Write What You Know, but Don't Be Selfish

 Hey, what's the big idea?

Hey, what's the big idea?

I started my next book, Phantom Profits, last night. Since querying is such a slow process, I’ll have time to finish a couple drafts while I’m searching for an agent to represent my first novel. I finished that one, Rosie Got Smoked, about a month ago. What followed was a strictly enforced vacation from writing—maybe the longest I’ve ever endured. It was hard as hell, but I needed it. Perfectionist workaholics like me burn out fast. Last night was one of the easiest 1,000 words of my life. I’m glad I took the time to mentally refresh. Self-care is a real thing, people. Don’t burn yourself out. The days you don’t write are just as important as the days you do.

As I kick off this journey with Phantom Profits, I keep thinking about what I learned from writing and editing an entire book. Turns out, there isn’t some golden rule that descends from the heavens the moment you hit save for the last time. Finishing a book, despite the finality of the phrase, is a long process where lessons creep up on you when you least expect it. I’ve already said your book can’t be about everything. This is the best distillation of the past couple years. However, I recently stumbled across a variation of that lesson in an offhand conversation with my girlfriend. Get ready for the title drop. Here it is!

Writing what you know is great advice, but there’s a caveat. Write what you know, but don’t be selfish.

Rosie Got Smoked is a very personal story. That made it easy. That also made it extremely difficult. Most of my time and energy was spent sorting through my childhood memories of New Hampshire lake towns. The first draft of Rosie Got Smoked was basically indulgent fan service for my own nostalgia. Sure, those memories matter to me. They’re some of my fondest. But that doesn’t mean they’ll matter to anyone else.

The most important part of writing what you know is converting the personal to the universal. I struggled with this for four long drafts. How do I make people care about those lazy summer drives my dad and I took to drop off recycling at the town dump? I had to rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite. That scene survived the merciless cuts. Many others didn’t. The ones I couldn’t salvage were solely for me and added nothing to the plot or character. I cut an entire chapter in the final draft because I couldn’t justify its existence. The main cast goes on a hike together, very similar to a trail I conquered with my family every summer. I loved that chapter. Why wouldn’t I? It stirred up happy memories. But it was only for me because none of the characters made big moves. The plot didn’t budge an inch. It was 3,000 words of self-absorbed writing. It could not stay.

I’m happily applying this lesson to Phantom Profits. The book is inspired by my day job—specifically a business trip to a haunted hotel that happened last year. Unsurprisingly, I have a lot to say about my corporate overlords. Now, I understand the concept of writing what I know without being selfish. Phantom Profits could easily become another book that exists exclusively to make myself feel better. And to be clear—there’s nothing wrong with that sort of writing if you’re just doing it for yourself or friends and family. That’s what first drafts are for. Write the first couple for yourself. Work it out of your system.

Then, get to work making the personal universal.

As always, thanks for reading.