Are We Having Fun Yet?

by Larry Brooks

A few of you know that I used to play professional baseball. During my very first spring training, all the pitchers were subjected to sprints and conditioning drills in the humid Florida heat, to the extent many of us were losing our breakfast on the third base line. Every day, as many of us were near collapse, hands on knees, visibly sucking oxygen, one of the coaches would yell with glee, “Are we having fun yet?”

Various forms of cursing ensued between the collective desperate gasps and the heat exhaustion. But we were professionals, and nobody dared quit the process.

Only later, when my career was over and I was treading water in the real world, did I realize how much fun I actually was having.

One of the first pieces of business I tend to when I begin a writing workshop is throwing out this question:

Who here wants to write for money?

Almost every hand goes up. Some dislocate a shoulder, such is the urgency of their response. There are, of course, the one or two arms-crossed resisters who like to believe they’re different, or perhaps above participating. Maybe they just don’t understand the question.

Then: Who here wants to make this their day job?

Same hands, same slackers. Or perhaps, the rare (very) hobbyist writing stories for the grandkids who is merely curious.

Then this: Those of you with your hands in the air either consider yourself a professional, or you want to become one… yes?

I then assure them that the first step to becoming a professional isn’t to cash a check, but rather, to go about the business as if they were already a professional author.

The only criteria for being a writer is to write. That said, there is a right way and a less-right way to go about it… and the right way can be darn hard.

And if you find hard something that isn’t fun, then perhaps you exist within a paradox unique to us.

Writing may indeed be a different breed of profession.

Because it seems that some writers who would enthusiastically raise their hand claim that they are selecting their process and perhaps their criteria for excellence based on something that would get you fired in any other job.

They do things their way, because their way is fun.

And they happily, almost proudly, claim to skip the hard parts in the name of fun.

There continues to be a loud debate, here and elsewhere, about the writing process.

And within that debate, one opening line shows up in the comment thread of almost every post on this topic. In it the writer says something like this: I don’t outline. I tried it once, but it took all the fun out of it. It’s more fun to just let the story emerge as I write. Which is why I don’t really know much about my story as I write it. It’s fun to figure it out as I go.

Okay, that’s a mash-up of the common forms of this opening push-back.

It happened yesterday in the thread from Jim’s post. It’s happened in response to my posts many times, because I’ve written about this subject many times (check this out, it’s a virtual wrestling match).

Imagine, though, other professions in which fun is never spoken aloud.

Every summer a hundred young men gather at Fall Camp to see if they can make the roster of an NFL team. This experience is nothing short of an exercise in torture, all in context to seeing who is fit enough, tough enough and resilient enough to play at that level.

Imagine a first round draft choice saying this: Well, camp would be a lot of fun if we didn’t have to do all those conditioning drills, because I’ll just be strong enough when the real game happens. It’s just not fun. Games are fun, but all this preparation stuff, I dunno, it’s just a lot of hard work.

Flip this analogy to medical school. Law school. Architecture school. Prepping for the CPA exam. Training to be a pilot. Or a teacher. Or a checker at Safeway. Or just about anything else that presents an expectation of what the skill set and end output needs to be.

That’s the key, right there: the skill set and end outcome of writing a novel are not something you get to negotiate or short-change. Your process, yes… it’s yours for adopt, it is what it is, and that fact is what is different about writing. And part of what makes it hard, as well. Because the product you put out… that’s not something you get to negotiate. Rather, you need to reach for a bar that already exists.

If your process doesn’t get you there, then perhaps you need to look at that process. If you want to play at a professional level, then you need to summon and master professional-level skills, for professional-level output.

And if the hard work of doing that strikes you as something that’s not fun, and if you use that excuse to do it your way, even when your way presents a compromise… that’s actually fine. You get to choose.

But the end-product, and the marketplace into which you intend it to go, won’t cut you even the tiniest bit of slack.

The requisite form and function of a novel applies to pantsers and planners alike, those who put in the time to study and those who are just having fun, alike. No difference whatsoever.

So if writing an outline isn’t fun for you, fine. If you can make your story functional that way, have at it. Thing is, that very decision has derailed more writers than you know. Not because of the outline itself as a tool, but rather, the nature of the process you substitute for it.

