The True Meaning of “Write What You Know”

“Write what you know.”

If you’re a fiction writer, you’ve heard this advice before. It seems straight forward, but if you take a closer look, you’ll find it’s quite an ambiguous statement. Almost every person who tells you to “write what you know” has a different interpretation of its meaning. As a result, it could be the most helpful or most hurtful advice for a writer to hear. I’m going to share with you my interpretation of “write what you know,” so you can use this small phrase of advice to truly benefit your writing rather than hinder it.

First off, “write what you know” does not mean, write only about events you have experienced in your life.  This is one of the biggest misconceptions paired with the phrase “write what you know.” It leads to writers only writing about themselves and their lives. Because writing about your experiences seems easy, right? You don’t have to do work researching, and it happened, so it must be believable and interesting, right? Wrong. Just because something happened to you, does not make it interesting to an outside reader. Also, just because it happened, doesn’t even make it believable because in order for it to be believable, you have to execute it well. One time in a workshop, every time we pointed out a plot discrepancy in a classmate’s story she would counter back “but this actually happened to me.” But that didn’t matter. It didn’t come across as true on the page because of how she recreated the event. Most importantly, if you want to push yourself to publish more than one work of fiction, your readers will quickly realize if your main character is the same recreation of you, set in your home town, doing your job. If you want to write fiction, write fiction, not an autobiography.

So, how do you write believable fiction you know about? “Write what you know” can entail research. Just because you don’t have first hand experience, second hand knowledge still counts as “knowing” something. If you want to set your story in a place you’ve never been, visit there, look up pictures, and interview people who have. If you want to write about an amish person, get out there and interview them. Read articles. Read books. Just because you write fiction, doesn’t mean you can’t research. In fact, you should research. This research allows you to take the first steps into seeing the world from someone else’s point of view, and it not only broadens your knowledge, but it will broaden your reader’s.

Along with doing research, “write what you know” means write what emotions you have experienced, rather than events. In other words, don’t write a love story if you’ve never been in love. You can channel emotions you’ve felt in your real life and put them into your characters. By doing this, your characters will feel like real people do. You may not have an alcoholic father, but if you know what it feels like to be unloved and neglected, then channel those feelings into the situation. As long as the emotions are believable, it shouldn’t matter if you’ve experienced it or not. If your emotional reading is accurate, your readers will feel with your characters. It’s empathy. Empathy is what drives good fiction.

Hopefully, with these three points, I’ve helped lift some of the restrictions writers put on themselves when they hear “write what you know.” In a nutshell, “write what you know” means make your writing truthful.

9 Tricks for Mastering Dialog

Dialog is scary, and it can be a beginner’s worst nightmare. It’s hard enough to write eloquently, but writing exactly how people talk? Very difficult. However, with a few tips in mind, dialog can become easy and fun.

1. Transcribe conversations. One of the best ways to get a feel for how people talk is to sit in a public area, and write down what you hear, verbatim. Or bring a tape recorder with you, and record and listen to write it down later. That way you can see what speech actually looks like on the page and how it differs from normal writing.

2. People don’t talk in full sentences. This is the first thing you’ll notice if you ever transcribe a conversation. People talk in fragments and run-ons. For fragments, just punctuate them like full sentences, and for run-ons, don’t be afraid to start a sentence with a contraction. Example:

“How was your day?”

“Awful.”

“Oh. Thought it would’ve been better.”

“Yeah. My boss kept me late, and she didn’t even thank me for staying overtime. But if you think about it, I probably deserve it.”

3. Keep slang/ onomatopoeia in mind. Speech isn’t pretty. Certain characters may be vulgar or not speak proper English. If they come from a certain region/ time, they may talk differently too. “Ya’ll,” “wanna,” “ain’t,” are all examples of this. Also, people make a lot of verbal noises like “huh,” “nu-uh,” and “ugh.”

4. Keep it short. Unless they have a reason to rant, most people talk succinctly as possible. Make sure your characters aren’t repeating sentences that basically mean the same thing. Instead of saying a full sentence, they may say a phrase too. Example:

“Guess what.”

“What?”

“I ran into my ex yesterday.”

“Sounds like a nightmare.”

“You bet.”

5. People never say exactly what they’re thinking. Along with keeping it short, I learned from one of my fiction classes that dialog works like an iceberg. There’s often a lot unsaid underneath a conversation. People are rarely completely honest with each other. One of the biggest reasons for dialog sounding unnatural is if all the characters use it to say what’s on their mind. Chances are a moody teenager wouldn’t calmly explain to their parents that they’re having problems at school:

“How was your day?”

“Fine.” She folded her arms.

“You don’t seem fine.”

“Well, I am.” She walked away before she could answer more questions.

