Friday, September 7, 2012


Write What You Don’t Know

As you read this, the phrase “write what you know” is being uttered from the lips of some writing instructor somewhere. Billy Crystal said it in Throw Momma from the Train. Pick up any writing book and it’s in there, like some cruel, wagging finger, “Better make sure to write what you know.” 

This makes you panic a bit—sweat starts to pool under the collar, because what do you know, really? And you’d like to write a novel about space aliens that sleep in smelly, old shoes and dance the Macarena right before they suck your brains out through a bendy straw. Your nerves start to level: okay, you’ve never met a space alien, but you are slightly familiar with smelly, old shoes (thanks, Dad), you’ve danced the Macarena before (it was a very long time ago, but it’s just a bunch of arm flailing, right?), bendy straws (check!), but brains? What do they taste like? You’ve never eaten brains before. Where in the world do they still eat brains? You will go there. You will eat brains too. You will record the taste in a small notebook. You will be able to write what you know (sigh of relief).
Maybe the above scenario is a slight exaggeration, but I have recently become a convert to the mantra Write What You Don’t Know, and here’s why:

1. Writing what you know is too safe. Stick your head out, see what’s on the other side. Your head might get chopped off, but you’ll have one hell of a story to tell from beyond the grave.

2. Your writing may become repetitive. If all you know is how to make deviled eggs, sure your first story might be good, but if the main character in your next book has a knack for making deviled eggs too, you could be in trouble.

3. Writing is about taking risks, if not for yourself, then for your reader.

4. By researching something, you’re learning something new and you can write about it with a fresh eye, from a fresh angle.

5. Your writing (especially if you’re a horror/suspense writer) is meant to catapult the reader into the fucking air. If you’re rehashing your daily routine on the page, your reader is getting dragged along, too. Poor reader.

There are exceptions, of course. If you’re a super, suave spy and Espionage is your middle name—WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. And hi, you’ve got a cool job. Another exception, a lot of writers have their books set in the same locale (Stephen King and Maine) and that works. It can become your thing, and readers, especially your neighbors, will appreciate that. My point is, don’t shy away from writing about something because you don’t know anything about it. Set time aside to research. Don’t put limits on the story you want to tell.

Dive in.

Because it’s not just your future readers’ adventure, it’s yours too.

Originally posted here:

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