Storytelling: What to Write

Posted on May 11, 2011


Before I start this week, here’s a shameless plug: I published a tactics & strategy guide for World of Tanks. It went live on the Amazon store today, and I’m celebrating. The book’s title is Speed and Power, which was the motto of the 69th Armor Regiment when I was part of its 2nd Battalion (I led a tank platoon in the First Gulf War). You don’t need a Kindle to read it. You can download a Kindle previewer for free.

Write What You Love

Last week, I made a lot of favorable references to Throw Momma from the Train. This week, I want to take exception to something Larry (Billy Crystal) tells his writing class.

If you’ve ever taking a writing class, you’ve heard his advice. You may have heard it in English classes in High School or College. That advice is, “Write what you know,” and it’s crap. Forget it. Throw it right out of your head.

What you should do is write what you love. Write what you want to read. Mr. Pinsky’s coffee table book may be vulgar, and is certainly in the film for comedic effect, but it’s still what he loves and what he wants to…well, let’s just say read and move on. Passion is important. It’s a long road from first opening a word processing document, or staring at a blank page, to published author. You’re going to face a lot of criticism, and a lot of rejection. Passion for your material will push you past all that. I know several authors personally, and I remember one talking about a new book while bouncing on the balls of his feet. He was so excited about that book. I read it, and it was far better than his previous book. His excitement came through on the pages, and yours will too.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you be Mrs. Hazeltine, who doesn’t know anything about WWII submarines but set a novel aboard one. Poul Anderson wrote an essay called On Thud and Blunder in which he pointed out many of the failures of and errors in modern fantasy, and he’s right. If you’re passionate about a subject, do the research. Read other books of that genre or subject matter. Watch related movies. Be critical of them. Think about how you would do it better. Do your own research, too, in the library and in museums. Don’t swamp your book in details that distract the reader (a common mistake when writing what you know), but do include enough to establish verisimilitude. Getting details wrong isn’t always bad, either. The Jack Reacher novels have some details about firearms and the US military police that I’m pretty sure are incorrect, but I still read them because Lee Child (nom de plume of Jim Grant) does such a great job with characters and plotting.

Errors & Passion

Tell us about a glaring factual error you’ve noticed in a film or book. For example, it always jumps out at me when I watch the big desert battle scene in Patton that the Germans are using US M47 Patton tanks with German crosses slapped on them. If you can’t think of something similar, tell us about a book or a movie where the creator’s passion was really obvious to you.