25 Realizations Writers Need To Have

1. The Story Is The Thing

“Publishing is on a collision course with the sun! Amazon has eaten all the books and shat them out as e-books! Development funds are drying up! Writers are shanking each other with Bic pens over a 1/4-cent-per-word!” Stop. Breathe. Refocus. Media companies will rise and fall. Technologies come and go. The story remains constant. More to the point, our need for stories remain constant. Storytellers and writers aren’t going anywhere. They may need to bend with the wind. They may need to find new ways to thrive. But they — we — will always have a place. The audience will be there. We just have to find them.

2. Old Stories, New Faces

As storytellers, we must adapt by adopting new ways of doing things — or, rather, new ways of telling stories. . The old roads may still work, but new paths through the jungle must be cut with our word-machetes. When you see a new piece of technology or social media, ask the question, “How can I use this to tell stories?” If you see a new publishing option (one that does not exploit the author), it’s wise to try it — if only to see if you can find new audience and a new vehicle by which to tell your tales.

3. Thrive, Don’t Survive

New models and new means open new ways for you to make a living by telling stories. That’s the goal, right? It’s certainly my goal. Yours might be, “Barely have enough to pay rent and buy myself a 9-pack of Ramen,” but I say, aim higher. Point is, if the old way isn’t giving you the living you need, you need to mix that shit up. Diversify. Feint right, then duck left — break free of the Conga line and do your own spasmodic seizure-dance on the Disco floor. You need to learn your own moves. Shake what your Momma gave you.

4. Embrace All Tools

In any career, it pays to learn all the tricks and tools of the trade. A carpenter doesn’t just know how to build chairs. A dominatrix doesn’t just know how to spank an upturned bottom or shove mascara brushes into pee-holes. A carpenter learns how to use the Laser-Nail 9009. A dominatrix learns how to build her own cat-of-nine-tails from the entrails of her gimp. (Okay, this is probably why I’m neither carpenter nor dominator.) Writers should learn tools old and new. Don’t just learn how to write a novel. Write short. Write long. Write scripts. Write games. Write blogs. Write creative non-fiction. Write psycho-vids for the HoloNet. Learn it all. Do it all. Stay relevant and diversify. The shark swims forward or he drowns. The monkey kills the monkey or the monkey doesn’t get the cupcake. Or something. Shut up.

5. The Myth Of The Perfect Path

Amazon is the savior! Amazon is a monster! The Big Six destroy authors! The Big Six will save publishing! Kickstarter! No, wait! Indiegogo! Love agents! Fuck agents! Hollywood rules! The studio system sucks balls! Brain! On fire! Fritzing out! Too many exclamation points! Too many opposing viewpoints! Can’t feel legs! Ahem. No perfect path exists. No one company or model is ideally suited to anybody and everybody. Amazon helps many. Amazon hurts others. Traditional publishing has fucked over some authors, and has unfucked just as many. No perfect path exists. We all choose which angels and devils to place upon our shoulders. Accept your nuanced and imperfect options.

6. Tribes Are Fucking Stupid

To build off that last point, tribes are fucking stupid. We create tribes to stroke our own egos, to confirm our choices to the world at large when we only need to confirm them to ourselves. Detonate your tribes. Destroy your cults. Tell your leaders you’re leaving for the secular life and if they fight you, bludgeon them with a femur and move along. Embrace a single inclusive tribe: the tribe of storyteller.

7. The Power In Clumsily Flailing About Like A Drunken Orangutan

Say “yes” more than you say “no.” Sometimes trying new things and learning new skills isn’t about a focused strategy or a well-meaning plus/minus pro/con list. You need to be savvy in business but you’re also a creative human being, goddamnit, and sometimes creativity is about wildly pirouetting and crashing into lamps and trying new things just because you got a bug up your ass to do it.

8. Your Work Has Value, So Claim Value For What You Do

Deny anybody who wants you to work for free. If you work for free, that’s something you do, not something someone asks of you — doubly true where they’re making money and you’re not. They might as well ask you to bend over and stick tennis balls up your poopchute for the pleasure of an audience without you getting even the benefit of a reach-around. Or health care. Or free tennis lessons! Stories have value. Storytellers have value. Anybody who says different should be thrown into a wood chipper and used for mulch.

