Write What You Know?

what_you_know

One of my favorite books on writing (aptly named “On Writing“) is written by Stephen King and in that book he regurgitates and then chews on one of the most common rules for writing; write what you know.

First time I read it it made a helluva lot of sense. I mean, it does sound damn difficult to write about space when you have spent all of your life with your feet planted firmly on the ground. Yet, if you can’t write about what you like, doesn’t it take away the fun of it? The reason you write is because it’s fun, right? Then it doesn’t make sense to write about accounting or plumbing (because honestly that doesn’t sound very exciting for a plot).

So the learning from this is that you should write what you LIKE. Whatever it is. Maybe you want to write about Martian plumbers? Knock yourself out. Or maybe you write a story about an accountant and his battle with Microsoft Excel? And maybe that story will be fantastic. Because it’s all about how you tell it.

Let’s say you want to write about an obese man in his upper twenties who’s decided to do what it takes to reach his dream of becoming an astronaut. Chances are you don’t know jack about being an astronaut, you might not be in your twenties anymore, and you’ve always been quite skinny. Then you need to do research, you need to listen, you need to soak up information to be able to make the story as TRUE as possible.

Don’t be lazy with research. Today you don’t have to bog your head down in library books for hours on end. Today you have your friend Google and his father the Internet. You might not be able to feel the sea breeze in the Caribbean by image browsing, but you can get a LOT of information online. Use it to your advantage. You’re going to learn a lot of stuff you don’t need, but they say we’re only using about 10 percent of our brains so my guess is you have space.

For me it works best to mix write what you know with write what you like. I have to feel an interest in the story, the characters, the topic and I have to feel the confidence that I can tell the story in the right way and make justice to it. Otherwise both I and the reader lose.

When I wrote The Wake-Up Call I placed it in a setting I was very familiar with (the advertising world) and placed it in a city I love (New York), but I also went out of my comfort zone when writing about Mexico. I wrote about something I care about (the pace of the world, how to deal with a breakdown, how to face life when it finally catches up with you) and from the viewpoint of a character I’m interested in (the narrator, Jack Reynolds). I didn’t plot it, because I don’t like plotted novels so much, and because there’s a joy in being able to unearth the fossil (another one of King’s phrases) and discover the story as I wrote it. This leads to more editing and plenty more rewrites than a plotted novel, but is a lot more fun and leads to a more creative and original end result (I hope).

The Wake-Up Call is my first published novel, although I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid. It was quite an effort to pull off, because I couldn’t stop rewriting it, but after the tenth or so rewrite I decided this was it. It was time to hit the publish button.

This was in the beginning of September this year. Since then I sold a decent number of books and gotten a good review or three, but I’ve realized that to sell even more I should probably have chosen a stronger niche or genre. It seems like you really need to do your marketing research properly, even as an indie author/enthusiast.

What do I mean by that? Well, you could argue that there’s no point in writing books that nobody wants to read. Or maybe there is? Maybe you just have to get that story out of you, because YOU believe in it and YOU feel the need to tell it?

To be honest with you, I don’t know. Everybody wants to sell or at least for people to read what they’ve written and there’s few things as sad as unappreciated writers who spent years on a book that very few ever read. An extreme example would be John Kennedy Toole and his Pulitzer prize winning book A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole got the prize posthumously because he committed suicide after the book he’d worked on and believed in so strongly failed to get published.

But today in the era of self-publishing and DYI-marketing getting published is not the problem, it’s getting people to like what you write and to SELL (we don’t like that word do we? – me I think there’s a reason it rhymes with HELL).

The general feeling I have about most self-published authors is that they write either science-fiction, thrillers, crime, or romance and that these genres are very popular. Because even if you write for a small niche, the competition will be less tough and the readership more devoted to the topic and by default more interested in what you have to say.

This is what I’ve slowly come to realize. It might be that I’m off, but it’s a strong feeling.

I decided to write a book I would like to read myself (which I think goes for most writers, otherwise it would be weird) and since I’m not so much into science-fiction, romance, thrillers, and crime – I guess I’ll have to call it contemporary, commercial or general fiction (the categories among e-book sellers like Amazon, Smashwords and Kobo vary greatly).

And now here comes the crunch. Who does this appeal to? Everyone who’s into fiction? No. The problem is that the definition is so broad and the competition so fierce that it’s very hard to reach your ideal reader. Who would like The Wake-Up Call? I hope a lot of people. But how do I reach out to them and compete with established publishers and authors?

People would say social media (twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Google Plus, etc), but the problem there is to reach the right person and to win their attention with your story.

I’ve come to learn it’s not easy. But you can’t give up either. You wrote the damn thing and you want people to read it.

Just take John Locke for example. He claims he spent $25 000 on marketing and didn’t get very much out of it. Then he started blogging and twittering and not long thereafter he was in the Kindle Million Club.

So social media might work for you after all.

I’m trying a little bit of everything myself. We’ll see how it goes and I promise to keep you posted on this very blog (and on twitter or Goodreads of course!)

If you want to help me out why not check out my book THE WAKE-UP CALL on Amazon, Nook, iTunes, Smashwords

I know this was long and if you managed to get this far I just want to say…Thanks for listening.

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Jonas

Jonas: Writer. Talker. Thinker. Wine drinker. Brand builder. Tennis player. Family guy.

3 thoughts on “Write What You Know?”

  1. I agree with you about writing what you want to write. I’ve felt tempted to start churning out vampire stories or erotica, or better still vampire erotica, in order to get some decent sales … but I just can’t do it. I much prefer what I’m doing. Like you, I’m finding the marketing side of things tough, but blogging and twittering seem to make a difference.
    I’ve got your book and I’m enjoying it. I’ll put a review up when I’ve finished.
    Amitiés

    1. Haven’t we all? 🙂 Seems the more violence and paranormal the stories are, the better. Well, I would suck at writing that so I’ll stick to writing what I feel like. Hopefully readers like it too…

  2. Loved ‘On Writing’ one the most motivating writing books for me, he got me off the notebooks writing directly into the computer, increased my word count goal, stopped me editing as I went and suddenly racing towards the end of my novel. My first reader said, I don’t know what it was, but something happened at about page 90, it suddenly took off. Thanks Stephen King.

    That was when I only had to think about the writing, thinking about the reader is more of a marketing question which it looks like you know about already. What you write in your profile whether its twitter or on a blog is how people follow, I saw you are a reader which is why I followed, then I read what you write on your blog and I wanted to comment. Would I like your novel, I don’t know, but I’d risk it because of how you write about life through your blog.

    Thinking about my own reading, if I like a writer I’ll follow them from book to book even if they changed genre like Kate Atkinson did.

    Anyway, thanks for the interesting post and good luck with your book. From the other side of the Mediterannean.

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