Stupid Answers To Common Writing Questions

I receive questions over email. I get questions at conferences. I thought I’d sum up some of my answers to those questions here! Please to enjoy.

How Do I Write?

I don’t know how you write. I know how I write. And how I write is, I line up a bunch of words and jam them together into sentences, then I jam those sentences together into paragraphs, and those paragraphs cram together into pages, pages into chapters, chapters into a whole story, and when all of it is said and done I try to make sure all of it is saying something, that all of it has a point, a purpose, a narrative connecting ideas and characters and events and that all of it is buoyed by some kind of hidden but not-that-hidden message called a “theme.” I do this a little bit, every day, until I’m done, and even then I’m not really done, because writing is rewriting is rewriting is rewriting is [insert me wandering through a hedge maze covered in ink here].

How Do I Find The Time To Write?

You do not find the time to write. You make it. You snatch it from the jaws of whatever temporal beast has your minutes and hours clamped between its gnarly teeth. We all fight for our time, whether it’s time for a meal, time for a TV show, time to mow the lawn, time to masturbate wantonly on the neighbor’s front porch so that their cat can watch you from the family room window. Time is not a lost set of car keys. It’s not extra money you find in a pants pocket just before you wash them. Time is a thing for which you fight. And if you want to write, you need to fight for the time to accomplish that task. Because time doesn’t care about you. It keeps on keeping on until you’re mulch for the fucking marigolds. Seize it. Or don’t. It doesn’t care.

How Long Should It Take Me To Write My Book?

It takes between one hour and one glacial epoch. Jesus, I dunno. Every book has its own clock. I know, that’s a dumb and obvious answer but that’s the goddamn answer. This book over here can be written in three weeks. That book over there can be written in three years. It takes the time it takes. You can make it go faster with practice and determination. Faster doesn’t always mean better, though — it just means faster.

How Do I Edit My Book?

I dunno. You just… you just fucking do, okay? Imagine that you want to take a sentence, any sentence, and edit that sentence. You might rearrange the words. You might excise words or add new ones that are more appropriate, that have more dramatic weight. You would aim to make the sentence be both clear and interesting to the ear. That’s editing. Now do it with a whole paragraph, page, chapter, book. And now it’s not just about little sentence-flavored bits but about character and ideas and events and theme and blah blah blah — there’s no “one way” to edit. You just do it. It’s like crawling through an earthquaked city in the dark, through the mud and the broken glass, trying to put the whole thing back together again. It takes time. There’s no magic, no equation. It’s just you putting the world right, one thing at a time.

How Do I Get Published?

You write something that doesn’t suck, maybe something that you even love a little bit, and you either flash a little narrative leg to an agent or an editor or you publish it yourself. Write the best book you can write.

How Do I Get An Agent?

You find a way to get your book in front of them, ideally via whatever means they prefer. Query letters, pitch sessions, a hand-up from a fellow writer. Whatever. If an agent says, “I want you to give me your logline, except you should tattoo it onto the back of a shaved grizzly bear and that bear should be trained to fight four New York City taxi cabs in front of my office,” then hey, there’s your way forward. Do all this with the best book you can write.

How Do I Market?

I have no fiddly fucking idea. Writers are supposed to be good at writing, not marketing — I wasn’t trained in that particular discipline. I feel like asking a writer how to market best is like asking a writer how to grow good string beans or how best to dismantle a rogue mechanical chimpanzee. Here’s how I market: I try to be the best version of myself, and I try to be a human being engaging with other human beings as much as my time allows, and then sometimes I will say, “Hello, I have this book, and you might like this book because XYZ,” and then once in a while I’ll try to do some kind of other shameless gallumphing about where I give books away or do a nude cam show or something. The best way forward is to get other people to market your books because we’d all much rather be sold something based on love than shameless self-promotion. If I say BUY MY BOOK you’re going to nod and hmm and, “Well, of course he’d say that, its his book.” But if someone within your circle of trust says to buy my book, suddenly you’re a lot more motivated because that person’s only motivation is to share love.

How Do I Build My Brand?

You — you just — please, don’t. Blech. Blargh. Myeaaaaargh. And other pukey-poopy noises. I have a whole schtick about brands that you’ve heard before but I’ll schtick it up again which is this: a brand is what you put on a cow to represent ownership. A brand is about keeping the herd in a fence. A brand is artifice: a thing levied by a corporate entity onto a product so that we all think a specific thing and get a particular feeling about that product even if that is a lie. A brand burns you. A brand marks you. It is a vulnerability because if you brand yourself one way and then find that doesn’t work or need to re-brand, you’re going to have a hard time. Many authors have found themselves trapped by their own brands. Who wants to read a book by a brand? Who wants to interface with a carefully-orchestrated persona? Be a person. Find your voice. Let your voice be the thing that identifies you. Resist branding. Resist other corporate, businessy labels. Again: be the best version of yourself. And write the best book you can fucking write.

