It’s What You Know, You Know?

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“Write what you know,” is advice writers ogive each other.  This is followed by writers arguing about that statement, and the Great Circle of Advice and Debate continues.  I’d like to add my own nuance to the debate because it may help.

“Write what you know,” is an incomplete statement.

Serdar notes that many writers seem to create writing/artistic heroes – to the point that “writer/artist” is shorthand for protagonist to many.  This issue arises from writers writing what they know – themselves.  It’s a grand example of how “write what you know” backfires, and I’m sure we all have seen writers follow that advice a bit too much.

Yet many writers try to break out of what they know.  We know – and perhaps are – researchers and obsessive readers who will go to great lengths to find what they need for a story.  There’s the ever-repeating joke of how writers have questionable browsing history as they research so many things.  Isn’t writing about “knowing more” to write?

Even if we’re not researching things that might disturb someone, aren’t we growing as a writer anyway?  Aren’t we learning from our writing?  Aren’t we changing with life?  The “what we know” part of the advice is changing all the time.

This is where harder truths break into the unpleasant simplicity of “write what you know.”  Yes, an author should write what they know, but the act of writing also means the author should be learning and growing all the time.   That growth is part of writing as well, and perhaps needs more acknowledgment.

“Write what you know, but both you and your writing should grow together,” may be a better bit of advice.  If we writers can grow, so can our catchphrases.

Steven Savage

Media, Message, Mismach

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When creating a piece of a media we need to ask “did I choose the right form for my Bright Idea?”  Should it really be a book, comic, movie, game, or is it better suited for another form?

Some readers may be nodding, others may be curious.  Let me explain by examples.

I’m no fan of the Twilight series, yet I found the lush-looking movies beautifully overdone.  When I saw the manga it impressed me as more interesting than the books.  At least to me, Twilight seemed better suited to a visual medium.  Yes, it was a commercial success, but I can’t shake the feeling that had it been an anime/manga there might have been more to it, and maybe some useful artistic lessons.

As a less personal example, consider an issue that I discuss with fellow authors – those series that seem to be Open World games or RPGS in novel forms.  As much as I love worldbuilding myself, I know 800 pages of “it really picks up by the second book” doesn’t interest people.  Some novels or series seem best – or became – things better suited to games or fictional guides.

If you’re a creative, especially a self-published one, you should ask if your story and setting fit the medium you chose.  Some people might be fortunate enough to get away with a “media mismatch” (see above), but ask if you can beat those odds.  A marketing machine can get someone to read a five-book series far easier than you may – even if people forget it afterward.

This doesn’t mean you should give up on an idea – you need to refine it for your chosen media.  If you have a book that is an RPG-in-disguise, you can refine it into a more bookable form.  If you want to make an RPG, but it comes from a story, maybe you can expand the worldbuilding.  It’s OK to rework your idea so the audience can enjoy it in the form you want.

Making a piece of media accessible requires many things – the right wording, rules, art style, etc.  However, we should ask as if we’re doing the right thing in the right form of media.  There may be a mismatch here.

To give an example in my Avenoth series – which is worldbuilding heavy – “A Bridge to the Quiet Planet” was a romp across worlds, and had overly “worldbuildy” moments.  I tightened up the focus in “A School of Many Futures” which made it more intimate, which made the setting more accessible.  A tweak of perspective improved the story.

Consider the right media for what you want to tell and how to make what you want to say optimized for the media you’ve chosen.  It’ll help you reach people, which we all want, especially in a crowded market.

Steven Savage

Tool as Discipline

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I use several tools to help my writing, from simple spellcheck to ht power of Grammarly. I don’t consider them tools just for finding problems – I think of them as tools for learning. This might be an approach that works for you as well.

English is an odd language, and it’s easy to make mistakes when we’re spelling knife with “k,” and people argue about commas (Oxford always). There are also different ways to write about separate subjects, and lessons in one don’t always carry over to others. Even a writer with good editors is facing several challenges unless you write all the time.

Books can help and should be used, but writing is something best learned by doing. So that’s where tools come in – they’re my obstacle course.

Tools like Grammarly and spellcheck show what I’m doing wrong immediately. As I’m writing, mistakes come up, and I catch myself. Each revealed mistake is a pinprick reminder of my errors, and I get into the habit of looking for them.

I become aware conscious of my problems. Then I start seeking them before I make them. This effort develops new, better habits.

I also run checks on documents – I don’t write everything in Grammarly or with every single checker turned on for the sake of sanity. When the same error keeps appearing, I stop and start looking for it on my own. If I keep making recognizable mistakes, then I can learn to see them earlier.

A pattern makes itself apparent. I repair it on my own before counting on the tool. By fixing the same problem multiple times, I learn more about my flaws and address them.

By using tools as learning experiences, I’ve improved my writing over the last two years. It requires a conscious decision, but it may help you as well.

(Yes, I’m serious enough about my writing I pay for Grammarly. I recommend it if you’re serious about your writing.)

Steven Savage