What Writers Can Learn from “Pork and Beans” – Guest Writer Steven Ramirez

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Photo Courtesy of Eli Duke

My guest today is Steven Ramirez, the horror thriller author of the series TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD. Catchy. We met on Twitter, like normal people. Steven lives in Los Angeles and has also published short stories as well as a children’s book (this scares me), and he wrote the screenplay for the horror thriller film ‘Killers.’ Welcome to TKZ, Steven.

Steven Ramirez

I first heard Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” when my younger daughter was teaching herself the bass. She would blast it every day, following along on her instrument. Eventually, I found myself listening to the lyrics. I came to love that song and now have it on my phone. Yeah, I know. Talk about late to the party. Well, in my defense, I mostly listen to straight-ahead jazz, so.

But enough about Weezer…

Trying Not to Be a Pompous Ass
As a writer, I can really identify with those lyrics. I won’t quote them here, but you can use this LINK if you want to refresh your memory. The point is, the books I choose to write are a product of my, shall we call it, pork-and-beans attitude. I really don’t give a crap about researching popular genres and writing the kinds of books I think people might like. I notice a lot of “experts” like to give that kind of advice to non-fiction authors. To me, that’s right up there with “write what you know.” Spare me. Now, on the surface, I might sound a little pompous. But stick with me for a sec. I am simply trying to stay true to myself. You know, like Lady Gaga.

I watched a lot of movies and television as a kid. My favorites were horror, sci-fi, and comedy. As I grew older, I came to appreciate thrillers. And in the last few years, I fell in love with Westerns. I guess I can thank Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood for that. I also love foreign films—especially those from Japan and Korea. As you can see, my tastes tend to run the gamut. I do lean toward horror, though. In fact, my first four books revolve around zombies and demons.

Some Really Cheesy Math
Recently, I read a Wikipedia article which stated that, as of April 2017, Amazon’s Kindle Store had nearly seven million titles available in the US. Seven million! I have no idea if that number is accurate. As of this writing, my latest horror novella is at around 41,000 in Amazon’s best sellers rank for paid eBooks. Take a look.

Now, that’s a long way from the top 100, but here’s how I look at it. Keep in mind, I am terrible at math, but I think you’ll get my point. Let’s say, conservatively, that out of the 7,000,000 titles offered at Amazon, half are fiction. I’m guessing it’s more than half, but this is just for the sake of argument. So, that’s 3,500,000 fiction titles—all genres. Now, let’s say that of those, half are free due to a promotion or whatever. That brings the number down to 1,750,000 paid titles. Still with me? Okay. Out of this number—which is shaky at best—my book is at 41,510. This is the only true number based on the screenshot above. So, that means Come As You Are is in the top two percent of paid books. Now, as I said, this whole thing is pure speculation. But at least it’s the kind of voodoo economics that lets me sleep at night. Know what I mean?

Style as Brand
What I am saying is, despite me writing what I want instead of chasing some fad because some expert told me to, I managed to get my book pretty far up the chart. Okay, I’m no Stephen King, but who is? And another thing, let’s forget about the stupid ranking for a minute. What’s really interesting about this exercise is that there are real readers out there who seem to like my work. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Getting people to read your book. It’s about creating a brand through your personal, one-of-a-kind writing style and doing your best to let those folks who enjoy that sort of thing find out about you. It’s what I strive to do every time I sit at the computer and type out another sentence.

The truth is, I currently have more ideas for novels that I could ever possibly write in this lifetime. But I promise you, the books I do manage to write will be always good. Otherwise, I won’t publish. And you may not always like the genre. For example, I’ve been toying with a time travel story—not because time travel is popular, but because I have what I think is an interesting idea and want to see it come to life. What I’m hoping is, there are readers out there who will fall in love with it. You never know.

If I had to leave you with one piece of advice, it would be this. Don’t write what you know. Instead, write what keeps you up at night—something that’s burning a hole in your gut and giving you nightmares until you commit it to the page. In other words, write the thing that comes out when there’s a gun at your head.

For Discussion:

1.) For writers: Have you built your brand on a single genre, or are you comfortable pursuing interests outside the genre?

2.) For readers: Do you prefer authors who stick with a single genre, or are you more interested in the author, no matter the genre?

