Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How To Be... a Writer (an IWSG post)

"Write what you know."
How long has that phrase been going around? Forever? Close enough, right?

Some people say that's bad advice, but writing about things you know nothing about is a sure way to end up with bad writing. For instance, it's clear that George R. R. Martin writes about a lot of stuff he has no clue about, which is fine for other people that have no clue about it, but, when you get to someone who does have a clue, the writing comes off as, well, stupid. Like the whole ravens as couriers thing. That's just dumb. Clearly, his thought process was, "That would be cool," but ravens aren't that kind of bird. They don't work like homing pigeons. And, sure, you can say, "Well,  in his world they are that kind of bird," which is fine, but, then, why call them "ravens"? [And, yeah, I'm picking on Martin because he can take it (he's mega-rich), but I strongly object to doing something in your writing just because it's cool if it's also stupid and/or wrong (like the Emperor going down into the arena at the end of Gladiator: That was stupid and historically inaccurate).]

My advice is to always write what you know, if for nothing else, so that you don't come off looking stupid.

Here's the good news, though, it's easier, right now, to be a writer than ever before in history. Even just 20 years ago, doing the research you would need to do to write anything could be a laborious and time consuming prospect, not to mention that, in some cases, travel might be required. I mean, if you want the setting of your story to be Paris or Egypt, it might be a good thing to know about those places, right? That's part of why authors so desperately needed advances. Sometimes, delivering the product required money to do the research. But not anymore...

Today... well, today, you can know anything. Seriously. But, wait! There's more! Today, you can know anything without ever leaving your home! How amazing is that? And that... That was the whole point of my "a-to-z" theme this year.

If you want your protagonist in your shiny, new novel to be a brain surgeon, you can do that. You can find out everything you need to know about it without having to actually find a brain surgeon to tell you. If you want your main character to work for the CIA, you can do that, too. If your character discovers ancient ruins, you can have all the info at hand that you need to present that in a realistic way. Even if it's unidentified bones. If you're writing sci-fi, you have, at the touch of your fingers, all of the latest information from genetic engineering to warp technology. Or, if you're writing historical fiction and you want to have knights in shining armor, you'll know not to set it during the First Crusade or include King Arthur.

Just as a personal example, when I was writing The House on the Corner, I frequently used Google Earth to cruise around Shreveport to remind myself of details about locations that I needed for the story, even things that didn't necessarily get stated explicitly in the book (like the name of the diner they have breakfast at). You can make any place as real as being there that way. It's really rather amazing.

Being a writer has never (NEVER) been easier.

Not only is virtually any piece of information you might need to know a few key strokes away, but there is no longer the need to wait at the gates of the Giants anymore. Those giants aren't so big after all. In fact, the publishing industry is more akin to the wizard of Oz. No, not the book, the dude. That dude behind the curtain that's acting all scary and powerful, but, you know, he's just a dude, and the thing that's been between you and publishing your book is just a curtain.

It's just a curtain! There's no magic. No gate keeper. No special power or insight. All you have to do is pull back the curtain and step through. Wait, maybe, that is magic!

It's the magic of the Internet.

If you're writing fiction, there are no more excuses. You can do it all. Wait, let me say that again. You can do it all. Oh, wait, one more time. You can do it all. You can do it all! (yeah, so I lied; that was twice)

Really, the only thing standing between you and being a writer is, well, yourself. Which is not to say that you can just throw some crap onto some paper and be done with it (although there are certainly plenty of people that do that), but, if you work at it, if you practice, if you read, if you read a lot, and you practice some more, writing that is, if you practice writing, and you practice writing a lot, you can be a writer. All of the information you could ever need is at your disposal, be it about monsters or being the voice of god.

So... just... get out there and do it. Work on it. Be it.

[This post has been brought to you by Alex Cavanaugh's IWSG.]


  1. hey man, i'm right there with you. it's just not fun looking stupid, is there? :D

  2. As long as your sources are reliable you can use the internet. Just don't use Wikipedia.

    Painting duel. The mini's come from Reaper. I put two up on my blog and people vote on which one they want to see painted. It's a single figure photographed against a blue background. This year it's going to be a babe for sure. The winner gets to proclaim themselves the Supreme Master of The Universe. I did this last year with Ray Rousell. It was a blast. I lost, but I had fun.

  3. This makes so much sense! It really has never been easier to be a writer than now. Thanks, Google!

  4. Really, the only thing standing between you and being a writer is, well, yourself.

    So true and thanks for a good IWSG post. Writing isn't easy but it is rewarding when you finish that book you worked so hard on.

  5. This cracked me up. I don't think I ever noticed how stupid it was for the Emperor to go into the arena at the end of Gladiators. Ha! Good point. Yes - I will write what I know so I too won't look stupid. ;)

    I also loved the correlation between zombies and technology in your zombie post. Another good point!

  6. You're right that all the information we could ever need (and then some) is now available to us. We just need to sit and search. And weed out the stuff that isn't true...

  7. This is so very true. I am not a writer, but as a blogger I need to do some research and hey presto, it's on the internet.

