One of my favourite writing adages is by a Canadian author named Alistair MacLeod, who noted that “writers write about what worries them”. I happen to believe this is true, although I’m biased, as most of my writing tends to involve medicine in some way and I’m terribly worried every day by the thought of misdiagnoses and worst-case scenarios.
I like this statement because it contrasts with the standard advice given to writers starting out, which is to “write what you know”. I’ve never found that to be profoundly helpful, mostly because I feel that people know lots of things and end up writing about things that don’t particularly interest them simply because it feels familiar. To write about what worries you, though – that makes more sense. As science-fiction and fantasy writers well know, writing stories in a setting removed from our day-to-day surroundings leads to richly inventive stories that transport and entertain, but the best of these genres also make us think about issues that matter. The best speculative fiction has been written by people who have things to say about our society, and who use the fantastic or the futuristic to make readers think about problems and their possible solutions. (The worst can do this, too, if the writing is clunky and heavy-handed enough, but that’s another matter.)
What does this mean for people starting out in the business? I don’t mean to imply that every story written needs to have a Message, something important that will change the world if only the right people read it, damnit, and I would even caution against starting out with the idea of holding a mirror up to the world at large. But I do think that adage may help people to hone in on where to start when they stare at the blank screen, trying to call to mind all those tips and tricks about worldbuilding.
Why does this story matter to me? Why is it that I want to tell it? What is it that makes this the story I want to have people read?
For me, thinking of these questions makes it more likely that I’ll be invested in what I write, and that my attention to the craft of characterization and plot and conflict will be that much stricter because of my emotional involvement. I’m worried about trying to fix people, trying to change the story that they’ve been telling themselves about who they are so that I can offer a treatment plan that will prevent that next stroke or delay that move to the nursing home. Therefore, in my first novel, I am writing about someone who can change people’s stories, for better or for worse, and what that does to the people around him and the people who might want to take advantage of that. If ever I get lost in the details, I can always come back to that worry, and that helps keep me going to the next part of the actual writing.
I’d encourage you to do that, if you’re starting out. Think about why you want to write that story. Think about what worries you, and start from there. It won’t help with the grammar or the editing or the elusive publishing deal right away, but it will make the story matter, and give it that extra bit of meaning to push it down the long road of publication.