What does it really meant to write what you know?

If you’ve breathed air in this world for longer than five minutes, you’ve heard this phrase. 

Write what you know.

This invariably leads every writer to have the same existential crisis when we realize that we don’t know a damned thing. And even if we do know something, it’s boring as hell and no one wants to read it. 

This realization leads many writers to treat this advice as just so much bullshit. Which is a shame, because it’s some of the best writing advice you’ll ever hear.

As I see it, there are three reasons why people get this so wrong. So today let’s talk about those reasons. And let’s talk about how you can use ‘Write what you know to help you write better.

Everyone misinterprets this phrase 

The phrase is write what you know. It is not now, nor has it ever been write only what you know. If that were the case, speculative fiction wouldn’t exist at all. 

Maybe it would help to rephrase this. Write a piece of yourself into your work. This is more honest, but not as catchy. 

As an example, I know a lot about coffee and having a complicated relationship with my hometown. I love animals and handcrafts and Fall. I am endlessly fascinated with the Mandella effect, and all things supernatural. All of that comes up in my writing. 

Everyone underestimates what they know

If you ask anyone what they know about really well, they’re probably going to tell you that there’s one, maybe two things they know about. Most people would swear they don’t know about anything but their favorite tv show. 

The same thing happened to me a few weeks ago! An icebreaker question during a writing event just floored me. “What could you talk about for an hour with no prior warning?”

My first thought was, hell I don’t know. Futurama? 

Then someone mentioned Pittsburgh, and it hit me. I could talk about George Romero and his impact on Steel City for an hour. Hell, they’d probably have to shut me up after an hour.

As I waited my turn, I thought of more and more things I could talk for an hour on. The importance of homemaking in modern times. Why it should be illegal for landlords to refuse their tenets to allow pets. Why we should abolish lawns. 

There are lots of other things that maybe couldn’t take up an hour, but I still know about them.

Here’s an exercise for you. Start making a list of things you know, big or small. Do you still think you don’t know anything? Let me help you get started. 

You know your home town.

You know what it was like to go to your high school.

You know what it was like to grow up in your family home, with your family.

Keep going

Everyone underestimates how interested other people would be in what they know

I don’t think anyone wants to hear about my childhood, but I gobble up autobiographies. I don’t think anyone cares about my hometown, but then I can’t get enough of small towns in horror novels. I don’t think anyone wants to hear about my family, but I love hearing about everyone else’s family. 

Remember your life seems boring to you because you lived it. No one else has done that. No one has the same experiences you have. No one has walked the same path. And your path is fascinating. 

That is really what we mean by writing what you know. Not that you have to have lived a fantasy life to write. But your life is fantastic, and you should share that in your work.

Preptober starts tomorrow. Don’t forget to grab your Preptober planner on my Ko-fi store

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Six Youtube channels that will make you a better writer

We all spend more time on Youtube than we’d probably like to admit. Honestly, I think I spend more time watching it than any of the streaming services I’m paying for. Which is kind of amazing when you think about it. Here’s a platform where anyone can post their content. Yes, there’s lots of controversy around that, as there is about anything on the internet. But that doesn’t stop the videos on Youtube from being some damn entertaining stuff. Or horrifically cringe worth. 

Today I want to share with you six Youtube channels I watch that help me be a better writer. I’m not going over the channels I watch for pure entertainment or the ones I watch to learn Spanish or witchy stuff. These are just the ones that help me write. And I’ll bet they’re going to help you, too. 

Lofi Girl

Okay, I bet you’ve already heard of this one. But Lofi Girl is my go-to background music when I want to get some writing done without distractions. There are no commercials, the lofi music just goes on and on. The animation moves just a little, not enough to be distracting. It is perfect.

Merve

While I’m not a particularly social person, I love going somewhere public to write. Libraries and coffee shops tend to be cluttered with other people doing exactly what I’m doing. Typing away on a keyboard, working on some project or another.

I missed this during the pandemic, this feeling of working around other people in a warm fuzzy sense of companionship. Without actually talking to one another.

