Online, I see many beginning writers struggling to decide what they “should” write about. It’s not that they don’t have ideas or that there aren’t stories they want to tell. They just very often get caught up in this need to feel like they are writing stories that everyone will fall in love with (and buy … and tell their friends about so they will buy it … and so on).
Don’t get me wrong: As a writer you do have to create stories that other people can relate to and enjoy. This is a business — if you want to make a living doing it, you do have to follow the trends.
But from my experience, “knowing” what other people are and aren’t interested in reading about comes with — yes, experience, but also time. I don’t think everyone can or should start trying to write something they think will become an instant bestseller. You have to start by writing things that catch and captivate your interest — I will explain why a little later in this post.
First comes writing for yourself, and then comes writing for other people. Stick with me. It makes sense.
What should a writer do when they want to write but aren’t sure what they should focus on? How do they start writing a story with enough confidence to believe it will hold their attention long enough to finish at least a first draft all the way through to the end?
If you’ve ever questioned what you should be writing about, just turn to your favorite books for answers.
All writers write for themselves. It’s an inevitable part of the process. But not all writers write for other people. Those who do often — and should — start by writing in the safety and comfort of their own private spaces. This gives them time and freedom to get to know themselves as storytellers and figure out where their creative passions lie.
Before you can show the world what you’re capable of, you have to know what’s going to captivate them. And that starts by knowing what matters most to YOU.
Why? Because a reader won’t be interested in something you’ve written if you wrote it without being interested. If you’re bored writing it, your reader will be bored reading it.
What does your favorite book have to do with your go-to stories? Basically everything.
Your favorite book is the foundation of your entire life as a storyteller. Because while there are many things that influence what you will end up writing about throughout your life, there is a reason you keep going back to that one book or collection of books (if you’re like many people and couldn’t possibly choose just ONE favorite book).
That story you love is an almost perfect indicator of the types of stories you are most interested in telling.
It’s the story that makes you unable to stop turning pages. The one that tugs at your attention — what’s going to happen next? It’s the story that makes you want to be a writer because it’s just so good you’re almost jealous you haven’t written something like it yet.
And that’s the point. You can go off and do just that. And you should.
Now, I want to be very clear about something. Just because you like one type of story doesn’t mean you are only allowed to write stories similar to it.
By all means, expand your horizons. Write about things you know nothing about so that you can get to know more about them (“write what you know” can mean many different things, in case no one has ever told you that). Write what scares you. Write whatever you want to write, gosh darn it!
But if you ever find yourself questioning whether or not what you’re writing is the “right” thing, or you’re struggling to figure out what to write about just in general, go back to your favorite book. Maybe you have time to reread it again, maybe you don’t. At the very least, ask yourself what it is about that book that draws you to it.
Is it the story’s theme — growing up or grieving or falling in love? Is it the characters — their relatability, how they remind you of people you know in real life, their inspirational nature? Is it the storytelling itself, the way the writer lays out all the elements in an almost addictive fashion and pieces them together page by page so that you literally can’t put it down no matter how hard you try?
Maybe it’s all of those things, or one of them, or something completely different.
Once you know the recipe that makes up what is, in your mind, the best possible story, then you technically have all the ingredients you need to write it. You have at least a pretty good idea of how you want certain characters to act and how you want to present the world those characters live in and what you want to happen to those characters.
Something else that often happens when someone reads a story they like is that they find themselves thinking about it long after it’s over. And what they sometimes start to do is imagine how things could have played out differently in that story that would have, in their opinion, made it even better.
Maybe you would have killed off the character the author saved because you think it would have made more of a statement. Maybe you would have added in a second twist that threw off the reader even more. Maybe you would have changed the ending altogether.
Guess what the best part about being a writer is? You can take the framework of any story you read, fill it in with any characters and plot lines and conflicts and other elements you want and make it totally your own. The stories we read should inspire us to create our own stories. You may have loved that story, but you can go off into your own little world and write something that fits your desires perfectly.
In one of my favorite books, I always find myself wishing we could see more of a certain flashback to a point in one of the characters’ lives. Though I understand why expanding that storyline wouldn’t have worked for that particular book, I found myself unable to stop thinking about it. “What if …?”
And so I started writing a story about something similar, inspired by the “missing” pieces of one of my favorite stories written by someone else. I did lose interest in it and end up abandoning it. But it was fun to work on, and would end up inspiring another story later on that turned into a book and … yeah, it’s a cycle. A pretty amazing one.
The point of modeling your stories after your favorites isn’t to copy other people or do what has already been done. It’s to light the spark of inspiration behind you. I’m not going to write a close replica of my favorite book because that book already exists. Those characters already exist. It’s already a story of its own.
But you can take the things about someone else’s book that stirred something up inside you and apply those things to your own stories. It is its own strange form of learning. By seeing how other people do it, you come to understand why they did it the way they did. And you seek to accomplish similar goals in your own work.
I don’t have time to read my favorite book at this moment. But it is almost always on my mind. It is always fueling my creativity and reminding me that I am capable of writing books other people someday won’t be able to forget about. We all are, in our own way. We just have to gather up the courage we need to tell stories that excite and terrify and inspire and depress us.
You know how you want a certain story to affect you because you have already been affected by a story. You understand the impact you want it to have on people who might read it one day. You know the kinds of messages you want to send. You know the story in your heart that needs pages to live on.
So write it. Don’t be afraid, don’t overthink it, don’t worry about how “good” or “bad” it is, or how “marketable” it is. Not yet. Just focus on the story that’s calling to you, and breathe life into it.
Don’t wait. Do it now, while it’s on your mind. I believe in you.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.