Thinking about What to Write

I’ve written a truckload on this site about what I like to write about besides writing about not writing. I love mysteries. I love science fiction. I love fantasy. I swoon for literary fiction that serves little purpose but to make people swoon.

I have the same problem picking books to read.

It’s almost as if I’m fussing over my literary future when I’m standing in front of the stacks at the library. This internal struggle is made a little more ridiculous by the fact that I have a five year old tugging on one arm and a moody ten year old huffing about the fact that he can’t check out Monty Python and the Holy Grail for the fifteenth time this month. If you saw this in a movie (complete with interior monologue running in subtitles), you’d probably laugh. If you saw it in real life, well, you’d probably laugh too. I should laugh myself, and often I do.

Sometimes though the laughter doesn’t come so easy. I feel incredibly anxious. I feel like I wasting my time with story X or author Y. I feel like I should be writing the books I’m staring at instead of trying to find the right book to read.

With the starting gun of National Novel Writing Month fast approaching (11/1 if you didn’t know), you may be fretting about what you’re going to write about. I know I am.

You may recall that I had an idea for a book and that I was making progress on my notes and outline. This is true. I am making progress. The problem is that the progress is leading to new questions, questions most likely posed by my inner critic (aka The Jerk Who Keeps Me From Writing) under the guise of some rather harmless point about what sort of writer I happen to be.

Obviously, none of this is terribly surprising to me. I also know that I’m not the only writer in the world that sways between ideas and projects. This is something that happens to, um, well… everyone. It’s the nature of the creative mind.

“You may say to yourself that you can’t stand such a narrow, gray life, that you will modify your temperament and your taste, and work into your books some of the sensationalism, violence, shock, sentiment, sex, or Great Issues that you think may make them attractive to a large audience. I doubt you could do it if you wanted to, and I am certain that you shouldn’t try, for you cannot write with a whole heart things that are contrary to your nature. The fine things in your first novel are there because you wrote them with a whole heart, from an intense conviction. Trying to write like those who manage a large popular success, you may succeed, because you have brains and skill; but however proper success may be for others, in you, and on these terms, it will not be legitimate, for you will have stopped being the writer that you respected.” ~ Wallace Stegner To a Young Writer

Mr. Stegner here is trying to convince a young writer to keep at their literary art in the way their heart intended. I’ll admit that it’s more than a bit snobbish in its dismissal of “popular” works, though he does not explicitly rule out success. He’s just trying to be a realist with respect to this particular writer’s talents.

In thinking about my plan for NaNoWriMo, I wonder if I am still playing about with old themes. Themes that I’ve already resolved for myself and whether it isn’t time to just move on to the things I am meant to write.

Finding the thing you are meant to write is a difficult process. I have worked for 20 years to “discover” my true topic and to accept it. I put the word discover in quotes because I’ve always known what I wanted to write. It is the thing I that I have always responded to in fiction.

I’m going to write about this “true topic” in a later post, but I think I’ll stop here and let you have your say. What is your true topic? Do you know? If so, how did you come to understand it? If not, how will you get there?


Doing NaNoWriMo? Buddy up with me!

13 thoughts on “Thinking about What to Write

  1. Jamie, these NaNo posts have been so incredibly helpful! Having never done NaNo, I am greatly encouraged. It’s funny I always sort of loosely wanted to write a book but had no burning desire. For years I was happy just filling notebooks with stories and songs. I then started writing for a living and was on top of the moon. I wrote books for other people and felt guilty for not having a desire to write one of my own (after all, “all” writers want to write a book right?). I then tired of writing books for others and suddenly wanted to write my own. But what would I write, did I have enough words, did I really know enough to do this by myself? It was only recently that I discovered that I am wild about Fiction. Aha, a start! As for that “true topic” well I guess I’ll find out next month! :-)

    Karen D. Swim´s last blog post..5 Sizzling Tips to Fire Up Your Marketing

  2. @Karen I’m glad you like the posts! I know that when I was starting out as a fiction writer (and maybe I will always consider myself starting out) I wished that I had someone to talk to about the process. I read procedurals about “how to write novels”, but there were just so few conversations about what it was really like to do it. I felt like I was alone and in many ways I was. I hope that by posting these thoughts, I can reach out to others and shed some light on the commonality of the writing experience. Comments like yours make me feel like I’m on the right track. :)

    P.S. I’m stoked for next month too!

  3. Yep yep. I recently figured out what I’m meant to be writing…but I’m not ready to do it yet.

    In fact, I almost gave up writing altogether. I was so frustrated that I wasn’t finding what really touched me. I sat down with this great book I forced myself to begin reading, and walked through the process of discovering my passion in life and making a written statement of my purpose. I was surprised when it came down to writing…to think I almost gave it up to sell on eBay. Hahaha.

