How Chuck Wendig Writes A Novel

This year, I’ve written — *checks psychic spreadsheet* — four novels. Bait Dog, Gods & Monsters: Unclean Spirits, Dinocalypse Now, and (finishing up this week), The Blue Blazes. I also wrote a novella, Bad Blood, which includes the next appearance of everybody’s favorite vampire-in-Zombieland, Coburn.

By this year I also have — *consults little man who lives in my mind* — five novels out in the world. Blackbirds, Mockingbird, Double Dead, Dinocalypse Now, and Bait Dog. (I apparently like ‘b’ and ‘d’ words. Eventually I’ll write one giant magnum opus called Blackdead Dinodog: The Baited Blood of Bad Bluebird.)

In the next year I am slated to write and/or publish — *polls the bacterial choir that lives inside my colonic labyrinth* — seven more books. Got the three books of my young adult cornpunk Heartland trilogy, got two more books in the Dinocalypse Spirit of the Century universe, have another Atlanta Burns book (Harum Scarum) and the third Miriam Black book (The Cormorant).

I do not list these things as a humble-brag (though, make no mistake, it is a humble-brag, because I am a proud peacock over here), but only to note that somehow, I fell face first into a novel-writing gig. And further to note that, maybe it’s time I wrote a post on exactly how this motherfucker right here — *points to me and the squirming bundle of sentient cilia I call a ‘beard’* — writes a book.

That’s not to say this is how you should write a book. I’m just putting out these breadcrumbs — you may choose another path through this dark forest of novel-writing. People ask me how I do it, so here’s my answer.

This is going to be a long post, so get some tea and bolster your fortitude.

The Idea Skirts Past My Orbital Defenses

The question for writers should never be, “How do you get your ideas?” but rather, “How do you shut them up to get a night’s sleep?” My mind is a moon colony constantly being pelted by little fiery asteroid-ideas. Ideas are not my problem: they fill up the ol’ brain-bucket pretty quick.

The problem is figuring out which ideas are:

a) interesting to me beyond the moment in which they are conceived

b) potentially interesting to other humans who are not me

c) potentially interesting to the giant amorphous blob known as the “publishing industry”

d) about a character in a world and not just a world

and de actionable, meaning, an idea that suggests a book I’m actually capable of writing.

If an idea checks each check-box with a jaunty slash, then I write that sonofabitch down. I write it down on my phone at first (sometimes using voice recognition if I’m driving or walking or playing racquetball or hunting humans for sport), and then later I dump it into a file I’ve created that’s meant to be a storehouse of such potential ideas. For the record, this dump file now looks like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Shelves and shelves of crates and boxes, each a mystery container whose story remains untold.

I Barf Up A Blob Of Incoherent Thoughts

Once I’m ready to take the idea beyond that core seed of an idea (“Wouldn’t it be crazy if a cat was president?!”), I fish it out of its swampy mud-hole and hoist it into the light.

Then I start writing. Nothing concrete. Rarely anything that’s actual story. Mostly just notes and thoughts. And a lot of questions. What kind of cat is it? Is the cat a good president or a bad president? Will the cat have nuclear codes? Will the press discover the cat’s cocaine addiction (SEE YOU THOUGHT IT’D BE CATNIP BUT NOOOO THE CAT IS A LITTLE BLOW-MONKEY) and will that damage re-election chances?

The notes taken at this stage are almost stream-of-consciousness. Sentence fragments, mis-spelled words, grocery list thoughts interspersed in the middle, whatever. It’s just to ruminate on the idea. And it’s also to test the idea in a way. Is there more here than than initial idea? A great many ideas are dead seeds planned in fallow ground — they won’t grow a good goddamn thing. So, this stage of the game is very much about seeing if this thing has legs. Will it walk? Can it run?

The Critical Questions

I ask myself a handful of “cardinal” questions –

What is it about?

The answer to this isn’t about plot. It’s about the deeper, weirder answer. Like, if we were out in the jungle high on some kind of jaguar gland, I’d grab the idea by the shoulders and say, “No, man, what are you really about?” This is me starting to skirt around the idea of theme — the argument I want this story to make.

Why the hell do I want to write this?

If the answer is, “Because it’ll get published,” then fuck that. If the answer is, “Because it’s popular right now and will earn me big money,” then fuck that, too. If the answer is, “Because it’s cool,” then — drum roll please — fuck that. I need more. The answer has to be meaningful to me before anyone else.

Why will anybody care?