    I didn't know that about the ravens, I guess that's the thing with many authors, most of their readers don't know. And yes, I didn't think about it at the time, it was highly unlikely the emperor would have gone into the arena.


  8. Nicely done! I suppose one might have guessed this is where you were headed but I didn't. You're absolutely right, too.

  9. You are so right. I get all of my info from the internet bible: Wikipedia. If it's on there, you just KNOW it's true baby!!

  10. The Internet can be helpful, but it still helps to have first-hand experience. For example when I was writing my book "Chance of a Lifetime" I let one of my female Internet friends read it and she made some good points that I would not have seen because I am not female and I don't think the Internet would have been helpful on it either.

  11. This is a nicely written post that is very true! I enjoyed reading this very much.


  12. But for the record I'm with you about the ravens.

  13. Amen!

    Great wrap up to your A to Z Challenge and so very true.

    You're right in that it's never been easier to be a writer...as long as we're not -too- hard on ourselves.

    Great post!

  14. Is there irony that you are writing about how to be a writer?

  15. Uh, oh. We're getting meta.

    And they're MAGIC RAVENS, Andrew. Duh.

  16. Google earth is the best! I can't afford to travel to Wales every year. But having "street view" is like using magic. I can zoom right in on a store window in Conwy or measure the height of a wall in Welshpool. It's only frustrating when there's no street to go down, but even then there are tons of photos online to search through. Best time ever for doing research.

  17. Tammy: I try my best to avoid those situations.

    Anne: Wikipedia's okay for a general survey of knowledge, and it usually has a good list of source information.


    Dee: Yep!

    Sheena: No, it's not easy, but not having to spend hours and hours looking for books that the library doesn't actually have makes it so much easier.

    Kimberly: Especially since he's an actual historical figure that did -not- die in a gladiatorial arena.

    Alex: Yeah, the weeding out can be a challenge in itself, but it's still easier than tracking down books, etc and, then, still having to do that.

    Jo: Yep, even recipes. Just about any you could ever want.

    TAS: I don't think anyone did, so don't feel bad.

    JKIR,F!: LOL Exactly!

    PT: First hand experience always trumps everything else.

    Gina: Thank you.

    Mark: Is there such a thing? Okay, well, maybe...

    Michael: No irony involved. At all. It's the exact opposite of irony.
    Unless, of course, you're implying that I'm not really a writer. :P

    Callie: Now, see, that just doesn't work for me.
    I'm always meta. :P

    L.G.: It's so cool! Especially some of the funny things you find on there sometimes.

  18. The internet sure does make research easier but it can take you in some unplanned directions! There should really be no excuse for getting basic facts wrong.

  19. We live in the information age where knowledge is freely available...so I guess the "write what you know" sentiment doesn't have the same limitations that it once did.

  20. You're so right. It's only ourselves stopping us from becoming writers.

    Lynda R Young
    IWSG co-host

  21. Suzanne: No, there's really no excuse for that. I fact check things I know all the time just to be sure. If I'm committing it to "paper," I want to make sure it's correct.

    S.L.: It sure doesn't.

    Lynda: Or, at least, good ones. So many people write stuff without ever making sure what they're writing is accurate.

  22. I'll never look at Gladiator the same way. Why did no one really question that?

    Also, this really does make me wonder - how the hell did people write books before Google? As a shut-in, the thought of calling someone to ask them a question sounds dreadful.

  23. ABftS: Well, I did. That was the breaking point of the movie for me. I was willing to give it everything else, but, when the Emperor went down into the arena to fight, I kind of lost it (in the theater, even). If it hadn't been the end of the movie, I would have walked out. The dude was a real historical figure, and he didn't die like that.

  24. Reading your post I was wondering if I would have been able to write a story in India without Internet and if I've never been there. The result, I guess, would be hilarious or outraging if a true Indian would ever read it. Thank the Higher Powers for Internet!

  25. I'm glad the internet is accessible for writers these days. It's a lot easier to Google something than to go down to the library and look it up--or have to travel significantly further than that.

  26. TGE: And that's if they even have the book(s). My experience was always that 80-90% of any resources I needed were not available. Pretty much, the Internet is always available.

  27. Great pep-talk. Much needed. Now off to write!

    Tina @ Life is Good
    Co-host, April 2013 A-Z Challenge Blog
    @TinaLifeisGood, #atozchallenge

  28. Coming soon: brain plugins, a la "The Matrix." :)

    One little thing: I write what I know for the public, but I do enjoy writing what I don't know, and making myself uncomfortable in the privacy of my own home. I feel like it helps my brain grow. :)

  29. Kristen: That might be more true than you think, that brain plug in thing. Or, maybe, you do know about that...

  30. The internet provides such great opportunities for research although it can also turn into a big time consuming distraction, which can be fun. If a writer is not going to do the research and just make stuff up, someone's going to call his hand on it eventually and expose the fraud. Immerse yourself in some research if you're going to write about something you know nothing about.

    An A to Z Co-Host
    Tossing It Out

  31. Lee: When you really start researching a topic online, it can be like digging. You never know what you're going to turn up or where it will lead.