What I’d Like To Say To Young Writers, Part Two

Two years ago, I wrote ten things that I’d like to say to young writers, and I find that a lot of young writers — WEE TINY BABIES WITH HOPE GLINTING IN THEIR DEWDROP EYES — email me. They want to be writers but they don’t know if they can or if they should. And as I recently turned 40, that means I received from the doctor a booster shot of the Wisdom Vaccine, so right now I’m shedding wisdom like the flu virus and so you should all expect to get a little on you.

Vitamin C won’t help you.

Here are some more things I’d like to say to the YOUNGER WRITERS amongst you — though certainly a goodly portion of this might apply to those of any age and experience level.

Now please watch as I run circles in a meadow and yell wisdom at clouds.

You Can Do It

Writing is a hard gig, but it’s not like, botany? A lot of things in life are hard and require years of training and schooling. Writing isn’t that. Writing doesn’t require you know how the covalent bonds hold sentences together or the anatomical atomic rules of thematic narrative application. Writing obviously has rules, and you should know them. But those rules duck and feint, shift and change, and they’re just rules that someone made up. Writing is less an act of rigorous academic study and more a childhood act of riding your wagon down a steep hill and off a ramp and over a stream. Most times you’re going to fuck it up and break a limb, but at least you’ll have a good story to tell after. And once in a while you’ll get perfect air and score a gorgeous landing.

Point is, you can do it because others have done it. It isn’t an impossible thing. Especially at this stage, when you can separate career out of the equation. Right now, you can just concentrate simply on reiterating. Speaking of that –

Doing It Means Doing A Lot Of It

You write one story, you’re a writer. Hell, you write one page, you’re a writer.

You’re probably not a very good one, though.

Writing is this:

write write write write write write

write today

write tomorrow

stop writing for weeks

months, maybe — a year?

get back to writing, feels good, feels good

write a short story

write half a book

write ten halves of books, none of which match, all of which aren’t finished

write one book holy shit it’s finished

write bad stuff

write really bad stuff

course correct and write better stuff that’s still mostly bad but not like kill-your-momma bad

learn that oh shit you have to rewrite

rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and then you edit and you edit

feel bad because it just isn’t working and you repeat this cycle for one year, five years, ten years, and then, only then, do things start to click into place.

Admittedly, some of you are probably maestros of language and story the moment you begin — but even you, you precious moonstones, have to do the work lest your talent go fallow.

Enjoy Your Muddling Fuckery

Something I wish I would’ve realized earlier? You can enjoy the part where you don’t know what you’re doing. I think in a work-and-career-focused society, and one where choosing to write means becoming A PROPER PROFESSIONAL WRITER, you can early on lose the part where you have fun with what you’re doing. More to the point, it’s not that I don’t have fun now — but coming up as a newbie neophyte novitiate in the Ancient Order Of Ink-Fingered Penmonkeys (the AOOIFP, pronounced the AH-OOOOO-EE-FFFPPP), I was often frustrated and wanted my work to be MORE BETTER FASTER. And I forgot the part where I was doing this for kicks.

Moreover, you don’t only have the opportunity to enjoy what you’re doing, but you also have the chance to operate at a level where really, nobody is paying attention. You can do whatever you want. The page is your hallucinogenic wonderland. You own it. Nobody’s looking. It is an isolated bubble realm separate from all others, and in that, you have the freedom to take storytelling risks, to be super-weird, to experiment with language and character and motifs, to fuck around with the big questions that bother you, to mess with form, to explore straight up silly shit. This is a glorious time for fan-fiction. This is a wonderful time for breaking all the rules with nary a fuck left in the bottom of your gorgeously thatched fuckbasket. You do not have to care right now. You merely have to write.

So, do. And do so with great joy. Sing in the shower because nobody is listening. This is like a virtual simulation. You have minimal consequence and maximum freedom. As Beck once said: GET CRAZY WITH THE CHEESE WHIZ. … though I never really knew what that meant. Is cheese whiz a drug? Is he fucking the cheese whiz? It better not be hot whiz if he is, because ow, goddamn. Maybe he’s just slathering himself in Cheeze Whiz and running through a shopping mall. That could be fun. What were we talking about again?

Read Widely And Read Voraciously

The world is full of books. It is full of books good and bad. It contains books about dragons, birds, bees, sex, love, hate, government, parasites, parasols, alternate dimensions, alternate lifestyles, food, drugs, bugs, spaceships — I mean, really anything at all. It’s all out there, slathered into these glorious KNOWLEDGE SANDWICHES called books. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. Read things that the writer thinks is non-fiction but probably isn’t. Read things that are fiction but that speak to truth. Do not read in one genre. Do not read in only the genre you want to write. Paint with shotguns. Look beyond your comfort zones. Other readers can read for comfort.

