Dear Writers: None Of Us Know What The Fuck We’re Doing

I received a very nice email from a very nice reader that said (and here I’m paraphrasing) that her problem isn’t writer’s block, but something bigger and yet, at the same time, less tangible. She said she’s a young writer, and then she went to say:

The cement wall in the subject line could be named lack of confidence, or even lack of vision if you like. Being where I am in life makes it hard to picture myself as the respected, published author I’d like to be one day. In theory, I know what it takes.But is it really as simple as, “just do the work and you’ll get there?” Or is there something I’m missing? Because there’s a part of me that feels like I might not have what it takes even if I work hard, my ideas are good, and trusted friends tell me I’ve got a gift.

I’ve been searching the net, but it doesn’t feel like a lot of people get the sentiment. So, I figured that the perspective a more experienced person could help me out. What were the biggest concerns/issues/toxic leeches attached to your back you had when you started out? Were they in any way similar to mine? How did you get around them?

My initial response on this was just going to be, “I’ll send her my advice on caring less, as maybe that’s the problem.” Everybody — not just writers — is afforded a Basket of Only So Many Fucks at the start of each day. And we spend those Fucks on whatever we can or must. It’s comforting and occasionally badassedly energizing to say, I’m all out of fucks to give, but for writers, that’s not really an option. You gotta give a fuck about this whole thing. You can’t just hit the bottom of the basket. But at the same time, some writers give too many fucks. They blow them all like a cokehead gambler at the Vegas roulette table: “PUT IT ALL ON RED 42,” and the lady is like, “The table only goes up to 38,” and the gambler’s like “SHUT UP AND TAKE ALL OF MY FUCKS.” A writer who spends it all like that puts too much pressure on herself, makes it too important, too heavy a burden, and then the risk can be paralyzing.

And then my next response is basically:

“Well, yeah, writers write, so go write.”

Then I drop the mic. But remain on stage to eat a pie rather noisily.

But I don’t know if that’s what’s going on here.

Here’s what I remember about being a young, untested writer:

I didn’t know what the fuck was going on.

Like, I understood the principle. You sit down, you tippy-tappy out the word jabber on your typey machine, you arrange all the word jabber into the approximate shape of a “story,” and then ???? and then step three: cry under your desk. And maybe at some point in the future, Big Publishing knocks on your door, chomping a cigar made of old parchment and he’s all like, “HERE’S YOUR TICKET, KID, YOUR TICKET TO THE BIG TIME. YOU’RE A BESTSELLER NOW, PAL — A BONA FIDE AUTHOR-TYPE! HERE’S YOUR KEYS TO NEW YORK CITY AND NEIL GAIMAN’S PHONE NUMBER. NOW GET ON THE UNICORN AND LET’S RIDE, CHAMP.”

But really, what it feels like is that you’re the guest at a party. And you don’t know anybody. You don’t know the rules — are you allowed to double-dip a chip? Where is the guest bathroom and are you allowed to use the hand towels? Is that an orgy upstairs? What’s the orgy etiquette, exactly? Was I supposed to bring my own lube? Silicone or water-based?

Worse, it’s like everyone at this party is speaking a sorta different language. It’s still English, but there exists a lingo, a jargon, a sense that you stepped into a subculture that isn’t your own. Everybody and everything feels and sounds off-kilter, like you’re listening to a bunch of software programmers or Wall Street execs make up buzzwords while really, really high.

It’s not just about the writing — writing is, itself, not a difficult task. Like I said: tippy-tappy typey-typey and ta-da, you wrote something. But the problem lies in the hurricane winds of bewilderment that roar and whirl around that central act. What’s good writing? What are the rules? What is your voice? What’s everyone else doing? Will you get published? Agent? Editor? Self-published? What’s good storytelling? What the hell is a genre and why does it matter? Whoza? Wuzza? Why am I doing this? Why does my soul feel this way? Do I want to cry? Am I crying? I’m crying. I’m eating Cheezits at 3AM and I don’t have a shirt on and I wrote another short story and it’s probably not any good or maybe it’s really good I don’t know AHHHH I don’t have any context at all for anything that I’m doing.

And that’s the trick. We lack context. We lack experience and awareness and instinct.

So, we seek that out.

We look to other writers — and to the industry at large — for context.

