Lee Child: Write What You Feel

Lee ChildWhile trying to dig up more useful guides and resources to improve my writing, I got this tip from an article in Writer’s Digest on how to start writing a novel. Of five they posted, this was the one that caught my attention.

5. Instead of “write what you know,” try writing what you feel

In an exclusive interview with WD, bestselling Jack Reacher creator Lee Child explains:

The worse [writing advice] is probably Write what you know. Especially in this market. In the thriller genre, for instance, nobody knows anything that’s worth putting in. There are three people in the world who have actually lived this stuff. And so it’s not about what you know. [Write] what you feel is really excellent advice. Because if you substitute Write what you feel, then you can expand that into—if you’re a parent, for instance, especially if you’re a mother, I bet you’ve had an episode where for five seconds you lost your kid at the mall. You turn around, your kid is suddenly not there, and for five seconds your heart is in your mouth and you turn the other way, and there he is. So you’ve gotta remember the feel of those five seconds—that utter panic and disorientation. And then you blow that up: It’s not five seconds, it’s five days—your kid has been kidnapped, your kid is being held by a monster. You use what you feel and expand it, right up as far as you can, and that way you get a sort of authenticity.

In my personal opinion, this should be easier for fiction writers, especially those who work in alternate-reality worlds i.e. fantasy, sci-fi. But I’m thinking out loud that it might be possible to work on a simpler level. For example, writing in the first person view of say a famous person or a rocket scientist. You could interview a real one, but how exactly do you write how he is feeling, particularly pertaining to his field.

In my last story Alone In The Crowd, I tried just that. I had a rough plot and a sequence of events I wanted to write about, then i just went with it. The story was taking place from the point of view of a slightly deranged writer who was firstly, a famous horror writer, and secondly, someone who was ostracised and bullied in school.

Since Stephen King’s butler hung up on me when I told him I needed to interview the King, and also since I’m more of a bully instead of the bullied, I had experience in neither. So I just wrote, and tried to put myself in his shoes, i.e. writing based on a feeling / bluffing instead of writing what I know. Since I’m writing about a writer writing, I tried to put my own head into his as well.

The result was intoxicating. Reading through the roughly 1500 words I’ve written last night, of which only 600 or so were non-crazy or structured enough to post, I found my thoughts drifting randomly from the mundane to the perverse. He could be watching paint peel off the wall simply to avoid eye contact, or he might be smiling at an annoying person who he has no interest talking to, while thinking about how he would kill the person in a story. I tried to use this ‘feeling’ space to touch on the experiences he had in his past (to handle backstory).

I wondered what would happen if I tried to write all of that drunk.

I tried to put more feel / thoughts into the story instead of a direct do/say/describe approach. Personally, it felt very natural to write, especially in drafting. Thoughts and emotions rarely comes out in coherent forms, and I just went with it, so bear with me if you do read the story above. I’m currently free-writing the rest of the story and am already up to over 3000 words due to the ease of putting it on paper (editing will be hell later though). I kinda like this approach and might stick with it in future.

So, what do you think. Do feelings and whimsical emotions in stories appear too rambling for you, or would you prefer the meat and potatoes of just the facts of the story. (Michael Crichton / Da Vinci Code sort of books would fall into this category.)