Crotch-Punching The Creative Yeti: Exploding More Writing Myths

Once in a while, I like to take the myths about writing that circulate, and I like to hunt them, and I like to slay them with my GOLDEN ARROWS OF WISDOM. (Man, how’s that for ego? ‘Golden arrows of wisdom?’ Somebody needs to give me a right good slapping.) Seriously, though, writers are often sandbagged by these persistent goblins of untruth that climb up on their backs and start riding them like ponies. That’s no good. You want to write, then write. And get shut of any toxic myths that would poison your process.

Here goes. Ten — no! Eleven! — myths I wanna kick in the basket.

“Writers have to write.”

The myth is that writers are urged, compelled, forced to write as if by some indomitable, external spirit. It’s true that many writers are driven obsessively to create, but the danger in this myth is that when you sit down for a day of writing, if you don’t feel the sacred wordmonkey spirit move through you, then you’re a bad writer, or not a writer, or that you just shouldn’t write at all. Some days I don’t want to write. Some days I am so uncompelled by the act that I’d rather do anything else at all. I’ll clean my desk, or build a blasphemous icon out of paperclips, or groom my hirsute body of various mites and ticks. It’s bullshit. Writers don’t always want to write. And that’s okay.

“Writers have to write every day.”

BZZT, false, poop, myth alert, no.

I write every day. I write every day because I am a person who a) needs the discipline and b) has a mortgage to pay and c) pays that mortgage with my crass penmonkeying. If I don’t write, I don’t get paid, and so I endeavor to write every day — and by every day, I don’t actually mean every day. I mean Monday through Friday. I take weekends off. I take holidays off. I take random days off to go do random shit.

Every writer is different. Every writer possesses a different process. Some people open their maws and disgorge 10,000 words at a time. Some writers peck through the word count — a hundred words here, a hundred there. One writer takes a year to write a book. Another takes three. I write a first draft in around 30-90 days. Everybody does their thing. No thing is wrong as long as the thing is getting done. Whatever your process is, accept no shame for it. (Shame is a worthless booster anyway.) The key here is: make sure your process works. Some writers get married to a process that doesn’t work, and then they stubbornly cling to it like a monkey riding a tiger, afraid that if they leave the beast, the tiger will eat them. We can always refine our process. And as we grow and our lives change, so do our processes. Just as there is no one perfect process for all writers, there is no one perfect process for you individually, either.

“If you’re not published by Age XYZ, then you might as well be a rodeo clown.”

Mmmnope.

Some writers start young.

Some start middle-aged.

Others in retirement.

OTHERS SCREAM NOVELS FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE.

Who cares? Write if you wanna write. You don’t even need to marry being a writer with being published. If you want to write, write independently of your desire to be published. That secondary part can come later. Write to write, don’t write to be published. It matters little what age you are. Age lends weight and experience to the work. You’ll be fine.

If you’re 15, 50 or 105, go ahead, write.

“Outlining diminishes magic.”

a) writing is not magic, though it sometimes feels that way

b) outlining, or any act, will not kill the magic that doesn’t exist

c) magic does not exist

d) unless you’re harry potter

e) but you’re not harry potter

People worry somehow that outlining like, bottles the lightning or steals the thunder or robs them of some precious elf juice. Like, if they outline, they’ll give away their novel to this ugly process and now it’s all ruined, pouty-pout-mopey-face. Listen, if you ruin your story by outlining it, then your story wasn’t that fucking exciting to begin with — and oh ha ha ha oh shit it’s a good thing you never got to the editing phase, because boy howdy, editing feels less like wizardry and more like plumbing.

To be clear, I’m not saying you need to outline. (Though I’ll always remind writers that though you may hate the idea, some publishers will ask for synopses and outlines, especially as your career advances, so it remains a skill worth learning if not universally incorporating.) What I’m saying is, if you choose to do it, it won’t kill your work.

