Write What You Know…

Even if you’re not a writer you’ve heard someone say, “Write what you know.” If you are a writer, it’s probably the single most common tip you’ve ever been told. It means not only to choose topics you have some knowledge about, but also topics which you hold an interest. You’ve never run away and joined the circus, so how do you write about little Johnny who ran away from home after an argument with his parents only to join the local travelling circus? Research. This is where having an interest in a specific topic helps. If you have an interest in the subject matter, your research is going to get much easier. You would sit and read about travelling circus’, their history, the leadership under the big top, etc. This is stuff every writer is taught early in their writing career.

But I’ve been thinking lately that there is another way a writer can take the ‘write what you know’ advise. I spent November taking part in NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month event. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. I reached just under 20,000 words. But as my last blog post revealed I learned a few things about myself as a writer. This soul searching as led me to ‘write what you know’.

If you were meet 10 different writers, say at a writing conference, you would find that each writer writes something different. Writer A writes novels, while Writer B prefers Short Stories. Writer C is a poet, D is a song writer, and E is playwright. Writer F writes screenplays and G writes instructional manuals. H has a memoir being published. Writer I is a copy writer for a catalogue company and Writer J writes jokes for a standup comedian. Being a writer is a very generic term. There are categories and genres which a specific writer belongs too. Stephen King is best known for his horror novels. That’s not to say it’s their only skill, but it’s their primary skill.

Just because you can write a short story doesn’t mean you can string together a novel. At first glance a Micro-story, Short Story, Novella and Novel are all the same thing, with the exception of the length, but it is the length that makes it a very different story format. A short story often has only one main character undertaking one story line. Often there are no sub-plots, or additional characters that are not required.  While a novel normally have several central characters dancing around at least two (often much more) plots, weaving them together like a wicker basket until everyone reaches the end of the book. Since these story types are similar often a writer can jump between the different formats.

A novel and a screenplay are very different. Often the novelist will rarely turn their own story into a screenplay. The key difference is the use of description. A novelist uses words to paint a picture in the readers head. Like any painting the reader sees the subject matter, but sees it differently from any other reader. A screenplay writer is using words to describe a photograph. Everyone sees a photograph the same way. His sentences are short and precise. The table is round with three chairs scattered unevenly around it, would be description of the lead character kitchen table. The novelist could spend half a page describing the details of the table, how the nicks in the wood finish were caused by a twelve year old Johnny who sat at the table for hours, determined not to eat his peas.”Their mushy,” he would complain to his mother who would just tell him to “Shut up and eat your damn peas!”  This snippet of information tells the reader that our 30 year old hero, John, has had this table in his life a long time and a dislike of peas for even longer, but it has very little, if anything at all, to do with the plot of the story. There are a number of other differences between a screenplay and a novel, including how dialogue is written and how the author describes the setting.

I see myself as a person who writes screenplays. As much as I would like to see my name on the spine of a novel, I would prefer to see my name in the credits on the big screen. I have yet to be ‘discovered’ but maybe 2012 might change that.  In the new near I am going to start a new screenplay project, currently titled “Delivering Stork” about a woman at the end of her rope who slips even further before getting her grip back. As I write that screenplay I’m going to blog about it. Turn the process into a Screenplay workshop. While I’m writing my screenplay, my hope is that someone out there is using my blog to teach themselves how to write their screenplay.

So when the next person says to you, “Write what you know” you now can think of your format as well as your content. Are you writing in the format best suited for your skills? If you’re not sure, try writing in another format. I wrote a poem for my writers’ group last year, ‘Ode to a Toad’ – – it wasn’t bad at all, but that doesn’t make me a poet.
I hope everyone has a wonderful Holiday season and a very successful 2012!

See you next month,

Steve

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