The work is the way forward.
But what that means is…
…not chiseled in stone so much as it is swirled into pudding with an index finger. It’s in flux. Uncertain. How we do the work, and why, and when, and at what rate, is where writers really are snowflakes, each as unique as a fingerprint, or a strand of DNA, or a cat’s butthole.
(That’s true, by the way, that’s science. All cat buttholes are unique to the cat. It’s how cats catch each other at cat crimes.)
I’ve been doing this writing thing for —
Wait, hold on.
*puts on long, gray beard*
*pulls pants up so far that the waistline is hitting the nipple watermark*
*black socks and brown sandals, deployed*
I’VE BEEN DOING THIS WRITING THING SINCE YOU WERE IN YOUR SPACE DIAPERS, YOUNG PENMONKEY. I’VE WRITTEN OVER 20 BOOKS AND SOME COMICS AND SOME FAILED FILM AND TELEVISION PROJECTS AND SOME GAMES AND I’VE LEARNED A THING OR TWO ABOUT WRITING A THING OR TWO AND YOU SHOULD SIT DOWN AND STRAP IN AND LISTEN TO OLD UNCLE WENDIG BECAUSE —
Wow, sorry, I was really yelling there, huh?
As I was saying, you should listen to me because I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. Which is really the point of all this: the further I’ve gone down this path, the one thing I know with great resoluteness is that I know less than I did when I began. My certainties are far less certain. My knowledge has faded, and in its place has grown —
*mouth opens, rainbows and ravens shoot out*
Or something like it.
Here, then, is what I presently believe about the act of writing — these three “truths” are not about the art of narrative, not the craft of constructing stories, but simply the meat-and-potatoes of getting it done. And note, too, that when I say truths, I mean they are truths for me, and only for me at this moment in time. They might not be for you. They might not even be true for me ten years in the future, provided we’re not all hiding in the nuclear swampland eating irradiated cricket paste as the eyeless cannibal hordes hunt us for our meat.
So, here are three cough-cough, wink-wink, “truths.”
Do with them as thou wilt.
The Name Of The Game Is Incremental Progress
I come out of freelance writing, where there were hard-and-fast deadlines that necessitated vacuum-sealing your cheek-meat to the office chair and not breaking the seal until you did your time in the word-mines. I had to hit 2000 words a day or I was dead. Sometimes, that’s still true.
But I’ve also learned that stories are wiggly.
They’re like puppies. Every one is different. They have different personalities.
Just as every writer has a different personality.
So, every writer is different, and every story that a writer writes is different from the last, and to make it even more fun, every day is different, too. (I know, what a revelation.) Some mornings you wake up, fresh as a newborn baby bathed in unicorn tears. Some days are total fucking gutter balls — it’s a clunk and thunk and the ball rolls into a ditch without knocking over a single pin. You just don’t know. And some stories are stories that pour out of you like a puke out of a drunk freshman. Other stories are ones that must be extracted, like a tooth, or a tapeworm.
And that’s okay.
That’s how it is.
The trick is this:
Just make progress.
Just move forward.
I’m not saying you move forward at 2000 words every day. I’m just saying — move forward. Move forward at the rate you, and the day, and the story, demand. Incremental progress is the key. One sentence. One page. One chapter. Consistency is fine if consistency is what you require. But all you really, really need is the discipline to inch forward. Crawl if you must. Run when you can. Pause when necessary.
But set your eyes on the horizon and walk toward it. Don’t look at other writers and how fast they’re doing it. Don’t sprint when you know you need to creep. Don’t creep when it’s time to sprint. But always move forward.
Progress Is Not Always A Forward Direction
Well, shit. A new wrinkle.
I’mma repeat that, because it bears repeating:
But — what the fumbly fuck does that mean?
It means this: sometimes, progress is not a day of writing, but a day of thinking. Sometimes, progress is a day of writing badly, a day of writing you will throw away, or a day of writing that feels bad but ends up good. Progress can mean having a great writing day, and then later on, during editing, kicking that shit into the garbage bin because you don’t need it or it wasn’t that good. Progress is failing in some — any! — direction. Progress is taking a walk and having a revelation about the story. Progress can be outlining, it can be throwing away an outline, it can be writing 1000 words just before deleting 2000.
Progress is movement and momentum, but it’s not always forward.
Listen, I have literally written an entire second draft that ended up worse than the first. It’s not supposed to happen like that, you think. It seemed to be at the time an incredible failure — it was like aging backward, like maturing in reverse, like pissing in good whiskey. But it wasn’t that. It was progress, just not forward progress. In failing to make a better story with the second draft, I was given greater clarity as to what the story needed to really be. My writing career is built on the steaming backs of many humid failures — books that are just moist carcasses. Thing is, I view those now as necessary to progress.
Skill is not like in the role-playing games where it’s just numbers on a page that tick up, up, up. Skill is a hazy, goopy sphere. We move through it, in it, out of it, around it, and our entire writing career is like that. Sometimes, to refine who we are and what we write, we have to try a lot of things, and trying a lot of things means screwing up a lot of things.
Often, to succeed, we must first fail.
And even that doesn’t look the same every time.
Progress Does Not Always Look The Same Each Time
Like I said, I’ve written a bunch of shit. Some of it is shit I’m proud of. Some of it is… you know, let’s just leave it at “shit.” (Insert poop emoji here.)
And every time, I struggle because I want the process to be the same.
I want it to be a purely mechanical process.
Like, I dunno, building a fucking birdhouse, or making cheese. I want the muscle memory and the skill to work in such a way that, roughly every time, the process is the same — maybe even easier than the time before. A lot of things are like that.
Writing is not like that.
It’s a little like that, in that practicing writing for a long time really does make you better. You are also different writer every time you write. And that means the stories you tell are different, too. And they get harder, not easier.
Writing a book is less like building a birdhouse and more like raising a kid — as a parent you start to figure out pretty quick that every time you learn some new Parenting Skillz, the child also learns new Child Skillz and then you must compete in the Thunderdome or — okay, you know, I think I’ve lost hold of that metaphor, but more to the point, as your child grows, you must adapt your parenting, and as you grow, you must adapt your writing.
Which means that progress is never the same.
The way writing goes one time won’t be the way it goes the next time.
Not day to day.
Certainly not story to story.
But that’s okay. It’s a good thing, not a bad thing. If writing felt the same every time, if it settled into rote, comfortable patterns, it means you’ve settled into a rote, comfortable pattern. And rote comfort is ruinous to the artist. We thrive on the discomfort of evolution.
Enjoy the discomfort. Make incremental progress in whatever direction it demands, and remember that every book has its own map, its own uncharted path through the swampland.
Movement and momentum.
In any direction.
* * *
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.
Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.