I compare writing a novel to taking a cross-country trip: in taking that trip, you would likely plot your journey, but plotting that journey does not rob you of all the things you will see along the way. Imagining the journey is not taking the journey. Nor does it prevent you from taking unexpected routes or exits when the sights call for it.

“I don’t need to know the rules.”

You need to know the rules because that’s how writing works. You only break the rules once you know them — breaking the rules willfully is an act of artistic independence. Breaking the rules ignorantly is an act of being an asshole. Knowing the rules is a good way to realize what rules are important to you and which ones are not. That is a way to be stylistically in command and not some Forrest Gump doofus gumping his way around Novel-Land hoping to get lucky and not shit it all up. Breaking rules with knowledge of the rules is some bad-ass, sinister shit. It’s walking away from an exploding building without flinching.

Be that character. That character is awesome.

“I’m not a real writer because [insert reason here].”

Real writers write.

Like, that’s it.

Three words, so simple, so precious. Do you write? You are a writer.

Avoid artistic purity tests.

Actually, avoid most purity tests, because they’re cliquish and elite.

“I need an MFA or some kind of formal training.”

NOPE.

Nobody cares about your MFA.

Nobody cares about Clarion or your degree or what karate belt you’re up to or what you had for dinner last night. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter one lick.

That’s not to say MFAs are bad. Or that Clarion is bad. They can be great. They may be useful to you in building skills. Look at it this way: if you submit a manuscript that is shitty, it doesn’t matter if you have an MFA. If you submit a manuscript that is amazing, it really doesn’t matter if you went to Clarion. You do programs to learn, not to build a ladder. (Admittedly, sometimes these programs offer you connections, and those are good. Just the same, they are utterly non-essential and you still have to actually write a good book. Though, more on that in a few.)

“Writing is a talent.”

Nope! Some writers are certainly talented, but talent ain’t shit if you don’t have the work ethic to back it up. Worry about skill. You can build skill. You can practice skill. You can manifest the desire to be a writer, and then you can be a writer by iterating and reiterating and learning and thinking. Sure, some jerks are probably sprung from the uterus with a copy of Scrivener in their hands and half-a-novel already written. They still have to do the work. Talent is like a field of fertile dirt — you still gotta get your hands grimy, you still gotta plant the garden. I’ve known a great many talented writers from my youth, and very few of them made anything of themselves. Meanwhile, I’m a total shithead, and I’ve got a proper writing career because I work very hard at doing it. If talent is real, it barely matters without work. So do the thing you control. Do the work.

“Someone is going to steal my idea.”

They’re not.

Ideas are not precious little snowflakes that melt if you breathe on them.

Ideas are not diamonds people want to take.

Ideas are rugged, brutish, ugly things. Ideas are pieces of wood and hunks of stone. It’s up to you to sand them and polish them and fit them together how you see fit. They’re not rare gems. Your vision of an idea will be different than mine even if they come from the same core concept. I could right now try to write Die Hard and I’d come up with my own version of it without even meaning to. The only thing original about your work is you. You’re the rare gem. The idea is just the light that filters through your many unusual facets.

“Writing is supposed to be easy.”

Ha ha ha ha

Haha hehe ho oh oh oh

ahhh

yeah

*wipes tears away*

*blows nose*

That’s a good one.

Some days writing is easy.

Some days writing is like trying to castrate a unicorn with a BB gun.

If writing does not come easy to you:

Welcome to the club, the club called THE WRITING IS SOMETIMES FUCKING HARD CLUB, where we sit around our treehouse and try to write and bite our knuckles till their bloody and engage in training montages (punching frozen beef, drinking lots of whiskey, running through a gauntlet of readers smacking you with one-star Amazon reviews nailed to wooden paddles). Writing isn’t easy. It’s work. And sometimes work feels like work and that’s okay.

“All it takes is for me to write a good book.”

And here, a hard truth.

Writing a good book matters. It matters to me. It matters to you.

It also doesn’t matter as much as you want.

Here is a true fact: lots of great books have failed either to get published or to sell well once they got published. Here is another true fact: lots of very shitty books have done very well.

