by John Peragine
I often ponder what types of books and genres I can write. There are many genres I enjoy reading, but can I write in them? Do I have the knowledge to be able to write about subjects I've read about, where I lack any related life experience? What limits does my experience place on my writing?
As a ghostwriter, I steer toward book genres and subjects I am familiar with. I avoid projects in very technical areas like deep finance or medical research, as I don't have a working knowledge of those subjects. I'd be limping along to try to write them. Ghostwriting is about getting into the person's head and bringing out their story, but I must still step into their experience to make it real on the page. Sometimes, I just can't.
I believe anything is possible, but not everything is probable. It is improbable that, in my current lifetime, I can do justice to some specific genres.
There are all sorts of interesting genres out there. Some of them, like Romance, are even lucrative. And while I've said a few romantic lines in my life, I couldn't even begin to touch that genre. It would take an extraordinary amount of time for me to even figure out what would qualify as romance.
On the other hand, I recently obtained my real estate degree. When I applied this knowledge to my writing, I started with the area I knew the most about: my own backyard. By combining my limited experience as a real estate agent with my existing knowledge of wine and vineyards, I was able to talk confidently about backyard vineyards. Previously, I wouldn't have even considered writing about real estate.
Most people are not immediately ready to be professional in their chosen field after high school, or even college. Doctors struggle through years of internships and residencies before they are prepared to hold their own as a board-certified physician. They spend even longer before they are ready to do surgery.
When I was a social worker, and I knocked on a person’s door after receiving a report of child abuse or neglect, I was invariably asked: are you a parent? The common thought was that if I'd never experienced being a parent, then how could I have the audacity to talk to the person on the other side of the door about parenting? They were probably right. My world, my ideas, and my values all shifted when I became a parent.
Writing requires that we step into experiences we can only imagine.
Can I do justice to a teenage girl dealing with heartbreak? Can I step into the mind space of a high powered trial lawyer facing billion dollar corruption across the courtroom (when my only experience in court was for a traffic ticket)?
As writers, we try to pull off situations like these and more. Are there ways to make it easier?
Short stories are one way to do this.
In the past year, I have challenged myself by entering into the various short story contests offered through NYC Midnight.
What I really love about these competitions is that they assign you a random genre, with a few story elements thrown in. You might be assigned everything from a thriller to a Rom-Com, and then have two days to write a complete story about it.
Competitions like this have helped me in two ways:
At fifty, I feel I have the gift of long sight. But much like my current eyeglass subscription, even though I can see things in the distance, they are a little hazy and challenging to make out. Sometimes I have to squint and move my glasses around to see clearly.
The same is true when I write about people younger than me. I was a child, a teen, a person in their 20s or 30s. I remember scenes and experiences from those periods of my life, but there are huge gaps. While I remember the highlights of my first crush, I have to dig to put to words those feelings. Those feelings were knotted inside a twisty ball of emotions, but some of the sensory details are still crystal clear.
When I write a teenager or a child into a story, it's often a stretch to remember what that experience was like. The further back I go back in time, the tougher this process can be.
The wisdom that comes with age doesn't always make us wiser on a subject.
Those early experiences embed inside our psyches, and create the beautifully flawed individuals we become. Those early experiences make us who we are. And no matter how accomplished we are as writers, to a certain extent, we are all confined by those experiences.
Our understanding of the world is influenced by the writers who came before us. We can speculate on what a world looks like, how a ship flies, or which magic an elf possesses, but these speculations are often fueled by the stories of writers who came before us.
I recommend to new writers that they make it a practice to read all kinds of books. Good books, bad books, books they must hide under the bed, and books that are better off being used to start a fire. Reading is experiential learning to which there is no substitute.
Understanding concepts like the hero's journey, described by Joseph Campbell, is vital because it permeates the marrow of most stories whether they're fantasy or romance or science fiction.
We are limited by what we know. This is why it's crucial to read widely in the genre we choose to write in. Each genre has mechanisms, expectations and specific mechanics. To get better at a genre you are less familiar with, first read widely and then just start writing. Practice. Write short stories.
Practice, and then practice some more.
As an example, from an early age I studied playing the flute. I took lessons and practiced for years until the process of playing became muscle memory. Although I haven't picked up my flute in a few years, I'd wager the memories would surface quickly, and I could play it without completely starting over the learning process.
I am a good musician, but that doesn't mean I am great at all music. There are styles I am better at than others, usually influenced by listening to and studying a lot of music I liked. I can play the hell out of symphony but can't swing a beat to save my life. I can confidently say: all the practice in the world won't make me a great jazz musician.
Great writing requires practice. A lot of practice. Write, edit, show, toss, rinse, wash, and repeat.
Pick a genre you are passionate about because writing practice is often tough and monotonous until those great writing skills develop. Half-baked writing results in half-baked books: often gooey and not very appealing.
Probabilities are odds, and I am always looking for ways to improve the odds. This requires honest conversations with myself. Can I write a thriller based on a spy from China? Do I know what being a spy is? Do I know the culture well enough not to make people angry with stereotypical flat characters?
There are things we know, things we can learn, and things we will never figure out. This sort of knowledge helps us do three things:
Sitting in front of a computer or entering a classroom doesn’t bring us any closer to having real-life experiences to draw on when we're writing. Go live life.
Even in these crazy times, we can find ways to make connections with others and visit new places. The more we experience life, the more neural connections that are made in our brain, which makes us more brilliant in our writing.
Be brilliant, my friends!
What topics or skills do you know really well? What do you want to know more about? What is one thing you can do today to increase your life experiences?
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John Peragine has published 14 books and ghostwritten more than 100 others. He is a contributor for HuffPost, Reuters, and The Today Show. He covered the John Edwards trial exclusively for Bloomberg News and The New York Times. He has written for Wine Enthusiast, Grapevine Magazine, Realtor.com, WineMakermagazine, and Writer's Digest.
John began writing professionally in 2007, after working 13 years in social work and as the piccolo player for the Western Piedmont Symphony for over 25 years. Peragine is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. His newest book, Max and the Spice Thieves, will be released this Fall.
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