Write what you know love

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!


27 Responses to Write what you know love

  1. Stela Brinzeanu May 14 2013 at 5:25 am #

    Couldn’t agree more, Julie! Too many chase the buck rather than the story and the readers can tell it straight away. That which does not come from within, will always be shallow.. Thank you for a great post.

    • Julie Eshbaugh May 14 2013 at 6:23 am #

      Hey Stela! I’m glad you liked this post. I definitely believe the writer’s love for the story comes through. I don’t think you should ignore the market, of course, but I think it’s also a mistake to let the market rule over your writing. Like you say, the reader can always tell! 🙂

  2. PK Hrezo May 14 2013 at 6:28 am #

    This just happened to me. In March I had a brand new shiny story idea– plotted it all out, even wrote the first chapter , but then I stalled. I couldn’t get motivated to continue. Few days later a different story idea came like a strike of lightening and it was so perfect and I fell so in love with it, that the first draft is already done! And it’s been a total love affair.

    Your post is a great reminder not to settle for writing a story that we’re not passionate about. Really what’s the point??

    • Julie Eshbaugh May 14 2013 at 7:23 am #

      Oh wow PK! I’m so happy for you that you found a story you love so much! That’s truly my dream every time I start something new. Best of luck to you as you work on polishing the draft!

  3. Ashley Farley May 14 2013 at 7:10 am #

    I totally agree with you about writing what you are passionate about. A writer must connect with those feelings to bring his/her characters o life. I often have wonderful story ideas that turn out not to be so great. We have to give ourselves permission to trash them and move on to something new, chalking it up to lessons learned. It’s all part of the process.

    • Julie Eshbaugh May 14 2013 at 7:26 am #

      Hi Ashley! Yes – “We have to give ourselves permission to trash them and move on to something new.” Exactly! I couldn’t agree more, even though with every trashed new idea I get a little more nervous that nothing is going to “stick.” Sometimes it takes a long time, but it’s always worth the wait. 🙂

  4. Laura Wardle May 14 2013 at 8:12 am #

    I started out writing what I knew — women’s fiction. I stuck with that novel for five long years, out of duty, not passion. I spent that time practicing and honing my craft. That manuscript gave me room to find myself as a writer. But while I enjoy a good women’s fiction novel, that’s not where my heart lies.

    Fantasy. That’s what I have always wanted to write. But I didn’t believe I could do the genre justice.

    But last summer I decided to throw caution to the wind and plunge ahead. And I’m now knee-deep in drafting a young-adult urban fantasy novel. It’s hard — oh, it’s hard — but it’s so worth it. It’s delicious and thrilling and I can’t get enough of it.

    With it, I’ve rediscovered my passion for writing. Before I’d resigned myself to writing what I know and playing within the confines of my own world, but now I’m playing in a sandbox all of my own making. It’s incredible.

    I thoroughly believe in writing what you love, not what you know. What you know can be so limiting, especially to your creative flair. It was crushing me. But once I gave myself up to the fantasy genre, all that fell away and it was as if the creative floodgates had reopened to me.

    Like you say, Julie, it is like being in a committed relationship. You’re with the story for a long, long time. Through plotting, drafting, editing, etc. It’s a long haul. And you have to love it enough to want to be with it so much. If not, you won’t be able to weather the storm and it will wither away. I know because that’s what happened to me.

    So, yes, write what you love. Or what you want to read. However, you want to phrase it. That should be the wisdom we pass on to new writers.

    • Julie Eshbaugh May 14 2013 at 10:07 am #

      Hi Laura! You’re story is so inspiring, and I am so happy to know that you are now writing what you love! As I was writing this post I was talking about the whole rule of “write what you know” and the fact that it can apply even to fantasy and sci-fi on the level of the lives of your characters. I may not know the fear of being lost in space, but I do know the fear of being lost, and I believe it’s up to the writer to translate those feelings. That’s the creative process, right?
      I’m so glad you feel your creativity has returned! Thanks for the comment and for being such a loyal reader of this blog. <3

      • Laura Wardle May 14 2013 at 12:59 pm #

        I agree completely, Julie. What we know equips us to write what we love. We can translate so much and apply where we need to. That’s the beauty of the creative process. We get to live thousands of lives beyond our own and take our own experiences to new levels. It’s awesome.

        Oh, and I forgot to add, Julie — wonderful post! Think I’ll link back to it sometime this week. It’s a great topic. And I clearly have a lot to say myself on it. Haha! 🙂

        I’ll always be a reader of this blog. As long as you ladies are here, so will I. That’s guaranteed.

        • Julie Eshbaugh May 14 2013 at 1:22 pm #

          Thanks Laura! I’m so glad you got something out of the post, and I LOVE a good dialogue in the comments! We all appreciate you so much! <3

  5. Stephanie Noel May 14 2013 at 9:27 am #

    Many of my ideas for stories just pop in my head, randomly. I’ll be doing something else (usually something that doesn’t require me to think) and the next thing I know, I have a story brewing. The story pesters me until I put the words down on my idea notebook. I also get idea in dreams. I have really messed up ones (had one last night, actually) and a lot of it is good material to start a story.

