Category Archives: Deep Thinking

More in-depth coverage of ideas. Posts in this category tend to run long and explore several themes at once.

Social Media Stage Fright

I don’t get stage fright. Not usually. If I’m standing in front of a group of strangers to give some information about a service they could use or learn from (an occasional side function of my job in education), I typically turn off the part of my brain that cares what they think about me and just deliver them the info I came to deliver. Unless I’m coughing up a storm while my zipper is down, two things I tend to get under control prior to arrival at my speaking destination, usually, I don’t worry about how I’m received. The audience either cares or it doesn’t. Doesn’t affect me either way.

Yet, the reverse seems to be true about my online presence. It’s usually more appropriate to answer questions in an unbuttoned pair of jeans (especially after a big lunch or dinner) online than it is in front of a live crowd, depending on the topic, I suppose, but the words I deliver online last much, much longer than what I deliver in person, and that can be scary when the words or information matters. In front of real people in real time, most of my audience will remember less than 10% of what I say, and if they remember me at all, they’ll likely remember me as “some guy who came to my classroom to tell me about grammar or something.” I’m not threatened by that. But, when I send a message on Facebook or a tweet on Twitter, suddenly my words are permanent and have scrutiny appeal.

Frightening!

It’s a strange paradox to be sure. We all talk about how social media can mask our identities when necessary, giving room for transparency in our thoughts, especially if our name is “Anonymous” or “Some Dude,” and suddenly we’re titanium. We see it as license to spout off all sorts of nonsense because who’s going to associate it with our faces if they can’t see them? In fact, I find it especially paradoxical in the dating world (something I gave up on a long time ago), where approaching strangers for the intention of getting a date is somehow easier through a comment on a profile page and a follow-up wink (or maybe it’s vice versa—I’ve never been great at the dating thing) than it is in real life where the person of interest has to watch me stumble out the words she may never take seriously face-to-face. It’s strange how these same vehicles of delivery can suddenly flip the perception I have of people and vice-versa, depending on the topic. But masking identity isn’t always useful. In person, my audience gets to see my face. In personal relationships, that should be a perk. Hopefully. But online, what I look like doesn’t matter. What I say does, and now they have the option to not only hear my words, but to remember them. In person, I have the freedom to flub my statements. Online, I better get it right, and I better get it right the first time because they can go back and check, check, and check again, and they can fault me if they see the mistakes or inconsistencies in thought, or whatever. As a writer, it’s embarrassing if I mess that up, especially if what I say is in of itself embarrassing (or simply unimportant). Online, I have plenty of places and opportunities in which that embarrassing thing can surface.

So, social media suddenly becomes a scary thing because that Facebook post about what I had for dinner isn’t just a Facebook post anymore. It’s an admission of guilt (even though I might see it as an attempt to engage an audience). Sure, I had a salad tonight. But I also had baked fish and mashed potatoes. And a sweet roll! To anyone who thinks I should be on a diet, I may have just incriminated myself. Sweet rolls have melted sugar on top, and that’s not healthy! How dare you promote bad health? And what of Twitter and its hashtags (also not healthy)? Is it possible for anyone to use Twitter without stirring up a string of controversies? Even with 27 followers and most of them being marketing robots, the risks of shooting myself in the foot are present if not inevitable. If I confess I had a sweet roll to a live crowd, they can at least watch me wink in jest as I deliver the truth. “Yeah, I had a sweet roll last night, and how sweet it was,” I say, as I pat my belly and gesture at how much of it is now sugar. (Note: What I eat for dinner isn’t actually anyone’s business.) Online, they may not even read that far.

As a writer, I’m told I need to master social media if I want to get followers. Okay. It’s also suggested that I post regularly to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google+, MySpace, Hotmail, AOL, AOL Instant Messenger, Reddit, AltaVista, Match.com, Yahoo, Wazoo, Kazoo, and other things I’m probably just making up now, oh, and my blog!, and it’s too much to keep up with, yet posting builds an audience of readers, and I want to be read, right??? And everything I say must be timely, yet accurate, and interesting, yet short, and if I mess it up, I’ll lose the people, but don’t worry about that because even with ten different ways to shoot myself in the head, I only have to do it once to lose them, so don’t worry about it and just enjoy the process, as even players of Russian Roulette can be successful at times!

I’m tired, and that’s just from writing the names of these platforms.

As I read about new platforms I can use to expand my readership, something I’m desperate for, as getting readers is the hardest part of the writing process, and I’d probably have an easier time running for public office based on the experience I’ve had doing this (getting a date is still tougher for some reason, though I have no idea why, as I’m smart, handsome, idea-driven, rich—no, the opposite of that, sorry—funny…okay, this post isn’t about that), I suddenly feel intimidated all over again because here’s one more service I should sign up for to give my readers even more options for staying connected with me, even though they have enough information overload from everybody else who wants their attention, and the only way any of this matters is if they really, really want to hear from me. If the students I speak to are of any barometer, I’d think even those who need to hear from me probably don’t want to hear from me. They’re probably too busy thinking about their Facebook posts, and Instagram photos, and whether anyone will like them to worry about liking me.

So, what can I say to convince them to listen? I suppose the keyword is “free money.” But, I don’t know. Social media already seems to fit that bill. If everything is free, then nothing is valuable. Including time. I value my time. And, I value my words.

To be clear, I don’t actually mind social media. I see it as a great way to find out where people I used to hang out with ten years ago are vacationing. I’m not there with them, but I can feel like I’m there with them. It’s almost as good, right? At some point, though, I want new things to talk about, and I can’t vacation every weekend or devote hours of every day sending out social media alerts to the few people who might see it to feel some kind of connection to them. At some point, it’s time to meet face to face again. Real relationships are frightening, too, but they’re real, and they feel real. That adds to their value.

The fact is, I read all the time about how important value is to people, and it’s almost scary how much that’s true. I’m not sure how valuable social media really is. My words are permanent, but are they being read? Here’s a picture of a moose you can look at while you contemplate the answer to that question.

bull-386742_1280.jpg

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Cover image: Pixabay

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On Tragedies

In Matthew 22:36-40, when Jesus reiterates that the greatest commandments are to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” and to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” I’m beginning to think his words are less of a lesson for the good way in which to live and more of a warning about how to protect ourselves from evil, present and future, and ultimately to prevent evil from metastasizing in man in the first place.

Let me explain.

On Sunday morning, when I woke up, I decided to take advantage of the “fall back” rollback of the clock and sleep in an extra few hours. I finally got up about 11:30, made breakfast, showered, and, seeing as how it was too late to go to church, watched half a video on YouTube, then played a computer game I bought years ago but only just now installed called Railroad Tycoon 2, and did so until about 3:30 when I realized my train stations were costing me more to operate than they were paying me, and my company was basically going bankrupt, and to continue the same game was ludicrous. Once I felt like I’d had a sufficient day of rest and turned off the game, I went into the living room, checked out what was on television, and then my heart sank.

Another mass shooting. This time in Texas. This time in a church. This time with a casualty and injury rate at near 100%.

I just stood there thinking, “I can’t take this anymore.”

