Writing and reading for pleasure – Part 2: What to Write? | Douglas Burcham | Guest Post

Douglas Burcham continues his series of articles on writing and reading for pleasure. 

Part Two: What to Write? 

“You will have to write what readers want and not write a story already written by another author.” 

“Can you fly me to the moon and remember to come back?” 

Of the two statements each is probably as hard as the other to achieve. 

1.0 Background

In my last post for The Independent Publishing Magazine (TIPM) on 1st June 2014 about “Why Write?,” I urged new writers to make a start and explained how the act of starting to write was easy for me back on 1st June 2010. However, “What to Write?” soon became a niggling worry bead a few days after I started and has remained so since.

Until recently I seem to have been at variance with all the website and text book writer’s advice on the subject. So I whooped with glee and relaxed a little when I saw a comment recently about what to write, which said something like— “Go ahead, write what you think is best. Take a chance on anyone wanting to read what you have written.” I acknowledge I may be using this as an excuse for not following good advice but I commend the thought. 

My general approach to action in my life is to make a start and try and learn by doing, stumbling around falling into holes and making and benefitting from mistakes. While doing so, out of the corner of my eye I observe others doing the same and read about and listen to advice from people who have done or have been successful rather than those who talk about doing. It is amazing what turns up by this approach—as Goethe suggests. 

In this series of posts on The Independent Publishing Magazine (TIPM) I will try and remain true to my own creed by only spouting about my experiences of doing, plus challenging with as much logic as I can muster what appear to be accepted writing maxims, but based on my own doing, I have doubts. Writing these posts has also been a useful exercise in clarifying in my mind what I should be doing and my direction of travel. I hope these posts will encourage readers to start writing or give comfort to those who have followed a similar path and feel like me, that they have not followed the rules and are wondering whether this matters. 

When I announced in June and July 2010 to my wife, children, wider family and friends, my intention to write fiction, I felt hurt when my serious intent and statement was generally greeted with laughter and incredulity as yet another mad idea from Douglas. When I went on to say I planned to write my first 50,000 words without asking anyone about how I should do, so my wife sighed and said. 

 “Douglas, like Frank, always does things in his own way.” 

I commend this approach if you have made a start. Try and write 500 to 1000 words a day in different scenes about whatever comes into your mind. This may tease out what you like writing and find easy and fun to do. 

 A long standing friend, Isobel, said in July 2010 “You will never write a book,” a statement that my biggest spur to do so and resulted in my first published book “Ywnwab!” in September 2013. At least her husband Peter has been more positive in his encouragement. Perhaps now I reflect Isobel knew me better than I realised and expected I would accept her challenge. Many writers say one is well supported by friends and family, all I can say is it can come in strange ways! 

2.0 What to Write? Warning – A Serious matter likely to damage your spare time and wealth. 

I believe “What to write?” is a serious question for anyone contemplating writing. Any attempt to start and write even a draft book of 100,000 words will mean a material commitment of scarce and valuable time. In these days of questioning and challenging professionals about their skills and knowledge, the effort by a writer will disappointingly—from what I have read and experienced—also be undervalued. The thousands of hours committed by bestselling authors—likely to have been much greater than expected before they became famous—is likely to be a subject of disbelief to non writers, many of whom think any writing is easy and can be done with little effort. 