Some ideas are for me and for me only. I’d love to one day write them but if I think they’re too personal or too abstract to bring to an audience, I won’t bother. It has to be both a thing that’s meaningful to me and a thing that I hope will be meaningful to the audience, too. This isn’t the type of answer I can really predict; I do not live inside the collective hive-mind that is the aggregated audience. But I can generally spot a story that lives and dies with my own interest in it.

Who The Fuck Are These People?

Characters are the way through every story. As such, they are the most important component of a story — and it’s quite likely by now I’ve already got one or a few characters in mind for the story. Now it’s time to really hammer them into a gory, sticky paste and see what secret truths lie contained in those piles of steampunk gears and sloppy viscera.

Once again I look for some of the same things I looked for earlier: I’ll turn to a series of insane rambling notes turns into a test to see if these characters are interesting and readable. (Fuck likable.)

Just as I need to know what a story is about, I also need to know who a character is. And in the same way the answer must go deeper than, “He’s a cat who gets elected president of the United States.” Again the jaguar-gland shaman grabs me and shakes me and says, “No, man, who is the character really?”

Then the questions of, why do I dig this character?

Why do I think anyone would want to read this character?

What makes the character compelling?

Then: I suss out the characters wants, needs, and fears. What does the character need to keep going? What does the character want — whether consciously or unconsciously? What will drive him as a goal throughout this story? And finally, what does he fear? Obstacles in a character’s path are critical, and some of those obstacles must be bound up with the character’s fears.

Finally, I do a little three-beat character arc for the character. Three words or sentences that are meant to indicate the state of the character across the story — beginning, middle, and end.

Poor cat down on his luck wants to see a change in this country –> elected president, way over his kitty head –> once again a poor cat but now knows the intimate details of the democratic process and oh did I mention he nuked the middle of our own country into oblivion.

The three beats could be fairly succinct — consider the simple mythic arc of Maiden –> Mother — > Crone. Or, as per the vampire in Double Dead, Predator –> Protector –> Penitent. When conceiving of Miriam Black’s arc in Mockingbird my only three notes were: Selfish Vulture –> Pecking Crow –> Reluctant Raptor.

I Write A Pitch

At this point, I write a preliminary pitch. First a logline, meaning, a single sentence that sums the story up. (“A cat is elevated from poverty and is elected president only to learn that cats shouldn’t ever serve in public office because cats are assholes.”) Some call this the “elevator pitch.”

Then I write a longer pitch — under 500 words — that acts like a bigger, blown-out version of back-cover text for the book. Hits key concepts and the larger story without giving much away. In part because I don’t have much to give away — I don’t necessarily have the total story in mind by this point. I’m writing this for me in order to boil the thing down as a simple referential document.

Building Something Out Of Nothing

The Miriam Black books didn’t take much in terms of research or worldbuilding. On the other hand, The Blue Blazes required a good bit of that — but even here I did as little of it as I could manage. Meaning, I did just enough work to get me to the starting line. I know my own crazy habits and I’ll get buried in details if I let myself (“I just spent two weeks reading about the sexual habits of housecats”), so I do the work that needs to be done now. The rest can come as I write, or even in a second (third, fourth, thirty-seventh) draft.

Alpha And Omega

I figure out what I want to be the beginning of the story. And then I figure out its end.

Some folks hate to figure out the ending, because they like to be surprised. (To me this is the same dilemma of whether or not you want to know the sex of your baby before it’s born — to me, it’s still a surprise if I learn that fact at 20 weeks and that gives me another 20 weeks to figure out what kind of clothes to buy the little critter.) To me, the need for pragmatism outweighs my bullshit need for magic while writing. A houseplant survives on water — an actual thing based in reality, not the whimsy of unicorn dreams.

Here’s why I like to have the beginning and the ending in mind: because as I write, my eventual outline will fail me. It just will. No plan survives contact with the enemy and eventually I’ll be somewhere in the middle of the book, spinning wildly in the swampy mire of my own fiction not sure exactly what to do next. And when that happens I will look to the ending and I will say, “I need to go there,” and then I will march the story toward that point and eventually get the outline (which by now may require modification) back on track.

For me a novel is essentially a lesson in drunk driving (DO NOT DRINK AND DRIVE THIS IS A METAPHOR): it’s me starting at the beginning and then revving the engine and speeding sloppily and swerving dramatically toward what I’ve conceived to be the ending.

The end doesn’t need to actually remain in place — I can change it as I go.

But it’s a good thing to have in mind as I begin.

Oh! I also like to have some degree of parity between beginning and the end, some elemental or thematic or even physical aspect that links the two together across the space-time-continuum that is the rest of the story. (In the Mookie Pearl short story, “Charcuterie,” it begins and ends with him pulling up at the bar with his friend and boss, Werth. Hint, hint, the novel may have a similar book-end.)