This is just the way of things. It’s the way of life. Sometimes mediocre people excel. Sometimes geniuses die alone and broke. It can go the other way, too — mediocre people end up landscaping your lawn while you, the genius, are a billionaire who goes to sleep on a bed of her own bitcoins.

Here’s what I will tell you: writing a good book is not the key to the kingdom, but it is valuable just the same. It’s valuable because a writing career — and really, all of life — is predicated on luck. That sounds suspiciously like I’m admitting that there really is magic in the world, but I don’t consider this magic. I consider the existence of life to be relatively random. A mad confluence of atoms and molecules. A turn of the wind, a cataclysm, a shift in weather.

Luck is the universe walking halfway down the road and stopping.

You have to walk, too. You have to meet luck in the middle.

Sometimes, bad luck happens in life, right? But often when this is the case, it’s like — okay, you still had to do something to catch the glinting flinty eye of the Bad Luck Beast. It was bad luck that you went out and a deer ran out in front of your car and the deer came up over the hood and through your windshield and beheaded you. (That actually happened to a guy outside my house when I was a kid, by the way. Big deer took off his head.) That’s bad luck, but it still required actions to take place, right? You still had to get in your car. Still had to drive it down that road at night. It was random, but it wasn’t impossible — like, deer exist. They crash a lot of cars here. They tend to go down backroads at twilight. And if you’re out, and you’re driving fast enough, and if you’re not paying enough attention…

Wham.

The deer is in the backseat of your car.

Along with your head.

Bad luck. Oops. So sorry.

It’s not that the person deserved that. It’s not that you shouldn’t go driving just in case a deer tries to suicide in front of your speeding bullet of death-steel. But factors lined up in a certain way because you nudged them to.

You met the universe halfway and it fucking killed you with a deer.

Writing is like this.

You cannot control luck, but you can get its attention.

You get its attention in a lot of ways — by engaging with the industry, by going to conventions, by entering an MFA program or by trying to accepted to Clarion. And of course, one of the chiefmost ways of urging luck to your side is by writing a book. You won’t get a book published if, uhh, you don’t write a book. That’d be fucking weird. Not just improbable, but impossible. You write a book, and that ups your chances. You write a good book — and that adds more to your chance. It’s like stacking positive modifiers on a dice roll in a roleplaying game. Sure, you might be able to kill that ogre with a stick you find, but your chances are a lot better if you have like, a chaingun that shoots magical swords.

Writing a book is like forging a sword.

But writing a good book is like forging a magic sword.

I know, I know, I said there was no magic, but damnit, this is metaphor.

The magic sword does not guarantee you’ll slay the ogre.

But it damn sure ups your chances.

Besides, magic swords are fucking baller. And writing a good book gives you the satisfaction of having done so. No, writing a good book is not a guarantee that you will be successful. But it feels great and it ups your chances, so try to do it anyway.

* * *

ZER0ES.

An Anonymous-style rabble rouser, an Arab spring hactivist, a black-hat hacker, an old-school cipherpunk, and an online troll are each offered a choice: go to prison or help protect the United States, putting their brains and skills to work for the government for one year.

But being a white-hat doesn’t always mean you work for the good guys. The would-be cyberspies discover that behind the scenes lurks a sinister NSA program, an artificial intelligence code-named Typhon, that has origins and an evolution both dangerous and disturbing. And if it’s not brought down, will soon be uncontrollable.

Out now Harper Voyager.

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57 comments

  • I learned a lot in my MFA program. Chief among them is that MFA programs are about writing AND academic networking so you can get published, start an academic career, take the first step toward tenure, etc. There are some great people in the MFA writing world, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t very nepotistic and, often as a result, iterative. I’d say I’ve learned more out of my MFA than I did in my MFA, in no small part because of Chuck and others like him.

  • “If you’re not published by Age XYZ, then you might as well be a rodeo clown.” Yeah, but can you imagine the rodeo clown benefits package? You’ve got to have hard-core medical…

  • Great post, again. I often use your ‘Golden Arrows of Wisdom’ to help me get on and paint and the same rules apply. And they really do help. Thanks! Also, very much enjoying Atlanta Burns at the moment.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you for this. I love it. Sometimes I need to be reminded of all of these things.