The Merve Youtube channel gives you exactly that. Merve is just a college student, working on her studies, while she sits in front of a beautiful view. It’s soothing to hear someone flipping pages, highlighting, and typing while I’m doing the same. 

I also like that there’s a timer on the video, reminding me to take occasional breaks. 

Temi Danso Art

This is a channel dedicated to art, by a fantastic artist named Temi. She gives tips and art advice, does draw-along videos, and talks art shop.

I love this channel from a writing perspective because the advice she gives for visual art applies to writing as well. The advice is sweet, uplifting, and super useful.

Caitlin’s Corner

This is an overall life Youtube channel, not so much writing advice. But it’s got a ton of beneficial advice. I am often humbled by this woman who’s a decade younger than me, but has so much advice to give! I learn about home care, time management, money, and self-employment. None of those things are writing advice, but all of them are writing advice if you want to be a working writer.

Author Level Up

This channel is full of the kind of writing advice I need right now. There’s info about trends, writing styles, and marketing. Listening to Michael talk is like listening to a really smart big brother. I just love it. And I for sure have gotten some awesome writing advice from him.

Writing with Jenna

Finally, there’s Writing with Jenna. It’s also a Youtube channel filled with writing and marketing advice. It just has a lot more swearing and a small dog.

Jenna’s not interested in your feelings. She’s interested in telling you how you’re being dumb with your writing career and how you can fix it. 

I love this because I’m not big on feelings when it comes to writing. I care about actually, you know, having a career that pays more than my Hulu bill. 

So that’s it. Hopefully, if we’re going to spend all our time on Youtube, we can become better writers as we do it. 

What’s your favorite writing Youtube channel? Let us know in the comments. 

I made a Preptober planner! It’s available in my Ko-fi shop right now. Plan along with me so we can successfully write our novels. 

Here to go, writing characters you plan to kill

Note: I’m going to be going into one big spoiler for the latest season of Stranger Things in this post. If you haven’t seen it yet and you plan to, maybe click away and read this later.

This title is inspired by an issue of Transmetropolitan. In it, the main character was talking about a boy his assistant was dating. He said the boy wasn’t planning to stick around. He was here to go.

There are times when writing that we’ve got to kill someone. Not for real, hopefully, but on the page. Maybe this doesn’t have to happen in all books, but it happens in all my books. 

In speculative fiction, not everyone’s getting out alive. 

In some cases, you might want to write a character that you know you’re going to kill off. Maybe to bring the team together, like in Avengers. Maybe to clear the way to a throne, like in Tamora Pierce’s Tricker’s Queen. Maybe just to make sure that the battle costs something, like in the latest season of Stranger Things. 

Joseph Quinn in Stranger Things.

Knowing that you’re writing someone that isn’t going to make it to the last page is kind of a bummer. So if you’re going to do it, wring everything out of that death that you can. 

What a here-to-go character isn’t

When I talk about a here-to-go character, I’m not talking about people like Snape. These are not characters who have been a part of the main cast and die in the last book. We expect to lose some of the main cast at the end of a series. I’m talking more about characters like Eddie or Bob.

I’m also not talking about red shirts. A red shirt is a nameless extra character, usually, one who goes along with some of our beloved main characters on a dangerous mission. They might also be considered cannon fodder for a writer. Someone’s gotta die when we’re facing a rock demon, and it’s not gonna be this MC that I spent three months writing journal entries for to get into their head. 

What we’re looking for is something in between. Someone who has a name, a background. This should be a fully fleshed-out character. You want your readers to have an attachment to this person. You want them to feel like this person has been around since the start, even though they haven’t. 

You want this character to fit right into the group. You want them to feel like they could be an addition to the long-lasting cast. 

There are several ways to do this, depending on what sort of story you’re writing. In our example, Stranger Things, they involved Eddie in the main cast’s favorite pastime, D&D. Bob was a friend of Joyce’s in school. They fit right in. 

