)
    And I love new ideas and new ways of thinking about things.

    Thank you again, Bob. We can count on you.

  15. Great advice. What really interested me was the idea of keeping the story simple. Any chance you could elaborate on that? What makes a story simpler vs. complex? For example, I write mysteries, and those can be pretty darn complex. I’d love to simplify a mystery. :)

  16. I’m so glad you mentioned “escape” for the reader. I write short humor, specifically for that reason. You helped validate that I am on the right track…hopefully, I’m not too “emotionally attached” to the idea of making people laugh, and I’m correct in assuming that these days, people are in a hurry (so I write stories short enough to read on a coffee or work break), and that for those that are feeling the effects of a hectic or financially stressful life, a laugh would be well received (that’s the humor part). Thanks for the other tips as well. I will challenge myself to follow them closely, and maybe I’ll be as successful as you are. It would be nice to know that I’ve brightened a few days with a tale or two. I wish you many blessings and continued success! CHEERS! *clink*

  17. How cool that it is snowing on your blog today …

    Donna Tartt writes: “The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone.”

    Bad things happen all the time to all of us. My father died unexpectedly in August and my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in September. What I really want to read these days is something fun and adventurous that takes me away from what’s happening today. I’d rather write novels where love conquers all, the hero wins out, and tomorrow looks bright. I’ll happily leave the self-help and angst to someone else …

  18. Sarah I agree with you – most people want to escape. Serious issues can be brought out in a story but in such a way that doesn’t burden the reader down.

    As far as the post, it resonates with me in a big way. When I wrote my first novel I had a great many problems in my life and I was in a deep depression. “Expunging personal demons” was certainly apt when I look back at that writing experience. However, problems and personal demons were what I knew, so I wrote what I knew. I still do, but I think that I’m a better writer now. I’m still proud of my first novel. It helped me get to where I am now, even though it isn’t publishable.

  19. It’s inevitable. No matter what I write, it always comes around to Christmas or family, or pastry. Esp the pastry.


    I guess it doesn’t take much to see what I’m passionate about.

  20. As far as keep it simple, I learned that on the first book I had published, Eyes of the Hammer. The idea was simple: What if Special Forces soldiers were tasked to destroy drug labs in Colombia? But when I wrote the first draft I got very complicated with an assassination subplot in Miami, something going in Hawaii (I can’t even remember that subplot). My first agent read the mss and told me to think about Hunt for Red October. A very simple, but very good book. I ended up getting rid of many subplots and focusing on the main plot.

  21. Never understood the “Write what you know” maxim – that made me a bit frightened given the amount of authors who murdered people in their books. Now, I am writing a thriller myself, and learning how to keep it simple (I hope) out of necessity – there’s only so much I can learn about murdering somebody without actually doing it.

  22. It Nice story. It is in hand of author whom he want to die and whom he want alive. it may possible there may be contradict between readers and writers.

  23. It seems to me that you’re suggesting all first-time novelists should write commercial, and especially genre, fiction. That they shouldn’t even attempt literary fiction. But what if a writer’s spent their life writing literary fiction? Surely they’d be more able to attempt a literary novel – because it’s what their background is in. Also, the fact that self-help books are both very popular and about the subjects literary fiction is concerned with: love, death, in short – life – suggests to me that there might still be a market for literary fiction. Yes, I agree that a lot of people read fiction for entertainment, because they don’t see literary fiction for what it really is – self-help in fiction. Surely, as novelist, we should be fighting this preference for non-fiction, not reinforcing it by avoiding such issues in our novels. After all, fiction is making up lies to reveal the truth.

    • Louise,

      Literary fiction doesn’t have the market cornered on love, death, and life. Genre fiction explores all of those themes that literary fiction does. You can’t entertain without evoking some emotion. Now,. some genre stories do this better than others, but the same could be said for some literary fiction. I have read plenty of lit fic that explored little more than the ego of its author.

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