Writing: “How Do You Do It?”


I go to conventions and conferences, that’s the question I get asked.

Either:

“How do you write?”

Or —

“How do I write?”

The question can mean all kinds of things. How does one write day to day? Or how does one become — and remain, and simply be — a writer? What’s it like? How to start? How to keep it going? WILL THERE BE BOURBON AND SHAME? (Yes to at least one of those.)

It’s sometimes accompanied by the look of a truck-struck possum.

It may come with an exhortation of bewilderment and exasperation.

A sound not unlike, whuhhh, or pffffffh. Cheeks puffed out. Lips working soundlessly.

This is a difficult question. It’s difficult because you’re you and I’m me. Each writer isn’t a snowflake until they are, and this is one of the ways that they are — we are cartographers of our own journeys, charting the map as we go and then burning it soon after. The way I did it isn’t the way that Joe Hill did it, or Kameron Hurley, or Delilah S. Dawson, or Kevin Hearne, or Heinlein or Dante or that one weird dude who wrote the Bible (his name was “The Prophet Scott” and he had one eye and a romantic eye for tired sheep).

Just the same, I feel like I should draw you a map.

I should attempt to answer the question.

None of this will be helpful. Zero of it will be factual.

But maybe it’ll give you a glimpse — a sense — of the scope of the thing.

The very short answer is:

“YOU JUST DO,” and that’s it.

You do it by doing. It’s like asking, “How do I open a door?” You just fucking do it. I dunno. Part of me thinks this should always be the answer, often jabbered in loud, caps-lock volume.

The still-short but not-as-short answer is:

You clench your buttocks together and tighten your middle and bite down on the belt and then you stab the fountain pen into your heart to suck up a draught of your vitalmost blood and you write furiously and without hesitation or pretension the story that lived there in the deepest part of your pulsing aorta. And you keep scribbling over it and rewriting over the scribbles until that story is as good as you can make it without killing yourself or taking up all your time.

That, too, may not be helpful.

So, let’s try the all-too-long version.

You start by reading because to want to be a writer you should first need to be a reader — no writers need to be writers despite what they’ll tell you but all writers need to be readers, full-stop, no arguments, don’t sass me. You learn to want to write by loving to read.

Then you decide to write and at first you write for yourself but soon you realize you write for other people — or at least one other person — and you write silly stories as a Wee Tiny Person, stories that might be called MOON BADGERS or THE DAY THE OCEAN POOPED THE SKY or some mythic pop-culture syncretism like FINN AND JAKE FIGHT THE KRAKEN or SCOOBY-DOO VERSUS THE BOYS OF ONE DIRECTION and maybe you illustrate these stories with whatever burnt umber crayons you’ve got hanging about.

Somewhere along the way you maybe stop writing for a while because it feels weird to not be that good at it, because it just doesn’t match the stories you read and love.

Eventually a teacher teaches you things about writing. They teach you good lessons and bad ones. Some things stick. Some things don’t. The bones of the skeleton form, awkward and herky-jerky and with a funky palsy lean, but it’s there, these bones, and it looks familiar, and somewhere you think, “This would look better with some meat and sinew packed onto its frame.”

So, you write again.

And it’s still not great, but you try to emulate the voices of other writers you love. And it’s a crass mockery of their work but it’s better just the same, and so you do this for a long time, as long as you need to. You likely run through other voices like it’s a catalog — you pick them and write them, Lovecraft to Frank Herbert to Stephen King to Margaret Atwood to Some New Young Writer I Haven’t Heard Of Yet Because You’re Just That Cool And I’m Just That Not.

Somewhere along the way, you think, I could really do this.

Like, professionally.

And people laugh. Or encourage you to your face while making panic-stricken faces behind your back. Or they tell you do to something else, anything else, be an accountant, doctor, truck driver, artificial horse inseminator (which is to say one who inseminates artificial horses artificially), and they wave their hands around like you’re careening toward a bridge that’s out ahead.

You drive past them, heading toward the shattered bridge.

And you drive off the bridge because all writers drive off the bridge.

You take the plunge.

