About two years ago, I wrote a post about the uncertainty of being a writer, and how you solve that — to some degree, at least — by cultivating instinct. I’ve no doubt that some people are just born with keen authorial instinct, the same way that some people are born with vestigial tails or magic third nipples that, when squeezed, lactate a variety of flavored sodas.
But most of us have to cultivate it. We have to till the soil and grow the plant ourselves.
Nobody can do it for us.
Those writers you think are masters of the craft aren’t created that way. They aren’t supernaturally capable ninja writer-bots. When you read the work of a writer operating at the top of her game, you’re not seeing all the years of failed efforts, of work that wasn’t quite right, of work that was well-intentioned or built off of strong ideas but had slick and wobbly legs like a newborn fawn. It’s like this: imagine you watch someone enter a house in the dark and they move through each pitch black room like she’s goddamn Catwoman or something — no stubbed toes, no bumped hips on furniture corners, no boards squeaking beneath her feet. You think she’s got supernatural powers but the truth is, she’s done this before. This is her house. She walks around in the dark all the time. She knows this place. And it’s not just rote memorization — it’s that she’s so familiar with the shadows of this space, she can tell when they’ve changed.
You see the author operating at a high level and you wonder: why am I not doing that?
The reality is:
You’re only seeing the island, not the heap of volcanic material that pushed it out of the sea.
A house needs a strong foundation.
And the foundation of that house hides forever in the darkness of the dirt.
You’re not seeing all the time it took to craft the instinct necessary to do this thing.
Instinct is valuable because it’ll tell you which way to jump. It’ll give you the sense in the middle of a story that something is off, it’ll tell you if your character will have broken her contract with the reader, it’ll tickle the back of your mind and say that the plot is untenable or this description is too much or hey what’s the deal with you writing all these stories about orangutans that’s really weird, man. Instinct can even help you on the business side of writing, too.
Instinct feels like some sweet Jedi bad-assery. It’s bullseyeing womp-rats. It’s lightsabering shit with a blast shield over your eyes. It’s firing proton missiles into some imperial janitor’s open window as he huffs an e-cig on his a smoke break while some old dead dude whispers in your ear to slake your bloodlust and murder all all those people inside that moon-sized military base. (LUKE BABYPUNCHER USES HIS WEIRD MAGIC TO BLOW UP AN INNOCUOUS GOVERNMENT INSTALLATION. THEY SORTED MAIL THERE, STAR-KILLER. STOP KISSING YOUR SISTER AND HANGING OUT WITH SMUGGLERS AND THEIR HAIRY SEX GORILLAS.)
I think I got a little off-track there.
Point is, out of all the writing and storytelling advice I can give, the one that always floats to the top for me is that you need to cultivate your instinct as an author.
Question is, how do you do that?
ABR: Always Be Reading
A writer who doesn’t read is like a filmmaker who only plays video games. You’re like a chef who only eats protein paste, a dog trainer who only owns cats, a sex educator who’s never done the rumpy-pumpy and in fact is so ashamed of your own genital configuration you only handle your pink parts in the dark and with gardening gloves.
The foundation of your creativity is made of books.
So: read books. A lot of books. Done that one? PICK UP ANOTHER.
ABRW: Always Be Reading Widely
I know. You want to read what you want to read. You love horror, and by golly you want to write horror, too — so you read a lot of it. That’s cool. You should. But you should also read fantasy. And literary. And classics. You should read Joyce. And one or both Brontes. And Toni Morrison. I don’t mean these writers specifically — I just mean, you need a varied diet. You have a comfort zone. That comfort zone has soft, cushy walls. You need to hack into those walls with a machete. Find out what makes them comfy. Leave the sanctity of your padded cell. See what else the asylum has to offer. A limited diet of reading means all you can do is write the same thing you’re reading. You’re a copy machine spitting out facsimiles. You’re chasing someone else’s tail. As I’ve said before: you’re just a literary human centipede.
