In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King writes,
What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all… as long as you tell the truth.
So many stories to tell
I’ve written all sorts of novels over the years, some that are super realistic and contemporary, some that dip into the realm of fantasy and the supernatural, some that are aimed at kids and some that are aimed at adults. Every novel I write poses a different challenge.
For the last two years I’ve spent a lot of time on a contemporary young adult thriller, my MFA thesis novel, that goes into some dangerous and heart-stopping places.
Since December I’ve been hard at work on a middle grade ghost story novel, one that deals with themes like death and grief, but also is a hopefully entertaining, spooky read with plenty of surprising horror moments. There are scenes of serious discussions between the twelve-year-old protagonist and his parents, and there are more supernatural-driven scenes where a ghost haunts the protagonist in all sorts of creative ways.
I’ve written a novel about two boys falling in love over the course of twelve years. I’ve written a novel about a high school student who suddenly gains the ability to make people disappear by snapping his fingers. I’ve written a novel about a failed film director who resorts to killing his lead actor to make his new film a success. And I’ve written a novel about a lesbian teenager who survives the rapture and battles dinosaurs to be with her one true love.
I’ve written ALL SORTS of stories. But no matter how fanciful, or how real, whatever, every single time I set out to write the truth.
Write what compels you
King is right in that you truly can write anything you want. You should write what compels you. It likely will be a genre you love reading. A genre that has probably meant something to you since childhood. If you don’t love the genre you’re writing, you’re going to fail right out of the gate. ADORE the genre you’re going to play in, and then find the story that excites you.
As I’ve written about here before, I don’t just jump into any random story when I begin writing a novel. I often let my ideas sit for months and months, even years, before I take it on. I’ve often thought that the best ideas stick with you, and the lesser ideas fade away.
You should not only be thrilled about your genre, but also about the idea for a story. If you’re so enthusiastic about something that you could see yourself working on it for a year or longer? Then go for it! If you’re only so-so about it, odds are you might lose interest halfway through the first draft and never complete the novel. Make sure you love your idea!
So yes, write about what you want. Do a mystery set in nineteenth century England. Do a romance about an aging couple. Do a middle grade adventure book set in the Amazon. Do an erotica novel. Write what you want! Write what makes your skin tingle with excitement!
You also need to tell the truth
But then what you need to do next, each and every day you sit down at your laptop, is write the truth. Never, ever, ever write only to genre expectations. I’m working on a ghost story novel right now, and there are plenty of spooky moments of my protagonist being haunted, but I also have scenes where no ghosts are involved, where the protagonist is working through some interior drama about his family history. And whether I’m writing a fanciful haunting scene or a contemplative emotional scene, I make sure to tell the truth about the situation, about the character.
For each scene of your novel, ask yourself, is my character acting truthfully here? Are you making sure that you’re not letting the plot overtake your novel and having your characters act in ways they shouldn’t? Are you letting the characters drive your story in a sense, and not a series of plot contrivances or genre expectations or random whims on your part?
To write a novel and not tell the truth won’t ruin your career, it won’t rob you of your storytelling gifts, but it is a kind of crime in a way. You shouldn’t be pounding a story out just to make money, or create one-dimensional characters that fit in molds we’ve all seen in a hundred stories before just because that’s the easy thing to do.
Be original. Promise me you’ll be original! Tell stories that haven’t been told before. Create characters that are wholly unique and fun and surprising.
And tell the truth, always. You’ll thank me in the long run.