An Oubliette Of Unconventional Writing Advice

Writing advice is a little bit silly, as I’ve noted many times in the past. (Other times, I’ve put it differently: writing advice is bullshit.) It’s silly not because it’s fails to at times be useful, but because we expect it to be useful, we demand that it be rigorously true as opposed to, y’know, the opinion of some vaguely-experienced rando. Hell, Stephen King is an astonishing, terrifying force of wordsmithy, and On Writing remains one of the greatest writing books ever written — just the same, I don’t do what King does. I couldn’t. Because I’m not Stephen King. I love his book because it makes me challenge my own process and, at the same time, confirm my own process by proxy. Writing advice is not a treasure map with a chest of gold under a big red ‘X’ — it’s less recipe for success and more menu of food items you find may suit you.

I offer a lot of flim-flam shim-sham about writing and storytelling mostly because I want exactly that — I want to challenge you, I want to offer you possibilities, I want to once in a while make you think about something in your own work you hadn’t thought of before now. That’s it. No recipe. No secret handshake. No ancient occult ritual.

I mean, there is one, of course, but you only learn that after you publish five books, and then the Dread Angel Golzirath will darken your door with a fruit basket full of demon bezoars and an old VHS copy of Ghoulies, and then —

Well, I don’t want to spoil it.

The ritual or the movie.

(But be on the look out for Toilet Ghoulie. So cute!)

Regardless, just as one’s writing evolves over time, so too does the advice one might give around that process — and I thought what might be an interesting thing would be to offer a look at some more unconventional pieces of advice. Things you may not hear too often, some slightly more controversial chestnuts of wisdom — or, perhaps anti-chestnuts, which taste a great deal like the grief of a hungover party clown.

Here, then, are some of these nuggets of dubious wisdom. As with all such things, feel free to pick them up, regard them, wiggle your tongue over their crannies to determine if their taste is pleasing to you, and then consume or discard at your earliest convenience.

1. Fuck Your Critique Groups

I don’t mean that in the sexy verb way, but more in the way of wielding your disdain like a weapon. I mean that your critique group might be doing you more harm than good.

Maybe that’s not true. Maybe your writing group is amazing.

Yay. Good. Woo. *confetti erupts from exploding ponies*

But I present you with this to consider:

I do not much care for Tolkien’s work.

No, no, put down that broken beer bottle. Relax. I recognize that I’m the outlier there — it’s purely a thing with me where, mostly, Tolkien isn’t something I want to read. I’d rather eat wallpaper. It’d be faster and less dry. I like the movies, not the books. The end.

Now, I want you to imagine that Tolkien had a writer’s critique group, and I was in it, and I brought my nonsense opinion to that group. I planted that seed in his head — “Maybe this isn’t that good? Maybe I’ve gone on too long. Maybe I’m a hack. Fuck hobbits. Fuck them right in their hobbit holes. I will instead go and be an actuarial analyst in Manchester, good night.” That is, of course, an extreme view of what might’ve come out of that, but what I’m saying is, who gives a shit what I think? I’m not important. I shouldn’t matter to Tolkien’s work or process. And yet, if I have a voice during his early processes, maybe I would’ve derailed him. Maybe I would’ve changed the work for the worse. Instead of going back in time to chuck Baby Hitler in a well somewhere, I’d be going back in time to fuck up Lord of the Rings.

I’m not an editor. I have editorial skills that I weaponize against myself, but I shouldn’t apply them to you. I can tell you how to use a comma and how to make a sentence more clear, but I shouldn’t be imprinting upon you stylistically. And that’s chiefly the problem with a lot of critique groups — they understandably comprise writers, not editors. Their opinions on work are driven from the question of, how would I write this? which is analogous to changing how you have sex because some other weirdo gets off on different peccadillos. Not to say you cannot explore new things, but just because That Guy Over There digs sticking egg whisks up his ass doesn’t mean you need to change your own bedroom voodoo. Nor does it mean he should stop sticking egg whisks up his ass just because you’re not into it.

(For real though, please don’t stick an egg whisk up your nethermost hole. I mean, I guess as long as you don’t go in whisk-end first, you might be okay, but I don’t want to be responsible for your hospital bills or lost kitchen implements.)

Critique groups can be less than ideal. You get a bunch of writers together to explicitly pick apart one another’s work, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to end up with something better, but you damn sure might end up with something routinely not you. And the opposite can be true, too — they might all love what you wrote, despite the fact that the thing you wrote needs serious work. This is complicated further by social biases: friends don’t want to hurt friends, so maybe they withhold honesty or literally don’t see the problem. Friends also might unconsciously want to hurt friends because, well, we’re a bundle of terrible complexities and maybe there’s some jealousy involved or some kind of unperceived resentment, oh no. Plus, a critique group sometimes feels obligated to find problems just to make use of themselves, which means they’re inventing problems rather than highlighting existing problems, and you might feel obligated to make changes because you don’t want to be rude — but maybe you have your own resentments and disregard good edits because of them, and, and, and…

It’s just not ideal. It certainly can be, with the right group. But writers, again, are not editors. It can be dangerous when we treat them as such. And I’ve heard some horror stories of people who went along for far too long with a bad group, not really realizing that the group had gone toxic on them. At which time, it was too late.