Come as You Are: A Short Novel & Nine Stories

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

56 thoughts on “What Writers Can Learn from “Pork and Beans” – Guest Writer Steven Ramirez

  1. I hate the “write what you know” advice. As a life-long learner, I already know I can’t possibly learn as much as I want in a lifetime. So telling me to “write what I know” can be paraphrased as “Quit before you can even get started.”

    As to writing genres: one main one, dabbling in a second.

    As for authors: Hmmm….Thinking of examples I tend toward authors who write in the same genre–but it could be that I simply don’t know about any other genre works they have. I don’t care if they dabble in multiple genres. That doesn’t mean I’m going to read them all but why shouldn’t any author explore as many different genres as they like?

    • I like your attitude, BK. If I wrote what I knew, how many bracing accountant stories could the world take? We’ll never find out, not from me.

      You mentioned you were dabbling in a second genre. Would it mean a departure from your brand? How different is it?

      When I ventured into YA, I had to find a different audience (teens), create a different online footprint, and “travel” in different circles to be considered a serious author in the genre. I still had my stories rooted in crime fiction, to keep my adult readers, but my brand needed serious tweaking.

    • BK, thanks so much for your comments. A good example of a writer who wrote in multiple genres and rocked them all is Jack Finney. This was the guy who not only brought us the excellent time travel story Time and Again, but The Body Snatchers, which has been made into a movie several times. Now, he’s a guy I admire.

  2. welcome to TKZ Mr. Ramirez! As a reader, I would say that I tend to side with the author that sticks to a specific genre. Having said that, what draws me most to a writer is not necessarily the “write what you know” of the author, but the writer’s ability to attract me to their characters. If I can’t connect with a character within the first few pages, I will most likely put the book down. There are exceptions of course and those exceptions usually involve some type of suspense that keeps me turning pages until the protagonist (or antagonist?) takes the stage.

  3. If I wrote what I know, I’d put myself to sleep. “Write what you can learn” works much better, as who doesn’t want to learn more about what interests them?

  4. Great post, Steven. Nice to see you on the Kill Zone. I, too, don’t like the advice “write what you know.” If I were to take that advice literally, I’d need to murder several people in merciless ways and take a 2nd job as a death investigator. Although, I have taken numerous forensic, investigation, and hacking courses. Do they count? Perhaps. Nonetheless, I’m with you. “Be courageous and try to write in a way that scares you a little.” ― Holley Gerth

    As a writer and reader, I tend to stick to my genre, but I do like mash-ups.

  5. ‘Opportunity knocked on the front door.

    I thought it was the police so I ran out the back door.

    Damn.’

    Lil’ Wayne

  6. I never took the write what you know to mean what you know intellectually, but what emotions you know–the ones that come to the surface when your pet dies or you’ve been rejected.

    I write in three sort of related genres: Suspense with a twist of romance, sweet romance and am about to branch out into cozies.
    Really enjoyed the column and look forward to more guest posts from Steven.

    • Thanks, Patricia. I’m so pleased you liked the post. To be honest, I was pretty nervous about being in the same company as these other TKZ authors. Best of luck.

  7. I hate the “write what you know” adage, too. I believe in the “write what interests you” advice. (It’s probably not surprising that I’m a multi-genre author.) Not only do I get to have a blast researching new things, I won’t bore my readers to death with the same-old/same-old all the time. (And my real-life experiences are a little lacking in the “fascinating” department, anyway, so sticking only with what I know would be a career killer.)

    I loved this post. That’s my kind of math!

  8. Welcome Steve! I have been delving into YA, MG as well as new adult mystery/suspense but the commonality is history. Different periods and (for YA and MG) more often than not with a speculative bent but still rooted in a particular time period. I think at heart I must be a historical fiction writer (duh!) but with no strong genre affiliation beyond that. For me, research into a time period grounds my writing. As a reader, I’m happy for my favorite authors to explore all genres but only if they do it well:)

  9. Loved this post. Don’t have anything else to add. Just great to see bracing and funny writing first thing when I signed on this morning. Oh, and some good advice. You actually made me want to go look up my Amazon rankings and I haven’t done that in a long time.

  10. I loved your book, keep up the good work. As an avid reader I prefer books of which I have many that I buy and pass along to family(you know like our Aunts) and friends. I have several favorite authors and you are right up there with them, can’t wait for your next book!