Here’s my point. If you truly understand the criteria of a story that works…

yes, these criteria can be defined, listed and learned… and if your process, facilitates the reaching of that high bar, then you’re fine. You may have elected the long road to get there, because without exception, writing a draft in which you don’t know the essential parts, transitions and end-game of your story is merely one of the several ways to search for your story, rather than the execution of draft itself.

And if you’re shorting that pursuit because it’s not fun for you… well, this is like your surgeon skipping the part about anesthesia because she doesn’t find anesthesia all that much fun.

A bad analogy, perhaps, for this reason: the surgeon has someone next to them in the O.R. that does find the practice of anesthesia, if not fun, then rewarding enough to practice it. But novelists are alone in a room with the patient (your story), and if you don’t find the requisite best-practices to be fun – and if you’re not really qualified yet to count on them to emerge organically on their own – then this disconnect can become a factor in the outcome.

It can explain why you may be frustrated.

But wait, says about 40 percent of the writers reading this. I don’t outline because it doesn’t work for me. Well…

Outlining is only one aspect of this cause-and-effect dynamic.

First of all, “not being able to outline” is not something to brag about. It’s not a good thing, it’s actually a blind spot in your storytelling. It’s like a pilot saying, I am afraid of heights. Please blindfold me until we get to cruising altitude and I’ll take it from there.

Outlining, in a broader sense, is simply the means, a proactive effort, of creating a vision for the story, front to back. A plan, even though that word isn’t fun for you. It, too, is what it is. A vision or a story plan is not a contract you sign that commits you to it (a common rationale for it not being fun, but that’s a story you’re making up, but a plan is totally flexible), because certainly you may evolve that vision toward an even better outcome as you go along.

Great storytellers than don’t outline absolutely do have a vision for the story in their head. And they almost always add and revise as it unfolds on the page. They also command a functional working knowledge of how to drive the story ship… because they’ve earned it. However they learned it.

The alternative – discovering your story as you write a draft – is (the forthcoming redundancy is deliberate, because not the context may be clearer) merely a means of story development. One of several. And as such, the requisite forms, functions, parts (including the ending) and impact (story physics like emotional resonance, nature and source of conflict and antagonism, extent of vicariousness, hero empathy and an optimized narrative strategy) that apply to every other form of story search apply to the make-it-up-as-I-go option, as well.

If you’re in this for the fun of it, first and foremost (and if you’re skipping over important steps, then it is first and foremost for you), then you may be missing the essence of the professionalism required. Which is exactly that roster of forms and functions… stuff you don’t get to make up, not even for a moment.

Perhaps it might better serve you if, instead of the fun of it, you’re in this for the rewarding experience of writing a story that really kicks butt. That knocks readers out of their chair.

Like any surgeon or pilot, the reward is when the patient survives and the plane lands safely.

And if your response to that is, Well, writing a novel isn’t brain surgery, ask an experienced professional if they agree… now you’re just counter-punching. In fact, ask a doctor who has attempted to write a novel if they agree.

It just might be as complex as brain surgery after all. I’ve actually had a brain surgeon tell me it is, once he encounted the moving parts required of it.

That old meme about “the journey is the reward?” Maybe not. That’s the rationalization of a legion of unpublished writers who tried to do their way, when their way is, primarily, the fun way.

When your way embraces that list of parts and essences, aligned and combined at the level required, then you’ll be within your next 400 pages of that rewarding experience.

A final story… that is not an analogy.

My son was his high school’s valedictorian, and it enabled him to get into a prestige university. But during his freshman year he did what so many freshman do… he partied.

Because it was fun. For a while he was sure this was what college was all about.

Meanwhile, he and I had an agreement in place from day one, and it wasn’t unreasonable or negotiable: earn a GPA that at least meets the academic requirement of your fraternity, which frankly, shouldn’t be all that challenging to you. Yes sir, he said. No worries, he said.

All freshman year long he told me he was killing it in class.

But then the finals happened in May.

No surprise… he was far short of the bar we had set. I mean, far short. Like, frat house probation kind of short.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want him to have fun in college – certainly, his socialization was part of the mission at hand – but in any endeavor that is worth tackling, something that will become the foundation of a dream that will spring from it, “fun” becomes a lesser calling.

Wrapping your head around the fundamental principles of writing stories is like that, too. It isn’t’ about what is fun. If that’s your priority, work at Disneyland.

