Start With What You Know

By Stephen Coonts

Beginning writers are well advised to write about something they know. Many beginners try to write about people and places and events that they know absolutely nothing about, and consequently expend vast quantities of time and effort but cannot get the story to read right. Do not write about the world of Manhattan high fashion and glamour unless you have been there and seen it from the inside. Do not write about the sins of the Hollywood film industry unless you know this world well. The sole exception to this rule is this: you can write about anything that no one else knows anything about--this category would include science fiction, fantasy, and, perhaps, Jean Auel's caveman novels. Even so, you must always master the rules of the genre in which you wish to work. Sci fi sells to hard core fans who read little else. You have to know this genre inside out if you expect to write and sell books to the Trekkies. Ditto horror, romance, and a few others.

Writing is very hard work. Those folks who try it for any length of time understand that fact. Writing good fiction is so tough very few people succeed at it. It seems that those people who do it best are thoughtful, careful readers who study successful writers and learn the techniques. Like glassblowing or painting, writing is a craft that can be learned, but it must be practiced diligently and painstakingly.

Like every craft or art, good writing requires a spark of originality or all the sweat will have been in vain. Talent is an elusive, hard-to-define quality. Yet, like pornography, most of us know it when we see it. Craft compliments talent but is not a substitute for it. Talent needs workmanship and sweat to succeed, but workmanship and sweat are not enough. There are thousands of bricklayers yet only a few artists in stone.

Craft aside, to write successfully you must have something to write about. Every word you write is a distillation of everything you know about life, about how the world works, about how people think and feel, their motivations, their hopes, their dreams, and so on. How do you write a woman in love? Well, if you are not a woman, it would help a lot if you had known one or two who were desperately, hopelessly in love. To write successfully you must understand what it is to be human. Only then can you reduce the human experience to language and put it on paper. Our best writers drank deeply of life. I give you Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway.

One of the common mistakes of aspiring writers is to write about themselves. Some do it to explore their inner emotions, others do so for the simple reason that they know themselves best. Regardless, writing about yourself is a literary dead-end, a place where readers do not care to go.

Students of writing must write about other people, learn to create characters that live within the boundaries of the fictional world created by the writer. This is the very essence of the craft, without which you cannot progress.

At some point every aspiring writer must evaluate his or her work and make a realistic appraisal of its worth. Are you just laying bricks? It helps to have unbiased readers who will give honest criticism. Do not try to write unless you are willing to fail. If you are unwilling to let your friends read your stuff because they might not understand it, it is unpublishable--the book buying public won't understand it either. This leads inexorably to my next point: if you have to explain to a reader what they should have gotten out of a story, it didn't work. Go back and work on it some more. The story must stand on its own. How well it stands is a direct measure of how well you have mastered the craft of writing.
Stephen Coonts is the author of 13 New York Times bestsellers, the first of which was the classic flying tale, FLIGHT OF THE INTRUDER. Mr. Coonts and his wife, Deborah, reside in Las Vegas, Nevada. You can learn more at his website:

© 2006 Stephen Coonts. Used with Permission.