25 Virtues Writers Should Possess

1. A Wild And Unfettered Imagination

This one goes up front: the bubbling turbid stew that comprises your brain-mind combo must possess an endless array of unexpected ideas. Your head should be an antenna receiving frequencies from the furthest-flung reaches of Known Creative Space. You want to survive, you’ve got to have an imagination that won’t lay down and die. That fucker’s like a North Korean 9-year-old: up all night, smoking cigarettes, working his fingers to the bone. He never cries. He only works to make the pretty baubles.

2. Discipline

Given that we’re creative types prone to art-o-leptic fits of imagination, if we’re given no leash we’ll just wander off into the woods to create our masterpiece. Where we are promptly eaten by bears. Imagination is the fuel, but it’s a fickle and volatile fuel. It needs a channel. It needs a furnace. It needs discipline. Discipline to wake up, to weld your shit-can to the chair, to squeeze out word-babies, to do the work.

3. Optimism

The only way you’re going to stay on target is if you believe this thing you want to do can actually happen. It can. It really can. But like with elves and Jesus, you gotta believe. Otherwise, the magic dies.

4. Realism

By the same token, realistic expectations are the order of the day. You think you’re going to walk out the door with a script and the mailman is going to buy the rights-in-perpetuity for a million bucks, you’re off your meds. A good reality check now and again keeps your optimism from messing your pants with endless squirts of premature wheejaculations.

5. Pessimism

Here’s where you say, “Wait, wuzza? Wooza? I’m supposed to be an optimist… and a realist… and a pessimist, too?” Yes. Yes! Yes. Writers without a healthy dose of pessimism will find themselves bent over an end table with a bad publishing contract rolled up and shoved deep into their colonic grotto. A little dollop of distrust in humanity will serve you well. I’m not saying to be selfish. But do protect yourself.

6. Sticktoitiveness

I’ve always said that no matter the flavor of your writing career, it’s basically you putting a bucket on your head and running full force into a brick wall. Again and again. And in the end it’s either you or the wall. Any success is going to be in part due to dangerous levels of persistence and stubbornness.

7. Honesty

Writers are liars who use those lies to tell truths. Let that boil your noodle.

8. Confidence

Put your work out there and find pride and power in what you do. Be assertive in your language, sure-footed in your prose. Why would anyone want to read anything if it has all the backbone of a cup of sun-warmed pudding? Go forth. Kick ass wearing oiled leather boots made from the rent pages of your own super-fantastic manuscript, a manuscript written on the flesh of your adversaries. It doesn’t need to be ego-fed to be confident. Though I’d rather read the work of an ego-bloated megalomaniacal Narcissist than a weak-in-the-knees ehhh-mehhh-pbbbt insecure writer-whelp. Insecurity is no pleasure to read.

9. Thick Skin

Your body shall be a road atlas of misery by the time you’re ten years into a writing career. The slings and arrows of rejections. The bullets and flying glass of editorial notes. I’m still picking metaphorical gravel out of my elbows and knees. Want to survive in this gig? Your skin better be tough as a Brooklyn phone book.

10. Humor

If you can’t laugh in this business, you’ll cry. And then you’ll evacuate fluids from all orifices. Then you’ll be kicked in the South Crotchal Region by an itinerant donkey before dying. Humor’s also good to put in your work. People like a laugh now and again. It can’t all be turbulence and pathos and frowny faces.

11. Responsibility

You will have deadlines. Someone might ask you to turn in a synopsis. Or an outline. Or an edit. Do these things. Do as they ask. Do them on time and according to parameter. Your readers, too, will want things. They will want your attention. They will ask that you provide them with quality. Give them what they ask (within reason). Know your responsibility. Fulfill that responsibility. Do not be a stinky dickwipe.

12. Appreciation

A wee touch of humility and appreciation will go a long away. Appreciate your audience. Appreciate that you can do this thing that you do without getting your hands cut off by an oppressive fundamentalist government. Appreciate the words your forebears have flung into the firmament. Appreciate the work, the opportunity, the general aura of overall pantslessness. Because seriously, pants are for jerkholes.

13. Coffee

Fuck you, coffee IS TOO a virtue. Do not deny me this. Do not dare!

14. Business Sense

Writers have all the business sense of a gin-drunk wildebeest. But it pays to know something about something when it comes to business. Know enough not to get fucked. Know enough not to fuck yourself.

15. A Critical Eye

You can’t be all wide-eyed and dopey-smiled. Your gaze must be razor-honed. Your mouth ever in an uncertain sneer. To know how to write well you know how to write poorly, which means you have to identify poor writing in yourself and in others. It’s no longer your pleasure to be entertained; it is your job to be suspicious, dubious, and ever-critical. Turn your brain off? Not likely. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage. Rage. Against the dying of quality plots, compelling characters, and magical stories.

