The First – “TKZ Words of Wisdom” post

Now and again we reach back into the TKZ archives for some timeless advice and offer them to you for discussion. Please reply, riff, or rant in the comments and interact with each other!

Write what you know. Good God, how many times have we heard that over the years? As if Jack Ryan was Tom Clancy’s pseudonym, or Lincoln Rhyme Jeffery Deaver’s. For way too many years, that write-what-you-know counsel was a real problem for me. I grew up in suburban DC, a middle-class white kid with no respectable non-academic. What the hell was I supposed to write about that was, you know, interesting?

As I got a little older, I came to realize what my writing instructors really meant with that cryptic advice: you have to be convincing. Unless you’ve loved, you’ll never be able to write about it convincingly. Until you’ve had a child and you’ve surrendered that part of your soul to another human being, I don’t think you can write parental angst in a way that will convince parents who are living it. It’s not about relaying events that you know; it’s about conveying emotions that you’ve experienced. – John Gilstrap, August 2008


I got an email the other day from a beginning writer who was working on her first book. She had read some of my novels and enjoyed them, and she asked if I had any advice on helping her strengthen her writing. I could have given her many answers to that question including creating an outline, researching carefully, developing strong characters, accuracy, compelling plot, etc. But what I decided to tell her was that the best way to strengthen her writing was to choose the right words.

I know that may sound almost too basic. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the right words in the right order can make for good writing. But I suggested that once she completed her first draft and started the rewriting process, she spend time considering if she needed an alternative to her action and descriptive words. I’m not advocating a thesaurus-intensive approach to writing, just a conscious effort to consider if there’s a better, stronger, more visual alternative to power and descriptive words. – Joe Moore, June, 2009


How do you fit romance into a non-stop thriller? These genres are not mutually exclusive. Look at your movies for examples. Romancing the Stone with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, and The Librarian: Quest for the Spear with Noah Wyle and Sonya Walger are two of my favorites. What recent thrillers have you seen where a romantic relationship is involved? How did the film get this across to viewers?

Here’s how to start with your own story: Give your characters internal and external conflicts to keep them apart. The external conflict is the disaster that will happen if the villain succeeds. The internal conflict is the reason why your protagonists hesitate to get involved in a relationship. Maybe the heroine was hurt by a former lover and is afraid of getting burned again. Or she has a fierce need for independence. Why? What happened in her past to produce this need? Maybe your hero doesn’t want a wife because his own parents went through a bitter divorce, and secretly he feels unworthy of being loved. Or maybe he feels that his dangerous lifestyle wouldn’t suit a family. Keep asking questions to deepen your people’s motivations. – Nancy J. Cohen, December 2012

Let the conversation begin!

17 thoughts on “The First – “TKZ Words of Wisdom” post

  1. Welcome to the first TKZ Words of Wisdom post, where everyone gets to comment, and everyone gets to respond to other’s comments. Think of it as a “lively discussion” at a family reunion. So, pull up a chair, keep it civil, keep the gloves on, and let the spirited debate begin.

    Thanks for participating, and may your weekend be wonderful.

  2. Steve, thanks for showcasing the accumulated wisdom of TKZ’s archives. Over years, many bright, accomplished authors have dissected the mysterious process of writing and shared their experiences here. There’s a gold mine in that library. Advice from 2008 remains relevant and useful today.

    “Keep asking questions to deepen your people’s motivations.” Nancy’s suggestion helps build memorable characters with depth and dimension.

  3. Wow, look at those nuggets from the past. Still hold true.

    Brother Gilstrap reminds us that fiction is about feelings, not just knowledge. The great thing about fiction for me is that you can write about things you really don’t know about, but can learn, and can also tap into emotions you have felt in the past and transfer them to the characters.

    I agree with Joe about strengthening sentences, and also that this should be done at revision time, not sweating each page during the first draft-–though I know there are writers who do it that way, including a fellow named Koontz.

    And I like Nancy’s suggestion to keep asking deepening questions. A few minutes of journaling before the WIP is a good way to do that.

    This blog is 14 years old! The quality of instruction, day after day, has been so astoundingly good it’s great to mine the archives. Looking forward to more.

    • My first books were vomit it on the page because I feared losing the impetus and the story within me. So, it was mainly plot, character, and dialogue. Everything else was added during edits. The more confident I became as a writer the less I needed to power through the book so those added touches were now in the first draft.

