write what you know.
An author I’m slightly familiar with recently asked a question on her blog – What writing advice would you give a would-be or wanna-be writer?
My advice is, and will always be, write what you know.
Does that mean you can’t use your imagination and set a story in the past, the future or in a galaxy far, far away? Or that your character can’t be a ghost, a vampire, a demon filled with self-loathing? Of course not.
Cheap Thrills, my favorite album and cover.
What it means is this – at the heart of every story you write must lie authenticity. To paraphrase Janis Joplin in a song written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns – A Piece of My Heart. Include a piece of your heart.
You should be familiar with your characters and the challenges they face, the situations you place them in — in other words, write what you know.
If your voice is inauthentic, while you may write an entertaining piece, it is ultimately forgettable.
The irony is this – a work can be forgettable and even, well, crap, and still sell like hotcakes. But it won’t be a work I’ll buy.
Ce la vie. Who cares what I buy?
I did read a snippet of a work in progress by a hopeful author, Stephanie Berget. Just a snippet, a smidge. The authenticity in her voice jumped out at me and I knew immediately if and when she gets published, or publishes, I will buy her book.
Here’s a story, a true story. I once believed most journalists possessed integrity. I did, really. And, as my uncle was a journalist and he possessed integrity I know some do, indeed, possess integrity.
Anyway… I attended a writer’s conference. It was by invitation only, in other words I had to submit a sample of my work, which was evaluated by a committee, which then determined my skill level was acceptable and I was granted admission.
On faculty was a woman I so admired, a NYT bestselling author. I thought she’d be, oh I don’t know, professional, erudite, informative, mature… everything I expected a bestselling author and high profile journalist for a major international publication to be. I knew she’d impart words of wisdom I’d never, ever forget… words that would inspire me, encourage me in my elusive quest for publication.
Of course I registered for a day-long workshop with her, entitled– The Art of the Short Story. She was the one person I was determined to learn from. I was already familiar with the structure of a short story, but I was convinced she could provide insights into the secret world behind the deep, dark, mysterious, and oh-so elite publishing curtain… Insights to help me craft a better story, one that would attract the attention of magazines, publishers and literary agents.
She appeared two hours late, her hair a rat’s nest, wearing sunglasses, hungover, barely able to speak above a garbled whisper because of her headache.
The workshop was supposed to last the entire day. She managed to spend a single hour with us before she had to go vomit. In that one hour I learned the following-
1. Whom she’d had sex with over the past five years. Where she’d had sex. Who gave it to her in the ass. I have never been able to look at him the same since (on film) because if she’s the kind of person he wants to have sex with, uh, yuck. He must have slunk off the next day with his tail between his legs. (By the way, she is a lit fic author, doesn’t write erotica.)
2. How much she charged the magazine for her trips, both national and international, purportedly to do research, but in actuality to drink and hook up with men.
3. Her words of wisdom– “Just make it up. Lie. When you’re too hungover to do the interview you’ve scheduled, or check out the statistics your article is supposed to be based on, pretend you did the research. In this business we make up shit all the time.”
Yeah, I paid for this. I paid good money… for this. Her books, the books I brought hoping for an autograph, went straight into the trash bin. Not so much because I was disillusioned with her as a person, but because it cost a whole lot to hear her truth and her truth was a disrespectful lie from start to finish. Disrespectful to her profession, to her employers, to her fans, disrespectful to those of us who paid money to learn from her. You want to know the worst part? The women attendees, not the men, followed her around for five days with their tongues hanging out, panting after her like she was a bitch in heat. I think that surprised me the most.
So I’m telling you– I’ve been writing for a lot of years. Write what you know. Don’t lie like she did. All stories are a lie, or if you prefer, a fantasy to a greater or lesser degree, but at the core of every lie you tell must be your truth. A discerning reader will know the difference. Respect your readers, your characters and yourself.