Never mind that this tragedy hits close to home for many, many churchgoing people, including myself (when I go), or that once again we’re talking about a soft target, or a group of Christians, or what-have-you that’s cause for us to collectively shake our heads and cry. Sunday’s tragedy speaks to a scary reality we face today, in that nothing is sacred anymore.

My mom was telling me earlier that when she was a kid, my grandmother would go into the church and pray at any hour of the day or night because the church was always open because there was no reason to ever lock it, and if someone wanted to go in and pray in the middle of the night, they could. Now we have a lady in the Sutherland Springs, Texas area explaining that until Sunday morning, November 5, 2017, her community was just as safe, so much so that she could leave her keys in the car without worry of someone taking it, except now they’re dealing with the reality that evil can strike anywhere in any way, and that no one is truly safe anymore, and that keeping one’s keys in a car without worry doesn’t mean that he or she is exempt from the horrors that seem to bleed in through all cracks in our modern society, which include mass murder that can physically destroy 8% of a town’s population and emotionally destroy the rest of it.

As of this writing, I don’t know why the gunman did this sick thing, nor do I know just how far this story will go from here. We still have Las Vegas fresh in our minds, as well as the attack on pedestrians in New York (where the assailant rented a Home Depot truck and used it to run people over). My guess is that we’ll have Big Media and Congress running through their usual talking points about gun violence, gun laws, and all of those other dead end channels that seem to always saturate the discussion without coming up with a solution that would actually work, and that a week from now, no one who has a say in what comes next will do anything that will actually prevent this problematic weed from sprouting up elsewhere. That’s how it’s been since Columbine, and here we are, yet again: same talking points, same lack of stopping it from happening again, same collective breath held for a change, and the hope that this is the last one.

I’m sad, not just about the tragedy, but about the fact that no one seems to get it anymore that the problem isn’t guns, rented trucks, or even rhetoric. I’m not even sure if the problem is entirely based on mental illness or flawed ideology. I think much of the problem today is with evil itself, and evil exists where love is absent. Tell me I’m wrong.

Actually, I think there are two sources of evil—well, one source, but because we live in an “intellectual,” “civilized” or “free-thinking” society, I’ll refrain from pointing the blame squarely at the devil, even though that’s the only true source of evil, and the one that we’re foolish to ignore time and again, but there are two subsources we can actively combat, and by proxy combat the original source that most people today don’t want to acknowledge for whatever reason, even though that source is real and scheming against humankind—and they are selfishness and lies. Both fail to show love for other human beings, and both leave us wide open to carry out destructive tendencies when given permission to fester.

I don’t know the story yet about this new shooter, nor do I know the story about the shooter in Las Vegas. I don’t know what drove them to want to commit mass murder, but I’m willing to guess that they were either lied to by someone they trusted and they let that lie grow, or they lived a life without knowing real love, and filled that empty space with hate because if love is absent, then hate has more room to grow in its place.

When Jesus told us to love our neighbors as we do ourselves, I think He was warning us how to prevent violence from overtaking our world. Perhaps not ironically, it was hate and jealousy that put Him on the cross, so it’s not just a product of our time, but a product of our human nature to move to violence if we don’t have love in our hearts or understand the good things that we want to destroy.

Likewise, if we love our God with all of our hearts, and with all of our souls, and with all of our minds, then we’ll unlikely want to break His other laws, including the one that says, “Thou shall not commit murder.”

That’s my thought today. This should all sound obvious, but the fact that we’re still poisoning the world with hate and with actions taken in hate is proof that we still don’t get it, and we need to start figuring out how to better implement methods of exercising love for one another, even if we don’t always like one another. Is that easy? No. Is it necessary? Of course.

So, before we turn this conversation back to gun violence, can we at least address the problem of the absence of love for each other first? Not trying to be a hippie here. I just think among these other issues we’ve let our isolation from each other (thanks, cellphone!) bring out the worst in us far too often these days, and we need to address that.

I have more to say about this topic from the perspective of a writer, but I wanted to address the core issue first, which is that we, as a people, need God’s help again, not political intellect or talking points, and that we’d be foolish not to seek it.

Love your God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself. If we all do these three things, we’ll see a change in our world for the better. That’s what I often think about each time somebody does the opposite of these things, opposite like what one person did on Sunday morning in Sutherland Springs, Texas to more than 20 churchgoers, including babies.

Cover image by Pixabay

Photobucket Apocalypse: What I Learned about Taking Things for Granted

Writing is my core creative outlet, but it’s not my only creative outlet. Even though I don’t advertise it much on this blog, I also have a side hobby in making computer games. In particular, I have a business adventure I’ve been working on (read: picking at) since May 2009, called Entrepreneur: The Beginning, about a recent high school graduate who must defend his honor against the preppy jock who stole his girlfriend by engaging in a cutthroat game of business. The year is 1985, time travelers from the future have recently entered the town of Hybrid City, and our teenage protagonist, Buck Star, must leverage their need for coffee (and other products eventually) to launch an empire and earn enough money in 60 days to win his bet against Chet Armstrong, and maybe get the girl back? Or, maybe just find himself a new girlfriend? It’s up to the player really.

Here’s a recent screenshot:

coffee10192

Well, I keep a blog about this game over on Slime Salad, a forum for indie game-making, in a thread called “Entrepreneur Central,” and in this blog I post news about progress, screenshots, and videos of new mechanics I want to show off. It’s pretty high-tech. (Not really.) For years I’ve been updating this blog, and for years I’ve been using a nifty little website called Photobucket to host my screenshots, as Slime Salad, for years, had no self-hosting of images, and only recently began allowing for a terribly formatted version of self-hosted images.

Basically, I liked that Photobucket could cast true-to-size images in context to the text about the features each image portrays, and do so with the simple copying and pasting of an image link. It’s quite beautiful.

I’ve been using Photobucket in this way for years, showing off numerous promotional type screenshots of Entrepreneur: The Beginning, a few of my other games-in-progress, my book covers, and on rare occasions, images of something that went wrong in the game (or engine it’s built on) to troubleshoot the problem. I’ve got maybe a couple hundred of images posted on these forums, all in forums I’ve since forgotten about, but are still easily accessible by anyone looking for information.

Because I’ve been using this free service for years to keep my “fans” in the know without issue, you can imagine my surprise when in early July I got an email from Photobucket stating that I’m in violation of their third-party hosting terms.

I thought, what?

I didn’t explore it any deeper. I figured it was a mistake, and I went on about my day. I got no further notice from Photobucket.

Fast-forward to late July, when I return to “Entrepreneur Central” to play catchup on announcements I’ve made in the last year, and discover that all of my beautiful screenshots advertising the game and its newest features have been converted to this:

photobucket apocalypse

I thought, what? So, I signed on to Photobucket to see what in the world they’re on about, and discovered that their free hosting service is still free (with the usual upgrade packages for unnecessary inflation of storage space that I’ll never need), but their third-party hosting rules have changed so that you not only have to pay for it now, but you have to buy their most expensive package to use it.

I shook my head. They now want me to pay $40 a month or $400 a year to display the images I’ve already posted in various forums around the web. These places get little traffic, and “Entrepreneur Central” gets hardly anything, and bandwidth problems are not a factor with my photos. Yet, I’m now supposed to pay money I don’t have to keep my photos on display, something I’ve done for free without any problems for years.