I Start Building The Skeleton One Bone At A Time

Time to outline.

I do not have a single way I outline.

In fact, every book has suffered a different outline than the former.

Generally speaking, I first figure out a four-act structure — beginning, middle 1, middle 2, ending. Two acts lead to a critical plot-changing or escalating midpoint, which then carries us to another two acts.

Then I figure out tentpole moments (aka SHIT THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN OR THE WHOLE TENT FALLS DOWN AND SMOTHERS US ALL UNDER ITS COLORFUL FABRIC) and then I write the key story beats that get me from one tentpole to the next and to the next after that.

Sometimes I hammer out critical story structure beats I hope to hit (a reversal of fortune, a key betrayal, a battle scene). I’m also always on the look out for at least one HOLY SHIT NO HE DIDN’T moment — some jaw-dropping pants-crapping event or revelation in the narrative that sticks you in the ribs with a story shiv. I like those moments. One of my favorite things is obliterating reader expectations in one fell swoop.

Sometimes This Stuff Lives In A Folder For Months, Years, Epochs

This might seem like the perfect time for me to jump into the story with a speargun and a wetsuit, but that’s not necessarily gonna happen. The Blue Blazes sat at this stage for many months until a gap opened up in my schedule (and, not coincidentally, this gap is just before my deadline to turn the book into my grumpy cyborg masters). Sometimes this stuff incubates in a folder for a while until the time comes.

The God Of The Ancient Grid Calls To Me

Spreadsheets. Used to hate the very idea. Now, I am married to them.

One spreadsheet I particularly require is the one that keeps all my writing schedule on it. I don’t use a calendar — I use Excel. I have the whole year planned out in terms of when my deadlines are and where the books slot in. (Then I also identify gaps and, ideally, figure out how to best use those gaps.)

I always assume I’ll write 2000 words a day and no more than that — by which I mean, that’s what I put on the spreadsheet. That’s 10k a week and, if I’m writing an 80k novel, that’s eight weeks or roughly two months. Now, I tend to write more than that, particularly if it’s a book I’m really feeling (Mockingbird was written in a month), but that then leaves me some padding, which is great.

As I write, I’ll also note in the spreadsheet “real daily word count” versus the 2k “projected” and that’ll show me if I did more or less (and by what amount). Most days are more, but inevitably I’ll have those days where I write less due to the vagaries of human existence (toddler meltdown, holiday, sick day, sentient cat swarm). That’ll give me a far better SITREP as I’m on the ground crawling through the word-trenches.

#amwritingmotherfucker

Then I write.

Nothing fancy here.

I write. I write with my head down. I write linearly, first page to the last page. I write without listening to the doubting voice that tells me I’m a total asshole for even trying this. I write without regard to safety or sanity. I write with the freedom to suck and the hope that I don’t. I write to finish the shit that I started.

Next Pass

I do a pass before I give it to anybody. If I have a lot of time, I’ll do a robust pass and take a lot of notes (almost a truncated process of what I’ve already gone through). If I don’t have a lot of time, I’ll do a Hail Mary pass and run through it with a manic gleam in my eye and a clumsily-swiping word scalpel.

The Agent Pass

The agent is wise. I’m very fortunate to have an agent who was a former editor and who is a smart, smart story-thinker. So, she gets a pass. A very important pass, indeed.

The Editor / Publisher Pass

Turns out, the publisher has, y’know, opinions on the work. That said, my work has at present not undergone any epic changes from a publisher — the draft I send them has by and large been the draft you see in your hands when it’s published. This is, in part, because the agent pass is often a robust one (Heartland, Book One was rewritten many times over the course of a year before submission and by its end, ~50% of the book was drastically rewritten.) And in part, I hope, because I’m not totally shitty.

The Hands Of The Gods

Then it goes out into the world. Outside my control.

It lives. It lands. Hopefully you like it. Maybe you don’t.

But what’s done is done.

And then it’s onto the next one.

Writing forward. Always writing forward.


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53 comments

  • Thank you for such an incredible blog! I would also like to comment about the shirt…
    I Want One! :-D wait….that”s not really a comment. More like a request? Either way, it would be great if they were available……..hint hint, nudge nudge, poke, jab, pull hair….tee hee
    Thank you.

  • I’m with Stephanie in wanting the t-shirt. Is Cafe Press still around?

    Thank you again for passing us all of your tips and information.You’re a good man Chuck Wendig.

  • Those three initial questions are so important. All of the advice you give is good (at least for me), but starting with that foundation is so essential, one could write their novel in an entirely different way and still nail it if they answered those questions right off the bat.

