Riley Sager: Forget ‘Write What You Know,’ Try ‘Write What You Feel’

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:

“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

posted by Cybil
on July, 13

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