Write What You Know (with a creative twist)

Woman-at-typewriterPeople often say to use your experiences to write a book. Or, as the old adage goes, “Write what you know.” Unfortunately, a lot of writers take that the wrong way. They think it means to write a biography about their life. Or if they’ve dealt  with depression, they think it means to write a book on depression. In my case, it’s always been, “Since you grew up in Ecuador, write about your life overseas.”

I’m not saying that’s wrong. If a writer feels really inspired to write about their life or an experience, I applaud them in their endeavors. If they’re writing about struggles they’ve had and how they got past them, they’ll probably help a lot of people. I personally struggle with writing nonfiction, especially about my life, because I’m afraid it’ll turn into some sop story.

However, I think us fiction writers can apply the “write what you know” saying very effectively, and I have some perfect examples. Since I grew up overseas, I struggled with culture shock when I came to the USA. Because of that experience, I understood how my character might react when she arrived on a new planet, a new culture. I understood the challenges she would face, the internal struggles she would deal with.

On another note, since I traveled to China and visited the frozen city of Harbin in the dead of winter, I had a few ideas of what to put in the frozen continent on my planet, such as ice sculptures and fairs built on the frozen river. I knew how to describe them, how my character might have felt when she saw them. (The ice sculptures are magnificent, by the way.) My post about Teeranies describes how I used an innocent pecari (warthog) as a vile, carnivorous creature in my story.

Of course, you don’t have to use outside experiences all the time, either. Have you ever been in love? Jealous? Angry? Heartbroken? Scared? If you’re familiar with those emotions, create a character that deals with them.

Write-what-you-Like-Austin-KleonSo when people tell me to write what I know, my response is, “I already have”. My book is full of experiences, I just used my imagination to write those experiences more creatively. If you want to write fiction stories, do it. Don’t ever feel obligated to write a nonfiction account about your life just because that’s what everyone is telling you to do. (Unless you want to.)

 

For any writers out there, what is an exciting experience you’ve had that you would like to share with the world?

If you’re a fiction writer, how could you incorporate that experience into your story?

Those questions can help when you’re writing descriptions, or if you’re thinking of a new exciting scene to add to your story.

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Introducing the Teeranie

This is a teeranie.



 Well, actually, it’s a pecari, a very friendly warthog-like animal native to South America. But it inspired a species of carnivorous beasts in my novel. They’re called  teeranies.

The pecari is almost a spitting image of the teeranie–– coarse black fur, long snout, about the size of a medium-sized dog. The difference between the two animals? Imagine the teeranie with no eyes, a pointier snout, and quite a few more razor sharp teeth lining the jaw. Oh, and claws.

Also, the pecari in this picture doesn’t display the characteristics of a teeranie, either. If you were to attempt to pet a teeranie, for example, it would snap at you hand in a second and never leg go.

Why did I create the teeranies?  My story takes place on a communist/dystopian planet, called Tavdora, where certain beliefs are forbidden. I wanted it to be similar to Ancient Rome, where christians were sent to the lions. Except, I didn’t want lions. I wanted something original, something native to this planet I’d created. And I didn’t want the prisoners sent to an arena, I wanted them sent out to the wilderness at night, where it was dark and scary and the only sounds they heard were the shrieking growls and shuffling steps of the nearing creatures coming to claim their victims.

So I created teeranies.

Teeranies are nocturnal. They’re known to tear any living thing apart and they hunt in large packs like wolves. They nest on the border of the Crecian Desert, in a place called the Wilderness of Teeranies. What happens when you disrupt an animal’s nest? The animal becomes defensive, angry. Almost rabid. On Tavdora, those claiming belief in Elohim are sent to the Wilderness of Teeranies as a means of execution.

I wanted something that would strike fear in the reader. I don’t like the idea of people believing in God or Jesus  just because they feel guilt or fear hell or because their parents told them to believe. I think if you claim to be a christian, you should believe with every fiber of your being that Jesus is your hope, your peace, you ALL. Hell and fear have nothing to do with it.

On Tavdora, like Ancient Rome, you’re either all in or you’re all out when it comes to belief in Elohim, because if you’re all in, you risk a slow and painful death by teeranies. And yet, just like the Christians who lived in Ancient Rome, or those who live in closed countries today, there’s something beautiful and mysterious about believing with all their hearts, souls, and minds to the point that they don’t fear death because they know they’re leaving this world to go to an eternal paradise. They know that in living for Jesus, they’ve already lived life to the fullest.

And that’s why I created these vicious creatures.

So beware, my friends, if you ever set foot on the planet Tavdora, stay clear of the teeranies.

