Five Stupid Writing Tricks Starting… Now

Let Your Characters Talk. No, I know, we like to be hyper-plot-focused like, if it doesn’t fit into the plot, then murder it in the face. But that’s assuming plot is this rigid, inflexible thing, like an obsidian dildo. It’s not. Plot is whatever happens in the story: a sequence of events. This happens. That happens. Then another thing. In the process: characters talk. Characters are everything, and it behooves you to know them. One of the ways you get to know them is: let them have conversations. About anything. Corn chips and abortion! Lip balm and gun rights! Whatever it is, give them a lot of leash. Maybe you’ll cut a lot of it. Maybe you won’t. But ideally, it’ll help you know these characters more intimately by the end. And if you know? Then we get to know, too.

Have A Point, But Don’t Ever Tell Us. Writing a novel is a game of charades — I’m trying to tell you something without ever telling you something. All my work has a point — a central argument or idea. Sometimes I know it going in, sometimes I know it on the second draft, or tenth, or once its on shelves. But I don’t want to tell you what it is. That spoils the fun and ruins the game. Dance around it. Paint the margins, but leave the core thesis of the work blank. Let the reader get there. Let them stumble into it like someone who opens the wrong door and finds themselves wandering into a secret orgy. Let them be wrong about it, too, if they need to be. Fiction isn’t about absolutes. This isn’t paint by numbers. Good storytelling embraces ambiguity and uncertainty. Good writing isn’t a lecture; it’s a debate.

Surprise Yourself, And You Surprise The Reader. This is maybe one of the best ways to get unstuck that I’ve found, in the most general sense: just when you feel like you’re hitting the wall, face mashed against the brick and you don’t know where to turn, it’s time to surprise yourself. If you’ve anticipated what’s coming, then we might, too. That’s not to say you can’t orchestrate holy-goatfucker moments long before you get to them — you can, and should. But sometimes, you paint yourself into a corner and it’s like, do something really unexpected. It’s like, BOOM, SPACE BADGERS, and jaws hit the floor so hard the tile cracks. (This also means it’s vital to be loosey-goosey with your expectations. Nothing in your story — no moment, no character, no event — is final until that book is printed and in people’s hands. Be willing to change course and redraw the map — I love outlining, but just as no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, no outline survives contact with the actual story. Rigidity is the enemy; flexibility is your friend. You know what’s also your friend? Puppies. And whiskey. And ice cream. And a puppy carrying whiskey-flavored ice cream in a little barrel around its neck. *dreams*)

Ten Keywords. Think of ten keywords about the story you’re writing. Or five, I don’t care. They can be anything. Emotions. Plot points. Locations. Write them down. Scribble them on a Post-It note, or keep them open on your screen in a little window, or tattoo them on your head backwards so you can read them in the makeup mirror you keep just to your left. The goal? When you write, glance at them. These are the ideas and elements and motifs you want to keep roughly juggled in the work: not constantly in play, but so that some part of the story always roams and roves back to them. It’s like, LIBERTY / ALBUQUERQUE / WATER RIGHTS / VULTURES / CLASS WARFARE / VAMPIRES / THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE / BROKEN WINDOWS / DONKEY SHOWS / DERELICT SHOPPING MALLS. Peer at these from time to time. They’re meant to form the posts of an invisible fence to keep you and the story hemmed in.

Write Like You Think. This sounds strange, I know, but sometimes the reason writing is so hard for us is that we put all this expectation and distance between us and the words. We want to prettify and make them sound like proper prose — but in that, we’re often hewing to someone else’s idea of what constitutes pretty, proper prose. Hell with that. Connecting with the work more intimately means creating a stronger, more direct conduit between the words on the page and the words inside your head. What’s up here — *taps forehead* — is PURE SNOW. It’s raw, crackling, cuckoo energy. It’s rough, unhewn, and it is decidedly You-Flavored. Pipe that stuff right onto the page. I’m not necessarily talking about straight stream-of-consciousness, here, but I do mean for you to harness the way you think and the way you speak — how you hear language and process it and return it to the world has meaning. It’s the writer’s fingerprint. So press your fingerprint hard onto the page. And if your objection to this is that it’s not pretty, not proper and, ugh, not perfect — well, no duh. First, that’s kinda the point. Second, you have as many drafts as you need to fix it. So, stop putting up roadblocks and expectations between you and the page. BARF BRAIN MATTER RIGHT INTO THE STORY.


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  • So extremely helpful for me right now –

    Between folk who think proper full sentences are the only way to write (dully, I might add), and allowing my story to have “ambiguity and uncertainty” –

    I’ve gotten brow-beat recently to where I was starting to doubt myself.

    ‘Course I know from experience I’d get over it, eventually, sooner or later.

    But my goodness. So good, and good-timing, to read your post, Chuck. Thank you!