We get advice. We load ourselves up with information. We crave context and so we gobble it down like that box of 3AM Cheezits and soon our fingers are dusted with Cheezit pollen and shame but we feel emboldened with new information.

And often, it’s shitty information.

It’s shitty because everyone is faking confidence.

They’re creating context by mostly making it up.

I do it, too. We all do. We all have our little rules of writing, our ways that things are done, and they’re nearly all smeared with at least a little bit — a dollop! a thumbprint! — of horseshit. “Don’t use adverbs,” someone says, except whoa, hey, lots of words are adverbs: then, still, never, anywhere, downstairs, seldom, soon, after, since, and the list goes on and on. “Never use a verb other than ‘said’,” except then you see how nearly every book uses dialogue tags other than said. He shouted! She asked! He growled. “Never open a book with” and here the list goes on and on — weather, a character regarding themselves, a line of dialogue, a prologue, a penguin on a jet ski, two vampires blowing each other, a math problem, a heretical screed, a Roomba endlessly tracking cat shit around a living room while pondering its own existential dread. And then, ta-da, you read like, ten books that break these rules. And sometimes the books that break these rules are bestsellers. Or are literary books that are well-regarded critically. Or is just a book that made it to someone’s book shelf at all. “But they did it!” you stammer frustratedly as the Roomba bumps fruitlessly into your boot, getting poop on your foot.

It only gets worse when you start taking publishing advice. I hear bad publishing advice all the goddamn time. “Nobody gets an agent from the query process,” I heard recently. Yeah, except me. And a whole dumpster full of writers I know that got agents from the query process. “Nobody survives the slush pile.” Totally true, except when it’s often not. “Urban fantasy isn’t selling,” and then you read about two more urban fantasy series coming to print, and you look at the bestseller lists and it features Butcher, Hearne, McGuire, Harris (and then you realize what they really mean is, “Nobody’s buying shitty urban fantasy right now”). Hell, even publishers don’t know things. You want them to. You think they should. But when a hot new trend kicks off through book culture like some kind of super-crazy-contagious syphilis, the best they can do is capitalize on the trend they failed to predict.

What I’m trying to say is:

None of us know what the fuck we’re doing.

I know we don’t because the deeper we go down this career, the less we seem to know. Oh, we have ideas. We’ll literally explode your ears with our self-important author talk, but at the end of the day, all the shit we say can probably be disproven by talking to five other writers, and mostly that look in the black of our eyes is one of utter bewilderment. Our greatest and most honest answer to you regarding all the questions you want to ask us would be a vigorous, exasperated shrug.

That’s not to say we’re entirely clueless, mind you. It’s like this — you’re at the bottom of the mountain looking up. We’re on the side of the mountain or even at its peak looking down. You have the climb ahead of you. We have the climb — or some of it, at least — behind us. We have a view of the valley. You have a view of only the mountain. We know a little bit about climbing. We know some of the gear. We have our limited perspective on getting up to where we are, at present. We can only tell you what we know and what we did — and that’s not entirely helpful.

See, up at the peak, we’ve just achieved a new level of cluelessness.

“What’s that body of water over there?”

“Fuck if I know.”

“How’d we survive crossing that SNOWY CREVASSE where the ICE WEASELS were nesting?”

“Luck, I guess.”

“How do we get back down?”

“I think we die up here.”

“Oh.”

There exists no well-marked, well-lit path up the mountain. You will find no handy map. No crafty app for your smartphone. The terrain shifts after everyone walks upon it. New chasms. Different caves. The ice weasels become hell-bears. The sacred texts we find in the grottos along our journey are sacred to us but heresy to someone else.

The person who wrote me the email, she’s probably saying:

“None of this is helpful.”

Which is likely true.

Though, hopefully, the lack of cluelessness that abounds through all the strata of This Thing We Do is comforting? It’s not like young writers are the only ones who don’t know what the fuck is going on or how things work. We’re all just making this shit up as we go. Some of us have a little more context for it — we’re the guests at the party, the ones babbling the jargon and the ones who know some of the orgy etiquette rules. But take heart: we’re just making the jargon up as we go. We’re inventing the orgy etiquette as the orgy unfolds because hey man, orgies aren’t math problems. ORGIES ARE ART. And writing is like that, too — it’s not a repeatable science experiment. It’s not, “Take this pill to relieve your headache.” It’s not X = Y. Instead it’s a lot of random: “Should I stick this in there?” “Yes?” “Bend over, I’m going to try this.” “I tried this in New Mexico and it didn’t work.” “Good to know.”

