I Want to Write a Book, But I Can’t

Have you ever said that? I have. And people have said that to me. I usually nod my head indicating that I understand. Sometimes people will elaborate and explain that they just don’t have time, or they’ll say that they have an idea, but literally can’t write, can’t put words together to create the story that is in their head. And sometimes it’s just a longing like it would be nice to write a book; I like the idea of it, but it’s a lot of work and I don’t want to spend hours of my life alone putting words on a page.

I can kind of understand those reasons. As a writer who meets readers and other writers at various stages of development, I can relate to not having time or not knowing how to organize a story to tell it in the most effective way possible. I can even relate to admiring what writers do, but not having the inclination to sit down and do it.

It was only after I became a college instructor that I realized some people (my students) meant something else entirely. When they said, “I can’t” they meant, “I don’t even know what I would write about. I have zero ideas.” and this really did baffle me.

I have a unit where we study and analyze short stories, and then as a treat, students get to write their own story. Since college students usually are required to write essays, which can be dull and difficult, I envisioned that students would be thrilled and grateful for the opportunity to write something creative and less structured.

But, I usually saw fear on their faces.

I have no ideas

I would hear things like, “I have random ideas, but they don’t mean anything, and I don’t know how to put them together into a story.” Or “I have NO ideas. I don’t have anything to say and I’m not creative.” Or, “Every time I start to write a story, I’m just writing about things that really happened (which is actually great).”

At first it was difficult to help them. I could help someone who had an idea and didn’t know how to begin a story or structure a story, but if a writer doesn’t have any thoughts at all . . . then what?

What is story?

A story is a character who has a problem. I thought of discussing the major conflicts: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self, and man vs. machine, and I probably did, but I felt my students needed more.

Robert McKee said that story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas. He was correct. Story is also about emotions and human connections and transformation.

Ultimately, what I had to help these young writers understand was not that they were looking for ideas as much as they were looking to help readers feel something.

When I write a novel, I don’t think of plot first — I usually don’t even know what the plot will be when I begin. I don’t think of characters. I think, what would it feel like to be a single business woman and suddenly have to take care of a child or three? Is that an idea? No, not really. It’s definitely not a story although I might have a character and a problem.

I asked my students to play the “what if” game. What if the last person you spoke to learned that _______________? Fill in the blank with something emotional. Her child had just been kidnapped. His uncle died and left him a million dollars. The what if doesn’t matter. What matters is what you want the reader to feel and how you can show that in the story. Can you show fear, inadequacy, anger, joy, etc.?

What some of my students were saying when they said they couldn’t write a story was that they couldn’t think of complete story with a beginning middle and end with plot points and a cool message. They envisioned stories they read in books or movies on T.V. and this paralyzed them.

When I wrote Becoming Latina in 10 Easy Steps, I started with one thought. I was tired of publishers telling me that my characters were not Latino enough or that my stories were not Latino enough. I felt misunderstood. So, I wrote a story about a woman who felt misunderstood because others thought she was not Latina enough. The plot is more complicated. I figured out later what was going to happen and why this character felt this way. What I wanted to express through the story in this book, and what I wanted to make my readers feel was the pain of being misunderstood.

Yes, plotting and story structure and character development are important, and these are obviously elements of storytelling that must be considered. But for those who want to write but feel they can’t because ideas are not popping into their heads, none of that is important yet.

I’m happy to say that students came up with great stories. They wrote about what it felt like to get bullied in school; they wrote about the loneliness of having to move all the time — and upon revision the setting became outer space and the story sci-fi; they wrote about all kinds of things and didn’t worry about whether the idea was good.

I can’t is never true

Back when I thought “I want to write a book, but I can’t” I meant that I didn’t know how to write a book. I didn’t know how to structure my story into a readable novel. Thankfully, I found teachers and courses to teach me how to do it. Years later, there I was, teaching students how to answer the same question with a different meaning. I don’t know if any of those students will go on to become writers. Maybe they were happy to pass their college English class and hope never to have to write again, but I hope at least, that they left with the confidence that they would write a story, and that they enjoyed it.

Those of us who do love to write and want to do it regularly can get stuck sometimes too and think we have nothing to say. We might think that we are out of ideas or have writer’s block which I’ve never believed in. The truth is that as long as we can make an emotional connection with our reader by showing how a character deals with human emotion, we can then use what McKee states as eternal, universal forms of storytelling to build a story that will enthrall our readers.

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Julia Amante

Julia Amante

Women’s Fiction author of That Was Then, Say You’ll Be Mine, and Evenings at the Argentine Club. Speaker and and teacher. https://www.facebook.com/juliaamante/