How to Write What You Want

You’ll hear a lot of good advice at writer’s conferences.  One of those pieces of advice is that to be a professional writer, you need to be sure to write what is marketable.  Write what publishing houses are looking for.  Write what agents want to represent.  Write what readers crave.

If you heed this advice, you’ll do well for yourself.  All of these are important factors when looking at how to form a long-term career.

But…what if you don’t want to?

(I had to whisper that.)

But seriously (still a low whisper) what if you don’t want to write what’s popular? Marketable?  In vogue?  What if you don’t really care about (gasp) the Amish?  Or romantic suspense? Or time-travel? Or fill-in-the-blank of what’s hot right now.

What if you want to be…indulgent?

Believe it or not, there’s a path to indulgence.  But it’s a hard one.  And it takes a lot more effort. And you don’t want to go around bragging about it at conferences.

Let me explain a little further.

I had a friend pass away recently.  His name was Tim Brown.  And Tim Brown was known for many things.  He was a talented ball player, a passionate photographer, a traveler, a man who seemed to be able to build anything.  The list really goes on and on.

But what Tim Brown was best known for was good, old-fashioned storytelling.

It didn’t matter if Tim was telling a childhood story or detailing out the paint drying on the wall, Tim could make everything fascinating.

Plain and simple, he knew how to tell a captivating story.

If you had the pleasure of being in a public place with Tim, and he started telling a story, it wasn’t long before you noticed that a handful…then a roomful…of folks had started listening.  He was just that good.  As a storyteller myself, I marveled at how Tim was able to pick just the right details…and time it out perfectly…so that no matter the topic, you found yourself interested.  Sometimes captivated.

Taking a page from Tim’s playbook is how we’re able to write about things that interest us.  We all have different interests in life.  I have very little interest in bird watching.  But I have an obscene interest in weather.

My job as the storyteller is to make you interested in weather.

Now, this is way harder than it looks.  Because frankly, most people don’t care about weather.  And the worst thing I can do is assume you’re going to sit there and listen to me talk about weather.

I mean, you’ve been in a situation when you’re having coffee with someone (let’s pretend it’s me) and that person begins to drone on and on about, let’s say, down drafts and supercells.  I mean, it can be painful, right?  You’re just sitting there, and they see they’ve got a captive (and polite) audience in front of them, and now they’re going to just hit you with everything they’ve got about it.  Because if they’re interested, surely you’re interested.

You might sit there and listen face-to-face, but in book form?  Book closes and off you go to another book.  Politeness doesn’t matter in the publishing world, does it?

Becoming the kind of storyteller who can captivate a reader on a topic they wouldn’t normally migrate to takes years of practice.  So make sure you’ve got that square.

After that, there are a few things that you can implement to help.  Here are my go-to’s.  There may be more, but this will get you started.

  • Mystique. Find it and convey it beautifully. If you can show your reader a fascinating aura of mystery around your interest, you can hook them.  I remember watching Ford vs Ferrari for the first time.  I have no interest in car racing.  But a friend suggested the movie so we went together and I found myself understanding it.  This was mostly done through the eyes of the character.  He made me love it because he loved it.  He didn’t assume I did, but he showed me why he did.  I felt it with him. He drew me into his world of car racing.
  • Teach. This is a tricky one, because you don’t want to go all college-classroom on them.  But most people have at least a tiny bit of their soul that is curious.  And if you can burrow into that curiosity center, and pique it, you can get them invested.
  • Humor. We have a saying at Skit Guys Studios, where I’m head writer:  Laughter breaks down walls for truth to enter.  People are naturally drawn to humor.  Tim knew this and most of his stories were funny, even if the subject was a little dark or heavy.  If you can make someone laugh, you can make them stay.  I’m a huge believer in the power of humor, so you’ll see it threaded through almost everything I write.  If your topic is dark, consider how to implement it.  Often times I will use it through the perspective of the character and his/her outlook on life, through a secondary/supporting character, or through an absurd scenario.  You can’t usually make a heavy topic light, but you can surround it with humor in a way that is appropriate and attractive to the reader.
  • Make the story about more than the topic. If you try to make your topic the entire story, you’ve got your work cut out for you….possibly as a non-fiction writer.  Fiction is about story and character.  Imbed your topic into that and you have a far better chance of winning at the end.
  • Be a flirt. I’ve used this analogy many times…probably my most used analogy…but think about your relationship with your reader as a date.  The beginning of your story is the first date.  Now, I’m about to give you dating advice that I don’t think I ever followed.  I’m about as unromantic as they come.  BUT, I recognize a good date when I see one.  And a hallmark of a good first date is not vomiting intimate information all over your dinner date.  That’s a heavy load for them to carry out of the restaurant.  Not to mention a good sign you may be co-dependent.  Rather, cautiously enter the scene, give a hint of how awesome you are, guard the precious assets you have until you see if there’s anything there worth investing in, but wear your best shirt.  The more you encounter the person, the more you give.  But if anything is true about a first date, it’s that you put your best, most interesting, foot forward.  You don’t want to be dull if you want a second date.  Can I get an amen?  To write indulgently, you’re going to have to dress really nice and be outrageously charming.
  • Above all, make it interesting. If it’s sharks, if it’s pansies, if it’s aliens, if it’s the Amish—whatever it is, MAKE IT INTERESTING.  Brighten the dim light of curiosity in people.  Make them turn that page, by whatever means necessary: unforgettable character, fascinating plot, a jaw-dropping writing style…WHATEVER IT IS…capture them.

If you take anything away from this, I want you to hear this: Make Everything You Write Interesting.

If you are writing in the hottest, sure-fire genre in the market but it’s not interesting, you won’t make it.  Remember what makes you a great writer—your curiosity.  Reach into your reader’s heart, find their curiosity, and together you two will dance through the pages of your story together.

One final note:  if you indulge yourself, acknowledge up front that this may not be the most profitable thing you’ll ever write and be okay with that.  You may be pleasantly surprised, but you won’t be disappointed, because you went in understanding that if you ignore the market there could be consequences.  Then again, being a talented writer, you will follow all these tips to overcome those consequences, not to mention attend writer’s conferences, get coaching, join a writer’s group, master rewrites…you get the idea.

You’re going to have to work hard, but I believe in you!

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  1. I am one of these writers. And you’re right about profitability, which is fine. It also impedes finding a guide.. So far the coaches I’ve been connected to are all as unpublished as I am, along with have just graduated from a program. I’m not syncing well. I need a tribe, an experienced guide, bored agent, something. I’ve done conferences, programs, self-help reading. I may be influence-challenged. Suggestions?

  2. Hey Cynthia–message me on FB or Instagram or email. Let’s start a dialogue there. I can help you with next steps, I think.