25 Things I Want To Say To So-Called “Aspiring” Writers

Seen a lot of folks giving advice to so-called “aspiring” writers these days, so, I figured what the hell? Might as well throw my dubious nuggets of wisdom into the stew. See if any of this tastes right to you.

1. No More Aspiring, Dingbats

Here are the two states in which you may exist: person who writes, or person who does not. If you write: you are a writer. If you do not write: you are not. Aspiring is a meaningless null state that romanticizes Not Writing. It’s as ludicrous as saying, “I aspire to pick up that piece of paper that fell on the floor.” Either pick it up or don’t. I don’t want to hear about how your diaper’s full. Take it off or stop talking about it.

2. Kick Your Lowest Common Denominator In The Kidneys

You can aspire to be a lot of other things within the writing realm, and that’s okay. You can aspire to be a published author. Or a bestselling author. Or a professional freelance writer. Or an author who plagiarizes his memoir and gets struck with a wooden mallet wielded by Oprah live on primetime television. You should aspire to be a better writer. We all should. Nobody is at the top of his game. We can all climb higher.

3. Aspiring Writers, Far As The Eye Can See

Nobody respects writers, yet everybody wants to be one (probably because everybody wants to be one). Point is, you want to be a writer? Good for you. So does that guy. And that girl. And him. And her. And that old dude. And that young broad. And your neighbor. And your mailman. And that chihuahua. And that copy machine. Ahead of you is an ocean of wannabe ink-slaves and word-earners. I don’t say this to daunt you. Or to be dismissive. But you have to differentiate yourself and the way you do that is by doing rather than be pretending. You will climb higher than them on a ladder built from your wordsmithy.

4. We All Booby-Trap The Jungle Behind Us

There exists no one way toward becoming a professional writer. You cannot perfectly walk another’s journey. That’s why writing advice is just that — it’s advice. It’s mere suggestion. Might work. Might not. Lots of good ideas out there, but none of it is gospel. One person will tell you this is the path. Another will point the other way and say that is the path. They’re both right for themselves, and they’re both probably wrong for you. We all chart our own course and burn the map afterward. It’s just how it is. If you want to find the way forward, then stop looking for maps and start walking.

5. The Golden Perfect Path Of The Scrivening Bodhisattvas

Point is, fuck the One True Way. Doesn’t exist. Nobody has answers — all you get are suggestions. Anybody who tells you they have The Answer is gassy with lies. Distrust such certainty and play the role of skeptic.

6. Yes, It Always Feels This Way

You will always have days when you feel like an amateur. When it feels like everybody else is better than you. You will have this nagging suspicion that someone will eventually find you out, call you on your bullshit, realize you’re the literary equivalent of a vagrant painting on the side of a wall with a piece of calcified poop. You will have days when the blank page is like being lost in a blizzard. You will sometimes hate what you wrote today, or yesterday, or ten years ago. Bad days are part of the package. You just have to shut them out, swaddle your head in tinfoil, and keep writing anyway.

7. Figure Out How You Write, Then Do That

You learn early on how to write. But for most authors it takes a long time to learn how they in particular write. Certain processes, styles, genres, character types, POVs, tenses, whatever — they will come more naturally to you than they do to others. And some won’t come naturally at all. Maybe you’ll figure this out right out of the gate. But for most, it just takes time — time filled with actual writing — to tease it out.

8. Finish Your Shit

I’m just going to type this out a dozen times so it’s clear: finish your shit. Finish your shit. Finish your shit. Finish your shit. Finish your shit. Finish your shit! FINISH YOUR SHIT. Finish. Your. Shit. Fiiiiniiiish yooooour shiiiiit. COMPLETO EL POOPO. Vervollständigen Sie Ihre Fäkalien! Finish your shit.

9. You Need To Learn The Rules. . .

…in order to know when they must be broken.

10. You Need To Break The Rules. . .

… in order to know why they matter.

11. What I Mean By Rules Is–

Writing is a technical skill. A craft. You can argue that storytelling is an art. You can argue that art emerges from good writing the way a dolphin riding a jet-ski emerges the longer you stare at a Magic Eye painting. But don’t get ahead of yourself, hoss. You still need to know how to communicate. You need to learn the laws of this maddening land. I’ve seen too many authors want to jump ahead of the skill and just start telling stories — you ever try to get ahead of your own skill level? I used to imagine pictures in my head and I’d try to paint them in watercolor and they’d end up looking like someone barfed up watery yogurt onto the canvas. I’d rail against this: WHY DON’T THEY LOOK BEAUTIFUL? Uhh, because you don’t know how to actually paint, dumb-fuck. You cannot exert your talent unless you first have the skill to bolster that talent.

