The Secret Menu Of Writing Advice

I love that restaurants have secret menus. Go to In N’ Out burger and order an “Animal Style,” you get a mustard-slathered patty with grilled onions, sauce, extra pickles, and cheese all globbed onto the patty. Feel free to order the Red Eye, Black Eye, or Green Eye at any Starbucks. If you go to Burger King and ask for the “Suicide Burger,” they will deep fry a patty made from the ground up meat of a euthanized hobo.

That last one might be wrong.

Point is, I think it’s a fascinating snidbit, that restaurants have these secret menus for those “in-the-know.”

So, let’s pretend that here at terribleminds you will find a secret menu of writing advice.

You may be saying, “Well, what the fuck does that mean?”

And I’d say to you, “Don’t say ‘fuck.’ We don’t talk like that around here.” And then we’d all have a good laugh and yell “Shitcake fucksplosion!” right before we freeze-frame high-five.

What it means is, I’m going to give you the real honest-to-Jeebus writing advice, slid to you across the table in a non-descript brown envelope. Like, if you take all the other bullshit I say on this site, duct-tape it to a goat and then push that goat off a cliff, you could still get by on the things I’m about to tell you.

Here, then, is the secret menu. Please enjoy your order. Drive around.

Write Big And Write Bold Or Go The Fuck Home

We get one go-around on this here carousel. Then we’re dead. Maybe we reincarnate. Maybe we float around the clouds with wings on our backs. Maybe we’re just meals for maggots. But we still get one life.

And that life is too short not to take risks and long to live with an output of weak-kneed, limp-noodled, utterly derivative, safe-as-houses storytelling.

Write what you want to write. Write what you need to write. Write what engages you, what interests you, what gets your blood pumping and your jaw tight. Because what else are you going to do? Play it safe? Write what everybody else is writing just because everybody else is writing it? What’s the point? Why bring nothing new to the table? Why fail to bring yourself and your passions to the page?

Write urban fantasy because you want to write it. You want to write astronaut porn? Suburban murder mysteries? Arthouse tales of North Korean sexual repression? Fuck it. Buckle up, and write it.

No, you may not find a market. No, that book, script, show or game may not be selling right now, and it may not sell ever. I didn’t say this was good publishing advice. But it is good writing advice. Because if you write big and write bold and write the things you want to write, you’re going to produce stronger material than if you wrote somebody else’s story in somebody else’s voice. Trust in your instinct.

(And here’s the other thing — no, a publisher or agent may not want Thing Thing You Just Wrote, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t find the story’s niche — and your own audience. Times, they are a-changing.)

Bleed From A Place Of Honesty

Cut your heart out of your chest, clutch it in your fist, and slam it down onto the paper. That is the real meaning of write what you know, which is probably better written as, write with total fucking honesty.

Take all that shit that lurks inside you, all your fears and wants and experiences, all your neuroses and psychoses and loves and loathings, all your hopes and dreams and memories, and inject ‘em into your work.

For fuck’s sake, say something with your fiction. Your father hit you? Spend a year homeless? Can’t get it up in bed? You’d kill a man just to walk on the beach? Use it. Use it! You have this monster-sized equation inside you, like something from one of those movie scenes where a lunatic mathematician scrawls out a nutso whiteboard full of numbers and symbols. Every part of this equation is just one more piece of you that builds up to this moment, this “you” that exists.

Bring that into your work. Feel something when you write. Find the bridge between you, the characters, and the story. Bleed on that page in a way that makes you vulnerable. I don’t care if you’re writing about vampires or space hookers or frustrated housewives, put yourself in there. I don’t mean, “be the character,” I mean, dissect all of who you are, and ejaculate your DNA into every cell of that story.

Always be telling your story, even when it’s not your story.

You’ll be amazed at how clarifying that can be.

Character Is Everything

Audiences care about characters more than anything else. I don’t have any math to prove this, I don’t have any facts or data and like most things, I’m just making it up. But I believe it to be true just the same.

Character matters more than anything else. We will follow a good strong character through all their torments and trials and triumphs just to stay with them for another five minutes, five pages, five comic panels. The plot can suck corpse-teat, the theme might be muddier than waters stirred up by a catfish orgy, but if you give us a kick-ass character, you might still find us hanging on.

