Over the years, the aphorism “Know Thyself” has carried many meanings. The Ancient Egyptians said, “Know thyself and thou shalt know the gods.” The Ancient Greeks inscribed it over the temple of Apollo at Delphi, as a maxim to remember one’s place in comparison to the gods and in public perception. Modern philosophers from Hobbes to Emerson proclaimed knowledge of one’s self to be the highest form of introspection and the foundation of personal empathy. Coleridge essayed a poem on this maxim that ended with, “Ignore thyself and strive to know thy God!”
As it applies to the novelist, this aphorism might be reinterpreted as “Know thy work.” Know what it is and know what it is not. Know its place in the grand scheme of other literature, and know from whence come its influences. Know what rules of convention and expression govern your chosen genre and know the expectations of your audience. Know your own work so that you might improve the artistic quality, clarify the expression, and deepen the well of empathy. Finally, understand there is a greater wealth of knowledge and experience than you can ever hope to master, but that the reward is worth the attempt.
Know what your work is and is not. Are you writing formula genre fiction? Is it fan fiction? Are you writing a serious work of psychological exploration? Is your work meant for children or adults? Should people laugh out loud at every page, or blush and look around to see who’s watching them? These are important questions that inform the kind of language you will use, the level of technical detail you should employ, and the conventions that govern your slice of literary pie.
Know your work’s literary category and the influences expected. So much literature has gone before us that nearly every category of fiction has a body of work that has shaped and influenced its formation. Get familiar with other books in your category, and notice the source material from whence they draw. This is material your readers will find familiar and comforting; you will also find tropes that drive readers away. In both cases, the reader expects you to know which is which, use the one, and avoid the other.
Audience expectation and conventions of genre go a long way toward getting readers to commit to a book. Sci-fi stories need a strong technological influence. Crime stories revolve around catching a bad guy. Romance ends with a happily-ever-after. Magic wands, laser guns, aliens, gumshoes, and irresistible rakes fill the pages of genre fiction. Do not shy away from these things just because they are familiar. Use them in interesting ways and your reader will be captivated.
The three pillar of enjoyable fiction are: artistic quality, clarity of expression, and empathetic connection. Briefly put, good fiction displays technical skill with language and a knowledge of arrangement for best effect. Good fiction is easy to read and easy to understand without resorting to research or relying on specialized knowledge. Good fiction makes an empathetic connection with the reader, usually with the characters, causing readers to cheer for the hero and despise the villain.
Finally, you should never stop learning about your craft. From William Shakespeare to Steven King, from Jane Austen to Debbie Macomber, talented and skilled writers have worked hard at their craft. Study other authors who write the kind of books you want to create. Don’t just read their work, notice their story construction, examine their characters, consider their language. Read between the lines and draw out the artistic quality, social commentary, or philosophical underpinnings that drive their work. One day, other writers may do the same to your work.