25 Lies Writers Tell (And Start To Believe)

Ahh. The lies we writers tell ourselves. It’s a popular topic here, because as a man who has in the past been firmly rooted in the mud of his own self-slung bullshit, I think the best thing writers can do is get shut of illusions and myths and the deception — especially that which we create. Seemed high time to jack this into a “list of 25.”A greatest hits, if you will, and then some.

Let us now extinguish the conflagration of deception consuming our pants.

Argue these, if you choose, or add your own.

1. “I Don’t Have Time!”

Said it before, will say it again: I am afforded the same 24 hours that you are. I don’t get 30 hours. Stephen King doesn’t have a magical stopwatch that allows him to operate on Secret Creepy Writer Time. You have a full-time job? So do a lot of writers. Kids? So do a lot of writers. Rampant video-game-playing habit? Sadly, so do a lot of writers. You want time, snatch it from the beast’s mouth. And then use it.

2. “It’s Okay That I Didn’t Write Today, I’ll Do It Tomorrow!”

Another temporal lie. Oh. You didn’t write today? You’ll write tomorrow, you say? And I’m sure it wasn’t you who ate the last of my Honey-Nut Cheerios. Filthy cereal-stealing cock-bird! Ahem. Do not assume tomorrow will come. Car crash, heart attack, panda mauling; no promises that you’ll see the day after today. What you do get is today. You’re here right now, so don’t waste it. Today is always the day you have. Tomorrow is always a day away. Something-something Daddy Warbucks, hard-knock-life, blah blah blah.

3. “I’ll Come Back To This Story After I Write This Other Story!”

Yeah, that’s usually how it works. OH WAIT NO IT ISN’T. Ha ha! Thought you were going to sneak that squeaky wagon of bullshit past me, didn’t you? If you and your current manuscript pull a Ross-and-Rachel and “take a break,” you’re going to go and dip your wick in some other story’s puddle of word-wax. And — alert, alert, made-up stat incoming — 90% of writers who do that never return to the first story. And it forms a pattern that will happen again and again. It’s like you leaving a trail of half-eaten sandwiches. “Oh, ham-and-Swiss oh look pastrami-on-rye oooooh hold up hold up Italian hoagie OH SWEET SALIVATING SALLY is that a roasted bonobo monkey loin on brioche? CHOMP CHOMP.” Stop that. Finish the sandwich you’re eating. Er, story you’re writing. I may need to eat lunch. Anybody got a sandwich?

4. “Oh Noes, Writer’s Block Again!”

Writer’s block is not a real thing. You can be a writer, and you can be blocked. But don’t give it a special name. And don’t let it take up real estate inside your head. Writer’s block is an excuse afforded by the privilege of not having to write to feed yourself (mmm sandwich). When you suffer a thing you think is writer’s block, as with any demon or ghost, deny its existence. “The power of word count compels you!” you scream, flecking it with the holy water of writers (aka, whiskey). You get through writer’s block the same way you get through a door that’s closed: you open it or tear that fucker off its hinges.

5. “I Can Only Write When The Muse Allows!”

To the working writer, that means, “I can only pay my mortgage when the Muse allows.” True Fact Alert: Your Muse is a twatsicle. Hell with invisible fairy spirits who breathe the heady breath of inspiration in your soul. Own your work. It’s yours! That’s awesome! It’s not delivered to you by a shining knight galloping up on a golden unicorn. (Well, it is if you’ve gobbled copious fistfuls of hallucinogens.) Your story came from within. Fuck external validation. Let it all be you. Get away from excusing your lack of productivity on the capricious whims of a fickle butterfly-winged motherfucker some Greek made up once.

6. “My Creative Spark Hath Been Extinguished!”

Your creativity is not a baby rabbit. It doesn’t die of fright. Oh, I’m sorry, outlining hurt your poor widdle cweative self? Editing made your inner baby cry? Writing that query letter or reading that bad review huffed and puffed and blew your house of cards down? Dude. Dude. DUUUDE. Your creativity is made of tougher stuff. Kevlar and gravel and cast iron and… sandwiches. (Wait, I still didn’t eat lunch, did I? Is beer lunch? Yay! Beer!) The more you try to protect your idea of some frail, quivering flower living invisibly within your mind, the less you actually put words on paper for others to read.

