"Write what you know" is crap

Dear Miss Snark,

I have a question about queries. (Hopefully it's not a Nitwit of the Week-worthy one!) As I have a novel I'm revising and intend to submit, I've been doing a good amount of research on the subject. However, I'm finding some contradictory information, and I'm hoping you'll be willing to clarify for me.

Several articles say that in addition to mundane details (word count, genre, etc), synopsis, and professional credits, a writer must also include a paragraph telling the agent or editor why she wrote the book and/or why she believes she's the right person to tell that particular story. Other articles and blog entries from published writers don't mention anything about this at all.

I would think that unless there is an reason pertinent to the book itself (perhaps the writer is a psychologist and the novel takes place in a mental hospital?), that it wouldn't be necessary to include it. I'd think that it could even be detrimental, if the writer pads because it's "supposed" to be there.

Could you please shine some light on this subject?

I don't care if you are singularly UNQUALIFIED to write on a subject: I care only if you write well.

One of the best books of all time is Stewart O'Nan's The Speed Queen. Stewart O'Nan isn't a girl, he's not on Death Row and as far as I know, he's never worked in a drive in. You'd never know it from reading the book.

Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage was written by a man who did not serve in the Civil War.

I'm pretty sure Anne McCaffrey as never seen a dragon, JK Rowling has never seen a wizard, and Harlan Coben is a perfectly law abiding guy who lives in New Jersey. That all of these people can imagine a world completely apart from their everyday haunts and suck me in so far that I not only think their worlds are real, I can't imagine they AREN'T, is a testimony to their writing and imagination.

Write well. Imagine deeply. That's all you need to do.


Karen said...

Thank you for confirming that. I've never flown with the Blue Angels, nor bicycled around the world, nor developed genetically engineered organisms, nor flown a hot-air balloon, but as a nonfiction writer, I've been asked to write about all those things, and more.

But that doesn't let people off the hook as far as research goes. I may not have done those things, so it's my job to find out about them, and to find people to interview who have done those things. There is truth to "write what you know," but what you know expands with deep and avid research. And you have to do the research, even on stuff you think you already know (because what you "know" may be wrong). A writer never, ever, EVER wants to get caught just making stuff up because it "sounds right."

Denever said...

A few years ago, I (foolishly) entered a book proposal contest run by a "foundation" that turned out to be mostly a guy with a book about writing book proposals. I had a sinking feeling as soon as I saw his poorly written and copyedited book, but, hey, the prize money was really good, so I forged ahead.

I placed in the top 15 and got my proposal back with a note encouraging me to call if I wanted more specific feedback.

One of elements he insisted on in his book was that "why I'm the best person to write this book" paragraph, and he brought it up when we talked. I said that I thought it made perfect sense to include that for a nonfiction book, but it was kind of pointless with fiction since the only true answer was "Because I created these characters and thought up the story." I mean, duh, right?

He ignored this and started in with a rap about how that paragraph is just as relevant to novels, and he sort of implied that I just wasn't thinking about this in the right way.

Whatever. I think it's nonsense. I don't intend to use anything like it when I send out queries, and if any agent asks me why I'm the best person to write my novel, I'll take that as a sign that we probably wouldn't be a good match.

Mark said...

This cliche came up in a panel at the LA Times Festival of the Book. On eyoung fiction author made the claim that people write about Dragons and none ever existed. That worked for me, but when it comes to nonfiction you need expertise and credentials, not that it's worked for me yet, but it will.

I saw Gay Talese on creative nonfiction and it was very informative about what is allowable and what isn't. He called Frey a fraud in the same vein as Jayson Blair. Which he is of course, but it's a damn shame publishers can't be as critical of these fraud artists' work as they are for others in deciding they don't actually "have" a story.

I think blatant lies fool them because they want to be fooled in a sense, and because it will sell better than truth.

Inkwolf said...

I submitted my fantasy book to an agent by online form, once. There was a space for "Why are you the right person to write this book?" I filled in "Because I've lived in a fantasy world my entire life." I never got a reply. Go figure...

archer said...

I like Stephen King's rule of researching stuff you don't know: "Just enough to enable me to lie colorfully."

McKoala said...

Inkwolf's answer is excellent - was about to post something similar.

Why are you the best person to write this novel? Because I'm the one that made up the story.