    My favorite line: “You met the universe halfway and it fucking killed you with a deer.” I’m chuckling over here in my office right now. I’m probably going to think of that line all day.

    And I will be reading Zer0es oh so very soon. Can’t wait!

  • I especially liked rule number um…10? “I Don’t Need To Know The Rules” (My liking of it makes it a better rule than the other rules, which were good, but didn’t live up to our rule standards. (( I’m speaking for the world)) ((Who’s the egotist (((egoist?))) now?)))) “Know The Rules” I’ve always said: “You can’t paint a Picasso until you learned to paint a pitcher (not ‘picture), ((or maybe, yes, a “picture.))). I remember that phrase was one of the first things I said as a child. Before “Mama” or “mmmmmteat”.

    Here’s what I was thinking also. (or: Also, here what I was thinking this morning.) ((Or I was also thinking about this when I woke up and went to my computer device. I went there because I have to write every day, because I’m nothing until I get published. ))

    I was thinking of the sweet lady next door who has come back from several ambulance incidents. A heart attack, a stroke, and toenail fungus.

    She does not seem happy. (The names have been changed, incase one of her daughters reads posts on this internet thing, which seems to be so popular with young people these days.)

    My thoughts. Exactly, including the punctuation.

    Speaking of death, (no one was) I was musing over ________’s and her “life.” I was thinking, wondering, pondering, mulling over what she has going for her at this point in her career as a sort of person. An Earthling, so to speak. Human in so many ways. So after all this intense cogitating, I came up with this: “What a shitty life she is “living” right now. And I wondered: Does she even want to keep on going? Has anyone ever asked? I don’t think anyone has been thoughtful enough to do that.
    I suppose it will have to be up to me.
    I think I’ll go over there now and posit that.

    Well, that went very well. Went over, just put it to her (not in a sexual way). I actually first asked her caretaker if she had ever asked Charlotte if she had thought about the possibility that she had lived out her time here on Earth, would like to take a stand and die. The caretaker, ________said no, she hadn’t and then I asked if she minded if I asked, and she, the caretaker, said it probably would be an excellent idea
    So I did.
    __________ (by the way, that’s the correct number of slashes for her name), when asked, grabbed my hand, and said, “oh my dear, I thought no one would ever ask me. I was hoping against hope that someone would. You are an angel of mercy. Of course I don’t want to go on. Why would I? Would you want to go on? Please please stop this madness”. So we made plans and the nurse will come in next week Monday, giving _________ time to say goodby to her kids, and grandkids (who I have never seen around here, and I’m around almost all the time, just puttering around, trying to forestall using my device to write stuff like this), and neighbors who love her so much, they, out of abject fear they might get sucked into a ‘one word every 30 seconds’ conversation. A chance her to say: “farewell, I’m going to the great beyond” t
    I feel like the court (I live on a court, as in cul-de-sac, which is a word in French meaning weeding out the bags) boy scout.
    But in complete modesty, it’s the least a concerned neighbor can do.
    (This entry was a fine example of how to use parenthesis) (Or is it “parentheses?”)

    If you have gotten this far, and if you have, you are a sadist, thank you for your time.
    Dick Chudnow

    Chapter II: Life Change: “A new career.”
    By the way I am close to giving myself this valuable advice. I have seen too many people suffer through old age. Three fourths of my immediate family, all my aunts, uncles, some good friends, and some good strangers It’s difficult and I don’t want to have to go through that again. It’s not fair to them, but not fair, especially, to me.
    That said………………….(I usually hate that phrase: “that said..” Especially the “that” part. I hate it as much as I hate editing anything I write.)

    This could be my new career. I could convince old people to have someone give them a gentle shove into the afterlife. To give them a boost to a better “life, with a good death” In fact, that will be on my business card.
    “A better life, though death.”