6. Know the pace of a conversation. People pause and speed up when they speak. They also move while they speak. If someone pauses or slows down, make good use of periods and commas: “Well… I don’t know how to say this, but it’s not a good idea. At all.” Between tags of dialog make sure there are actions and description dispersed too. You shouldn’t have giant chunks of dialog and giant chunks of description.

7. Know how your characters would talk. Along with all of these rules, the biggest part of mastering dialog is knowing your characters well. A 4 year old would have a limited vocabulary, while a middle-aged professor, may use more lengthy sentences with bigger words. If your character is more closed-off, they may have shorter dialog that isn’t straightforward. If they’re a self-less person, they may always talk about others but rarely talk about themself.

8. Don’t think about it. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but dialog is often unnatural when you think about it too much. I write dialog the minute I think of it, as I think of it because that’s how speech works. You rarely pause and think about the wording of each sentence; you just say it. Because I type my dialog like my character is speaking in my head, I often rarely have to edit it because you don’t edit conversation.

9. Punctuate it correctly. Along with the content of dialog, I noticed so many people don’t have a grasp on dialog punctuation. Since it’s one of my pet peeves, here’s a basic run-down on how to punctuate dialog if you’re a writer in America (To my knowledge, the UK goes by different rules).

  • Periods and commas ALWAYS go inside the punctuation quotes.
    • “Like this.”
    • “Like this,”
  • For question marks and exclamation points, they generally go inside if they are a part of what is being said and outside if not.
    • She asked, “How are you?”
    • Didn’t she tell her to “go away”?
  • If you’re tagging the dialog after the quote, consider it part of the sentence, and end the quote with a comma.
    • “This is awesome,” she said.
  • OR if you’re tagging before the dialog, set off the tag with a comma
    • She said, “This is awesome.”
  • If there’s action with the dialog, treat it like a separate sentence.
    • “I saw you there.” She smiled.
  • If there’s more than one sentence of dialog, you can tag it after the first sentence.
    • “Well, it started yesterday,” he said. “I woke up with a fever and couldn’t get out of bed.”
  • If there’s action between two sentences, it’s still a complete sentence.
    • “Well, it started yesterday.” He tugged at the sleeve of his shirt. “I woke up with a fever and couldn’t get out of bed.”

 

How to Give Constructive Criticism

If you’re a fiction writer, chances are you have to give constructive criticism to another writer. It’s what we do because that’s how we help each other get better. There’s a line however between giving feedback or pushing your artistic vision on someone else. Whether you’re in a workshop or a friend hands you a piece personally to look at, here are some tips that they’ll benefit most from.

1. Balance out what you like and what you don’t like. This should be a give in, but to help from discouraging the writer completely, try and give a compliment for every criticism you give. You don’t have to stick to this rule if their piece is truly bad, but kindness goes a long way. Plus pointing out what they did well can be as helpful as pointing out what they didn’t’ do well.

2. Don’t give suggestions. While this rule is generally made to be broken, sometimes too many suggestions can get in the writer’s head. It may not be what works for their style or their characters, and it makes the story less owned by them. Instead, point out what didn’t work for you or what you were wondering about. For example, instead of saying, “I think you should put a flashback about the character’s past here,” say “I was wondering about what in their past motivated them to do this.”

3. Keep their personal style in mind. I once had a writer friend who wrote an experimental piece to deliberately break the rules. It would have been useless to tell him you couldn’t decipher the plot because he did that on purpose. Ask them pointed questions, and make sure things are intentional. When something isn’t intentional, you should give them feedback on it.

4. Ask them if there’s anything specific they want you to look for. As writers, sometimes we already know our weak points, but we’re looking for less obvious things. Also when it comes to knowing a writer’s personal style, asking questions can help a lot as well. If they only want help with dialog, only look at that. If you see other errors, you can simply ask if they’re aware of it, and if they are, move on.

5. Don’t bog them down with grammar. Usually when someone asks for feedback, they don’t want proofreading unless they ask for it. Also, that should be something the writer should do for herself. If you notice a lot of grammar errors, feel free to point out that they should review quote punctuation rules or proofread their piece in general, but leave that up to them.

6. Don’t critique their idea; critique their execution of it. As a reader, you’re not going to like everything you read, and that doesn’t mean if you don’t like a piece, then it’s not good. If there’s a true plot hole or inconsistency in their storyline, point it out, but don’t dismiss it just because you personally don’t care for that type of story/ genre.

6 Tips for Planning Your Novel

So you finally found an idea that’s novel-worthy? If you’ve never written a book before, you’re probably thinking, “Where do I even begin?” Look no further. Here are some tips I learned when I tried (and failed) to write a novel in high school, and when I succeeded at pushing out a manuscript draft my freshman year of college. However, I’m still a novice, so I’ve also collected some information from other writing blogs and my favorite authors. So if you’re a starting author like me, here are some steps to take to get that novel idea rolling.