7. “My Characters Are In Control!”

Stop that. This is another version of the “Muse ejaculates her story into my brainpan” lie: if you legitimately assume that your characters are in control, you’ve once again ceded intellectual and creative territory to imaginary entities. I’m not saying your subconscious mind fails to work through the story elements on the page. It does. It totally does. And, indeed, it feels at times like some kind of crazy moonbat magic. But from time to time you should remind yourself: this isn’t magic. Everything that’s happening is real. You control it. These puppets dance for you. This is your show. I wonder if writers tell this lie in part because it excuses failure and in part because it absolves them of responsibility — “Oh, didn’t like that story? Well, garsh, it’s what the characters wanted. I am just the conduit for their psychomemetic existence. Blame them!”

8. “That’s Not Bad Writing, That’s My Voice!”

Yeah, no, it’s just bad writing. It’s yours, all right. It’s just shitty.

9. “I Write Only For Me!”

Then don’t write. Sorry to be a hard-ass (ha ha, of course I’m not), but writing is an act of communicating. It’s an argument. It’s a conversation. (And yes, it’s entertainment.) And that necessitates at least one other person on the other end of this metaphorical phone call. You want to do something for yourself, eat a cheeseburger, buy an air conditioner, take a nap. Telling stories is an act we perform for others.

10. “I Don’t Need An Editor”

Ohh, but you do. Writers thrive on a little creative agitation. Your work is never perfect. You need someone to shave off the barnacles and, on a deeper level, unearth those things you didn’t realize were still buried. Maybe it’s a proper editor, an agent, a talented wife, a writer buddy, or a secret hobo genius. But someone needs to be there to tell you, “This works, this doesn’t, and have you considered this?” Their words are not gospel, but they’re necessary just the same. A high-five to editors all around. *slap*

11. “I Don’t Need To Do Any Planning!”

Your story is just born out of your head fully-formed, like Athena from Zeus? I don’t care if you’re outlining, drawing mind-maps, collecting research, or spattering notes on the wall in your own ropy jizz — you’d better be doing some kind of planning lest your tale flail around in the dark. Thing is, so many writers have convinced themselves that this is a totally viable course of action that they try it again and again, wondering exactly why the story can’t get off the ground or won’t make a lick of fucking sense. (And yes, I’m sure some people can actually accomplish this and accomplish it well. Those people are secret geniuses and I hate them and refuse to acknowledge them further lest I weep openly. DON’T LOOK AT ME WHEN I CRY.)

12. “I Have Nothing More To Learn!”

Dang! I didn’t realize I was speaking to a bodhisattva of the craft! You hung around on this mortal, ephemeral coil in order to lead the way by spiritual example? You’re the zenith! The pinnacle! The tippy-top of the penmonkey tit! *kicks you in the trachea* Sucker. You’re no such thing. Nobody is. Even the greatest writers can learn new things about storytelling, about writing, about the world in which we peddle our salacious word-born wares. You can always up your game. Seek opportunities to do so. Oh! And by the way, any of those writers who tout that line: “You can’t teach someone to be a writer, you either are a writer or you aren’t” are high on their own stench and just want to make themselves feel better. What kind of fucked-in-the-head lesson is that? You’re born a writer or you’re not? We’re beholden to some kind of creative caste system? It’s in our blood, like vampirism or syphilis? You can be taught. And you can teach yourself.

13. “I Need (Insert Some Bullshit Here) To Help Me Write!”

Whiskey? Coke? Crack? Ketamine? Salvia? Weed? Video games? Febreze? Pegasus blood? A sunny day? A winter’s night? A Carpathian prostitute? You need none of these things. Writing relies on very few things, my friend. All you need to write is your brain, a way to convey the story into existence (pen, computer, whatever), and a place in which to do it (office, kitchen table, lunar brothel). That’s it! Oh, and coffee. If a dude tries to take my coffee I will staple his hand to his face and push him down a hill.

