Riley Sager: Forget 'Write What You Know,' Try 'Write What You Feel'

Posted by Cybil on July 17, 2017

Riley Sager is the pseudonym for the author of the essay featured below, whose identity remains secret. We know that the author has been previously published and that he's a man. What else do we know? Well, Sager's Final Girls has become one of the most anticipated thrillers of the summer, a scary mystery with the heart of a slasher movie (the author was inspired to write the book after watching the horror classic Halloween) that Stephen King called "the first great thriller of 2017." Sager wrote this book in a moment of personal turmoil and learned along the way that sometimes you need to write what you feel:

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“Write what you know.”

That advice has been doled out for centuries to anyone attempting to put pen to paper. But what does it even mean? It seems especially unclear for those of us who write fiction. Our job is to make stuff up. If we only wrote what we knew, the majority of novels would be about self-doubt, waiting for royalty checks and ways to get cookie crumbs out of your keyboard. This is especially true of crime fiction. Unless you’re a killer, a cop, a detective, or a girl on a train, it’s often difficult to add your real-life experiences to a fictional world.

As for emotions, well, that’s an entirely different story.

To understand, we need to go back a few years to December 2014. It was the end of a very long, very rough year. In the span of twelve months, I had experienced a series of losses, both personally and professionally. They kept coming, month after month, piling up until, by December, I was jobless, almost broke, and sprawled on the dining room carpet, unwilling and/or unable to get up. Life had literally knocked me to the floor and I had no idea what to do about it.

Despite all that—or maybe because of it—I still wanted to write another book. One book in particular. It was to be called Final Girls, and was about a young woman named Quincy Carpenter who had survived a horror movie-style massacre that claimed the lives of all her friends. I envisioned a psychological thriller about trauma and survival, slasher flicks and film noir, anger, and acceptance. All of it told from Quincy’s point of view.

I almost didn’t write it. I was a 40-year-old man with no idea what it was like to be a twenty-something baking blogger who had fled a knife-wielding maniac. The only thing pushing me forward was the fact that I knew about loss. I knew about sadness and fear and uncertainty. I knew about feeling hollow inside and putting on a brave face and telling everyone in a chipper voice that I was fine when I really, truly wasn’t.

Oh, and I knew about rage. The rage one feels when the universe seems intent on defeating you at every turn, no matter how hard you work, how experienced you are, how well you behave.

Those were the things Quincy and I had in common. So, I used them. I opened my heart and let that loss and fear and anger bleed onto the page. Quincy’s sadness was my sadness. Her loneliness was my loneliness. Her rage was my rage. To blatantly steal a phrase from Gustave Flaubert, "Quincy Carpenter, c'est moi."

Now here we are. Final Girls is being released around the world and all those problems that bedeviled me two years ago have scurried away to the dark corners of the past, hopefully never to return. Validation has a way of doing that. So does catharsis. The character of Quincy went through hell and came out the other side. I did, too, only under very different circumstances. And now that it’s over, I sometimes wonder if Final Girls would even exist if I hadn’t suffered through that cursed 2014. Maybe. Maybe not. There’s no way of knowing.

The only thing I know with any real certainty is that “Write what you know” is like a balloon. Colorful exterior. Hollow center. Essentially weightless and easily popped. Based on my experience, I recommend that you write what you feel.

Riley Sager's Final Girls was picked as one of Goodreads' Best Books of the Month for July. Add it to your Want to Read shelf here.

Check out more recent blogs:
What Would Jon Snow Read? Book Recs for Your Favorite Game of Thrones Characters
Roxane Gay Answers Readers' Burning Questions
The Best Young Adult Books of July

Comments Showing 1-36 of 36 (36 new)

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message 1: by Jt (new)

Jt O'Neill Read Roxane Gay's Hunger to witness a powerful demonstration of vulnerability.

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

The caption is Breath taking!!

message 3: by Novel Nymph (new)

Novel Nymph So true! :)

message 4: by Randall (new)

Randall Moore As a fiction writer I too believe in emotional authenticity. If the emotions are real and move me I know I've tapped into something real even if I don't know what is was like to live in 16th Century Venice or any of the other locations or situations I've included in my novels. Kudos on the Stephen King endorsement and congratulations for turning a rough spot in your life into something good.

message 5: by Ufuomaee (new)

Ufuomaee Ufuomaee I couldn't agree more! I do the same :)

message 6: by Maureen (new)

Maureen I have this book on my shelf - just so many good choices! This has been a great reading year- love it.

message 7: by Håvard (new)

Håvard Hellerud I also agree 100% and if I had a writing credo, then "write what you feel" surely would be it. Facts be damned, or at least subverted. Thanks for the inspiration!!