You don’t like romance? How do you know? Fuck off and go read some. Maybe you still won’t like it. But it’s important to read it anyway. Liking it isn’t part of the equation. Which leads me to:
Read To Understand
Read not to be entertained, but to be enlightened. Read not to be comforted, but to be challenged. Read to be disturbed, bewildered, saddened, disgusted. Read to understand.
What I mean is: every book is a nut you must crack*. When you read something, understand what it is you think about it. And why you think that. What is it about this book that works? That doesn’t? Why does it make you feel a certain way? Why has it failed to make you feel? Think of it as a pocketwatch. You need to bust it against a rock like a hungry otter and gaze at the inner workings. Read critically. Read to dissect. Read to digest.
*heh, nut crack sounds like butt crack
*I’m so sorry
Hey Now, No Need To Be A Book Snob
A story is a story is a story. Whether it is contained in an erotic novel, a middle-grade horror tale, a children’s picture book, a television show, a video game, a comic book, a comic book movie, a documentary about making a comic book movie, a Chick tract, a roleplaying game told by five people at a table, a story you overhear at the hair salon — these are all stories. You aren’t just a writer. You’re a storyteller. The mechanics of language are one thing. The architecture of story is another. It’s all important. You can’t just go ankle-deep. You gotta sink to the bottom. You gotta submerge. Disappear into all the stories.
Ask Critical Questions
Why do I like this character? What’s wrong with this plot? Why is this working? Why is it not? Could I write that sentence differently? Better? Worse? I could (should?) probably do a whole blog post about the important questions writers might want to consider as they read a book — but in this case I’ll just say: the goal is to take all the little parts of the story, dice them apart, and look at their constituent pieces. How do they hold up separately? Or as a whole?
Write A Lot
Is it Stephen King’s one million words? Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours? Chuck Wendig’s six shitty trunk novels and four billion tears spilled onto the dry dead earth of literature and publishing? Choose whatever arbitrary number you like, but the idea remains the same —
You do this thing by doing this thing. You learn to write first and foremost by jolly well fucking writing. It’s the same advice I gave to my toddler son on how to urinate outside:
Just point your thing and let it go, man.
Did I Say You Could Stop Yet?
Whoa, whoa, hold up, you’re not done. You don’t just stop. You don’t hit an arbitrary word count and the meter goes ding! — you do this again and again. You write and you write and you rip the words out and you slam them down onto the paper and you keep doing it until your heart explodes and the Reaper takes you to whatever reward waits hereafter. (By the way: Hell for Writers is a smelly angel whispering an ever-worsening Amazon Rank in your ear for all of eternity.)
Our toddler has this thing where, when he tries something the first time and isn’t immediately performing that task at superhero levels, he gets really frustrated. So we have to keep drilling into him: practice, practice, practice. Yes, there exist those who can sit in front of a piano without ever having seen one before and end up playing a perfect concerto the first time, but those people are called ROBOTS and they must be destroyed before they learn to like the taste of human meat.
What I’m trying to say is:
The writing doesn’t end. And really, why would you want it to?
Art Imitates Art
Sometimes, you have to write like someone else before you can write like yourself. We mimic. We imitate. We practice as if we’re other people. I know, it gets boring, but another toddler story (the childless amongst you are probably rolling your eyes but ha ha ha this is my blog, suckers): our tot, B-Dub, approaches new situations sometimes as if he’s a Transformer. He was having a hard time in his swimming class until he learned to pretend to be one of the Rescue Bots — see, in the show, the firetruck named Heatwave recently learned to manifest a second vehicle form: a fire boat. So, the tiny human was able to pretend he was someone else, and it gave him a lot of confidence. It wasn’t the toddler having to be brave, it was someone else, and he got to try new things — and get better at them — by pretending to be someone else.
You don’t really want to end up as an imitator, but a lot of this whole “cultivating your instinct as a writer” thing is very much about the journey, and not just the destination.