  • I’m at that weird stage between first and second draft where I’m fixing things but still feeling wonky about pretty much half of the book. I might need to resort to spreadsheets, but my anti-Excel alarms are screaming. The plan seems to be that I’ll fix it as best I can, then shove it at two or three people with loads more experience (this is my very first novel, and it makes me wibbly), and see what sort of “what the fuck is this?!” they give back.

    Incidentally, I’ve noticed that there’s some stigma attached to the novella, like somehow writing less than 40K (or even 70K or whatever) for your book is “cute” and “oh, isn’t that adorable?” rather than “awesome.” Thoughts?

  • Your spreadsheets intrigue me – I’d love to see how you have them set up. I also am starting to enjoy the payoff that planning has provided me, so with this as encouragement, I will attempt more in the future.

  • I am 5,000 words away from hitting 50,000 for NaNoWriMo, which might not actually be the end of the book. I don’t know yet. I’ve known the whole way through that almost every single words sucks, but at least this gives me a place to start in December. Maybe I’ll do a robust pass and then start right back at the beginning of the process.

  • Really enjoyed this post…especially how “my eventual outline will fail me.” Endings are tough…but they’re also the reason you write the book, right? Like a road trip, you need to know where you’ll end up. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll end up EXACTLY where you intend, but you should be in the ballpark.

    My outlines are kinda like the pirate’s code…they’re more like guidelines. Glad I’m not the only one.

  • I love that you write linearly! I see so many writers say the skip around. My facination with shiny objects would kill me if i didn’t do it in a first to last fashion.

    Love that shirt!

  • This is perfect timing as I start the rewrite of a story that isn’t working. You’ve given me some great ideas for organizing myself better. Thanks!

  • Love this post!

    I really like that it sometimes takes you a long time between “brainstorm idea” and writing it. Let’s me know I am not the only one. :D

    Lately it seems like I’m interested in writing ideas I had two years ago and spent a good amount of time developing, but then had to put on the back burner for various reasons.

    Question: How do you pick the next idea to work on? Obviously, you have to work on what you’re contracted to write, but what made you pitch those ideas to editors/The Agent to begin with?

    I am about done with my current project and trying to figure out what to work on next. Excitement isn’t a factor here, since all I really have to do to get back into the idea is reread my notes, listen to the playlist, and think about it.

    I am unagented so there’s no one but me to chime in on what to work on next, so I wondered how other people picked.

  • Wow, Chuck, so radically different from how I create my story. And I mean wayyy
    different, but hey, I guess it’s good to see a totally opposite take on what I do, hopefully to
    let my brain expand into more creative ways. Luv your sharing process.

    Keep it comin’

  • I also want some sort of earplugs, hoodoo ward weaver, or other sort of mojo to keep that voice of doubt that calls me an asshole for even trying this AWAY. This year I’ve seemed to have that voice SCREAMING in my head louder than I can hear my writing thoughts and ideas. It’s such a fucker. I want to kill it in its sleep, if only I knew where its lair was.

  • Well, when your done noodling the idea and make it real, I’ll buy a few.
    At the moment I’m going over other posts you’ve done, like theme, plot, etc. So im not much for excessive wordage at the moment. Oh, the mindmap post. THAT’S where I’m at…..uuuuh, where I was. Going back to it now.

  • Thanks for this breakdown. Now I’m off to have one of my own. I say that because I’ve been pantsing a novel for years, and while I do like the subconscious burbling up a lot of weird stuff as I wing it with each rewrite… now that I am hammering it into a real, novel-like shape, I see how much better off I would have been outlining, even a bit. Would have caught many of the problems earlier, and had I asked what the story was really about, I probably would have gotten to the point I’m at now sooner. STILL. I do find your account of writing multiple novels a year inspiring and man, that is what I’d love to get to as well. Thanks for sharing your experience — it’s very helpful.

  • This is very helpful. It’s funny, when I’m coming up with an idea, I usually create the world first, character second. The world is very important, but you can still make a by far good novel with a bland world. There are many novels in which this is true. Great novels, in fact. But they seldom transition to film very well…

  • Excellent Chuck. This is almost as helpful as all of your other advice put together — for me, anyway.

    I have been struggling with process as much as anything, rather than just sitting down and vomiting syllables all over the screen — which is certainly productive to a degree. But my writing is limited by a bunch of other external factors and I think your advice about planning things out is just what I need.

    My self-diagnosed ADD is enough of a disability in trying to bring a coherent story to a conclusion. Having something to keep me more or less on track — and remind me where the story is more or less supposed to go and why, is excellent advice. Thanks.