Because in college and with writing a novel, the ultimate reward will require a massive amount of hard work – not just effort, but mastering some really tough principles in an artful way – leading to a higher understanding that informs an ability to take those skills forward into a professional marketplace.

A marketplace teeming with professionals who have mastered those very principles.

There isn’t a professional in any occupation out there – and this includes writing novels – that isn’t informed by a keen understanding of certain core fundamental principles… and sooner or later, fun has to acquiesce to a higher pursuit of an ultimate reward.

And when you hold that in your hands… now that is really fun.

Nobody ever hired a college graduate because they had fun at school.

Nobody ever sold a novel because they did it the fun way. Unless for that writer, the fun way embraced a complete integration of an understanding of what is required… and when that happens, it’s almost certain that the true fun of it all stemmed from it, and not skipping the hard parts.

Outlining is not required. But understanding the terms of what your vision for a story becomes… that is required. Because it’s too complex to just back into.

How do you know what is required? Where do you get that list? If you have to ask, then maybe you’re already shorting yourself in the proposition.

And so – back to my son for a moment – the contract had been violated. The terms of coming up short called for him to find funding – in the form of loans that he’s still paying off to this day, and for a few more years to come – to cover his second year at this school.

All hell broke loose at home…

… until it didn’t. He finally got it. In fact, he embraced his accountability for his end of our agreement, refusing to do it any other way. As a result, his GPA in the first semester of his sophomore year was 3.65. And while we celebrated that, he understood that a higher goal remained: to graduate with a GPA above 3.00.

Which he did.

He also had fun that year. It was all a question of priorities and the willingness to do the hard stuff.

Cut to his final week of school concluding his senior year. He had worked as a campus tour guide for incoming high schoolers (most of whom were also valedictorians… it was that kind of school), and on his final day of leading the tours a bunch of us, including my wife and I, were there.

In a classroom that concluded the tour with a Q&A session, one of the new Dads asked my son to tell us what his most rewarding experience had been over the last four years at this institution.

He thought a moment. You could hear a pen drop.

And then he told the group this story, the one I’ve just told you. He looked right at me when he concluded by saying, “I had a lot of fun here, especially at first. But that fun was taking me down the wrong road, littered with the discarded college dreams of many like-minded freshman. My Dad almost literally picked me up off the wrong road and put me onto a better one, a higher road, and while I had an immense amount of fun over the last three years here, the answer to your question is that the most rewarding part of it all was the realization that fun isn’t the point. The work is the point. Doing the hard stuff is the point. Changing into something higher and better is the point. And realizing that the world has opened up for me because of that learning… that while the journey was a blast, the real reward was in the final outcome.”

Needless to say, this Dad was a bit of a puddle.

So go ahead, have fun.

But if you’re skipping the hard parts, it may not be because you can’t do it, but rather, that it isn’t what you signed up for.

Reading a story by a pro makes it all look so easy. Maybe that’s what you signed up for.

But writing great sentences and paragraphs… that’s not the hard part.

Unspooling a story that nails all the moving story elements in the right way at the right level, with all those story physics humming with the grace and the growl of a cheetah at full speed…

… that’s the hard part, and the best part of the work. Worth every sleepless night and deficient draft it takes.

That’s why you’re here.

Because you put your hand into the air to claim your dream of becoming a professional.

And I’ve never once, in thirty years of doing this, heard a proven professional or anyone who teaches the craft to those who aspire to be one, say that they did it for the fun of it. Or that fun was even part of the process.

Rather, they’ll tell you how rewarding it all can be.

Understand the difference and live into that understanding, and everything about what has frustrated you will change, while everything you once considered fun will have evolved into something even more satisfying.

*****

If you’re interested in going deeper, I have a book on those forms and functions and essences that goes beyond structure, called Story Physics.

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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

11 thoughts on “Are We Having Fun Yet?

  1. Your post reminds me, Larry, of Randy Moss. Maybe the most naturally talented wide receivers in history but man, what a lazy bum he could be, with a rep for routinely taking plays off. He famously said in a press conference once that his concentration level went down when he was “in a bad mood.” And he once told his offensive coordinator “I’m too old to practice on Wednesday and Thursday, but I’m not too old to play on Sunday.”

