There’s a very old and tired adage that authors should only write about what they know. On the whole, I don’t think this is really the best advice in the world but when you’ve not got any ideas about what to write, it’s often a good place to start.
‘Oh yeah,’ I hear you cry, ‘Well I’ve just got a humdrum run of the mill every day 9-5 sort of life and I don’t know nothing about nothing so how can I write an interesting story?’
I’ve often wondered that myself. I, too, have a very ordinary life which I doubt they’ll ever make a movie about it – and I should add, that I’m very grateful for that! But unless you happen to have experienced something truly remarkable, I find it highly unlikely you’ll ever be able to simply recount your life story and expect it to sell.
That doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you are able to start writing. Once you start, you can go anywhere. Even the most boring events in your life can become a wellspring of inspiration. The important thing to remember is this:
Not everything you write needs to be published. Therefore, it’s okay to write rubbish.
For example, a few years ago, on one particularly snowy winter, I got stuck on a bus for fifteen and a half hours on what would have normally been a twenty minute journey. The true story of what happened was pretty boring. I sat there for fifteen and a half hours, trying not to think about toilets and amusing myself by watching people building snowmen on the motorway. When I finally got home (after I had had something to eat and a good night’s sleep) I went about the business of trying to turn it into a work of fiction.
It wasn’t easy. The simple truth is, it was a tedious experience which came slap-bang in the middle of a fairly bog-standard week of studying for my exams and attending my office job. To this day, I’m not satisfied that it was ever really finished. But it was not a wasted effort, not in the slightest. By writing this boring little story based on my boring night on the bus, I created a protagonist I was immensely proud of. His name is Dr. Henry Barrington-Smyth; a reclusive, socially awkward man who has devoted himself to the study of theology and philosophy, with a particular interest in ethics.
When I first created Henry, he was a fairly shy, mild mannered sort of man who developed a friendship with one of his fellow passengers on the bus through their mutual boredom.
I know. Rubbish.
But from that rubbish little story, I was able to expand far beyond what happened on the bus that night and create something new. When I re-wrote this story, I made Henry an altogether more aloof figure. While all the passengers on the bus began to chat and make friends, Henry was deliberately resistant and was downright rude to the woman he had befriended in my previous draft (all the while, reading a scholarly work about what constituted moral goodness).
Still rubbish, but I was starting to like Henry. So I gave him a bad guy to deal with. Someone else on the bus (Dave) was drunk and was behaving in an aggressive manner towards the passengers and the driver. Also the woman he had previously befriended became unwell. None of this happened during my true experience on the bus, but it gave the protagonist something to do. If you remember my previous post about how I like to audition characters, this is very much the same sort of thing. Characters can develop quite naturally if you are willing to test them in various situations, especially crucible situations from which they cannot escape (such as being stuck on a bus).
Since then, I’ve tried Henry out in a whole bunch of different scenarios at different stages of his life, from childhood right through to the death of his wife when Henry was 72. I invented a fictional home-town for him and am now working on a mystery story set in that fictional town which is altogether more interesting than the story I originally came up with based on that one boring experience I once had.
Don’t set out to only write about what you know. Unless you’ve experienced something truly amazing or horrifying, you’ll probably just get bored and/or frustrated.
Don’t set out to only write something especially clever, either. That kind of perfectionism will hinder you from writing that all important rubbish first draft.
Just write about whatever you happen to think of. If all you can think about is your boring day at the office, then write about your boring day at the office. If all you can think about is aliens stealing bananas to power their spaceship, then write about banana stealing aliens. If it’s good, great. If it’s bad, that’s great too. What matters is that you write something. Anything. You can throw out the things you’re not proud of and you can refine anything that’s got rough edges later. What matters is that you start to write and persevere, no matter how many scrunched up paper balls you surround yourself with.
You’ll be amazed at what you can end up with.