    • Julie Eshbaugh May 14 2013 at 10:10 am #

      Hi Stephanie! You are so lucky to get good writing material through your dreams. My dreams usually make no sense at all and would make lousy stories. o_O But I do find that when I wake up in the morning my mind is at it’s best as far as idea generation goes. 🙂

  6. Alexa Y. May 14 2013 at 10:48 am #

    When I start a story, it’s usually because I’m toying with an idea in my head. Most of the time, I’ll get a good number of pages in — but I can tell when the story will stick or when I’m gonna stop writing it part way. I do like to write based on things I’ve experienced for myself, but more than that, I write stories that I know I’d want to read, the stories that make me giddy/happy every single time I read the pages again (even if I do have to revise). It’s helped tremendously in my cause to actually finish writing something.

    • Julie Eshbaugh May 14 2013 at 12:44 pm #

      Hey Alexa! Great to get your input on this topic! Wow, how awesome that you feel giddy/happy when you re-read your stories. That’s what we’re all striving for, isn’t it? 🙂

  7. Ifeoma Dennis May 14 2013 at 11:24 am #

    Loved your post!
    I agree with Laura. I write what I love, not what I know.

    Earlier this year, after trunking my dystopian fantasy manuscript, I got quite upset thinking about what to write next. I had a YA contemporary idea but it just wasn’t my thing. There were the Bologna Fair reports saying publishers were asking for YA contemporary and I was almost pushed to follow that trend.
    I actually did start writing that contemporary idea late February but got depressed halfway the first chapter. Yes, I cried for days—until this idea struck me in the middle of a lecture one day. It was basically my contemporary idea transformed into a high fantasy idea- something marvellous I never thought of before.

    It’s been hard writing it- I spent the next two months outlining and there are still loopholes here and there—questions I’m still figuring out answers to- but it’s also brought me immense joy and excitement!
    I’m not writing what I know (though by the time I’m done, I’ll definitely know every detail of my fantasy world) but I’m sure writing what I love!!

    • Julie Eshbaugh May 14 2013 at 12:48 pm #

      Hi Ifeoma! Oh my gosh, yes – the “buzz” coming out of Bologna was super distracting, wasn’t it? And it’s so easy to get caught up in it all. (I know I did…) I’m so happy that you found a way to take your comtemporary idea and transform it into something you are excited about! 🙂

  8. Lucy D. Briand May 14 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    I write what I love, and boy does it make it fun to do research and talk about. I almost feel guilty that I’m enjoying it. Growing up, you never think a job could be This fun. 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh May 14 2013 at 12:51 pm #

      Hey Lucy! So true – if you love what you’re writing the process can be really fun (although even when I love my story there are days when it’s hard work. ;)) So glad to hear that you enjoy the process so much!

  9. Pamela DuMond May 14 2013 at 1:03 pm #

    Good post. RT it. Thanks!

    • Julie Eshbaugh May 14 2013 at 1:05 pm #

      Hey Pamala – thanks! Glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

  10. Maya Prasad May 14 2013 at 5:39 pm #

    Great advice. When you find the right story idea, you can’t stop thinking about it. Even when it’s tough, even when you want to give up, you know you can’t abandon it because it’s the story you’re meant to tell. Other times you might throw away 20K words. But what is 20K words compared to all of the drafts to come? You’ll know if you need to break up with the book, too.

    • Julie Eshbaugh May 14 2013 at 6:54 pm #

      Hi Maya! Wow, what a great observation. It always pains me to throw away 2K words, let alone 20k! But you are completely correct – what’s 20k compared to the thousands of words to come? (When you really think about it, 20k is nothing compared to all the words we will write in our lifetimes…) Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  11. Carrie-Anne May 15 2013 at 1:42 am #

    For about 25 years now, I’ve lived and breathed all things historical. Not just in my reading and writing, but what I’ve studied in school and many of my hobbies/interests. While I also dabble in soft sci-fi, historical is my one great writing love. I have nothing against other genres, like fantasy, horror, or police procedural, but I just couldn’t give such a story the attention and love it requires. All I know how to write is historical and the occasional soft sci-fi or a historical story that continues so long it eventually becomes somewhat contemporary.

    I’ve been with a number of my characters for over 20 years. We literally grew up together, and they almost feel like family or dear friends at this point. I’ve even reached a point where I’m ready to resurrect some long-shelved 18th and 19th century characters I haven’t worked with in over 20 years and created when I was all of 5 or 6 years old. There’s no logical reason for me to voluntarily dredge that far back without some kind of love and fondness for these characters and their stories, finally ready for a more mature treatment and makeover.

    • Julie Eshbaugh May 15 2013 at 6:29 am #

      Hi Carrie-Anne! Your long relationship with some of your characters is inspiring. To create characters when you were just a little girl and to find you still want to work on them now – that really demonstrates a love for the art of writing, doesn’t it? (Not to mention devotion and patience!) Thanks so much for commenting. 🙂

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