Screw that. I’ll sign on with Imgur, or just use the forum’s crappy image self-hosting feature instead. I’m just irritated that I now have to figure out which images I’ve used for those screenshots (I can’t see them anymore, after all), which threads and forums I’ve posted images to, locate them on my hard drive, and reupload them to a new hosting site and relink them in those same threads I’ve posted tens or hundreds of photos to.

It’s a time-sink, and I’m demotivated by it, and I’m tempted just to scrap the whole idea and leave those shell images in place.

I write this story to prove a point. In my travels through marketing lessons, I’ve learned one core message above all others: Don’t put all of your trust into a single corporation to handle your advertising or marketing needs (or, for that matter, your social needs). Amazon and Facebook might handle the brunt of your sales traffic or existing clientele, and their advertising services may work beautifully in automation today. But all the experts say not to trust any of these companies to feed you forever, and you should always have a backup system in place in case the algorithms, plans, or procedures change and your financial (or social) well dries up.

I think the Photobucket Apocalypse is proof of that.

We can put our faith in God in all things, but for everything and everyone else, they have limited reach and unpredictable behavior. It’s best to have side roads in place on your path to success if you’re trying to make a name or presence for yourself.

I think it’s safe to say this applies to all elements of life. You know that job you have that you love? If someone else is in charge of it, you probably don’t want to get too attached to it. If you want to continue to sell things to people, have a backup mailing list that you control. How’s your love life? Have you taken it for granted yet? These things should be obvious, but all the heartbreak in the world proves we’re still trusting in too many things, people, and corporations that don’t deserve our trust.

Don’t take anything you have for granted. Treat it all like it’s a gift. You don’t know when you’ll lose it. Even if that sounds like a cliché, remember that clichés are born from perpetual truth. You can’t make a cliché out of something that has low relevance. Don’t take anything you have for granted. Even Photobucket might turn on you eventually and screw up your entire system without warning you first that it’s about to hold your images for ransom.

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Why It’s Okay to Write for Fun (Part 8): The Importance of Finding Useful Education and Resources

Missed Part 7? Read it here:

“The Importance of Finding Useful Education and Resources”

Writing should be fun. But it becomes more fun when we know how to do it.

Okay, so how do we write? Or better yet, how do we teach ourselves to write? I’ve spent seven parts building up this idea that we can become mavericks, writing whatever the heck we want, however we want, but that’s not really my goal here. My goal is to take away the stress of writing that professionalism often puts on those of us who want to succeed as an author. This, in no way, means that we should go into the game without the right education, or even without professionalism as a goal.

In “The Importance of Knowing the Rules of Writing and Storytelling,” I gave you a list of eleven tips to get you started, but the tips are purposely vague so that you have an understanding of what to look for in your path toward writing improvement, so that you actually go out and do the research to better yourself.

When we talk about research, we tend to limit it to items we wish to use in our books, but we often forget that learning how to write requires just as much research as learning what to write. Likewise, research is important for instructing us how to get our message out into the marketplace, should we decide to take that path.

As I said in “The Importance of Learning from Our Past,” college alone won’t teach us everything we need to know about writing, marketing, or any of the things we actually care about when we decide we want to be authors. It’ll teach us a few useful fundamentals, like how to write dialogue effectively, and it’ll do it as quickly and vaguely as possible, but even then we need to be careful, as the exercises we’re often given as warm-ups can lull us into a pattern of self-destructive story ideas, where simple actions like searching for the perfect jelly in which to put on a sandwich, can feel like a good idea at the time we write them, when in reality those scenes, if used in a real story, would probably waste a serious reader’s time, and if that happens, then why did we write that practice scene in the first place?

To get the full education we deserve, we need to look for outside sources, written or taught by experts in their respective fields. And I don’t mean experts on how to write a sex scene. Even though that’s helpful, we don’t need to start there. What we need is to start with the people who understand what drives a story, then work our way into learning from those microscopic masters who have so much knowledge of the steamy love scene that they can fill an entire book about it.

Of course, my message here is to read more. I did not improve by watching hours upon hours of reality television (though, I contend that watching reality television isn’t a complete waste of time, as they are edited to give viewers the maximum amount of conflict in an otherwise lukewarm scenario, so you can still learn the importance of storytelling from them, even from shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, I’m guessing). I improved through practice and reading the types of stories I enjoy. I also improved my skills from reading books I’ve found in the Reference section at Barnes & Noble or the virtual shelves at the Writer’s Digest shop.

As an author exploring the indie market, I’ve also studied from newly minted experts in their respective fields, like cover design, editing, copywriting, and so on, to better understand my place in this saturated market, and what I need to do to stand out. More and more this journey teaches me that it’s not always about writing for fun. But the more I learn, the more I realize that knowing nothing is merely ignorant, and there’s nothing fun about realizing either through education or a bad review that everything I’ve written up to a certain point has been crap riddled with more crap. At some point, I need to acknowledge that learning from experts (not just teachers at a high school or college) is just as important as reading the masters or tapping into my imagination.

This means that I need to study my craft, whether I go to college or not. This means I need to study, whether I’ve finished college or not.

There’s no end to the ways we can improve ourselves. I still stand by my message in “The Importance of Imperfection” that we should never wait until things are perfect to share our works with our intended audiences. But we still need to make sure we’ve done all that we can to properly educate ourselves with the expectations that readers will have of our works. This includes understanding the conventions of the genres we’re writing in, understanding what readers are buying our books for in the first place, and so on. To get there, we need to chart an educational path for ourselves. We need to start by reading those instructional manuals that the pioneers before us have written in order to prevent us from making the same mistakes they made when they first started. We need to start by putting into practice the sound advice that the experts give us.

If we write irresponsibly, then we may find that the fun in writing will eventually run out, as writing, while cathartic, is at its best shared, and we want to share what we know is good. Right? Writing well without doing the work to ensure great writing is hard to do. Our intuitions, our laziness, and our justifications for each will take us only so far.

Now, I cannot tell you how to chart your path. I do hope to begin a resource education series in the near future to make figuring out that path a little easier, but I still need some time to prepare that, as it will require a lot of reading and remembering. But, here’s a quick list of books I recommend you look into while you’re forgetting everything you learned in school or in this series:

On Writing by Stephen King

Story Engineering, Story Physics, and Story Fix by Larry Brooks

Hooked by Les Edgerton

The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne

Note that these books are great for foundations, but may not give you all that you need for settings, characters, dialogue, etc. But again, part of becoming a better writer is to do the research, and if you take my advice, you’ll find your way down the right path. Personally, I like reading newly released books to see these authors’ takes on a subject I’ve already learned, as every writing instructor will have his or her unique way of getting a message across, and inevitably somebody will teach me something new. So, even if you think you’ve learned everything you need to know, I can assure you that you haven’t. That said, you can still certainly learn enough from just the five books I’ve highlighted above to get you on the right track.