You write and write and write, and you write to whatever direction you think the market is going. You write the Hot Genres, from Vampire Nuns to Erotic Kalepunk to Literary Doge to whatever is you think is going to sell the book, and you study agents and you study publishers and you think about self-publishing and really, honestly, you have no fucking idea what you’re doing. You finish one out of every ten books you start. The ones you finish feel weird, like they were written by someone else, like maybe you just walked into a room where the angles are off and the mirrors are cracked and it sounds like a television is on with that white noise weirdness but you see no TV — these books seem written by a doppelganger, some alt-world version of you, but you figure fuck it, this is what writing is, and so you keep trying to do it.

Writing and writing and writing.

And reading and reading and reading.

And thinking, too. You study writing advice. You get good lessons. You get bad lessons. You take it all to heart, all the useful bits and shitty rules, and maybe along the way you go to school for writing and you give some institution tens of thousands of dollars to make you a writer, and once more: good stuff, bad stuff, all of it goes into the crockpot to make the stew-beef slurry that is your writerly soul. Bubble, bubble, bourbon and trouble.

You think: I NEED THESE RULES BECAUSE RULES MAKE THE WRITING GO. You cleave to them like a thirsting man licking tears from the face of a sad panda.

Then later you decide: I HATE THESE RULES BECAUSE ALL RULES AND NO CHAOS MAKE WRITER A DULL BOY. You discard them like ruined underpants.

Eventually you figure out: SOME RULES ARE CRITICAL AND OTHER RULES ARE LESS SO AND SOME RULES AREN’T RULES AT ALL AND WRITING IS DIFFERENT FROM STORYTELLING AND I CAN’T FEEL MY LEGS I SERIOUSLY CANNOT DECIDE WHAT TO DO WITH THIS.

So you go back to the basics.

You keep writing.

You keep reading.

You start to submit work.

Maybe something small. Maybe something big.

Maybe to a magazine. Or an agent. Or a publisher. Or to a digital marketplace as a self-publisher.

You, of course, are rejected. Or reviewed poorly.

And, of course, it stings like a motherfucker.

It hurts your heart. And within the tear made in that most necessary of muscles, the fungus of self-doubt grows — fuzzy and black, sucking the confidence out of you with the hunger of a leech, with the tenacity of a tumor, and for a while you just sit and rock back and forth on your heels wondering if you should really do this thing. And others hesitantly agree out of what they perceive to be a kindness — once more they try to steer you from a sure collision with disaster, hoping you’ll turn your boat away from the waterfall ahead.

And yet you chug on.

The boat goes over the falls.

Another plunge.

Over the falls, rejection letters trailing behind you in the moonlit mist.

You start to think, fuck it.

I’m going to do this my way. At least a little bit.

At the bottom of the churn, the water punching you into the rocks, you decide that if you’re going to drown you’re going to drown your own way, and you’re going to write the book you really want to write, the one that squirms inside your guts like a pit of eels, the one story that chokes you with its emotions, the one tale that’s scary as a clown with spider-teeth and serpent-fingers and a Tea Party membership, and down there in the dark you put that story to paper.

You don’t know if it’s any good but it’s yours.

And that makes you feel good.

Because it sounds like you. It feels like you.

You ran after your voice for so long, but your voice found you.

You were the voice all along.

You submit that book.

And for once, it pings some radars.

Ping.

Ping.

Ping.

Holy shitwich. Holy fucksnacks. Holy handjobs-from-hell.

Someone responds. You call out into the lightless space, your plea just a flurry of bubbles, and an echo responds, and they respond that they want the story. But they want you to make changes because it isn’t quite there yet and that scares you, frustrates you, makes you mad because it’s perfect of course it’s perfect you finally figured out how to do this execrable job and now some cocky know-it-all piss-ant hyphen-loving word-nerd is telling you otherwise.

And for three hours or three days or three months you sit on it and pace back and forth upon those notes like a jaguar trying to suss out how to escape its zoo cage and suddenly there’s this moment, a moment like when you figure out how to open a puzzle box and — click — you realize, oh, you know some things but mostly you know nothing, Jon Snow, and so you go ahead and take the notes to heart and you make the changes and suddenly, you have a story.

You learn that writing is really rewriting.

