what you know

I recently bought a book called A Tragedy of Errors. It's a tribute to the 75th anniversary of the first Ellery Queen novel (The Roman Hat Mystery), and (in addition to several previously uncollected short stories and the outline for the last EQ novel, which was never finished) it contains some articles and essays about Fredrick Dannay and Manfred Lee, the two men who comprised "Ellery Queen." Quite a few of the pieces, by the way, point out that The Roman Hat Mystery wasn't really very good, but that's fine because many of the later novels are very good indeed.

The particular thing which I want to mention here is that, while he was the editor of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Fredrick Dannay laid out four rules for writers.

  1. Read everything you can lay your hands on.
  2. Write what you know.
  3. Edit ruthlessly.
  4. Don't bother with writing courses. You learn to write by writing.

I've been thinking particularly about "write what you know" (I think Rule #1 speaks for itself).

To me, it's all in how you interpret and apply it. For example, I don't know anybody like starling, at least not on the surface. I don't know any place like U-town. But if you take it that way, "write what you know" turns into a rule saying, "don't have an imagination."

But I have known a lot of people very much like the people I write about. Also, nowhere in "write what you know" does it say you shouldn't learn things in the process. Write what you know, and learn the things you need to know to write the things you want to write. I tend to avoid doing research whenever I can, but if (for example) my characters ever get to Bellona (which is a good possibility), I will have to do some research, since, unlike U-town and the Quarter and Ross and Perry's house, I won't be able to base it on places I've actually been.

I agree with editing ruthlessly, too. In another part of The Tragedy of Errors, one of the Queens (so to speak) suggests that when you finish the first draft of anything, you should go through and cross out all the adjectives and adverbs. Then go back and restore only the ones you really need. I would add to that all the exclamation points, and all the places where you say someone hollered or yelled or cried or whispered or shouted, instead of simply saying that he or she "said." And, as Hemingway showed us, even a lot of the "saids" can be eliminated, as long as it's clear who's speaking.

And you do learn writing by writing. Writing is something that can be learned, and you learn through doing it. If you wanted to learn how to play guitar, would you leave the guitar alone until you felt inspired? That wouldn't get you very far. You'd learn more by practicing every day, "inspired" or not. Writing is no different. If I have any technique today, it's partly because I started by writing pretty much every day for about ten years (on a typewriter, and longhand). What I was writing was junk, but what I was learning was how to write better.

Computers make it easier to write in some ways, but more difficult in others, since computers connected to the internet provide so many distractions. I think the best writing tool you can have is a computer which is not connected to the internet (though I'm also fond of a very good fountain pen – the one I'm using now is from Lamy, a German company).

Also, computers make it easier to edit, so that you can fiddle endlessly with the same story (or scene or paragraph or sentence) and never get to the next one. Which was why I decided that A Sane Woman and U-town were "done" as of my 50th birthday. Fifteen years is enough time to fiddle with anything. Time to move on, and in moving on, apply the things I learned from writing those two books.

Speaking of which, I also apply "write what you know" in another way, which I referred to in my last entry when I said that I've known for years that Vicki and SarahBeth would end up where they are now, though I wasn't always clear on how they would get there.

For another example, quite a bit of the "A Visit to Perry" chapter was written well over ten years ago, when I was first writing A Sane Woman. It was originally going to be the climax of that book (which does end at Perry's house, but rather differently). The chapter didn't fit in that book, but the fact that I wrote it helped quite a bit with what I'm writing now. And even if you never use a particular chapter or scene, it's a way to practice, and it provides insight into the characters (and of course it can be used later as a "Deleted Scene" blog entry).

(Actually, I just checked my facts, and it was Manfred Lee, the non-editing half of Ellery Queen, who listed the four rules mentioned above, and for his son. Oh, well.)

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