I did omit to say in my first post that very few writers make big money from writing, so thoughts of giving up a steady job to write to make money should be given careful consideration. During the last four years, if someone had paid me for all the hours I have spent on writing and paid for all the equipment, materials and services I have used and books I have read, I would be smiling. In return I have sold enough books to buy a few bottles of wine, insufficient to pay for the wine I have used as oil to lubricate the writing process. However, I have kept my brain active, met lots of new people and had fun. The cash spend to me for satisfaction received is not a high cost relative to travel, drinking, smoking or eating out A recent TIPM post on marketing books stated 750,000 new books came onto the market in 2013. Of these, I suspect very few sold more than 1,000 copies—perhaps less than 1%? Then there are all the books that have been written in draft and not published. Other advice included in the post was one should choose to write in a popular genre to be commercial and continue to do so. I count myself quite lucky to have chosen to write the way I did in the summer of 2010, but with more experience now, I look at what choice I had then of what to write if I had been thinking about writing commercially for readers and not as my Plan A—just for my own satisfaction and pleasure.
  • Readers – Fiction or nonfiction, Adult young adult or child.
  • Genre  Over 500 genres are listed by Goodreads. The most popular being Biography, Comedy (some), Fantasy, History, Mystery and Supernatural, Romance including sex (some), Suspense, Science Fiction (including – paranormal and dystopia), Thriller (including –Action, Adventure and War and Travel). Less popular – Specialist, technical nonfiction subjects and Literature
  • Form – Short stories, novels, textbook nonfiction type or poetry.
Looking at my efforts to date, I have written for adults in those genres, highlighted in bold above, in a 90% fiction, 10% non fiction specialist subject split. I am advised the only writing of mine which is likely to be commercial may be the non fiction about my experiences with planes, boats and trains.
On my fiction, I appear according to conventional publishing wisdom, to have committed the first cardinal sin of mixing genres in single books. As my fiction books are made up of many short stories, like pieces of a jigsaw, this is another problem area because apparently short stories are also a less commercial area.
My reaction to this is to laugh and say “so what” because I have had and am having great fun in what I am doing—writing for pleasure. Perhaps if I wanted keenly to become a bestselling author, I would be weeping!
I suppose as a figures mechanic by training I should be more disciplined to pigeon hole. But then perhaps I have had too much pigeon holing in my work life and welcome the freedom of writing what I want to, rather than getting stressed up second guessing what any potential reader might like to read of my fiction.
On the subject of pigeon holing I quite like for reference Christopher Booker’s 736 page tome, which took him 34 years to write, The Seven Basic PlotsWhy We Tell Stories.
Overcoming the Monster,Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Returns, Comedy (some), Tragedy and Rebirth; I have sinned again by mixing plots all in bold!
Overall, I cannot help think the key to commercial fiction—if this is what you want to try—is similar to buying houses where location, location, location is the mantra. In writing, I suggest a similar mantra of story, story, story.
4.0 Further ideas
Recently browsing the Internet, I found these comments by Aytekin to pass on to you in your considerations about what to write.
  • “belief in what one is writing about and having a good idea. Wanting to know more about a subject.” How one can know one has a good idea is difficult, but the other two aspects seem sensible.
  • “If an idea is interesting to you it is probably also interesting to many other people.” I am told in my case this is not necessarily so by my friends and family.The best way to develop an idea is to start writing it.This comment takes me back to my first post—at least someone agrees with me.
  • Then – “Write what you want to read.” This turns me to Stephen King’s excellent advice about reading yet again and my own beginnings.

My own life is not interesting or notorious enough to write a bestselling biography, so my thinking developed in the summer of 2010 to make elements of my life more interesting by extension into fantasy through making impossible dreams come true.  As a template, I liked the character of Alex Goodman written about by a peer of mine—mad, bad and dangerous to know— Ranulph Fiennes’ in “The Sett”. Alex’s innocent walk with his family in the Clent Hills turns into an international nightmare thriller of revenge set against many current events such as Broadwater Farm riots.

After Stephen King, I read John Braine’s gritty book about Writing a Novel and his book written in the first person about Joe Lambton – “Room at the Top.”

I then read several books by Ian McEwan to consolidate a direction for my own writing.

If I could get anywhere near the standard of writing by these authors I might be content. I recommend finding several books you like to act as yardsticks to judge one’s own work and to try and work out what makes a book hard to put down. Like prospecting for gold I have yet to find the answers, other than to think bestselling authors do touch stimulation and titillation switches in their readers’ minds. I continue to look …

5.0 Planning

Another recent web post concentrates on planning in writing nonfiction, which also seems relevant to fiction as well if you wish to be organised.

Planning is the first and most important step in the process. This step forces you to ask many tough questions, including – What is your book about (in one sentence)? Planning organizes your thoughts and helps you plan every aspect of your non fiction book: Will it stand up to the competition? Where would it go in a bookstore? Who is going to read it? Why would they want to read it? Do you really have a book here, or should you just write an article and get it out of your system? Answering these questions is much more than a mere exercise because almost every word of it will become a part of your book later on.”

Q&A #6: What Are the Six Steps in Creating a Nonfiction Book? by Bobbi Linkemer

Looking back to 2010, and even now, I find it quite hard to give answers to these questions as these actions seem much easier to write down or say than actually do. I recall an old saying:-

“Planning is an unnatural process; it is much more fun to do something. The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression.”

Harvey, Sir John 1863-1944 British Actor-Manager.”

Reflecting now after I have completed a million draft words and relaxed, and having decided in future to carry on with my Plan A to write and read for pleasure, I have no regrets about deciding to write what I wanted. I may have done if I had decided I wanted write and publish aggressively in a commercial way and tried to climb higher mountains.

Contrary to all my jesting above I did have a plan on what to write, although I did not have PLAN TOP SECRET written across the cover. My Plan A in 2010 had four simple aims. Details of my Reserve Plan B and C if I decided to change my mind about commercial publishing will come later.

  1. Write a million words in three years.
  2. Write about a threat to me and my family.
  3. Use me as the main character adding my own life fantasies.
  4. Use my own sub conscious with its life memories and experiences.