How Do I Build My Audience?

You do not build an audience. They’re not a set of shelves. You earn your audience. By — drum roll please! — being a cool person who writes good books. Ta-da!

How Do I Build My Platform?

Every time I turn around I receive divergent definitions of platform. Is it the technical apparatus by which you reach an audience? Is it the audience itself, or the immeasurable reach you have with that audience? Is it your social media account, or the stats that come with that account? Is it your expertise in a given field, or the audience you already possess in that given field? Is it a blog? Is it a box you stand on, a bullhorn you scream through? Fuck platforms. Platforms sound like you’re up on high, talking down. Wade into the crowd. Be amongst the readers and the writers and shake hands and kiss babies and — whew, I dunno how many times I can say this but here it is, write the best book you can and be the best version of yourself.

Should I Blog / Tweet / Facebook / Slather Myself In Social Media?

Your publisher said you should, maybe, or you read that in a book of advice that writers need to blog. You don’t need to blog. You don’t need to do anything except a) best book b) best version of yourself. How you convey those two things to the world via the Internet is up to you. But for fuck’s sake, don’t blog if you don’t want to. Don’t tweet if it doesn’t make you happy. Writing can be lucrative but it’s not so lucrative a career you should tromp around in ugly spaces just because someone said you should. I’ve seen no confirmed correlation between Blogging and Book Sales. Every tweet doesn’t move copies. Especially if the only reason you’re doing that is just as some kind of social media obligation, some ham-fisted marketing strategy. If your publisher demands you blog because of marketing, tell them that’s their job, and they can write the blog themselves.

What Trends Are Hot Right Now?

I don’t know because I don’t care and you shouldn’t really care either. Again: this is probably bad business advice but it’s great creative advice. Fuck trends. Trying to write to trends is like trying to thread a needle whilst riding the back of a bucking bull. Don’t be the dog chasing the car. Be the car driving away from the dog. You know what’s great? A trend-setting book. You know what’s less great? The ten weaker reiterations that come down the line from authors and publishers hoping to chase that trend.

How Do I –

I don’t know. The more and more I go, the more I know that I don’t know. The more I realize that a lot of this thing we do is very random and very uncertain and is given over to two notable forces, two forces that I have repeatedly screamed in your poor ear this whole post: Be the best version of yourself and Write the best book you can. Do these things as often as you are able. More shots at the goal, y’know? Everything else is uncertain. Nothing else is confirmed. The ground is moving beneath our feet but those two things are the constants amidst the chaos. And even then, you’ll find jerk-ass authors succeeding with awful books and that’s just life, and it’s not worth getting upset about. Beyond that? The facts aren’t facts. Everything is theory. I can’t tell you how to do things. I can only tell you how I have done them and am doing them now and if you take something away from this that helps you, then I’m happy. If it doesn’t help you, then at least I’ve hopefully entertained you. Writers have no one way forward. We have so many ways through this wild land. And every one of us — accidentally or on purpose — burns the map after.

Best book you can write.

Best version of yourself you can be.

Demonstrate these things.

Go and write.

63 comments

  • This is all gold. I responded to the bit about brands and questions over whether to blog or not, in particular. A: I loathe the whole concept of branding. B: I’ll blog because I want to, same with tweeting. I’m with you, I’ve seen no correlation between either and actual book sales, in general. In fact, I’ve joked for years about going to book stores to pick all the blog-to-book books out of the remaindered bin. Yes, most books eventually end up there for various, legitimate reasons, but the number of viral Twitter accounts/Tumblrs that got book deals (and bloggers famous for blogging who got them–I can think of a number of former Gawker editors who fit that mold) whose books went nowhere, in the end, is pretty large (that’s anecdotal, I haven’t run the numbers). One reason you give good tweet, for instance, is because I sense you just like to interact on Twitter. The difference between that and the “MY AGENT SAYS I HAVE TO DO THIS” authors doing nothing but promoting this or that is like night and day. Digression: I tend to think, though I don’t know, that Stephen King finally got on Twitter because he liked the format and the whirl, too, because he’s also an interesting tweeter. To one of your points: I can’t believe King did it because he needed the book sales. You do it ’cause you want to. Or don’t.

  • I’m sure you know (or maybe not) that you really do keep people grounded. Whether it be about crazy chimp toddlers or driving away from dogs. Writing what you know and sharing your experience makes all of it less daunting. I realize that I, too have a map and I’ll burn that baby too. Without realizing it.