A great character is transcendent. A powerful vehicle through a story. In fact, a story is really just that — the experiences of a character through a given narrative. That’s a wonderful thing. Simple and elegant.

Concentrate all your firepower on writing a great character. Not necessarily a likable character, either. Worry instead about giving us a character who draws our gaze and demands our undivided attention.

Give us a character we will live with and will die without.

ABC: Always Be Calibratin’

Never stop getting better. It’s as simple as that. Know who you are as a writer, and always find ways to recalibrate and improve your work. Every day is a brand new chance to kick a little more ass.

Writing Is A Conversation We Need To Have

I’ve long said that you need to write to be read, while others have said you should write for yourself. The truth here lives where it nearly always lives — somewhere smack in the middle.

Otherwise, therein lurks a false dichotomy. Because guess what? You can — and should — do both. Of course you should write for yourself. That’s what most of this post is about, frankly — it’s about putting yourself out there, about tailoring your work to your tastes, and about loving what you do.

But you also need to write for an audience. You should write to be read! Why? Well, what the fuck is writing for? Writing is a form of communication. It is, in a way, a conversation — and an important one — between storyteller and storytold. It’s not masturbation. Writing demands the ego to say, “The story I want to tell is an important one.” And you spend the time and the effort to put it out there. Why? To what end?

That old doofy koan of “If a tree falls in a forest and blah blah blah *poop noise*” could just as easily be written as, “If a storyteller tells a story and nobody’s around to hear it, who gives a shit?”

Storytelling is communication, conversation, and contract. It is between creator and audience, and then after the story is told, between the audience and the audience. That’s a powerful thing.

When Something Isn’t Working, Do Something Different

One suspects that is fairly self-explanatory. Outlining fails to produce a finished draft? Fuck the outline. Current writing schedule manufactures only drivel? Write according to a new timetable. Only the most insane people keep trying the same thing when it produces a poor result, and yet that’s so often what writers do. When one tool fails you, pick up a different tool. That hammer won’t cut that board. That chainsaw won’t cure Polio. If the road is closed, build a new road.

Let The Love Of Your Work Be Your Primary Reward

Put differently, love your work, don’t work to be loved.

I don’t care what you’re writing — a novel series, a film script, a freelance RPG, a television show, a web-comic — you damn well better love what you do. Because otherwise? You’ll fail. Maybe you won’t make the words happen. Or maybe they’ll happen, but they won’t dance. The satisfaction of the work, the love of the craft, the power of the art, has to sustain you.

Because little else will. Not the money (haha), not the respect (HAHA), not the health care (HAHAHAHA snort *vomit*). It’s gotta be you out there doing this thing that you do because you love it, because you can see yourself doing nothing else, because this is who you are and who you shall be. If you hold any illusions or fears that This Is Not You, get out of the game. It’s just not worth it.

If the love isn’t there, then you shouldn’t be, either.

* * *

Want another booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?

Try: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY

$4.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

And: 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING

$0.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

55 comments

  • As I read your latest post I wonder, how bad do all those weasels in a master’s program feel about the money they’ve poured down the drain while they sat in boring class after dull lecture, after monotonous short-story reading? This post should take the place of a college degree program. Well, not just this post. Maybe, this post and a self-imposed exile to write a novel before speaking to another human being. I suspect the program would produce better writers that the collegiate route has. Plus, you’re funny, Chuck. And I’m pretty sure God gives extra bonus points for being funny.

  • The amount of brute honesty in this post has blown my mind. Excuse me while I clean brain matter off your walls.

    I guess it’s all about passion. Passionate work produces work that oozes passion, and that’s what will ultimately create a strong story. No?

  • You speak a brutal and useful truth Wendig. Well really several of them. I shall endeavor to digest the secret menu as best I can. Beard the fuck on you half mad writer. (or is that redundant?)

  • This advice sucks. You fucking suck. Balls to you and your so-called “love” and “honesty”!

    For the record, I hate kittens too!

    *returns, scowling, to Ivory Tower*

  • That last one was the best.