No, Really, Go Read Writing Advice
Writing advice gets a bad rap. Here’s the thing, though — it’s all in how you treat it. If you treat it as gospel? You’re dead in the water. If you treat it as a challenge to the way you think: you’re a winner who wins, and what you win is a cheeseburger slathered with the sweet relish of instinct.
Okay, I feel like that was a very Guy Fieri-ey metaphor, so let’s just move on.
What I’m saying is, each little snugget (snippet + nugget) of writing advice is something for you to pick up and examine. Each offering is a challenge — is this reasonable? Does this work for you? Or is it a hot armload of horse-hockey? Sometimes, to understand how we do things, we need to understand how other people do things. Maybe because we’re looking for ideas. Maybe because it helps us clarify our own understanding of why we personally reject that way.
Fail Without Fear
We don’t learn a lot through success by itself. That sounds strange, but it’s true. I throw a basketball at a hoop and — swish — first time in? I don’t know what the hell I did. But I get one shot in and nine missed, I start to see how I can do that better. And suddenly, I start making more baskets. We make sense of our efforts through failure.
Success is only seen clearly when compared with our fuck-ups.
Rejection is a part of this. Writers despise rejection because it hurts us; but that sting so keenly felt can also be clarifying when we let it. Whether this is rejection by a friend who reads it, by a publisher, by an audience, by a reviewer: rejection is meaningful. Not always individually (“UR BOOK SUCKS, TURDLINGER! GO EAT A BUTT” is probably not all that valuable a critique), but as a whole, rejection can do a lot for us. Even at its most basic level, it toughens our heart against the slings and arrows of future rejection, allowing us to grow and move past it without dissolving into a puddle of briny tears for four days. (I only weep for two days, now. #blessed.)
Talk About It
Sometimes? Sometimes you just have to talk about it. Go out to a movie, go get pie with friends. Read a book? Get online to chat about it. Have a story problem? Go talk to someone. Talking about The Work — ours and everybody else’s — helps us hone our writing knives and story swords.
Instinct isn’t something that happens overnight. It comes as we demonstrate our skill. It grows as we explore our talent. It shines brighter every time we fail and then examine our failure. It lives in the background, a voice that starts out too quiet to hear but with practice and conversation and debate and every sentence written and every book read… it gets louder. Until soon it’s yelling in our ears, telling us things we already know but about which we were too naive to listen.
* * *
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.
56 responses to “Polling Your Intestinal Flora: How A Writer Cultivates Instinct”
Thanks, Chuck. I needed that.
One of your best this year, Chuck. Thank you 🙂
You’re inspiring like a drill Sargent!
DROP AND GIVE ME 2,000 WORDS, SOLDIER
Sir! Yes Sir!
“…some people are born with…magic third nipples that, when squeezed, lactate a variety of flavored sodas.”
Wait! I always thought I was the only one…so I’m not alone after all?!
*dispenses a root beer and cries tears of joy into it*
I read everything I can. I thought maybe Amazon was getting ready to buy me, but my book purchases look like the national debt 🙂
I agree with the anti judgement thing! I get tired of my man looking over my shoulder and asking ” why are you reading porn?” I just tell him he has his head in the wrong place.
I read to see what makes me feel no matter good,bad, or otherwise.
If a book doesn’t make me feel in the first few chapters, I am done.
I am a long time writer, first novel though.
This is good advice 😉
Did you really think it would go viral?
BTW, you are one of only 4 blogs listed on the AAR site, good cred for you!
I love how you put this: “I read to see what makes me feel no matter good,bad, or otherwise.”
It’s so true.
And once again, the super secret superweapon known as DER WENDIG delivered a case of the WHOOP-ASS. Thanks. Also, continue with the Toddler-Tales. I’d never go there again, but it makes me go “Awwww.”
Reading broadly is obviously great advice, but harder than I thought it would be.
