Today’s “K” lets me put a new spin (or at least my spin) on an old saw: “Writing What you Know.”
We’ll start with unfortunate truths:
1. What you know is boring to most people. (And the rest of them heard it already.)
2. The non-boring parts of what you know are generally the bits you made up to make the other bits interesting.
3. You know both more and less than you think.
Writing what you know is important in the sense that you look fairly foolish if the facts and characters don’t add up to something coherent. If you haven’t got a clue how to fix a toilet, that bestselling novel about Petey the Plumbing Detective probably won’t make it off the ground. On the other hand, if you are a plumber you still need to exercise caution – 50 pages about The Places You Find Putty At The End of Long Work Days isn’t the kind of graphic content most people buy thrillers for.
The key, as with everything else, is balance.
Don’t be boring. Use enough detail to tell the reader something (s)he didn’t know, in a way that enhances the story instead of detracting from it. Veer too far to one side and you’re indistinguishable from every other Private Eye. Too far in the other direction and it’s Plumbing for Dummies with a corpse or two thrown in.
If you’re making it all up anyway, just include the good bits. If you don’t know what others find interesting about you, pay attention to others’ reactions when you talk. Find out when your audience finds you engaging and use that when you write. Transition your verbal strengths to the page. Are you good at description? Dialogue? Jokes? Your speaking voice can help you find your natural writing voice – as John Elder Robison discussed recently over at The Debutante Ball. I can’t improve on the way he explained it so I’ll send you there to read more.
Don’t let yourself think you know nothing (and if you do know nothing, read more!). Everyone has something to say – and sometimes your strengths might not strike you as interesting because you’re so close to them. Explore the things you do know, and realize you can always learn more – even about things you know well. Good writers never stop learning, and that includes both subject matter and the craft of writing itself.
Most of all, know that you need to write. Your excuses know less than they claim to, and you know more than you think. Write what you know and learn what you don’t – and most of all, keep at it until you know you’ve done it right. (And then…you’ll fix it in editing.)