So, I hope you’ve gotten a lot out of this series, especially if you’ve thought about writing but weren’t sure you could do it. You can, but make sure you don’t do it blindly, and don’t expect to be great at it immediately. Like any skill, it takes a long time to get good at it. But I guarantee that your favorite author wasn’t always good at it, so don’t let the thought of learning stop you from starting or doing. Just forward-think a little before you start sharing.

Keep following Drinking Café Latte at 1pm for more articles on writing, storytelling, resources, and so on. You can also check out some of the stories I’ve written to get an idea how my journey has panned out. Many of them are available to read in their entirety via the “My Books” dropdown in the header above. My favorite is “Shell Out,” if you want to start there. It’s a short story in seven parts. Also, if you want to stay centered on your writing journey, I’d highly recommend you familiarize yourself with Writer’s Digest and visit its online bookstore. I believe it publishes 16 books on writing a year, and each book is tailor-targeted to a specific element in writing, including structure, characters, scene-setting, and even nonfiction.

Leave comments if you have any questions.

Why It’s Okay to Write for Fun (Part 7): The Importance of Knowing the Rules of Writing and Storytelling

Missed Part 6? Read it here:

“The Importance of Knowing the Rules of Writing and Storytelling”

Okay, so we’ve spent six parts talking about writing in general terms, about keeping it fun but not reckless, accessible but not a smorgasbord of ideas. Sure, that’s great, but how do we synthesize it all into the elements needed to craft a proper story?

Throughout the years I’ve been studying how to write well, I’ve learned plenty of essential rules for maintaining reader interest. Some of these rules include:

  1. Don’t overwrite. Set the scene as quickly as you can so you can get right to the action. Nobody cares how many props are sitting on the counter beside your hero. Readers want you to get to the point.
  2. Don’t over explain. Trust your reader’s intuition. Just because the world is full of people who need their hands held for everything doesn’t mean your readers are among that population. They’re readers, after all. Not mouth breathers. They’re inherently seekers of knowledge and wisdom, and admire any writer who trusts them to think for themselves.
  3. Show, don’t tell. Fiction in particular is a medium for the imagination, but nobody wants to imagine so much that they inevitably tell the story themselves. They still want the writer’s viewpoint and voice to shine through. Leaving out too many actions in order to explain concepts or history lessons puts more work on the reader’s mind than he or she deserves, and a good story, while allowing room for some imagination, will ultimately lead the reader down a path of understanding that is uniquely funneled through the vision of the writer.
  4. Make sure somebody changes. Usually you want the hero to go through a change, or character arc, as I’ve mentioned above, before the story ends, but even if the change is delegated to others on the actions of the hero, then that seems to work, too. Writing a story where nothing changes means writing a story that isn’t worth telling, or reading.
  5. Make sure it has a satisfying ending. This is a complicated piece that deserves its own blog, chapter, or entire book to flesh out, but the basic premise is ingrained in our cores. We want the ending to make sense and leave a satisfying finish to the gripping tale we’ve just spent eight hours or so reading. To give readers anything less, including a cliffhanger that does more to frustrate readers than to entice them to read the next installment, or an ending where a character, who should’ve died based on the events of the story, lives because it would be “too sad” otherwise, is damaging to us and our readership, and should be avoided.
  6. Write a story that people want to read, or for nonfiction writers, a topic that people care about. This means understanding what makes a story worth telling. This means addressing complications and developing a path that leads to a solution. In a way, this applies to both fiction and nonfiction. But that also means that the problem should in fact be a problem. Trying to save a marriage in spite of one partner cheating is a problem laced with a difficult solution and no clear answer to success, and thus a topic or story worth exploring. Trying to make breakfast when the toaster is on the fritz is less of a crisis and doesn’t demand a whole book to solve. (Pro tip: Use the stove or the microwave to make breakfast, or go to McDonald’s. No book needed. That advice is free.)
  7. Obey your own rules. If you establish natural rules or laws in your story, make sure your characters follow those laws. If you bend natural rules early on to establish a new paradigm for your characters, make sure everything involved in your story stays true to that. The moment you violate your own rules, you create anarchy within your story, and the reader will be quick to check out, as he or she would rather live in a world that adheres to order. Plus, you know, suspension of disbelief has limits….
  8. Keep it accessible. Writers like David Mamet and Cameron Crowe can get away with a certain writing style as it translates to their characters because that’s what audiences pay to listen to or read. Readers and audiences know that their characters will speak a higher English than average to capture the poetry of the situation, almost like a modern-day Shakespeare. But it takes a certain talent, and reason, to pull this off well. Most readers, however, prefer more accessible characters with more accessible speaking styles than these high art characters, and to write them unnaturally can complicate the reader’s reception of them.
  9. Be consistent. Going along with obeying your own rules, you want to also obey your style. Nothing spells eyesore worse than moving from elevated language to lowbrow and back, or switching between omniscient and first person points of view, or even swapping verb tense.
  10. Be grammatically correct. This also follows along with consistency, in that readers want professionalism to show up in anything they read. As soon as they see a sentence that has no ending, or a word that’s misused, or a proper noun that isn’t capitalized, they feel cheated, and no writer should want to cheat his reader.
  11. Always revise until there’s nothing left to fix. This one’s a trick, as there will always be something left to fix. Always. But, you can adjust the story and fix the mistakes until it resembles a competent work. Then you can decide if you want to keep fixing it. However, the key here is that revisions are necessary, no matter which stage of writing the draft is in, and the earlier you are in the process, the more time you’ll need to put into fixing it.

And so on. This list is pretty standard in writing, and anyone who’s spent enough time writing anything will confirm how important these points are to follow. But this list should be merely a launching point for anyone who wants to study the craft of writing (whether for fun or for business), and not the final word, as there will always be experts who have more words to add and more wisdom to dispense than what you will find in any one place.

For example, I’ve taken a number of classes on how to write, but none of them really focused on the business of writing, and none of them had the time to devote to the structure of writing. Most, if not all, focused on the microscopic elements of writing—characters, settings, etc.—and not on foundations like the three-act structure, plot points, opening hooks, and so on. None of them spent time examining genre works, or the conventions of those genres. And, as I’ve studied my craft independently in my post-collegiate years, I’ve learned more and more about the storytelling necessities that I didn’t learn earning my degree, and, more importantly, how important it is to keep studying my craft no matter how much I think I already know. There’s always something new to learn, even if my early history shows that I already knew a lot intuitively.

So, my challenge to aspiring writers is to write for fun, but learn to write for fun within the confines of the rules required for your particular type of work. I don’t spend much time writing nonfiction, but my advice still stands. Learn what readers of nonfiction want before you start writing for that audience you’ve never met but want to teach. Writers of fiction should take as much time as possible learning the rules of fiction before tossing anything and everything they write out to an audience that may not like the type of worm they’re putting on the hook.

Writing doesn’t have to become the leading cause of baldness or drunkenness in our society. We can still leave those things to genetics. We just have to know why we’re doing it, who we’re doing it for, and understand that sometimes writing isn’t fun, but it still needs to get done, because if we care a lick about sharing our perspectives of the world to other people who may or may not empathize with us, then the only way we’re gonna do that is to sit down and do it, whether we think it’s fun or not.