Olivia "So many books--so little time."" Final Girls sounds like a good book. I can hardly wait until it comes out in paperback--or until it's made available in a Goodreads giveaway that I win.

message 9: by Mala (new)

Mala Naidoo ' Writing what you feel' certainly creates authenticity and connections to characters and the message in a story. To be able to 'move' the reader, the writer must be 'moved' to write the story.

message 10: by Maureen (new)

Maureen Olivia "Don't Blame Me I Voted for Hillary" wrote: "Final Girls sounds like a good book. I can hardly wait until it comes out in paperback--or until it's made available in a Goodreads giveaway that I win."

There used to be a way to swap books with people on GR. Maybe there still is. That is something I would definitely do. I am not really a re-reader so I would just as soon pass on a book to someone else who wants to read it.

message 11: by Kathleen (new)

Kathleen Buckley I think you definitely have to write what you feel. On the other hand, I've read way too many novels in which the author did not know enough about the setting, time period or hey, just plan everyday contemporary facts, not to make major mistakes. Appalling examples: thinking a Glock 17 pistol is a fully automatic weapon (in a crime novel!) and gas street lamps in the 16th century. Let's try for some balance.

message 12: by Randall (new)

Randall Moore It's the Glock 18 that can fire on full auto and the lamps in Venice in the 16th Century were lit by oil and not gas. I love history and strive for accuracy in every detail. This is also how I make it real to me. Extensive use of Google Maps and research of places I've never been inform me and convince me that what I am writing is true. It's an aspiration. Can't claim to be 100 percent accurate but that's what I strive for.

message 13: by Zasha (new)

Zasha I got a copy at book con and from how long the line was i could tell it was something worth reading :D

message 14: by Dianna (new)

Dianna Winget Final Girls sounds a little too scary for me ;) But as as an author of middle grade novels for kids I totally agree with writing what you feel. If there's nothing for the reader to care deeply about, there's simply no story. And there's no way I could stay interested enough to write a novel I didn't feel emotionally invested in.

message 15: by Jeanine (new)

Jeanine Olivia "Don't Blame Me I Voted for Hillary" wrote: "Final Girls sounds like a good book. I can hardly wait until it comes out in paperback--or until it's made available in a Goodreads giveaway that I win."

I found a copy at my local library!!!!

message 16: by Les (new)

Les Roberts If writers only "write what we know," every book will be about the author's drapes.


message 17: by [deleted user] (new)

Of all the Goodreads blog posts I've ever read, this is by far the most incredible one to date. I laughed at the beginning when I read about the cookie crumbs in the keyboard then cried through the rest because the description of that emptiness, hollowness, being down on the floor unwilling and unable to get up and not knowing what to do about it brought me to tears. So did the rest of the post. The caption of the blog post captured my attention, as I began writing my book last year, however that was stalled until I'm able to get off the damn floor, so I clicked on the link because it's about writing which is something I always have my eyes out for! Did I get more than I could have imagined from this post. 'Very' helpful and 'very' close to home. Excellent, fantastic and uniquely written to allow those of us who want to write to search deeper and "Write what you 'feel'. Love' this!! Thank you GR's.

message 18: by L. (new)

L. Taylor Surely writing what you feel IS writing what you know!

message 19: by mwana (new)

mwana I needed that

message 20: by Mary (new)

Mary L. wrote: "Surely writing what you feel IS writing what you know!"

You beat me to it, I was going to say that. I can't see the issue here.

message 21: by Estelle (new)

Estelle Ford-Williamson This is an excellent essay. My own writing workshop leaders--great writers themselves--stressed staying “close” to the character, in other words describing what is going on emotionally with him or her at the moment.

A great example of writing what you feel comes into play when writing historical fiction. If you know a lot, it can get in the way of the writer’s enjoyment when you try and inject too much detail (look at this great factoid I found!) without paying attention to the emotions of what is described.

