Ask A Wendigo: “Just What The Fuck Do You Do, Anyway?”

Time then for another installment of, Ask A Wendigo. Or WWCWD. Or Interrogate The Penmonkey. Or Hide The Salami. Wait, that last one might be different? Whatever.

Want to ask me a question about writing or storytelling? Then here’s the link.

Once again, two related questions came in around the same time:

The Mechanical Doctor Anonymous asked:

“Chuck, something that I’ve been wondering about is the mechanics of your writing. I generally start out with pen on paper. I do a little light revision on that paper before typing it into the computer. From there, I save successive drafts as separate files until I’m done. At that point, I keep the separate files, but get rid of the original paper draft. What does your process look like, and how much do you keep after you’re done?”

And Mister Crankypants asked:

“On the subject of “how much do you write every day” your answer is superficial. 2-4k of new content. That’s, what, a few hours, right? Then there’s the blog stuff — maybe a couple more. Take time off for lunch, take a shit, or a shower, whatever. Before you know it the whole day is gone. When does the stone polishing happen? What about the 150k words you wrote months ago & have forgotten about completely? When is there time for that? What about planning? How to you keep track of it all?”

To me, both questions are asking a fairly straightforward — and completely complicated — question. That question is: how do you write? Or, just what the fuck do you do around here, anyway?

Setting aside all the non-writery stuff I do (hover over Twitter like a hungry fly, play with my 1-year-old, stalk and kill mutant caribou, drink coffee, drink gin, gloomily masturbate), I suppose I can get into the nitty-gritty of my overall “process.” But here is where I must throw up (*barf*) a warning:


What you do needs to be what you do. For me, writing advice is always and forever just a polite suggestion, not a gospel carved in a brick which is then used to bludgeon you about the head and neck.

If something works for you, adopt it.

If something does not work, discard it.

That said, let’s rock.

The Out-Of-Control Idea Factory That Is My Brain

I’ve said similarly before, but the big question one should ask an author is not Where do you get your ideas? but rather, How the hell do you make your ideas stop? Because my brain is like a moon colony force-field constantly being pinged by fiery spears of idea debris. I can’t stop the ideas.

The spigot is busted. The water just keeps running.

I take any ideas that survive the Identification and Scrutinization Process (which is to say, I take a long stare into the idea’s dark heart to see if there’s anything there or if it’s just a hollow wiffle ball rattling around my skull-cage), and I write those down. This is a somewhat broken part of my process because I fail to have one consistent place where I organize this material. Sometimes the phone. Other times a notebook. Occasionally I input ’em right into Word. I completely fail at having my ideas wrangled into a single enclosed space. I do eventually rustle ’em up and throw ’em together, but it takes me far too long to do so.

The good news here is, ideas that continue to bubble up to the surface regardless of their scattershot rag-tag nature are usually the ideas that matter most to me — they demand my attention instead of scurrying away.

The Chalk Outline

I outline because I must, not because I particularly enjoy it. I am a pantser by heart, a plotter by necessity — without outlines, my novels spiral drunkenly toward utter incoherence, breaking like a dropped cookie.

The way I outline is different for every book, but here’s the general gist of it:

I figure out my major story turns, broken out into acts.

Then I start jotting down plot beats — this happens, then this happen, then that, then this. Maria dies. The unicorn ascends to the Aluminum Throne. John steals the Camero. The end. How many of these beats I outline isn’t preset; I just keep going until the thing is done. The beats are generally large and sequence-shaped rather than small and scene-flavored. The key thing is to make sure I hit all my tentpoles — meaning, those plot events that are needed for the story to stand up and not collapse upon itself.

Sometimes I use spreadsheets.

I don’t generally outline much in the way of character or dialogue or even the bigger, broader story — because I have a hard time with plot, it’s important that I get the story sequence down right from the get-go.

Those other pieces I prefer to discover within the outline. Though once in a while I’ll write down three key character elements that mark the arc — meaning, the character’s transition from A–>B–>C.

I outline whenever I have time. Afternoons, nights, weekends. I often outline a number of novels far ahead of the writing; I’ve long had a rough outline for the third Miriam Black book, The Cormorant, f’rex.

The Actual Writing

For writing, I tend to begin at 6AM and end around noon.

As noted, I write 2-4k per day, most days. Toward the end of a project I may see as much as 10k in a day.

I write the actual book inside Microsoft Word, though my (admittedly slow) transition to Mac may see me soon writing a first draft in Scrivener and then porting over to Word for edits.