Next Week: “The Importance of Finding Useful Education and Resources”

Why It’s Okay to Write for Fun (Part 6): The Importance of Learning from Our Past

Missed Part 5? Read it here:

“The Importance of Learning from Our Past”

Early on the morning of January 2, 2017, when I should’ve been fast asleep like a normal person, I sat at my desk reading every short story I had written in high school, trying to figure out my roots. There were seven stories in total, most of them just episodic installments of a larger series I had intended to finish but never did, and I had spent my later “knowledgeable” years thinking they were garbage and worth forgetting.

To my surprise, however, I discovered they weren’t that bad. In fact, I might’ve even learned something about myself, my history, and my personal character arc (a fancy term writers use to signify growth or change) through reading them.

What I’ve learned from my old stories is that, even if we don’t enjoy literature—reread my first post in this series, “The Importance of Literature” for more on this—we still understand the basic conventions of storytelling and know when a story adheres to it, maybe thanks to all of the movies we watch, but also because we inherently know what a hero’s journey looks like when we see one. For that reason, there’s a good chance we set out on our writing careers with decent stories in mind, even if we don’t exactly know how to approach telling them.

This is why we must be careful about what we do with our inherent knowledge versus our acquired knowledge when we choose to learn new writing methods to improve our craft. We should never forget that reading the types of works we want to write is almost as good of a teacher as listening to a seminar on how to write. Reading will enforce our intuitions and help us to decide whether the education we’re getting to improve our work is actually good enough, or even accurate, to get us to our goals of becoming excellent authors.

Consider this reality: after rereading what I produced as an uneducated high school bibliophobe, I started to wonder if learning how to write was actually perilous to my journey to becoming a great author. Food for thought?

I realize this bears explanation, especially to wannabe writers who think taking a writing class is the answer to all of their needs. I know my 1998 self would challenge this statement, as I believe I learned everything I’d ever need to know (because isn’t college supposed to teach us everything we need to know for success?).

So, let me elaborate:

I have a Bachelor’s degree in English. I took the majority of my relevant courses at UCF from 1998 to 2000. I had three and a half years where I couldn’t afford to finish, and then in 2004, I went back to finalize my degree. With the exception of screenwriting, my 2004 classes were largely elective, and really just there to get me to the finish line. I had done my core coursework prior to my financial breakdown in 2000. And for my creative writing track, I had to take mostly creative writing courses to fulfill the requirements of my degree.

Pretty obvious path, right? Take a fiction or poetry class, write three or four works for that class, workshop them (that’s when you sit in a circle among your classmates and listen with a smile as they rip your work to shreds, and you’re told not to interfere with the process by explaining your intentions), then revise your baby based on the feedback. The common joke of writing workshops, of course, is that all of you are learning the same principles at the same time, so anything they point out to you, you should already know, and if you’re wrong, chances are they are, too. As much as I liked my writing workshops, I definitely agree they are flawed, at least based on the conditions they provided.

For anyone reading this who has not taken a writing class before, let me break down the system for you. Forgive the slight tangent. I’ll get back to the point momentarily. But I feel this is important to any aspiring writer who doesn’t know the creative writing college climate:

The first few weeks of class is spent going over writing exercises, like scene setting, character sheets, dialogue, etc. Microscopic rules for storytelling are explained in the process, such as show don’t tell, make sure the reader can visualize the hero, etc. Sometimes we’re given an assignment to read something published to get an idea what we’re aiming for. Then the rest of the semester is spent going over the works we’ve written for the class. This leads to the workshop format that I wrote about above.

Terms like conflict and resolution might come up in the course of a semester, but they certainly don’t get the full attention they deserve, which I honestly think should be dedicated to a course in of itself. And structure? Forget about it. What’s that? The only course that touches on the three-act structure is screenwriting, and that’s because screenwriting doesn’t work without it. Oh, and in a screenwriting course, you’re only going to write the first act. There’s no time to go over the whole thing.

So yeah, that’s a college writing track in a nutshell. I’d imagine the Master’s program would cover more ground than the Bachelor’s, but I think that’s because the foundations are already set in an undergraduate program, and graduate programs tend to be more independently focused than class focused anyway, so I’m told.

So, how does all of this relate to the seven short stories that I wrote in high school and the self-reflection they afford me moving forward in my ongoing growth as an author?

Well, let’s return to the beginning of my story and draw a line to see if my educational path was straight.

The only creative writing I had done for a grade prior to college had been for an eleventh grade creative writing class and for various English assignments from seventh grade on. None of these classes taught me the essentials of story. They were fun, yes, but they just focused on presentation, entertainment, etc. at the scene level, much like college did. In theory, I shouldn’t have walked away knowing anything about story form given how these high school and college classes were designed.

And based on my writing from about 1998 to 2005, I’d argue that I graduated knowing nothing about story form. When I should’ve gotten better over the years, it turns out I might’ve actually gotten worse.

Now, this isn’t to suggest that the stories I wrote in high school were any good, or that my instructors were bad at communicating the elements they did have time to teach. In both cases, they weren’t. But, when I went back and reread my “magnificent” seven, I found that I had understood the concept behind story structure in those days, or at least the conventions that make a story entertaining, better than I had in my college years, years later.

So, I actually wonder if my college education had sapped me of the fundamental knowledge I’d already had going into writing. It could be that I was simply writing a different type of story in those days. There is a clear division of style between my early works and my current works, the latter which is derivative of my college and post-college writings. But that, too, may be a result of my college education because there is also a distinct difference in the level of imagination I had put into those early works versus the ones I put out in college, and by proxy, today. It seems I had taken greater narrative risks in those days. One story in particular, about a ninja attempting to save a carnival from a madman, has an entire segment where the hero is trying to get out of a well, and his progressive complication is that the rope breaks, then the townspeople start jumping in with him (they think he’s throwing a party down there), making his ability to call on them for help diminish by the second, and at the last minute, as he’s finally about to ascend the top of the well, an explosion at the carnival knocks him right back in and throws mortar on top of him. Even as he manages to get out using his ninja climbing skills and confronts the madman responsible for the destruction, who is now wielding a bazooka with limitless ammo (I was probably 17 when I wrote this), he has to deal with the fact that the whole town is now on fire. How does he deal with it? He retrieves the bazooka from the madman, blows enough holes into the earth that the town itself sinks, and celebrates as the underground river puts out the fires, and the wreckage.

So, is it stupid? Yes. But is it innovative? Yes!

My ideas in those days were weird, certainly, but they weren’t boring. As a 40-year-old man who enjoys well-written fiction and knows something about it now (I’ve been reading a lot in my years following college), I honestly thought I’d hate my old works. So, you can imagine my surprise when I actually found myself not only laughing at them (because they were funny, not just because they were bad), but eagerly anticipating the next scene, and even getting mad at my 17-year-old self for never finishing the later installments. I don’t think I could capture that same level of imagination today, not after all the ways I’ve sanitized my thoughts over the years. I actually want to know how “Engine Man and Groovinator Enter the Future Dome” would’ve ended, had I ever finished the story. But I remember the other problem I had as a 17-year-old with limited access to his neighbor’s computer. I got bored quickly. I probably didn’t think the story worked.

And that’s too bad. That kid was more intuitive to what made a story enjoyable than the adult who followed him. I’ve spent the last ten years unlearning everything I learned in college just to make my stories fun again.