    It often depresses me, because often I wish I was someone who could be a doctor or a scientist or a lawyer, or something with a more steady source of income and health care.

    But no, this is the only thing I know for a fact I am here to do. Make up stories. It’s the only thing I truly love to do. I can’t see myself as anything else.

    It’s great and depressing at the same time.

  • It’s so refreshing to see someone say “put yourself into your writing.” I often wonder who people are writing about because it sounds nothing like them. What’s the point in being known for your writing if it sounds like everyone else but, nothing like you?
    A G+ post brought me here, your words kept me here, and in my best Swartenegger voice…”I’ll be back!”

  • Thank Jo for my visit too :D

    Awesome post and just makes me that much more sure of my current wip. It gripped me so hard my tears for the main character prevented me from seeing what the heck I was typing hehe.

  • Nasty people won’t admit to nasty thoughts through their writing. A nice person can get away with “imagination,” but if a truly vile individual sits down and spills their guts, folks will say, “See? I told you so.” They just don’t do it. They need deniability.

    And they might have the best stories!

    And I might have had too much coffee!

    Thanks for another great post.

  • “And that life is too short not to take risks and long to live with an output of weak-kneed, limp-noodled, utterly derivative, safe-as-houses storytelling.”

    And that, right there, is why I read this blog.

  • @Jamie Beckett: Speaking as a weasel in a Master’s program, I still feel pretty good about it. I’m getting a degree doing something I love, so yeah, not a huge waste of money for me. I’m also broadening my horizons in those horrible, soulless classes and short story readings that you seem to hate. I wouldn’t be much of a student if I only studied what I love.

    And that’s all aside from the fact that I get to associate with a bunch of other writers and be a part of their community.

    So, do I spend a bunch of money for something I could be doing on my own? Absolutely. But, there are certain things I can get in school that I wouldn’t be able to get on my own. I have a lot of willing and honest critics, first and foremost, many of whom are pretty talented. It also provides me with a good structure to keep learning. Plus, I just love school.

    What I don’t love, however, is this Good Will Hunting syndrome that’s infected the world, where those of us that appreciate the college experience are silly dupes that should have just done it all on our own, rather than becoming a student.

    And though I do hate to deflate what I’m sure is a very thouroughly researched assumption, neither college nor a self imposed novel writing exile guarantees a good writer. That’s only going to come through a bunch of work – work that could be done in college, just as well as it could be done in “real life.”

    Trust me, I’ve done both. I’m still doing both. I’m all about both.

    I’ll just never understand this sneering contempt for people that decide to get a degree in what they love. At the very least, if we hacks don’t ever get published we should be able to get solid janitor jobs by having an MFA on our resume. Live and let live, brocephus.

  • I have to say I love this post & maybe needed to hear something from the secret menu. I have done the one thing that a writer should never do- I stopped writing! I became to cconcerned about what others thought & let their opinions dictate my subject. Then I got fuckstrated & frazzled & hated every god damn thing I wrote, so I stopped. That isn’t to say I gave up, fuck no, I just had to step back for a bit & examine what the real issue was & I think your post helped clarify it. I was leaving too much or all of myself out my writing & if I seriously want to take on the task of writing I cannot do that.

    So it’s back to the drawing board (laptop) to start off where I left off & write it right- from me through me to all!

  • @El Pickles–
    I’ve been curious about a writing program and what it can teach. You can learn grammar and structure. You can learn to outline and organize ideas into a coherent mess of sorts. I think–and I’ll not dare to read Chuck’s mind–what he might be getting at is something I’ve tried to explain to people: You can’t *teach* creativity. I guess the best you can hope for is to learn the tools to express it. I sure as shit don’t want to take a class in Photoshop.
    If the classroom experience is good for you and you learn something and can then apply it–good on ya, mate. I have an associate’s degree in computer networking, which is enough knowledge to become a threat to any computer I come near. Was it worth it?

    I have toyed with the idea of joining the local writer’s guild here where I live, and I still might. However, I feel like right here, right now, I am in a guild. We have an online writer’s group, with a bat-shit crazy mentor. I’ve never felt so engaged in writing nor felt so much like a writer as I have since I discovered this site, and it warms my balls.
    Thanks, Chuck.