So, if you’re going to use a critique group, or beta readers, make sure you’ve established a strong bedrock foundation of unshakable trust. Sure, yes, kill your darlings, but also know which hills are yours to die upon.

2. Write You Up Some Fan Fiction

Let’s get this out of the way first: stow your haughty elitism about fan-fic. Just shove it into what dark, fetid Opinion Hole exists within you, the one where you keep all your Bad Opinions. Stick it there, seal it shut with a pancake of Bazooka Joe bubble gum, and shush.

Let’s also get this out of the way:

I don’t write fan-fic, presently.

I used to! I was part of a group in high school where we passed around a notebook that mashed up a mighty tangle of pop culture properties, from Star Wars to Ultima. It probably wasn’t good. But it was fun. And I can legit say I learned not only how to write, but also how to write for an audience — because the audience was the other writers.

But I don’t do it anymore, and I’m sure someone here will say, But har-har, don’t you write Star Wars books, and isn’t that just fan-fic, and I mean, I guess if you really wanna call it that, whatever. I like to think that once a thing becomes canon, it’s not fan-fic because I’m not operating as a fan but rather as a Licensed Canon Wizard, where anything I say becomes automagically canon. Like, here, look:

Darth Vader is actually a stack of eight porgs in robot armor.

It overwrites all the other canon. It’s real. It’s truth.

It’s just not fan-fic. But to be clear, that’s not a knock against fan-fic.

I was at NYCC this past weekend, and I had discussions with a handful of professional, even full-time writers — and I discovered that they still write fan-fiction. Like, we’re talking unpaid fics across various fandoms, some popular, many obscure. And my first reaction to this is quizzical bemusement, like, wait, what? You write fan-fiction even now? And nobody pays you for it? You just do it? Because you love it?

And then it’s like, oh my god, of course you do. Because you love it.

They said: it’s fun. It reminds them sometimes that “writing is play.” (I’d quote the authors specifically to give them credit, but I don’t want to out private conversations.) And sometimes I think we get so focused on writing as craft we forget the play component. Writing fan-fic might actually return you to that, and that’s pretty amazing. (Further, they said sometimes things they wrote in fan-fic became something they could then tweak and use later in pro-work. So it’s also not useless from a craft standpoint, either.)

Brilliant. Amazing. Yes!

So, fuck it. Go write fan-fic. And if not that specifically, find time to write in a way where it’s fun, where it’s play, where it’s not you worrying about the market or a pay rate or what an editor is going to say. Find a sandbox, yours or someone else’s, and get dirty.

3. Read Less Fiction

Unconventional advice, maybe. Controversial, probably.

It’s funny, though, because I hear a lot of authors-of-fiction say that they don’t read much fiction these days — and, honestly, I read a whole lot less, too. Sometimes people jump their shit about that, because one of the supposed cornerstones of writing is, read more books. Which, while true, do those books always have to be fiction?

I say nay, they do not.

I read a lot of non-fiction for a few key reasons:

a) I don’t like to read too much fiction when I’m writing fiction, but I’m pretty much always writing fiction

b) Like a stage magician, I start to see through the tricks and the illusions, so it gets harder to read a book and really enjoy it

c) Reading your novel gives me your ideas, but reading a non-fiction book gives me new ideas that are all mine, mine, mine, and I’d rather not be part of some long human centipede chain of genre-reconsumption

If you want to strengthen your writing, I say, read fewer novels. Especially novels in the genre in which you tend to write. Read information. Read ideas. Read poetry. Read some classics. Read comic books and comic strips. Read cereal boxes, and the clouds, and the secret message I’ve stitched into your Tuesday underpants, and okay I think you grok my point.

4. If You Do Read Fiction, Dissect It Like A Frog In Biology Class

Did you dissect frogs in biology class? In AP Bio, they dissected cats. Cats. Not the Broadway musical, either, but actual cats.

They probably don’t do that anymore.

Anyway, the point is this:

When you do read fiction, destroy it.

Not literally. Put out the fire, Prince Zuko.

What I mean is, pick it apart. Not necessarily in a critical, I’M FINDING ALL THE BAD STUFF way. Rather, ask yourself, how does the author achieve what she’s achieving? What are her tricks? You can find the places where those tricks fail, sure, and you should also find where — and how — they work.

Which leads me to —

5. You’re A Manipulative Monster, So Might As Well Roll In It Like A Dog Relishing The Stink Of A Dead Gopher

I did not realize early on in my writing that I was a bad person.

Not a bad person, I hope, to the rest of the world. But to my characters.

And, really, to my readers.

Because a good author is a manipulative motherfucker.

Look at it this way: if you were designing a roller coaster, it would be perfectly in-character of you, the Amusement Architect, to say, “This is where I want the riders to have their sphincters clench up so hard it could bend rebar, and the next hill is where I want them to pee themselves. And not like, a little bit, but a khaki-soaker where they release all the urine they have.”

