Stupid Writer Tricks

Writing Advice

The writer’s mind is an unruly chimp.

He steals your beer. He throws your Sports Illustrated football phone through the glass patio door. He defecates in your blender and makes a monkey dung smoothie. He mauls you and eats your extremities.

Like I said: unruly.

The only way Mister Tinkles is going to stop making your life a living hell is if you get down to some hardcore chimpanzee training techniques. You’ve got to fool that monkey into primate compliance. For the record, none of that is meant to be a euphemism for engaging the chimp in sexual activities. That is not what Darwin had in mind. I’m just saying, you need to tame the monkey. Non-sexually.

Same goes with taming your writer brain. Your mileage may forever vary, but me? I’m constantly my own worst enemy in terms of Getting The Work Done, and that’s just not good eats. You need to start tricking yourself, giving a leg-up here and there to get you where you need to be day in and day out. And so I give unto you: STUPID WRITER TRICKS.

These are little tips, tricks and techniques that bear minimal relation to one another except for the common bond that each are geared toward Finishing The Shit You Done Started, Wordmongers.

Let us open the cabinet of curiosities.

The Mini Tiny Itty Bitty Micro Outline

Two words: trail of breadcrumbs. (Wuzza? That’s three words? Shit. See, this is why I’m an ink-slinger and not a sorcerer of numberology.) Writing any big project, be it a novel or a screenplay or a giant epic game doc, an outline provides a way through the madness, looking both forward and backward. But, some folks don’t dig on the outline proper, and that’s okay: whatever gets the shit done.

That said, do consider the option of the micro-outline.

Here’s how it works: when you stop your writing for the day, take five or ten minutes to write a quick slapdash paragraph of what you plan on accomplishing during your next day’s worth of writing. “Jimbo slays the Humbaba. Mary-Ellen becomes queen of the vampires. Jojo eats some bad eggs.” You’re leaving a trail of breadcrumbs not to look back, but to make your way forward.

It helps me because my thinking organ is riddled with so many holes you’d think termites live there. So, when I open the document the next day and there’s a paragraph — I highlight it yellow because, mmm, yellow is the color of caution and crazy people — telling me what I wanted to do, I feel relieved. “Oh, right, I forgot that I wanted to have Gerry meet the dolphin in this scene. Nice. Thank you, Me From The Past! A little nipple squeeze from me to you, bro. Tweak!”

Maintaining Your Word Boner

The same thing that gets readers through reading your book  should be the same thing that gets the author (erm, you) through writing the damn thing. The reader must have sustained excitement.

And so too must the writer.

So, you know how a cliffhanger creates suspense? Leaves the reader’s mouth and other orifices juicy with narrative need? This is that. End your writing day in the middle of something. As penmonkeys we are often trained to finish things, not leave them hanging, but here as a course of action leaving your writing for the day a bit open-ended can help you complete the project in the long term.

The goal of this is to get you excited for the next day of writing. Sometimes starting a new chapter or scene can cause you to suffer some of that same sluggy and uncertain ennui you might have felt at the beginning of the project when all you had was the ceaseless snowy expanse of the white page to taunt you, so ending in the midst keeps your mind champing at the bit (word-nerd trivia: not chomping at the bit) to get back and complete the scene. Leave yourself room for excitement. End with the need to go back and keep working.

Behold The Fanciful Power Of The Newfangled “Inter-Net”

You may be saying, “Whaaaaat? What’s that? What’s an… Inter…net?” And to that I respond: “You’re soaking in it!” And then we all share a laugh and do lines of blow off this dead hooker coffee table.

Still, you’re probably saying, “Your big writer trick here is to… tell us to use the Internet? Yeah, that’s great, Wendig. Should we also, I dunno, use our words to tell stories? Because, wow, revolutionary.”

Shut up, you. The Internet is soggy with snark these days, innit? Anyway. The Internet is home to resources you may not at present be considering in terms of your day-to-day storytelling. First, if you’re writing about a world that is not a fantasy realm or some weird sci-fi future and you need to know what Main Street in Duluth looks like, or you want to check to see what’s on the corner of Numbered Ave and So-and-So Street in New York City, ta-da: Jesus invented Google Street View just for you.

Second, Flickr. Flickr is a great resource for finding all kinds of inspiration. Looking for some descriptive meat? Or a location? Or an animal? Go to Flickr, search for the term. You’ll get an unholy host of images, many of them quite beautiful, and many of them beautiful in a way that might stir a new layer of metaphor and description that you’ve been looking for.