    Anyway, in this process, I had to make certain list of things I love to do, why I love to do them, what I want to be, do, and have in life. It was through this process I realized that I went astray many, many years ago when I dropped out of a boring journalism college course. In fact, I’ve gone astray a few times.

    I have heard that what we are meant to do is often what comes hardest to us. I truly believe that now.

    While I can’t fulfill my life purpose at this time by writing what I am meant to, I think of all this web writing as more experience for me…a sort of working my way up. I’m going to use the NaNoWriMo experience as the same, and I can’t wait. :)

    Diane Penna´s last blog post..Where have you gone?

  4. @Diane Glad to hear that you haven’t given up! It can be hard. I know because I’ve tried to quit a few times too, but I always come back stronger. I’ll keep my response short because you said it all. 😉

  5. I’m scared of NaNoWriMo. I tried last year and only got 1/10 of the way. But I will not be deterred (much)! I think writers should write what they feel, as they’re feeling it. It helps to find your voice.

    Matthew Dryden´s last blog post..A Warm Place

  6. Jamie, I’d like to second Karen re: your NaNo posts. I, too, am encouraged to really participate this year. Thank you!

    I’m curious about your “true topic”. I can’t wait to hear what you’ll be writing about. For me it’s “the road”. I know this not because I have always wanted to write about the road but because I have always wanted to live on the road. And I’ve tried, in my head and in real life. So, even though I have no idea what my book will be about, I at least know it will take place in motion.

    Jason Rehmus´s last blog post..Seth Godin says:

  7. @Matthew Keep rocking! The first book I tried to write went down in total flames (as did the most recent), but the only way to find your voice is to write. You’ve got the right attitude! :)

    @Jason Thanks, Jason. By the way, I can’t wait to read your On the Road book!!!

  8. Well, if writing what I know and what I feel isn’t the most terrifying thought! Must be why that editor on my shoulder (in the guise of an older sister who found my writing at my tender early teenage years and admonished “Why would you want to write this stuff? You should be writing HAPPY things!”) always seems to kick in. Gotta find a wan in the next short days of October to dump her for the month of November somehow…

    Thanks to all for their great comments and tips – don’t have a blog to post…maybe come December I’ll start one? Jamie – can’t wait to hear what’s coming…

  9. @Amy LOL I understand your fear. If you want to learn to get along with that editor on your shoulder, you might want to check out this article about dealing with your inner critic.

    I’ll be looking forward to your blog starting up in December. Your first post will be about the fantastic new novel you just finished drafting in November, right? :)

  10. I agree with those above! I love your posts here! I searched for a few hours for some getting started tips, haven’t found any yet. I followed you here from Twitter, where I am also enjoying your tweets (hence the reason I bothered with the blog)

    I am a newsy sorta girl, repeating facts, no personality in my writing really. So I’m struggling a little bit. I’m mixing a couple stories from youth as you’d sort of suggested in a blog post here. It’s when the time changed from then to now, that I froze up and came surfing, I’m actually on target word wize.

    Now is the time to resist the urge to trash what I have and start again.. do you do that? Do you just maybe save a few chapters for another time and start again? Or is the point of this excersise more to continue on this course and stick it out? 😛

  11. Hi Cathy,

    I think the point of the exercise is to continue on this course and stick it out. That being said, I MUST be honest and say that yesterday morning, day one, I wrote 762 words at home and then headed to the official writing kick off for our region (Buffalo/WNY). On the way, I scrapped the novel idea I’d just started and began a new one and made my word count for the day at the write in. I’ve continued with it today, gotten up to 3682 words and will stick with this one no matter what although I expect it to get quite tough. I am also dong the UNTHINKABLE and editing some as I go, revising, etc. I know I’m not supposed to, but I am doing it a minuscule amount compared to how I normally do, so I figure I’ve made progress! :) This is my first attempt at a novel, so I do feel quite lost at the moment, but am hoping I’ll get more comfortable as the month progresses. More comfortable? Naive thinking I am sure!
    Good luck to you!

  12. @Cathy I never trash anything. You never know when or where you will use it during the process of revision. So, hang onto it and keep moving forward… Just check out my post from today where I mention specifically that the latest chapters I wrote will go somewhere else in the book when I’m reconstructing it. :) Also, thanks for the kind words!!

    @Amy Great comment about staying on course! Thanks for sharing your switch as well. I wouldn’t call editing unthinkable but if you crank out a couple thousand words I’d save the original. You may want to go back to that later after your thoughts have had a chance to settle. I always make copies of files before I start revisions.

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