And so it is that you, as the author, are perfectly within your rights to say:

“I want the reader to be sad here, in this part. Right fucking here. Poke, poke, poke. I want to — I need to — make them sad. Then I want them to get mad. Then I want to make them happy again, at least for a little while, before I ruin half of their happiness with a hard choice and a complex ending.”

You are attempting to engineer how they feel.

Which is really, really manipulative.

You want them to laugh. To cringe. To cry. To cheer.

And you try to pull the puppet strings to make that happen.

Sometimes you’re successful, sometimes you’re not, but it’s worth highlighting this not as a thing outside your control, and certainly not as a thing that is pure happenstance — it is something you should endeavor very much to articulate and then orchestrate.

Where do you want them to hurt?

How do you want them to heal?

Read the work and ask yourself:

What reaction do you want them to have? How do you engineer that? How can you manipulate them into feeling that way? The very best authors hide this manipulation behind the workings of prose and character — it’s not bold-faced, it’s not obvious. Like every good haunted house, all the mechanisms are in the dark, behind the curtains.

6. Learn Random Shit, Go Random Places, Try New Things

That pretty much says it all, but to unpack it a bit: travel, do things, learn things, embrace experiences you have not yet had, even if they’re not always good ones. Live life. So much of fiction is about filling the tanks for fiction, and so much of that is Doing Different Stuff. I don’t mean to suggest you need to have buckets of money to travel to distant lands — like, if you’ve never driven three towns over, go do it. If you’ve never gone fishing, go fishing. Eat a bug. Climb a tree. Stick an egg-beater up your — wait, no, we decided that wasn’t a thing to do. Change your perspective. Add to the list of things you truly feel comfortable writing about. No, you don’t need to always write what you know, but the things that you know — or better stated, that you have experienced — will be things you will want to write about.

7. Stress Test Your Process

The best thing you can do for yourself is to find your process.

My process is not your process. It’s why any writing advice that gurgles up out of my lips should be immediately suspect — I’m telling you what do, and what do is not at all what you do. I lube my fingers up with scented unguents and then quaff a mix of Red Bull and spider venom. You sip tea noisily and write bestsellers while riding on the back of a gentlemanly and gently ambling dromedary camel. I’m not you. You’re not me. Neither of us are Stephen King no matter how often we try to switch bodies with him.

You need to find your process.

And the best thing you can do for finding your process is to never be entirely sure that you’ve found your process.

Because once you’re sure, once you’re really for real sure that you’ve figured it out, you’ve closed yourself to change.

I’ve changed my process subtly over time. Sometimes by necessity. Sometimes because I hear how another writer does it and it’s a thing that sounds like it might work for me.

Sometimes the changes aren’t subtle. For instance, I used to never, ever, ever go back and edit the story while writing the story. Now, though, I do that. I don’t do it much, and I don’t do it far, but every day, before I start writing, I go back and I re-read the previous day’s work — and I spend a little time tinkering with it. Fiddling with the dials, jiggering some levers, that kind of thing. It reminds me where I was, and gives me a sense of once again immersing myself in the flow of the work.

I used to write at night.

Now I write in the morning.

One day maybe I won’t drink coffee when I’m writiAHHH haha ha yeah no of course I’m going to keep drinking coffee YOU SHUT YOUR MOUTH AND GET YOUR NASTY HANDS OFF MY BLACK DEVIL’S BREW YOU GODLESS TRAITOR

Ahem, ha ha, oh, whoa, that went off the rails there.

But seriously if you touch my coffee you’ll reel back a stump.

Point is, sometimes you need to change your process. I’m fond of telling the story of how it took me five years to essentially fail to write the novel Blackbirds, and how learning how to write it essentially came down to learning how to outline the damn book. And there I became a pantser-by-heart, plotter-by-necessity. And some writers hear that lesson and they take the lesson to be: “I need to outline.”

But the lesson was actually, I needed to change my process.

I had a process that wasn’t working.

And so I had to change it.

We become so sure of our process that we refuse to budge from it. And sometimes it’s worth changing your process — or testing it, at least — even when you think it’s working, because maybe it’s not working optimally.

Fiddle with the dials.

Jigger the levers.

Stick the egg-beater up your — well, you know.

Change your process. A little here. A lot there.

Whatever makes the work better.

Whatever makes you better.

(And happier.)

So now, I ask you for your input —

What’s a piece of unconventional writing advice you’ve found helpful?

* * *

DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative

What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.

Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.

Out 10/17:

Indiebound

Amazon

B&N

(See me, Kevin Hearne, and Fran Wilde on 10/17 in San Francisco, 10/18 in Portland, and 10/19 in Seattle. Details here!)

59 comments

  • Aaaaaannnd preordered.
    I’ve always dug your writing advice, Chuck, even the stuff that doesn’t work for me. Mostly because half of it is about figuring my own shit out and doing things in a way that works for me. I’m excited to see another book on this noise from you so I can shove it into my brain meats. Mmm tasty.

