How You Know What to Write About

Writing is a really strange thing to do. When you sit down and write, you automatically imply that you are best qualified to talk about whatever it is you’re going to talk about, or else you wouldn’t be doing it in the first place. And this can be anything, either fiction or non-fiction, self-help books, cook books, fantasy novels, comedy. When you decide that you’re going to write several hundred pages about a certain topic, you need to be absolutely certain you know what you’re talking about, or else you’re just putting yourself up for ridicule and humiliation from everyone who knows you’re talking out of your ass.

I wouldn’t write a cookbook or a self-help book; I can’t even cook rice without making it look like mashed potatoes, nor can I tell you how to fix your marriage. And nobody would expect me to — I’m not a Master Chef or a psych grad (not that most of those kids find jobs anyway). So, with that in mind, I just have to ask myself sometimes… why do I feel different when it comes to fantasy? I have no formal education in anything that would have to do with it — history, culture, languages, geography. And to be completely honest, I’m not even formally trained in writing.

Should I feel inadequate? Should I feel like I’ll always be behind because I don’t have any training or education? Is writing really something that can be taught, or can a person hone the ability from his self-teaching? It’s really difficult to think about it because half of me does want to go to school for Creative Writing or Literature or whatever, while the other half thinks about all the Writing majors who work at McDonald’s. At this point it really comes to, do I want to put my life on the line? Do I want to risk taking a Writing major just to polish my skills, even though it’s probably much more likely, realistically, that nothing will ever happen? Or do I want to play it safe and take something like, Computer Science just to ensure that I’ll have a job even if my book fails? And then I think, if I don’t take the Writing major in the first place, that may be the reason why the book failed. Hypothetically.

And then on the topic of fantasy itself: what is fantasy? What makes someone qualified to write about it? Admittedly, anyone could probably write it — hell, you can find thousands if not millions of unpublished stories on the internet. But again, anyone could write a cook book or a self-help book; what matters is the quality. So the same rules therefore should be applied to fantasy — and what knowledge would a person need to write quality fantasy?

Personally, I think you just need to be able to understand people. You need to know how people interact and how emotions develop, and you need to be able to present this in a cohesive yet interesting manner. Things need to happen seamlessly; real-world developments need to occur, realistically, in your fantasy environment. People need to be able to relate and understand the story at the simplest level, so that they can see parallels of it in their everyday lives. Because what makes a story good is not how many different and strange creatures you’ve thought up, but how well it draws us in emotionally. I feel like this is the problem with so much fantasy these days, and I know I’ve said this a lot, but I repeat it because it’s so true. I’m sure there are some people out there who enjoy this kind of soulless reading, but I wouldn’t doubt that most people don’t.

But really again, who am I to say this. I don’t want to sound like a know-it-all, that’s the last thing I want to be, but I do like to think that my work isn’t just piddle. But I’m sure everyone thinks that, right? So for now, I’ll just hide away on this little blog of mine and wait for my time… hopefully. I do know I have one problem — I have trouble sticking to my topic. It’s a blog post, though, so!

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3 thoughts on “How You Know What to Write About

  1. I struggled with this for years, I have had an interest in philosophy since I was 15 and have always enjoyed writing about whatever concept or problem was on my mind at any given time. I never posted what I wrote, though, because I knew I had no kind of expertise or training that would justify me putting up what I wrote on some age-old problem and then implying that I had actually added something to the conversation.

    At some point I just realized that most of what I write is pseudo-intellectual bullshit, but it’s pseudo-intellectual bullshit that I happen to like writing. If someone else comes along and likes it, great. If no one else ever thinks its worth the time it takes to read it, well, I still wrote it and enjoyed it. That’s when I was finally able to get comfortable exploring whatever I was thinking about on paper, once I stopped worrying about whether or not I was qualified to write about what I was writing about. Once you feel free to just pursue what you like, then you can focus on just improving at it.

    That’s how things seem to be working for me lately, but I’m sure the experience of writing-and editing-your own novel has given you more insight on this topic than I have.

  2. Who are you to write this stuff? Who the hell are you to NOT write what you feel you must. Fuck being mediocre. If your stuff flops, so what? You tried. Get back up and do it again until you make it. More than all the other pussies out there can say.

  3. For fantasy, a lot of research on the type(s) of place(s) and era(s) is probably best to do. Factual research, not watching dvds of Game of Thrones.

    Knowing what makes us human is essential. Don’t want it being just about the ideas, cool though they may be. Knowing how to play around with cliches is also nice, if you can’t come up with something that’s The Most Original Thing Ever (good luck there; and sometimes things can be “too original (to publish traditionally)”). At the core, knowing what it means to be human, however filtered through the guises of dwarves, orcs, elves, hobbits or gnomes that human might be.

    Monsters that are truly scary, or enchanting, are also a bonus.

    Patrick Rothfuss has strictly human characters (except Bast, and Felurian) and barely any monsters: some spiders, a draccus, maybe a boggart or bogyman (it started with a B). The lion’s share of creatures are human. And it’s how they interact, relate, love, quarrel, live that makes his books so enchanting.

    That and storytelling ability – even obsession.

    Comedy is usually a good thing, if you can do it right. (I seem to do it half-consciously.) Laughing and smiling is a good way to be remembered, and people do so positively (I would imagine). Dark revenge tales are also “In Right Now” as far as I can tell – though we could be tiring of grim and dark. Having a style that’s uniquely your own is great too – people tell me mine’s fun, crazy and quirky, so I hope that translates to success 🙂 On that note, gimmicks won’t get you much respect, but being genuinely funny or infectiously smile-inducing tends to make it easier. Look at the number of Harlequin books with HEA’s (contrived and formulaic though their plots are) and the sales figures they rake in. Positive messages are often better than negative – look at Harry Potter vs Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, the latter of which, I’ve heard, totally steamrolls through BDSM with a cliche mind about it, total lack of understanding, and the tact of a bulldozer. HP has a positive message of fighting through hell for good reasons, even if some moral lessons feel tacked on through Hermione Exposition Granger! But at it’s heart, it’s very human. Twilight? A girl’s choice between bestiality and necrophilia. 50 Shades? Poorly written, poorly handled BDSM for housewives. Do better than those and you’ll be fine, I think.

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