12. Oh, The Salad Days Of College!

Why are the days of our youth known as “salad days?” Is “salad” really the image that conjures up the wild and fruitful times of our adolescence? “Fritos,” maybe. Or “Beer keg.” I dunno. What were we talking about? Ah! Yes. College. Do you need it? Do you need a collegiate education, Young Aspirant to the Penmonkey Order? Need, no. To get published nobody gives a flying rat penis whether or not you have a degree. They just care that you can write. Now, college and even post-grad work may help you become a better writer — it did for me! — though, I’d argue that the money you throw into the tank getting there may have been better spent on feeding yourself while you just learn how to write in whatever mousetrap you call a domicile. You can only learn so much from someone teaching you how to write. Eventually you just have to write.

13. Reading Does Not Make You A Writer

That’s the old piece of advice, isn’t it? “All you need to do is read and write to be a writer.” You don’t learn to write through reading anymore than you learn carpentry by sitting on a chair. You learn to write by writing. And, when you do read something, you learn from it by dissecting it — what is the author doing? How are characters and plot drawn together? You must read critically — that is the key.

14. Here Is Your Tin Cup, Your Hobo Bindle, Your Rat-Nest Undies

You’re going to starve for a while, so just get used to that now. Don’t quit your day job. Yet.

15. Commerce Is Not The Enemy Of Art

If you think commerce somehow devalues art, then we’re done talking. I got nothin’ for you. Money doesn’t devalue art any more than art devalues money — commerce can help art, hurt art, or have no effect. The saying isn’t Money is the root of all evil. It’s The love of money is the root of all evil. Commerce only damages art when the purpose of the art is only money. So it is with your writing.

16. Overnight Success Probably Isn’t

Suddenly on your radar screen is a big giant glowing mass like you’d see when a swarm of xenomorphs is closing fast on your position and it’s like, “Hey! This author appeared out of nowhere! Overnight success! Mega-bestseller! Million-dollar deal!” And then you get it in your head: “I can do that, too. I can go from a relative nobody to America’s Favorite Author, and Oprah will keep me in a gilded cage and she’ll feed me rare coffees whose beans were first run through the intestinal tract of a dodo bird.” Yeah, except, those who are “overnight successes,” rarely appear out of nowhere. It’s the same way that an asteroid doesn’t “just appear” before destroying earth and plunging it into a dust-choked dead-sun apocalypse: that fucker took a long time to reach earth, even if we didn’t notice. Overnight successes didn’t win the lottery. They likely toiled away in obscurity for years. The lesson is: work matters.

17. Meet The Universe In The Middle

My theory in life and writing is this — and it’s some deeply profound shit, so here, lower the lights, put on a serious turtleneck with a houndstooth elbow-patched jacket over it, and go ahead and smoke this weird hash I stole from an Afghani cult leader. The theory is this: meet the universe halfway and the universe will meet you in return. Explained more completely: there exist components of any career (but writing in particular) that are well beyond your grasp. You cannot control everything. Some of it is just left to fate. But, you still have to put in the work. You won’t get struck by lightning if you don’t run out the storm. You must maximize your chances. You do this by meeting the universe halfway. You do this by working.

18. Self-Publishing Is Not The Easy Way Out

Self-publishing is a viable path. It is not, however, the easy path. Get shut of this notion. You don’t just do a little ballerina twirl and a book falls out of your vagina. (And if that does happen, please see a doctor. Especially if you’re a dude.) It takes a lot of effort to bring a proper self-published book to life. Divest yourself of the idea that it’s the cheaper, easier, also-ran path. Faster, yes. But that’s all.

19. No, Total Stranger, I Don’t Want To Read Your Stuff

I really don’t. And neither does any other working author. It’s nothing personal. We just don’t know you from any other spam-bot lurking in the wings ready to dump a bucket of dick pills and Nigerian money over our heads. That’s not to say we won’t be friendly or are unwilling to talk to you about your work, but we’re already probably neck deep in the ordure of our own wordsmithy. (Or we’re drunk and confused at a Chuck-E-Cheese somewhere.) We cannot take the time to read the work of total strangers. Be polite if you’re going to ask. And damn sure don’t get mad when we say no.

20. Your Jealousy And Depression Do Not Matter

All writers get down on themselves. It’s in our wheelhouse. We see other writers being successful and at first we’re all like, “Yay, good for that person!” but then ten minutes later we get this sniper’s bullet of envy and this poison feeling shoots through the center of our brain like a railroad spike: BUT WHY NOT ME? And then we go take a bath with a toaster. Fuck that. Those feelings don’t matter. They don’t help you. They may be normal, they may be natural, but they’re not useful and they’re certainly not interesting.