14. “I Need To Write Like (Insert Some Other Asshole’s Name Here)!”

Let that dude or that lady write like that dude or that lady. You write like you write. Your voice is your own. Write to discover it, strengthen it, then own it. Don’t chase another author’s voice, style, genre, or story.

15. “If I Write It, They Will Come!”

It’d be great if all it took was to write a kick-ass story, comic, movie, or religious manifesto. That’s the myth. “Write the best book you can,” I sometimes say. Which is true. But doing that doesn’t cause rainbow beams to shoot out of your nipples that all the publishers the world around can see — “Twin rainbow nipple spires! A bestseller is born.” Writing the story is only part of what we do. The hard part is putting it out there. A great deal of work goes into birthing a book into the world — er, a good book, that is.

16. “Money Just Cheapens The Creative Process!”

Yeah, you know what else cheapens the creative process? Feeding my kids. Paying my mortgage. Stuffing grungy garter belts with sexy dollah-dollah bills y’all. Okay, that last one might actually cheapen it. Regardless! Money is not crass! It is not some vile thing that poisons the water of your creative well. Most of the art and entertainment you have enjoyed — if not all — was created by people who got paid (or, at least, hoped to get paid) in order to create that thing you loved so much. Even classic literature often earned its authors money. Money is good. Value your work. Nobody would fault you for earning out. Except jerks. But who cares what jerks think except other jerk-faced jerk-holed jerks?

17. “This Draft Needs To Be Perfect!”

Perfection is itself the most perfect lie. Well-defended, crystalline in its beauty, an elegant specimen to hold up: “Behold. I seek only perfection. Is that so wrong?” Actually? It is. Perfection is meaningless and impossible. And, worse, it’s maddening. You can spend countless reiterative hours “perfecting” a story, which adds up to you just spinning your tires on a road of greasy mud. You have to know when done is done. When good is good. When perfection is a thing that lives in the eyes of others and exists outside your control. It’s like worrying whether something is or is not art. Let someone else figure that out.

18. “My Crap Isn’t As Crappy As Some Other Crap!”

The other side of the coin, here. You see this sometimes (oft-touted by self-published authors of dubious merit), where they note that Piece-of-Crap X by Author Y made it into the marketplace and their sanctimonious drivel is at least as good as that, and gatekeepers can’t know quality and it’s all subjective and *barf yawn.* It’s all a slippery slope of self-deception bent on excusing lazy habits of writing and, in some cases, publishing. Are you seriously aiming for, what, a C+ grade? Lowest common denominator? “Grade E-but-Edible?” Don’t be a lazy knob. Be proud! Be awesome! Put out the best work you can.

19. “But First I Need To Build My Brand!”

Nobody wants to read a “product” by a “brand.” They want to read a story by an author. You’re a person, not a brand. You have a book, not a platform. Concentrate on the story first. The rest comes later.

20. “Nobody Has Ever Thought Of This Idea Before!”

Yes. They totally have. It’s your job to make it feel original. The art is in the arrangement.

21. “Writing Should Be Easy / Delicious Misery!”

We come to believe that writing should either be super-easy (“The words should just fall out of my face whenever I tilt my head forward!”) or that it’s a miserable activity (“OH GOD MORE WRITING I hate writing so much all this telling stories about imaginary people gives me a well-deserved anal fissure”). Further, when it’s not easy or not wretched, we feel like we’re not doing it justice. Put that lie aside. Some days will be easy. Some will be hard. Some days you dig soft earth, other days the shovel hits stone. But you dig just the same because that’s the only way the hole gets dug.

22. “This (Insert System Of Publishing) Is The Only Way!”

It’s easy to bet everything on one option. But easy doesn’t mean smart, and this is a lie that can get you into quite a bit of danger. Self-publishing is not the wave of the future. Traditional publishing is not an insurmountable mountain. Kickstarter is not a gospel. Free is not perfect. Authors are at a point where we have a great many options before us, and to ignore 90% of them to focus on one path is to deny the awesomeness of having options in the first fucking place. For a long time we had one way to get published. Now we’ve many more. Stick a finger in each pie. Why? BECAUSE MULTIPLE PIES, DUMMY. Yay, pie!