Have two (or more) characters in this role

In season three of Stranger Things, two characters felt like here-to-go characters. There was Bob, who did eventually go. But there was also Robin. And Robin could have gone as well. She was new, but we were able to form an attachment to her right away. 

Sean Aston and Winona Ryder in Stranger Things.

By having two new characters, one to stay and one to go, your audience isn’t sure which is which. And that builds up the tension. 

It’s never a good idea for your audience to know who’s going to die. If you’re writing speculative fiction, they have to assume someone’s going to die. But they shouldn’t be able to tell who. 

If we don’t care that this character died, he might as well not have been there.

This is probably the most painful part. When you write a here-to-go character, you have to write them with as much care as you would the main character. Remember, you want to write every character as though they’re the MC of their own story.

You want your audience to care about the characters. I liked Eddie. I liked Bob. They were good friends. They were brave. They were funny. 

Their lives and deaths changed our main cast. And that’s the point of these here-to-go characters. They aren’t here for a long time, but they’re here for an influential time.

Otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone’s time. 

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Do I have a short attention span, or is this a bad story?

Has this ever happened to you? You’re watching a new movie or tv show that you’ve never seen before. Usually with a friend or a spouse. All of a sudden, you realize that you’re not watching the content you wanted to share anymore. You’re on your phone or tablet, scrolling social media and you’ve lost track of the storyline. 

Maybe this happens because you’re tired. Or maybe you’ve got a touch of ADD (Probably not. Everyone thinks they’ve got ADD.) Or maybe Instagram is actually more interesting than whatever you were watching.

If you’re anything like me, you probably beat yourself up over this a little. And if you don’t, someone else has probably done it for you. I’ve even developed a little pathological fear of watching anything new because of this. I mean, I’m a writer, and also thirty-five years old. I should have a better attention span. I should be getting into this story. Lots of other people love this movie, why can’t I focus? Am I a three-year-old, what is the matter with me?!?

Probably nothing. There is a really good chance that the content you’re trying and failing to watch is just not working. Today I thought it would be helpful to talk about some ways to tell if the story you’re watching is just bad, or if it’s a you problem.

Spoiler, it’s probably not you. 

Don’t rely on other people to help you with this. 

There are some movies, books, and tv shows everyone claims to love. Some are classics like Casablanca or The Godfather. Some are heavy thinking films like The Shape of Water. But this list could include anything you’ve ever been made to feel bad for not liking.

You must not have gotten it.

It’s too smart for you. 

This is bullshit. There are plenty of reasons you might not like a story that other people, even a lot of other people, claimed to enjoy. 

For one thing, people lie. And sometimes people claim that they like something because they think everyone likes it. 

We should have learned this lesson as children, but most of us struggle with it our whole lives. Do you remember the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes? No one wants to be the first to point out the Emperor’s junk is swinging free in the breeze.

Of course, just because you didn’t like something doesn’t mean it’s bad. For instance, I didn’t like the movie Last of The Mohicans. I get that lots of people loved it. But I found it boring as hell.

I am not wrong. The story isn’t wrong. We just didn’t click. 

Maybe it’s not the story for you at this point in your life

There are some stories we are just not ready to hear. And that can be for a ton of reasons. The most common reason is that we are not yet emotionally mature enough for it. 

This is why children are often said to have a shorter attention span than adults. Sometimes that’s the case. And sometimes they just haven’t lived long enough to emotionally connect with a story.

One great example for me is The Truman Show. I saw this movie when it came out, in 1998. I was ten, and I didn’t get it. I hated it. It was long, boring, and a real disappointment. 

It didn’t help that my expectations were way off base. I had seen Jim Carrey in The Mask and Ace Ventura. I wasn’t prepared for him to be in a serious role. 

Seeing the film as an adult, I loved it. I understood the raw rage Truman must have felt, realizing that his whole world was a lie. It’s a brilliant film, I’ve seen it several times since then. And I’ve never considered it too long. 

There’s nothing wrong with being too young or too old for a film. It’s just where you are in your life. 

