Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Write What You Don’t Know (Part 1)

When I first started writing in my teens the one piece of advice I most frequently heard was write what you know. I struggled with this rule. If I could only write what I knew then my work would end up as dull and boring as I believed my life was at the time.

I didn’t want to write only to reflect the mundane. I wanted to write to escape the mundane! And this meant writing what I didn’t know.

I’d never had an adventure, I’d never investigated a crime, I’d never met a dragon, I’d never battled supernatural armies. I wanted to make the ordinary extraordinary.

It wasn’t until later I learned it wasn’t about the unknown worlds I created, it was about the characters. What engaged me most about the stories I read was the fascination for people and their struggles. We all have that fascination. People are interesting, even the dullest people. It’s because we are made up of so many layers and contradictions.

Writing is a journey of discovery. We want to know why a certain person acts a certain way. We want to follow them on their journey. The more we can relate to the characters, the more their journey becomes our own.

And so we write -- and we sometimes write what we don’t know.

Next post I will explore how we write what we do know even when we don’t realise it.

Are there other rules on writing you’ve struggled with? Do you often write what you don't know?

Pic: As a teenager I drew a lot of dragons. Here is one I did in coloured pencils.

51 comments:

  1. I'm guessing writers use the pieces and threads of what they know and weave them into a story about something they don't know :)

    That's one very scary Barbie dragon :PP

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  2. I like the Barbie dragon, but I do agree with the thread of what we know...It always leads me someplace new.

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  3. Dez, indeedy that is correct. Barbie dragon???? Maybe it's a Ken dragon? :P

    Carolyn, that's the joy of writing :)

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  4. It's part of our nature. Humans are nothing if not explorers. We like to learn and experience new things, or at least the ones of us not stuck in ruts do. I agree with the write what you don't know philosophy. Just make sure you have the credibility to sustain the illusion!

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  5. Barbie Dragon! Good one, Dezz.
    I certainly didn't know anything about about my science fiction setting, so imagination along with research came in handy.

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  6. If I only wrote what I knew I wouldn't write much. I mean, I have no clue how to cast a spell, summon an imp, or talk to the dead. But I have a really good imagination :)

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  7. I write what I don't know all of the time, including from male POV. Hearing that rule confused me when I first started writing, among others. Now I keep what works for me and ignore the rules that don't. :)

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  8. I've written fantasy before, in worlds I didn't know. But I did know my characters and I think that made the difference.

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  9. The older I get, the more "what I know" expands. I've never lived someplace rural, but I "knew" enough about a character, a story, had deep relationships with people from the area, and spent time somewhere similar that it worked for my first novel.

    "Show don't tell" ruined me for years. As a tight-lipped, repressed New Englander, it was the last advice I needed. It took me years to figure out how to say something.

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  10. That rule really held me back in my writing as well. But, mystery writers don't kill people for research. We just do research and use what we know about ourselves and others as basis to write. Great post.

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  11. That's why research was invented. So we could learn about things we don't know and write about it. :)

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  12. I write what I do know when it comes to raw emotions, but I wrote what I don't when it comes to actual plot. I write YA Fantasy so writing what I know is kind of impossible for me in the literal sense.

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  13. Jeffrey, that's the trick of course: making sure you have the credibility.

    Alex, :P
    What? You've never flown a spaceship????

    mshatch, imaginations are the best!

    Carolyn, yes absolutely. The characters drive the stories.

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  14. Robert, yes exactly! Even your indirect experiences give you enough to be able to write the things you may not have experienced yoruself.

    Am I allowed to have a gigle at your show don't tell woes? ;) I can relate.

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  15. Clarissa, the amount of info you have shared on your blog re forensics etc, I reckon you could commit the perfect crime...for research, of course ;)

    Stina, yes exactly! I didn't realise that way back in my teens. Thank goodness it never stopped me from writing.

    Bethany, yes, but you make your fantasy stories both appealing and believable through those raw emotions because it's character tht drives the story.

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  16. You my friend are very talented! That picture is fantastic!!! I love it!!!!

    I write what I know, because I make up what I know. Especially in YA. I take my high school experiences, the death I've come across and the loved one's that keep my sane, everything makes it's way into my story!!!

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  17. All the time. I read we should wwrite our fantasies and dreams. With some research & grounding in what we do know, I think it works out.

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  18. PS - I never thanked you for the award! I'm so embarrassed. My mother would insist it's not her fault that I act like I wasn't raised right.

    I very much like how you finessed the award to talk about writing. Very skillful.

    This clod says thank you.

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  19. Jen, thanks so much. I haven't used traditional mediums in my art for a long time. I love my photoshop these days so my current art is completely different.

    Yes, everything we experience goes into our stories.

    M Pax, definitely. We do need to exercise our imaginations and ground that in the things we know.

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  20. Robert, hehe, no worries! :)
    and thanks :)

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  21. Hi Lynda - I guess I've always thought of writing what I know as writing what I love. I'm not going to write a Stephen King-type novel because I would never read that type of book. I completely understand what you're staying though. It is about character. Regardless of genre, an interesting character will be great no matter where he/she is. =D

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  22. Lynda..I love the dragon picture. I always write what I don't know about. That way the imagination takes over. Writing what we know about is a bit boring.

    http://rachnachhabria.blogspot.com/2010/10/getting-writer-noticed-before-book-is.html

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  23. Awesome drawing - you're very talented!

    I love what you said here: "I wanted to make the ordinary extraordinary"...

    I love to make up worlds and venture out of the norm too, and it's almost never about what I know, but rather, what I wonder about.