Im trying to branch s l o w l y from my personal interests into new fields. I like Sci-Fi – so revisiting classic futurist novels that I avoided because they were on school lists (brave new world, 1984, all of the Wyndham stuff), and have some non-fiction planned in my reading list (both science ‘texts’ like a Brief History of Time and the Right Stuff by Wolfe).
I love my horror (King and Masterton etc), so branching into popular crime novels (Girl with dragon tattoo etc) as well as more non-fiction (in the middle of In Cold Blood). Im also trying to branch out from established authors to new authors…
Im also tracking what I read – Im at 49 books for the year (including a bunch of re-reads that I burned through pretty quickly) – I want to set a high base so I can try beating it each year. However, Im also limiting the time I read (I need to try and get words down as well). So I read on the bus to work (& home) & and on the bathroom (when Im not reading tweets :P).
The Library is my new home.
Awesome post Chuck. I needed to hear this motivation again.
I literally just sat down to take a break from writing. It’s been one of those days where my brain feels like mush, the words aren’t coming, and even though I told myself I was taking a break, I was probably going to throw in the towel for the day.
Then I read this post . . . I’m getting my ass back to work. Bye.
I love you Chuck Wendig…you AND your crazy-ass word smithery.
Don’t mean to be that Book Snob/Asshole, but there are actually a trio of Brontes: Charlotte (Jane Eyre, Villette), Emily (Wuthering Heights), and Anne (Agnes Grey, Tenant of Wildfell Hall). The three of them broke into the business by releasing a book of poems together (which sold like 4 copies). Agnes Grey illustrates how being a governess for sadistic rich kids is hell on earth (based on author’s own terrible experiences), and Tenant is considered to be one of the earliest feminist novels. Both are short and worth a read!
*Cue “The More You Know” shooting star
Anne Bronte is dead to me.
SHE KNOWS WHY.
I think Chick tracts ARE horror. I’ve never read anything scarier. My XY has an extensive collection and just a glimpse of the b&w flames shooting out of the pages makes me go, “Yeeeg.”
Great post overall, but this really hits home for me: “Read not to be entertained, but to be enlightened. Read not to be comforted, but to be challenged. Read to be disturbed, bewildered, saddened, disgusted. Read to understand.”
Isnt a key component of writing imagination? You can read a whole variety of novels and types, but if your brain can’t create a world to place the story you are burning to write, you are pretty much stuffed.
It is, indeed. Though that’s a bit separate from instinct, I think. One has to cultivate imagination too — perhaps the focus of a future post!
Imagination is something we are all born with. Period fucking dot. All children have it.
It’s just that a lot of them get it beaten out of them or fail to exercise it and they end up like Susan Pevensie from the Narnia books… “Oh, isn’t it funny you still remember those make-believe games we played as silly children now bugger off while I snort heroin off this fashion model’s ass and PRETEND I’M NOT ALREADY DEAD INSIDE.”
And, granted, some people have more imagination or some natural gift for letting it flow easier that other people. And that’s fine. It’d be a funny old world if we were all alike, wouldn’t it?
But don’t ever think that a) you don’t have it or b) that you can’t make it stronger by exercising it. And reading, widely, is like Imagination Steroids for writers. You can mainline steroids but if you never get up off the couch you’ll still be a pile of blubber with a couch-shaped ass. And you can exercise without steroids and with hard work you can reach the peak of your body’s potential. But if you exercise AND take steroids you turn into Mark Fucking McGuire and you start hitting shit so hard it flies out of the park and DENTS THE HUBBLE TELESCOPE.
And the nice part is, Imagination Steroids are perfectly legal and you won’t have an asterisk next to your name on the bestseller lists for using them. SO GO GET SOME.
Thanks, Chuck. This was an affirming post. I appreciate you, but I’ll never look at Star Wars the same…the really did murder people who were doing their job. Mind completely blow.
Great post but I can’t stop giggling about the giant mail sorting centre Luke blew up… sorry.