    Thanks for the laugh over morning coffee, kiddie waffles and snot (they’re sick)

  • Do you suffer when you read someone else’s story and it’s not even formatted bearably? One big chunk of text for example. I read a story and I think, hey this isn’t so bad. And then they misspell an easy word and I go all, Fuck is this? Or they make a simple grammar mistake. You can tell they don’t edit at all. I read and reread my stories once a day. I always read the chapter before I post it on whatever critique site I put it on. Do people just not care that they’re pretty much stabbing me in the eyes?

  • How do I stare into the eyes of the beast of a thousand lies, so that I might know the mysteries of his dark and damned soul, and still not be irrevocably drawn into the oblivion that is his eternal hunger?

  • This is one of the best blogs on writing. I love your responses. I paused reading kate atkinson to read this. I’m sure kate wouldn’t mind. Thanks for the laugh and the lightness that writers need to remember. It’s supposed to be fun.

  • This was great. Every day I see advise on branding yourself, building a platform, using Twitter and blogging. Love the summary of what’s important.

  • HOW DO I MARKET? “I have no fiddly fucking idea.”

    …says the man who keeps an active Twitter account and blog, connecting with his fans and cultivating a rabidly loyal base (of which I consider myself a member).

    C’mon now, Chuck. Maybe you don’t realize you’re good at it, but you are.

    • See, here’s what you’re missing —

      I’m not marketing.

      I’m having fun.

      I love blogging. I love Twitter and connecting with readers and being a reader myself. I don’t do it for marketing purposes — though surely I slide that shameless dance in there when I can because it does move a book or three now and again. I’m not a machine meant to promote my books. That’s a side effect, really, of me enjoying being out there and doing this thing that I do.

      — c.

      • Even though it’s unintentional, it’s working incredibly well….for example…

        I follow actress Taryn O’Neill on Twitter, who raved about you to such a degree that I decided to follow you.

        Your tweets were funny/insightful enough that I became a reader of your blog.

        Keep in mind that by this point, I STILL hadn’t read any of your books. (This is a complete reversal of how someone following an author usually works).

        On said Twitter account, I also noticed that you were posting some pretty rave reviews about your Miriam Black books…so I decided to check them out. This is where you did the important thing (not sucking) and blew me away.

        I then became a disciple, getting my friends to buy your books and reviewing your book on a website that I work for (admittedly, that last part isn’t really the norm).

        Are you done yet? HELL NO YOU’RE NOT.

        Because of your connection with me and the rest of your readers…and your highly enjoyable blog entries…your ability to put words together real pretty never gets the chance to morph into a distance, pleasant memory.

        Instead, it’s always at the forefront of my mind, which in turn causes your books to get bumped up on my reading list (Blue Blazes after I finish The Passage by Cronin…maybe before).

        I’m not doubting your sincerity in why you do all this or the level of enjoyment that it brings you. But all of it also comes together quite nicely as a pretty awesome market strategy. As a confirmed case study, I should know :)

        • Love this. Then again, all marketing really is, is applied charm. If you’re charming and engaging in a genuine enough way, people will check out your stuff. I’ve just bought a Miriam book, too, on the back of stuff I’ve read here.

          Cheers

          MTM

  • How do I get published? – Love your answer, but people who are very new to all of this don’t have the first idea about how to get their work in front of agents once they’ve written their query. To them, you might say there are books (like Jeff Herman’s Guide) and websites (like AgentQuery) that provide them with agent information/preferences, and they can find sample query letters online.

  • Love it, Chuck! You made me laugh so tea drizzled from my nostrils when you wrote, “Especially if the only reason you’re doing that is just as some kind of social media obligation, some ham-fisted marketing strategy. If your publisher demands you blog because of marketing, tell them that’s their job, and they can write the blog themselves.”
    Ha! Great stuff. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth, and (coming soon) GOT

  • Soo…if I read this correctly, and I think I did, what you are saying is….write the best book you can? Sounds like good solid common sense advice to me. I’ll run with it.

    However, common sense is not all that common with the bulk of the population. It’s okay, it’ll weed out the bad books….eventually.

  • I think people asking a lot of these questions have honestly no idea how broad these questions actually are. I mean, “How do I edit?” is not a useful question. “What do you look for when you reread a novel for problems” is way more useful. It’s just that a lot of people don’t know to ask the second question instead of the first one…

  • Love this! And thanks! Quick question, CW. Re: Point #2. Doe sit have to be a cat in the window? Can it be a dog? Parakeet? Iguana? No monkeys though because that would just be wrong.

  • My first novel was published last July so I get a lot of these questions too…and lived the answers! Writing is just something you have to do. Nothing fancy. I do want to add that there are a ton of good self editing books out there. Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni and Browne (I think that’s it) is great. But, even after that, if you want to get published by a publisher you’ve got to bite the bullet and hire a pro editor. If you get a good one it’s worth every dime.

