Mark Twain is sometimes credited with this quote: "Write what you know."
That quote has been tossed around in the writing world over and over again. I know I've heard it countless times, and I thought I knew what it meant. It's obvious, right? Write about things that have happened to you. Write about people you know, the things you've done. That's how you make writing authentic, right? Base everything you write on your own life experiences.
Well, partly wrong.
There is nothing wrong about writing based on your own life events. There's gold there. But I think the real meaning of that quote is all about emotions, not events.
Write what you know. Write what you feel. Write what you have felt.
Explore those base and complicated emotions in your writing. How did you feel when your first pet died? You experienced grief, sorrow, confusion, and pain. Use that to write. You don't have to make your characters lose a pet to use those personal emotions. You can use your own pain and grief as inspiration for your characters, but use it in a different way. The feeling will be authentic, even if the events themselves never happened to you.
That's the beauty of writing - that an author can make the reader feel, and feel deeply. How is it that you can read a fantasy novel based in a world that doesn't actually exist, and you can feel along with the character? It's because those root emotions the author uses are real.
Think about the last book that made you feel something. Was it because the character reached the finish line? Or slayed the dragon? Or stood up to their abusive family member? No. It was because of the emotions attached to those actions and experiences. It was because of that feeling of triumph, of accomplishment, of pride, and of relief. You felt along with the character because you've experienced those same emotions or feelings, or, at the very least, you're able to empathize.
Emotion is universal. We can all understand it, even if it's based around made-up people in made-up worlds. No matter what, we all feel the same things in the same ways. That's what builds connections between readers and characters. That's where the magic lives.
Writing what you know is about emotion, not events.
So, take a moment and write down or mentally explore things that happened to you in your life that made you feel deeply. Analyze those feelings. Understand why you felt that way.
And then start writing.
Having your writing critiqued isn't always easy. And for some of us, giving feedback on someone else's writing is just as difficult. But there is an art to it, no matter if you're giving or receiving. And as a writer, you'll find yourself on both sides at some point.
The good news? Gracefully giving and receiving writing critiques are skills that can be developed, and you can start today.
Tips for Giving Writing Critiques
Tips for Gracefully Receiving Writing Critiques
Personal Experience - Both Sides of the Line
With two creative writing degrees, my work was critiqued over and over and over. Even though I’ve had my work critiqued a lot, by both people I knew and total strangers, I haven’t always taken the critiques as gracefully as I should have. While working on my master’s capstone (thesis), I spent countless hours on my 20-30 page proposal. My advisor told me I had to redo it all. It wasn’t what she was looking for, and I had followed the wrong template. I didn’t say anything to her, but my husband got an earful. Even with just a few months left of graduate school, I thought about dropping out, which was a first for me. I was embarrassed and humiliated, and I was tired. But I did finish and I used the rest of her brutally honest critiques to better my own writing. Since then, I've worked hard to develop a thicker skin when it comes to my writing.
The most important thing I learned was that a writing critique isn’t a personal attack.
As a college professor myself now, I’ve had a lot of students in my classes who didn’t take critiques well at all. I’ve had them drop the class after one graded assignment because they were embarrassed themselves. Some students have a difficult time understanding that my critiques are meant to help, to better their writing. That’s why they’re taking writing classes, right? If I didn't give honest feedback, they would never reach their writing goals. Sometimes writers need a little tough love to help them see their work objectively, enabling them to make it even better.
What's been your experience with giving or receiving feedback on your writing?
When learning how to write, it basically comes down to an extensive series of writing rules. Don't do this. But don't forget to do that, and so on. As I continued my education in creative writing, I finally recognized the faulty "rules" my English teachers taught me. But now that I teach writing, it's time to get rid of some of these "rules" once and for all.
1. Flipping to the end of a chapter to see how long it is makes you a bad reader.
This rule was given to me by my seventh grade English teacher. I had always considered myself a reader, but I always flipped to the end of the chapter, just to see how long it was---to see if I had time to finish it. I was heartbroken to learn that I was a bad reader. Mr. Holliday was so adamant about that particular "rule." By the way, I still flip to the end of a chapter while I read. And you know what? I'm still a good reader.
