Three Truths About Writing, And How The Writing Gets Done

Writing only gets done by getting it done.

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*


Wow, sorry, I was really yelling there, huh?

*clears throat*

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.

Except —

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.

Out now!

Indiebound | Amazon | B&N

49 responses to “Three Truths About Writing, And How The Writing Gets Done”

  1. It is freaky to me how you write exactly what I need to hear exactly when I need to hear it.
    I love you, Chuck.

  2. Ian Fleming books come to mind on this, how he produced a good 12 stories that all felt similar. I wonder, did he have to change his process to produce the same result — or did he produce the same result because he didn’t change/grow his process? The parenting analogy is good, and holds for me — perhaps a reminder that we’re changing ourselves every day, so what we produce (if it’s really “us”) has to change too. I hear it in some of my favorite bands too, that keep making records for +20 years, that have a similar sound/thread, but keep changing…you can hear they’re kind of fighting with themselves to reconcile it. And the fight yields better results than complacence. You hear the latter at the end of REM’s career. So keep fighting! Good advice, Chuck.

  3. You’re the writing coach we all need. As you stand in the stacks shouting word truths, I’m reinvigorated to get my writing shit together. Thank you, coach! Buying your book right now.

  4. I always got stuck up on the forward direction bullshit when writing short stories. But the most important thing I’ve learned from writing RPGs is that the words only get on the page if you put them there. It doesn’t matter if you put them in forwards, backwards, or sideways, as long as they’re on the page, you’ve made progress. And, once they’re there, Editor Brain and Writer Brain can unfuck just about anything and make it into a story.

  5. I don’t have a comment specifically for this post. This is mainly directed at the blog overall. I wanted to say thank you for your continued dedication to it. I understand the blog is a two-way street. Not only does it help you build an audience and sale your wares, but your insights assist struggling writers in maintaining their sanity by understanding that all of the feelings and hardships and doubt they have related to writing is not only acceptable, but also felt by writers who are making a living doing it. But I realized today that you also need feedback from readers to help you know that continuing with your posts are appreciated, helpful, and valued. I am not a social media butterfly. My Facebook page is a desolate wasteland, and my Twitter account is nonexistent, but I decided today to briefly leave my cozy, dark social media cocoon to say thanks for all of the work you share with the world, both paid and free. Whether the posts are writing-specific or political or something somewhere in between, I always enjoy them. I also purchased Damn Fine Story from Amazon today. I’m certain it will be as insightful and entertaining as the other Penmonkey books I already own. Thank again for your hard work.

  6. Thanks, Chuck. As a newbie looking at my second draft wondering how my ‘almost average’ idea became a steaming pile of fresh horse manure I needed this. Please keep firing off these nuggets of wisdom and giving me the metaphorical kick in the pants I need.

  7. Once again, your writing is pertinent to my life. (STOP WATCHING ME! *Grabs tinfoil hat*) I’ve been realizing the backwards nature of progress firsthand in my fiction writing lately. I had this grand multi-book project planned, you see. This was going to be epic. My characters’ exploits would span the multiverse and they’d all have adventures until I couldn’t draw another breath! I’d make a goddamn media empire! Only to wonder lately if the story wouldn’t work better as a novella, because I find myself stretching the story by sheer character idiocy alone. So now my fiction writing life is long, wandering walks and soul-searching at the moment. Le sigh.

  8. Truth for me too and good reminders. Forward for me can only be seen over long periods of time. I was working on prompts recently and suddenly realized what element was lacking in a novel I’ve been working on. Totally unrelated and the light bulb turned on.

  9. I need this today. Yesterday, I wrote 238 words. Measly, I thought. Today, I read some NY Times articles about Neanderthals and a sadomasochistic father of gynecology, Sims, who tortured slaves because he felt they couldn’t feel as much pain. I was feeling bad about not writing today, but now I’m chalking up all the reading to research. Thanks for you wisdom, as always, Chuck.

  10. Thank you for this. I’m armpits deep in revising (a process I do not enjoy but do understand the necessity of. Especially reading some of the crap in this thing!), and I needed to be reminded of those three things.
    BTW, recently finished The Cormorant. Nicely done. Love Miriam and her “fun” adventures. I even said nicey-nice things about it on my blog.

  11. Writing can be fun. It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, or dropping acid and watching Fox news. When someone tells you to go fuck yourself, writing is a way of doing it.

  12. With this second book I’m trying to find the sweet spot between dry efficiency and mud-puddle-flailing-that-somehow-eventually-turns-into-something-ten-years-later” (looking at you, first book). Progress right now looks like going faster.
    Because “for all the compasses in the world, there is only one direction, and time is its only measure.” (I’m feeling a lot of Stoppard-envy this week.)

  13. I’m working on the 380th version of my pilot (ok 6th but feels like that) and the 5th version I tried to take all the notes and it turned out HORRIBLE. My sister even called me and said, “I read the new version. WHAT HAPPENED?” So I love what you said about progress not always being forward. I went back to my basics and even put back in scenes from my first draft. It really did let me learn what was important to me and the story.

  14. Once again, thank you, thank you, thank you for reminding me that the literary wasteland through which I’ve wandered these past three-plus years with my seemingly endless work in progress is . . . normal. I have such fond memories of my previous novel, which came together beautifully, cleanly, in nine months. But this novel . . . Nearly 200,000 words spanning four different drafts, each sucky in their own unique way . . . It’s all part of the standard writing process. Frankly, this novel is teaching me way more about the writing process (specifically, about MY novel-writing process) than all the projects before. So, again, thank you for the reminder that writing projects take as long as they take, and there’s nothing we can do but see them through. You are my hero.

  15. “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.” OMG YES, and it sucks. You’d think it’d get easier as time goes on and you write more but NOPE.
    Thanks for another fab post, Chuck.

  16. Can’t help but love how you put the good old

    “I’ve actually no idea what I’m doing.”

    in ever new words, so many of them and each wiser and more knowledgeable than the last, and show us every facet of not knowing what one’s doing in all its sparkling awesomeness.

  17. AMEN! *off to find a rainbow-farting unicorn to offer to the writing gods because damn it I have to stop this backward slide somehow* *oh, and off to buy some Chuck guy’s supposed writing book because it has the word Damn in the title* PS: LOVE the blog!

  18. This was my first time reading your blog (shared by a classmate) and dammit did I need to read this! Of course…I just realized…I’m also using this as a excuse to procrastinate…and not work on my writing…so…yeah. Regardless, I loved this post and will be coming to read more!

  19. This is awesome! I have been trying to do writing through hard personal times. What has popped up is exactly what you say. I do 20 minutes a day, timed. Sometimes that 20 minutes is very hard, others I carry on after the pinger has gone off and write until boring shitty Real Life intervenes and I have to stop.

    BTW, I’d just like to congratulate you on the phrase ‘fumbly fuck’ I can’t wait to use it and I will be giggling about that until the end of the day.

  20. This is AMAZING! I don’t know how you always have the right post at precisely the moment I need it, but thank you.

  21. Thank you, Chuck. I don’t know your site well, but I’m happy with what I just read. It’s good to see so many people occupying themselves with a creator’s curious life, making progress incrementally, celebrating their progress by coming back for more tomorrow. Best wishes.

  22. Chuck, this is my first time reading your blog, and I can say, unequivocally, I am hooked. This: “Progress is movement and momentum, but it’s not always forward.” It’s so true. Thank you for this. I needed it today!

  23. […] “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.” […]

  24. Most excellent wordage, Chuck. Like some others here, you’ve published what I needed to read today. Funny how that happens. Is it kismet? Dunno, but I love it and I think I needed it. Thank you!

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