You are not other readers. You want to be a writer.

And writing is very much about discomfort.

Read to enjoy. Read to get angry. Read to be challenged.

Read Lots Of Writing Advice, And Question It All, Then Question Yourself

This is the internet, and it contains mostly writers. I don’t say that glibly, I mean, a great deal of what exists on THESE HERE WEBS AND TWEETS has been fucking written down by people going tippy-tappy-typey with their keyboards. The internet is made of words. People — plus a few cats and robots — wrote those words down. Further, a great portion of the internet — at last count it was 22% — comprises writing advice. I should know, I’ve contributed at least one percent of it.

You need to read it. Not just what I say, but what Stephen King says, and Anne Lamott, and Delilah Dawson and Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman and — well, the list goes on and on. Any writer that exists has opinions on how to write. And they will probably write those opinions down, because, well, writers.

Read it all. Shove it greedily into your THOUGHT CAVE where it will be slowly digested by the shadow beings that dwell there. Consume. Absorb. And then –

Question every last bit of it. Writers have all these opinions and on writing and they don’t agree with one another. I frequently don’t even agree with myself on how to write. (Spoiler: most of it is bullshit. But bullshit still fertilizes.) My own advice is an impatient chameleon forever changing the color of its skin — and it’s not because I’m confused or seek to be confusing, it’s just, this isn’t math. This isn’t codified truth. This is drawing pictures in the dark. The day changes and so do the rules. Question what you read.

And then question your own questioning of it. The young are bullish with ego, which is good — you think you know everything, and you can seize that gallumphing confidence to get a lot of shit done. But at the same time, the wisdom of those who came before you is at least worth considering and not immediately dismissing out of hand. Question them. Then question yourself. Then question reality because none of this is real, and we’re all just holograms designed by a giant cat named Mister Tinkles who lives in the center of the moon.

Sorry, just seeing if you’re still paying attention.

Focus On Storytelling

How language works matters. Language is the lens through which we study and project story. You need to know how language works in order to be clear and concise and in order to sometimes go the other way — to fortify ambiguity and to fill the tale with oxygen and uncertainty.

But, but, but — language is just the mechanism. It is a middleman — a transformative middleman, but just the same, it’s the thing standing between THE READER’S BRAIN and THAT DELICIOUS STORY. We can’t eat story, we can’t drink it, we can’t insert it rectally in a story suppository (but one day the power will be mine). But story is why we’re here. It’s what we want. And so, story is what matters most. It is the reason we read and the reason we write. We don’t write just to hear language. We write to say something.

Focus now on what story is. Look at how story works. The stories you love unabashedly and without examination? Keep loving them, but start examining them. What moments excite you? What moments scare you? How, do you think, the storyteller articulates those emotions? How does one manipulate the audience so that they do not feel manipulated? Don’t just read stories. Listen to stories. Let your KOOKY OL’ GRANDPA JOE tell you about that time he fought the LIZARD PEOPLE on the RINGS OF KRANG. Listen to podcasts. Listen to drunk people tell stories. Listen to stand-up comedians. Don’t just passively sit. Actively take in what they’re saying and dissect it. Try to find the secret of the magic trick.

How are stories told? What makes them work? What makes them fail?

Find Your Process

Nobody writes the same way. It’s why writing advice is a dubious proposition to begin with — I can only tell you about how I do things, or how I’ve seen things done. I don’t know what you do. I’m not your Dad. NOT YET, BUT ONE DAY I WILL MARRY YOUR MOTHER AND THEN WE’LL SEE WHO HAS TO CLEAN UP HIS ROOM. … uhh, sorry, what I mean is, you gotta do you.

Thing is, how you do you isn’t set in stone. Further, it isn’t a known quantity. You’re not a computer with a program, you’re a human being with lots of human foibles and peccadilloes, some known, some not. Your process is mysterious to you. It is a giant neon question mark hanging over your head. I don’t know how you do things. And neither do you.

A lot of being a writer is becoming a writer: a journey never completed.

Go on that journey. A writing life is the archaeology of uncovering your own writing process. Some people write a fair amount every day. Some people write a little. Or write a lot only one day a week. I write in the mornings. You might write in the evenings. I like to write while sometimes bathed in the heinous heart-choking gas that comes out of my dog’s butt. You might like to write with a cat on your head. I write drinking coffee. You write while guzzling antifreeze because you’re secretly an Alien Person from Krang-Ring V. I outline. You don’t. It’s all good. But you gotta try a lot of things to find out how you write, what you sound like, who you are on the page.