And you rewrite it once, then again for another reader, and again for an agent or an editor, and again and again, writing until it’s right, cutting through your own nonsense, carving through your own fog, recognizing your own stink — and you see your work out there.

A shining moment. A diamond in the dark. A beam of light through it, made prismatic.

An imperfect moment because the story still isn’t perfect.

But you’ve got the scars of rejection to show you’re fighting the battle.

You realize you’ve gotta suck to not suck.

You embrace the time you tried to be someone else just to realize you had to be you.

You push past the idea of trends, because chasing trends is trying to catch and bottle lightning — some do it, but most don’t, so maybe it’s time to make your own motherfucking lightning instead.

You submit and you hate yourself and yet to push on you spear self-doubt to the earth with a spear made not of unearned confidence but with a pike formed of experience and instinct and awareness of what you’re doing and why.

You have your rules and your ways.

You have your process, cobbled together over many years and wordy iterations.

You have your voice.

Each ginger step into this dark forest becomes quicker, nimbler, more sure-footed as your eyes adjust and your muscles tighten. You run, unabashed, unfettered.

And you write.

And you read.

And maybe, just maybe, you get published.

And soon, you do it all again.

Again and again and again.

Because you’re never really done forming.

You’re always a protoplasmic blob.

But at least you know that you can twist into shapes when need be.

You know you can always — and will always — write.

You will write to stave off the cuckoo bananapants feelings.

You will write because you love to read.

You will write because you want to be read.

You will write because you want to be paid.

You will write because you love it even when you hate it.

You will write because you want to, not because you need to.

It’ll get easier and it’ll get harder.

Everything will change and sometimes you will, too.

And some day someone will ask you how you do it, how you be this thing called a writer, and you’ll have no idea how to answer them, so you’ll shrug or yawp or lie, you’ll write a tweet or a blog post and answer their question with a question or with a short answer or a long solution and most of it will be true even when it’s made-up because truth is almost never beholden to fact.

But at the end of the day you know the reality is, everyone does this differently. And no map through this dark forest will look the same, but all will carry themselves through it with the same conveyance: we all step through by reading, by writing, by living our lives, and by doing it again and again and again until we maybe, maybe, think we know what the fuck we’re doing.

All this is just step one.

Who knows what step two looks like?

* * *

The Kick-Ass Writer: Out Now

The journey to become a successful writer is long, fraught with peril, and filled with difficult questions: How do I write dialogue? How do I build suspense? What should I know about query letters? How do I start? What the hell do I do?

The best way to answer these questions is to ditch your uncertainty and transform yourself into a Kick-Ass Writer. This new book from award-winning author Chuck Wendig combines the best of his eye-opening writing instruction — previously available in e-book form only — with all-new insights into writing and publishing. It’s an explosive broadside of gritty advice that will destroy your fears, clear the path, and help you find your voice, your story, and your audience.

Amazon

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Indiebound

Writer’s Digest


40 responses to “Writing: “How Do You Do It?””

  1. This is the best description I have seen of the writer’s journey! I am on my third mystery (all unpublished) and it’s easy to see how each book is getting better and better. The writing is getting better, my editing is getting better, the plot is improving and there are now even subplots. You have captured what it takes to become a writer. It doesn’t make it any easier but it makes us feel less weird and alone.

  2. Well, yes, that WAS the long answer! A good answer, too, though for me it wasn’t about finding the terrifying story inside me but the silly, laughing story bubbling up and demanding to spread it’s absurdity to the world. I found my voice when I embraced my inner goofball.

  3. Like the famous Nike motto, with writing (as with pretty much everything) it all boils down to, if you want to do something: JUST DO IT. In the last 2 years or so, i’ve lost a significant amount of weight (70 lbs) and since then, have become a runner (something I never would have thought i’d have liked in a million years – i’ve never ran, even when I was younger), and people ask me how do you become a runner? Well, besides going out and buying a good pair of running shoes, you: JUST DO IT. Same with writing, or anything you want to do. Yes, things are daunting and scary, heading into uncharted waters if you’ve never written (or run or jumped out of a plane or got a tattoo), but if you want to do anything, just doing it is the only way you’ll know if it’s something you want to do, or continue to do, or like doing! Thanks for the pep talk, Chuck.