Don’t listen to older people who tell you our generation has a shorter attention span.

This is the one that pisses me off. It’s the general Blame Millenials trope that I’m truly sick and tired of. It’s the theory that our generation, after a lifetime of cartoons and social media, just doesn’t have the attention span for a real story anymore.

Again I say Bullshit. We’re the generation that devoured Avatar, Titanic, and six Lord of The Rings movies including extended cuts. And I, who have the attention span of a stoned raccoon in a Twinkie factory, have no issue reading Stephen King novels the size of phone books. 

If a story is good, there is no such thing as too long. 

Often I find this argument used to defend classics. But what is considered a classic might need an upgrade. Frankly, I consider a classic any story that is still entertaining and/or relevant. People still read Frankenstein every year. To Kill A Mockingbird was so popular the publisher might have committed elder abuse to get a sequel.

TLDR- What can writers do with this information? 

None of this is any help at all if we don’t know what to do about it. Okay, so sometimes a story just doesn’t work for us and it’s not your fault. 

It’s enough to remove this guilt from ourselves, certainly. But as writers, we can do more. 

The next time you’re watching something and you go to reach for Instagram, stop and grab your writer’s notebook instead. Write down what you’re watching and what was going on when you lost interest. Try doing this every time a story loses you, and you’ll start to see a pattern of what doesn’t work for you. And if it doesn’t work for you, there’s at least a chance that it doesn’t work for other people too. 

Remember, a bad story can teach you as much as a good story. So if a story is boring you, at least you can learn something from it. 

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Keeping your voice when writing different genres, with 11.22.63

I tell people that I write speculative fiction. And I do, technically. But speculative fiction is an umbrella term that includes science fiction, fantasy and horror. Everyone sort of knows that. 

On the one hand, I can kind of see why. These three genres are easy to blend, especially horror and science fiction. Some pieces of fiction you have to pick apart to figure out which side of the fence it falls on.

On the other hand, science fiction and horror are pretty distinct. If you compare the last horror book I read (American Psycho) and the last science fiction book (Now, Then and Everywhen), they’re lightyears from each other. 

So when an author goes from one genre to another, some serious considerations have to be made. Many authors use pen names for different genres to help differentiate their work.

I don’t. And neither does Stephen King, one of my writing mentors. (In my head. I’ve never met the man, I’ve just read On Writing many times.) His time travel novel, 11.22.63, was a worldwide hit. That’s no surprise, he could stick his name on the front of a phone book and it would sell. But this was a really good story. I just finished watching the mini-series on Hulu, and it was quite entertaining. More than that, it was a shining example of how to switch genres like a pro.

(Oh, and it has a satisfying ending. I won’t tell you what it is, but it’s there.)

Lee11.22.63 is purely a time travel story. It checks all the boxes. We have betting on sports, falling in love with a woman in the past, trying to hide knowledge of the future. The main character, Jake, is amazed and hurt by the racism of the past. I was, too, honestly. 

This was not, in short, a horror story. There was some blood, some spookiness at the start. It begins with the tale of a man who’s family was murdered by his father. But after that, there’s precious little blood. There are no jump scares. No serial killers. No eerie thing creeping in the night, clicking its teeth in anticipation of crunching into flesh and bone.

And yet, this is a King story. No one who’s read as much of his work as I have could ever mistake it. 

I mean, let’s start with the fact that Jake is from Maine. He’s an English and Creative Jake and old guyWriting teacher, from Maine. He’s divorced, and he has an older cantankerous man as a good friend. 

Does King know that people have other jobs besides writing? Asking for a friend. That friend is King. 

In case we didn’t notice that this is a King story, the directors helpfully left little clues all over the place. I loved this. Eagle eye watchers will notice that Randall Flagg made a cameo in the last episode. At one point the word ‘redrum’ is written in red on a wall. Christine also makes an appearance, driven by Sadie’s ex-husband. At one point Jake, while pretending to be a drunk JFK fan, tells an FBI agent that he’s his number one fan. In one episode that includes kids trick or treating, we see children dressed up as killer corn monsters and Pennywise the Clown.