  • A piece of unconventional writing advice I’ve found helpful?

    “You are not your writing.”

    I was stuck for the longest time, because I didn’t want people to hate what I’d written (and through extension — me).

    Turns out, there’s no such thing as a universally loved book. Someone, somewhere is going to hate it — for whatever reason.

    But — here’s the thing. Your writing is just a product you’ve created. It’s not you.

    I know that may sound obvious, but there was a time when, for me, they were one and the same thing. It took me years before I’d even dare to put some (terrible) flash fiction up on my (never visited) blog.

    An author’s writing will improve over time, because writing is an evolutionary process. It adapts through feedback and mutates into something stronger.

    But if you don’t start that evolutionary feedback loop, because you’re terrified that your initial word heap isn’t perfect enough to be universally loved — then it’ll never improve.

    I’m not saying you should knowingly publish garbage. Write the best that you can, absorb feedback on your writing, and work on making the next one even better.

    Evolve or die, basically.

    • This is the most important advice a writer can get. The absolute truth. I wrote a bit more about this in my comment below. I’ve seen so many people I thought were good writers miss their shot because they didn’t learn this.

  • Some great advices, there, especially on 1, 2, 3, and 6. I’ve found writing groups to be useful for garnering opinions, but if you put ten people in a room, they’re going to have ten different opinions on how to make your story more better. And some will mesh with yours, whilst others will bring something entirely inappropriate to the table (“Hey, wouldn’t it be superawesomecool if you could write this in the second person?” “Uh, no.”)

    Right now, I write more fanfic than I do original fic, because it’s just what my muse wants to do. And I love that I can wade through the masses of fanfic smut and come across something that’s as well written as any published work, complete with real plot and character depth and all the magical things that make it a story, and not just an excuse for verbal porn (I have no idea why so much fanfic becomes this).

    Non-fiction and trying new things are both equally sexcellent pieces of advice, because it’s only by experiencing new things that you broaden your horizons as a person first and foremost, which also helps You The Writer. I feel sorry for people who think education ends with school. It really doesn’t.

    • Good comment on non-fiction. As a writer of dramatic fiction who also writes non-fiction, both use the same tools,and not that differently (if they’re good). Flipping back and forth has been a good way to not go nuts, in my experience.

  • Thanks for what you just said about changing your process. I had given up writing but still read your column regularly. I want to write but had decided that I couldn’t because my stuff sucks. I have this from some places I submitted short stories. I only dared submit shorts because I already KNEW my novel efforts were crap and I knew this from writing groups.
    But maybe my stuff isn’t so sucky, maybe if I stop sending it off for other people to reject I might finish something that makes me happy. So I am going to write stories again because I like them and I’m not sending them to be critiqued. When I’ve finished doing the best I can I’ll find an editor.

  • THANK YOU!!! For expressing so thoroughly and as only you can what I have always felt instinctively about “critique groups”. I have only been to one but that was enough. I have no problem receiving criticism, but it was so clear to me, even in the moment, that everything each person said about my work was all about THEM and not about the text at hand. Just human nature I guess. Not the first time (or the last) that I’ve wondered if I’m of the same species…

    • You were in the wrong group. As in the rest of life, one has to kiss many frogs to find the handsome prince. Many groups are exactly as you describe; in my experience, that’s a group of “amateur writers.” The ones who are professionals (whether they’ve made it yet or not) are the people you’ll get good advice from.

  • Best bit of writing advice I’ve had is linked to the critique issue; apply the rule ‘Accept, Adapt, Reject.’ You’ve got to learn how to write other people’s suggestions YOUR way – but only if you choose to accept that their suggestion is going to improve your novel. I have been in the situation where, acting on the advice of A.N. Other, I changed a section of text to what they had offered in its place…and subsequent readers picked it up as not being my voice.

    It was the breakthrough I needed – to be able to stand firm in how and what I was writing, which led to publication.

    Your number 5 is a good one, Chuck – I love making my characters squirm, and quite enjoy being horrible to them!

  • Me: Ooo yay! Storytelling post! I love those from Chuck. Lets see what he has to say and then I’ll get straight to work writing.

    Me: *reads the title for #1*

    Me: *reads not a single word more, scrolls down to the bottom of the blog to write this comment*

    OMFG THIS! THIIIIIIIIIIIIIS!

    I haven’t read what you have to say about this, but I JUST have to share this IMMEDIATELY.

    I was in a writing critique group where I was literally publicly shamed by its founder/leader for not treating writing “serious” enough. Like the full out abusive crap just spewed out of her fingers towards myself and why we weren’t all just following her lead blindly on her path to literary greatness or some crap like that. (What REALLY angered me however, was the fact that the group, though recognized the toxicity of the person, would not defend or stand up for me, and just sort of apologized in private as I decided to make my leave from the group).

    So Yes. THIS. Fuck critique groups. Fuck critique message boards too as I have found very little value in sharing my work in such a public forum as well (Absolute Write Water Cooler Critique section has done me more harm than good).

