The Real Write What You Know: AKA Your Life in Hip-waders

The universe is fond of a good story, same as you and me. This, I tell myself, is why, when one thing goes wrong, there tends to be a glorious cascade of things falling apart to ride along on that one thing’s coat tails. As writers, we can have the last laugh. We can use it.

stressAs a comment on craft, I’m pretty sure this is the deeper, truer version of the adage, “write what you know.”

Bear with me. I’m going to explain, but to do it, I need to share a brief recap of my last couple days.

My youngest daughter and I had just flown home from a one-way road trip to visit Tennessee great-grandmother, leaving the other half of my family to return the Tom Robbins go-adventure way. All was well. I adjusted my work schedule so I could take my kid to school, and Grandma (my mom) would do pick up.

percy 2Well, the fam broke down outside the security checkpoint at the Hoover dam. There was some kind of stomach flu. There were grumpy, righteous guards. There was also, eventually, a $1,200 repair bill and two nights in a roadside Las Vegas motel. I reminded my eldest daughter, now half-way through her second week of missed school, that it was all very Percy Jackson.

Meanwhile, my mom was scheduled for major surgery and I was on my own. So, at 4am, with my seven-year-old in tow, I took mom to the hospital. Then her cat decided to have kidney failure. “Never fear,” says I. “I will hold down the fort.”

At this point, I’m certain that if someone doesn’t manage to hold things together, said fort will break into a thousand sharp, tiny slivers and shoot off into the void. Despite this possibility, the only thing running through my head for the next five hours is, has enough change fallen into the couch for me to buy a decent curry?

Things are calmer now. Mom’s surgery went well. The youngest has a school-night sleepover. The cat is staying at the vet for testing, system flushing and…as well may be, more unpleasant things to come.

Breathe. Just keep swimming (thank you, Dori-the-fish).

Come Saturday, my mom will be at home needing care, my sister will need a ride from the airport, the other half of my road-weary cast will return home, and the cat will either get out—or not, but there’s a parade in town, so, you know, there’s that.

Thing is—this story is universal. Okay, not THIS story, but you see where I’m going. We all have times when reality dishes out some crazy novel-quality hurdles.  It’s just that, for authors, “you couldn’t make this stuff up,” doesn’t apply. We can and, in fact, we should!

roller coasterThe experience behind writing what you know isn’t the cat with kidney failure, the lack of childcare, the stress over roadside blow-outs, missed school, the finances, and the…whatever comes next. That might be a great story too, but the real value is in the AND. It’s the pile-on. It’s knowing *knowing* that the universe is sniggering at you from behind its sly, masterful hand. Those feelings are the ‘what you know’ in “write what you know”. Your physical, emotional and psychological roller-coaster can be applied to your characters in any situation of crisis, whether brief or prolonged.

You’ve suffered. Use it. The beauty is that, in crisis, your experience will be both unique and universal at the same time. There may be value in writing about your specific experience too. Don’t get me wrong. Maybe that story is the plot of your next novel. Regardless, you can use any difficulty, or cluster of difficulties, in creative ways to give depth to your characters and to raise the stakes.

Now, if you have the wherewithal to take actual notes when you’re wearing imaginary hip-waders to get through your own life, then I applaud you. My advice is just to be aware of what you’re going through and what those around you are going through. Probably, forgetting it won’t be an issue. When you can sit down at last, glass of wine in hand, to do some writing, you may even feel capable of a little chuckle behind your sly, masterful hand.


*A note as I sit in the relative calm aftermath of these events. The road trip, where my daughter learned about the Anasazi, panned for gold in a secret spot only her Grand-dad knows, broke down at the Hoover Dam, got jumped by a twister, and visited Titanic artifacts in Vegas (not-to mention getting a gorgeous hat from the Brothel/gas-station), will be a life-long story for her to share. Meanwhile, I’m putting together a proposal to the powers that be (?) to forever rename road trips, Crisis Navigation Skill-building Experiences.

GKBGabrielle Byrne lives in Olympia, Washington and writes dark and twisty tales for middle graders, often with roots in mythology and folklore. She is represented by Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management. Find her on Twitter.


Interview with Author — Karen Foxlee

Gabby Byrne: Today I have the unparalleled delight of interviewing one of my agency-sisters, Karen Foxlee. She’s the bestselling author of OPHELIA AND THE MARVELOUS BOY, THE MIDNIGHT DRESS, and AN ANATOMY OF WINGS. She’s also just an all-around wonderful person. Her new book, A MOST MAGICAL GIRL is due out in August, 2016. Karen lives in the far-flung wilds of Northern Australia and is getting ready for her first U.S. tour. Thanks for letting me ask you a bunch of questions, Karen.