    It’ll be just an alternative. Just something to think about for the frail, sick, and lonely.
    Those, in fact, will be the criteria. You’d have to have all three. If you were just frail and sick, or sick and lonely, or frail and lonely, I would never intrude – you wouldn’t qualify.
    Sorry. I hate to reject people, but I have to comply to state and federal guidelines get my E.E. (Early Escape) license.
    To hang that particular shingle, you have to go through a rigorous exam, and internship.
    Not everyone, or just anyone, can go to someone who should really exit as soon as possible, and suggest that. Only E.E.’s and Doctors would be able to offer this service.
    Fees? Well that depends. How close is the person already? On a one to ten scale, how frail? How sick? How lonely? The person in question would have to have a combined score of at least 15. A five in each category. The lower the number, the more my services would cost. The estimate is around $5,000.00 for a 30, and as much as $10,000 for a 15. (plus travel, taxes, and other expenses like hotel and meals. I also could be on retainer, if that’s what the family, or friends, or acquaintances would find comforting.)
    I know some E.E..’s are less expensive, but they tend to rush the experience. You have to get to know the person, develop a relationship with, them which eventually leads to a certain amount of trust – trust not found in family members who NEVER SHOW UP. It takes time. You make them laugh. Read to them. Look them lovingly in the eye balls, which many people don’t like to do with someone who’s eyes look like they have been plastered with gefilte fish viscous fat globules.
    It could go something like this:

    Me: ___________ (or Harry, or Clovis) I was thinking.
    CHARLOTTE, or ESTELLE, Or CLARENCE: What?
    ME: I don’t want to, but I think I’m going to have to leave you.
    EDNA or CONSTANCE, or CAMERON: (PAINED LOOK. EVEN MORE PAINED THAN USUAL) Why?
    ME: I don’t think I can stand to see you in this much discomfort – this sick, this lonely (that’s another thing, the kids can’t be coming around anymore) and/or frail. So very frail. You used to be so vital, so….alive!
    NAOMI, RUTH, or ISAAC: Please don’t, if you didn’t come over any more, well, I’d rather be dead.

    And…..there ya go!

    Sincerely.
    ____________ ___________ ___

    • Uh, I don’t know if anyone else read to the end, Dickchudnow, but you are proposing a concept that is dangerously close to Kevorkianism–which is illegal in most states by the way. Perhaps you intended it as humor, I don’t know. I like humor a bit on the dark side, but you may have crossed over it a bit.

      Also, if you are just kidding, ease up on the parentheticals. Consider them the salt of writing, just enough adds flavor, too much leads to hypertension and a poisonous taste in the mouth.

  • So, Chuck, you’re saying that writing is a job, and that you have to know what you’re doing? Shit! I thought I’d be rich like Castle in no time! 😉

    • And note, it’s always the fictional authors (not authors of fiction) that are multi-millionaires from putting out only one or two books a year. That’s fiction for you!

      • My favorite example is Alan Wake from the video game of the same name. He sells one novel and he can take an extended vacation in a rural setting with a rented two story *badass* house right on the lake front? THAT is fiction at its finest.

  • Thank you so much for this post, Chuck! You managed to run through my Inner Grinch’s list of ‘Reasons Why You Suck, Wendy Christopher’ and skewer them with your golden arrows. Now I can get on with working towards number #11…

  • This is the stuff i need to hear rather than the candy-arse bullshit of gimme all your money and I’ll give the the secret sauce recipe oh and I’ll also throw in a bag of magic beans before speeding off in a vintage caddy! Thank you thank you thank you.

  • I loved this piece, you found the truth amongst the jungle of words. Seriously, the guy got beheaded? Wow, if someone wrote that people would say it was too far fetched. Truly, life is weird.

    • I grew up in rural Oregon and auto deaths by colliding with a deer are fairly common (a guaranteed 10 a year, though only the strangest ones made the paper) and they mostly included partial or complete decapitation.

      Think about it, what is actually sticking up above the level of your dashboard?