We share information, we do our best, and for the most part? We wing it.

I feel like I’m not helping.

So, let’s try this.

Out of all the bullshit about writing and publishing, I think you’ll find a series of constants.

These constants remain necessary to do the thing that you want to do.

And doing these things again and again will grant the confidence to continue. (And by the way? Don’t worry about whether or not you’re ‘good enough.’ Nobody even knows what ‘good enough’ means. That’s for someone else to worry about. You worry about whether or not you want to be a writer. And if you do, then be a writer and do your best to cleave to these constants.)

The Five Constants

1. Write A Lot (And To Completion)

2. Read A Lot (And Read Critically When You Do)

3. Think About Writing And Storytelling

4. Talk To Writers

5. Go Live A Life

That’s it.

I don’t even know if I need to explain those, really — they’re all pretty obvious, I like to hope. If you want to write, you need to write. No matter who you are or what problems you suffer: writers write. And writers write to the end. They finish their shit. And they read a lot, too. I’ve never met a writer who doesn’t read, same as you’ve probably never met a chef who doesn’t like food. You gotta give this thing we do time and thought and energy. And despite all of us not really knowing what the fuck is going on, it helps to talk to other writers. If only for solidarity. If only so we can all shrug together. If only so we can drive the car over the edge of the cliff as one, Thelma and Louise-style. And beyond that is life itself. A life that demands living. Life that will fuel the words, that will form the warts and blemishes and little bones of the stories you want to tell.

None of us know what the fribbly fuck we’re doing.

But to gain the confidence you need, you sometimes gotta pretend like you do.

* * *

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.

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133 comments

  • This whole self-publishing thing, and the publishing industry before it, herds writers into formula corals. Chuck is very well meaning and trying to provide a roadmap to commercial success. Hell, that’s why I’m a reader of his blog.
    BUT in the process a lot of really important originality is stomped out.
    “You need to make a pitch like this. You need to start your story like that.”
    All true but we need to feel insecurity, vulnerability, weakness, rejection in order to tap what is real because that’s the home planet of true insight. Once that’s on paper, give a try at making the pitch work.
    Mind you, you need to get a lot of it on paper first. It’s the old Edison observation of genius – one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. According to my wife, my sweaty self should be a genius.
    Insecurity should not stop you from writing.
    Insecurity is good. It gets you in touch with yourself and your fears. Use it to write.
    I didn’t start writing fiction until very recently. Why? I had a great lazy life. I needed shit to happen, a bit of insecurity dumped on my lap.
    Chuck probably was a festering, unsociable, weird guy before framing his insanity into a format “the industry” accepted. Without the insanity you can’t look at the world in a different way. If you don’t look at the world differently, why the hell would anyone want to read what you write?
    In terms of background as a writer – I feel it harmed me. All those years in journalism trained me how to write what I see and hear, not what I imagine. I was at a loss when it came to writing anything original.
    And yet, because of having a bit of notoriety as a journalist, my ex-rag readers say I’m certain to be successful.
    Well – holy shit on a stick – you can’t listen to those people any more than the people who reject your writing. I re-read my first bits of fiction that “fans” went ga-ga over and I gag.
    In terms of being a novelist, my 20 years in journalism gave me one year as a writer repeated 20 times.
    I have to consciously shock my brain to think about things in different ways.

  • My writing buddy, Terri Coop, said you were a different bird and I’m sorry to say I’m just getting around to checking out your ‘terrible mind’. Refreshing, functionally vulgar, and insightful. (I never realized how powerful the word ‘fuck’ is in getting a point across.)
    Despite multiple writing conferences, dozens of craft books, and sage advice from agents and publishers, I have never felt comfortable accepting every hard and fast rule. I still believe that telling a good story and entertaining the reader are our main goals. If I can find a way to do that with a little personal bling, I’m going for it.
    Oh, I still stop at stop signs, I hardly ever rape and pillage, and I don’t open with the weather or a dream…those rules seem reasonable, but I’m beginning to think ‘rules’ are invented by folks that are afraid to break them. Thanks, Wendig. Really, thanks.

