What does “Write What you Know” Really Mean?

We’ve all heard the writing advice: write what you know.

If taken literally, this bit of wisdom can be perplexing. If we only write what we know, how can we pursue new places and things in our stories? If I only wrote what I knew, all my stories would be about a middle class white girl in the suburbs.

So what does this advice really mean?

A few months back I came across a blog that shared this video, and it has really stuck with me. Take a look:

Gervais says, “Being honest is what counts. Trying to make the ordinary extraordinary is so much better than starting with the extraordinary because it doesn’t really connect…”

I think what Gervais is touching on here is that it’s the intimacy with what we know that comes across on the page. We must start with the details: the smell of tea and lavender. These are the (perhaps seemingly mundane) details that breathe life into the world of our story. The sensory details, the specifics we pull from our everyday lives are the things that make our stories feel real, they are what our readers connect with.

Natalie Goldberg writes, “…using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believably and truthfulness. It creates a good solid foundation from which you can build.”

Our experiences are the basis for our stories, they are what we bring to the table as writers.

Anne Lamott said, “…good writing is about telling the truth.” She also said, “When you tell the truth it turns out to be universal.”

We might believe that unless we have overcome some great hardship, endured a tragedy or experienced a wild adventure, our lives are uninteresting. But hidden in those seemingly mundane experiences of our everyday lives are the secrets we thought we’d never tell anyone, our fears we believed would make us freaks or outcasts – these are the universal truths we uncover in our writing.

For example, I’m currently reading Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, and there was a magical moment where I learned I was not the only socially anxious English major to have had a fear of college dining halls:

“In new situations, all the trickiest rules are the ones nobody bothers to explain to you, (And the ones you can’t Google.) Like, where does the line start? What food can you take? Where are you supposed to stand, then where are you supposed to sit? Where do you go when you’re done, why is everyone watching you? …”

From chapter 2, Fangirl Copyright 2013 by Rainbow Rowell

And all the time I’m reading this, I am thinking, Yes! I thought I was the only one! I thought I was the only socially awkward person with these irrational fears but here is this author, writing about it as if she pulled the thoughts from my mind.

Perhaps Rainbow Rowell had these fears too or knew someone who was brave enough to share those fears with her. Those are our truths that turn out to be universal.

This is the intimacy, the truthfulness, I am always trying to achieve in my writing. Moments like this are why I write (and why I love to read.)

What is your take on this advice? What does “write what you know” mean to you?

Advertisements

This Week: What I’m Reading, What I’m Writing

Inspired by the New Hampshire Writer’s Network Live to Write – Write to Live blog, I’ve decided to start my own regular posts about what I’m currently reading in books, audiobooks and blogs, and what I’m working on in my writing. I hope to make this a regular (weekly or biweekly) feature on the blog.

I hope you’ll share what interesting things you’re reading and writing in the comments, and please feel free to link back to your own blog!

_______________________________________________________________________________

It’s been a while since I’ve written a wrap-up post. But I’ve finished my first book(s) of the new year and I’m working on a writing project –  I’m ready to share and I hope you will too!

What I’m Reading

The Cuckoo's CallingI started the year with a pick that is a bit out of the ordinary for me as I don’t read many mystery/crime novels.  My first read for 2014 was The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith – the pseudonym for J.K. Rowling.  I selected it because I heard it was a “brilliant debut mystery in a classic vein.”

The author isn’t reinventing the crime-novel here. The Cuckoo’s Calling has many of the signature crime-novel elements: a down-on-his-luck private investigator, smarter than the cops who investigate a death they rule a suicide but that some are convinced was murder.

There is no trace of Harry Potter here, but Rowling writes a decent crime novel. I enjoyed
Rowling’s descriptive writing sets and the characters are likable.

Though it didn’t rock my literary world, I found it to be an entertaining read. Has anyone else read this one yet? What did you think?

Shanghai Girls

I also recently finished Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. The book’s description piqued my interest:  two sisters living in Shanghai who move to Los Angeles in the 1930’s to find new lives.