(If I’m writing a script, I use Final Draft.)

I have to unearth the “proper” font for every project. It’s one of my few writing rituals.

I write nothing in pen because my handwriting looks like the bloody footprints of a wounded sparrow. Or, if you prefer a different metaphor: the sloppy hieroglyphics of a meth-addled Pharaoh. YOU DECIDE.

Upon each new day of writing I like to read over the last scene or chapter just to freshen myself up. At the end of each day of writing, I tend to jot down a couple quick notes for the following day’s efforts.

I also like to stop writing in the middle of a scene instead of at the end. I used to try to get to a conclusion point but I find cutting in the middle gives me unexpected energy to jump back into it.

I work in one file on my actual computer, but I save multiple copies across DropBox, one per day of writing. I also have a backup drive that my file goes to. If I’m feeling particularly paranoid, I’ll email it to myself.

I also save obsessively. Every five minutes I hit the save hotkey. This, erm, “saves” me a lot of frustration.

I do not write new blog content during the week, usually. That’s reserved for the weekend.

To Fix It, You Must Break It

That is a thing I believe about writing and, in fact, most things: to fix something, you sometimes gotta break it. And editing is often about breaking a thing apart — I realize I’m repeating myself, but it’s my bloggy and I’ll reiterate if I wanna: writing is when you make the words, editing is when you make them not shitty.

I edit in the afternoons. A couple-few hours every day, provided I have a project to edit. I do not edit a story as I go, but only after it’s complete. (Once in a while if I identify a problem very early on I’ll do some major rewriting before I finish, but for the most part I find to be productive I have to churn and burn through the draft before I get to the editing phase, where the story is truly born.)

Ideally, I let the story sit for a month or three.

At that point I tend to do a pass on my own, and get a second draft out of it.

I then move that draft onto… well, whoever. Readers. Editor(s). Agent. My toddler. Your Mom. Etc.

I do my own notes and expect notes back using Word’s Track Changes function. Comment bubbles and in-draft redlines are key to my process. No word processor I’ve found has this function down outside Word.

How badly I edit the story really just depends on the story. Blackbirds saw years of writing and rewriting, but when I actually had a finished draft, very little of it changed from that draft to the one that published.

But Popcorn, the first book of my upcoming YA trilogy (“Heartland”), saw a year’s worth of rewriting. I wrote it the month before my son was born, and spent the rest of the year hammering it into shape at the behest of my agent. And the edits I’m sure are far from done — I’ve got new edits coming in from my editor at Amazon Children’s Publishing. (And I’m very excited to see those.)

Post-Coital Shame

A project is never done but there comes a point when I say, “It has to be done whether I like it that way or not,” and deadlines really help to form that critical and creative Rubicon.

When I’m done, I send it off to whoever needs it (agent, editor, a cat in a spaceship orbiting Pluto), and that’s that. I feel a wave of excitement and triumph and sometimes reward myself with “something” (new music, ice cream, a cat in a spaceship orbiting Pluto), and then somewhere thereafter I feel a sense of post-masturbatory shame — like, a great yawning emptiness brimming with the ghosts of shame and guilt and creative undoing, all of which are nicely mitigated by me going back to the beginning (idea! outline! writing! editing!) and riding the storytelling carousel around for another go.

*insert creepy calliope music here*

And that’s it.

That’s my process.

Every book is different, of course.

And every writer is different.

Now go and find your own process. Plant a flag. Buy intellectual real estate.

And dance upon the gassy corpses of anybody who said you can’t do this.

Because fuck those people right in the face-holes.


  • Oddly enough, our processes are nearly identical, if you trade “the baby” for “two obnoxious monster children” and “gloomily masturbating” to “trying on corsets”.

  • One of the hardest things for me to do is the editing. I know that’s where the unshitifying process takes place, but like you, I have a meteor-storm of ideas attacking my brain daily, and after the writing comes more writing and more, and more. Taking the time to get to the editing is a problem I need to wrangle.

  • Thanks for sharing how you write! I love reading about other people’s processes. When you schedule in social media time? Do you Twitter while you change diapers?

    Hey, you know they’ve got Scrivener out for Windows now? I think it one for the Mac is still a little more advanced, but it might be worth checking out.

    Google Docs has a lot of nifty features too, like the ability to comment on stuff (I’ve actually been about to go back and forth to .doc format and Google Docs) with comments intact. In case you feel like cheating on Word.