I never thought I’d say this, but I think I need to go back and write a new Engine Man and Groovinator story, even though the characters are cartoonish and the situations surrounding them are basically Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets Cheech and Chong. But then, isn’t that the kind of thing we readers want to read? I know I do, and as I said in “The Importance of Managing Fun,” I am my first reader.

So, should we continue to learn from teachers and experts? Yes. But, we need to do so with caution. Reading, or even watching movies, is essential to understanding, inherently, whether a story works. When we fill our subconscious with stories that do work, we begin to sense whether or not our instructors are teaching us things that don’t work. Of course, I’ve proven that that’s not true in of itself, so we also have to train ourselves to ask the right questions of our instructors, and the right questions essentially come down to whether or not the methods we’re being taught are the same methods that the masters used to create their works. If the answer is “no,” then maybe we should be wary of the instruction we’re receiving.

At the end of the day, the masters write books that we, hopefully, have fun reading, and part of writing for fun is to make sure we have an audience who reads us for fun. Again, we can figure out whether we’re on the right path by reading our older works and comparing them to our newer works. Are we getting better or worse at it? If we’re getting worse, then we need to chart our progression into the hole, figure out where we slipped up and fell in, then correct our course for a path of actual learning. Next week, I’ll share some of the rules I’ve learned to help me keep to a better course.

Next Week: “The Importance of Knowing the Rules of Writing and Storytelling”

Why It’s Okay to Write for Fun (Part 5): The Importance of Balancing Priorities and Knowing Audience

Missed Part 4? Read it here:

“The Importance of Balancing Priorities and Knowing Audience”

In Part 4, we talked about how writing should be fun (the theme of this series). But that implies we should write only and always for ourselves, and that the moment it stops being fun, we should stop doing it. To that logic, I would say, we should stop taking care of our yards or helping our kids with their homework the moment we stop enjoying the process.

No, writing shouldn’t always be about fun. Sometimes it needs to be about business. Or expression, or something that may not necessarily leave us feeling warm and fuzzy inside, but will in some way leave us feeling vindicated for all the fiery knowledge that’s been heaped on us over the years.

But, whether we write for business or the heck of it should depend on why we’re writing, who we’re writing for, and what message we hope to convey (and how urgent it is to share that message with unsuspecting readers). Why are you writing? Or, if you haven’t started, why do you want to write?

I began writing as a way to explore my adventurous side, as I was getting too old for toys, and watching movies and playing video games ultimately limited my ability to freely explore. Sure, much of my imagination was sparked through watching futuristic action movies like The Running Man, which takes place in 2017, FYI. But sometimes I might find myself wondering what’s down the path the hero didn’t take, or what would’ve happened if Schwarzenegger had taken the contract to join the stalkers, etc. I started my writing journey to explore those dark corners that the mainstream wouldn’t show me and those epic events I could no longer simulate by throwing all of my action figures into a pile and see how many of them could survive the “Rumble by the Cliff Overlooking the Mile-long Drop into Lava.” Weirdly, it was an episode of The Jeffersons, where Florence, the maid, writes a detective story involving all of the show’s other main characters, that convinced me it was time to start writing for myself. It was in syndication by that point, but it happened to be on TV the day I was ready to move forward into storytelling, and it was enough to get me to break out the pencil and line paper and get to work. I was 13 at the time.

When I began writing, I did not have the business of writing in mind. I did not expect to share my work with the world, and I wasn’t even that interested in sharing with all but a few of my peers. I can’t remember if I was embarrassed or shy, but publicly displaying my story was not priority number one, and neither was displaying the dozens or so stories I’d written over the next ten years. Deciding on a creative writing track in college certainly forced me to get comfortable with letting basic strangers read my stuff, and taking a creative writing class in high school helped my productivity along—it also helped that the teacher would anonymously read student works to the class in such a way that we’d all get a laugh, and that getting picked for the public reading was an honor, not a curse; I daresay that that anonymous exposure was ego fuel, and made the prospect of having a readership more attractive, except for those times when classmates refused to critique my work because they thought it was too long.

Whether I recognized it or not, those early days of sharing my work exposed me to the reality of audience, and the importance of knowing who’s supposed to read what I’ve written.

Knowing our audience is imperative to all writing, whether we’re doing it for fun or for business. If our audience is ourselves, then we can probably get away with writing anything, for we are unlikely to write anything for fun that we wouldn’t also read for fun. But once we make the decision to share our work, then we need to understand the people who will be asked to read it.

Turning fun into business ultimately comes down to understanding the people we want reading our stuff. No one is going to buy anything we produce if we’re not giving them something they want to read (or watch, or listen to, or use, etc.). We can play in the playground all we want, but the moment we turn that playground into a staging ground for the next world war, we’ve ruined what was great about that playground, and the people whom that playground was designed for, the children, will no longer come around. That poor playground will get trampled by the wrong people. We don’t want that, right?

Regardless of our reasons for writing, we need to have an understanding of what we want to do with it when we’re finished. Ideally, we should know the answer to that before we start. Whether we keep it to ourselves or share it with the world, or limit it to someplace in between, the best thing we can do for our writing is to craft it in such a way that our intended audience will want to read it. And this doesn’t always mean that we should write in elevated language or elaborate scene-setting. It doesn’t always mean that we should wax eloquent the type of threading used to piece the hero’s spandex together or the heroine’s dress. Even if we have fun researching the composition of gunpowder before including all of our notes into the scene where the hero loads his weapon, it doesn’t mean those six pages of information need to be shared with our audience, especially if the scene requires heart-pounding action that moves at a clipped pace. Even if we like the descriptions of the clothing materials or gunpowder, there’s a good chance that we’re the only ones.

Okay, so how do we know if we’re harming the balance between business and fun, if what we’re writing is getting in the way of enjoyment for the reader, even though we ourselves may be enjoying every moment of it? Simple. Put someone else’s name on our work, shelve it for a few weeks, then come back and read it as a reader and not a writer. Do we still like that overblown description of gunpowder in that action scene that takes six pages to set up?

As I said in “The Importance of Managing Fun,” the author is the first reader. But if we want a second and third reader, then we may want to redefine our definition of “writing for fun” because writing for fun should lead to our audience reading for fun, and we may not achieve that goal if we write completely uninhibited. Some knowledge of structure, story fundamentals, understanding of vocabulary and grammar, and so on, will ultimately need a place in our boxes of writing fun if it’s to remain fun for everyone. If we neglect the essentials, we may find, unfortunately, that readers will neglect the stories we want them to read. So, even if we write for fun, we should still consider writing also for business, if for no other reason but to think of the future and the place our works have in that future. Just because Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t start his 2017 breaking out of prison to outwit murderous stalkers on national television to the amusement of Richard Dawson, doesn’t mean he didn’t still find his way onto the set of a reality show to the scrutiny of those he should entertain. We should always consider the future when putting together the fabric of our present.

Next Week: “The Importance of Learning from Our Past”

Why It’s Okay to Write for Fun (Part 4): The Importance of Managing Fun

Missed Part 3? Read it here.