9. Free Is Part Of A Strategy, Not The Whole Damn Strategy

That says it all but it bears unpacking: you can’t just give everything away and hope to thrive — or, frankly, even survive. You can give some stuff away. But don’t give it all away. Free is a zero sum, zero value game.

10. The Crass Reality Of “Monetization”

It’s an ugly word. “Monetization.” I gag a little when I say it. Whenever I hear it, a little trickle of blood oozes from my earholes. Just the same, storytellers need to eat, pay bills, support their deviant sexual habits, and that takes money, and that means you either work as a bag-boy and give your stories away for free or you find a way for your stories to help you make money. Sometimes that’s selling direct. Sometimes it’s a more circuitous path to the bill-paying and deviancy-having. Creativity without business sense will leave you starving. When you tell stories, ask the question (much as you may hate it): “How does this help me survive, and then thrive?”

11. The Internet Changed Everything

I’m not telling you something you don’t already know (and by the time you read this there will probably be something new, like, “THE MEMEGRID CHANGED EVERYTHING” or “THE NANO-BEES COLONIZED OUR STORY-PODS,” but fuck it, whaddya gonna do?), but I feel the need to remind storytellers that the Internet has made the tools of story creation and dissemination cheaper, easier, crazier, and farther-flung. Farther-flunger? Shut up. This is good in that it gives you and the audience greater connection, and troubling because it amps up competition and changes value. It is what it is. Take advantage.

12. Mother May I?

It’s time to stop asking for permission. Storytellers have been cast in a submissive role for a long time — “Please, Mistress, may I have another?” *WHACK* — and the worm is turning. Nobody’s doing you a favor by helping your story come to life. It’s not a treat placed on a dog’s nose while he waits patiently to chomp it down. This isn’t about killing gatekeepers so much as it is about redefining the gates. This isn’t about going DIY so much as it is about finding people — agents, editors, publishers, artists, other storytellers — who see you as a partner, not a peon. Symbiosis, not parasitism.

13. Bookstores Can Be Vital Places

This is not to say that new trumps old. That’s not the point. The point is, both exist, and both are likely to continue to exist. The real world — aka “meatspace,” aka “IRL,” aka “that place where I go to the grocery store and fondle overripe fruit” — is where people actually exist. And bookstores (and libraries, and movie theaters, and anywhere the audience gathers) still remain vital places. Reality trumps the digital space. Find ways to connect with the living, breathing audience. Leave room for those physical connections, which is not to say you should all be having some kind of author-audience orgy. I mean… y’know, unless you’re into that. *takes off pants, gently strokes mushy cantaloupe while moaning*

14. Speaking Of The Orgy

You can’t do this alone. Don’t think you can. Don’t think you can exist without some combination of partners, editors, artists, producers, agents, liaisons, lion-tamers, bee-wranglers, tweeters, whiskey procurement agents, sandwich-preparation-techs, and fluffers.

15. Other Writers Matter

Other writers are as crazy as you are, and trust me, I’ve seen what you do. (For the love of all that’s sacred, cover up those crotchless Naugahyde trousers. And put down the river otter.) Just the same, community in the writer’s world is key. Writers help writers. Storytellers help storytellers. They’re not competition. They’re partners. Cohorts. Drinking buddies. Folks who know how to properly dissolve a dead body.

16. The Audience Is More Active Than Ever

When fire touches water, the molecules go all batty and twitchy and that’s how water boils. The audience is the water, and they’re set to boil. The audience is an active element. They tweet, blog, post to Facebook, email the author, and create a generous (and alarmingly fast) feedback loop. And they’ll do you one better: prime movers in that space will create fan-fiction or involve themselves in the story in a big way. Open your door to the audience. Join the feedback loop. Get shut of notions of creative integrity and leave room for audience engagement, collaboration, and emergence.

17. Oh, And By The Way, You Need That Audience

Some creators treat their audience like an enemy. Do that and you’re dead. They’ll gut you like a fucking fish and stick a grenade where your heart used to be. The audience is the most important team member in any storyteller’s crew. Without the audience, you’re just a naked weirdo screaming at himself in the mirror.