    • For the record, I think a writing program can be value. This post isn’t about that — it isn’t knocking any of that. I don’t think it’s necessary, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have power.

      And @oldestgenxer — heh, thanks, I call it the Hunter S. Thompson Storytelling Center For Moonbats.

      — c.

  • Regardless of our education or where we start out, life is all about learning. When we stop learning, we die.
    This is a great post, Chuck, telling us to write with passion, passionately.
    You are truly an amazing person.
    I just finished editing my piece for Friday and I’m not sure there’s a lot of passion in it. It’s a story. I didn’t put a slant on it b/c I didn’t want to offend people. When the prompt is GunPorn, there’s a lot of room for a passionate point of view. I’ll definitely keep this nugget of wisdom along with your many others, in mind while I write.
    I take a long time to assimilate these points.
    It’s a matter of practice, I think, to keep reviewing ones work,and keep using all the tools you show us. Until we become really good at it.

  • I’m not addressing Chuck’s post – which, for the record, is dead on the money in my opinion – but rather Jamie Beckett’s post at the top. I totally agree with you, oldestgenxer, you can’t teach creativity. And you can very well become a writer without any sort of college.

    Though I will say, my time learning with our published teachers has probably been some of the most beneficial time I’ve spent trying to figure out the craft.

    But, I wrote long before the college, and I’ll keep writing regardless of what happens there.

    I think the bottom line is that if you’re going to an MFA program with the mindset of “Here I am, now where’s my publishing contract?” you’re probably a moron. Chances are, if you succeed in publishing after an MFA program, you would have done so anyway.

    My writing group (not school related) is probably one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, on the other hand. Everyone should have a good writing group. Mine is absolutely amazing.

  • BTFO! When I get that itch to connect with other writers, many times I wish I just reached for the Lanacaine. 99.999% of writers I meet at Con’s and on Facebook write one book, with one character – supernatural, romance with a strong female character who longs to get her ovaries hosed by some stud’s endoplasmic juice from the otherside. Most of the work is just fan fiction with different names (RayVEN, ReyVen Hawkblack, Rayxven). Damn you to hell’s coalshaft, Stephanie Meyers.

    This makes the reader-scape difficult for new writers who write anything but. People who read romance or supernatural fiction read little to nothing else. Why read at all. Reading great books should make someone create greater books. I love good lit as well as SF and history. I can’t celebrate epublishing or self-publishing since most of it is bi-curious-female-freak-slayer-detective garbage.

    For gods sake, this is a New Age of publishing and most books are just glossy photocopies.

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    visit the site and share us with your friends. cheers, Ronald Sallon IMTF

  • one thing that helps me write is to imagine myself as the fastest, trash talking guy I ever seen or read (this blog being an example) and keep posting thoughtful writing. If it’s not thoughtful, it’s trash and it won’t see the light. I realize I can practice writing tweeting, blogging, on facebook and the opportunities seem endless. I realize that it’s not because I am alone with a screen, that inside me, it might be the loudest nightclub that could be and I could be the guy trying to find the perfect dancing partner. I don’t know where I’m going this metaphor. Thanks Chuck now I’m officially addicted to stream consciousness writing!!!

  • oh I hate typos when I post something!! Mort De Rire (LOL in french) *inside me, it’s the loudest nightclub that you can imagine…*

  • Chuck, as I was reading this, the Character section made me realize a recent problem in what I’ve been writing. After I got to a certain plot point and had to introduce several new characters, I’ve basically been plodding along plotwise while my focus drifts away from the protags. Writing shouldn’t be a list of what happens next! I will go revise immediately! :)

    This is one of a few posts I have saved to my desktop, where it can be referenced for re-reading at any time. Whenever writing feels like a chore, I will remember this…

    And btw, I’m still giggling over the “health insurance.” :)

  • Wise words. I ALWAYS use at least an 18 font (sometimes I push boundaries and use a 24 font(!)) even though my eyesight is quite good. Write it big brother!

    PS as an independent observer I love how many/all of your commentators powerfully endorse your posts, even adopting a similar style to your own writing. You know you’ve got it goin’ on when that happens.

    You rock dude.

    pip pip

    Christian

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