1. Characters first. While this may differ per writer and novel, I find it helpful to develop your characters before you go any further in developing the plot. Why? Well, the entire outcome of the plot usually depends on the choices and reactions of your characters. Your character can’t go egg her ex-boyfriend’s house if she’s a goodie two-shoes who’s afraid of confrontation. Also, your entire plot will fall flat if you don’t have compelling characters to drive it. The characters give the reader a reason to care about what happens. Don’t know how to develop characters? Look here.

2. Map out your plot. After you have an idea of who your characters are, map out your plot. If you know where you want to start and where you want to end, it can be hard figuring out how to get there. While there are many ways to do this, my favorite method is making an outline. While some authors like to write without an ending in mind, if you’re less experienced this can often lead to useless meandering, or you create a problem you can’t untangle. Write every word with the ending in mind. However, if you find later that something doesn’t fit, don’t be afraid to change your outline and adjust.

3. Develop the setting. Once you have your characters and plot, make a world to place them in. In genres other than realistic fiction, you need to map out every little detail of your world so your reader won’t be confused. If your setting is a real place, spend time in that place to make sure you can describe it accurately. Know what each place looks like, in detail. Draw pictures/ maps if you have to. If you can’t see your setting, chances are neither can your reader. Also, make sure certain spaces are accurate to the time/ world/ characters. If your character is a neat-freak, their bedroom should be spotless. If your story is set in 1982, it would be out of place for a refrigerator to be made of stainless steel.

4. Research, research, research. This is where “write what you know” comes into play. Unless your book is about your life, you need to do some sort of research when you’re writing your book. You may think, “Hey I didn’t sign up for this. I write fiction so I don’t have to research.” But if you want your story to feel real, you will have to. If you’re writing about anything you don’t have first hand experience of, look it up. If there’s an alcoholic in your story, read up on first hand accounts. If you’re writing sci-fi, base the technology off real technology in our world. If there’s a court hearing in your book, know how the legal system works. Talk to people who have gone through these things if you can.

5. Make sure you’re committed. If you’re going to commit to writing a novel, you have to be crazy about your idea. You have to be sure you aren’t going to get bored of these characters and plot line for years. You also have to make sure there aren’t glaring plot holes and accuracy errors. The last thing you want to do is to put in all this work and give up halfway through because you’ve lost interest or found what you’ve written isn’t working.

6. Make a writing schedule and stick to it. This is the hardest part of writing a book: actually writing and being consistent about it. Find when you write best. If it’s in the morning, write then. If it’s late at night, write then. Even if it’s just for 15 minutes, make yourself do it. If you don’t write every day, you’ll lose that creative spark. Writing is work, but if it’s your true calling, you should enjoy every moment of it.

How to Make Your Characters Pop

Characters can make or break your story. I always say a strong, unlikable character will drive readers more than a flat, boring character who could literally be anyone. Your character is a person, so they deserve to be treated like the complex individual they are. Before you sit down and write your story, here are some tips for making those characters pop.

1. Map out their background. Your character’s past influences who they are in the current story you’re writing. Where did they grow up? What’s their family life like? Childhood? Any traumatic/ happy life events that have affected them?

2. Develop them with an MTBI. An MTBI is a classic psychology personality test that says a lot about a person. You can be assigned one of two letters for four categories:

I or E: (Introvert) Shy or (Extrovert) outgoing?

S or N: (Sensing) Down to Earth or (Intuition) head in the clouds?

F or T: Do they make decisions based on (Feeling) emotions or (Thinking) logic?

J or P: (Judging) Type A or (Perceiving) Type B?

A combination of these letters lead to different traits and reactions in different people. You can read more about the MTBI here.

3. What are their insecurities? This says so much about a person. How your character reacts and makes choices stems off of their deep rooted insecurities

4. How do they react to things? On top of how people feel about things, people react outwardly different to different feelings? When they’re sad, do they cry openly and call their mom, or do they get really temperamental and moody? How do they act when they’re happy? Angry? Also what is their temperament and the level to which they react to things?

5. Get the basics down. Based off their insides and background, how do they look/ dress? What is their occupation/ interests? This has a lot to do with their inner personality

6. Don’t make your main character yourself. Since making characters are hard, I see so many new writers do this. While you can pick an aspect of your life and put it in a character (for example, you like art and so does your character), you cannot make every character you write 100% you. I knew a person in one of my classes who wrote every story about a college-aged girl who liked video games, was gay, and had issues with her father. Coincidentally, so did she. In order to write well, you have to push yourself to writing people who are different from you.

7. Find a voice. Your character should have a distinct voice. Even if you write in third person, unless you have an omniscient narrator, we should hear the character. Write as if you are in the mind of the character. Chances are a 13 year old would use the word stupid rather than vapid.

8. Know how they move and speak to each other. Certain people move differently, and certain people talk differently. One thing that helps this is to people watch. Watch interactions. Listen to conversations. Know what’s natural and unnatural when it comes to speech and movement.