Monday, March 16, 2009

Write from Experience – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Write what you know. That’s the advice I’ve always heard and passed along to aspiring writers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that if you’re a paleontologist, you write about, well, you know. It means you can if you want to, but in a broader sense, it means write from the heart.

You’ve fallen in love, hopefully, at least once, and have suffered the accompanying slings and arrows, happiness and heartaches. You’ve had (and lost) a loved one, a pet, a job, a home. You’ve experienced a moment of utter bliss – a bite of a heavenly dessert, a kiss, a round of applause, an award, a first glimpse at your baby’s face. Use all of it. Feel the pain and joy and grief from your experiences and bring them to life in your characters. If you do it right, your readers will share those feelings with your characters, and will bond with them. All good things.

I remember an editor telling me she read a scene in one of my books that had her crying so hard, she had to get up and shut her door. Another editor told me she almost fell off her chair laughing at one of my character’s antics. A fan confessed she read one of my mysteries at her mother’s bedside as she lay dying, and that story was the only bright light in her life. That’s what it’s all about. We pour our emotions and experiences into our characters, reaching deep inside ourselves so we can express them in such a way that they become real for others and take them out of their own lives. It can be tough going, though, because it means we have to live through the bad and the ugly experiences all over again.

A writer has a story she or he feels compelled to share, no matter how much pain it causes, which is why we sit at the computer for too many hours, slaving over each sentence, paragraph, and chapter, to tell it. A sincere writer can’t stop until the story is told. If you’re trying to write a book, and it’s going nowhere, you’re either not writing from the heart or you don’t have the story firmly in your mind.

In a teeny nutshell, here’s what you need: You have to know how the book will end; in other words, what your main characters will accomplish and how they will change themselves or their world for the better. You have to know what that great opening scene will be that will make readers want to turn to page two. You have to understand your characters’ deepest fears and greatest dreams, and then you have to dredge up those same fears and dreams from inside yourself to bring them to life. Last, you have to get your characters to overcome their fears in order to accomplish their dreams. If you use the passion of your deepest emotions to do that, you can’t lose.