2. Using contractions in writing means you're unintelligent.
This "rule" was from the same teacher as with #1, Mr. Holliday. His reference for this "rule" was a fiction book he had been reading. Apparently there was a ransom note without contractions. The investigator or detective knew the kidnapper was intelligent because of his lack of contractions. Can I just say that this is one of the most ridiculous things I've heard. In fact, the Chicago Manual of Style recommends using contractions. It can give writing a more personal, sincere feeling. A lack of contractions can make a piece feel stuffy, stiff, cold, distant.
3. In a research paper, the end of every sentence needs to have a reference or citation.
This one was from my ninth and tenth grade English teachers. Whenever we were assigned a research paper, they required us to cite every sentence. That didn't leave any room for our own writing, only direct quotes or paraphrasing from the sources we referenced. I later learned that that is not a research paper; it is merely a listing of facts. There is no voice nor a writer. There is no original thought.
As you continue your writing projects, remember that not all the "rules" you've been taught are correct. It is important to differentiate them for yourself. However, sometimes you can't break the writing rules until you know them and you understand why they're rules in the first place.
Anyone can become a magazine article writer. It’s all about coming up with a unique perspective on an idea, presenting yourself well, and nourishing the writer-editor relationship so you can have even more writing opportunities and stronger industry contacts.
It can take a lot of legwork to get started in the magazine industry. It will require research of industry standards, contact methods, and submission guidelines.
Getting your foot in the door comes down to making contact--contacting the right person in the right way at the right time.
Before querying or sitting down to write an article, I recommend using the magazine’s website as a resource. Some magazines list specific topics they’re looking for, which is a fabulous way to get your foot in the door. They know exactly what they want, and now it’s up to you to give it to them.
If you’re an industry expert, another great way to get your foot in the door is to create a strong online presence. You can use your clout and expertise to get you in front of an editor, so to speak. If you have the experience to back up your article topic, you have a better chance of being published. And if you create a strong presence, magazine editors might even come to you.
Don’t neglect going to conferences and workshops related to magazine writing or your specific industry. You can make some stellar contacts that will not only be great industry resources, but they can provide you with writing opportunities you may not have come across otherwise.
A lot goes into this process, but here are the basic steps.
Many magazines have set fees already. You can try to negotiate, but many are set in stone. So, if it’s too small of an amount and the exposure isn’t worth it, move on to the next magazine. If a magazine’s fees are firm, there’s no point in wasting your time and the editor’s time.
However, if you find a magazine that has an open fee scale, you’ll need to determine your rate beforehand. This shows confidence and experience, even if you don’t have the either at the moment. Determining your fee scale can be tricky, but there are resources that can help you.
First, determine your writing and topic experience. The more you have, the higher fee you can charge. Next, determine the magazine’s budget. If it’s a smaller magazine, they may not have the budget to pay your preferred rate. If that’s the case, you need to determine if the low fee is worth the effort and the benefit you’ll get from writing for that particular magazine. Here’s a great resource on what to charge for your writing. Remember, those are basic guidelines, so you can modify the fee based on several factors.
Know your rights. You can sell certain rights and not others, giving you more opportunities to earn money for your article as it’s published in different formats.
If you don't land any opportunities at first, don't lose hope. Sometimes it's all about persistence.
What has helped you break into the magazine article writing industry?
No matter if you write articles, books, or poems, continuously coming up with ideas can seem intimidating. It can seem time-consuming, but it actually doesn't take much time or effort at all. You can have a steady stream of ideas as you live your normal life. It's really all about being conscious and mindful of the process. The rest is cake.
1. Become a What-ifer - if you're not one already
During the 2015 ANWA writing conference, Brandon Mull talked about being a what-ifer. For example, he was working on his Beyonders series and he was trying to figure out what the portal would be. He was at the zoo with his family, and he was enjoying looking at the hippos. When one opened his mouth, he thought about what would happen if someone fell in there. And so the portal was born.
