Friday, March 13, 2015
Write What You Know
This is a statement that I am sure we have all heard before - write what you know. The funny thing about this comment, however, is that I find so many authors ignoring this concept. They dive into genres because it is the hot new thing, or something that an editor or agent said he or she was looking for. This is a huge mistake.
First of all, let me explain what I mean by writing about what you know. There are actually two levels to this. The first is what knowledge you have about that field or topic. This is the one we normally focus on. The second, however, deals with your background. When I talk about writing what you know, it also means what you read. Being successful with your writing means you have to be completely immersed in that genre.
Writing on a topic you know is important for the simple fact that you have a good grasp of the topic. If you write historical romance, then you obviously need to know everything about your time period. You cannot simply rely on your kids 8th grade history book, or what you think you know. Along the same lines, you cannot simply rely on those books commonly known as "source books". Authors trying to dive into something they don't really understand often make huge blunders. And guess what? Your readers will catch you on these. Your editors and agents will catch you on these errors.
Now, does this mean you cannot dive into a new field for your writing? Absolutely not! But make sure you take the time to fully understand the field before you even start that rough draft. I saw a lot of writers, for example, screw this up when Harlequin had running their NASCAR line. There were women attempting to write these with only the knowledge they could pick up from the Speed Channel on cable. They had the terminology but the depth of story telling and world building simply wasn't there.
The second area where I see people screwing this up would be the authors trying to write YA and New Adult. I have mentioned this before here on the blog but this is a big one! If you do not hang out with this population. If you are not part of this population. If you don't have kids in this population, then you simply do not know this topic well enough. Both of these genres are designed for a specific population reading about issues that relate directly to where they are at that time in their own life. When you write something that is not "authentic" those readers will simply no read your books.
A great analogy of this would be those adults who try to "hang out" with the kids and end up looking like complete dorks. You have seen this before. The parents trying to "act cool" around their kids friends so they "don't embarrass them". In the end, they do more than embarrass - they humiliate the kids!
But let's look at the other issue and that is what the person reads. I do hear a lot of authors say they "read everything." In reality, they might dabble in a lot of genres, but their "go to" genre is the one they should be writing in. Why? Because every genre has its own set of nuances and characteristics. There are very clear formatting, structural and voice elements for each genre.
Again, let me provide a couple of examples of this.
I see a lot of guys thinking they are writing romance novels, and yet, I honestly don't think they have ever picked one up in their life. Sure, they have a romance in the story, but the voice is just not there. They might put a sex scene in the story but it becomes very clear, the "voice" of the romance novel is just not coming through.
Another example of this would be the authors wanting to write for a specific series line such as those in Harlequin or Entangled. Each line is VERY unique. To really understand the line requires A LOT of reading of that line. The more you read the material, the more you start to see the unique elements of the voice and pacing. It isn't simply about word count or characters!
When I have authors interested in diving into a new line at Harlequin, this is the first thing I have them do. They read the line and they read A LOT of the line. We talk about it. They tell me the patterns they are seeing. This is crucial. Once they get that understanding down, then they start a series of practice writes to get into the groove.
And, in case you are wondering, this does take a lot of time.
I do know a lot of authors say they don't want to write what they know or read because they feel they are simply copying someone else. In all honesty, this is not going to happen. You will be able to tap into some underlying voice elements that you just "get" without coming across as being forced.
So, I you are thinking about diving into a new genre or line, please, please, please...take the time to learn it. You will thank me for it later!