23. “I’m The Last Beautiful Dodo Bird On Earth!”

You want things to work a certain way for you because you’re special or talented or because you look really good in those jeans. Don’t think the publishing world will turn on its axis for you. Don’t think that readers aren’t savvy to all the tricks. Be the scrappy underdog, not the self-assumed victor-of-Thunderdome.

24. “Writing Is Not A Viable Career / I Can Never Do This Professionally!”

A dread deception sung by those who would seek to diminish the value of art and stories in the world. I read an article recently that suggested that the average annual take-home for authors is $9000. That is not viable. That is not money on which one may live. But I’m just one example of many entrenched penmonkeys earning a real living year after year. Paying bills! Buying stuff! Porn and sandwiches and whiskey! You can do this. It’ll take work. And time. Doesn’t happen overnight. But it can happen.

25. “I Suck Moist Open Ass!”

The darkest lie we tell ourselves: that we and our writing are not worth a bag of microwaved diapers. Listen, I don’t know how talented or skilled or capable you are. Hell, maybe you’re not that great. But nobody got better by feeling bad about it. You have one of two choices: you can be destructive to yourself or constructive. You can tear yourself down or find a way to build yourself up — and I don’t mean build yourself up with compliments but build yourself up with skills and abilities and the practice that gets you there. You suck? That thought sucks. Get better. Improve. Aim big. Give yourself the chance to fail — and then give yourself a chance to build steps from the corpses of your failure so you may climb higher every time. You don’t become a writer by feeling sad about your self-worth. The only sucking you need to do is to suck it up and do the work. Everything else is a consumptive distraction.


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134 comments

  • Really nice list again :)

    1 & 4:
    Stuff like this makes me giggle. It’s especially amusing since I got an annoying day-job (working a lot of shifts and overtime), having a clinical depression and being an autistic person, yet I managed to finish the 1st draft of my current novel within a year.

    Even during the really bad days – I’m talking about the days when I’m happy for living in a country with highly restrictive gun laws, so I don’t get tempted to use one on myself – I manage to do someting on my story. Just playing around with mock-ups for the cover or changing around the font on your character notes can help you to get back into the writing mood. You just have to do it. It’s not really hard if you have the ambition. If you don’t have the ambition, you aren’t really a writer, but a talker and we really don’t need more talkers on this planet…

    17:
    It’s really fine to go for perfection, well at least if your name is George Lucas and you screw around with your early works for 35 years.

    21:
    That’s really a tricky one for me, Chuck.
    On the one hand writing feels like a real job that can become really hard at certain times. On the other hand it can be the easiest thing in the world once you get the “flow”. Sadly this odd feeling doesn’t occur that often in the beginning of the writing process, but once you tasted it, it’s like crack. You just want to get back into the flow and spill out word after word, sentence after sentence, scene after scene. Things written during these phases often seem to be the best pieces I’ve ever written.

  • Mr. Wendig, have you been reading my blog? I’m uncomfortable with how close to home some of these hit.

    Well. You can take my illusions, but you’ll never take my pantsterdom. I LIKE writing 20 kajillion drafts. It won’t be as fun when I’m under a deadline, and maybe I’ll come around then. But for now, the writing is the fun part, and it amuses me to note, “Put *SCIENCE* here.”

  • Thank you. A thousand times thank you. From now on, I will be known as that crazy girl who goes around muttering, “My Muse is a twatsicle. My Muse is a twatsicle.” Also I will occasionally scream, “The power of word count compels you!”

    No really, I am sincerely and not facetiously thanking you. I needed this. Badly. (And I was already crazy.)

    I’d like to print out this list—one copy only, for myself only—and cover it with highlighter and scribbled little drawings and lipstick kisses and possibly some tear-stains.