Tootsie Rolls and Goals

I used to eat tootsie rolls while I ran.

Yes, you read that correctly. When I was sixteen, my dad and I would take three-mile runs through the countryside of Indiana. I was kind of a fatty and had a hard time keeping up with him. I needed motivation. So I kept a handful of tootsie rolls in my pocket, and whenever I reached a half-mile marker, I would pop a tootsie roll in my mouth. That tootsie roll usually lasted until the next half-mile marker… I’d planned it out perfectly.

I was pathetic. But those tootsie rolls kept me going. When I run now, all I crave is water. I don’t even want to eat within an hour of a run.

But that’s beside the point. Motivation works. Rewards work. I don’t need to candy to spur me on anymore.

In the same way, when I first started writing, I used motivation tricks to reach a certain word count goal. It helped me stay focused each day. I don’t use rewards anymore (unless I’m going through a week of absolutely zero motivation and 100% writers’ block), but they helped me as a beginner to stay disciplined. Now, reaching my word count goal has become a reward in itself.

So if you’re having trouble reaching your goals, or just feel purely unmotivated, try to find a reward that’ll keep you moving. Something nice or tasty. Maybe treat yourself to an ice cream cone. Or, if you’ve completed a huge goal, go out and buy that cute outfit or book you’ve been wanting. Of course, if you’re cheap like me, a reward is even bigger if you don’t have to spend any money. In that case, watch a good movie on netflix (movies always make good rewards at the end of the day).

Either way, you know what you like, so find your reward, set your goal, and reach it.

But DON’T reward yourself if you haven’t reached your goal. That makes the whole system pointless.

Now go, sapling, and sprout new leaves.

Lessons Learned from Characters

Why do we watch movies? Why do we read books? Of course, everyone enjoys a short break from life. We read/watch movies so we can escape to another world, to another character’s mind.
And what usually draws us to the protagonist? Think of Frodo or Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen. Most of the time the protagonist is likable, heroic, brave.

We’re drawn to protagonists because we want to be like them.

 

When I read, the protagonist sticks with me in everything I do. I try to learn from her/him. The protagonist that most shaped my life is Hadassah from A Voice In The Wind by Francine Rivers. I first read that story when I was sixteen. Throughout my youth, when I was stuck in awkward situations, I remembered Hadassah and thought about what she would do in such situations. Silly, I know. But it helped.

Now days, my mind is consumed with the protagonist from my own book. (Though she is far less perfect than Hadassah.) But throughout her story she learns, and I feel like I’m learning with her.

One similar lesson I’ve been learning lately is to focus less on my problems and more on the problems of the world. I think we often forget to practice this. Yes, we know we should put others’ needs above our own, but how often do we actually do it?

So, in my efforts to put this ‘selflessness’ into practice, I’ve been volunteering at a local homeless shelter. In the application, I checked the box for almost every ‘job’ they had, except childcare. (I love children, but they have a tendency to walk all over me….)

Guess where they put me?

Childcare. I was bitter… the first three weeks. Why, when I’m willing to show service, would God make me do something I least want to do? But then I thought– childcare is the area where the homeless shelter most needs volunteers right now. If I’m serving for my own sake, my own peace of mind, then I’m doing nothing but being selfish. But if I’m serving where they actually need me, whether or not I like it, then that’s what makes it service.

My fourth week at the homeless shelter, I went in with the mindset that I was there to help them, not myself– not my conscience. And when I focused on the staff’s needs and children’s needs instead of my own, the day went much better. It didn’t matter what I was going through, but what those children were going through.

How does this tie in with my book? Let me tell you. The protagonist and her mentor are both slaves. There’s a part in my story where the protagonist has been watching her mentor for weeks. Her mentor seems to have a certain peace about her, and the protagonist wonders how her mentor possesses this peace when she’s bound to a life of slavery.

Her mentor responds, “When your concern for others grows, the problems in your own life dim.”

As I was working at the homeless shelter struggling with my own worries instead of focusing on others’ problems, this quote began floating around in my head.

I realized my protagonist learned her lesson, and through her character journey, she became selfless, focusing on the needs of others even though she was bound to a life of slavery.

It’s funny, sometimes (most of the time) we writers create characters with better, well, character, than us. It seems so hypocritical. I write about this like-able character, and yet, am nothing like her. I’ve been so consumed with myself– my problems, my worries– that I’ve forgotten to help or pray for others.

But at the beginning of my book, my character was the same way. She had to learn to be a better person– to be selfless. We all do. It doesn’t always come naturally.