As Japanese bombs fall on May and Pearl’s beloved city of Shanghai and their lives begin to crumble, their journey to America is not at all what they imagined it would be. Their stories are heartbreaking as misfortune finds them at every turn; their naivete is frustrating as they refuse again and again to see the gravity of their situation.

Told over two decades, I felt the story lost its intimacy as the novel seemed to go on and on. I kept thinking, how many more bad things can happen to these girls? The story of May and Pearl’s journey to Los Angeles was powerful, but the novel continued on, telling of the hardships they face in America, the discrimination they endure, and their struggles to become Americanized while trying to honor their Chinese traditions.

After finishing Shanghai Girls, I learned there is a second book, Dreams of Joy. After browsing some reviews, I learned that some readers enjoyed Shanghai Girls more once they had read Dreams of Joy and felt the books are best when read together. Has anyone read one or both? I’d love to hear your experience. I plan to read Dreams of Joy in the future. Perhaps reading the follow-up with change my opinion.

What I’m Writing

Earlier this week I wrote about stories that I keep coming back to but always leave in some state of in-completion. My writing goal for 2014 is to (finally) finish a short story and submit it to some literary journals with the hope of publication. One such story is one I wrote this past summer that I think has potential. I’ve already written several drafts but have been feeling that it isn’t quite ready to submit.

I’ve been making revisions to this story over the past few weeks. I rewrote the opening scene and deleted a few paragraphs. I am focused on the details now, adding a sentence here, a description there.

Next month I will be sending it off to my writer friend to be read and critiqued! I will be sharing updates on the story’s progress.

My Favorite Quote of the Week:

you cant edit a blank page

Blogs and findings around the Interwebs

For Readers:

Here are some Crafty DIY Bookmark Ideas 

10 Amazing Novels That Are Super Long, But Totally Worth It
This list makes me want to pull my copy of Anna Karenina off the shelf. Well, we’ll see…

For Writers:

Five Ways Writers can Recycle Their Discarded Material
This post from blogger and fantasy writer Victoria Grefer is what got me thinking about the practice of writing and how everything we write is useful.

Days Without Writing
A great read for any writer with a day job.

Read any good books lately? Share your reading and writing adventures in the comments, and feel free to link back to your own blog!

The Practice of Writing

While having coffee with a friend last week, talking about our writing and what we’re working on, I realized I have several stories I wrote five, six or even seven years ago that I keep coming back to. I visit them from time to time, their characters still rattling around in my mind like old friends I haven’t seen in a while. I wondered, is it sad that after so much time I am still hung up on stories I wrote so long ago? Is it time to let them go, to move on?

I see every piece I write, regardless of whether or not it ever sees the light of day, as practice. Whether it is a short story I wrote in a workshop or a few pages written in a burst of inspiration, they are all part of the practice of writing. With each revision I am stretching my writing muscles, developing my plot a little deeper, breathing more life into my characters.

I can look back on the various drafts of these stories and see their progression and my growth as a writer. Though I originally wrote these stories several years ago, over that time, they have evolved. They have gone from first drafts written hastily in order to meet a deadline, to second drafts and third drafts, each one better than the last.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg talks about what she calls, composting:

Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories.”

Soil

Every story has value, it is all practice. It is compost for us to work with, none of it is wasted.

I save just about everything I write, including those little passages and pages written in a moment of insight that didn’t amount to much. Those are always fun to come back to; they are characters, scenes and moments in time that stay with me that may eventually turn into something more.

Those deleted scenes, discarded characters and unused settings are all part of that compost too.

My error is not that I have held on to these stories for too long;  it is that I have neglected to bring any one of them to a stage of being polished and print ready. Rather than doing the hard work and editing necessary to finish them, each time I’ve returned to them I’ve  left them in some state of in-completion.

If a piece no longer has movement, if there is nothing left I can do with a story to move it forward then perhaps, yes, it becomes time to “move on.” Until then,  I will still think of them every now and again when I hear a particular turn of phrase or a certain song on the radio, and I’ll continue to work the soil.

Do you still return to poems or stories you wrote years ago? What keeps you coming back to them and how do you know when it is time to move on?

5 Gift Ideas for Writers You can Still Get in Time for Christmas

There are only a few more shopping days until Christmas! If you still need a gift for the literary lover in your life, here are five things a writer would love to receive.