  4. First off, it was great to meet you at the Phoenix Comicon, though all I could manage was a “uh, hi? I read your blog? Will you sign your book please?”

    I guess writing looks so magical to a non writer because it’s difficult to explain. There’ve been many times where I’ve thought “fuck it, I don’t need the aggravation” of writing. It’s not like I do it for a living, it’s not like I have an audience. But I just can’t stop. Hope springs eternal, I guess.

  5. Amazingly, you used the word write (or similar spelling) 60 times. I thought you used it more. I didn’t include the title, so there is 61.

    I agree with you 100%, at least 80% of the time. It really comes down to writing, and writing, and writing some more. Between my first book to my second, was a period of 18 months (due to my head injury) that I didn’t do any serious writing, but I still wrote fanfic during that time to keep up my ability.

    When I’m not working on my writing, I am still doing articles, research, story notes, brainstorming. I haven’t played a video game in nearly 2 months, often because I’m too busy writing.

    Great article.

  6. WOW! Were you in my head? That was beyond brilliant and dead on, it was truth! Thank you for showing me my instincts were dead in and that I’m not alone.
    Awesome!

    • I find that when I read things like this, it resonates with me, but I only really get it after I’ve been there. It’s like the Buddhist teaching of reaching enlightenment. Teachers can’t tell you how to get there, they can only give you exercises to help you along your path.

  7. I wonder if it is the moment you embrace your identity as a writer despite rejection and self-doubt and too much wine (my bourbon of choice) and then forge ahead. Although I have been writing since college, although I have been a published journalist and magazine writer, I still struggle with embracing the title. I love this post. Absolutely love love love.

    • I remember reading something from a renowned writer once, can’t remember who, possibly Maya Angelou or Terry McMillan, where they said they still felt like an imposter, afraid people were going to suddenly realize they couldn’t write. I’m not sure that feeling ever completely goes away.

  8. Chuck, you are sensational! Devoured every word of Wendig wisdom and laughed the whole way through feeling increasingly inspired and just a wee bit less daunted by this insane love affair with writing. Hell ya! Keep it up! Cheers!

  9. “Writing is rewriting” – that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned (and which, at first, I had no fucking clue was so damn true; I thought “real writers” just squirt out near-perfect stories out their mind-chute and if I can’t do that, then I’m probably not a real writer. PFFFRT.).

  10. Yeah, I went through that rule stage, though my second phase was “Rules are screwing up my writing” and I threw them all out so I could figure out what worked for me. I’m not an outliner at all, but most rules assume that I am doing some form of that. As a result, I had to separate myself from all the rules to see what I needed for my writing and what was really the wrong thing. Though I was never all about the rules in the first place. I was always the person who asked, “Why can’t I do this if it works for my story and I do it well?”

    The reaction of other writers really surprised me. Anyone not following the rules frightened them. At one point I wanted to do a dream sequence in one of my project. It occurred in the middle of the book, which was a fantasy, and had a story-related reason for being there. I also planned to make it very short and I wanted to do it well. But I asked other writers what made a good dream sequence, and I was surprised at their reactions. I could also see them slowly backing away from me with vague phrases like, “Well, if you think that’s right. …”

    I think the rules become a safety net for a lot of writers. It’s easy to want to look for rules in a place where it sometimes feels like the Wild West. You send off the manuscript and get a form rejection and you have no idea why. Was in the story? Was it the writing? Was it the subject? Had the editor just accepted something similar? But rules are not a guarantee of publication either.

    I’ve sort of come back around again, though I’m taking most of them with a grain of salt and I still break a lot of them anyway. It’s whatever works in the story.

  11. Loved this whole thing, and loved this part most:

    “You don’t know if it’s any good but it’s yours.

    And that makes you feel good.

    Because it sounds like you. It feels like you.

    You ran after your voice for so long, but your voice found you.

    You were the voice all along.”

  12. Had to comment this time.

    Best description I’ve ever read about the life of a writer. I’m writing a book…in my head. I’m delaying the actual writing part because I hate sucking at writing for this long. I think I’m at the point where either I take a class or fizzle. Or I can just keep writing my usual comfort-zone stuff, which is a recipe for a life fraught with regret, I’m sure.