Some people are natural what-ifers. I'm one of those people. I just didn't realize it at first. Mine generally manifests itself in thinking of the worst-case scenario for real-life situations. However, now that I'm more aware of it, I do find that I'm a what-ifer when it comes to coming up with story ideas. I have a recurring daydream that I can freeze time whenever I wanted. I could nap or just be a more successful and productive person. It would be awesome! But then my brains starts to think about how pausing time for everyone else but myself would affect my body and relationships. And you can imagine how it builds from there.
If you're already a natural what-ifer, don't consider your thoughts as merely daydreams. Think of them as potential stories you could write one day.
If you're not a natural what-ifer, don't despair. There's hope. I promise. Take it a step at a time and train your brain. Let your mind wander. That's really the best way to get started. Develop your curiosity, and you'll develop solid story ideas along the way.
2. Read Inside and Outside Your Preferred Genre
The only way to be a better writer is to be a better reader, and the same idea applies to brainstorming story ideas. Reading puts your brain in a creative zone, and that's where story ideas are born and raised. For example, while reading Atlantia by Allie Condie, I was inspired by her main character choice - a siren. It made me want to research mythical creatures and pick a unique one to write about.
No matter what you read, just keep your brain turned on. Focus on what you're reading, but the back of your brain will continually work to formulate the story ideas.
3. Find Your Quiet Time
The world is loud. It's distracting. Take a moment each day to find your quiet time. This could be as simple as staying in the shower a little longer, letting your mind wander as the sound of the water drowns out everything else. Some of my best writing epiphanies have happened while I was taking a shower.
If you can't get away from the noise, use ear plugs or headphones to get into your own little world. Whatever you have to do to find your quiet time, it's worth it. In the quietest moments of our lives, stories deep inside us can come out and remind us that they're there.
4. Get Moving
While finding some quiet can help with formulating story ideas, so can getting your body moving. When your body is moving, it's easier to quiet your brain. While this may seem counter-intuitive when you want your brain to work, shutting off your active brain will allow your mind to wander slowly, and it allows thoughts that may be pushed down by more aggressive ones to surface. Sometimes you won't know that you have a story inside of you until you quiet your brain and let it come out naturally.
5. Become a People-Watcher
Story inspiration is all around you. If you don't already people-watch on a regular basis, it's time to start. For some of us, it comes naturally. For me, I've been doing it since I was young. In fact, I come from a family of people-watchers. When my mother wanted to go to the mall, my dad and my siblings would park ourselves on a bench and just watch people walk by, live their lives, and interact with each other.
If that doesn't naturally make you curious about them, take a moment to create their story in your head. If someone is loud and boisterous, think of something that could've happened to them as a child to shape their personality. Or, see that odd man in the corner yelling at passerbys or with that high-pitched squawking laugh? Tell his story in your head. Pay attention to his movements, his mannerisms, and the look in his eye.
Studying the behavior and movements of others can translate into good writing. It will help you write more realistically, helping readers connect with your story and your characters.
6. Write it Down
One of the biggest lies a writer will ever tell herself is that she'll remember a story idea without writing it down. Yes, it may happen sometimes, but the idea - at least in my experience - is never as pure or as solid as when it first pops into my head. If I don't write it down right away, it's like the original idea is slightly out of my grasp. I can capture the essence, but not the power of the original thought. Frankly, it's just not worth it. Trust me. I've lost many good story ideas this way. Well, I think I have; I can't actually remember if they were good now.
But let's get real. It's rarely convenient to sit down and write down your idea. You could be at work, a kid's birthday party, or on your way to the grocery store. A few years ago, I found a precious little notebook at a bookstore. I just toss it in my purse, and it's always there when I need it. If a little book won't work for you, type it into your phone. No matter how you record it, write it down or make note of it.
If you're the type to have awesome dreams that could make great stories, keep a pad of paper and a pen next to your bed. Whatever it takes, make the effort. You'll thank yourself for it later. Promise.
Your turn - how do you brainstorm for story ideas? Have any of the above methods worked for you?
I'm an adjunct creative writing professor and freelance writer, but I dream of being a published novelist. This is my journey.