21. Talking About Writing Is Not The Same As Writing

Needs no further comment.

22. Pack Your Echo Chamber With C4 And Blow It Skyward

Aspiring writers lock themselves away in echo chambers filled with other aspiring writers where one of two things often happen: one, everybody gives each other happy handjobs and nobody writes anything bad and everybody likes everything and it’s a big old self-congratulatory testicle-tickling festival; two, it’s loaded for bear by people who don’t know how to give good criticism and the criticism is destructive rather than constructive and it’s just a cloud of bad vibes swirling around your head like a plague of urinating bats. If you find yourself in this kind of echo chamber, blow a hole in the wall and crawl to freedom.

23. Learn To Take A Punch

Agents, editors, reviewers, readers, trolls on the Internet, they’re going to say things you don’t want to hear. A thick skin isn’t enough. You need a leathery carapace. A chitinous exoskeleton. Writing is a hard-knock career where you invite a bevy of slings and arrows into your face and heart. It is what it is.

24. You Can Do Whatever The Fuck You Want

As a writer, the world you create is yours and yours alone. Someone will always be there to tell you what you can’t do, but they’re nearly always wrong. You’re a writer. You can make anything up that you want. It may not be lucrative. It may not pay your mortgage. But we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about what’s going on between you and the blank page before you. It’s just you and the story. If you love it and you want to write it, then wire your trap shut and write it. And write it well. Expect nothing beyond this — expect no reward, expect no victory parade — but embrace the satisfaction it gives you to do your thing.

25. The One No-Fooling Rule

Is “write.” Write, write, write, motherfucking write. Write better today than you did yesterday and better tomorrow than you did today. Onward, fair penmonkey, onward. If you’re not a writer, something will stop you — your own doubts, hate from haters, a bad review, poor time management, a hungry raccoon that nibbles off your fingers, whatever. If you’re a writer, you’ll write. And you’ll never stop to look back.


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471 comments

  • I am so glad I saw this on my twitter feed when I did. This came at the right time when I was completely pulverizing myself with the nonsense that I’m an useless failure when I didn’t even try to write.

    …though of course I would be utterly pointless if I continued to think that way and end up being right but yes, thank you Chuck for this. I need to save this somewhere and snap myself out of it because I know I’ll sink back into it again.

    But hopefully for not a long ass while. I definitely need to work on 1, 8, and 20. And a number of others but those are the top ones. It’s a great (and needed) read as always. Thank you and have a great day!

  • College may help you learn to write better, but sadly, too many college “writing workshops” or MFA’s (or whatever else they try and push as the shiny thing-of-the-moment that will get you “there” with your writing) don’t have half the actual information of your “25-things” posts. It’s sad when designated learning environments become the sort of echo chamber in #22.

  • Thank you so much for this, Chuck. I can’t wait to scream-send this post to people who tell me “the rules to being a successful writer”, people who try to coerce me into reading their unpublished books like I don’t have a day-job AND 8 writing projects already, and people with general know-it-all syndrome while still picking away at their first novel which started over 10 years ago.

    I tilt my hat, pen, and beer to you, good sir. (I wish it wasn’t 7am so I could actually have a beer…)

  • “I wish I had time to write.”

    I’ve heard that so many times, and I used to come back with a long speech about making time, and we all have a lot to juggle, and blah blah blah. Now I just say, “If you really wish you had time to write, you do.”

    I think the same thing when a published writer (self or trad), bemoans their sudden lack of time to read now that they’re Authors. Seriously? Puh-leeze. Watch one less episode of Half-Ton Mom and read instead.

    Okay, I will take off my cranky pants now.

  • As always, brilliant. I’d like to tattoo #21 to the foreheads of a few friends. I shall link them here, instead. I never understood the use of the word aspiring, for a lot of the reasons you’ve listed here. I’m a writer. I write. What happens with and to that writing is another thing entirely.

    Thanks for this, Chuck.

  • “Aspiring” sounds much better in front of “writer” than “unpublished”, which is the sense in which I’ve always used it when referring to my own attempts. Isn’t it just about what each individual considers their “made it” mark is?

  • The one about college is SO true. Don’t get me wrong, four alcohol fueled years with other nerdy boys and girls was great, but it won’t *make* you a writer. I write some on my speculative fiction blog (which is ALWAYS looking for guest writers by the way) but I know I need to put away the books, turn off my phone and lock my husband out of my office if I really want to get work done.

    A.A.