  • Having recently switched over to Scrivener myself, I can say you might want to check it out. They make a version for Windows, which is what I have. I downloaded the free trial version, and within a few hours, I bought it.

    I’ll use Word for final edits, but among the many awesome things that Scrivener does, I love how you can break the book down scene by scene, but still be able to view it all as one unit. It’s made my writing process 1000 times better.

    Funny enough, you’re the first person I’ve come across that’s said sometimes you have to break it to fix it. This makes me feel better about my inability to write a coherent first draft. Oh, I try. Boy do I try. I outline like a good little penmonkey and figure out theme and all that stuff. Then in the middle of the book I have ideas that Change Everything for the Best, which leads to major changes in the second draft, which usually leads to a Complete Rewrite (with much gnashing of the teeth).

    At which time your “I will finish this shit that I started” wallpaper goes up to shame me into finishing. It’s hard to stay motivated when you’re on rewrite number two.

    I would ask how you stayed motivated long enough to go through all those rewrites and drafts of Blackbirds, but I suspect the answer is: you just do. You love the book and your vision for the book enough to keep pushing and pushing until the book comes out the way you want it.

    At least, that’s currently how I stay motivated. That, and a complex reward system involving M&Ms.

  • Yup. My process is radically different–except on the rewrites. Rewrites. Revision. Rewrite again. Fuss. Drink. Rewrite. Cry. Turn it in and pray.

    8 years my last book took to write. It, thank God, looks very little like it did 8 years ago.

  • Open Office has that same track changes and comments feature that Word does, if anyone is looking for a free (or cheap if you decide to pony up some donation money) alternative to Word. It is the only word processing program I use cause I am cheap (not free, you will have to pony up some money for me) and I’m very happy with it. I’ve used it to edit other folk’s stuff, too and there haven’t been any issues with saving as a .doc file and having Word users see my Open Office edits. Just my two pennies.

    And I love reading about other writers’ process. It’s enlightening and facinating.

  • Great post, as always.

    I also think you’re saying, “Don’t be a copycat!”

    I’ve been around copycats all my life, and they just can’t help it. However, they’ll never produce anything original, so I don’t waste a lot of time on their borrowed ideas. I’m nice to them, but send them on their sad little follow-the-pattern path. And they’re always finding someone new to trail behind.

  • @Antoinette:

    I don’t really schedule social media time — it mostly falls in between other moments. I take a break, I flip over to Twitter, see what’s going on. Or I hit it at night or on my cell phone or whatever. Social media’s a pretty easy addiction for me, so I know I gotta keep it cool or I’ll fall into the stream and get taken away by the rapids.

    — c.

  • Thank you for sharing your process with us. I enjoyed reading it. I too barrel through a complete first draft, then set the piece aside before editing. I’ve found some projects need more time to simmer though.

    Thanks for all the encouragement you give us!

  • I live with an idea spewing volcano. Concepts spit out the top of his head like half formed globs of firey magma, sticking to anything within reach (and occasionally burning holes in the furniture).

    I bought a white board. All ideas go there. When time arrives to begin a new book, hours (days) will be spent meditating in front of the white board. Sometimes a single idea leaps off the surface and tap dances it’s way into prose. Other times 2 or 3 separate ideas become mashed into a single overarching concept and move on to the outlining phase. Ideas have occasionally sat neglected for ages until something comes up that they magically fit into.

    White board. oooo … and lots of coloured pens!

  • Save, save, save. Save on one external hard drive that’s plugged in, save on another external hard drive that gets unplugged once the saving is done. Save anytime I need to click away from the work-in-progress. I had a great writing teacher who had forgotten an almost completed manuscript on paper on a train, and she made strong suggestions about backups from the beginning.

  • “I write the actual book inside Microsoft Word, though my (admittedly slow) transition to Mac may see me soon writing a first draft in Scrivener and then porting over to Word for edits.”

    If you write the draft in a single Word file, you may find that you hate drafting in Scrivener. It seems to force a certain workflow that’s focused around the idea of dealing with the story in little chunks. The difference between watching one episode of a tv show a week and sitting down with the DVD box set, maybe.

    • @Siana:

      Could be. I still envision my story in pieces, though — pieces that ideally suit the whole — so it still may fly. I’ll be playing with it on my next book, THE BLUE BLAZES.

      — c.

  • Thanks for sharing all of this! It’s always helpful to hear how other writers work. I haven’t found an editing method that works for me, but maybe I’ll give Word another chance!