    Well, shoot. I am in a “bad mood” today. Maybe I won’t go work on my rewrite. And I am definitely “too old” to be doing much more than folding laundry, doing my crossword, walking my doggies and having a gin and tonic at 5. But after I post this, yeah, I am going to open the Word doc and hit the ground at least walking on chapter 5 again.

    Natural talent will only get you so far. Especially if you want to write for a living. And for the record, I agree with you, BK — writing is fun when it’s done! I gotta earn that gin and tonic.

  2. I enjoy writing. It’s not always fun, but I do enjoy it. I don’t plot, but I do write to discover the story.

    Maybe it takes longer that way, because I have to rewrite it more than revise it once I finish the first draft. I have to put things in order, and move things around, add things, remove things, and generally fit things together into a good structure. And yes, my works tend to have good structure.

    I’ve put a lot of work into my writing. A lot of learning. A lot of writing. A lot of craft and business and energy. But I still enjoy it. If I didn’t enjoy it, I couldn’t do it. Writing is too unrewarding otherwise.

  3. For me, the word fun doesn’t apply. This is work. I’m crappy at it and I can’t stand that. I have stories to tell. What I write seems mundane compared to the images in my mind. So much gets lost in translation.

    At first, I wrote like a drunken teenager dancing to a band so loud I couldn’t understand the music, but it didn’t matter I was writing. When people had even the slightest negative reaction, I blamed them. I was writing and that was all that was important.

    I wrote nothing of value except one short story named ‘Detweiler’. I wrote it straight out of my fingers. People liked it. I couldn’t do it again because I didn’t know how I did it. Then I discovered structure. The dancing stopped and I could see that this might be my ticket. That helped but eventually became restrictive as I labored to get it perfect.

    Now I’m finding a middle road. I use a one page outline that covers the salient points of three act structure, the main character’s arc, and a meaningful theme. I leave room for the characters to take over. I’m finding I have to re-outline several times as they guide me through the story. I’m still writing crap but it feels better.

    Fun, no. Writing is a brutal addiction.

  4. Quite a few years ago, I was part of a conference panel entitled something like, “Publishing Your First Novel.” I believe I was on my third published novel by then, but you’ve got to give conference organizers a break. Five new-ish authors comprised the panel, and the one who spoke before me–a psychologist, no less–went on at great length telling the audience that in order to be successful, you have to be willing to sacrifice everything else in your life. She specifically mentioned family and friends. Her vision of success looked a lot like my vision of Hell. People took notes.

    When she was done and it was my turn, I began with, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, it’s only a story. There is no measure of success that is worth that level of suffering. It’s supposed to be fun.”

    That said, “fun” to me means something entirely different than “wild abandon.” In 35 years of holding Big Boy jobs, I can count maybe two years’ worth that were not fun. The jobs were important, engaging and I was good at them. When they stopped being such, I moved on. Learning is fun and exploring new territory is fun, and viewed retrospectively, even many of those mistakes that didn’t kill us yet made us stronger were also fun in the sense that they were important and therefore necessary.

    Early on in my writing, I did extensive outlines because some of my most influential writer-buddies told me that outlines were the way to go. It wasn’t until I realized that my final books looked nothing like the initial outlines that I decided that they were a waste of time. For me.

    I just returned from four days on the faculty of the Midwest Writers Workshop on the campus of Ball State University (one of the best conferences of its kind, IMO), and I was startled by the number of writers I encountered who simply thought too hard about what they were doing, whether it be crafting a story or crafting a pitch to an agent. Too many heads seemed filled with third-party instruction that didn’t feel right to them, yet they complied because they were told they had to. The analogy that occurred to me was that of a golf instructor insisting that a left-hander swing with his right. The swing might get tamed, but it will never be natural.

    Writers come at this business from countless different directions, but for me, when this job–like the Big Boy jobs that preceded it–ceases to be fun, I will move on.

  5. Personally I have a whole lot of fun in this business. That fun is found in the research, the creation of the story, the fleshing out of the characters and the multiple rewrites until I am satisfied (or the publisher’s deadline is nigh).

    I liken writing to a hobby I had until my early 40s, power lifting. You look at a steel bar with 500 lbs of plates on it and can either think, no way, it is not possible to lift that. Or you can start at a weight that is possible, and work your way up. Then add a few lbs every other week until it becomes easier.

