Sunday, February 17, 2013

Write what you know?

We had a great guest post on Indies Unlimited the other day about the old saw, "Write what you know."  The author of the post provided five handy tips for mining your own experiences to incorporate into your fiction.

Which got me to thinking about that old saw.  Sometimes, I think newbie writers take it too literally.  They take their fictional scenes and characters straight from life, changing only the names.  (This is how you tick off friends and family, by the way, especially if the character you've based on them shows them a side of themselves that they consider to be unflattering.)  Or they moan about how they can't possibly "write what they know" because their lives have been too dull to write about.  I guess it never occurs to these people that they could research the activity or profession they want to write about, and learn enough about it to make it sound like they know what they're talking about.

But there are other ways to write what you know -- ways that involve very little research, except in examining the contents of one's own head -- and it's the kind of thing that will make your work stronger.

One thing I've been seeing in a lot of indie books is a lack of getting inside characters' heads.  It's easy to focus on the plot.  In fact, it's almost too easy, particularly when you're telling a story in third person, which a lot of writers -- and readers -- prefer (which I understand, because a first-person narrator can be too precious and/or have his/her head too far up his own, uh, nether parts). Just tell the story, follow the action, move your characters around like pieces on a chess board, and hope the whole house of cards doesn't topple.

Here's a hint: the way to keep the house of cards from toppling is to get inside your characters' heads.

Imagine you are a pivotal character.  You've got some idea of his/her back story (I hope), and you know what's happened in the story so far. Now, you're viewing the current action and the author wants you to do X.  What's going through your mind at this point? What are you thinking that would make you want to react in that way?  This, my friends, is where "write what you know" comes into play.  Maybe you, the author, have been in a similar situation in the past.  How did you feel about it? What decision did you make? How, if you were more like your character, would you have decided differently? How would that have made you feel?

With your newfound understanding, switch back to your author role and figure out a way to portray that.  Maybe all you need is a few lines of dialogue, or some poignant body language.  Maybe you need to write a whole new scene, or lengthen the current one.

Or you might discover that this particular character would never do X in a million years.  Instead, he/she would do Y.  That means X is a plot contrivance; you could throw it out, or give the action to a different character who is more likely to do it.  Or you could run with Y and see whether that doesn't strengthen your story.

You've heard people say that writing is hard.  This is the part that makes it hard.  But this is what will enrich your story and make it believable -- transforming your house of cards into a sturdy structure that nothing will knock down.

My big news this week, which I posted about, somewhat cryptically, on my Facebook page, is that Seized made the first cut in this year's Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest.  For those of you who don't know much about the ABNA, here's what I've gathered about the process:  Ten-thousand entries are taken from all comers. The first cut uses a review of the book's pitch* to narrow the field to 400 in each of the five categories: General Fiction, Romance, Mystery/Thriller, Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror, and Young Adult.  So with this step, we've gone from 10,000 to 2,000. This is where we are right now. Next, Amazon Expert Reviewers (I'm sure they're very nice people and highly qualified...) read the excerpts of these entries and make the next cut, from 2,000 second-round winners to 500 quarter-finalists, or 100 in each category.  Quarter-finalists are to be announced March 12th.

Then reviewers from Publishers Weekly will read and rate the full manuscripts, and select five books in each category to be the semi-finalists.  Amazon Publishing editors read those 25 manuscripts and select the best one in each category.  Then readers get to vote on these five finalists.  The finalists are all guaranteed a contract with Amazon Publishing and a $15,000 advance.  The big winner gets a contract with Amazon Publishing and a $50,000 advance.

I'll let you know when the readers' vote begins.  Regardless of whether Seized is still in the field by then, all of the finalists should be fine reads and worth all of our time to take a look at.

Oh yeah, and the sweater's done, huzzah!  I'll post a picture here next week; I'm at the wrong computer to do it right now.

*What's a pitch?  It's a 300-word description of the book that's designed to entice a reader to buy it.  I'll post my pitch for Seized as a document on my Facebook page, so you can see what I mean.

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