ALL THOSE POSTAL WORKERS.
Mail floating in space that will never reach its destination.
The Empire will deal with these terrorists.
Mwah ha hahargh “and now, my young apprentice… ” it reminds me of that old joke about the postman in yorkshire starting a new round and as he goes into a garden (the post box is in the front door here in the UK) a small dog goes for him and grabs him by the ankle. An upper storey window opens and a little old dear looks out.
“Hello love, don’t worry about Fido, just kick his balls!” she shouts.
The postman dutifully obliges and to his guilty relief the dog runs away wimpering.
“Actually dear, I meant the tennis balls on the lawn.”
Amazing post, thank you Chuck.
[…] Polling Your Intestinal Flora: How a Writer Cultivates Instinct […]
The end is my favourite bit. It’s the part of my journey I’m really only just starting by joining a workshop… getting people to READ my work, get feedback, try not to cry inside when it’s bad, try not to get a big head if it’s good, etc. Plus, reading other’s work and critiquing it makes me think about how to improve my own writing. I felt stuck for ages, but now I am getting somewhere, and I LIKE that somewhere.
Can’t really recommend it enough, even though taking the leap at first is pretty damn scary.
My wife writes contemporary romance, and I beta-read for her. Before I started, I read some other romance novels (a genre I never picked up on my own). I started noticing tons of character development nuances and other touches I had stopped seeing in other genres. I was so used to seeing goal-motivation-conflict turns in mystery, for example, I stopped noticing them. Now, in a fresh genre, they were clear as day, and I could see how those bits could be borrowed and adapted for my own writing.
[…] Read More […]
Can I get this in a daily recorded voice mail? I’d pay for that.
Ah yes, my daily “You Must Read” reinforcement.
I’ve said it to a few other people who keep pressing me to read in order to write: When people can write a novel or any other story well and keep my attention, I’ll start reading more.
See, reading fiction at this point for me is pain. Sheer, unadulterated, unsolicited pain. Why is that? The skill to express clearly and concisely is lacking in most of the books I pick up today. I’ll start at the beginning and they have a sentence to capture my interest. 90% fail. I’ll give them another paragraph since I know they tried hard. 95% fail. I’ll jump into the middle of the story and see if maybe my “awe and wonderment” theory applies. Nope. What about just trying to analyze what they did why they did. And there’s the smoke from my ears.
I am not requiring perfection or anything else along those lines, but it is very clear – at least in the genres I pick up and poke around in – that the authors have not learned storytelling skill and applied it to their product.
I admire writers who just jump in and type away, and that’s great, but it certainly is a chore to read what they want simply because they will take the easiest way to do it instead of exploring the harder and more rewarding avenues and paths to get there – and make a more engrossing and breathtaking story.
Then again, this is why I am taking up sketching instead and read nothing but non-fiction at this point.
“I’ve said it to a few other people who keep pressing me to read in order to write: When people can write a novel or any other story well and keep my attention, I’ll start reading more. See, reading fiction at this point for me is pain. Sheer, unadulterated, unsolicited pain…”
We have reached the point in our non-relationship, Mr. Eaton, that I must believe you’re some kind of snobby troll. Your comments at this site are always snooty and strange, and make assertions so puzzling that I’m not even sure what you’re doing here. I might suggest that you will find more enlightening information and conversation elsewhere. I’m not booting you to the curb or anything — I’m simply pondering at your repeated returns to this site, and expressing the belief that you would do much better somewhere else.
Just stating that the requirement to “read, read, read” doesn’t work for everyone since people are quite different in their creativity.
However, you are probably right. I’ll unsubscribe and move on.
