The Worst Advice I Ever Got: That darned “Write What You Know”
Whenever anyone asks me to give them some writing advice, I cringe. Because the truth is, writing is such a personal endeavour. It comes from the heart and soul. It comes from experience and dreams. And it means that everyone’s approach to it is going to be different and I can’t tell anyone other than myself how to do it right—and even MY approach changes from time to time based on my frame of mind, the project I’m working on, or some other consideration…(like how many donuts I’ve inhaled).
And I think the most misunderstood piece of writing advice out there is the one that says “write what you know”. The first time someone told me that I was floored. I mean, I’d just finished a paranormal romance for heaven’s sake. This author had read the first few chapters as a judge in a writing contest and came back with ”write what you know”. What was that supposed to mean? How could I possibly write what I know when I’m writing about demons and magic?
Unfortunately, I think a lot of people hear this bit of advice and react the same way. “Write what you know” implies that I should stick to contemporary stories about soccer moms struggling through the 9-5 job.
But I think what some people don’t realize about this piece of advice—and something I didn’t understand until a little bit later either—is that it shouldn’t be interpreted so broadly. When someone tells you to write what you know, they don’t mean you can’t write fantasy effectively because you don’t live in Narnia, and they don’t mean you can’t write historicals effectively because you weren’t born in 1604.
What it really means is that when you look at the minutiae of your writing, the little details that make up the whole, where is it coming from? If you’ve described the setting and there’s snow and it’s supposed to be cold, have you actually sat back and remembered what it was like to be outside in the middle of winter? Do you remember how the frost patterns travel across the windows? Have you translated that cold shiver that starts at the back of your spine and goes all the way through your body onto the page? Have you shown how the snowflakes flutter down from the sky like fuzzy cotton balls until they you see them close up and they’re like thin, tiny tiny cutouts of glass sticking together, more like metal shavings?
And when someone says “write what you know”, it doesn’t mean that you can’t infuse your work with deep, dark emotional characters who experience things you’ve never experienced. I’ve written about a character who loses everything and finds herself in a completely hostile environment. Looking at it broadly, no of course I haven’t fallen into a portal to another world and found myself shipwrecked from everyone and everything I know…but there havebeen moments in my life when I felt like I’ve lost everything. I do know what it’s like to be alone, scared, and wondering if it will ever be okay again. And these are the feelings a writer channels into characters and plot lines that seem too fantastical for real experiences.
So while I don’t agree with the advice “write what you know” … I also kind of think it’s the best advice ever. What do you think?
Chloe Jacobs is a native of nowhere and everywhere, having jumped around to practically every Province of Canada before finally settling in Ontario where she has now been living for a respectable number of years. Her husband and son are the two best people in the entire world, but they also make her wish she'd at least gotten a female cat. No such luck. And although the day job keeps her busy, she carves out as much time as possible to write. Bringing new characters to life and finding out what makes them tick and how badly she can make them suffer is one of her greatest pleasures, almost better than chocolate and fuzzy pink bunny slippers. Find out more at: Website/ Twitter / Facebook/ Goodreads
GRETA AND THE GOBLIN KING
While trying to save her brother from the witch three years ago, Greta was thrown into the fire herself, falling through a portal to a dangerous world where humans are the enemy, and every ogre, goblin, and ghoul has a dark side that comes out with the full moon.
To survive, 17-year-old Greta has hidden her humanity and taken the job of bounty hunter—and she’s good at what she does. So good, she’s caught the attention of Mylena’s young Goblin King, the darkly enticing Isaac, who invades her dreams and undermines her determination to escape.
But Greta’s not the only one looking to get out of Mylena. The full moon is mere days away, and an ancient evil being knows she’s the key to opening the portal. If Greta fails, she and the boys she finds stranded in the woods will die. If she succeeds, no world will be safe from what follows her back . . .