Third, social media hive-mind. Get on Facebook, Twitter, or whatever hot new social media tool is out there by the time you read this article (“I use Circlehole!” “Won’t you become my companion on Flurg?”), and you can ask folks questions that Google can’t quite grok.

Embrace Your Inner 12-Year-Old Girl

Make a collage.

No, yeah, I get it. You’re an adult human being. What’s next? Shoebox dioramas? (Don’t be ludicrous. That’s reserved for a later post.) “Collages?” you stammer. Yes. That’s right. Collages.

Wait, sorry — collages, motherfucker.

I’m working on a personal project right now and I wanted to get my head into a certain space with it, so I whipped out a sack of National Geographics and went to down on those sumbitches with a pair of scissors (safety scissors, as the government mandates I not be allowed the real deal — also, if you ever see me with an uncorked fork, run for the fucking hills because somebody is gonna bleed). Next thing I know, I’ve got a wall full of cool images and neat quotes about all manner of awesome shit. I go over to that collage, meditate on it for a couple-few, and my head neatly aligns with the story and the world. Snap-tight.

Next week: training bras, and how they can help your creativity blossom!

Make Out With Marginalia

Marginalia: scribbled notes in the margins of a book.

A delightful practice, and I love to see it in books I pick up, whether I take them out from the library or steal them from a frozen hobo. “Oh, on page 5,462 of James Joyce’s Ulysses, this person has written, And Molly Bloom represents Penelope out of the myth. On page 5,463, someone else has drawn a lobster with a giant human penis. And hey, look! Oh page 8,922, bloodstains!”

Sometimes, you’re chugging along on your own manuscript and you start to get bogged down in something — maybe you’re not sure about a name or don’t really know the word you want to use but damn sure know that “semen-shellacked” isn’t it. Instead of slamming on the brakes and cutting your rhythm in twain, jot a quick note in the margins and move on.

Most word processing programs have some kind of note or comment function — so, use that. Highlight the word, paragraph, or bloodstain, drop a quick comment into the margins, and sally forth.

Do The Editmonkey Shuffle

Hemingway reportedly said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” I would amend this to, “Write without pants, but drunk; edit with pants, but maybe also still drunk if you want to, because, y’know, mmm, drunk.”

Whatever the case, the takeaway from that isn’t so much that you should write whilst pickled on bourbon and edit whilst clear of head. For me, the takeaway is more about the change in state.

When editing, shift as much as you can away from the way you wrote, which is to say, edit differently than you wrote.  I don’t know why this is, but by shifting certain elements, it becomes easier to view the edit more objectively. What kinds of state changes are we talking about here? You’ve got multiple options, and surely you’ll come up with your own, but here are a few:

Change the font size. Change the font. Print it out instead of editing on the screen. Edit in a different word processor. Edit on a different computer (desktop -> laptop, for instance). Put two pages on screen at a given time instead of one. Edit naked and covered in bacon grease. Whatever it takes to view the work in progress differently so as to more easily catch those things you need to catch.

Oh, also?

Track all changes when editing.

And read the work aloud.

I don’t consider many pieces of writing advice inviolable, but for me, this one comes close: reading your work aloud is the best way to catch mistakes and sense problems in rhythm.

If you don’t read your own work aloud, you make Story Jesus foul his diaper.

That’s gospel.

Spreadsheets Suck Unicorn

(Remember: if something sucks unicorn, then it is awesome.)

I sometimes see a sentiment that puts forth the notion that using a spreadsheet during the writing or editing of Your Big Writing Project will kill the creativity necessary to complete that thing. To this I say, if your creativity is killed by a mere spreadsheet, it must have been a weak and wormy thing, like the sad wang of a mangy anorexic possum. Be careful, because exposure to any of the banalities of life (checkbooks, mailmen, bowel movements) could easily destroy your papier-mache “creativity.”

Seriously, spreadsheets are the bee’s boobies. (That’s a thing, right? “The bee’s boobies?” I always feel behind all the hot new slang.) You can use a spreadsheet to do any of the following:

Track word count. Track deadlines. Determine character arcs. Do outlining (light to robust). Figure out plot tentpoles and the rough word count for those tentpoles. Figure out (and rearrange) plots and sub-plots. Track freelance payments. See how often a character shows up. Track critical beats like those from Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT. Track days without pants. Chart your descent into madness. And so forth.

Your Turn

You writer-types out there. Surely you’ve got your own weird little bucket of tricks. Whip one out, dangle it in front of our dewy eyes and tell us all about it. Share and share alike. Join the hive-mind.