18. Your Work Won’t Be For Everyone

The audience isn’t total. The audience is more and more fractured these days, like a hunk of hard toffee broken into pieces. But that’s okay. Smaller audiences are often more invested ones, creating a more vibrant ecosystem for creators. The age of the rockstar is fading, and that’s true across most of the artistic spectrum. But the death of the icon doesn’t mean the whole thing is going to collapse. When the big fish dies, the little fish can fill the space. You may not get to be Stephen King, but you can be a storyteller who makes a living — a good living — doing what he loves to do, and there is perhaps no more perfect thing than that.

19. It Puts The Word In The Mouth Or It Gets The Hose Again

Word of mouth is still the best driver for stories — it is the infection vector we all use and desire. But it’s changed. The Internet has widened the mouth so it can accommodate more words — our “circle of trust” has grown significantly bigger with the advent of social media. It’s no longer just the 10 people we hang out with at work or the bar. It’s the 100 people on Twitter, the 1000 on Facebook, the blogs and reviews we read.

20. Piracy Is Not Theft

A controversial point, but I want to put it out there: piracy, good or bad, is not theft. It is perhaps a kind of parasitism? Combat it where you can, find value in it where you can’t. Which leads me to…

21. You Can’t Control The Tides

Some forces lay outside an author’s control. You may be able to change some small things here and there, and you can certainly find new paths — but just the same, elements of this life will always be outside your control. Whether we’re talking e-book pricing or piracy or audience interest or Amazon or publishers or whether or not there are viral YouTube videos of me randily humping fruit at your local grocery store, some things are outside your control. When that’s the case, you can either go with the waves or walk away from the beach, but standing there and yelling at the tides will do you little good.

22. Be Generative

Do. Don’t just talk about it. Or think about it. Or play pretend. Put yourself out there. Tell stories. Lots of them. Learn the skill. Harness your talent. To be creative is to create. It’s all on you, motherfucker.

23. Storytelling And Writing Are Two Different Skills

I’ve said it before but I like it so much I plan on keep shoehorning it into your brain-hole: writing and storytelling are two different skills that feed off one another — a Yin and Yang, a pair of snakes biting each other’s tail. You must know the art of the story and the craft of communicating that story. One without the other is like a two-legged pony, dragging himself around all sad-ass, the most griefstruck pony in the world. Also, “Griefstruck Pony” was my nickname in the Crips. Or was it the Bloods? Whatever.

24. Maybe Time To Call Yourself A Storyteller?

I’m wondering if “storyteller” is more versatile than “writer?” Of course, it’s also probably worth even less respect on the open respect market. Try telling someone you’re a “storyteller” and they probably think you dress up like a goof and tell stories to wandering children for mere tuppence. Just the same, it’s a good way to differentiate between “I write technical VCR repair manuals” and “I write stories for an engaged audience.” And it also doesn’t pin you to any one format, platform, or medium. Shit, I don’t know. By the time I get to item #24 on these lists I’m usually drunk and dizzy. My nude body covered in fruit guts. So. Y’know. Enjoy that visual. *high-five*

25. A Good Story Is Your Best Defense

Your best defense against changing conditions and an uncertain environment is a good story. Book, comic, movie, game, cartoon, cave-based pictographs, whatever. By being capable and crafty, by being generative and progressive, by knowing how to do that thing you do, you insulate yourself from the chaos of the industry. The audience will always be there. The story matters to them, and they matter to you.


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57 comments

  • Another great list. I think 24 is rather pertinent because very few writers actually write anymore. “Typer” doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it. “Author” sounds a bit pretentious (and probably has a connotation of being published.) I kind of like “wordsmith,” but it sounds very pretentious. “Storyteller” has a very nice ring to it.

  • I’m really not sure about #1. The current situation leaves me with nothing but grim questions.

    Are competent storytellers really going to be in demand when companies can create story-like product that still rakes in millions? Why bother with the real thing?

    If making a living from story telling is still possible in the future, who’s to say it won’t be in content mills and other such miserable conditions?

    Stories won’t go away, but economic opportunity can dry up all right. And there’s a lot of hard talk about writers “finding a way” and “innovating” and “changing to adapt to the times” but that’s all it remains. Talk. No solutions, just a sentiment that things are bound to turn out okay as long as you believe in… something.

    That, and it’s damn sad to watch the novel as a medium for stories dissipate into a teeny tiny niche market of, well, novelties. I was born too late.

    • @Mild —

      None of it is talk. Novelists still exist. Book sales are up, not down. Storytelling grows across new platforms. People are not only surviving, but thriving.

