What Will I Write?

That is the question.  Is it not?  This what is going to vary from person to person.  Each writer needs to write his or her own stories.  Not mine.  I will provide a framework for how you can approach (and solve) this problem, but it is your job to figure out what you are going to write.


Click on the audio link above to listen to the introduction.  I relate the story of how I decided to write my first novel.  Based soley upon word count.  There were no market considerations.  None.  It was all about word count.  Certainly I was writing about something that I liked to write about, but the words did not flow easily.

What ridiculous nonsense.  Use your brain when you are thinking about what you are going to write.  This is where I discuss writing and not fighting.  Think in terms of water.  It flows.  Think in terms of music composition.

Explain that I know criminals and criminal thinking.  I’ve had lots of experience working with at-risk youth.  It’s what I know, so it’s what I can write about without having to think.  At all.  The other thing I can write about is people.  I like people and relationships.  People and their stories are endlessly fascinating.  I am always thinking about scenes in my head.  Conversations between couples. These are what are swirling about in my head, so these are the what for me.

List the Pen Precepts here.

There are several Pen Precepts.  These are designed to help you in your struggle to figure out “the what” you should write.  These are not hard and fast rules.  These are not set in stone.  Use them as a guide…not a constraint.

For each precept, there is something to understand and something to do.

You will also find a downloadable PDF for each precept, if you like to write your answers out on paper.


Pen Precept #1


The study of history provides fertile ground for one’s writing.  Tragedy abounds in the past.

Pen Project #1

The Gathering of Events


Make a list of important historical events – events that have shaped our world, i.e. World War II, French Revolution, Pax Romana, the Black Death, etc.  Make a list of ten important historical events and write down a sentence or two explaining its significance.

Pen Precept #2


The study of history provides fertile ground for one’s writing.  Hope and humanity abound in the past.

Pen Project #2

The Gathering of More Events


Take your list of important historical events – events that have shaped our world, i.e. World War II, French Revolution, Pax Romana, the Black Death, etc. and choose one or two of these events and dig a little deeper.  What are some of the important events that transpired within these larger episodes in our history?  As you dig deeper, stories will start to emerge.  Stories of leaders who have triumphed and failed.  Stories of people who have suffered and lost.  How, then, can you use these stories in your own writing?  Can your own characters experience some of these same trials and triumphs?  Use the space below to make a list of more focused historical events and write down a sentence or two explaining the significance of each.

Pen Precept #4


Your life experience provides fertile ground for your writing.

Your life experiences can and should be used as the basis for your writing.  It will lend your tale humanity.  Readers connect with real stories.  Below is an excerpt from my book Something to Teach.  The book details my experiences teaching on the inside of a maximum-security juvenile correctional facility. 

The text reads as follows:

I stood standing in the middle of the hallway as all parties converged on one location.  Mine.

In one perfectly choreographed moment, the young offender wrenched his arm free and swung on the officer.  The man bobbed, but didn’t quite weave fast enough.  The fist caught the officer on tip of his nose.  There was not enough contact to break it, but there was enough to make the man’s eyes water and a splash of blood dot the walls.  Just as quickly, the school sergeant drew a pepper spray canister from her belt and depressed the nozzle as she brought her arm up and around.  The orange liquid arced in a graceful stream.  It splashed against the retreating officer’s chest and caught his attacker in the forehead.  And me.  As I stood in frozen fascination, the stream stained the left sleeve of my dress shirt and traveled up and up to the exposed skin of my face.


The liquid seared my skin wherever it touched.  I lurched backwards and brought my hands up defensively, but it was too late.  The only thing that saved me from being totally blinded by the painful liquid were my glasses.  Both lens were covered with the potent spray.  My eyes watered as I pulled them off of my face and continued to retreat from the confusing shuffle of additional bodies as more officers arrived.

I blinked against the pain and used my clean sleeve to mop the pepper spray from my face.

Pen Project #4

The Gathering of Personal Events


Make a list of events from your own life that are interesting, funny, sad, tragicomic (like the above example)…in a word – real.

These events will form the backbone of your story.  Or, at the very least, help add humanity to your writing.

Pen Precept #5


“When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before – met him on the river.”

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Your characters must seem like real people.  Because they should be based upon real people.  One character in the excerpt below is based upon one of my former (and favorite) students.  This episode took place shortly after the previous incident when I was dosed with pepper spray.  My student had some choice commentary.

“Hey Sergeant,” he said. “Guess what I learned today in Mr. Lavelle’s class?”


“I learned about prepositions, proper nouns, and possessives.”


“You see,” he said. “There was a theme today.  The letter ‘P’.  That’s what makes Mr. Lavelle such a good teacher.”

Pittway paused.  I was waiting for it.  So was the sergeant.  She was trying not to smile.  And losing the fight.

“And Mr. Lavelle learned about the letter ‘P’ too.”

Pittway looked at me and shook his head.

“Look at you, Mr. Lavelle.”

“Don’t you…” she started to say, but it was too late.  Her eyes were shining as she tried to hold back the laughter.  At my expense.

“You learned about pepper spray.  If you hadn’t gone and done something stupid like taking us to the library, then you wouldn’t be standing here with them red cheeks.  You ain’t nothing but a pepper-sprayed fool.”

The school sergeant doubled over her desk, convulsing in laughter.  I fanned my face.

He continued.

“You got to stop trying to be a teacher, Mr. Lavelle.”

Pen Project #5

The Gathering of People


Make a list of your favorite people in the world – at least five.  For each person write down a story about  this person – something that he or she said or did that makes them special (like the episode above).  In other words, don’t just write down that your best friend Tim is really nice.  Describe an incident that you experienced that shows just how nice your friend Tim is.

What Materials Do I Need?

The course materials for this section are listed below.

  • a printer (or some way to print the PDFs) and paper


  • a pen or pencil


  • a writing notebook (if you like to write using pen and paper) or a keyboard and computer


  • a computer (or some way to access the digital materials), inluding headphones or a speaker to listen to the audio instruction