    What I HAVE found to be useful, and again like Chuck says, this is just MY experience and what has worked for me, find a critique PARTNER. One or Two people. Find someone who cares about your success and cares about you so they’re not just stroking their own ego as they’re shitting on your work, but actually want you to improve and for the work to improve. I’ve been that person for my few personal writerly friends and I have found a few who have at least encouraged me to keep going (I am still looking for that one partner who has enough skill and experience to give me more specific feedback) and it’s been SO MUCH better writing wise and confidence wise.

    Anyways… Ahem. That is all.

    I shall now go back to reading the blog post XD

    • The people like that person are not real writers. They think they are but know in their hearts they’re not, and that spills out on the people they see who are real writers. They’re manipulative assholes, basically talentless – I remember being in a group with a “leader” like that. He kept bugging me and bugging me to read his script (I was the only “produced writer” in the group). I finally did. There are rules for screenplays: use the proper-size font, use the proper format, write it to a specific length (120 pages mostly). His screenplay violated every one of the rules, and that was without reading a word of it. I told him that it didn’t matter what he had written, it would never be read because of those problems. I said “write it right and then show it to me.” He never spoke to me again, which was no loss. Eventually people got tired of his crap and he left. I saw him a few years ago – he was still unsuccessful.

  • See…you SAY writing advice is shit, but then you write a War-and-Peace length blogful of very helpful advice. Thanks for the tips, Wendingo!

  • Thanks for the post! I’m probably going to have to read it again a couple of times through. There’s a LOT to process in this one. Good things all. I especially like your advice to (my words) be wary of the influences of a writing group. As someone on the starting end of a writing career (fingers crossed), it definitely resonated. That said, I feel most glad to be able to read the work of others in my group and dissect their stuff (hahaha, and maybe stifle their writing styles), because I feel that doing so trains my inner writing eye and makes my own stuff that much better. Anyway, you’re posts always entertain. Thanks again.

  • Now I wish I had read the whole post before commenting. I really wish I could edit my comments! Ah well! I’m just going to have to lightly spam your comment section a tiiiiiny bit. Sorry!

    #2 is SO ACCURATE I want to sing praises.

    I’m not sure if you remember me, but I was the one who asked the question about writing when it was literally painful to do so, and that spawned that amazing post about “CARE LESS” when it comes to writing.

    Well, since then I haven’t been able to really do that, despite all my efforts…Until early 2016.

    That’s when I started writing Fan-Fiction.

    It was the single BEST decision I’ve ever made in regards to my writing. Writing became FUN and EASY again and I can get away with style choices I wouldn’t dare try to pass as publishable anywhere else. But the biggest reason why it’s SO GREAT is the immediate feedback.

    My audience for the most part aren’t writers and aren’t even well read, but when they love something, they LOVE IT and they will let you know how much they love it. That sort of wave of love, acknowledgment and validity (“Yes, your ideas ARE worth sharing!”) is immensely satisfying and refreshing. It’s like a breath of fresh air. It’s like life itself. (Yes, I’m still very dramatic, I can’t help it :P).

    And after pretty much giving up trying to write as a professional for a couple of years, I suddenly felt comfortable and confident enough to write original work again. The friends I’ve made in the fandom also helped me to push through certain anxieties I had about my personal writing, and here I am again, doing that writing thing.

    So yes, Fan-Fiction is a freaking GODSEND. I cannot endorse it enough.

    And I learned the pleasure of #5 from writing fan fiction. Once I relaxed and had fun with it, I got to play with it, I got to mess with my readers, and with the immediate feedback, you can see how effective you were in your manipulation. Maaaan, it’s fun. But perhaps I can take it a level further…

    This entire list is GOLD or at least, makes me feel like, “Well if I’m agreeing and already doing a lot of what a publish author is recommending, then I must be on the right path.” Or that at least I’m finally figuring out my own process. It helps that I get to mess with with my process and try new things, pressure free, using fan-fiction (I, again, can’t endorse it enough, though again, it may just be something that works very well for me. YMMV and all that).

    Thank you for writing this post. 🙂

    As for my own unconventional writing advice that isn’t already listed here…hmmm…

    Take breaks.

    Like seriously, writing every day is overrated. It’s okay to take several days off even. Maybe even a month. I know it seems counterproductive, but when the well is empty, and writing is excruciating, sometimes just taking a break and letting your mind think and focus on other things helps…A LOT. Or at least it helps me. After the break, when I come back, suddenly it’s fun and fresh again, the ideas are coming easier and overall, the writing is better.

  • Haven’t finished reading this yet, just wanted to thank you for saying that about Tolkien. Whew. I’m not the only one.
    Back to the foolishness!

  • *preach*

    Probably the best advice I received was:

    * If you want to avoid criticism, don’t publish anything.
    * You need skin of Teflon and a spine of steel because not everyone will be kind during this journey.
    * Be true to yourself and honest in your writing. (ie, don’t be a poser – be yourself.)
    * Consider the source. The loudest voice spoken with confidence may have zero substance.