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  24. RaShelle, that's an excellent way of looking at it: writing what you know is writing what you love.

    Rachna, yes indeed!! Let's escape the boring together!

    WritingNut, when we let our minds wander we find wonder :)

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  25. I know a little about a lot, so writing what I know would still require a good deal of learning. Besides, if I stuck to what I know, well, that would make for one boring story!

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  26. That is a fantastic picture! You are incredibly talented :) All I can draw are stick figures.

    "Write what you know" sort of messed me up too. I eventually learned not to take it too literally, which really opened up my imagination.

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  27. I read this post and thought that was me! Years ago I would read the write about you know advice and think but my life is so boring. What the heck do I know? Since I've started writing speculative fiction I realise that whilst I dream up the worlds or scenarios my characters live in, their characteristics are from all the people and situations around me. So, in a way, I am writing what I know!

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  28. great post!

    I often struggle with writing rules, because a lot of things that are apparently firm rules, don't fit my genre or style of writing. sigh...

    :-)

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  29. So many times beginner hear a rule and run with it - to their detriment. I guess it's part of the learning process. What got me was the cut, cut, cut rule. Because I was an underwriter I needed to add, add, add and then trim.

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  30. I write about what interests me, and that usually means grand adventures somewhere in a different world, definitely something I don't know about at the onset!

    I love the "barbie" dragon. :)

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  31. Interesting blog. please visit my blog too ... thanks in advance

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  32. What a sweet little dragon! I love dragons and collect them, so that makes it even more cool. I never drew dragons as a teen though; I only doodled faces.

    Anyway, writing. I do often write what I don't know, but I try to research those things. You're right in that the focus is (should be) character, and everyone has experience with people.

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  33. As a kid I thought I'd never be a good writer because nothing exciting ever happened to me. Now I know better.

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  34. I write rooted in what I know from experience or research. I don't think you have to know about something from having lived through it, but a writer should do research if the writing is going to make sense.

    Lee
    Tossing It Out

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  35. interesting! that saying has always bugged me for the same reasons! makes a bunch more sense now! :)
    btw, i love the dragon- your elongated sense of line is so elegant! :)

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  36. Great post - I think you're right on this one! If we only write what we know the whole time, man, would we be bored! And eventually our audience would be too.

    I struggle with cutting adverbs. I think it's Ok to use a few here and there, despite the rule!

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  37. The longer you live the more material you will have to "write what you know."

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  38. I think I've always gone the "make it up as you go" route - if I stuck to writing just what I know, it would be really boring. On the other hand, I've also been trying to get out and about more, experience life more fully, because I find it fuels my writing.

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  39. Susan, and there is nothing wrong with learning :)

    Jennifer, the imagination is a wonderful thing.

    Ellie, yes exactly! :)

    Misha, I really don't think there are any "firm" rules. It is however important to learn the rules so you can break them later ;)

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  40. Laura, everyone has to learn what works for them and there are no absolute rules -- it might make it difficult for new writers to learn at first, but once they catch on, their writing world opens right up.

    Golden, I think that's the key -- writing about what interests you.

    Carol, I used to collect dragons as well, but now I've kept only my favourites. And yes, research is important.

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  41. Patti, I know the feeling

    Arlee, very true. Research is imortant...even topping off a subject you might now with a little extra research is helpful.

    Vic, thanks, that means a lot coming from you :)

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  42. Talli, yes, some writers go too far with cutting adverbs. It's definitely ok to keep some.

    Bish, true..so that means writers are like wine: we get better with age ;)

    Belle, life experience is a great fuel for writing.

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  43. I still struggle with avoiding passive voice.
    Hey I plunged headlong into something I didn't know for my first book - Olympic swimming. Right! Lots of research ensued. But it was fun.
    And I think your little Barbie Dragon is cute.

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  44. Diane, oh yes, passive voice is a difficult one for me too. My first draft is full of it.

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  45. Another writer friend told me once, "Write what you want to know." That has stuck with me. :-)

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  46. Hi Liz, yep that's another great way of putting it. Writing helps us to understand the world better.

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  47. That whole writing what you know thing is a struggle for me. I have a curious mind, so doing that is boring. I'd rather write what I don't know and figure it out. You know what I mean? That being said, I do prefer to write setting that I know, or that are at least within access. That way I can research more readily.

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  48. I love the title of this post. Write what you don't know.

    I have struggled with every aspect of writing and my critique group has patently taught me the way I needed to go. At this juncture, I would say the most difficult still is knowing how much back story to include and when.

    You're invited to a Halloween Party. Hope you can stop by and check it out.
    Nancy
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

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  49. Steven King spoke on this in his book On Writing and I've never forgotten it. Even if I've never been possessed by a car like Christine, I know what it feels like to be under someone's spell. So I CAN write about a an alien possessing my body if I choose too. Great post. I look forward to part 2.

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  50. You draw great! wow--I can't draw that well now! LOL
    The rules have tripped up my writing so often now because of my personality. I think I am really rule-oriented and when I didn't know them--I wrote free-er. They have taken away some of my freedom to just write and I am working at getting that back.

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  51. Susan, yep, I know what you mean. And, yep, there is a certain amount of comfort in reserach.

    Nancy, backstory is always difficult to incorporate because it requires such a fine balance. Ooo..a party. I like parties :)

    Lynn, Stephen King said it well. I think it's time for me to reread his On Writing book again.

    Terri, That's interesting what you said..that you wrote with more freedom before you learnt the rules. I experienced something similar, but I would also argue that I didn't necessarily write better.

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