    “Where were you when the world ended?” http://www.artifactsoftheapocalypse.blogspot.com

  • I “aspire” to be a professional writer, namely so I can write during the day and use my free time for other things, but I always write, and only very occasional about writing.

    Great post.

  • Aspiring writers are people who want to be writers without having to go through the actual process of writing. And they aren’t limited to writing. Isn’t that what Guitar Hero does for us? We get to be kick-ass rock stars without having to actually spend hours and hours learning to play the guitar?

    Such games aren’t necessarily bad, so long as we keep in mind that they are games. Personally, however, I don’t mind the wailing and gnashing of teeth as I create something that has never existed before. And then the continual revising is a positive outlet for my OCD.

    My best advice to somebody with a head full of stories, who is wondering how to get them on paper? You don’t have to feel like writing to be able to write. Hell, you don’t have to feel like writing to be able to write quite well. Occasionally, things just click right along with little effort, but those times are rare. Tattoo rule number eight on the insides of your eyelids and don’t be afraid of hard work.

  • Sometimes we need a good kick in the pants. Well, I do anyway. I spend more time reading about writing than actually doing it. The War of Art sits beside me now, calling me to procrastination! Well it’s going to have to wait… ’cause now it’s time to write!

  • This reminds me of some of the best advice I have ever heard about writing (from Matt Forbeck actually) and that is to simply write. It doesn’t matter what but just write, period. It is because of this that when a friend complained about needing to write that I challenged him to do just that, write. I even told him it could be as simple as writing about a cheese sandwich. It stuck, to this day we still poke each other from time to time with the tossed gauntlet of a cheese sandwich as a reminder and as motivation. I think more writers could use such advice as this, and like a undisciplined child are spoiled by the absence of a firm hand. So, thank you, for the switch. And may I have another?

  • Love it! Going to share this on FB for the many people who “aspire” to….well, do anything.

    I’d love to read your opinion on literary versus genre fiction. Maybe it’s just me, but the word literature means written information. No? Batman comics are literature, aren’t they?

    Do you know what forest the tree house with the sign that says, “Only literary writers allowed,” is? Are you privy to their secret handshake?

    Thanks again, Chuck, you put a lot of things many of us think and feel out there.

    • @Selena:

      I find no appreciable difference between literary and genre. Good is good. Crap is crap. Writing is writing.

      The only real difference is in terms of marketing — which is useful to know and understand, but not all that useful in terms of writing your work.

      — c.

  • My favourite?

    Number 8.

    FINISH. YOUR. SHIT.

    Because it always starts out as shit and then we all have to dig through all that crap to find that shiny pearl we accidentally swallowed… Okay that’s not a very good analogy.

    But I shall live by this principles.

    Especially: FINISH YOUR SHIT.

  • I totally agree with you! I wrote something similar on a blog once, and was attacked by the “clubs” members. LOL Didn’t phaze me, I’ve read wonderful genre books and wonderful so-called literary fiction and have also read crapola on both sides.

  • Oh, how many discussions there have been about who has the ‘right’ to call themselves a ‘writer’ or an ‘author’. And people who claim you have to outline or face massive chaos, or swear prologues are the death knell for any book, who tell you self-publishing is the only way to be a ‘smart writer’, who insist their way is The Way to success. Thank you for yet another column of sweet (and sour) truth!

  • Hey, Chuck, will you read my stuff?????

    haha

    Unfortunately, while my work has plenty of sex and violence, it likely has too few mythical creatures for your taste. I’ll work on that in the upcomings.

    Meanwhile, the toughest part for me has been the slings and arrows in my face and heart. I haven’t gotten any bad reviews on my novels (yet) but when I used to post shorter stuff on my blog, the trolls came out in force. My notoriety made it impossible to avoid them, and they were cruel. However, since talking about my feelings is generally uninteresting, I shall only say that my kung-fu is strong, and my pimp hand stronger.

    thanks to fine teachers such as yourself, and the school of hard-ass knocks.

  • “You don’t just do a little ballerina twirl and a book falls out of your vagina”. Loved that line so much I spat my coffee over my desk.

  • I have seen plenty of “real” writers who vehemently disagree with your first point. (And this goes for artists too). If you don’t get paid, you are not qualified to call yourself a “professional” anything. The famous guy playing violin in the subway? Yeah, he has a day job with a prestigious orchestra.

    • @Amber:

      I used to feel the same way. That’s an ultimately elitist perspective (and, as noted, one I possessed) — it’s a way for published or professional authors to make themselves not merely feel good, but better than those who have not been published.