“The Importance of Managing Fun”

Stephen King had to start somewhere. His book, On Writing, gives us a history lesson on how he started, how he grew, and how he became a success. His main message to aspiring writers is to remain consistent. But, he also encourages writers to bring with them a sense of discovery. There’s a turf war in writing right now between the “plotters” and the “pantsers,” the latter of which King is the king, but both camps agree that discovering the story is as important to writing as knowing its structure and its ending. Discovery is important to the writer because the writer is the story’s first reader, and emotionally, it makes sense for the writer to plot the story along as if he is discovering things for the first time with the reader.

This is where writing for fun comes into play.

One of the big questions when we write anything (for this argument, we’ll focus on fiction, even though nonfiction writers have the same question to ask) is whether or not we should write for an audience or write for ourselves. If we’re writing an adventure story when our personal preference is thrillers, for example, are we being true to ourselves as authors? If we love screwball comedies, but are forcing ourselves to write a serious vampire drama because it’s what’s hot in the market at the moment, are we doing our job well? If we discover things about our protagonists, even if we don’t actually care about his journey because he doesn’t live within our preferred genre, are we still expected to “ooh” and “ahh” at the discoveries the way a potential reader might?

To that, I say, the author is also the audience.

Now, this isn’t to suggest exclusivity, of course. As we take writing more seriously, we need to start asking ourselves whom we want to read our stuff. But the real first question is whether or not we want anyone else reading our stuff. As I said in “The Importance of Experimentation and Ignoring Fear,” I began my writing life as a private citizen, unwilling to share my stories with anyone who didn’t also wear my underwear. As I wrote more and had more fun doing it, however, I had a greater willingness to share what I was writing. (If I had fun writing it, then maybe others would have fun reading it.) I started by sharing my work with my dad; then I started reading my stories over the phone to a select group of friends. Nothing I wrote was “good” per se, but I enjoyed writing it. And they enjoyed reading it (so they said). But I was not about to release any of it to the public.

Why?

Simply put, I wasn’t ready to put myself out there.

I’m an introvert by nature; though, life has taught me that even introverts have to show their faces to the world from time to time. The invention of the Internet has helped me to combat my fears. It’s given me a comfortable way to get out there, spread my wings, and grow as not just a writer but an author, too, as sharing work can be autonomous, based on discovery, and not require me to slap potential readers in the face with copies of my manuscript as I shout, “Read this!” In other words, I can put my name on a work, keep my face off of it if I want, and avoid the awkward conversations that could’ve formed had I given someone my work directly.

The flipside to using the Internet, however, is that now anyone can read anything I’ve posted anywhere, including the good works and the crap I should’ve kept to myself, and now I can’t hide my imperfections, my poor thoughts on a subject I know little about, my lame turns of phrase, my general ignorance about how the world works, and perhaps worst of all, my inexperience with business and my lack of professionalism as an author. Once it’s out there, it’s out there for all to see. And even though my memory sucks, plenty of people have solid memories that endure years upon years, and they’re the ones who will inevitably read the stuff that made me want to remain a private citizen in the first place. Question then becomes, should I put my name on this thing at all?

Well, there’s a flipside to that, too. Putting my name on crap means everyone who finds it will now think I’m a bad writer. But leaving good work anonymous will mean anyone who finds it won’t know I’m a good writer.

Everything is a risk. Putting our names on the line like that is a risk, just as leaving our names off of things is also a risk. Crazy thought, huh?

That’s when we need to decide whether we want to write for business or for fun. We usually begin our writing life for fun, just as I did, and it’s okay to write for fun. But when we post our work for the public, we have to acknowledge whether or not writing for fun is still our goal. Otherwise, why would we bother sharing anything with strangers? We’re the ones supposed to be having fun, right? Are the people who read our work having fun? Does that even matter?

I’m sure Stephen King began writing for fun. But here’s the kicker: I think he still writes for fun. I think it was, is, and will always be in his blood. The difference now is that he gets paid to do it. He had to start somewhere, and even he will tell you that he’s written crap once upon a time. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I’m pretty sure he admits that in his book, On Writing.

The reality is, we should write for fun. It’s okay to write for fun. But we should also forward-think a little. Just like posting about our bad day on Facebook, we should think about what sending this piece of writing up the line will do in the future. Will we be okay tomorrow if this gets out today, or will posting this cause something consequential and irreversible? And is that a bad thing? Perhaps that’s why we need coaches and mentors in our lives. We need gatekeepers to let us know if what we’re about to do is helpful or harmful, and if the job we’re doing as a writer will still be fun tomorrow if this gets out today.

It’s okay to write for fun, but we should have some sense about why we’re doing it first.

Next Week: “The Importance of Balancing Priorities and Knowing Audience”

Why It’s Okay to Write for Fun (Part 3): The Importance of Imperfection

Missed Part 2? Read it here.

“The Importance of Imperfection”

So, let’s take a hypothetical situation here. Let’s pretend we’ve written something stupid, incoherent, and laughable. But let’s also pretend that we wrote it for fun. Let’s pretend we wrote it knowing it would be stupid, incoherent, and laughable. Should we present it to the public?

I’ve been part of two camps when it comes to authorship: professionalism and completionism. With professionalism, we acknowledge that we have a goal to produce quality work for a quality customer. If the work we produce falls apart, injures the end user, or sows the seeds of discord, we probably don’t want to share it with the public, not unless we’re evil supervillains bent on taking over the world. Doing so could damage our brands. However, with completionism, if we have the obsessive-compulsive need to provide everything we’ve produced to satisfy those obsessive-compulsive collectors who wish to acquire our entire inventory of products, past, present, future, forgotten, conceptual, and should’ve-been-destroyed, then it might make sense to share it all with the public, warts included, even if presenting ugly work will still, inevitably, damage our brands. I can sometimes justify leaning on both, as professionalism will keep people coming back for more while completionism will give true fans a chance to see a career charted, from terrible failures to resounding successes, and feel as though they are part of the author’s journey toward greatness. We all want to be a part of something great, don’t we? But should there be a choice between professionalism and completionism? Can both coexist?

In either case, we have to acknowledge that genius is rare, crap is inevitable, and neither should end a person’s career before it begins. Consider this: The original draft of To Kill a Mockingbird was probably decent but lackluster. Harper Lee had time to refine it, of course, and refine it she did. She refined it so well that high schools now teach it as important literature. But, one of the reasons she could refine it so well was because she had actually written Go Set a Watchman first, which wasn’t so well-refined, and her editor knew that and convinced her to write a prequel and release that book instead. Her experience with the first book not only helped her to figure out her story and characters, but it allowed her to write a masterwork for her second.

But, was writing and releasing a perfect novel on her second attempt really the best thing for Harper Lee, or for her readers for that matter? For over five decades, To Kill a Mockingbird was the only Harper Lee book we knew. Go Set a Watchman is older than To Kill a Mockingbird, yet Harper Lee was wise to hold it back for as long as she had, according to her editor, her sister, and probably many others, for it does not measure up to the same quality standard as To Kill a Mockingbird, not then, and not now, and to release anything of lower quality would have inevitably driven down her author stock. If we consider her legacy, however, we could argue that maybe she should have released it sooner anyway, perfect or not.