  • Holy Shit! I’ve spent two years writing my first Novella but also managed to knock out some free poetry and short stories available if you have the time to visit me. Love the site and the Pen Monkey T-Shirt. Are they for sale?

  • This was an interesting read. I, too, would love to see how you have your spreadsheet set up.

    Head in the game, when hunting humans, Chuck., or it might get you in the end. You’re recording story ideas. I am not…

  • Sent this to my email to read, your advice usually is very good. So many books so can’t wait to see, maybe shorten a few steps of mine. Maybe you’re a natural.

  • What excellent advice. Thanks for sharing your method. I’m going to make 2 k a day my goal too.

    I worked on the same book for 20 years, obviously not writing 2K words a day. I wrote a draft four times and finally bagged the whole thing last year because I got another idea that is fun and now am at 48k. This one is going to be finished. At least I’ll have a finished draft.

    Me too I’d love to see the spread sheet to get an idea what kind of things you note on it.

    And congratulations for writing so many novels and having an agent.

  • Awesome post. Bookmarked.

    Also, like others, I would like to see how the spreadsheet is set up. I am intelligent but spreadsheet-disabled. I would love to love them so much that I marry them, but they are a mystery to me. (Then again, if I’d had to make my husband from scratch before I married him I probably wouldn’t have liked him much, either)…

  • Good stuff per usual! How do you work all your projects together? Do you work on a novel from start to finish, then the other projects, or do you juggle them all at the same time?

  • Excellent advice Major Dude! Afterall; insanity abhors a vacuum or is it, insanity sucks like a whore straddling a vacuum…? Must Have shirt…I see your monkey is fueled by the same high octane (caffiene+Booze) that mine runs on…Take an extra Large- need lots of room for wallowing self-pity…Put me on your list and info to purchase…meanwhile, Write On! -Deb

  • *awestruck little voice* Wow.

    It took me four years to finish what I started (partially due to a flighty co-author and several metric crap tonnes of research), but it’s finished and has two houses looking at it right now (fingers crossed). There’s some series potential if the fates smile and it takes off.

    I hadn’t written anything creative longer than a Facebook status in years when this got started…and it wasn’t even intended to be a novel, so I’m all the more surprised that it got finished. I’m in awe, Chuck, of the *clinical* nature of your planning and organization, having thoroughly established my style as a pantser. I didn’t do an outline as such until the subplots demanded it, and didn’t do the pitch until very last (literally didn’t nail it down until the night before I had to give it), I admit it…it was a mess, and I know how to do it better next time around, but I doubt if I could keep to a schedule like yours. And with a toddler, to boot (don’t boot the toddler). I bow, sir.

  • Yup, pretty much the same process for me (though I add a synopsis in there). People always look at me like I’m nuts when I say I write the log line and query letter first. Now, maybe they won’t since you do too. :)

  • > Some ideas are for me and for me only. I’d love to one day write them but if I think they’re too personal or too abstract to bring to an audience, I won’t bother.

    I get the need to write stuff that will bring an audience, the audience’s dollars, and the fine consumables those dollars garner you. But I’ll bet if you ever have the opportunity–like if a publisher craps out on some deal and leaves you with a couple of months’ gap in your spreadsheet–you’d find that the personal and the abstract would bring more of an audience than you imagine.

  • OMG, thank you so much! I gave a story to friends to read, which I had intended to be stand-alone, but the overwhelming response (after the notes on tense & maybe describing things once in a while) was “Nice start, can’t wait to read the rest!”

    Yikes.

    I can’t remember right now which blog sent me here, but after reading the article linked I started just clicking backwards and reading everything. Then accidentally closed the tab and started again. This article had been percolating in my brain, so this time through I actually STOPPED at the log line, copied yours about the cat down, and underneath wrote the half of mine that I already had.

    Then just pondered. Made breakfast, poked a couple of mindless Flash games, all the while pondering “…and? …only to…? But then…?” Eventually it happened, followed by a swift “What if…?”

    YAY!!

    I’m hoping to whip the chapter & eventual synopsis into shape in time to submit to Clarion West this year. Fingers crossed!

  • Awesome. Belongs in your next book on writing. There are so many things that you do, that I either don’t do, or do out of order, that this may explain…everything. Well, not the G-spot, but everything about my writing career. Note, your program does not include a work-out. Please see my latest post for a viable workout program that may work for you. #ilovechuck

  • ” I know my own crazy habits and I’ll get buried in details if I let myself (“I just spent two weeks reading about the sexual habits of housecats”), so I do the work that needs to be done now.”

    thank you for that advice right there

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