      — c.

  • Now I know where I’ve been going wrong – can’t get a decent bee-wrangler round here for love nor money. I may have to outsource.

    And re 25. If you only know one thing, make it this: Story trumps everything.

  • I like #22. It’s what I have to do. I’m in the process of first submissions and getting the requisite number of rejections that are supposed to render me battle-hardened. I mean, who wins on their first submissions? Keep moving…

  • I feel like I say this every time I read a new post of yours, but man, this is good stuff. Thank you. Needed to see this today. Especially #5 and #6, but really all of them.

  • May 1, 2012 at 11:52 AM // Reply

    I have just two questions: is mushy cantaloupe a euphemism and WHY WERE YOUR PANTS EVEN ON?

    Cool list, although sadly deficient on unicorns.

  • #24 — I started calling myself a storyteller a while ago (and made the distinction in a comment on a post about writers vs authors), but for me it was a way of escaping from the obsessive perfectionism of critique groups and grammar police. It reminds me that the writing doesn’t need to follow all the rules if the story can catch a reader and not let go.

  • Ah, another Chuck list. Thank you, sir, for another batch of brilliant writing/storytelling advice bundled up in a ball of delightful crazy.

  • First time stopping by your site. I like it! Lots of great information here. Thanks for sharing. And, for the record, I think you make excellent points and give good advice.

  • Wow, thank you for this forceful yet nuanced pep talk incorporating fruit fetishes.

    I would add to #4 that branching out in one’s life skills is just as important as branching out in one’s writing skills. I’ve found that it helps me write better fiction if I stop being a solitary fruit-humper for a little while and go talk to crazies on the bus, take belly dance classes, go someplace that guarantees a giardia infection, play voyeur at strangers’ charismatic church services, etc.

    Ironically, getting my ass out of the desk chair has been just as helpful to the quality of my writing as making time to park my ass in the chair. Drawing all my material from other written sources can make my stories start to taste like leftover soda.

    • @Jeannie:

      Y’know what, hell yeah. Life skills FTW.

      Experiences, journeys, travel, too.

      “Ironically, getting my ass out of the desk chair has been just as helpful to the quality of my writing as making time to park my ass in the chair. Drawing all my material from other written sources can make my stories start to taste like leftover soda.”

      Also: well-said!

      — c.

  • I’m going to come back and read it more deeply, but I have to go to the bathroom. Before I go, I want to comment on the theme that struck me: the need for storytellers. I hope to God we do need them, or else the end of civilization is nigh.
    The fall of the Roman Empire was preceded by a plethora of reality television.

  • Regarding #8-11: I’m glad you spent a portion of your post discussing a story’s value, and the fact that the Internet has altered the old paradigm.

    Writers do need to eat and buy deviant sex gadgets, but my view is that the relationship between audience and author has been mutated. The way the system is set up involves a purchase on the frontend that enforces value onto the work prior to anyone having actually read and thought about it.

    Our time has value to us, but the audience is also putting in their time to read the work, albeit less time. A payment offsets the differential while imbuing the work with power in the capitalist system (all the way up the ladder to NYT bestsellers). That power becomes a form of cultural orthodoxy–less related to the work’s actual value and more the ability of a firm to market.

    What I’m saying is that I don’t think smaller writers–i.e. not Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer, James Patterson, Danielle Steel–should place themselves in the same system. Especially when, as you note, the system of “rockstar authors” is falling apart. If the old system is falling apart, maybe we need new methods of establishing value?

    How about something like this: two chapters free and then the reader can pay what they think is appropriate for the rest of the work? When your Kindle version sells for $5 anyhow, I think a writer would stand to lose very little and gain a lot (in terms of goodwill, coverage, and perhaps even in sales). Art has value but I don’t think it should be presumed or dictated.

  • I love Neil Gaiman’s thoughts on book piracy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLgI6LoKdAw

    And he’s absolutely right. The fact that you offer some free content here on your website is literally the only reason I even know who you are, and it is definitely the only reason I took my chances and bought Double Dead (I’m poor, buying anything is taking my chances, heh) even though I usually run away from zombies. It’s 100% because I got to peruse your prose and your attitude (I’m one of those weirdos who will boycott an author if they’re a terrible person) and from there, I decided that I was willing to take the chance. It was completely worth it, but if I hadn’t been able to see your style ahead of time? If I hadn’t been pointed in the direction of some free content, I can say with absolute certainty that I’d have completely missed out on finding my favorite author. I’m poor, and though I love books and have a decent stack, it’s not often that I can buy them. That means when I DO buy them, I’m not going to pick up something I’ve never heard of. I probably won’t even pick up something that was recommended to me. Instead, I’ll go look for books by Neil Gaiman that I don’t have yet, or books by Dan Simmons, or David Eddings. Why? Because I already know I like them.