  • This so reminds me of an author who said he once threw one of his manuscripts in the rubbish bin. He was a college professor, but had never been published, and thought what he had written was, well, rubbish. His wife dug it out and made him finish it. This author’s name was Stephen King, and the discarded and subsequently retrieved manuscript was entitled ‘Carrie’.

  • Today was one of those days where I sat staring blankly at my current story and thought “This is crap. All of it is crap. No one will want to read this, EVER.” And then I came across this post and it boosted my confidence enough that I don’t hate my story quite so much anymore, and hopefully tomorrow (or later today) I’ll be in love with it again because I can remember this post and know that NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE DOING. So thank you for this.

  • Some of my favorite stories begin with two vampires blowing each other. A couple have two frankensteins, to be fair.

  • Great post! I don’t think any of us, regardless of our success level or experience, have any clue of what we’re really doing. I certainly don’t. In 5+ years of writing, I’ve made enough money to buy maybe two six-packs of beer and a cheap bottle of scotch, but I still run a website with advice for new writers. Why? Even though I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing right now, I sure as hell know what I’ve done wrong in the last 5+ years and feel that sharing those mistakes can help out writer who are just getting started.

  • You have to make mistakes, accept that you make mistakes, and learn from them.
    This alone explains why successful writers are a fairly rare breed.
    Not just persistence, but the wisdom to realize your mistakes are lessons you learn from.

  • By far the most sane voice in the wilderness. Thanks, Chuck. A worthy retweet, if for nothing else than to validate we’re all fumbling to find the light switch.

  • This is the best advice I’ve seen, Chuck!! It’s tough to know what you’re doing sometimes, you just got to keep on the path, keep climbing, if you fall, get back up, and climb again. It’s what I do. It’s what everyone does whether they admit to it or not.

  • I love this. So many times on writer forums you see people confidently asserting that this is GOOD WRITING and that is BAD WRITING and no, that style is not popular anymore, oh that bit’s not marketable, you should use these elements of style BUT DON’T LOSE YOUR VOICE, no one cares about the words as long as the story’s good, no one cares about the story as long as it flooows …

    Basically, thanks for acknowledging that even Real Life Published Authors are bullshitting their way through bullshit.

  • OMG I so needed to hear this today. You put into words what I was slogging through today. I feel vindicated and my focus adjusted. I salute you with the spoon of shittiness.

  • It might be the wine but I think the line “fingers dusted with Cheezit pollen and shame” may be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read. Okay, maybe not the most beautiful but really cool and evocative and it made me get tears in my eyes. I often feel as if I’ve used it all up. Then I sit back down and write, not knowing or caring if it’s great but knowing the people in my head are clamoring to get out and I owe them that opportunity. thanks for being a voice in the darkness.

  • Love the picture. Are you available for parties? Yes, I admit it, I have no fucking clue what I’m doing but on the other hand I don’t really know how to do anything else. So…oh well.
    Annie

  • “Survivorship bias pulls you toward bestselling diet gurus, celebrity CEOs, and superstar athletes. It’s an unavoidable tick, the desire to deconstruct success like a thieving magpie and pull away the shimmering bits. You look to the successful for clues about the hidden, about how to better live your life, about how you too can survive similar forces against which you too struggle. Colleges and conferences prefer speakers who shine as examples of making it through adversity, of struggling against the odds and winning. The problem here is that you rarely take away from these inspirational figures advice on what not to do, on what you should avoid, and that’s because they don’t know. Information like that is lost along with the people who don’t make it out of bad situations or who don’t make it on the cover of business magazines – people who don’t get invited to speak at graduations and commencements and inaugurations. The actors who traveled from Louisiana to Los Angeles only to return to Louisiana after a few years don’t get to sit next to James Lipton and watch clips of their Oscar-winning performances as students eagerly gobble up their crumbs of wisdom. In short, the advice business is a monopoly run by survivors. As the psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “A stupid decision that works out well becomes a brilliant decision in hindsight.” ” http://youarenotsosmart.com/2013/05/23/survivorship-bias/

  • “How do we get back down?”

    “I think we die up here.”

    “Oh.”

    i love this and this post. thanks chuck. just remember too many orgies will give you a bad back.

  • Amen and gigantic thank yous once again, Chuck, for writing exactly what I needed to hear!

