Monday, January 14, 2013

On Writing What You Know

I’ve been thinking about the kinds of stories I want to write lately – both because I wrote my first book outside the Glitch world in December and am looking towards my next few projects, and because I’m editing Shutdown, the last Glitch book (a book that I was really able to sink into and take the characters some intense and cool places, emotionally).

I guess that’s what I’ve really been thinking about: how to write stories that emotionally, readers can relate to or think, ‘hey, I’ve felt like that,’ even if I’m writing impossible and outlandish plots.

I often think the best books are ones where you can almost feel authors struggling with something on the page, whether it be a big question about life (see Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere), or teenagers with cancer (John Green’s TFIOS), or grief (Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere, McNamara’s Lovely Dark and Deep, Courtney Summers’ Fall For Anything), or an experience of being the mean girl (Summers’ Some Girls Are), or thinking about temptation and good and evil (like the ring in LOTR), or exploring an existential crisis about what it means to be human (Marion’s Warm Bodies), etc.

So because I’m trying to write emotionally resonating characters, and one way to do that is to write what you know, like Flannery O’Conner, my stories are often going to have physically broken people. People with the wooden legs or deadly allergies or other health problems that neither medicine nor magic can fix.

Any resolutions to these problems are going to be hard fought for, and will most likely leave the character very different than when they first started out, sometimes very battered. This is certainly true of Shutdown, when one character veered off in ways I didn’t expect. I had an idea of where the character would end up back when I wrote the synopsis two years ago, but the journey getting there was far more arduous than I first expected. The character dramatically changed as I wrote them, because I realized there was no way these circumstances wouldn’t change the person. I’ve experienced the way that life can dump things on you that you can’t escape, whether you see them coming or not. You can’t run away and you can’t pretend your entire life hasn’t changed. So you find ways to cope with it, both good and bad.

In the book I just wrote and the one I’m thinking of writing next, I’m tackling—in a very sideways manner—the way that circumstances and physical disability can intrude on your plans and dreams. And then letting it fly and watching how my characters react. In one book, the main character reacts by being furious about his situation, in the other, the MC is so accepting of her bad circumstances at first that she doesn’t fight back against them at all. In both cases, the illnesses are somewhat supernatural, but I’m exploring some things that very much resonate with me in real life, with the debilitating chronic illness I’ve fought with for eleven years. Anger and acceptance are kind of constant warring states in my head. I can write these characters so easily, because I know how it feels.

But these obviously aren’t just stories for sick people alone—in fact, I don’t think most people will even see this as a subplot when they read the books. Still, the question I most want to explore through my writing (and my life really) is: how do we find peace and joy through difficult life circumstances? Because this at least is universal—you will have difficult circumstances in your life, no matter if you are fifteen or fifty. You will encounter conflict and sometimes, you will suffer.

This is all the inside track though, the things going on in my head as I wrote. As I mentioned a moment ago, I don’t think any of this is explicit, you might not pick up on these underlying themes in these books unless you’ve read this blog post and remember it. After all, in addition to wrestling with these problems that create internal conflict for my characters, they are also all falling in love. Because well, in addition to wanting to explore some meaty life questions for myself, I’m also just a sucker for romance J

Anyway, all of this is a tool I’ve used to help me dig deeper with my characters. Too often we think that ‘write what you know’ just means we should write about external experiences we’ve had in our lives. Um yeah, if I stuck to that, I'd be writing stories no one wants to read about sitting on a couch for hours on end! But I’m learning that using ‘write what you know’ can really ratchet up your characters by infusing them with the emotional and mental dilemmas you yourself have wrestled with.


  1. I take inspiration from my life here and there, but never directly from real events that happened. More like impressions, thoughts and feelings those events left me with. Hope you like the new project! It sounds like something that will be great but also difficult to write (the physical disability, I know that hits close to home).

  2. Thanks Libby - yeah, I agree - it's more impressions of things that end up filtering through into my characters. And I'm pretty stoked about the new project, we'll see how it goes!

  3. Great post! The writing process is always intriguing.