Ash posed this question to me last night after we spent quite a while discussing my first chapter of my detective novel that I’d finally put to paper. Before yesterday, I’d been mulling over the story for three years but never doing more than writing a few outlines and jotting down a few pages of ideas I’d want to incorporate. When the question was posed to me, I did a little reflecting. In the past, I’d always answered that I write for myself – I write things that I would enjoy reading. That’s also what I said about my music, my stand-up comedy, and various other things. But how true was I to myself?
The fact is I have MB and MB of files on my computer that I enjoy (and probably equally as much that I don’t care for very much). Plays, novels, parts of novels, poetry, sonnets, lists, and all the stuff for my website. But if I only wanted to make myself happy, I’d never share it with anyone. And I do. To anyone who would want to read it. And I get disappointed when a friend asks me excitedly for something and then never reads it to give me feedback. Nor would I have a website. Which I do. And hope to actually update this week.
So then the answer is I write for other people?
Well, no, not exactly. I’d say that I did the Short Story Project (in 2012, resurrected briefly last year) for other people – mostly Aaron and some other friends. Sure, in the back of my mind there was the hope that I’d put together a few good stories that I could submit for publication, but it was definitely more an exercise in getting me to actually WRITE (something I have done little of since 2012).
And more than who I think of when I write a story, I don’t change my style enough to be generally acceptable by others. Ash pointed out that I write things that I find funny, but based on the general reaction of my comedy stories, people VASTLY prefer my dramatic stuff. To that end, it’s a shame I enjoy writing comedy much more than drama. Maybe I’ll some day be the Brendan Fraser of writers – doing “mainstream” stuff that I don’t care about (although his Dudley Do-Right would be my play about isolation, Time Travel is Lonely) so that I could do movies that are important to me (my sack-of-yams story to his Gods and Monsters). In the meantime, it’s a balancing act of enjoying what I’m doing vs. doing something I know others will respond favorably to. And lately, especially after the short story project, I’ve been turning my attention to “what would be marketable”.
So do I write to get published? I’m often asked if I could do anything for a living, what would it be? I unilaterally answer “write”, usually followed up by “comedy”. But to be honest, right now I’m NOT writing stories to be purchased, at least not consciously. When composing my three ‘best’ stories in 2012, I didn’t once think would a publisher like this or should I do that instead? I simply wrote what I thought was the best story. By 2015, I did have an eye in the back of my mind on “mainstream” writing when composing Breaking the Silence, which is one of my favorite pieces ever. But to say it was a driving force is wrong.
Besides, there is no formula to write something that most people, or even just a slight majority of people, will like. How many times did J.K. Rowling get turned down before selling Harry Potter? In that case, millions of people didn’t like it, only one did – one publisher willing to take a chance. It TURNS OUT that millions like it, but at the time, it only took one.
Which puts me back to why I write – is it for me, my friends, or to try to make a living (or realistically a little side-cash) doing it? If you look at the current content of my writing, it’s all of them, and that’s the problem. Nobody will pay money for the sack of yams story, but I don’t have the drive to spend months or years on a ‘serious’ story.
So that leaves me in needing to find middle ground. When Ash read the first chapter, she was so distracted by the humor, which she felt was hitting her over the head. So we went through a few examples, and this one became something of the poster boy for the conversation:
It clung to her slender frame as she sashayed through the doorway, an overpowering scent of mulberry trailing behind her
While she didn’t consider “mulberry” a joke (though it certainly is a total inside joke between me and my friend Stephanie), it was abstract and distracting. I asked if I simply changed it to “lilac”, what would it do? She immediately said “see, THAT paints a picture for me.” Is this then a matter of taste? Did she just not like the word I chose?
No, I think I’m realizing that this is the middle ground I need to find. Mulberry is an esoteric choice that people can’t relate to. Also, it isn’t a big laugh line. It’s just out place in the novel. I suppose what I’m learning is – in writing comedy, EVERY LINE doesn’t need to be funny. Hell, if I make the story itself based on a few absurd premises (which it is) and add some witty dialogue (which is my goal), the rest of the narration needs – NEEDS – to be telling the story. I’ll let the humor come through, I don’t need to force it.
I remember hearing that, in sitcom writing, you shouldn’t be going more than 2-3 lines without some type of laugh line. I tried to carry that over in my plays (most clearly illustrated in The Unusual Suspects), the result of which WAS non-stop laugh lines that were more often than not non-sequitur. Sure enough, the reviews I received pointed to that very fact as why they LOVED the show (and why the HATED the show).
(By the way, that’s Broadway-bound Bryan Fenkart in this picture. You saw him here first. Soon, he’ll be appearing in Nerds: The Musical on Broadway!)
It’s going to be a trial for me to tone back my style that I’ve developed over the years. After all, it’s not like I haven’t written dramatic stuff before (which, incidentally, just crossed the 300-view mark – thanks guys!). I almost think I have to write like it’s a spoof. Something that IS comedy that SOUNDS serious. Or a comedy that takes itself very seriously. Or maybe it’s a drama that doesn’t take itself seriously at all.
See what I mean? This is going to be tough. But at least I’m dusting off an idea I’m passionate about and giving it a go. Worst comes to worst, does anyone want a copy when I’m done to give me some feedback? 😉