      Thing is, who cares? That’s all nonsense. You’re either doing the work or you’re not. You’re either a writer in action and identity or you’re a poseur who talks about it instead of doing it.

      Writers writer.

      That’s what makes a writer.

      Anybody who wants to say differently, that’s their business. But for me, I’m happy to add the distinction “published” or “professional” to create that nuanced definition.

      — c.

  • I wasted years aspiring instead of being. I offer my cautionary tale here.

    http://danielboshea.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/wasted-time-confessions-of-a-recovering-dilettante/

    And I applaud the Chucks of the world for recognizing the fraud of aspiration early in life and tearing out its throat in their youth before the shackles of inertia had time to rust in place. In Barbara Tuchman’s marvelous history A DISTANT MIRROR, she quotes the stone marking the grave of a French noble who, in his day, stode astride his world like a collusus.

    As you are now, so once was I
    As I am now, so you will be

    Today, he is remembered only by historians. Your clock is ticking, the sand is emptying from your glass, and only fate knows if that glass marks years or days or hours. Gather ye rosebuds, because that rumbling you hear behind you, that is time’s winged chariot, and the driver is always going to the whip.

    And neither can you waste a moment lamenting the sand already past. You can’t have it back or change any sin, whether of ommission or commission that marked its passing.

    Forward, penmonkeys! Saddle up the work of your choice! Tease it with carrots! Spur or whip its flanks into bloody froth! Ride its ass into the ground and then carve its meat into finished stories before mounting the next beast and the next and the next. Go not gentle into that good night. Hell, don’t even go gentle into lunch.

  • Bwuahahaha: Complete Your Feces! Nice.

    Too late for No. 14 (but I did have extenuating circumstances). I’m learning to sink or swim. I’m swimming, mostly.

    I hang my hat on that this year I moved from “aspiring” to “emerging,” and someone else wrote those words.

    Time to write. Word count waits for no one.

    BTFO!

  • What can I say? Your advice throttled my brain and shook me out of a major slumber.

    Cheers to that. I shall now write religously and probably not have time to read your stuff.

    Thank you! Gracias! Danke! Merci! Syukuria! Arigato! Mahalo!

  • Perfect time for me to find this. I’ve retired and all close relatives have sickened and died…including my husband. And all reasons not to write have died with them.

    I’ve dug out some old stuff and found I still like the characters and ideas. So instead of agonizing about it being out of date, I shall finish it and worry about marketability later.

    Thanks, Barbara

  • While I found this blog really funny and semi motivational, I will offer you a bit of critisim. Call it a testiment to your ‘thick skin.’ The point you were heading for was made halfway through the blog. After that, you were just kicking a dead horse and pressning bits of witty albeit bleak opinions. I’m sure you know this already, and I’m not trying to rain on your parade or any other such nonesense. I just wanted to point out that while being a writer means write, write, write you also have to know when to stop, stop, stop. I’ve done the same thing plenty of times. Why? Because when writers are on a roll we tend to think everything we create must must be enjoyed. That being said, I did enjoy your points. Thanks for sharing.

    • @Jennifer:

      I disagree! I mean, yes, all the points in this post are geared toward an overall point, and each kind of reiterates and reflects that point somewhat, I’d say all (or, most, at least) have their own things to say, whether it’s about self-publishing or a writer’s depression or writer groups or college, etc.etc. — yes, they all drive home the core tenet (which is to write), but each ideally offers some other little snidbit of wisdom and/or absurd penmonkey reflection.

      — c.

  • I LOVE this! entire post, but mostly this:
    ‘You should aspire to be a better writer.’

    Absolutely. And person. We have far too many people who don’t aspire to just BE better.

    I call myself a writer, because I write. What I don’t call myself is an author. Because one does not equal the other. And unfortunately, ‘author’ does not mean someone who has a really awesome 167 page word doc that her mother absolutely loves.

    Maybe people should call themselves “aspiring authors.’

    Or, just for fun, ‘aspiring New York Times Bestselling Authors.’

    Because you’ve got to have dreams, right? 😉

  • Jessa – “I call myself a writer, because I write. What I don’t call myself is an author. Because one does not equal the other”

    Tomato, ‘tomahto’ – same thing. Anyone who writes something has authored it – therefore they’re an author. Otherwise, saying “I’m a published author” is just redundant. More quibbling for the sake of egos, I’m afraid.

  • Great stuff. I’ve been a writer my entire adult life (newspaper, PR, etc.) and am now trying to turn the corner and write fiction as I’m about to hit 40. Chuck’s stuff is great for the young writer who has never had anything published or for people like me who are looking to completely change their writing style and their comfort level within the writing world.

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