Karen: Thanks for having me on Winged Pen!karen

Gabby: Okay, let’s get to it. Can you tell us about the best writing advice you ever got?

Karen: I’ve received lots of advice over the years. I’ve read lots of creative writing books that have utterly confused me.  In desperation, I’ve gone on to websites that boldly claim “You can write your novel in six weeks” and willed myself to believe it was true. It never was.  The best advice has always been from other writers.  It usually includes the words “just keep going,” or some such. “Trust yourself.” “It’ll all work out.”

Gabby: Classic advice – and I appreciate you giving it to me from time to time! What was your favorite book as a kid?

My favourite book as a child was Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytales, read to us by my mother. In particular, I loved THE SNOW QUEEN. I also loved the Baum’s WIZARD OF OZ series, THE FAMOUS FIVE by Enid Blyton, and the summer I was twelve I read SINUHE THE EGYPTIAN by Mika Waltari three times.

Gabby: I’m adding that last one to my must-read list. How about your favorite book this year?

Karen: This year I finally read Wild by Cheryl Strayed and found it to be wonderful.

Gabby: Tell us about which writers inspire you?

Karen: I’m inspired by so many different writers, for so many different reasons; writers who write so beautifully you just want to die, writers who are really good at explaining the art of writing, writers who stand up for the rights of writers, new writers who embrace the whole publicity thing with such joy and vigor, writers who don’t embrace it at all. I’m also inspired by those writers who take years to craft a novel, as well as the writers who just bang them out. I love them all and I’m inspired by them all.  There are too many writers to name.

 Gabby: Can you talk about your most difficult craft hurdle?

My biggest craft hurdle is always to not be scared of the story—to not be scared of creativity. To not…. panic.  That big messy part where the story doesn’t make sense makes me uneasy and anxious.  It makes me want to go back to my career in nursing.  I’m getting better at not panicking though.

Gabby: What is your work/writing schedule?

Karen: I write early in the morning, depending on season, usually from around 4:30 until 7 am, then again from 9 until 1 pm. I have never been able to write at night. I have to write every day in a routine to get anywhere. Usually in blocks of a few months, after which time I crash and burn and say I will never write again.  It’s not the only way, I know. Every writer is different.  It’s just what works for me.

Gabby: Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you get past it?

Karen: I find you just have to keep writing—just write horrible rubbish. It’s like trying to get a rusty tap to flow.  Lots of bad water will come out first. I just pick something about a character and say, “okay, I’m going to write about you sweeping the floor,” and it is so mundane and boring, but it usually takes you somewhere.

Gabby: Your newest book, A MOST MAGICAL GIRL, comes out in August, 2016. What’s it about and what was the inspiration for the story?

bookA MOST MAGICAL GIRL is about Annabel Grey, a girl in 1867 London, who is primed for life as a young lady, but who has a secret. A big secret.  She can see the future in puddles. When her circumstances suddenly change and she finds herself in the care of two aging great aunts who run a magic shop in Spitalfields, she can’t keep the secret hidden anymore.  She is thrust on a perilous journey deep below the London streets to retrieve a wand, to save the city from an evil wizard who wants to put an end to good magic forever.

I think the inspiration came from many places. I went to a museum years ago and saw a recreated Victorian street and never forgot it.  I imagined a young girl arriving on that street.  I’m inspired by London.  I’m inspired by history.  I’m inspired by the industrial revolution and its impact on the landscape.  I love to imagine the last little wild pockets of nature in 19th century London; faeries and brownies and trolls. I’m always inspired to write about friendship.  And in this story I love the idea of this girl trying to figure out who she is rather than what society wants her to be.

Gabby: I’m really excited to read it. I loved Ophelia’s story too. You’re getting ready to do your first U.S. tour – tell us where you’re going! What are you looking forward to?

Karen: Yes, I’m coming to the U.S. in April and I’m going to L.A., San Francisco, Chicago and New York City. I’m so very excited and really looking forward to catching up with classrooms that are reading A MOST MAGICAL GIRL.

Gabby: Do you have any strange writing habits?

Karen: Not really, apart from my superstitions about not showing people my work. Oh, and I do a ceremonial cleaning of the house before I start a new project, because, well I have to really to be able to live in it.

Gabby: Yeah, I hear you on that one. Okay, here’s a really important question…if you had a super power, what would it be?

Karen: I’d have some kind of power that made everyone love each other. I’d do something with laser beams out of my finger tips or eyes, and everyone would just stop being so busy and mean and just hug and laugh. I’d give Donald Trump a double dose.

Gabby: Good idea! Alright, are you ready for our Lightning Round?

Karen: Sure?