Although I loved this post and do generally agree with the read, read, read stuff I understand where Matthew Eaton is coming from. I have always been a reader, way before I had any thoughts of becoming a writer, but I don’t have enough time to waste reading badly-written nonsense – and there’s a lot of it out there. Maybe there’s something to be learned from reading it, but I’d rather read something that is well-written and that entertains me and learn from THAT. I have little time in which to read, I’d rather spend it reading something well-written, even if I’ve already read that book a hundred times, even if it’s not “broad” but within the same little genre that I enjoy most…
Okay, Mr. Wendig – I’m sold. Just purchased that book of yours about being a kick-ass writer. I am looking forward to kicking a few asses…
Thanks for the interesting and helpful advice in your post.
No, thank YOU. And please to enjoy.
As always, sir, you speak the fierce fucking truth, and I love you for it. I’m fighting through being flat-out sick to do 3k a day right now, and every time I start to whimper and want to play a game instead, I reach for either a book to read, or the keyboard, because WENDIG. That’s why.
Also, I am a proud penmonkey.
I came here to learn about Acidophilus. I feel misled.
That’s a bad joke. This is an excellent post. It didn’t deserve that bad joke, apologies. I have young kids, too, and you point out something very important. We don’t expect people (except for rare cases) to excel at something without practice. There are too many writers who get caught up in endless revision and networking and forget that you need to keep taking practice swings. Every day.
I’ve recently started following your blog. Good decision.
Thank you, Chuck for writing the words I needed to hear! I agree you need to read widely and I do when I can. I also think you need courage to write and your post has fired me up to continue working on my latest WIP that is far afield from what I usually write. I am adding in a ghost, because after several critiques people thought it needed something to move it along and suggested it. I’m bringing it to a workshop where some agents and editors will be and I’m nervous about their opinion. But with this post I will forge on and finish the revision. Loved your post and will follow you now.
I love your little ranty asides, because that’s how my brain works, mumbling to itself like that guy down on Sunset pushing the shopping cart full of busted televisions. I relate to your hairy sex gorillas and their dreams of delivering mail all across the Empire. Also, never gonna see that movie in quite the same light, thanks.
Another reason to read often and widely is to remember the joy of language, of being taken on a journey, of falling in love or hate with strangers and their hairy sex gorillas. To remember why we’re compelled to do this crazy, solitary, terrifying thing.
Read to remind yourself why you write.
Great post. A lot of this is why I have started blogging reviews of books, movies, games, and other story delivery systems. It’s not that I think my insight is all that unique or special (though if you think it is then more power to ya…) but it’s a good way to dig into why a story works or doesn’t and try to learn from that to improve my own writing.
[…] Yesterday’s entry is pretty good: […]
As much as I enjoy thinking of myself as a pen monkey, I am loving even more thinking of myself as a transforming pen monkey bot.
So you finish a novel, and realise you need had weak legs in chap 3 that plagues you throughout the WIP. What do you do?
I feel like a toddler now. Time to get some time in being Steven King. Thanks for the advice Chuck!
[…] a recent post, Chuck Wendig encourages writers to “fail without fear.” We don’t learn a lot through success by itself. That sounds strange, but it’s true. I throw a […]
I need a ‘Like’ Button for this. In fact I don’t – I need a ‘Blinkin’ LOVE’ Button!
(Crap, I hope no-one reads that last sentence out of context – could be VERY embarrassing…)
Thanks for putting so much wisdom all in one blog post, Chuck. Like the banquet to end all banquets, this is where I come to eat myself writerly 🙂 And that stuff you said B-Dub does when he tries new things? My son is eight now and he STILL does all of that. Stays with ’em for a looonnnnng time, I’m thinkin’…
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Excellent and encouraging advice for all writers.
[…] Chuck Wendig on how a writer cultivates instinct. […]
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[…] his blog, Terrible Minds, Chuck Wendig included reading critically in his list of ways a writer cultivates instinct. Wendig says you should ask questions such as, “Why do I like this character? What’s wrong […]
[…] a recent post on his blog, Terrible Minds, Chuck Wendig wrote about essential elements that a writer needs to cultivate instinct. One of the things on Wendig’s list was talking about your writing. […]
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