16. A Willingness To Do Evil

Okay, settle down, sermonizers. I don’t mean in real life. But your job is one of mighty evil. Evil splashed across the page in great heaving buckets of torment and blood. You’re not a nice monkey. Not to the fictional people that gambol and preen upon your manuscript pages. It’s your job to fuck those people over and up. Your evil shall know no bounds. Your cruelty is the engine of conflict. Yes. Yessss.

17. Patience

In the time it takes for the light from a supernova star 10,000 light years away to reach our eyes here on earth, you still might not have a project pass through all the proper channels and put a paycheck in your hand. This industry often moves slower than a legless caterpillar rolling up a rocky knoll. Be ready for that. Exercise patience. Find other acts of wordsmithy to fill those gaps. Breathe in. Breathe out.

18. Tact

You’re going to deal with publishers, writers, readers, fans, and it isn’t all going to be newborn puppies and pina coladas. Tact goes a long, long way. This is shorthand for, “Don’t be a fuckweasel.”

19. Discomfort

Discomfort is good. Discomfort is that stinging nettle at the cusp of your butthole telling you that sometimes you need to get up out of that chair, kick down the walls of that box you’re in, try something new. Discomfort drives you forward. A little taste of dissatisfaction makes you crave bigger and better. Comfort is nice. But comfort is overrated. Flee that zone now and again. Truth lurks in conflict.

20. Courage

Have the courage to go forth and do not what everybody else is doing but what you want to do. Have the courage to put yourself out there. To give a big neon middle finger to those who will inevitably disrespect and misunderstand your choice to be a storyteller. Invoking your craft and creating art (in a perfect world) is an act of bravery. Of putting all your sensitive bits on the cutting board.

21. Liquor

GODDAMNIT IT IS TOO A VIRTUE. I will break this vodka bottle over your head if you try to take this away from me. Or if you try to take my vodka away from me. Daddy needs his potato juice.

22. Tranquility

Sometimes you need that Zen place. Find the blank chalkboard, the tabula rasa, the motherfucking no-mind. Mow the lawn. Listen to the rain. Thousand-yard stare. The story sometimes lives in this place.

23. Loyalty

A good writer finds his loyalty to be a raft on which he can float in even the most turbulent storm-tossed seas. A raft with a beer cooler. And a snack machine filled with bacon. You’ve got to be loyal to your own work: no taking another manuscript out for a little rumpy-pumpy behind the shed when you’re supposed to be working on another. And be loyal to your own ideas, too. Stick to them. Stand by them. Finally, other writers. We’re a tribe of individuals but a tribe just the same, and that means this whole thing we do is made of people. Loyalty matters to them, to you, to the whole lot of us farking moonbats.

24. Ten Pounds Of Crazy In A Five Pound Bucket

Speaking of farking moonbats: we’re moonbats because we need to be moonbats. I mean, really. To want to do this thing? To want to have this life? You gotta be a little bit — and by “little bit” I mean “project a massive crackling force field of” — crazy. Crazy is defense. Crazy is enlightenment. Crazy is the act of doing differently. For the record, I don’t mean “crazy” to be, “please go masturbate at the salad bar” or “to stop the voices you will first have to kill every third member of British Parliament.” I mean crazy as in, to have that electric vibe pushing you to put the words on the page and to create stories unbidden from the empty ether.

25. Love

The most important thing. You gotta love what you do. It’s the only way you’ll make it through. This is not a safe nor sane journey. It’s not a career choice for most normals. It’s also not a road that offers a whole lot of initial reward: you step into the breach on the whiff of a promise, on the potential for success, and so it is that the only prize you’ll find early on is the love and passion and satisfaction for what you do. Without all that, what’s the fucking point? You don’t love it, then being a writer is no different than pushing a broom or making a corporate nest surrounded by four fuzzy gray cubicle walls. And by the way, why are cubicle walls fuzzy? Are they draped in the pelt of some dull, listless monster? Some bleak hell-cow wandering the world’s uncharted swamps? Whatever. Fuck it. The point is: love this thing you do and you’ll have all the reward you need. Except vodka. Because despite my many letters to Congress that shit still costs money.

* * *

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39 responses to “25 Virtues Writers Should Possess”

  1. I love these posts, but for some reason I never get the headers–just blocks of prose. The headers show for a nanosecond when I load your site then disappear. Super weird–but, of course, I read on anyway.

    Agree. This writing gig is not a “safe and sane journey.” 🙂

  2. I am pleased at the thoroughness of this list…especially #13. Speaking of which, I’ve got a small bag of virtue that needs to be ground up and brewed. Yeah! Does that mean Starbuckle’s sells virtue at $5 a cup? I must be approaching sainthood by now! Maybe I’ll get a gold card and a treat receipt!