  • I have a friend who wants to write, and could be a great writer, and he comes up with an amazing array of excuses for not writing. One was that he couldn’t type, or hated to type. He’s one of the fastest typists I’ve ever seen! He types all the time! It’s ridiculous!

    Another was that he wanted to write a screenplay, but hates the standard screenplay format. Inability to accept the format you’ve chosen is madness. I’ve seen guys try to write scripts without any structure or format, and it’s like trying to read vomit.

    Embrace convention, make no excuses, have no expectations, and just do it. Complete your work, and if it’s broken you can fix it. If it’s not complete you have NOTHING. Completion is everything.

    I also get put off by people who try to write about subjects they know nothing about, and don’t do sufficient research on. You want to write about a psychotherapist counseling a serial killer, but you know nothing about psychology or about serial killers, so you’re going to just make it up? Guess what! It’s going to be CRAP! Write what you know, and don’t wing it on reality. As an artist, if I’m supposed to draw a car, I don’t draw one based on what I “think” a car looks like. I get a photo of a car or go look at a car and draw from that. If I drew a thousand cars I’m sure I could just whip one up, but if you’re not at that level, don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re good enough to wing it. There’s nothing worse than coming across something someone wrote that deals with a topic you’re an expert on and seeing how the writer didn’t know squat about what they were writing about. The worst is knowing that the idiotic author will be spreading misinformation on that topic to anyone who reads his/her work.

  • Write about drunk flying clowns and you’ll find a steady stream of agents ringing your bell. You are right about Writer’s Block. Drives me apeshit when people say that.

    Not that you asked, but my advice when I hear it is almost always “put pen to paper and write like a motherfucker or alternatively write about having sex with your mother. After you finish bleaching your eyes just write.”

    It is a stupid excuse for non production- nothing more.

  • One of your great posts. But the headlines on your page don’t show up in Internet Explorer in Windows 7. Please check the encoding. And nobody tell me to get a Mac, specifically because they suck.

  • I thought I knew how to outline until I started a novel. After working on it for a while I realized that the outline for the middle third was basically “the heroes investigate”. Might need more detail there.

  • I thought I didn’t plan. Then I counted up all the words in all the ‘random notes’ files lying around on my computer and discovered that there are a lot of them. Apparently all this time I’ve been planning and didn’t realise it because I thought planning meant outlining. I still don’t outline… until I’m getting ready to write the second draft.

    I also discovered that “I’m going to write 2,000 words today or die trying” is a plan. It has nothing to do with plotting, but it’s a plan.

  • DAMMIT, Alexander stole my line! I’ll have to step it up to I KNOW I LOVE YOU. This is brilliance. DUDE. Thank you for tilting your head forward and letting this amazing shit fall out.

  • @EC:
    Heh, I’m writing new Coburn this week. Releases in… May or June, I think?
    – c.

    You have made my day. I loved Coburn! Not that I’d want to be on a desert island with the guy. :-0

  • I am so guilty of #3 it’s criminal. I believe some stories need to stew and to be thought out, and sometimes I have to get thoughts down as they come. However, I need.. NEED to stop. I need to be hit over the head with a mallet. No new crap til the other crap has been flushed.

  • Thank you for indelibly scribing “twatsicle” into my vocabular.

    I think there’s also a flip side to number 18 — when I’ve thought this (as I’ve thought almost every other crappy thought on that list) it’s been mostly positive. “Wait a minute — I can do this. He/She/It did this, and I can totally make it work, too. I just need to get *better*.”

  • Great list.
    My wife handmade a book for me for christmas a few years ago. it was quotes made by famous authors about writing. She hunted them down online . She handmade the cover and hand bound it. When i came to a few of the pages that were upside down, it made it even more precious. Perfectly flawed for an audience of one.
    But when it comes to mass produced, Editors are a must. The problem, like everything else in life, is getting a good one. Maybe one of your blogs will be about editors.
    Names or pub houses.

  • Great read. I have been guilty of far too many of these over the years. Now I’m just trying to focus on becoming a better writer. Everything else I will worry about later. Thanks for the great article!

  • I agree with most everything in this column except I don’t think it’s sad to play video games and I completely disagree with #3.

