Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Best Writing Advice I've Gotten Lately

Writers, all of us, like to give advice.  Whether we've been published a thousand times or are still seeking that elusive first credit, we feel like we know how the business works and, more often than not, we'll share our little nuggets of wisdom, whether you want it from us or not.  We firmly affix our monocles and stroke our chins while dispensing sage-like words like candy from a Pez dispenser.  And, like everything else, it's all subjective.  What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa.

Of course, I'm over-generalizing.  Not all of us are like that.  Some of us prefer to listen, to weigh the opinions of those who came before, and to make our own choices.  So when the subject of "writing advice" comes up, most writers give a collective groan, roll their eyes, and brace for impact.  And most of the time, it's crap.  Anything other than "put your ass in the chair and finish the damned novel" is purely one person's opinion and should be taken with a  grain of salt.

But today, I read a rather brilliant blog post by Chuck Wendig on his blog about his own twenty-five rules for being a successful writer.  Among the gems in his post (and you should read his name) is one simple phrase.  "Don't write what you know, know what you write."

How many times have we been told "Write what you know?" followed by smug giggling and the person offering this trite little chestnut scampers away to watch your meltdown from a safe vantage point?  How could that possibly work?  Let's see...  Most people, when they began writing, had all the life experience of an angst-ridden teenager, with no real experience about anything.  If they stuck to writing what they knew, we'd be even more inundated with hyper-emo stories about teenage break-ups and shitty teachers and what it's like to be picked on in high-school than we already are.  If you only write what you know, your writing is limited to your own personal experience.  Really, though important to you, I'm pretty certain that no one here has the kind of life that makes for a good novel.  So what's the solution?

"Know what you write."  Brilliant.  It's not a statement that your experiences are unimportant.  They are what makes you who you are.  But instead, it's an encouragement to go and have new experiences.  I'm pretty certain Thomas Harris is neither an FBI agent nor a serial killer.  But, when doing research for Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, he tagged along through FBI training so he could understand what those people went through.  Before I wrote a gunplay scene, I'd never fired a handgun.  Never.  I know, right?  I'm from Texas, and never fired a hand-gun.  But I went out and had a new experience.  I went to a shooting range (taken by my good friend and fellow writer Nikki Hopeman and her fantastic husband Ward [who, incidentally, I consider my brother-from-a-different-mother]) and fired off a few shots, just to see what it felt like, smelled like, tasted like.  I wanted to know what it was like to ride a horse (I know...Again, WTF?  Texas, right?) so I found someone with a horse, saddled up, and went riding.  Yes, I looked ridiculous, but I learned.

The point here is that nothing should limit you.  "Write what you know" is a limiting statement.  Bowing before this holy little commandment does nothing but stunt your growth creatively.  Write what you know, and you'll never know anything else.  Know what you write, however, and you've just opened up a world of new experiences, all in the name of writing a better story.

And so, today, a challenge.  Today, find something you've always wanted to do, but haven't.  Find something that looks interesting.  Eat something you've never eaten before.  Even if you hate it, it's an experience upon which you can build.  Here are some examples that are easy and worth every moment of the experience you can gain:

  • Go to a gun range.  Squeeze off a few rounds.  
  • Take a walk in the woods.  Sit and listen to the sounds around you.
  • Dance in the rain. 
  • Skinny dip.
  • Eat something that looks or sounds repugnant.  Try Haggis.
  • Go to a nursing home and talk to an old person. 
  • Guys, in the privacy of your own home, put on makeup. 
  • Walk as quick as you can for as long as you can.
  • Try to break into your own house without damaging anything.
  • Do a ride-along with a cop.
Every one of the things above have hidden things that you'll never know about until you try them.  And every one of them is often misrepresented by writers who haven't done them.  Go out and have those new experiences.  Grow from them.  Learn from them.  Write about them.  Then come back here and tell us what they were and what you learned.