Maybe because I’m so big on dialog myself, this is the biggest sign of style for me. The word usage and names are very much King’s style. It’s a difficult thing to explain, style. But you know it when you see it. You can recognize a page of writing from Tolkien, Grisham or King. It’s just something you can feel.

I hope that someday people say that about my work. 

So if you’re a writer and you’re considering switching genres, go for it. Your style will come through, whether you’re writing about demons or spaceships. 

Weekends at play

Cover art from MabelAmber.

Creators all over the internet are taking advantage of this quarantine to create more than normal. There are more podcasts, more blog posts, more art. Every other post online seems to be about how everyone’s stuck at home, so we might as well have good things to read, watch and listen to.

Every time I see one of those posts, I kind of want to smack the person who wrote it. Yeah, lots of people have more free time than normal. Some of the rest of us are working harder than ever because we work in essential jobs. 

Now, I work from home. Please don’t think for one second that I don’t understand what an awesome privilege that is. I am safe, my family is safe. I’m not one of the many trying to get unemployment right now. I’m thankful for that. 

I’m also stupid busy again. I’m working extra hours, trying to get a book out, writing more for some of my freelance clients and PBW. Now seems like the dumbest time to add something else to my plate.

So, I’m not. What I’m doing instead is taking every other weekend off to write short stories. I don’t work on the novel, I don’t work on promotional stuff. I just write flash and micro fiction for a whole weekend. If I were a painter, I would liken this to stepping away from my work in progress to wash the paint off my hands and sketch. 

If you’re a creator, here are five reasons why you might consider doing the same thing.

Lets stories out that are talking to me.

Any writer will tell you that getting ideas is not the problem. It’s never been the problem. The problem is what to do with all the damn ideas! I have this great novel I’m writing and I’m super excited about it. But I also have this idea for an eerie little piece. And I want to write about some dark moments from my childhood. And some bright moments. And maybe I’d like to talk about some things going on in the world right now. 

There was a time when I thought serious writers worked on one project at a time. I thought that chasing all of these different stories was childish. It went right against the Lion meditation I love so much. 

But here’s the thing. When I ignore those stories, they start digging away. They become the distraction that I can’t ignore. They make me resent the story I’m working on. I can’t have all these other stories because I’m working on this one! That’s not a good way to work.

Gives me new material to get up faster than novels.

Novels take time. Anyone who has a favorite author knows this. I have a list of authors I check on monthly to see if their new book is coming out soon. This month. This year? Please?

I hope that somewhere a reader is waiting for my new book the same way I wait for Tamora Pierce’s new book. And if that person is out there, I want to be able to put out other things that might give them something entertaining to consume while they wait.

I also like to get my name out there every so often, to make sure people don’t forget me.

Lets me play with ideas.

I am an artist. I know I don’t put it that way often, but there it is. Writing is art. And I want to explore that. I want to try new things, new points of view. I want to write about weird little shit that might never make a full novel. Who’s that old man I saw on the bus, where’s he going? Can I write a story in a weird pov? Can I write a story about the lifetime of a shoe, or a bird, or a gift card? Can I write a story about this creepy picture I just found?

I need the freedom to explore. To write things that might not work. To write things just for me. 

Gives me a break.

Frankly, I need a break sometimes. I need to take my eyes off the project at hand and do something else. 

I’m writing dark science fiction. I might want to put that down and make a ghost story. Or maybe a little smut. Maybe a nonfiction essay. A change is as good as a rest, is what I’m saying.

Sends me back to my WIP with fresh eyes.

Of course, the weekend will end and I’ll get back to my novel. Of course, the work I did when not working on my novel is still writing. So maybe I learned something I can bring to my novel. Or I learned something new. Maybe it’s even something I can write into the novel. It all feeds into the work at large.

And even if I don’t learn anything new, my writing will be better for the fresh eyes I bring to it. 

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