You know, after all is said and done — after you’ve internalized all you can about grammar and usage, after you’ve learned how to structure essays and arrange paragraphs, after you’ve learned all the little tricks, there’s really just one secret to good writing. Just one.
(Don’t worry. I’ll tell you what it is in just a couple of paragraphs.)
Two weekends ago the charitable arm of the Writers’ Guild of America held a conference for wannabe TV writers; there were a whole slew of writers and showrunners there, representing a pretty broad range of shows. I went, and sat through four separate panels, where writers from a whole bunch of shows I love (Lost, The Shield, The X-Files) and whole bunch I, um… don’t love, but for which I hold some degree of respect (Sex and the City, Everybody Loves Raymond) said the same thing:
Write what you love.
Write what you love.
Write what you love. Seriously, they said it over and over.
Practically each one of them said it, at least once. And — not to put too fine a point on it — these are people who have managed to make what your major economists like to call a “crapload” of money, just from making up stories.
Now you’re saying, “But I love writing about something that everyone else seems to hate. Wouldn’t it be better if I just worked up a Lost fan site or something? You know, something everyone likes? Something that’s bankable?”
Well, no. I sort of thought that too, but the WGA writers on the panel — many of them bright-eyed and well-rested after having a few months of strike-inspired “vacation” — were adamant. These are people who are constantly seeing spec scripts from hopeful writers looking for jobs in TV (A spec script is essentially a sample episode of a TV show that you write as a “calling card” in the job search process). The vast, vast majority of these scripts are for whatever hot new show is hot this season. This year it’s 30 Rock and Grey’s Anatomy. The year before that it was The Office and House.
And from their point of view — and what are they but another audience — the whole affair gets very tiresome. But once in a while, they’ll come across a script for a show that’s good, but maybe not so popular. A Crossing Jordan or a ‘Til Death. Often, these scripts make it to the pile simply because someone out there loved Crossing Jordan so much that they just had to write a story with those characters. And often, because the writer has focused so strongly on something he or she loves so much, these will be some of the best specs out there.
So their advice was to write what you love, instead of trying to write something that has mass appeal. There are two reasons this advice works — they provided the first, and I’ll provide the second.
The first advantage to consider is simple enough: The more you’re invested in something, the better you’re likely to make it. Sure, your Founding Fathers slash-fic site may not be as immediately bankable as, say, a Hillary Clinton fashion analysis site, but your very adoration for the concept of John Hancock and Benjamin Rush making sweet forbidden fop-love on the cold cobblestones of Elfreth’s Alley is more likely to move you to invest in its success. Here, I’ll get you started:
Jefferson ran his hands through his lover’s hair. “You know,” he said, “I never can resist you when you come to my office so sweaty and musky, smelling as you do of malt and hops.”
Sam Adams couldn’t resist either, and wished Tom would live up to his taciturn reputation and stop jawing so much. “Shut up and kiss me, you agrarian fool,” he said, and they fell to the floorboards in a mess of passion and wig powder.
The second advantage is the one I came up with, so you know it’s good: Sticking primarily to writing what you love will kindle your love of writing overall — and that means you’ll excel even when you’re writing about things that might not excite you as much. I’ll give you an example.
Part of my work involves writing about things that are — apologies to my clients — somewhat boring. Things like industrial-grade refrigerators and mold remediation. And though I contend that anything becomes interesting if you research it thoroughly enough (just ask Malcolm Gladwell), writing about these topics often becomes so tedious that it’s really, really hard to give it my all. But I get paid for this sort of thing, so I can’t slack off. What’s the answer?
For me, it’s spending a portion of every day writing about things that interest and fascinate me. I just finished a short story that really excited me (I spent about seven hours on it Thursday alone). And ever since I started making sure I work on that story every day, I’ve brought more and more of myself to the writing I get paid to do. It’s sort of like a miracle, but it’s not — I just reminded myself why I love the written word so much.
So: Those ideas you’ve written down in your notebook that you’re saving for some day when you have enough time to devote to them? Make the time now. Even if it’s just a half hour a day. And it might take a week or two to get into the habit and really see results, but trust me: It’ll happen.
Now get to work! But seriously, keep the Founding Fathers thing to yourself. It’s not a good idea.
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