36 responses to “Stupid Writer Tricks”

  1. My personal hurdle right now is “what do the characters want?”

    I have the rough draft, but the characters all still feel flat. Tomorrow I am going to detail “this is Bob. Bob wants a house with a rabbit coop.” “This is Jane. Jane wants a kid but hates babies.” Etc and see if that breaks me out of this Boring story Spiral I have been stuck in during my revision.

    Also details to make the universe a little more real blah blah blah.

    Checklists. .. and caffeine.

    Good article though. I tend to get my visual inspiration off 4chan, but to each his own.

    …no not THOSE 4chan images… sheesh.

  2. I have to occasionally slap myself in the face (occasionally literally, sometimes just with booze) to lower my standards. I am not some God of Writing and not every word needs to be perfect. Also background noise is often ideal for making sure other distractions don’t intrude over much.
    For inspiration I surround myself in my idea generators. About a dozen books ranging from historical essays, short story collections, an old copy of the Monster Manual, and a tome of 500 comic book villains. Something about the piles of literature is focusing and there is so much random junk in them that I can turn to any page of any book and get some inspiration.

  3. Dropbox is your friend, even when your flashdrive hates you.

    (Or, you can just email yourself a copy of whatever your WIP looks like at the end of each day in case someone who shall remain nameless happens to be the sort who randomly deletes all but four pages of a 400 page document.)

    A free program like Celtx can also help with the quick sketch version of a scene, even for a novel. It lets you get the dialogue set with some indications of what’s going on around the speakers. For me, that makes things easier.

  4. Having the write music for the story you’re writing has always been a big help for me. If I’m looking to write an action packed story, something with a quick tempo and beat can really help me get into the mood for what I need to be writing. For something more melancholy, slowing the pace of the music can also help with that.

    Your spreadsheet comment intrigues me. Any chance for a post on the myriad ways you use spreadsheets while writing and how you do that?

  5. All that was very useful. Now if you could just write an article on how to finish a novel without giving in to the overwhelming desire to see most of your characters die, that would be good.

    Yes, death IS an ending. But there are others….aren’t there?

  6. Nice post, I’ll be using collages idea.

    My trick: shut the nuts up and write for just 20 minutes.

    What’s 20 minutes? That’s nothing. Little does my chimp-brain know that once it gets started with the lure of a measly 20-minute session of focus, it forgets it wants to sling dreck and suddenly I’m writing for a two-hour stretch.

    Then it’s rinse (sometimes literally) and repeat as necessary.

  7. great post Chuck. one technique that i use, (it may sound real unusual), to write or come up with a story to write is, i scribble shapes on an A4 sheet with a pencil. whatever i can, to fill the page in about 30 seconds.

    in the next stage i just look at the paper and a story emerges. after staring at it for a few minutes i write the summary. then finishing that story takes a long long time. for that last stage, your tips are helpful.

  8. I want to add my voice to the praises of spreadsheets. I use them in both plotting and editing now, and they make me feel like I am more able to keep on task and be productive with my writing time.

    As for the change in state from writing to editing, I start by editing on hard copy. Nothing like sitting in your favorite chair with a cup of coffee and your latest draft to make you inevitably spill your coffee all over it. And it helps with the visualizing too.

  9. I will occasionally walk away from the keyboard and let a scene play out in my head. These are usually the more dialogue-heavy ones, when the characters’ voices just aren’t ringing true on the page. Most of the time I find it’s because I’m getting too bogged down in the description of the scene, and walking away lets me focus on what the characters are saying, rather than what they’re doing.

  10. I try keep two things with me: a pen and a post-it pad. Because I seem to have great ideas when I’m doing something *away* from the computer, whether it’s taking the dog for a walk or tackling the mound of dishes that piled up in the sink.

    I love to write in the margins of things. I write down any interesting quote that I come across in a notebook I have specifically for writing. It might help me with a story or inspire a character.

    I adore spreadsheets, and as someone who hates math, I never thought I’d say that. But they are great for tracking everything from submissions to plot points. Plus, it keeps me from accidentally submitting the same story to a place that passed on it.

    I tend to loathe outlines. I blame it on being required to write them for several classes I’ve taken. They just don’t work. So, I jot down the major plot points I need to hit, not necessarily in order.

    As far as editing — reading out loud is a must. I always print it out for the first run through. Input those changes. Then, run through it again, onscreen. If I can, I leave a few days in between, sometimes more. To give my brain a chance to refresh.

    Great post, Chuck. I learned a bunch of things. 🙂

  11. Funny enough, I am doing a blog series this week on the very same thing. Some of my tricks include bribery. I tell myself to write 2K or one scene and then I get to check my email or some other small task. This works like a charm.

