Writing What You Know

Most writers have heard, at one point or another, the phrase “write what you know,” meaning that you should write about experiences you’ve had and things that you personally know. This idea is so pervasive that it’s even in books and movies about writers. Anne in the Anne of Green Gables series finds success when she stops writing about grand adventures and starts writing about simpler, day-to-day life experiences. Katie Nic Aoidh tells James Arber something similar in The Decoy Bride when she finds out he’s trying to write a book about the end of the world as seen through the eyes of God. And those are just two examples off the top of my head.

But that’s not the interpretation of write what you know that I want to talk about (and I’m not sure I agree with that kind of writing what you know either).

Instead, I want to talk about writing the parts of your story that you already know. I started out writing as a panster, but that sometimes led to scenes where my characters spent 20 pages arguing about why every single idea I had to get them out of the situation wouldn’t work. So basically I wrote them into a corner they couldn’t get out of.

I tried plotting after that, but my characters never seemed to want to follow the plot and would hare off doing whatever they felt like doing. Apparently I didn’t want to let go of the freedom of the pantsing my way through the novel.

Now I’m doing a sort of hybrid where I have a loose outline written up, but the freedom to make changes and re-figure things out as I go. Often this ends up with me knowing the big scenes and where they go, but the smaller scenes to connect those are less clear in my head.

So I write the big scenes.

If I don’t get those scenes out in all their messy glory (because they never, ever come out on the page exactly how they look in my head), I will spend endless hours and days going over and over those scenes, telling myself that I’m trying to figure out what comes next. But, really, I’m never figuring out what comes next. I’m too busy trying to keep each and every precious detail of those scenes just perfect in my head so it’ll come out just right when I write it (which it never does).

Once I get those scenes out of my head, I free up all that mental space to daydream up something new. Sure, those scenes need revising, but they are there. They’re in a place I can start from and then use all my daydreaming space to figure out what comes next.

(I know some people can just jot down what happens in that scene in an outline and then move on, but I am not one of those lucky ones. I have to write the actual scene.)

What about you? Are you a plotter or a pantser or a hybrid? What kind of plotting tricks have you figured out?

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Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

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