Question is, why could we argue something so preposterous? If releasing Go Set a Watchman could damage her perfect record, then why bother releasing it at all, decades ago, or even today? Didn’t we ruin Jurassic Park with all of those terrible sequels? Isn’t Star Wars tainted by those awful prequels? If we had left Indiana Jones with just three movies, couldn’t we say, forever, that it’s the perfect adventure series, and not one where the hero can survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator?

Maybe the release of Go Set a Watchman in the 1950s or 1960s would’ve damaged her perfect record. But it also could’ve led her to writing and releasing a third book, a fourth, and so on, furthering her career, as now the high standard set by To Kill a Mockingbird has been challenged and ultimately failed to match, and thus the need to remain perfect is diminished. Maybe by failing at sustained perfection, the world could’ve been blessed with a vast library of Harper Lee books to follow, ranging across decades of southern life, with some being lackluster, but others being masterworks. If only she (and her editor) had just taken the chance to release Go Set a Watchman to the public decades sooner, we might’ve seen a brilliant writer fulfill her brilliant destiny of having a robust range of brilliant titles in her bibliography instead of just two (one perfect and one flawed).

We want to produce perfection, and we want to make sure that perfection is all the world will see from us. But, if we wait on perfection, we will never build our careers. Likewise, we potentially shoot ourselves in the foot if we achieve perfection anyway. Think about that. I’ve been saying for the last year or so, “We can’t improve on perfection. Any change we make to it will just make it worse.” If we write the perfect book, we damn ourselves to that perfection, and we can never write anything else ever again, lest we ruin our perfect reputations. So, maybe it’s better that we tell ourselves it’s okay to write crap, and that it’s okay to release it to the public whenever it reaches a stage just above crap. Maybe we’ll give ourselves a chance to succeed with that attitude.

If the masters want to stall their careers because they’ve achieved self-actualization, that’s their business. I like writing, and I like sharing it with anyone who identifies as a fan, so I’ll keep producing, even if it’s simply enjoyable and less than life-changing. Doesn’t mean I won’t try to write the stuff that impacts the world. Just means I’ll probably follow it up with something fun. After all, Nicholas Cage may have won the Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, but it didn’t stop him from following it with Con Air and Face/Off. And let’s be honest, the world is better off for that decision.

Next Week: “The Importance of Managing Fun

Why It’s Okay to Write for Fun (Part 2): The Importance of Experimentation and Ignoring Fear

Missed Part 1? Read it here.

“The Importance of Experimentation and Ignoring Fear”

When we write, we should do so because we enjoy it, not because we have to please other people. That’s what we often tell ourselves before posting something we’ve written for the world to see. But when the content goes live and the comments start rolling in, or don’t, as is more often the case, we begin to feel self-conscious about the quality of our work and vulnerable to the reality that we can’t take it back now that it’s in the open. Even if the world as a whole doesn’t see it, chances are a few people will, and now that we know, we begin to sense these people have discovered that we’re fraudulent writers, worse at our craft than we may lead on to be, and these people, readers who could’ve become our fans had we been even a little better at our craft, will think we have no business writing about anything and will tell all of their friends to avoid us as if we had voted for the presidential candidate they hate.

The first question we may ask then is, is it worth it to put ourselves out there? If we share our work, then we make our level of talent, or lack thereof, obvious to everyone. That’s scary. We may rationalize our decision to go public by justifying the existence of published authors. Those writers had to take a chance on themselves once upon a time, so maybe we should take a chance on ourselves, too. But then we start to think that those authors have nothing to fear. They’re brilliant at what they do, and people know that, so naturally they can put their stuff out there with confidence and not think twice about it.

Except, that’s probably not the case. More likely, those authors are terrified of every new thing they release, as all new things are widely untested until they reach the public, but they know how to hide behind a just-do-it attitude, because they’ve been doing it for so long that they’ve figured out how to silence the nagging voices in their heads that tell them they’re liars and frauds and that they should be selling life insurance to old people instead of participating in this growing organism called storytelling that’s way over their heads and far too sophisticated for the likes of their piddling minds.

But it’s also important to realize that these same scared authors who are brilliant and well-celebrated were scared in the beginning, too, back in a time when they probably had every right to be scared. The main difference between them (the successful ones) and the rest of us (the successful-in-waiting) is time, experience, an attitude to learn, a willingness to fail, and perhaps the thing that brings all of that together, guts.

When I first started writing, I didn’t want anyone other than my dad to read my story. As he laughed at it (it was supposed to make him laugh), I started thinking I could share it with friends and make them laugh, too. It was a story written with pencil on line paper, so without access to a copier, there was only one draft, and sharing it, though desirable to an extent, was difficult. I’d still tell them about it, and some even volunteered to read it, but one copy meant, essentially, that no one would actually read it if they didn’t already live in my house. I didn’t want to risk someone damaging or losing my only copy. That’s what I’d often tell myself.

But when I had access to a computer, I started dabbling with other, smaller works of similar humor, and because I could save them on floppy disc, I could essentially take them anywhere and print them wherever a printer was available. So, sharing my work with others became easier, and generally, thanks to positive reception from the one or two I’d share it with, more common. In high school, I started writing (and printing) a series of one-page parodies called The Completely Fake Documentaries by Manjoman Bobbinski, and among my small circle of fans within my larger circle of friends, it was a hit for the most part. Some episodes were gut busters. Some were embarrassing. But they all had a consistency to them that even today I tend to lack in my writing. The branding was solid and I knew my audience as a result. The readers I shared it with knew, essentially, what each fake documentary would be about, yet they’d still gather around in a circle and listen to me read the newest one aloud. It was fun, and I kept doing it for four years (across 180 episodes). It was not only my first taste of branding and marketing, but also my first taste of building a loyal audience (or at least one that could humor me).

It’s funny what we learn at a young age, but forget as we get older. Today, I feel like I’m so all over the place with my stories, blogs, messages, and whatnot that “branding” is a foreign word, no more familiar to me than the word viedtālrunis. I still work at it, even if my current experience is equivalent to Frankenstein’s monster going antiquing. But with so much to say, and with so many ways to say it, the main fear I think I have these days is not with my writing quality but with my platform. If we have so much to say that we risk alienating 90% of our potential fans with every new work we produce because they’re here for just one type of message or story, that in of itself can become a source of blockage and fear powerful enough to prevent us writing anything we care about in the first place.

Yet, we still have to figure out a way through it. If we don’t cater to the 10%, we don’t cater to anybody, including ourselves, and we’re ultimately told to write for ourselves. Right?

Experience is the key to learning, I think, just as learning is the key to experience. We will never gain either without taking the early steps of risk and experimentation, so regardless of how much fear we may have about showing our work, or even producing the work, we should still brush the fear aside because we can’t learn or experience anything if we hold onto it. It may hurt, but we can also learn from that pain.

At the end of the day, we should just write, no matter what or whom we’re writing for. We’ll be happier for getting the messages we have out of our heads and into the open. Conquering fear requires wisdom (if we should be afraid, then maybe we’re foolish to flip our noses at it), but at the end of the day, it requires caring more about the work than we do its public reception.

Next Week: “The Importance of Imperfection