December 21, 2018

Don't Just “Write What You Know”

By Dr. Richard Mabry

When I began writing (after what I thought was a successful career in medicine as a clinician, surgeon, lecturer, and writer), I was uncertain about a lot of things, but not of what I’d write. I kept hearing, “Write what you know,” and I certainly knew medicine. But a fellow scientist who was also an experienced writer set me straight pretty quickly. There was a difference between technical writing (to be read for knowledge) and fiction (to be read for entertainment). Writing what I knew wouldn’t do it. I had to make it interesting.

It finally came together for me at one of the first writer’s conferences I attended. I still remember sitting down with one of the teachers and telling him about the book I had planned. Writers are urged to practice what is known as an “elevator pitch,” a quick summation of the book that we could give to an interested agent or editor during an elevator ride. But after I’d finished my elevator pitch, the man said, “So what?”

Okay, maybe he needed something more. So, I began detailing the synopsis for the book. But every time I reached a stopping point and looked hopefully at my teacher, the response was the same. “So what?”

Eventually, I had run through the entire synopsis, with the same response each time. What more did I need? And then he explained it to me, and—just like algebra—what I had been trying to understand suddenly came clear. What was at stake? The “So what?” might be something happening…or not happening…to the protagonist or to someone he/she cared about. Was it falling in love, getting that new job, keeping a marriage together, saving a life, avoiding a lawsuit? Whatever was at stake was my “So what.”

Another of my early mentors says that during a novel every protagonist must face a death in some form—physical, mental, emotional, or professional. This is their “So what.” The book I was planning was about a physician who attended a baseball fantasy camp. It was interesting, and factual (based on my own experiences) But there was no “So what” in it. Then I added a washed-up player dependent on alcohol and going from relationship to relationship. I made the older player worry about the consequences of his lifestyle. In this case, he was concerned about long-term effects of alcohol, but it turned out to be even worse. This was the “So what” for both the player and the physician who worked to save him.

Write what you know? Yes, but write more than that. Don’t forget the “So what.” It’s what makes your novel worth reading.
Dr. Richard Mabry is a retired physician, now writing “medical mystery with heart.” His novels have garnered critical acclaim and been finalists for ACFW’s Carol Award, both the Romantic Times’ Inspirational Book of the Year and Reviewer’s Choice Awards, the Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and the Selah Award. He is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, the International Thriller Writers, and Novelists Inc. Emergency Case is his latest novella. He and his wife live in north Texas, where he writes, works on being the world’s greatest grandfather, and strives to improve his golf game. You can learn more about him at his website, and via his blog and Facebook page.

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