  • There’s one thing wrong with this post. These aren’t the stupid answers you promised in your heading. They’re excellent answers. Thank you :D

  • Chuck, I’ve been reading your blog for almost a year now. You have regularly made me snort coffee out my nose and have made my husband and 4 year old look at me strangely while I laugh out loud at your posts. Seriously. Funny. Shit. I just wanted to let you know that, while I am not a writer, your advice is totally relevant to, well, life in general. I have my own business of which I am the lone employee. Most of what you expound fits right along into everyday; be the best version of yourself and *insert passion here* It’s the theory I have operated off of for the past years and have enough work now to keep my nose out of the water.
    I am just about to finish my first 700 page book *please aim cupcake cannons at central PA in two weeks* and wanted to say thanks for the help and realistic expectations in the world of writing. It was an awesome experience to tell a story I’ve had banging about in my brain for so long and I am sad it’s almost over. So, thanks for the constant and always entertaining advice. Looking forward to the next Miriam book!! Cheers!

  • Chuck, I laughed. I cried. OK, I did both at the same time and ended up bothering my wife yet again because I couldn’t stop, and she wanted to know why I was having so much fun past 3 in the morning without her. Thank you for yet another post that is both profound and fall-down funny at the same time. I’m a freelance writer who doesn’t take nearly as much time to write the books I want to–but as you so hilariously pointed out, that’s not time’s fault. Well said.

  • This kind of sums up something I often to say to people. “The only thing in live is you can control is you.”

    I’ve been through shit in my life. And that prompts people to think I understand to how survive truly crappy situations, and bad times. It didn’t instill me with the wisdom of the ages, I just survived it. And, what’s what my advice to my friends, casual acquaintances ask me, “How [blank]?” And that’s the only advice I got.

    Because you can’t control death, people, society, moments, running into the right people, the lottery, or anything.

    You can’t make books famous, but you can write a damn good book.

  • Been down in the mouth, not really sure which way to go with my writing, think I’ve been reading too many advice columns, don’t know. Anyhoo, you’ve put the wind back in my sails so thanks.

  • It was clear in this post that you’ve been asked all those questions many, MANY times Chuck. And I can completely understand your frustration.

    I think the people who ask them are really all asking the same, one thing: “What’s the Magic Mcguffin that will make a book – and its author – successful? Come on, you must’ve found it, ’cause YOU’RE a successful author who writes great books – SHOW ME WHERE THE POT OF GOLD IS MR WRITING LEPRECHAUN…”

    …When of course anyone who’s put in the years of hard graft – as you have, Chuck – knows it aint that simple. Successful writers don’t get handed any Magic Mcguffin or guaranteed step-by-step battle plans to achieve that success… ’cause such things don’t exist. It’s all blood, sweat and tears at the coalface – and no two writers toil there in the same way, or for the same amount of time.

    Your answers made me giggle though. Here’s my inane question now: how do I send you chocolate brownies through a comment post to cheer you up? ;)

  • Once again, you made me smile (actually piddled a bit from laughing). You’re one of the few voices out there who serves up reality but doesn’t make you feel bad after you’ve eaten it.

  • Woohoo Chuck! I was having a crappy morning and then I read this, had a laugh, reminded myself of what is important and will now take myself off to write that next fucking best book. Excellent timing on this one – thanks.

  • Here’s a question I never see you get asked (although maybe I might have missed it):

    Did you have a “piles of rejection letters” stage of your writing career? If so, how did you deal with it and when did it transform into everything you write being of interest to publishers?

  • Thanks for this (and all your other) writing advice. I’ve wanted to be a published writer my whole life and your advice is the first thing to make me think it’s actually possible. Even if it’s not, hope is a beautiful thing!

  • I’m still patiently waiting for the story about the tiger that peed on a girl at the zoo…….I’ll be sitting right here…..

  • I love it when a small publisher, or even an agent, asks for not only the query and other bullshit, but a marketing plan. What the fuck is a marketing plan?

    Maybe it’s me, but I thought the job of the writer was to write, and the job of the publisher was to put the drivel together and try to sell (i.e., market) it. Of course, there’s some “marketing” involved, such as signings and readings, and such. But a marketing plan? I don’t submit to anyone who requests a marketing plan. I should ask them for a bloody marketing plan.

  • Indeed. Author Jen Lancaster has a similar snarky response to these questions. If you’re out there looking for advice on writing, it means your not actually DOING any writing!

  • Shorter questions-to-writers: “How can I get hit by lightning?”

    (That is how writers get their superpowers, right?)

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