    These are my current mantras. Our audience is not the entire world. Well, not this world. Maybe there is some exoplanet where everyone NEEDS our verbiage, but this sweltering marble isn’t it. I’ve had to tell myself this repeatedly as humans love to yammer when something does not suit them. I mean, dude, it’s like fashion; we don’t all dress the same or prefer the same looks. Why should we write the same? So, no, my writing may not be for you. That’s ok. But it is beneficial for someone else, despite all the issues you may have with it. And that’s ok, too.

    The other thing I’d add is I’ve had to change my process as I’m shifting genres. I have a planner – not a story outline kinda thing – a *real* planner. (But no stickers or washi tape yet, *sigh.*) I’ve cut my writing time so I can take care of all the other things writers do (website, research, etc.). All those things are stuck into the planner. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s needed so all the other pieces of being a writer-author don’t rust and dissolve into the earth.

    Awesome piece!

  • “Don’t get attached to your writing rituals.”
    I guess that’s like “change your process as needed.” I find that when I’m too attached to a routine, I keep expanding that routine until it eclipses getting new words down, and that’s just plain, fear-driven avoidance.

    “Consider writing fanfic again.”
    You know, there is wisdom to that. Fanfic was always fun to write. No pressure, room for experimentation… why not? And why not give back to the community that gave me my first words of encouragement?

    “COFFEEEEEEE!!!”
    Yeah, I’m with you here. I’ve been trying to switch to half-caf, but it’s really, REALLY hard.

  • ” Reading your novel gives me your ideas, but reading a non-fiction book gives me new ideas that are all mine, mine, mine, and I’d rather not be part of some long human centipede chain of genre-reconsumption…”

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I get more ideas taking a walk outside than sitting down trying to ingest another chapter of Song of Ice & Fire.

    You’ve given me a decent topic to blog about soon as far as Fan Fic goes, I’ll be drafting that soon.

  • I like #6. Travel, absorb life. Easy. And makes it easier to regurgitate words after the life has been digested. One thing I do when I go out in public is stop talking and just listen to people’s voices. It’s so helpful in building characters and dialogue and stories. I creep around behind teenagers in stores just to hear how they talk. If I stare at my phone instead of them they never suspect a thing.

  • You just gave me the best unconventional piece of writing advice, which is don’t stick whisks up my no-no hole. That’ll help a lot.

    Also, number 5 reminded me of WritingExcuses and how they often talk about hacking the reader’s brain. That’s all. Thought it was neat.

  • I’m the homeschooling mom of four kids and just crazy busy. I still managed to write 11 books in four years. (Didn’t say I was a good homeschooling mom ;o) But I don’t get to write every day and I have often felt guilty about that. until I heard Anne Patchett say something to the effect of: the people who say to write every day are almost always men, but someone has to make dinner.
    She may be wrong. Maybe I should really try to write every single day. But then again, guilt sucks.
    thanks for your list of unconventional writing advice, I was struggling with some notes a beta reader gave me, now my answer is suck it.

  • “You are not your writing” is perhaps the most important piece of writing advice a writer can get. I heard that from my writing mentor (a man who had written many of the movies I had loved growing up, and who had a 35-year career in the movies that ended 6 weeks after he turned in the last draft of his most recent for-hire work). Fear of being judged personally and found wanting if you submit your work to someone who might publish it/make it/whatever. This fear has kept more people from their deserved success than anything else I know. Your work is your work – you are you. You created it, but it isn’t *you*.

    A good piece of advice I got early on from the writer mentioned above: “When I was up, I couldn’t figure out how I’d gotten there; when I was down, I couldn’t figure out what I’d done to get there; when I was back up, I couldn’t figure out how it had happened. I finally stopped trying to figure it out, and things worked much better.”

    A very good screenwriter wrote a book on the topic I still consider definitive that I read at the outset of my attempt to have a career. I have found it’s accurate whether writing movies or books: “Every project gets turned down everywhere but the place that says ‘yes’.” In other words: Be Persistent.

    Thanks for this one Chuck. The advice about writing groups is mostly right on. However, one thing to remember: “What one person says is opinion; what two people say might be coincidence; what three people say is a fact.” If three people see the same problem, you have a problem, like it or not.

    • Your last bit is right on target. Hubby and I were competition chili cooks for years, and now run the judging at sanctioned events. We always tell our cooks (who get to look at the comments the judges make on their entries): If one judge mentions something, it’s probably a personal taste thing. If two judges mention it, you might want to give it some thought. If three (or more) have the same comment, you need to seriously consider what was said. Maybe you don’t make any changes, but maybe you look at that recipe again and realize “yeah, that isn’t right.”

  • I am not fond of Tolkien, either. At least, not now. When I first read him eons ago, I loved the books. Now, I just can’t bring myself to re-read them.
    And I still write fan-fic, for some of the reasons you touched on. It’s fun. It’s not serious work in that I am not worried about selling the stuff. It reminds me, as you said, that writing can and should be fun, not drudgery. I do it much like I play (or rather, torture) the piano- for me.

