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.
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Want another booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?
Try: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY
And: 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING