There’s a community on Reddit called r/WritingPrompts, where people can post ideas for stories and have other writers flesh them out. Some of the popular prompts include: “A serial killer who kills hitchhikers picks up a serial killer who kills the people who pick him up,” or crossovers between popular established universes, e.g: “Superman comes across Doctor Who … ” etc., etc. My friend Alex is a fan of r/WritingPrompts and recommended I check it out.

“Some writers have gotten pretty well known,” he told me. “A few got book deals from the prompts.”

Overall, r/WritingPrompts is the place you go if you want to see a bunch of amateur fantasy writers whip out lines like: “Her eyes were as silver as two nickels that had just been shined vigorously the day before,” or such riveting dialogue as: “Alamora Raven gently parted her red lips in the most adorable way, showing a little bit of her white teeth: ‘You’ve defeated the Demon Lord!’ she said seductively, ‘How could I ever repay you?’ ”

I always pictured the people who read and write fan fiction as a little bizarre, a little weird, more than a little creepy. So I told Alex that I should spend my time trying to get published in literary magazines, not writing a 20-page Neville/Snape erotic fan fic for weirdos on the Internet.

But Alex told me that if I never put anything out there for people to read, I’d never improve my writing. “Practice, man. It’s just like anything else. You won’t improve if you don’t practice every day.”

So I waited for a prompt I could write about. I avoided prompts set in already-established universes because if I was going to write these for practice, I felt should at least be coming up with my own characters.

The first prompt I wrote was about a woman with a secret past life as a prostitute who finds out her fiance’s dad was one of her old clients. Super fucked up, right? It was the perfect prompt.

The plot I came up with was this: The ex-prostitute finds out that not only was her fiance’s dad an ex-client, he also operated the prostitution ring she was a part of. She blackmails the father, but eventually strikes a deal where she can marry the son on the condition that she resumes working for his father, not as a prostitute, but as a madam. I thought it was pretty good.

And you know what beat it? A 2,000-word smut fest about the ex-prostitute banging her fiance’s dad. It got like, 600 votes compared to my 50. Half of the post was just the writer listing places that the characters banged: “We did it on the sofa, the bed, the chair in the entryway, the counter in the kitchen, the shower … ” Christ, u/BabySpider60. Get a hold of yourself.

So my initial attempts to put my writing out there didn’t go well. I liked to think it was because I wasn’t writing smut or cheesy love stories. But deep down I was worried that people just really didn’t like my writing. But I didn’t let it get me down. I came back to r/WritingPrompts determined to write the best goddamn Internet erotica these creepy, neckbearded weirdos had ever seen.

Just kidding — I didn’t write smut, but I did start branching into prompts that tended to become more popular. The prompts about superheroes, Harry Potter and space travel seemed to do the best.

It wasn’t just about practice anymore — I stopped caring about getting better and started trying to get noticed. Before I started writing on the Internet, telling stories wasn’t competitive for me. It was like knitting: I just wrote to pass the time. There was no way to lose at writing. But on the Internet, there is a clear winner and loser for every story. The people get to vote. I wasn’t writing for myself anymore, I was writing to kick the ass of every other amateur writer who got in my way. And to do that, I needed to actually write for my audience. So if people on the Internet wanted 2,000 words of an alternate universe where Batman was secretly a clone of Adolf Hitler, I gave it to them.

I had to abandon what I considered to be good, “legitimate” writing. And it worked. The first prompt that blew up was a Harry Potter story told like Game of Thrones, where characters get killed off every chapter, there’s far more violence, etc. I got almost 300 subscribers from one prompt. Three hundred people who signed up to read more of my writing. I had a real audience. Up until that point, only about two people had ever read a single story I wrote. How can I describe the feeling?

The Internet weirdos I thought were reading things like Harry Potter fan fiction gave me compliments and critiques. They were just people who loved writing and reading. They were a lot like me. They told me what they loved, what they hated, where my writing could improve. And my writing did improve, just because I finally got over myself and started writing stories that people actually read. Every morning, I’d wake up with new messages from all around the world: readers in Australia, Romania, South Korea, the UK … it was like Christmas.

I felt like I finally had a reason to wake up. That sounds a little strange, I’m sure, but it’s true: You can’t pick what you care about, and I care about writing. I’m lucky enough to have something I love doing. A lot of people don’t.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 6 years old. I used to keep journals and draw cartoons in them about “Fatman and Blobbin.” I loved it. I wrote stupid stories about Freddy the Fish finding Rose’s necklace from the Titanic.

And then, at some point — probably in high school English — some teacher told me that there is legitimate writing and there is crap, and if I really wanted to be a writer, I should only write serious, legitimate stories.

And suddenly I didn’t like writing so much. It felt like a chore. But I kept at it, because I was chasing that feeling I had when I was a kid: the fun. And I haven’t really felt that since, until I started writing silly things again.

What I’m getting at is this: If you like to do something, just do it. Don’t worry about being good. Don’t worry if people think it’s a little weird, a little creepy or a little bizarre. The only person who gets to say what is legitimate is you. You might never get famous, be respected or make money off it, but if you like to write, or paint or sing in the shower, that shouldn’t stop you from doing what you love. Besides, you’re lucky enough to love something.

Tom West can be reached at tkwest@umich.edu. 

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