    But every increase also means more and more pain. Muscles ripping and repairing, thickening and growing. It can even be dangerous if not done with good form ending in broken bones, or much worse things, like an exploded heart.

    But as the work goes you keep adding more weight week after week until that 500 lbs is suddenly possible. And then you go beyond that, and keep adding more over time. Suddenly I had nearly 600 lbs on that bar, young college aged guys nearby stopped what they were doing and discreetly stared through the gym’s mirrored walls.

    I powdered my palms, bent at the waist, wrapped my fingers around the rough pattern on the bar, left grip facing in, right facing out for greater stability. White chalk dust puffed from my hands as I let out a hard whoosh of breath to prepare my cardio-pulmonary system for the massive over load it was about to receive.
    I bent at the knees, thighs parallel to the ground, back straight, neck aligned muscles tensed, and slowly rose to a full standing position, fingers straining to maintain the grip. The weighted ends of the steel bar drooped several inches, like branches heavy with ripe fruit.

    The muscles burned, the joints ached, and the weight rose to my waist. Suck in a breath, blow it out as the bar is slowly lowered. Stand up straight, take two deep breaths then…

    Repeat.

    Three sets of three reps. 9 lifts total.

    5400 lbs moved by hand in less than fifteen minutes.

    Those young men who watched open mouthed only saw the 600 lb barbell behind lifted off the mat by a hairless gorilla. They never saw the years of pain and work it took to get there, they only saw the impressive end result.

    That is how I see fun in book writing. The goal is an excellent finished novel that transports readers to a seemingly real place in their mind. The fun part for me is that hard work of researching, writing, rewriting, and rerewriting until I lift it off the ground…a fully formed world.

    Like John said, if writing stops being fun by my definition I will stop writing. Perhaps my view of the fun is best illustrated by this cadence we often ran to in the Marines. Click the link to hear it as it is sung on the run. Lyrics below.

    Pain!
    In my legs
    Pain! In my back
    Pain!
    In my head
    But thats ok
    We’ll run it out

    Oh, yeah!
    Marine Corps!
    Oh, yeah!
    Get Motivated!
    I’ll be dedicated!
    Oh, yeah!
    Marine Corps!
    AH HA!
    We’re feelin’ good
    We’re feelin fine
    All the time
    Oh, yeah
    Ahha
    Ahha
    PT
    Good for me
    Good for you
    Oh yeah!
    Marine Corps!
    I’m sweatin’ good
    I’m feelin good
    I’m feelin’ fine
    As fine as wine
    All the time
    Oh, yeah!
    Sound off
    In the front
    Sound off in the middle
    Sound off in the rear
    That’s ok
    We’ll run it out

  6. Basil – great example, thanks for sharing. I relate to it, having spent the last three decades in a weight room of some kind, and have the morning aches and pains to show for it. But it was all fun. The work was fun, the price-paid was fun.

    And while I’m pretty sure Gilstrap was trying to be contradictory, what both you and he are sharing is simple, and helps make my point today: you find the hard work to be fun. The most challenging part of the craft is, for you (and JG) is fun.

    Which begins to transpose the words “fun” and “rewarding,” as I suggested in my post today.

    What I was writing about is the unfortunate circumstance of writers who avoid the hard stuff (like understanding the need, at some point in the process, to commit to a story, rather than remain in search mode up to and including the final draft… because drafting is fun!) in the name of it (like outlining, even if its in your head, even if its within a draft that is intended to be a search vehicle) not being fun. Like someone touching their toes instead of doing reps under weighted tension.

  7. Hi Larry
    A big thankyou for the obvious thought and time that you put in to your blog posts that are always informative and thought provoking.
    May I suggest that – in some cases at least – it’s the definition or interpretation of the word ‘fun’? To me, ‘fun’ means that I’m enjoying something, but it also implies that this may be in a silly way with no particular purpose other than to have ‘fun’. Personally, I don’t have ‘fun’ writing, but sometimes I enjoy it and I always love it. I agree that if I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t do it. But I don’t categorise it as ‘having fun’ – perhaps some people interpret that word differently in this context.
    Thanks again.
    Linda

  8. Great stuff, Larry. Loved it all, including eliciting JG’s comment above, but my favorite line: You could have heard a pen drop.

    That was fun.

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