I Don’t Know What To Write About
(But I Want To Be A Writer)
“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”
— William Wordsworth
“I want to be a writer,” someone will say. “But I don’t know what to write about.”
Which is ridiculous.
If you’ve lived on this planet for at least fifteen years and haven’t been dwelling in a dark cave that entire time, you have something to write about. You can choose anything: any subject, any angle, from any focus. There are no strict rules about what you must write, as long as it’s interesting, filled with conflict, and the story moves forward to a climax (both figuratively, and in the case of many erotic novels, literally too). Look into your heart at your darkest fears and try to expose them. That’s what Ray Bradbury did.
He considered what scared him the most, then he confronted those fears on the page. If you’re scared of spiders, write a story about a man trapped in a room with hundreds of them. Not only do you get to confront your fear from a place of safety, but your words will be infused with genuine terror. If you put yourself into the mind of your character, you can create his horror by picturing how you’d feel in such a situation.
If you’re scared your child will die, or be kidnapped by a serial killer, or waste her childhood sniffing glue, then write a story in which your protagonist’s daughter is held hostage, or thrown out of a plane by a madman, or captured by an out of control half-human half-lawnmower with a “heart of gold” but a soul of metal and murder — or whatever-the-fuck — and just build your story from there until it’s finished.
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Open your eyes to the world. If one day you’re walking home alone and a group of menacing youths are heading toward you, record how you feel. Were you intimidated? Excited for a possible roadside gang-bang? Didn’t care? Whatever you felt, you can transfer that to a character in a similar scenario. What will he or she do in that situation? How will they react? You know what you did — crossed the road possibly, or deliberately looked them in the eye to show you didn’t fear them. Or chucked a banana peel in their path and ran. Whatever.
But maybe your character is different: she’s tired of crossing the road. This is where your fantasy gets to run wild and you can have some fun. Maybe this chick, she has a gun, and she’s not going to be intimidated by thugs anymore. She’s going to blow their heads off. Maybe that’s it, you end it there: she kills them and it finishes with their blood running down the gutters. Or maybe, if you want to run further with it, there are consequences to that action. Again, you can draw on reality for this. Think about what would happen if you were to murder a gang in cold blood. Ask yourself questions and the creative gods will answer.
“The police will investigate so she needs to get rid of the weapon,” you may say. Or “The rest of their crew will seek revenge.” Okay, so how will they do that? By killing someone the main character loves perhaps. And there you have it, you now have a plot evolving. She’s trying to duck the police while at the same time protecting her family who she unwittingly put in danger through her act of insanity. And from there you can plan it out or just write it as you go along, depending on which approach suits you best.
Maybe, also, you want to fill in some backstory for why your character was so intimidated by the youths in the first place — again, you can draw from your well of experience for that. Think of a time when you’ve been intimidated and how that made you feel: small, defenceless. And if you’ve never felt that way, if you’re the intimidator in real life, why don’t you ask friends and family what it feels like? Learn from your own experience but pick and choose from others’ feelings and emotions, too. That will give your story greater depth and truth. You want your audience to believe in your hero, and you do that by grounding him or her in reality.
And the more you do this, asking questions of yourself, the more your brain will train itself to make these connections and link everything together. The fact is authors aren’t aliens; they don’t have story ideas beamed into their heads. Everyone has something to write about: everyone has likes and dislikes and idiosyncrasies. Everyone feels impotent at some point in their life (not in that way, although many suffer from that too), and that’s all writing really is: a character with a desire and a million obstacles in his way. In real life many of us slink away, but your character isn’t you — he’s gonna smash through those barriers, goddammit.
Because writing isn’t about documenting something that’s real.
It’s about showcasing something that’s true.
And that’s not the same thing at all.
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Have you ever had a moment that you’ve later replayed in your head, wishing you’d said or done something different? That’s what writing is. You get into an argument with a customer in a shop, go home and think: I should have told that prick to go to hell — but you didn’t. Maybe you were raised to hide your emotions, so you keep your anger submerged below the surface. Your characters, however, can say what you didn’t. Or what you were too scared to say. Write that same scenario out but with someone else in your place. Channel your anger and energy into your protagonist. Now, when the character is insulted by the customer in the shop, he doesn’t just take it and leave. He responds how you want him to. You feel the satisfaction, vicariously, of cutting that person down — it’s just on the page instead. You feel a victory in their actions.
If your protagonist wants a raise, or a promotion, he’s going to bang on that door and ask for one. In your own day job, you may be too timid or scared to do that, but you’re writing characters that are larger than life. When they want something, they damn well go for it.
And they don’t let anything, or anyone, stand in their way. No sir.
Which is what makes writing so powerful: you can create a whole new world for yourself — one in which you’re stronger, smarter; you can outfox those around you.
And it’s risk-free. You can have fun without the possibility of death.
You get to play God and rule the lives of those you create.
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If you still don’t know what to write, even after questioning yourself and the scenarios around you — even after plumbing the depths of your bookshelves and reading through the countless novels already in existence — if you still can’t summon up a single idea, then writing probably isn’t for you. It’s a pipe dream and you’re merely a PRETENDER (these people are common and I’ll explain more about them in a future article).
On the other hand, if you’re able to start seeing connections now; seeing how everything links, how even the mundane moments from your everyday life can be needled for inspiration, you’re on your way to becoming a writer. That’s all you need to do: train your brain to look at the world through the twisted romantic lens of a disturbed author.
After that, it’s a simple process of blood, sweat, tears and heartache.
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