    As for a bit of unconventional advice: I got this from a fairly famous writer many moons ago: Don’t dismiss your word processor’s grammar checker out of hand. Sure, it’s not geared to fiction, especially dialogue, so the majority of what it slaps you for should be ignored. But- let it make you think about what you wrote. Can it be better? Clearer? More impact? Consider it another tool- use it when it fits, and set it aside when it doesn’t.

  • The best piece of unconventional writing advice I’ve ever received was to stick an egg beater up my…Oh, wait. Nope. That wasn’t it. (Though the rest of the advice in that article was damn good.)

    It’s that writing doesn’t always take place at a keyboard or with pen in hand. Sometimes it happens when you’re on a hike, or on a ski lift, or staring out a window, or basically doing “nothing”.

    Except you are doing something.

    You’re letting your brain work out the problems in your plot or character arc. Or you’re giving it a break after binge editing your entire manuscript in 48 hours. Because God knows there’s no way to come up with fresh, astonishing ideas after a binge edit.

    In our always doing something culture, it can be hard to remember that doing nothing sometimes is doing something really, really great.

    • When you wake up at 3am with your character(s) jumping up and down on your chest saying “No! Np! You’re wrong! *This* is what I wanted!” Listen. Your characters have finally “come alive,” and you need to follow them (“There got my followers, and I must run after them, for I am their leader!” – French Socialist leader, 1880). Trust the work.

  • Number 1, Paragraph 10: Yes. YES! I’m not in a crit group for this very reason. A good beta, however, can be a real treasure (usually they are not writers, I have found).

  • If there was such a thing as a writing soulmate, you would be mine. ALL MINE! *makes grabby hands at you* Ahem. I mean…thank you for this, Chuck. I don’t care much for Tolkien’s work, either. LOVE his world, admire his creativity, but I can’t get into the books. And that’s okay. After many, many, many years of trial and error, I have adopted the “Can’t please everyone” adage and am self-publishing my first book in January. It might fail. It might not. Either way, I’m gonna write book 2 and book 3, etc etc because not writing them just doesn’t work for me…plus I’m getting the side-eye from the grim reaper, so I need to get busy. 🙂

  • The bit about changing your process as needed is both terrifying and liberating. I *still* haven’t found a process that quite works for me – though I’ve found an awful lot that doesn’t. I’m ass-deep (6,000 words and counting) into the outline for my NaNoWriMo novel right now, and currently tearing my hair out over story structure because everyone claims to have the magic formula and NONE of them work for what I’m trying to do with this story. It’s organic and meditative and they’re all so rigid and methodical.

    I get that every author has to chart their own course and it’s all subjective, but it’s still scary as a newbie writer to look at what the professionals tell you is the One True Way, and give it the thumbs down and say “Nah brah, I’m doing my own thing.” What arrogance! How *dare* I think I know better than Joseph Campbell or Blake Snyder or [insert formula author here]?! Surely the gods of writing will strike me down for my hubris! Et cetera, et cetera.

    It feels naughty, and not in a fun way: in a “stealing fire from the gods” sort of way. And we all know what happened to that dude.

    And yet as much as I would rather my liver didn’t become pâté for a dickish eagle, it’s still less awful than killing my story by forcing it into a tiny box with no air holes. (I mixed metaphors there but you feel me.)

    • Also, bless you for saying it’s okay to not read as much fiction, or at least as much fiction in our genre/category of choice. I’ve pretty much given up reading YA (which I write), because it’s far too easy for me to notice a story’s seams. I can only think of a handful of YA novels I’ve read in the past couple of years that I was able to truly enjoy – and far more that I had put down because the story became second to critiquing an author’s choices. I don’t really understand those YA authors that generate a book or more a year and still apparently find the time and energy to read all the hot new releases.

      It’s been a blessing in disguise though, because I’m reading a lot of genres I would otherwise have passed by – a lot of adult scifi and spec fic (boy there’s been some great books this year); literary fiction; crime; romance. Not to mention the biographies and memoirs, the popular science and weird history, the manga and webcomics. I feel much fresher and more confident in my creative output than I did when I was mainlining YA, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence at all.

  • You sip tea noisily and write bestsellers while riding on the back of a gentlemanly and gently ambling dromedary camel.” How did you know?
    I haven’t been reading much fiction in the area of my WIP. But now it’s off for cover design etc I am reading Tolkien and Naomi Novik’s Temeraire.
    The best advice I’ve ever come across was from Tchaikovsky: “inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination.” Because it is possible to want to write without feeling like writing. Sometimes you just feel like ambling along on your camel sipping tea.

  • I don’t want to be like, that person, but Tolkien WAS part of a writing group. They were called the Inklings. C.S. Lewis was also a member. One of their primary purposes was to read and discuss the members’ unfinished work.

    In fact, interesting note, Tolkien says in his essay, On Fairy Stories, that no one would ever put something as ugly or prosaic as a street lamp in a work of fantasy. Cue Naria, and lo and behold! Fantasy street lamp.

