If you think writing might be your career, should you emulate Ernest Hemingway, Bob Woodward, Wendy Nguyen, Quentin Tarantino, or none of the above?
Four different perspectives on what it means, and what it takes, to be a writer were provided at the FEEcon Writers Panel. FEEcon, an event to help jumpstart careers of students and young entrepreneurs, was presented by the Foundation for Economic Education, June 13-15 in Atlanta, Georgia. Students were joined by economists, innovators, educators, artists, and writers for three days of intense learning and networking.
A Touch of Nerdiness
The Writers Panel included Paul Guay, screenwriter of Liar, Liar, Connor Boyack, author of The Tuttle Twins books, and Brittany Hunter, a senior writer for the Foundation for Economic Education. The panel was moderated by Sean Malone, Director of Media for FEE.
The panel immediately descended into nerdiness, discussing whether its title (“Writers Panel”) needed an apostrophe, and whether the apostrophe should be before or after the letter “s”.
FEE’s Sean Malone pulled the panelists back into focus and began a series of questions about how they got started and how they write.
They Pay You?
Guay shared a memory from childhood. “I was a huge Three Stooges fan,” he admitted, “and one day walking through an airport, I asked my dad if you could pay the people who ran TV to let you be on it. He said, ‘No, son, they pay you.’ That began my interest in acting and writing. Turns out there are a lot better actors than I, so this writing thing is looking good.”
Guay’s writing thing, which besides Liar, Liar has included The Little Rascals and Heartbreakers, has grossed over a half billion dollars at the box office.
Boyack, who, besides writing, also works as president of both Libertas Institute and the Association for Teaching Kids Economics, had a confession. “I was horrible at English in school,” he admitted. “I started blogging about things that I was interested in and people started reading it. The fact that I developed an audience is what motivated me.”
Hunter smiled and said: “I wanted to be a Broadway actress or a writer. So, I’m on this panel. You figure it out.” She went on to explain that when she found the liberty movement and free market economics, she became motivated. “I became a digital content writer and my work got picked up in places.”
Malone explained how he, too, didn’t start out to be a writer, but was a musician and performer in other people’s films. “Eventually, I got more into writing and video production,” he explained, “and stumbled my way backwards into it.”
How Do You Do That?
Malone then herded these cats towards talking more about aspects of their everyday writer lives.
Hunter volunteered, “That would be panic. Staring at a blank screen is terrible. I’m OK if I can come up with my opening line. It takes a lot to learn your own limitations. Discipline and a strict routine are essential.”
Boyack said, “Plagiarism. I plagiarize structure. I was a web designer for 15 years and I learned by looking at websites already built and figuring out how to do that on my own. It’s the same with writing. I look at other blog posts to see the way something is said, and then recreate that structure, but with my own ideas.”
Guay shared his approach: “I look at a blank page, and I make stuff up. I always carry a notepad because I never know when I’m going to get an idea. I get them all day long.” His approach to choosing which ideas to work on is more complex. “I picture a Venn Diagram,” he explained. “One circle is what I like. Another circle is what I can execute the heck out of. The third circle is what people are buying. I only work on the intersection of the three.”
I Before E Except
Malone led them to talking about grammar and editors.
Boyack jumped in with a story. “In San Diego two years ago, my mom ran into my high school English teacher. She told her that I had published a dozen books. Her reaction: In what world does that make any sense?”
Boyack said her reaction was understandable because as a student, he didn’t want to learn the rules. “I wanted to learn the style,” he said. “When I became a persuasive writer, writing became easier to learn, because I wanted to persuade people, not write think-tanky things. I also wanted to write things for kids. That’s the common denominator. I write for everyone like they are eight years old. Simplify, simplify, simplify.”
Hunter said, “I’ve had good editors.”
I was sitting next to one of her editors in the audience and they waved.
Hunter continued, “I used to think I didn’t need help, but you can’t make grammar rules up as you go along. It’s important to have a good editor.”
Guay’s approach was different. “In screenwriting the first thing you have to do is grab your reader,” he explained. “Not the people who are going to be in the theater, but the reader at the studio. There are grammar Nazis out there and they won’t give you a second chance if they think you’re functionally illiterate.”
And Be Nice
Malone asked how they conveyed their enthusiasm for a subject, without being annoying.
Boyack suggested replacing “annoying” with “alienating.” “It’s a tricky balance,” he said. “Be bold but not alienating. As a successful writer you’ve got to learn marketing. Be compassionate, compelling, and friendly.”
Hunter recalled a similar lesson. “When I became a libertarian,” she said, “I lost a lot of friends because I would hit them over the head with it.”
She suggested using myth to tell stories. “I’m a big fan of Joseph Campbell who wrote The Hero’s Journey. Now, Game of Thrones has become part of our modern myth. People say you shouldn’t have to resort to pop culture, but I disagree. That is how we can talk to people who are not part of our movement.”
Hunter also carries this idea forward as co-host of the podcast Beltway Banthas, which combines Star Wars and politics.
Malone agreed, “If you can extract meaning from these stories, you are connecting with millions of people. So why wouldn’t you take advantage of this?”
The panel took questions from the audience and offered advice.
Boyack was encouraging to an insecure writer: “Write anyway. It is an end in itself and along the way people will read it.”
Malone agreed: “I wrote a blog that nobody read, and nobody ever will. I didn’t care because I just needed to write stuff and it made me a better writer. Later, I repurposed things from there for use elsewhere.”
Hunter encouraged writers not to be arrogant, and to take direction.
Guay advised, “Seek out criticism from people who don’t love you.”
More information about future FEE activities can be found on its website .