Tag Archives: writing education

Make Sure You Want It (The Marketing Author 001, Part 1)

Missed an article from this series? Look for it here.

“Make Sure You Want It”

Once upon a time, I was told that writers, on average, don’t make any money. I laughed at this. Of course they make money. Ever hear of James Patterson? Stephen King? J.K. Rowling? Should I continue? Writers, too, can make money, even better money than their doctors and lawyers. All they need is Powerball level luck. I got this.

Yeah, I don’t got this.

When I took English as a major in college, I saw the possibilities waiting: copywriting jobs, editing jobs, marketing jobs, and so on. Do you want to teach? they’d all ask me. No! I saw copywriting, editing, marketing, etc. in my future. I graduated over a decade ago.

I now tutor for a living. That’s one stage below teaching.

Sheesh.

When I was in high school, and the counselors asked what I “wanted to be when I grow up,” I didn’t know what to tell them. I settled on “computer applications” because I liked computers, but I didn’t like programming; I liked writing. I settled on this fusion of job goals for most of my high school career because it seemed to be what aligned closest to my actual goals. I was fully aware for most of that journey that what I was essentially saying was that I wanted to be a secretary when I grow up. Eventually I stopped lying to myself that this was an aspiration, caved to reality, and changed my focus. When I got to college, I chose “Liberal Arts” as my major, since that was in “Communications,” which was the only field I could stomach as a career choice given my options at the time. None of that would lead me any higher than the rank of secretary, most likely. I sucked it up because I trusted the education system for some reason, and I assumed it would all work out in the end.

Finally, when I got to the University of Central Florida, I could choose the major I wanted most: English. And, to my even happier surprise, I could choose a specific track tailored to creative writing. Finally, I could work toward the life and career goals I actually wanted: I could become a creative writer when I grow up!

English? Do you want to teach? No! I want to write for a living.

I got that degree, but I couldn’t get any real opportunities with any company to write anything. I’ve been told time and again that technical writers, copywriters, editors, copyeditors, etc. are paid reasonably well (at least three times better than what I make in education currently), but what I wasn’t told is that you need a portfolio of contracts you’ve fulfilled with other companies prior to getting a job to show off what you’ve done (not what you can do), that freelancing is often reputation based (meaning, someone had to take a chance on you once upon a time, and then you had to do such a great job that they’d be willing to hire you again), and that to get a job doing anything worth the education you have, you have to know someone on the inside who believes in your ability enough to give you that shot (and as I’ve discovered in certain cases, sometimes that’s not even enough to get the job).

The end result has been heartbreaking, frustrating, and not a day goes by that I don’t regret investing thousands of dollars into getting what amounts to a useless English degree. I like helping people get better at writing, but I don’t like swimming in debt while having to live in a garage to spare myself from paying rent or a mortgage to anyone. Not to mention, my poor car is looking like it’s ready for the junkyard, it needs a paint job so badly, a paint job that would break my budget. It would’ve been awesome if one of these companies I’ve applied to over the years had believed in me enough to give me a shot.

The things we dream and the realities that follow…

This is why we write fiction (or nonfiction in some cases). We need something to perpetuate the dream as far and as long as possible, as reality tries so hard, and often succeeds, at killing it.

When we make the decision to write and publish our own books, we set ourselves up for a new level of heartbreak, under the same exact conditions given to the job market: It doesn’t matter how good we are, or how well we can entertain, educate, or prove our talents; if no one is willing to take a chance on us, then we will come up zero every time. You can love your craft all you want; until you get someone else to believe in you enough to actually give you money for your work, your craft, the love of your life won’t feed you or give you a stable roof over your head.

At the end of the day, you need to make the decision that you write because you have to, because it’s the only thing that makes sense to you. Maybe you’ll get lucky, like Stephen King, who says in his book On Writing that he couldn’t imagine doing anything other than writing, so that was his excuse for taking the gamble on a writing career (it worked out just fine for him, by the way)—sometimes the chance pays off, too. But even if you know you won’t make a dime, you need to make the decision that you’ll write anyway, because you have to, not because you expect it to make your dreams comes true (except for maybe that one dream about writing a book someday).

But you should still strive to make it work in your favor. You have a message to share, a story to tell, a reason to need to write. At some point, you’re going to realize that writing is a terrible career if you want to eat something other than soup seven nights a week. But defending criminals in court for six figures a year is equally terrible if you’re betraying your heart or your nature. Sometimes you just have to realize that there is no greener grass, that all of it has its pros and cons, so you may as well just stick to the thing that gives you the most fulfillment. For me, that isn’t defending criminals who deserve to be locked up. For me, that means writing.

If you feel in your gut that you need to give writing a chance, and by proxy, publication a chance, then be ready for the pain. But, no amount of pain can deny the end result: a book you can be proud of, and a wide world in which to share it in. If anything, sometimes the pain is worth it. Any woman who gives birth to a happy child could testify to that. Sometimes, in spite of the statistics, the naysayers, and the quite likely reality that you won’t make any of your investments back, you just got to do it anyway. When that story or instructional burns within you, you’ll lose sleep if you can’t get it out, which is worse than losing money.

Of course, if you’re smarter than me, you’ll get that six-figure job and make time to write on the side. Doctors and lawyers publish books all the time. As do secretaries and people who work in education.

If you’re looking into the future and you want to see success, do what you can to secure it with something realistic first. You can always write on the side. Chances are, if you specialize in a field (we’ll say politics for laughs), you can use your knowledge to tell even deeper stories than those of us who have no specialization. What can a doctor write about? Medical dramas! What can an English teacher write about? Literature analysis dramas! Wait…no; that sounds awful. Or does it?

The purpose of The Marketing Author 001 series is to show you how to be ready for the opportunities that come your way, assuming you have decided that you need to write. Next week, we’ll talk about money. But before we worry about money, we need to get our goals in order. And, in order to prioritize our goals, we need to understand what our goals will get us. We need to make sure that we want this, this writing life. It’s an exciting life, sure. But like anything else, it comes with its buckets of stress. You ever wonder why writers drink so much? Because it’s a stereotype that isn’t necessarily true today. But also because writers don’t know how to relax. There’s always a story to tell, just as there is always a bill to pay. Stress comes from not knowing which will come knocking first.

Can you handle that? If so, then let’s get on the rollercoaster together.

Come back next Wednesday for Part 2, budgeting.

And, please be sure to subscribe to Drinking Café Latte at 1pm to receive alerts when new posts go live. The handy blue subscription button is located at the bottom of this page.

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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”