Then Forget Your Process

Find your process, then promptly fucking forget it. Or, more to the point, become very flexible about it. My process is ever-evolving. It evolves with circumstance (I have a soon-to-be-five-year-old, I have a writing shed, I have dogs that demand attention). It evolves with life and age and experience. It evolves with every book — I write outlines for every book I write, and I don’t think I’ve written those outlines the same at any point. Just as every book demands its own way of being told (POV, tense, chapters/no chapters, one protag or many, etc), your own writing life demands many processes. Finish your shit, but be flexible in how you do that. Discipline is good, until discipline becomes a prison from which you can’t escape.

Have Adventures

We are what we write and we write what we are, and your life is the fuel that drives your creative engine. Use it. And you’re young, so that means to go out and have adventures. That can mean whatever it can mean — a hike can be an adventure. So can a party. Traveling for me is always an adventure. Also an adventure: waking up in a casket in the Sonoran desert, wearing only rattlesnakes as a thong and a mezcal hangover as a hat.

Go, fill your sails with the wind of life. Which sounds like an overly gassy metaphor, so instead let’s maybe go with: we don’t write only what we know, but we definitely can and should write what we know. It is an opportunity, not a prohibition, and part of that opportunity is going out and EXPERIENCING EXPERIENCES. Whenever anyone questions your judgment or scrutinizes your choices, just say: “It’s for a book.” Then leap into the chasm, cackling.

Hang In There, Goddamnit

A creative life is a bucking horse.  The best thing you can do is commit to hanging on. It throws most people off, and right now, it seems to you like everybody and their mother wants to do what you do. But time will see them fall. The horse will buck and kick them into the fencerow while you still cling to the beast’s froth-slick mane. In writing, stubbornness is a virtue. The first and most important thing is that: just staying with it. Most won’t. So you must.

* * *

Miriam Black Is Back (In Print)

Miriam Black knows how you’re going to die. This makes her daily life a living hell, especially when you can’t do anything about it, or stop trying to. She’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, and suicides. She merely needs to touch you—skin to skin contact—and she knows how and when your final moments will occur. Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. But then she hitches a ride with Louis Darling and shakes his hand, and she sees in thirty days that Louis will be murdered while he calls her name. Louis will die because he met her, and Miriam will be the next victim. No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.

“Fast, ferocious, sharp as a switchblade and fucking fantastic.” — Lauren Beukes

Indiebound | Amazon | B&N

30 comments

  • Hi Chuck. Well I just received a critique from someone I’ve never met who is a professional. Finally, I feel like I’m getting some place, don’t know how far away that place is for sure. I understand more thoroughly what she says I need to do. I sigh and tell myself forget about the world in one breath (write for yourself), and hang on, do your best in the next. I found joy in reading what she had to say about my work.
    Thanks for your tips!

  • April 26, 2016 at 12:21 PM // Reply

    Always love to read your words on writing. So. Much. Good. Here. I loved when it was just me and my computer and wishful thinking. As an associate of the AOOIFP I didn’t appreciate being in that anonymous bubble with only words and the eternal cosmic YES! nearly enough.

  • Allow me to say, as someone who has been doing this job for longer than you have been alive (you’re going to love what turning 40 does for your writing, trust me), your advice here is not just for young writers. Thanks for reminding me of a few things one always needs reminding about.

    Sticking with it and being stubborn is the most important, looking back from further down the road than you are. When I was first breaking into Duh Mooovie Biz back in the early Triassic, I had a writing assignment from a movie magazine editor to ask some Famous Screenwriters what was “the secret of sucess”. Naturally everyone said nobody knows or we’d all be multi-billionaires, but one guy said something that tattooed itself on my frontal lobes as he said it, and it’s the best piece of writing advice I ever got:

    “I don’t know what the secret of success is, but I know that if you treat failure as a temporary condition – no matter how long it lasts – and simply outlast it, you’ve got a pretty good shot on the other side.”

    I definitely like your blog.

    Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

  • Thanks for this. Read this just when I needed to. I love your positivity and your ability to demystify the mystifying.

  • One other piece of advice from the guy who became my writing mentor, the late Wendell Mayes, who wrote his last paid screenplay two months before he died of old age at 79, after a 40 year career in Hollywood that saw several Oscar nominations and one win: “When I was up, I couldn’t figure out what I had done to get there; when I was down, I couldn’t figure out what I had done to get there; when I was back up, I couldn’t figure out what I had done to get there. I finally gave up trying to figure it out and life became better and more successful.”