    If you’ll excuse a shameless plug for some (free!) programs that have worked wondrously for me…

    FocusWriter is fantastic for drafts since it blocks out nearly every distraction you can think of. It also does not require installation, so you can put it on a flash drive or in the cloud and access it from anywhere.

    For revisions, yWriter is great. It allows you to break the entire novel down by scene, complete with goals and descriptions for each. Other features include character and location lists, viewpoint maps, deadline and goal settings, and best of all — you can ignore all of that and just use it to organize scenes and chapters.

    Apologies for the plug, but free software! Woooo!

  • The other day over Twitter I was going to ask you if you did any writing on the weekends. Being that writing is your job I was curious if you take the weekends off but this post answers that question – you do write on the weekends and it’s usually blog posts.

    I procrastinated asking a question that you ended up answering anyway. Awesome.

  • It’s nice to see other people with the idea problem. I usually compare it to a swamp full of ravenous mosquitoes. There are PLENTY of mosquitoes. It’s just a matter of deciding which one is allowed to suck your blood that day.

  • Yep. Same here. I have so many projects going on half the time, I don’t know which one to work on. Eventually, I force myself to choose. if I didn’t, none of them would get done.

    I’ve recently started outlining, though I usually write a crappy first draft so I know what I want to happen, then go back and outline to smooth it out, decide what’s essential, make sure that the continuity is there. Probably a back-asswards way to do things, but it works for me. I also found writing in Scrivener helpful, because when I have a scene idea, I can just insert it in the timeline where it’s supposed to go and fill in around it as needed without changing the whole document. Which, in some ways, creates the outline for me. The issue there is getting it out to people, so I always compile to PDF and .doc. the other issue is that my stupid touch pad is so sensitive, sometimes things move themselves. Luckily, I am an obsessive saver to drop box and emailer to myself…

  • I have a different regimen for my ravenous mosquitoes. I subject them to the beams from the nearby nuclear plant. When they grow large enough, I set them free to hunt and feed upon the unicorns. When the unicorns are weakened enough, the Muse riding them fals off, and there you go. Warning: the Muse is usually cranky at this point.

  • I am so glad to hear that I’m not the only one with an idea mill that won’t shut off. Oftentimes it gets me in trouble with the spousal unit.
    “Why aren’t you listening to (insert one: me, the kids, the dog)?
    “Oh, sorry, I was being assaulted by the idea fairy.”

  • How to tell an idea fairy from a ravenous mutant unicorn-weakening mosquito: one is repelled by DEET. The other uses DEET instead of lime in her gin-and-tonics.

    I’ll leave it to you to determine which is which. The right answer will leave you with ideas; the wrong one, a pint low.

  • The reason I posted that is so that you could learn from my experience. If you hear something whirring about, do not reflexively swat at it, and do not assume that DEET will necessarily be a repellant.

  • I love this peek into your brain. Thanks for sharing. My process is similar except I find the story wants to play out inside my brain. I usually plot the climax, and the end, and I visualize all of it like some mad stampede of wildebeasts… Then I finally find a way to write it. Clinging to chonological order is the hardest part, finding that path to walk my character through the duller yet crucial downbeats befote the big bang.
    Writing is so much mad beautiful chaos forcefully brought to order. Just like life.

  • I had an epiphany last week…of course, I have a closet full of epiphanalia. But sometimes I just need a reminder to write, to get on task. I passed that burden on to my fiance, so at 9pm every night she reminds me to get back to the computer, get off the internet, and get writing. It helps a lot. Accountability is-
    Shit, she’s coming. I gotta go. You didn’t see me.

  • Interesting to read about your process. I wish I could stop thinking of ideas, too. Can’t sleep. Always thinking of ideas. Wish I could turn my brain off, sometimes.

  • @Paul Baxter

    I now know where I was going wrong. I haven’t been waiting long enough for the unicorns to be weakened.

    I’ll remember the lime thing as well. The more you know and all that.

    And as usual, Chuck, spot on advice, said at just the right time I need to hear it. This is why I obsessively stalk your journal and twitter feed. …mostly.

  • Knowing how ancient this is, still goin’ to try, . . .
    Hearing everything from a week to ten days to a month or three (you) cooling off phase between drafts.
    When writing a series, supposing the same advice applies?
    Doesn’t it feel like your cheating on the percolating story and going out with someone new?
    How do you survive, kicking yourself out of your own universe?
    Somebody, help, calm me down! I’m chapters away from finishing LOL.

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