    Anyway, thank you for this post. Enlightening to say the least.

  13. Opening a door is infinitely easier, and yet, I’m working on teaching my 4 year old how to open doors. One door requires she turn it more than she thinks she should have to, one requires she press down on the little thingy-ma-bob with both thumbs. The writing is just a very long, drawn out, learning process that never really ends. I’m deeply grateful for all the positive feedback I’ve gotten over the years, from teachers to readers to writer’s group members. I definitely recognized the journey. I figure I’m already a writer, I would just like to be able to make at least part of my living from it, so I keep submitting. Thanks. I really enjoy reading your blog.

  14. My muse is now riding an artificial horse over a waterfalls. Or something like that.

    Meanwhile, I look in the mirror. “It was you, all along,” I say. I reach out my arms to give myself one big oil’ hug, and the mirror shatters. I cut myself badly.

    As I attempt to stanch the bleeding, eldritch horrors silently escape from behind the mirror. They tap me on the shoulder. “Excuse me? Were you looking for something?” they ask. I mistake them for The Muse and start writing a story with my own blood.

    I write because otherwise, I would not have the opportunity to use the word stanch today, most probably.

  15. Okay, now I’m exhausted! Not fair to cram 20 years of writing adventure into such a small space. Oh, gawd, it’s at least 30 years in my case – AAAAGH!

    Oh, and greetings from Phoenix! Glad you survived your visit to Hell. I meant to say so much more to you, but I turned into a silly, shy adolescent. You’re the only reason I went to ComiCon – I meant to tell you that, but forgot to, and didn’t want to go back and look like some kind of weird stalker (as opposed to all those “unweird” stalkers). Thank you for signing my books, and thanks to the lads manning the tables who turned me on to some additional authors.

  16. See, this is why I’ve given up the fiction route. I hate reading fiction. Far too many people tell me to write because I should love to read, but when I read what is out there in the genres I love, the writers don’t write well enough to keep my attention or give me some sort of agency.

    I’ve been depressed for YEARS because of this, and I am glad I can walk away from fiction writing now. It makes me happy to not read fiction now.

    Thanks for reinforcing the idea, much appreciated.

  17. Scooby-Doo versus the boys from One Direction – I love it! I smell a future Friday Flash Fiction Challenge where you have to mash up two icons separated by 30+ years. Maybe a 20d and two list of icons from today and icons from the 80s. Starship Troopers: The Attack of The Tongue of Cyrus (Miley that is).

  18. I LOVE that you tell it like it is: there’s no shortcuts, no one way, everyone gets through the door different and yet we all have to go through the forest to get there.

  19. See, this is why I keep coming back to your blog. Well, okay, you have some pretty cool things to say about non-writerly things too, but this stuff is pure gold.

  20. Wow…just…wow. I am in the thick of it now, wondering if it is worth it, but knowing that even when it isn’t, I will keep on doing it.
    Thanks for this.

  21. Now I want to write ‘Scooby-Doo versus The Boys of One Direction!’ No I don’t – I want YOU to write it, Chuck! Yeah – come on people, who’s with me on that? *looks around hopefully*

    (Or then again, maybe it could be basis for the wackiest Flash Fiction Challenge ever; lists of music artists/groups, tv, film and book characters, etc. Randomly pick two and place in a randomly-selected genre?)

    Seriously, thank you for this post. You tackled this question in the best way possible, which was to provide a tonne of practical answers while at the same time acknowledging that not one of them is THE answer. You give us hope without platitudes, cake without artificial additives. Some day we will erect a statue of you in your honour.

  22. I HAVE NEVER BEEN MORE CONNECTED TO A BLOG. This. This post has me sitting here with my mind blown. This is just everything! It’s hits each and every corner and spot of writing and I might be young and haven’t gone through most of that, I have gone through some and never have I been able to find the words to explain it. This explains it down to the T. THANK YOU SO MUCH. THIS MEANS SO MUCH TO ME. I AM JUST CONNECTED AND MOVED AND SPEECHLESS AND possibly fangirling.

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