  • CHUCK. I adored you before for many reasons, but now you went & done it. Not only did you make a Better Off Dead reference, but put the video clip in the post?? You rule, sir. You just made this 80s kid’s morning. :)

    Have fun in the shed. Good day to you.

  • Brilliant advice as usual! As one whose face is smooshed against the brick wall…I needed that. I know I can’t assume I know anything about what is going to happen in the story, yet I tie myself up again and again like an idiot. The other week I read somewhere about some crazy woman who liked chewing on bricks (in real life – and she’d chewed through a wall)…crazy!…but maybe I’m addicted to the taste of mental brick. The only good thing I can think of is I’ll still have all my teeth by the end of my story.

  • I really like these. In Clockworks I end up cutting (and thus never drawing or laying out) huge swaths of dialog, but I feel the long rambly conversations definitely help me keep in mind the voice of each of the characters.

  • Yeah, the write like I think thing got me stuck forever. FOREVER. That’s the most incredibly simple way of conveying the magical mystery concept of voice I’ve ever read. Write like you think, and all will be well because no one thinks exactly like you. Also the ten keywords thing is happening this morning. Totally.

  • Obsidian dildo, hah :)

    Also, yes, write like you think. That’s where all the raw energy is. Letting go of the words.

  • This is freakin’ awesome, Chuck! Thank you!! It’s almost enough to make me want to start editing the novel I drafted two years ago. Almost.

    BTW, were your ears burning New Year’s Eve? There I was standing with under starlit skies on the shores of the beautiful Lahave River sipping mulled wine and talking with a new acquaintance about her soon-to-be-published novel when suddenly your name came up and the two of fell headlong into a Terribleminds lovefest – listing all our favourite posts, admiring your wicked sense of humour and fanastic prose, lamenting the fact you don’t live in Nova Scotia. Too bad you weren’t there. ;-)

    Happy New Year and congrats on the shed!

  • That was much needed. I wonder if you have done any posts on writing the pitch. I’m having a hard time trying to narrow down what my story is about so that I dont take people on this long journey. I want them to get it in a few sentences so that when I do start looking for readers and authors and editor, they’re not getting a story before the story. Does that make sense? I hope so.

  • Am totally going to do the Keywords Thing right now! *dives headfirst into ‘Paper-I-Might-Need-Someday’ Pile to dig out Post-It Notepad*

    Every time I think there can’t possibly be any more wisdom left in your head to dispense, Chuck, you come up with something new and fresh. I reckon your brain could probably power the North American Grid all on its own. Which is why your sharing of advice is so greatly appreciated, since – my own, draft-2-addled brain? Well, you know those science experiments from school, where you stick metal pins in a potato to power an LED..?

    Thanks again!

  • I don’t know what I’d do without your ‘Barf Brain Matter Right into the Story’ advice. Just what I needed this morning to perk me up.

    Thanks for telling it like it is!

  • I LOVE this post. It made perfect sense to me. I even wrote down a summary to keep next to my laptop:

    1. Plot is not an inflexible, rigid, obsidian dildo. Change CAN be your friend.
    2. Let your readers experience the pleasure of stumbling across a secret orgy.
    3. Don’t take any sexual acts involving goats out of your story. Everybody likes a good surprise.
    4. Barf brain matter on paper. … (I take it that this one bit of advice is to be taken figuratively??? I hope so! Please confirm though! :-)

    All joking aside, excellent post. You have a great writing style!

  • I love the first point. I love chatty characters. Most authors don’t let their characters talk enough. At least for me. I think what characters say and don’t say and resist saying and say in really weird ways tells you a lot about what they’ll do. And where the hell do you get whiskey-flavored ice cream?


  • I needed this advice so bad right now. I just spent a day fighting with the main character in my brand new novel. Like, I wanted him to talk about his love affair with the prison toilet and he wanted to complain about the orange jumpsuits. I kept fighting with the words, spent like three hours getting 100 words out, until I just said fuck it and let him rant about the damned jumpsuits, and the words just spilled out from there.

  • Yes! But here’s a “no” for you. If you think your conversation rocks, do not listen to the poopy diaper, throw-it-in-the garbage voices coming from critique group partners and reviewers. I took the first chapter of a MG novel to a critique-a-thon once. The other writers pissed all over my cafeteria conversation between a bunch of middle school boys, saying it was completely superfluous to the plot. But I loved those lines. They had just poured out of me. Middle-school boys talk about all kinds of weirdness that doesn’t relate to anything. I thought it lent a whole lot to the tone of the book and to the character’s personalities. And it was only a couple of paragraphs, for crying out loud. They even trashed the kids’ names, saying they should be more “American” and easier to pronounce. Hey, I grew up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood, so I happen to know that names like Silverstein and Bochi actually exist. Too bad some folks aren’t capable of going along for the ride.

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