By Bruce Harris
Author, and Editor of the Writing Short Fiction website
firstwriter.com – Monday October 20, 2014
Once the decision to write has been made, the next step is to decide what to write about. For many people, unfortunately, this first hurdle is the one they stumble over so badly that they never get back up. For others, the choice is obvious; with particular interests and experience in one of the prominent genres such as sports, science, historical or crime writing, they can immediately make use of their professional lives in their fiction writing. Genre writing has limitations and restrictions of its own, and many people who have taken the decision to write will be reluctant to be pushed so severely in an unnecessarily narrow direction from the start.
The conventional wisdom is to “write from experience”, but that, again, imposes restrictions of its own, limiting people to their own time, country and reality. Imagination is one of the characteristics which distinguish fiction from more functional forms of writing, and unless a person has had a particularly exotic or unusual life, the number of situations and settings which one life makes available may not be a sufficiently rich resource for many people.
It is also clear enough that a successful writer has to be able to stand in other people’s shoes. Men who can only write about men, and women who can only write about women, will quickly find themselves operating in an awkwardly narrow world and alienating half of their potential readership. Similarly, young people who are unable or unwilling to attempt to get into the minds of their elders, and older people who have lost all sense of what being young was about, will be straitjacketing themselves from the beginning.
Decisions about subject matter are also inextricably linked to the perceived audience, and to what effect the writer is trying to achieve. If it is simply about “a good story” in the narrative sense, the conventional pattern of beginning, middle and end is what most readers will be expecting, and if the settings, characters and events have a sufficient authority and authenticity about them, the reader is likely to engage with the story, take it at face value and enjoy it.
If the writer is seeking to make a point or further a cause, more subtle calculations are required. Preaching or tub thumping will tend to put readers off, as will a bias which ignores any contradictory views or facts. If the writer wants the reader to sympathise or empathise with experiences in past lives, exaggeration for effect is also likely to alienate the reader.
There are a number of resources for an aspirant writer deciding what to write about. Firstly, many magazines and competitions use themes for submissions and entries. Often, the themes are deliberately kept very vague and general, such as “emotion”, “urban fiction”, “power”, “resolutions”. On occasions, editors or competition setters will choose a first or last line or sentence, or specify a particular time or place. Generally speaking, what is being sought is some fresh or original interpretation, because it is understandably tedious for editors and competition readers to wade through story after story using the same approach. Something which springs easily to mind when thinking about a theme has probably also sprung to many other minds equally easily. Thinking around the subject, making notes and talking to other people can be invaluable methods of preparation.
Secondly, reading short fiction and poetry can prove to be a useful source of ideas. I would emphasise that I am not talking here about plagiarism, which is in any case dangerous, as the styles of many leading fiction writers are familiar to people with experience in the field. Simply looking at how other people have dealt with themes, plots and characters in the limited space available can be a stimulation in itself, and it is rare for two people to share exactly the same perception of how an individual piece of fiction should be handled.
Thirdly, many of the main resources sites, such as firstwriter.com, will provide profiles of magazines and competitions detailed enough for site visitors to find out the kind of material which each publication or organisation is likely to publish or reward. If it is clear that the content is not suitable for what the writer is trying to do, time and effort can be spared before even looking at the magazine or competition itself. If it does seem probable that the author’s work might be considered as appropriate, then it is worth taking the time to look at the kind of material which the magazine has published. This will not only save the writer from making futile submissions, it may also provide a useful source of ideas and themes.
Fourthly, Wikipedia and a host of other recording and historical sites can provide information concerning anniversaries, birthdays, events, people and places which can enable the necessary research to be done to produce what has been called "faction": that is, fiction built on a frame of actual happenings. A great deal of fiction based on wars, meetings, childhoods and journeys has been originated in this way and continues to be. In this respect, people who have a background in research or are patient and persistent enough to teach themselves will have a built in advantage.
Fifthly, local libraries and bookshops almost invariably have sections of local material available concerning the folklore, history and traditions of their area which can provide a rich resource for developing fictional material.
Finally, the media at large, including broadcasting, the national and local press, social media sites, magazines, radio and Internet search engines are all capable of providing ideas and source material. A fiction writer needs the same impulse of investigation and discovery as the successful journalist, to make sure the ideas never run out.
About the Author
An anthology of 25 stories by Bruce Harris which have all won prizes, commendations or listings in UK fiction competitions, First Flame, was published in October 2013 by www.spmpublications.com.
In addition to second prize in the 2014 Momaya Press Competition, his awards list includes Writers' Bureau (twice); Grace Dieu Writers' Circle (five times); Biscuit Publishing, Yeovil Prize, Milton Keynes Speakeasy (three times), Exeter Writers, Fylde Writers, Brighton Writers (three times), Wells Literary Festival, Wirral Festival of Firsts, New Writer, Segora, Sentinel Quarterly, Swale Life, Havant Literary Festival, Southport Writers' Circle, Lichfield Writers' Circle, Cheer Reader (three times), TLC Creative, 3into1 Short Story Competition, Meridian, Five Stop Story (three times), JB Writers' Bureau, Red Line (twice) and Bridport Prize and Bristol Prize longlists. He also edits Writing Short Fiction at http://writingshortfiction.org: a free resource for all who write or who want to write short stories.
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