  • This is a great post, Mr. Wendig, and I applaud every point with equal joy and dubiousness, as one should. My only unconventional writing advice is anecdotal: the only story I’ve sold was written in about an hour on a whimsical lark. All the ones I’ve toiled over word by persnickety word still sit on my computer. Granted, the rejections are often detailed and helpful, but are still rejections. Make what you will of this, but perhaps “write with careless whimsy sometimes?”

    • The two most recent publications I’ve had were both stories that I didn’t think stood a chance. One I literally wrote it as a joke, to make fun of Twilight. “If I was going to have a vampire bang a human, I’d pay a little closer attention to biology and THIS is how they’d do it.” Aaaand, someone actually gave me twenty bucks for that piece. It’s a weird world.

  • The most unconventional writing advice I ever got was from Terry Pratchett. He told me that if I wanted to become a professional writer, to be aware that I’d be spending fully half of my time on paperwork instead of writing and I would just have to accept that as the price of doing business. And, by God, he was absolutely right.

  • re: Crit groups… I think Gaiman once said something to the effect of, “If someone tells you that something in the story isn’t working, they’re usually right. If someone tells you how to fix something in the story, they are usually wrong.”

  • October 11, 2017 at 1:17 PM // Reply

    Fantastic advice reading nonfiction. Writing it helps too. After beating my brains out getting an MFA in screenwriting, writing a bunch of scripts no one wanted to read I burned out. Then my dog died and it hit me in a place so deep I had to write about it. It was a 700 word essay that an editor of a popular online mag loved. He said, “Keep ’em coming!” So I write little essays and I’m in heaven. (And I get paid!) People respond in real time—mostly good comments—but the bad ones are more fun. I’ve moved them, or they’ve had the same crazy experience. I can’t recommend it enough. And I’ve got a new script percolating in the back of my mind now. (P.S. I love your blog posts!)

  • I need to go buy a couple of egg beaters now…

    Anyway, all this helpful advice is quite wonderful. It too me reading through this to realize that I honestly need to change my process of writing. Whatever Ive been doing hasnt been working out all that well on the productive meter.

  • October 11, 2017 at 9:11 PM // Reply

    Gulp, and I envisioned starting my own little “Inklings” group.
    Thanks for bursting that bubble.
    The two items that stood out most, were #3, the advice about nonfiction reading, which I’ve been doing for a while. It’s good to receive reaffirmation. Makes sense since it grounds us in reality. And teaches us (random & sensible) stuff.
    Also # 6, go do random sh*t. Point is go DO STUFF. Can’t agree more. Ever so often, turn off the PC/laptop/typewriter and go do (and learn) new (and fun/challenging) new things. Meaning, stuff that has nothing to do with writing, but all about living. And, in the end, can reappear in our writing.
    Here’s an example: I learned to do “land paddling” this summer. When I got the 59″ board and 6ft pole with rubber tip, I realized I’m prone to being impulsive. Point is, I can’t even skateboard. Was pretty intimidating. Lo and behold, I mastered it. It’s a workout and FUN. Might even start a new business with it. Who knows.
    Thanks for the sound advice, Mr. Wendig!

  • Your new book is fanfuckingtabulous. It will sit next to “On Writing” once I’m done reading it and showing it to my buds. No, they’re not allowed to borrow it – they need to buy their own copy.

  • Cheers. I am holding back from writing the absolutely fucking full mad mental book that I really want to write because…well, you seem to know why. Perhaps a bit of bar-room-brutal arse kicking was all that I needed. I’ll let you know – even though you don’t want to know, probably.

  • I already bought my copy and I cannot wait to dive in! I always read a little bit of writing advice before I dive into my writing for the day, just to get my head in the right space, and I’m so excited to add yours to the rotation.

  • I always thought of writers giving advice in the same way as movie reviewers; you just gotta find the one with the same taste as you, and then you trust them. I flip open Kick-Ass Writer on a weekly basis(not kidding) for a kick in the ass, so I will definitely check out the new book. Looks awesome by the way.
    Writing advice is great if you come across a site that’s not just generic crap. When it offers something new, I get psyched to write! It’s inspiring to read about another person’s love for storytelling, it makes me go to work.
    Good advice is way better than critique groups anyway, because all they do is complain about how little time they have to write. “Well, go do that over there where I can’t hear you.” I’m pursuing writing seriously now, but I’m finding it hard to find people in that same situation. I got so sick of hearing about my writing buddies’ boring pets, kids, work and work-out schedule instead of some actual writing progress, so I had to fuck off out of there. Like a nun on skates.
    Anyway, I just wanted to say that your advice has ALWAYS been amazing, all of it. Especially “Don’t be boring.” That changed my life. Seriously. It’s tattooed on my knuckles. Or it should be. One of those…
    The best of luck with your new book! And thank you for the advice. 🙂

  • I might try fan-fiction, for the reasons you stated. Also, I am all about trying new things, experimentation; to challenge myself (often) in unimaginable ways, having unimaginable results.

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