    I also read what I wrote the day before. I don’t really edit it, but just read over the previous scene. It helps me pick up where I left off in the same tone and get started for the day.

    I too demand to know how you use spreadsheets for your writing. I have Blake Synder’s SAVE THE CAT beat sheet in Excel and that baby is a beaut. I also track my word count, but that’s about it. I would like to know more.

  12. One thing I find very valuable when approaching the editing phase is to let some time pass between the furious, passionate, writing sessions and the boring, monotonous, editing sessions. When I finished the first draft of my novel “The Meteoric Rise of Simon Burchwood,” I waited a couple of weeks before editing it. I let it sit on my hard drive and ferment. I relaxed and carried on with my life. Once I reopened it, I discovered it all over again with fresh eyes and a clear head. I was able to read it and analyze it more objectively. If you are able to put your manuscript down for a period of time and pick it back up and still feel the same level of excitement you had when you were writing it, then you really have something. Or you may realize you were drunk and pounded out a pile of dog shit.


  13. I fucking love me some post it notes. I use them as a quick detail dump, reminder, and as mobile outline. At last I CAN outline, because I can move stuff around and add whenever I want. Between the detail dump and new outlining prowess, my school-year-second-draft hourly word count is edging up on what I usually do in the summer on a first draft. This is a harbinger of both happiness and survival since I have a lot more projects than just my novel going right now.

    I have seen the light and entered the halls of outline salvation.

    Yeah, Chuck another convert. I hope you and your intractable god of structure are happy.

  14. I interview my characters. I actually put myself in their world, wherever the hell that may be. I’ve sat down in saloons, on park benches, walked castle walls, plopped down in crypts, floated in space, wallowed in sewage, and ducked under the awnings of shady nightclubs. I enter their world and strike up a conversation. See what they can tell me about themselves.

    I don’t script it, I don’t control it..I just listen and they wind up telling me some pretty cool shit. Because they’re alive and they have a thing or two to tell us, our “characters”.

    Side note: These interviews are best conducted drunk and without pants.

  15. Great post! I do many of these things (notes for tomorrow and reading aloud especially). One thing that works for me is JUST KEEP WRITING, even if it sucks and is awkward and makes you feel like a terrible writer. I need to get the scene out, and I can make it better when I edit it. First time through – some parts great, some parts awful.

  16. I have been known to make paper dolls of my characters and create this web-looking matrix poster board out of how they interact and the things that brought them together and/o apart as the case may be.

    Currently, I snagged an old roll of register tape at a thrift store and I’m doing a Plot Map ala biblical scroll right now. To give it the real Story Jesus feel — I can only do this when clothed in a robe and sandals.

    I’m learning to love spreadsheets like a sucking unicorn.

    Great post as always, Chuck.

  17. A good soundtrack often works for me. Sometimes it’s related to what I’m writing (Jazz for a piece set in New Orleans, for example), sometimes it’s just low-key atmospheric stuff, sometimes it’s heavy metal. Depends on my mood.

    One trick I use frequently, however, goes against one of the greatest aspects of being a writer: working without pants.

    That is to say: I often work with pants. If I’m having trouble concentrating, often I will dress up like I’m going to work. A very casual work-place, but work nevertheless. Collared shirt, pants. Vest. Maybe a tie if I really need to kick ass. I helps me differentiate hanging around the house in working mode versus hanging around the house in relaxation mode.

    One thing one of my professors does? He writes best in the morning, so when he’s really pressed for time, he’ll wake up, shower, have breakfast, work. Go take a long nap. Wake up, shower, eat a breakfast-type meal and start to work again.

  18. When I’m really stuck, I stand in front of a white board, or large piece of butcher paper and write out all my plot details. Seeing it all at once usually helps get things back into place.

  19. Dead hooker table…I think I saw those down at Pier One. Or was it Ikea?

    My biggest productivity trick has been this: NEVER EVER write on a computer hooked up to the Intertubes. You may do that, and you may still get work done, but it’ll never be as much work–or as good–as it would have been without the distraction.

    I don’t use detailed outlines, but I usually have what I call “waypoints”–a list of major events I need to hit along the way. Lately, I’ve tried storyboarding the story as well–make a quick sketch depicting the main visual of the chapter, and put a one-to-three-sentence synopsis underneath:

    Works pretty well, especially for stories with failry short chapters. (The urban fantasy novel I’m storyboarding right now has 1,000 to 1,500-word chapters.)

    Whatever works to get the word count done, y’know?