  3. If this post had only been #6, I would love it no less. Sticktoitiveness is a great word.

    While we’re talking cube walls, does anyone else see magic 3D shit in the grey-red-green-yellow-beige woven static? I stare at it sometimes, thinking I see something, but all I hear is a distant slurping sound before it’s 7pm and I don’t remember what it’s like to feel joy. Just me?

  4. I would add empathy high on that list. Empathy allows the writer to understand the human condition, and write realistic responses to often times unrealistic situations.

  5. *I* happen to know how thick a Brooklyn phonebook is (and have the skin to match, toughened by rejection after rejection), but for the Twitter generation, you need a new metaphor. I can just hear them scratching their heads, “Dude, what’s a phonebook?”

  6. See, if I weren’t already in your cult, this would cement it. Proud to be your Mistress of Penitents, Wendig. Proud.

    Also, I am FULL UP on virtue 24. Would like to be full up on virtue 21, though. 😀

  7. You may not want people masturbating at the salad bar, but I’ve heard there’s warm apple pie at the dessert bar (American Pie for those who haven’t seen it).

    Thanks for the spine stiffener. Sometimes “Your parents were racists!” and “You were so MEAN to those cows!” kind of wears me down (f*#king bovines…worse than chickens…they deserved it). I was sorry, after all.

    I love these posts.

  8. About #20 (Courage):

    My current WIP is a YA MS in PDF….

    Sorry about that. My current WIP is a YA novel that is unlike anything I’ve ever read or seen on the shelves. I have the courage to write it and submit it to agents, but since it’s “not like everyone else is doing,” I run the chance of being rejected until I die of old age.

    Is #20 still a virtue in this case? I would like to avoid self-publishing as much as possible.

    And, Chuck, to answer your question about cubicles and fuzzy walls: The walls are fuzzy so cube dwellers can go berzerk from time to time and stab them repeatedly with push-pins without leaving marks.

  9. Well done Tiger Prawn well done. This list is fabulous. I’m printing it out and marking what I need to work on- coffee and alcohol seem to be my two weakest points- I’ll start there.

  10. I pretty much had all of these except patience and discipline, up until a year ago. But now I be medicated. The shit helps.
    Optimistic, pessimistic, and realistic, all at the same time? Check. The voices in my head have that all covered.

  11. #26 – A very long-suffering life partner. We all need somebody, but if that somebody calls your trade a ‘hobby’ then you are wedded to a dream-killer. The must understand that this is what you do, you put words on paper first, and figure how you’re going to make money at it last. I got a lengthy rant on this subject so I won’t waste comment space.

  12. I, for one, want to see the twenty-five VICES that a writer must possess. Beginning with hubris (“my story is so great that everyone will want to read it”), sloth (“I shall sit in this chair all day and twiddle keys with my fingers”), and despair (“this draft I have produced, lo, it reeketh of shit!”)

  13. I love this post. I actually have a similar idea about writing, and was thinking of doing a list post of my own about the skills needed to be a writer.

    Thanks for the humorous list of virtues I should cultivate. But can that liquor and coffee be optional? I’m not much for caffeine or alcohol…

  14. […] Wow. That sounds accusatory. Imagine me pointing at you when I say that. OR MAYBE IT’S YOU. *crash of thunder, shrieking violins* Ahem. What I’m saying is, sometimes you’re not ready yet. I’ve got stories I want to write that are on the back-burner because I’m just not ready to write them. Maybe I’m not mature enough. Maybe I don’t think my “mad skillz” are quite mad enough. I’ve tried writing them too early, and you know what? They don’t come together right, and every time I had to bail on them and write something I was ready to write. This takes self-awareness, but that’s an important virtue for a writer to possess. […]

  15. I love that while I’m reading a 25 list in your book telling you to cut out distractions, you have links to different articles that distract me from continuing to read the book. Every time I click on a link (which is everyone I see) I think about how much longer it is going to be before I finally go to sleep tonight.

  16. […] 25 Virtues Writers Should Possess I’ve always said that no matter the flavor of your writing career, it’s basically you putting a bucket on your head and running full force into a brick wall. Again and again. And in the end it’s either you or the wall . Any success is going to be in part due to dangerous levels of persistence and stubbornness. […]

  17. […] I’ve always said that no matter the flavor of your writing career, it’s basically you putting a bucket on your head and running full force into a brick wall. Again and again. And in the end it’s either you or the wall . Any success is going to be in part due to dangerous levels of persistence and stubbornness. 25 Virtues Writers Should Possess […]

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