This I have kept to over the last four years and the benefits have been:-

  1. A driver and task master to write 1000 words each day to keep momentum and focus and also provide a distraction to publishing paranoia. My actual rate proved to be 749 words a day to January 2014 when I reached my million draft words target.
  2. An excellent starting point to generate structure and stupid ideas.
  3. A release of 50 years of pent up emotion and ideas—like a flow from a champagne bottle opening with a pop!
  4. Writing down dreams before they dissipate and memory mining has produced a wealth of ideas and good and bad recollections and an alternative to writing a dull biography.

    As well as finding many people unable to start writing, I have found many others with intense paranoia about publishing. It appears to me to be far from their minds to enjoy and to have fun in what they write or even read much.

    6.0 Reading

    I have found another source of great pleasure to be reading—about which more will feature in later posts. I have found it easy to take Stephen King’s good advice to read widely. After a slow start in life to reading, with few books and parental reading at home, and starting school unable to read, I progressed through text books and quick fiction to more solid fiction by my twenties. Then my reading balance strayed into nonfiction until 2010 when following Stephen King’s advice, I reverted to more fiction reading.

    I have developed six “E” tests for reading books and writing book reviews.

    1. Engrossing and interesting—being hooked in.
    2. Enjoyment—warm feelings about a particular book.
    3. Entertainment—the chuckle and laughter factor.
    4. Emotional—one’s feelings and personal intimate memories.
    5. Educational—learning about a subject for the first time or in more detail. The technical background in my own writing.
    6. Ease of reading—I read fiction for pleasure so books with dull stories or poor structure are often discarded. I will work at a densely written book if content is good. For example: Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time.

    I bear these tests in mind in my own writing and recommend them to writers to take into account in their own writing.

    7.0 Final thoughts

    Returning to my opening sentences, I struggle with the concept of writing what readers want, and how on earth does one avoid writing a story already written by another author? Also, unless in my writing, there is not much chance of me flying to the moon so I do not have to worry about remembering to come back.

    Now for some good news. On my four year writing journey, I have found four self-published authors who have cracked the issues around “What to write?” and been successful in self publishing in different ways. All score highly in my “E” ratings and proved to me the equal of books published by major publishers and established writers. Story telling content is the key.

    1. Angela Petch in her first book ”Never Forget” self published through Authors Online. (Allrighters joint serious fiction book of the year 2013.) Angela has used mixed genres of romance in marriage, with history and war.
    2. Tony Riches who in his latest book ”Warwick” published through Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing and Create Space in 2014 about the Earl of Warwick (The King Maker), seems to have found a niche being at 5,371 in Kindle sales ranking today (30.06.14).
    3. M.K. Tod, in her first book ”Unravelled”, self published by herself in 2013 also has mixed genres of romance in marriage, with history and war. [You can read M.K. Tod’s guest post for TIPM about developing a book marketing plan here.]

    In nonfiction (Allrighters’ book of the year for 2013), Declan Henry’s latest book “Why Bipolar?”, self-published through York Publishing Services in 2013, has challenged established opinions and practice on the subject.

    By hard work these authors have achieved success in completion and then publish their books—so given their example—what about you following them? It can be done. 

    My third post in this series will follow in August, titled – How to write fiction? – Part One, Post Four in September (in late summer holiday mode), titled – Who for, Where and when to write? before a post on Reading the key to writing? 

    Good writing and reading to you all … everywhere!


    Douglas Burcham started writing on 1st June 2010 and has not stopped since. He was saved from the clutches of vanity publishing by Mick Rooney in TIPM in July 2010. In May 2013 his characters took all his fiction writing and set themselves up as the Allrighters with other writing friends. They published a book of short stories “Ywnwab!”in September 2013. In their latest Plan by working in 18,000 word bites, Douglas with the Allrighters are now trying to convert a million words of draft writing into several books totalling 900,000 words of fiction and 100,000 words of non-fiction. The latter being about writing, trains, boats and planes.


    Mick Rooney – Publishing Consultant

    If you found this review or article helpful, but you’re still looking for a suitable self-publishing provider to fit your needs as an author, then I’m sure I can help. As a publishing consultant and editor of this magazine, I’ve reviewed and examined in detail more than 150 providers throughout the world like the one above. As a self-published and traditionally published author of nine books, I understand your needs on the path to publication and beyond. So, before you spend hundreds or thousands, and a great deal of your time, why not book one of my personally tailored and affordable consultation sessions today? Click here for more details.
    If you would like to leave a comment on an article older than one week, please use the Blogger comment facility rather than the Facebook comment app as we do not monitor FB comments as regularly.

    Leave a Reply