    I play Grand Slam Tennis on the Wii. Like most writers, I get killer knots in my back and shoulders. The game basically stretches me out. It also provides an adrenaline rush and clears my mind when needed, like a walk around the block.

    An “orphan” file is essential, in my opinion. I write everything I find clever or interesting down if I can in my trusty Levenger and assign them to unfinished stories or ideas. On deadlines they have saved my job more than once and as far as I’m concerned the other stories are incubating. (Or festering.)

  • The one about not having enough time? You do realise I’m spend an inordinate amount of that elusive writing time, reading your exquisite points on writing (either your 500 in the book – great BTW) or on this site. Oh, and I just checked out the new writing challenge too. This will never get my editing done and I blame you (because I prefer it to blaming myself) entirely.

  • Aw, no!! #18 isn’t true?!? That’s my fallback reassurance! On the other hand, people actually say #19?? Out loud!? I’ve had a glimpse into the dark world that is advertising and that one has never occurred to me in relation to my own writing. What a bunch of nutbags we all are.

  • Guilty of a few but working on it. But what I really need to do right now is have a sandwich. And maybe a beer. Heeeere beery beery beery? C’mon boy!

  • Quote:
    “You control it. These puppets dance for you. This is your show. I wonder if writers tell this lie in part because it excuses failure and in part because it absolves them of responsibility.”

    I raise an eyebrow. You, sir, have obviously never been shouted down by a character who thinks you failed their story. You have obviously never quailed under the snapped epitaph of “expendable scribe”, and been told to write it again, but better– under threat of their finding another author or physiologically screwing you over or both.

    “The problem with the girl,” my Thief Lord says patronizingly, “is that she would never get around to anything, were I not constantly hounding her. Is this real? Hell yes– MY reality, MY show, and MY puppet answers to me if she does a crappy job. You underestimate our pride, Chuck, if you think we’d let her get away with anything less than her best.”

    Do I sound absolved of responsibility to you? Indeed, the fact that “My Characters Are Real People Living In My Head” makes it all the more important that I not fail them. (Not all of them are the snide perfectionists that that fellow is, but I don’t want to disappoint any of them.)

  • I am most definitely more of a brand than a person.

    Nevertheless I will print this list out, paste it on my wall and study it daily, so I can steal some of your precious mojo.

  • All those lies are symptomatic of creativity. If we cant comfortably lie to ourselves as part of our process, then how the fuck can we expect anyone else to comfortably put their hands in their pockets for the privilege of reading the grist from our tortured grinding, millstones of self indulgence?
    We run the clanking, leaky engines of our writing process on pure, high octane self indulgence! Let’s face it, nobody else is going to indulge us if we can’t first indulge ourselves.
    It wasn’t “The American Dream” that inspired Kerouac to motor his way from coast to coast without so much as a basic grasp of punctuation was it? It was his rapacious appetite for amphetamines, weed, and poon tang! The only self discipline he needed to scribble down “On The Road”, was to absent mindedly grab a pencil and notebook on his way out of the door!
    His Muse was no more than the heady rush of Benzedrine, Spliff, and Liquor. He may have been lying to himself as he pushed himself through 72 hour days, with his half convincing “Don’t need no sleep this week baby, sleep’s for people who have given up on life” . It was the synergetic nitrous oxide rush of pharmaceutically induced psychosis, utter self indulgence, and a snifta of young, impressionable, horny jailbait to bang his nail into!

    Some old dead guy once said “Enjoy all things of sense and rapture, no God shall deny you for this”. And you know what? He was right about that! Wrong about a whole bunch of other stuff, but he was an extremely prolific writer, and probably the most influential mystical sociopath of the 20th Century. Do what thou wilt, shall be the whole of the Law.
    (He was right on the money there too)

  • After reading this, I’d like to thank you for educating me that your books are some of the most uninteresting pieces of writing. I can’t begin to imagine a “writer” (assuming the term fits the personality you’ve demonstrated here) with this type of mindset actually writing. This is lecturing, not educating. And this definitely isn’t writing.

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