    • I do agree. I’m speaking at a small conference and I had everyone write this blog site in their notes. And I strongly urged them to check out the archives, especially the 1 st page critiques.

  4. Good morning, Steve. Thanks for this morning’s unique offering. It must have involved a lot of work, considering how long TKZ has been around while other blogs have come and gone. This condensed version is a perfect example of the proposition that “less is more.”

    Hope you’re having a great weekend!

  5. Great new feature, Steve. The archives are a goldmine, but how many of us take the time to dig through them. Thanks for bringing these nuggets to the surface.

  6. Thanks, Steve. I’d (if I had the audacity to edit the greats) say it’s more, ‘Write what you feel’ – as you demonstrated so well here. We don’t share the same experiences, but we all share the same human emotions.

    And I never get tired of plumbing those.

  7. Very interesting concept and I like it. I go back into the archives a lot since I’m newer to the blog and I really liked how you’re leading off with Gilstrap’s previous post—writing experience is something I wrestle with daily.

    I often think that ‘writing what you know’ is also about transferrable emotions. I’m not sure it’s truly about the emotions you experienced but reaching down to your inner-most human-self to emphasize with your character’s conflicts and circumstance. Mix in your talents and skills—I believe that a clever author can get the reader to buy into their narratives.

    • Well said. It is similar to what an actor does when preparing to play a role he or she has never assumed in real life. Emotion memory is a technique from the Method school of acting and just as applicable to writing.

    • Your comment about emotional transference is spot on. If I only wrote about what I know intimately from experience, my books would have been pretty damn boring. I may have never been a parent, but I’m an aunt who would throw myself in front of a bus for the siblings’ kids. I’ve mined those emotions when I write a parent.

  8. Okay, on the Cohen quote on romance in a thriller. Skilled suspense and thriller writers who have a romance plot running through it do what I call insta-love. The hero and heroine meet because of what’s happening, they have an instant emotional and sexual connection with each that’s off the charts, but they focus on what they need to do. They also gain respect for each other, and the way they interact and their pasts/presents show the possibility of their successful future as a couple. Sex happens early and as often as the plot allows. Even thriller characters need to sleep, bandage their boo boos, do some research, and reload their weapons.

    Their emotional/romantic problem may be very simple. They have conflicting careers, and one needs to stay while the other needs to go. Or it can be more complex. The woman is old money and power, and the other is from a lower middle class background who thinks he is unworthy of her. His insecurity makes him pull away when he should be moving towards her. The problem is resolved through talk, a like-duh moment of epiphany, or another character offering a practical solution. None of it ruins the pace of the thriller or suspense novel.

    Two masters of this technique are Heather Graham and Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle.

    • As long as that sex doesn’t take place on camel back while avoiding the bad guys. I stopped reading that best-selling romance author then and there.

  9. Oh wow! This came at the right time. I’m working on a sci-fi piece where the main character (f) is a warrior and she doesn’t know how to fit another warrior (m) into her life.
    “Here’s how to start with your own story: Give your characters internal and external conflicts to keep them apart. The external conflict is the disaster that will happen if the villain succeeds. The internal conflict is the reason why your protagonists hesitate to get involved in a relationship.”
    This truly helps me out. The storm inside her, that she would never love again, how to get this man or will it happen through time, and so many trying to kill her.
    Thanks for this post so much. Time to get back to it.

    • I recommend Jayne Castle’s “Harmony” series. She’s a master at adding romance to the science fiction. Each book has a new romantic couple. For a series long romantic relationship, I recommend Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series. Andrews is also a master class at writing action and fight scenes.

  10. Have always hated that over-used “write what you know”. From the first time I heard that piece of advice I thought “If I stuck to that, I’d only be able to write about 3 sentences then I’d be out of things to say.” (especially if you’re a perfectionist and never feel you know enough about your subject.) And that was YEARS ago. Yet I still feel the same. As noted, it’s about applying feelings that are universal. Plus frankly, the fun of writing is LEARNING more because you have to do your research. I doubt I would bother writing if I didn’t have to work for it.

  11. Steve, Kudos for coming up with this idea! I love the snippets you chose from the archives.

    I especially identify with Nancy Cohen’s comment since I’m thinking about a mystery (thriller?) that has a internal and external conflict for the main characters. I’ve written a few chapters, and the premise dovetails right into Nancy’s advice.

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