    And you know how I discovered every single author I just named?

    I was lent a book.

    Speaking of authors I boycott, I am beside myself with joy and relief that you are pro fanfiction. I have actually tried to stop myself from finding out what authors think of fanfiction because if an author is anti-fanfiction, I will not touch their work. I realize this is… well, pretty extreme, especially considering writers like George R.R. Martin are included in that list, and everyone I know wants me to read his books, and hell, even I want to read them, but I won’t. I have a lot of reasons why, but I’ll refrain from writing a book in your comments. Instead I’ll say your stance on fanfiction tells me I picked the right author to be my favorite.

    Also, when I have some free time, I’d love to take a crack at writing some based off your works. I’m full of questions and what if’s and I wonders. I’m filled with a desire to know more – what made these people this way? How did it all start? I write a ton, seriously, A TON of anime/manga fanfiction, but I’ve kind of shied away from the book fandoms. Your books make me want to rethink that decision.

    (Fun fact: I wanted to write some Coburn/Kayla fanfiction so bad when I finished Double Dead, and then it clicked in my head that Kayla makes him think of his daughter, and then I got kind of grossed out. I GUESS I’LL NEED A NEW IDEA.)

  • The thing about publishers putting out dross and still selling 1,000,000 + copies and therefore quality writing will be ignored is that the same thing happened to music not long ago – yes, Katy Perry and One Direction are selling a gwarking huge number of records, but the health of the industry means that GOOD music (an objective judgement) will still be released. Though the audience now includes people reading Twilight clones and barely disguised Supernatural fan fiction, there are still those of us buying Penguin Classics and GOOD (non-objective) fiction.

    Also, is the male form of Dominatrix a Dominator? Or is it just arsehole?

  • Pretty much agree with you on all of this, except the “storyteller” bit. A storyteller is someone who tells stories, out loud, to an audience. That may seem pedantic, but there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of folks out there actually practicing the craft and using that term for their job description. Telling someone you’re a storyteller is more likely to make them think you’re one of them than it is to make them think you type out your tales with no direct human contact actually required.

  • What do you think about the book Story Engineering by Larry Brooks? I am contemplating geting that one, and your books too. I am gung ho on telling the story, but I don’t want to be like shit either…

    What does a cool cat like you suggest?

  • About #14….I read “bee-tweeters” – which adds a number of entirely new and increasingly disturbing layers to that list. And they only get worse the longer you dwell on them.

    I probably won’t sleep tonight.

  • Congratulations on your progeny Chuck! (I had to cut & paste progeny, is that plagarism?). This is my favorite line of all time:

    ‘You must know the art of the story and the craft of communicating that story. One without the other is like a two-legged pony, dragging himself around all sad-ass, the most griefstruck pony in the world.’

    I will go now and work on my legs.

    C

  • I’ve enjoyed your blog whenever I’ve had the fortune to read it. You’re spot on, honest, and hysterical to read.

    I finally put my money where my mouth is and bought your first 500 Ways book — looking forward to reading it.

    Now I’ll get my happy ass back to creating and telling stories. Thanks for the reminders in this post, always nice to read I’m not the only one thinking them (except the fruit part, that’s all you ;-)

    ~C.J.

  • Cheers Chuck. Had realisations 15 &16 a few months back. They’ve changed my direction radically. And I especially like no12 too. Times are changing and I’ve been liberated. Things are on the up. Still working on a few of the others.

    Great post. Love your style, and might have to start using the word motherfucker a whole lot more in my blog. I knew it was lacking something. Congrats on your success.

  • I just discovered this site, which is why I am commenting on this post thousands of years after its publication.

    This was awesome. I especially like the talk about being generative and stretching yourself to be good at everything, or at least as much as you can. I expect I will come back to this article a number of times…when I’m not trolling through the archives, that is.

    Glad I found this site.

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