We’ve all heard the old adage, “Write what you know.” I’m not here today to debate this advice. In fact, I agree with it to the extent that I believe it is helpful to ground the emotions and feelings of your characters in emotions and feelings you know well, even if your characters’ experiences vary widely from your own. But the wisdom of “Write what you know” isn’t what I want to discuss today. I want to discuss the wisdom of “Write what you love.”
When I find myself searching for a new writing project, I always go through a period of false starts. (I wrote an entire post about false starts here.)
With a false start, I generally fall head-over-heels in love with an idea for a very short period of time. During that brief honeymoon with the idea I am convinced that it is the story—the story idea I’ve been waiting for all my life. I feel this way intensely until… I just don’t. I wake up one morning and realize I don’t feel passionate about the characters or the plot or both. Maybe it’s the main idea – the truth within the story—that isn’t compelling enough to me to keep going. Whatever the reason, I fall out of love with the story (usually all at once.)
Other stories—the ones I slip more deeply into every day—are the ones where that initial hint of love keeps growing. I find the characters more and more interesting, their circumstances more and more compelling. That’s when I begin to know that this story is one I will invest myself in. This is a story I want to stay with and make into a novel.
Maybe you feel this is something you already know. However, I feel it’s worth repeating because I notice a great deal of distraction among aspiring writers with regard to choosing what to write about. I see comments and questions all over the blogosphere and Twitterverse (especially when it comes to #askagent sessions on Twitter) about what is selling and what is “the next big thing.” While I think it’s only natural to want your book to sell, I believe it’s a fool’s errand to choose your genre or topic or story inspiration based on a perceived shift in the winds of publishing.
I cannot pretend to be immune to this myself. We all want to know “What’s next.” The answer is “Nobody knows.” My agent likes to remind me, “No one has a crystal ball.” The market will be what it will be. As a writer you can’t control it. So rather than write the book you think everyone else will want to read, write the book you want to read.
This is also a piece of well-worn advice—“Write the book you want to read”—but it’s just about the best advice you can consider when you start to write a new story. Of course it makes sense to create for the world a book that you yourself would want to read because you have to trust that other readers will agree with you. But there’s another aspect of this advice that you should consider strongly as you choose the story you will devote yourself to, and that is the fact that you yourself will read that book countless times.
In the course of writing a novel and seeing it through the process of drafting, revision, critique-partner input, more revision, agent queries, more revision, editor submissions, more revision… you will read your own novel so many times you will certainly lose count. As Amie Kaufman discussed in her post yesterday, you will read it so many times you will struggle to find ways to read it from new, fresh angles. You will stop reading it for a while just so you can go back and read it again.
Writing a novel is like entering into a committed relationship. You will spend countless evenings with your characters. (If you’re dreaming of writing a series, you will be with those characters for years…) The only way that you will be able to devote so much time and energy and passion into a story without plunging into complete despair is to Write what you love. Write characters you love, in a setting you love, in situations you love. Make them hurt so that your heart breaks for the love of them. Lift them up so that your love for them makes their victories your victories, too.
When I fall in love with a book I’m reading, I feel a passion that’s alive on the page. That passion is something the author is sharing with me, because she felt it first.
How do you decide what to write? Do you write what you know? Do you write what you love? Please share your thoughts in the comments!