Image

    1. A subscription to Writer’s Digest or Poets and Writers Magazine
      I love keeping up with writer’s magazines and these are two of my favorites, but I sometimes let the subscription lapse. Make sure the writer in your life is getting monthly inspiration in their mailbox with a gift subscription.
    2. A bathrobe and slippers
      Writers have the luxury of being able to work in their pajamas. Keep your writer cozy with a new “work uniform” so if he chooses to work without pants, he’ll have something nice to cover himself up.Image
    3. A mug stuffed with coffee or tea
      It is a well-known fact that writers fuel up on caffeine. Find a fun mug and fill it with your writer’s drink of choice to keep her going.
    4. Yoga Classes
      Sitting at a laptop for long periods of time isn’t healthy and can cause all sorts of back issues. Yoga can help relieve your writer friend’s aching back, help her to stretch and clear her mind with a gift certificate for some yoga classes
    5. A blank journal and a pen
      I don’t know a writer who doesn’t love a brand new notebook or a nice pen. A blank journal gives a writer a fresh start and a world of possibilities.

Writers, what’s on your wish list this year?

Why are Writers Expected to Write For Free?

Earlier this year, I was approached at my day job by a new, local magazine that was looking for advertisers. As a freelance writer, I inquired whether this new publication was looking for writers and I was met with a resounding, yes! I contacted the editor and included my resume and writing samples. When the editor responded and asked for some story ideas for the next issue, I offered an idea and an interview subject.

It was then I was informed that, as a new publication, contributing writers would be unpaid for the time being. I was asked, did that change my decision about wanting to contribute?

When I first started writing freelance for local magazines, I wrote for free. I was new to freelance writing and was desperate for a byline and for published writing samples to build up my resume. I wrote for free for two years – probably far longer than I should have. However, it was a consistent writing gig, and a great writing experience where I got to meet a lot of interesting people and build my writing resume.

With a solid portfolio of published samples and a history of bylines I had to decide, was I going to continue to write for free?

After some deliberation, I decided the answer was no, but was left feeling disappointed that I had to turn down the opportunity because I wouldn’t be paid for it. Does that make me selfish, greedy? Or am I justified in wanting to get paid for what I do?

Other professionals don’t work for free. So why are writers expected to?Making money as a writer

There seems to be a belief that writing is easy. With so many people blogging and posting their opinions freely on the Internet, there is a myth that anyone can do it. But just because anyone can write, doesn’t mean they can write well. People also seem to think that because I am a writer, writing comes easy to me.

When I write, whether it is an article for a newspaper or magazine, a blog post, a short story or a novel, it is always hard work. I spend hours writing, rewriting, editing things out and then writing them back in.

For an article, I start with an interview. After the interview, I review our conversation, find an angle for the story and pull quotes to include that will enhance the story. Then the writing begins. It usually takes two or three tries before I find the right starting point for the story, and even once I do it is a process of writing, rewriting, and editing until I get the story to a point I feel happy with it. In the end, the per-hour pay is pretty minimal.

I don’t write because its easy, I write because I enjoy it. Being a writer certainly isn’t an easy way to pay the bills, even when the gigs are paying ones.

I understand that taking unpaid writing gigs is virtually unavoidable for a new writer breaking into publishing. But when it comes to writing for free, where do we draw the line?

Writers, how do you respond when someone asks you to write for free?

Is NaNoWriMo Worth it?

There are naysayers, who claim that writing a novel in just 30 days is a cheap tactic – that the writing that results from National Novel Writing Month is terrible and that it doesn’t encourage good writing.NaNoWriMo

I disagree. Yes, the writing that results from frantically writing 50,000 words in just 30 days can be awful but that is why the next 30 or 60 days that follow NaNoWriMo should be for rewriting, and revising. Once those 50,000 words are finished, the work is not done! That may put you on the right track toward a complete novel, 50,000 words does not a novel make.