  11. I love the post. Write what you know, huh? I don’t know anything. Wait. I’m an expert on Law and Order reruns.
    I dislike most advice to writers, except the one about adverbs. Think about it. If we all followed advice our stories would be all alike. Recently, I was told I needed to give my MC name in the first sentence. Why? That’s just a mini info dump if it is not needed. I’ve been told that no one reads werewolf stories, then I find dozens of them on Amazon with four star ratings. I think werewolves can be a metaphor for a lot of the ills of our society.
    Whatever you write do it well and people will read. it. (If they can find it.)
    Genres? How about crossing them. I’m currently interested in literary horror. Its teaching me to build suspense. Crime horror is also interesting.
    I have to go now. I’ve got to buy Steven’s book.

    • I love crossing genres, Brian. I learned from my YA experience that teens are into THE STORY and not where it’s shelved in the store or the library. If you look at YA as a genre, it’s CRAZY with innovative combos because teen readers’ minds are really open to it. It’s all about the plot or the pitch/hook. That’s how they end up driving literature into new territories–because of authors who aren’t afraid to take risks. Trends are in the minds of authors, waiting to break out. I’m a firm believer that if you write the story you’re dying to tell, and craft it with care, someone will want to read it. And only YOU can tell that story because it comes from your personal experiences and with your voice. Isn’t that cool?

      Who knew we could get all these comments from Pork & Beans? Thanks, Steven.

    • For the record, I hate that particular piece of advice — you MUST reveal your protag’s name in the first graph.

      Geez.

      • On my first crime suspense story, I thought I was being clever to leave out the guy’s name in the first scene. A mystery element to be revealed later, but after I was convinced to add a name, Micky became a real guy in my head and I could add more layers to him. He didn’t live long enough for me to “flesh out” beyond that scene, but I realized that adding that name changed everything in my mind. He became real. My two cents.

  12. I’ve experimented a lot with my fiction, but everything carries a heavy dose of mystery, adventure, romance, and, usually, a paranormal element.

    Great column Steve. Cheered me up today. : )

  13. Great post.

    ‘Write what you know’ is useless advice, IMO.
    It worked exactly opposite for me. I wrote ten westerns first, and THEN I learned how to ride, shoot, got myself a bow and arrows, and started to learn about the things I already wrote about. It was interesting, but frankly, it didn’t add any value to my next novels.
    After that I wrote thrillers/action, and guess what? A whole new set of guns to study, plus hacking, cons, grifting, gangs, terrorism, weeee 😀

    I guess the thing we have to keep in mind is credibility. No matter how little I knew about Peacemaker Colt, I couldn’t allow myself to write something wrong, especially in days before my research. Fact – checking was an hourly routine. I can’t say I made no mistakes, but I knew I did all that I could.

    PS: Patricia Bradley – I don’t think we should write about ‘what we emotionally know’. I lead a very boring, slow life. My characters go through the things I can’t even imagine going through, much less feel them, and yet I have to write in a way that people feel them too. That’s why it’s called Fiction, I guess. We make things up, we write about people more interesting than us, and sometimes – even more alive. 🙂

    • When I was first pubbed, the international thriller writers hosted a number of debut authors at their 2008 conference in NYC. Lee Child was our mentor through emails prior to the event. He told us to write what we fear, because I guarantee that whatever you fear, most people would too.

      This extends to all emotions. Write what you love, like family, since most of us know what it’s like to protect the lives of people we love or what our reaction would be if the lives of our loved ones were threatened.

      It boils down to empathy and telling an emotional story we can relate to. Ever since man drew cave drawings to pass on stories about perilous hunts, death or war, that’s what we tap into–emotion.

    • Wow, thanks for those comments, Mike! I used to ride horses back in the day, but not with guns. I really must try a western one day. I am a huge fan of True Grit. And I thought the Coen Brothers’ treatment was absolutely true to the novel.

      Also, I agree with you about EQ. I wrote a horror thriller trilogy while knowing absolutely nothing about how it would feel to be chased by a fast zombie.

  14. I read/listen to just about anything if it catches my attention of most genres, and search out works of my favourite authors regardless of their genre. Ken Follett falls among those for instance, who started with WW2 thrillers, then spy stories, and now does long epics from various points in history (Kingsbridge, Century, etc).

    My writing on the other hand, is based on what I know…or am willing to study about…or sometimes just stuff I make up.

    I’ve written mostly military thrillers, but have also done comedy, historical fiction, and even romance. Like you said Steven, more stories in my head than I can ever get on paper.

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