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.
Posted on December 2, 2011, in Write It forward and tagged Antarctica, Bob Mayer, California, Elizabeth George, Great American Novel, Horror fiction, KISS, Mark Twain, NaNoWriMo, Write It Forward. Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.