Carol Lee Lorenzois one fiction writer who so carefully urged the descriptions of the physical effects of emotions and letting the reader know what was going on inside of my characters.

The great writer and teacher Richard Bausch said that even if you never published, the journey of fiction writing makes you more empathatic and humane, and that’s worth the effort in itself. That’s probably because of the emotional investment the writer makes in living with his or her characters throughout the story and its complications and challenges. As writers, we create an “incredible journey," first in experiencing the emotions in all their stages, and secondly in crafting prose that helps the reader experience these also. Often this takes many revisions, but it is worth the quest.

message 22: by Pranav (new)

Pranav Or "know what you feel" ?

message 23: by Kathleen (new)

Kathleen Buckley Randall wrote: "It's the Glock 18 that can fire on full auto and the lamps in Venice in the 16th Century were lit by oil and not gas. I love history and strive for accuracy in every detail. This is also how I make..."

We never get it 100% right. But we can try. I look forward to reading Final Girls.

message 24: by L. (new)

L. Taylor you feel because you are alive... its the only way of knowing you are alive, surely?
i agree, you need to recognise it for what it is.

message 25: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Robinson One of the things I love most about reading a book is the empathy that I can feel with the author (or whoever is narrating the book). And let's face it, on a character like that no one is going to fact check out, but EVERYONE is going to be able to identify with the emotions being expressed.

I've also found that the process of writing puts you in your characters' shoes, and this helps to inform you and what decisions your protagonist would reasonably make in that situation because you can see, hear, and feel everything they're experiencing and thinking. I wrote a blog post about the weird, subconscious, instinctual experience I keep giving my characters, but also something that I keep experience while writing about unknown situations: I would write about something I knew absolutely nothing about, but I could hit the emotions and attitudes of the characters right on the dot.

There's a lot going on in our brains we don't consciously consider.

message 26: by Randall (last edited Jul 18, 2017 02:57PM) (new)

Randall Moore We never get it 100% right. But we can try. I look forward to reading Final Girls.

reply | flag *

That's a fact!

message 27: by Heide (new)

Heide Katros As an author I have to agree with you on several points. You can't only write about what you know, but I feel that you should know the ambiance of the region where your plot takes place. I also feel that one does draw on experienced feelings and loss and empathy grows you as a writer and a human being and I wish you the very best for success. Heide

message 28: by Khalid (new)

Khalid El-Shabory Masrawy Geeks
like this ?

message 29: by Khalid (new)

Khalid El-Shabory
like this ?

message 30: by John (new)

John Bentley Many of the best known authors were originally turned down by snooty publishers. Dan Brown, JK Rowling and the Fifty Shades of Grey author to name three. Many publishers like to think they are literary snobs when in fact much of the best selling erotica writing selling today is pure rubbish which readers find easy weekend reading. Write what you feel. Self publish and damn the publishers. If you are selling well online then the publishers will soon come rushing to you to do bricks and mortar retail promos.

message 31: by Victoria (new)

Victoria Chatham My equivalent of Riley's 2014 was 2001 when each month served up a death or other staggering event culminating in the December with my husband's passing. No one and nothing can prepare you for for the aftermath. 3 years later I was an emotional mess but a grief counselor suggested writing a journal. I still use those from time to time as a point of reference when I need to plumb the deepest, darkest, emotions of my characters.

message 32: by L. (new)

L. Taylor I do so agree with you John... message 30

message 33: by Meredith (new)

Meredith Maureen wrote: "Olivia "Don't Blame Me I Voted for Hillary" wrote: "Final Girls sounds like a good book. I can hardly wait until it comes out in paperback--or until it's made available in a Goodreads giveaway that..."

If you like swapping books, I highly recommend Paperback Swap.

message 34: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca Pouring emotion into a book like that is just one way to make the characters that much more authentic, relatable, and convincing. We as writers have taken "write what you know" as one of the most important pieces of advice, but Sager has a great point here. I've personally fed my characters and stories with my own experience, so I can tell you life experience is a very powerful source.

message 35: by Courtney (new)

Courtney Carr As a horror writer currently writing my sequel this has hit home for me! I'm currently going through divorce, and have many encounters that have left me shattered and angry...

So I turned them all into zombies and slayed them all.

message 36: by ZnajomyZnajomego (new)

ZnajomyZnajomego Haripriya wrote: "The caption is Breath taking!!"

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