Gabby: Coffee or tea?

Karen: Coffee (tea is nice in the afternoon with friends though)

Gabby: Sweet or salty?

Karen: Sweet always

Gabby: Dog or cat (or silkworms, perhaps?)

Karen: Never silkworms again. Ever. Cats for sure.

Gabby: Plotter or pantser?

Karen: Panster all the way. But am so in awe of plotters.

Alright! Thanks so much for letting me interview you for The Winged Pen. We’re all wishing you a most magical U.S. tour! For all you readers and writers out there, we strongly advise you to check out some of Karen Foxlee’s books, and to keep a weather eye for her new one, A MOST MAGICAL GIRL, coming out this August.

GKBGabrielle Byrne lives in Olympia, Washington and writes dark and twisty tales for middle graders, often with roots in mythology and folklore. Gabby studied opera in Philadelphia, medieval studies in New York, literature in Scotland, and marine biology in the Pacific Northwest, but writing is the common thread that ties all her interests together. She has a Master’s degree in literature and a second bachelors in environmental studies. When she’s not writing, you can frequently find her fishing spineless critters out of the Salish sea with her husband and two daughters. She is represented by Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management. Find her on Twitter.

The Road to Writer

typing_brucealmightyWhat makes a writer a writer? I’ve heard, and I’m sure you have too, the mantra that if you write, you’re a writer. That’s true, so far as it goes. The work doesn’t do itself. You can have Pulitzer-prize-winning, banned bestsellers coming out your ears, but if they stay there (between your ears) then they’re not going to do anyone much good. The story must meet the page. Period. Full stop. So, there is that small hurdle. Step one towards becoming a writer is write. This task, and it can feel like a task sometimes, no matter how inspired you are on the journey, might take multiple months, multiple manuscripts, and/or multiple years. Reports vary—a lot.

Office Worker with Mountain of PaperworkFor those of us who want our stories out in the world being read, there are more hurdles—many more. Once you’ve delved into the details, dust and drives of your book’s world, subjected your characters to the throes and follies of their fears, and made it through the weeks/months/years of late nights writing, complete with their varied wardrobe malfunctions, you must find someone (an agent) who can represent your work and sell it. This will require you to query—to pitch. To pitch, you will do the following: Take your masterpiece and roll it into a tight little two-paragraph ball that has voice, clarity and intrigue. Throw it with all your might (and thoughtful courtesy) towards agents you respect.  Depending on your talent, your story, and your luck, finding someone to represent your work could take multiple months, multiple manuscripts, and/or multiple years. Again, reports vary.

atYou’ve found a wonderful, experienced, and enthusiastic agent who thinks you have what it takes! Huzzah! Now exhale. Then go crazy! Flail! You’ve earned it. Next you’ll dive back in and repeat the writing/re-writing and editing process with your agent. When you’ve leaped all the editorial hurdles you can find together, your agent will pitch your manuscript to editors at publishing houses. They may share all of the feedback they get about your manuscript, or, they may buffer you completely. My agent was kind enough to ask me what I wanted and we agreed that I didn’t have to have every little detail, but that if there was consensus about anything, or something that she felt would be good for me to know, she would share it. Feel the peace. Having someone you trust standing with you, encouraging you, and believing in your work is the best feeling ever (Thank you, Catherine).  Enjoy it.

Your agent will pitch your book based on their strategy, and contacts, until he or she finds an editor who loves your work too. Finding your agent is only the beginning. All those quotes you see about author rejection–you know, the ones that tell you how many time JK Rowling and Tolkien and Hemingway were rejected? They aren’t talking about those authors trying to find agents—well sometimes they are, but more often, they are talking about that author finding a publisher. This debut process could take multiple months, multiple manuscripts, and/or multiple years. This will also be true for your next book. Stop me when you see the theme here.


A writer friend once told me, and it has become part of my gospel truth, that being a writer is not so much a career move as it is a lifestyle choice. You must love to write. You must commit to the story and to the people in your head. If you really mean it, you’ll get to do this most days that you remain on earth, and it will (mostly) thrill you to the dark little corners of your soul.

Once the words are in the bag, getting those stories into booky-things that regular, non-writer people will read and love comes down, I believe, to the three Ps – Practice, Persistence, and Patience. These will be your go-to tools. They will be your bread and butter as well as your sun, your moon, and all your stars. Accept and love them. Start now. Learn them well, and however long your own path to bookdom turns out to be, you’ll be better able to protect your heart and continue loving your work.


Gabrielle Byrne lives in the rain-beaten wilds of Olympia, Washington, where she writes fantasy for middle graders. She is represented by Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management. Follow her on Twitter: @GKByrne