      Once you realize that, throw a deer-like creature at your windshield (weighing between 120 (mule or white-tail deer) and 700 lbs (elk)), complete with thrashing antlers, kicking hooves, and far too much velocity. I’m always surprised that they weren’t all decapitations.

  • Thanks. Always inspirational. I think the magic is how you spin it. Zeroes sounds like a great movie idea. Best of luck Chuck.

  • I’m one of those writers who can’t outline a first draft. What I end up doing is fever-creating the novel (say at 50,000-75,000 words). Then I go back and outline the chapters so I can edit more efficiently.

    I tried writing a book by outline for NaNoWriMo; I figured it was the best way to stay on track and meet my daily word count (Hey, millions of writers can’t be wrong, right?). The four days I worked that outline turned into a slowly unfolding horror story of the torture-porn variety. I was so put out by the process that, even ignoring the outline, I’ve not been able to look at or think of that particular manuscript without feeling a welling up of dread and repulsion. An outline at the creative stage just killed it for me and turned the writing into grueling, painful drudgery.

    I prefer to create spontaneously, then pull out the outline the shackle the damn story in place so I don’t keep building onto it without some goal in mind.

    • I did it that way for my first novel because i didn’t know any better, i just spewed out words and then got to 25k and went “mmmmmmm these needs to be in an order of some sorts” and before i knew it i had a plan.

      My second book I’ve planned from the start mainly because it’s the middle book of a trilogy so it has to line up with the end of book 1 and the start of book 3. My way of planning book 1 was different to book 2, I think the planning is like the book you are writing they are all different and just has Chuck outlined before you have different planning styles you can use.

      I fully expect that when i get to book 3 (because i hen peck words out) that the plan for this will be different…different is good, normal and ok.

  • May 17, 2016 at 9:36 PM // Reply

    Booyah! You nailed it! Yet again…can I avoid the Christmas rush and be jealous now? 😛

  • So many wonderful words of wisdom here. I particularly identified with point number 1. Most of the time, I hate writing; but oddly enough, I still feel compelled to do it.

    But Chuck, “…bite our knuckles till their bloody”? Ouch.

    Thanks again for the continued encouragement. You help keep me writing!

  • Is it bad that the deer story had me weeping with laughter…? Love reading your blog and have passed it on to other friends who are struggling with their book. Top advice Chuck!

  • Thank you, this is so reassuring for me. I have constantly echoing in my mind a voice saying WHY IS THIS SO HARD YOU MUST SUCK AT IT… But this post shut it up, It soothed me better than taking an Ativan. thank you!

  • Mwah ahahhrgh! Thank you… although I don’t know what you said at the end yet because I’m still working out how to castrate a unicorn with a bb gun. Phnark.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • As always, excellent post. My favorite is “You have to write everyday.” Where ever you go on the internet about writing advice, suggestion, rules, guidelines, etc, etc, etc, you will eventually come across, in bold writing, “Write Every Single Day.” Impossible, man. We need those weekends off. Because writing is hard. Like fucking hard.

    There’s only one thing I disagree with you on: there is magic in writing. /Your/ writing is magic. And so are you metaphors. Like golden arrows of wisdom. Favorite line, by the by. ^^

  • I think “Writers have to write every day” is an incredibly demoralising myth. Loads of writers have full time jobs, have families to look after, have responsibilities that steal precious writing time. That’s one myth that definitely needed crotch-punching because I think a lot of busy people feel they can’t be “real” writers because they can only write around the million other things they need to do.

  • “Imagining the journey is not taking the journey.” I’m going to paste this above my desk. I’ll start a story, get about 10-20K into it, outline, and then consistently lose interest in the story b/c I already know how it’s going to end (and I’m no longer excited about the journey at all). And today, reading your crotch-punching, I’ve realized two things, either the destination isn’t fun enough, or I’m not allowing enough room to meander, star-gaze, whatever. Most of the things I’ve finished were not outlined– I just had vague ideas of where things should go or they were poetry, and um, yeah.

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