What Should I Write About?

It’s one of those limiting and at the same time limitless questions students, new writers and old pros ponder. And I can tell you, it’s a good question to consider because once you start, you’ll soon discover you’ve gotten yourself into something akin to a committed relationship with your story. Easy to start, tough to extricate yourself. Or … it’s not you, it’s me. I’m just not ready.

The beginning stages of a new project (I hesitate to say “book” because who knows what’ll happen) feel a lot like the falling in love phase of a new relationship. You’re giddy. You feel like humming all the time. You have no desire to binge eat. And you’re sure this is forever. You don’t even question it. It’s the best idea you’ve ever had and will surely be optioned for a film. If only you can get past those first few pesky paragraphs and get a really startling beginning. Like a shark biting a young woman in half on a moonlit night.

Now presumably you’ve already decided what to write about. I’m talking fiction here because memoir, well it’s a foregone conclusion your memoir is about something real, right? I mean really real. Like it happened exactly the way you’re telling it. Except even with a memoir, reality gets squeezed, shortened, expanded, interrupted. It’s never as simple as ABC, or you wouldn’t have chosen to write that particular memoir. Because a memoir is always a snapshot in time based on memories and feelings and aftereffects. The writer’s version of afterglow. You remember the highlights and the sensations but the experience is over. Except for the retelling.

So when do you commit to this new relationship? Writers are notorious for keeping notebooks filled with ideas for stories. I have numerous Word files so overloaded with story ideas it would take me at least five lifetimes to explore them all. Note the use of this word “explore.” Because even when you’ve decided what to write about, you’re going to be in an extended exploratory phase. The getting to know you phase. When you’ve come up with a great lead in and you’re aware of the general thrust of your story but you’ve reached what I refer to a “the mushy middle” where you lose threads of the story, find that character motivations are unclear, and you start feeling those old binge eating urges. In other words, you’re not so in love anymore. You’re still in like. You still want to hang out with your characters. You still want this story to succeed. You still think of it as a winner. But man, it’s dragging.


And all of a sudden you start looking back at all those other story ideas. Like old photographs from relationships past, ones that never got off the ground, ones that got cut off before they really got serious. They look so tantalizing now that you’ve run your ship up on some rocks and you’re stuck with the tide running out to sea.

But don’t abandon ship just yet. Now’s the time to remember why you chose what to write about and to delve deeper into whatever engaged you deeply enough in that idea to make a commitment to it in the first place. Remember, way back then, when you fell in love with your story?

In choosing what to write about, other than the many commercial reasons you might cite, is one very important essential. You must have a deep conviction about the material. In memoir, that’s a given. But in fiction, it should also be your number one priority. And that’s because the two of you – story and writer of same – are going to be cohabitating on every conceivable level for much of the future. Your story will wake you up at night. And if it doesn’t you will likely dream about it. You’ll also find yourself feeling empathy for your characters or wondering what they will do or say next. You’ll attend workshops where you’ll discuss your characters’ motivations or you’ll wonder why this or that happened and you’ll either justify or explain it to others … about people who do not exist. Except in your mind. And on the page in front of you.

Yes, I have to warn, be wary of what you write about for it will become a part of you for a long time. Or maybe what you write about has always been part of you and that’s why you chose it. In my own case, my most recent (yes book plug alert) book, The Other New Girl, was an idea that took hold above all the others and I had no idea why. Until it was done. And then I realized that this event from my own life had been travelling with me for decades and fictionalizing it for the book allowed me to finally resolve it.

There are as many answers to “What should I write About?” as there are writers. Each writer faces that question. Each book is its own answer.

LB Gschwandtner, The Other New Girl

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