I guess we’re all protagonists in our own little stories, going through character journeys, learning, making choices. And those choices always define who we are. They could either change us for the better– make us heroic, brave, passionate– or they could turn us into villains, depending on what kind of choices we make.

Here’s to being heroes.

-Sarala

Restless

Do you ever experience such a deep restlessness to the point that you ache inside? It’s the gnawing feeling where you know either something BIG is going to happen, or nothing is going to happen at all, (in which case the feeling will just pass… and you’ll sail on with your normal life).

I experienced this restlessness twice this year already, and both times something big did happen.

The first one happened in March. I ended up buying a ticket to California to attend the Mount Hermon Writers’ Conference, which changed EVERYTHING for me in my writing journey.

The second one happened in May, when I quit my job to be a radical homemaker… and write full time too, of course.

These feelings seem to come in two-month waves. Not that I’m keeping track, but the first one happened in March, the second in May, and now it’s July, and I’m feeling the pull again, like an agitated sea searching for dry ground.

I think Switchfoot says it best in the lyrics of their song, conveniently called “Restless”:

I am the leaky, dripping pipes

The endless aching drops of light

I am the raindrop falling down,

Always longing for the deeper ground

I just feel something drawing me in, gently nudging me, telling me to take the next step.

But what’s the next step? I don’t know what it is for my life as a whole, but I think I have an idea of what it means for my book.

I’ve finished the ‘final’ rough draft of my first novel (the first in a trilogy), and now it’s floating around among family members and friends. I know when the final reader returns the book with the final feedback, and I apply the final revisions, I’ll be ready for the next step: to send my baby to literary agents.

Common belief holds that literary agents are the ogres of the publishing process, that they’re the ones who get to see your first book proposal and then reject you with the worst kinds of insults you could imagine. But that’s not true.

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity of meeting with literary agents at conferences and they’re actually really nice. At least the ones I met. I mean, like, SUPER nice. Sure, they reject hundreds of books a year, but they’re just doing their jobs. It’s not like they’re rejecting the authors, they’re just rejecting the author’s work. I get that. I understand that it’s a business.

But I can’t ignore the warring worms in my stomach every time I just think about sending my book proposal to agents. I can’t fight the nagging voice inside my head telling me my book’s not good enough. I know there’s a small chance for my manuscript to get accepted, as evidenced by thousands of authors, even bestsellers, who took YEARS to get published.

But I can’t just sit here and not try.

The good thing is I’m not too incredibly desperate to get traditionally published, either. I mean, with self-publishing becoming more popular, viable, and financially beneficial, I won’t complain if I end up going the self-pubbed route.

Right now, I’m just writhing with restlessness, praying that my ‘chance’ may come soon. My chance to what? To shine? To completely humiliate myself? Either way, I’m ready for my life to begin. Again. For the third time this year.

“I’ll be waiting, Anticipating, All that I aim for, What I was made for, With every heartbeat, All of my blood bleeds, Running inside me, Looking for You.” -Switchfoot 

You Can Still Be Free

Listening to You Can Still Be Free by Savage Garden. A song that helped shape the years of my youth. I remember feeling trapped behind the hormonal emotions of my pre-teen years, behind my own fears and regrets.

And this song gave me hope that it would soon pass.

When I was thirteen, I would lay in bed in our house in Ecuador and listen to this song over and over and over again full blast. I would close my eyes and just escape from everything that held me back, imagining crimson skies and mountain tops.

I remember sitting in my homeschool classroom one day, this song running through my head. I took out a scrap piece of paper and drew what I felt. The picture depicted a bird flying toward the sun, toward freedom (as it stated in the lyrics). In the corner of the sky was a clock- a sign of time ticking away. And below the bird, high mountains rose up from the ground– all the roadblocks that held me back.

It’s interesting looking back now. I’m listening to this song for the first time in twelve years, and all those memories of my youth come flooding back.

And then I realize, I am free. And it feels great. I’m not trapped behind my parents’ decisions or other people’s judgements. I’m free to make my own choices.

I’m free to be me. 

And because of my freedom, I have no fears or regrets.

I have life. I have joy. I have an everlasting hope in the One who set me free.

Sometimes I wish I could go back to that hormonal pre-teen, wrap my arms around her shoulders, and tell her, “It’s going to be okay. All these trials are going to shape who you are, and it’s going to be great. Because of what you’re going through now, you’re going to experience the BEST time of your life, ten years down the road and every year after that.”

But right now, I’ll just have to bask in the elation of my freeness, look back, and smile at how God used every circumstance in my life to make me who I am.

To see a related post by me about living above expectations, go to this website: http://www.marydemuth.com/2012/07/live-above-expectations-rocking-guest-post-by-sara/