  • “Shove it greedily into your THOUGHT CAVE where it will be slowly digested by the shadow beings that dwell there.”

    HOW DID YOU KNOW ABOUT THE SHADOW PEOPLE?

  • UGH fine I’ll write on my break between classes instead of meandering through twitter and reddit. You bully!

  • Thanks, I needed this. Sometimes I get discouraged when I forget why I write. I write to let the voices out of my head, not necessarily to sell books. Write and the readers will come … sometime. I love the written word. Even if I don’t get it completely right/write all the time. :-)

  • You are certainly right about writing shitloads and then stopping for a while. That’s what finally pushed me over the edge into (okay, dammit, I write stuff; wanna make something of it?) Along the way I’ve probably learned every single rule about how to be a writer and how to write, and more importantly, I know when to ignore those stupid rules. Thanks for the boost!

  • Oh.

    *is a little weepy*

    Thank you for the reminder that I have, in fact, been a writer for a really long time, and I can just fucking stop beating myself up for not “taking writing seriously sooner.” There was never a time when I didn’t take it seriously. I wasn’t outputting pitch-ready completed works on the regular, I was LEARNING, and I needed to to that to get from there to here, and it’s okay.

    *gets back to work*

  • Best advice I ever got was “don’t take anyone’s advice.” Same wavelength in your blog today, which is great. Of course, we’ll sometimes take SOMEone’s advice, but not just ANYone’s. Thanks for being someone.

  • I especially love the “enjoy your muddling fuckery” point. Muddling fuckery is about all I do at the moment, but that seems like an important stage of growth and learning rather than doing nothing. I do wonder how to harmonise that with “finish your shit” but I guess the hope is that in the muddling I’ll find the way towards something.

  • Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I needed to read this. I have notebooks and computer files full of half-finished outlines and half-finished novels, one completed novel that is really crap, and a million ideas (not to mention the 20 unfinished fanfictions loitering on fanfiction.net). This is the baseball bat to the head that I needed. It is time to feed the shadow creatures and get the fuck to work.

  • Chuck, as always I’m in awe of your advice :-) I teach creative writing to a bunch of 10-12 year olds and I’d love to pass this email on, but it’s a little sweary. Works for me, but strangely the parents of 10 year olds get a bit antsy about that … ;-) Could you one day run a clean version by us?

  • Good advice, as always. In fact the snazzy graphic would make a great mini poster should you be looking for things to add to your merchandise. I would buy such an item to hang in front of my work space. Cheers.

  • So I went to Michael’s yesterday, where they had a 50% off sale on baskets. I bought myself a fuckbasket, and put my fucks in it. It fees so good, being organized! And now I know I actually HAVE fucks to give, and they are artfully arranged on their little fuck-quilt, and I can decide in a mindful, zen-like manner when to reach in and choose a fuck (some are bigger and fancier than others,) and just give it. I’ve found people like when I give a fuck. Also, it’s important to accessorize properly – much like cool book covers are important (a very small, yet artful fuck is reserved for that – a size of a fuck doesn’t necessarily denote its quality.)

  • Thank you. I’m reading this days, maybe it’s weeks behind when it was published. I’m working so hard at this point I don’t even know. But here. HERE is where you’ve got me:

    …you also have the chance to operate at a level where really, nobody is paying attention. You can do whatever you want. The page is your hallucinogenic wonderland. You own it. Nobody’s looking. It is an isolated bubble realm separate from all others, and in that, you have the freedom to take storytelling risks, to be super-weird, to experiment with language and character and motifs, to fuck around with the big questions that bother you, to mess with form, to explore straight up silly shit. This is a glorious time for fan-fiction. This is a wonderful time for breaking all the rules with nary a fuck left in the bottom of your gorgeously thatched fuckbasket. You do not have to care right now. You merely have to write.

    I’m struggling right now. Years into writing. Putting work up. Maybe it sucks, maybe it doesn’t I just don’t know since no one seems to be reading it. I’m in tears right now. I’m low and crying that I’m wasting my time. I’m wasting space. I’m wasting data storage for God’s sakes.

    But still. I’m thinking already about the next story. I’m a god-damned addict. I’m going to write my next story. I am and I’m gonna f’ing put it up on Amazon. I dare you.

  • I recently read both parts of this blog post, and as a younger writer I have found both of them very helpful. Thank you so much. I am now going through the process of emptying out my fuckbasket. : )

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