  20. Oh, yeah. Turn on oven timer for 1 hour. Can’t do anything else for an hour. Turn on oven time for 10 minutes. Can do anything that doesn’t involve going online for fun for ten minutes. Repeat until wordcount 🙂

  21. Fuck you Chuck Wendig, FUCK YOU! My writing tip is to not read your shit. Cause every time I do, I think,’WHY THE FUCK COULDN’T YOU THINK OF THAT, YOU IMBECILE!!!’ or ‘You’ll never write like that, give it up, you suck.’

    Damn you Chuck Wendig, DAMN YOU! I can’t write ANYTHING after I read ANYTHING you write. It makes me feel like a big giant stupid…STUPID!

    See!? See?!!!!

  22. Not, you know, a plug or anything. But in the character creation section for our current game, you do a round table with the other characters talking answering some statements. When we did it with a designer friend, he was saying it’d be a great writing exercise. So… Here you go.

    You have sentences. “I have always,” “I have never,” “I have sometimes,” and “I have once,” Then you fill it in with something impossible. Like, “I have sometimes fallen from high places with you.” Or, “I have never kissed you, we have sometimes been married and we are always related.” Or whatever you want to do.

    In the game, it’s all about the relationships you have had with these other characters through past lives. But you could of course just use it as guidelines for the character’s history in as story. To hit the high points with out getting caught up in the details before you start your story.

  23. What helped me? I stopped having a quota. I did the 1000 words a day thing but I found I would erase half those words because they add nothing to the story. I’m just pushing pen like a kid with a toy grocery cart right behind momma, pretending that I’m helping.

    The “bones” method never worked for me. I’ve got a 40 hour a week job, and when I sit down to write, I must get this story moving. If I write 200 words and they setup the next scene or chapter, then I know I’ll knock out 1-2k during the next session. In the interim, I draft in my head what will come next.

    When I finished the 1st draft, I noticed I didn’t have to revise or dump a lot of stuff. Also, I keep track on a spreadsheet.

  24. Soundtracks used to be my thing, but now I’ve got Pandora stations. I get more of a vibe than a jackhammer slamming a situation into my brain. And the randomness of Pandora has given me some GOLDEN moments by picking up on a chord in a story that I had been underplaying.

    My big thing that helps in the early stages (or if I’m revisiting old material): Casting. I cast actors in the parts of my characters, hit up a Google image search and save the pics that I think are most in my character. It really helps me map a person’s face and seeing that person’s expressions helps me with description. Even dialogue flows better when I have someone’s actual voice to work with in my head. Could be a crutch, but it has worked for me.

    And hells to the yes about the Internet being awesome. Seriously, I’ve had a raging write-on for New Orleans lately. For some reason, I’ve got the accent in my head and characters want me to go there. Problem: I’ve never been there and can’t get there for the forseeable future. Enter Google’s awesomeness. (All praise to the Google!) Maps, street views, histories… happy me! Hell, with the novella I’m currently editing I used my beloved Chicago. Needed a cemetery setting and actually used the internet to SHOP for the best location based on looks! How awesome is the future?!

    Also, I swear by my spreadsheets. Google docs is my friend. (Again with the Google.)

    If I’m totally stuck, though, the best trick in my book: sit next to a fire with a bunch of friends (or just chill on the back patio with one friend), and bullshit. Alcohol or chai may be involved (or my husband’s homemade chai liqueur). Talking it out…hearing it spoken aloud and seeing a firsthand reaction…that’s where some amazing synergy can happen and I can blast through a fog.

  25. Telling Stories…

    In which I show you some videos As someone with the twin loves of This American Life and trying to become a better writer, I love the fact that I just rediscovered Ira Glass’ Storytelling video(s) today. Here there are if you haven’t seen t…

  26. Sometimes when it’s just not working, I open a new document, copy and paste in the last paragraph or two, and just write like mad. Type even if it’s stupid, change course mid-scene, talk to myself or the characters on page–whatever. Just write, until I figure out a way forward. When I’m feeling it again, I’ll take what’s useful back to the manuscript and delete the rest.

    That or do dishes. Doing dishes often helps, and there are always some to be done.

  27. For reasons I’ll likely never grasp, I decided to set Aigaion Girl in Philadelphia (I have never been), so, during the writing process I spent a *lot* of time ‘walking around’ Philadelphia with the aid of Street View.

    My most useful writing trick is to make myself save the best scenes for last. These are often the scenes and images that got me to start writing the story to begin with. I save them, like pieces of desert, rewards for meeting a word-count goal or finishing a tedious chunk of writing.

  28. when i plan to write i listen to a soundtrack to get me in the zone of that particular scene.
    also i sometimes write short stories on minor characters to help give myself some perspective on them.

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