For those who don’t agree with NaNo, and for those who have thought about participating but might be on the fence, here’s what makes NaNoWriMo great:

  • It encourages daily writing habits. The naysayers say that REAL writers should be writing every single day no matter what, not just during the month of November, and to a point,
    I agree. I do try to write every day and I believe that A Writer Writes. But many writers know what a difficult goal this can be to attain. NaNoWriMo gives me a goal and a deadline. Does it make me less of a writer to get excited about Nano when I should be writing everyday anyhow? Absolutely not. The excitement of NaNoWriMo reminds me not only why I write but why I need to do it every day.
  • It encourages setting word count goals. 1,677 words a day is not a daily word count goal that typically works for me and my writing routine. In November, I set everything else aside to write as much as possible in order to make that 50,000 word goal. It helps me set my sights higher and learn that I can write 1,700 or even 3,000 words in one day if I really focus and make the time for it.
  • It’s a great method for us writers to get out of our own way and get words onto the page. Writing a novel is an overwhelming, time consuming and – at times – daunting task. With a word count goal and limited time in which to reach it, there isn’t much time to stress over details. Instead, we must plough through and worry about the details later.
  • It allows us to explore an idea or a set of character without taking up too much time. With only 30 days to write a novel, NaNoWriMo is a great time to flesh out that character that has been in the back of your mind for a while or try out that plot you’ve been thinking about but weren’t sure where it would go. Writing quickly allows to explore ideas and see where they take us. When an idea doesn’t work out, I don’t feel too bad at the end of the month for only have spent a few weeks working on it. It feels good to know I tried without wasting months and months of my time. And on the flip side, if you like where the story is going, you have a draft of a novel in the works!
  • It helps us connect with other writers – During November, I know there are a whole lot of other writers out there who are going through the same thing I am and trying to reach the same goals. I love the sense of community NaNo offers, whether it is a virtual community through the NaNo site and social media, or a local community through write-ins.
  • It encourages writing for all one-day novelists NaNoWriMo reinvigorates us writers who are supposedly at this everyday while also invigorating young writers who could be playing video games or perusing Facebook but are instead trying to write 50,000 words in thirty days. Nano encourages people, young and old, to attempt their first novel, regardless of whether it ever gets published. For those who decide to try their hand at writing during National Novel Writing Month, even if they fail or they write 39,543 words of garbage they did something probably few of their friends would even attempt.

What are your thoughts about writing a novel in 30 days? Is it worth it or is it just a cheap tactic for wannabe writers?

If you will be participating in NaNoWriMo, please comment below! I’d love to hear from you and keep up with how you are doing in November!

Easy ways to Backup your Work

Last week, I talked about the agonizing feeling of losing your writing. I was kicking myself for losing a notebook I had written something potentially brilliant in. I am still upset that I lost my first “real” novel that I wrote over ten years ago because of a bad floppy disk.

Now floppy disks are a thing of the past, replaced by CDs and USB drives. Today, there are plenty of options for backing up your work. Never lose your writing again!

Dropbox – If you’re not using Dropbox, it’s a great way to access your files from multiple computers and it serves as a sort of backup system for your writing! Dropbox is a web-based hosting service where you can save and share up to 2GB of documents, photos and videos for free (for up to 2GB of file storage). The files sync so that your updated files are available on any machine on which you’ve downloaded Dropbox. So I can work on my novel on my laptop, and have the updated version already on my desktop and pick up right where I left off.  You can also access your files on your web account, in case you’re on a computer that doesn’t have Dropbox installed.

It’s easy to use and its Free.  No more emailing files back and forth to yourself or carrying around your USB drive (though backing up on your USB can’t hurt!) Watch the video or download it at Dropbox.com

External Hard drive – an external hard drive is an expense, but a worthwhile one. I use an external hard drive to back up all my computer files at least once a year – although I should be doing it much more often! They are portable, easy to use and widely available online and in any computer store near you. You can one with a capacity and a price tag that works for you.

Evernote – is the electronic version of carrying a notepad with you. If you’re struck with sudden inspiration, use this app to save and capture your ideas, then access them anywhere with your computer, phone or other mobile device. I use it to jot down story ideas and potential character names as an alternative to jotting notes on scraps of paper which I inevitably lose.

What methods do you use to backup your work?

What are you waiting for? Go backup your writing! Happy saving!