Friday, February 26, 2010

On Debuts and Cliches

“Write what you know.” It’s one of those clichés every writer hears in the early stages of learning the craft.

I agree with it—to an extent. I know about religion, classic horror, acting, and medieval lit. The first novel I ever wrote dealt with religion and horror. Then an agent who passed on that book challenged me to write a crime story starring an ex-nun. Nah, I thought—I’m a horror writer. But the idea clung to my subconscious, and I decided to learn about private investigators, health food, MMORPGs, and the minds of stalkers.

You may be asking: How is getting into the mind of a stalker is a positive thing? It is when it’s the mind of the villain in my debut mystery. If I’d clung to my self-label of “horror writer” I wouldn’t be looking forward to my first mystery on a bookstore shelf next spring.

Yet without my writing roots I wouldn’t be here either, because folks seem to be fascinated by nuns. We’re like an alternate species of human. Yep—I used to be a nun. Habit, veil, the whole shebang. (Sorry to disappoint: The convent’s nothing like Sister Act. And speaking of clichés, yes, I played the guitar; yes, I sang at Folk Masses; and yes, I taught middle school kids to sing and dance.) In my debut mystery, my ex-nun main character is re-acclimating to the world. That’s writing what I know—you should’ve seen me trying to walk in high heels for the first time in years. She’s also foiling a Bible-obsessed stalker, which combines what I know and what I had to learn—I’ve certainly never stalked anyone! Although if Gerard Butler moved in down the street…

Where was I? Oh, yes. Clichés. Nuns themselves may be cliché, although I certainly wasn’t. As in, I was in trouble pretty much every week for all my years in the convent. At first all I thought the only use I could make of those years were good was cocktail party conversation for the rest of my life. Yet what I thought was a colossal waste turned out to be a crucial ingredient to a mystery series.

Were I to go back to teaching English, this is where I’d start: Everything you know, everything you’ve experienced—good and bad—can be used to make your writing better. I’m living proof.

Oops. A cliché. I’d better go back to daydreaming about Gerard Butler moving into my neighborhood. And writing my next book

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