    A couple of weeks ago I hit that 66% stage where everything is lovely in Novel-Writing Land and duly went “woohoo!” and wrote like a badass. This week I came out of that stage and hit the “oh shit” stage that follows it (I know all this from your Stages of Writing A Novel post) and so have been mostly hating every snot-covered bibble-pile I’ve typed into my w-i-p and asking myself who the effing eff I’m kidding that I ever thought I could do this whole writing shizzle any damn way. So yeah, as ever your timing, as well as your wisdom, is impeccable.

    And I wish I could give that young writer who wrote to you a massive virtual hug. SOOOO been there. STILL there more often than I care to admit. Writers are kind of like Stone Age Man; we do what we do because we know it’s what we have to do to survive, but a lot of the time it feels like all we’re doing it very inelegantly, bashing stuff with harder bits of stuff and communicating with others via grunts and frowns from our oversized foreheads. We know all those Iron Age knobheads are probably doing it all waaay better than we are, with their better tools and their poncey mud huts – but we hold it in our hearts that if we keep doing our thing our way we’ll get the job done in the end. Might not look like Iron Age Man’s efforts, but it’ll still do what it’s supposed to do and no-one cares what Iron Age Man thinks anyway ‘cos he can’t catch a mammoth so screw him…

  • So, the word FRAUD isn’t written on my forehead in invisible ink, to be seen only by True Writers? I get a glimpse of it sometimes, when a mirror catches me off-guard… Makes it hard to Talk To Writers, for fear of being outed…

    Thanks for the Words of Encouragement.

  • I want a poster in the style of your Atlanta Burns cover that reads : None of us know what the fribbly fuck we’re doing. It applies to so many areas of my life, not just my writing. :)

  • OMG
    It’s such a relief that someone finally admits that we actually have no idea what we’re doing.
    But I think all masterpieces were born in improvisation.

  • Thank you from the bottom of my angst-ridden heart. None of us know what the fuck we’re doing. The difference between us and publishers and agents is that we freely admit we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing. If you go to a party with any of those critters in attendance, definitely pack plenty of lube.

  • Now, here I would have never connected writing with orgies, being all solitary the writing thing can be, but guess what. When you said, “Orgies are art,” that nailed the entire message for me, wham bam thank you ma’am. Keep the art in writing and let the worries take care of themselves. Btw love, love, love reading your blog :) on the daily!!

  • I love this blog!! *gushes* And truth be told I’ve no clue what the heck I’m doing either. I just love to write, to read and all that other stuff you’re supposed to do, like living, exploring and observing people without giving the impression I’m some sort of weird stalker type person!!! :) I’ve gone and pressed the publish button an Amazon, the book is selling, slowly, but for some reason folks are impressed, I’ve been asked for advice. When that happens, I kind of sit there for a while staring blankly at the screen before I formulate some sort of reply that I hope is moderately helpful!! I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m loving doing it!! Thanks Chuck for yet another helpful, insightful and laugh out load blog post!! :)

  • May 14, 2015 at 10:06 AM // Reply

    Other people may have embroidered samplers of “The Buck Stops Here” on their office walls. I’m going to frame Chuck Wendig’s Five Constants instead.

  • It’s such a relief that somebody finally admits that we have no idea what we’re doing.
    But I think all masterpieces were born in improvisation.

  • This is exactly what I’ve been feeling like lately. I’ve had some ups and downs recently, and it made me wonder if my stories were good or if I was writing the right things and, ugh, I just wanted someone to tell me what and how to do this publishing thing! Problem is, I’ve already read most everything that people have to say about it, and it’s abundantly clear that no one has the answer and that what works is highly subjective and luck based. All a writer can do is be true to themselves and keep at it.

  • So magnificently wonderful and true across every facet of every life – we are all just winging it, really.

  • “…A vigorous, exasperated shrug.”

    Followed by the simplest, least bullshitty list of what it takes to get anywhere writing, is very comforting on this late evening of writing/researching/ingesting some concoction of chamomile and green tea/raging about the lack of steam to continue tapping at my keyboard.
    I believe that many aspiring authors deny themselves #5 when they run out of steam for #1 and burn themselves out with #3…This causes #2 to become a sludge of words our deliriously tired minds can no longer properly comprehend, much less bring us to a level of function capable of reaching out to others in #4….I need to stop there; this is no space for mathematic word problems.
    But, thank you for the wonderous method of finding (& keeping) the spark to write.

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