The Secret To Writing?

I get asked that, sometimes. Over e-mail. In person. By invisible leprechauns.

“What’s the secret to writing?” Or, even better, “What’s your secret?”

My secret is long-kept. It’s a brash, brassy alchemical recipe that, frankly, most writers simply cannot replicate. Its hoary, frothy reagents are direly specific, pointing the way toward forgotten and forbidden penmonkey magicks-with-a-k-and-made-plural. And yet, I’ve been sitting on this too long. This dread sorcery is burning holes in my tighty-whities. It is both chafing and chapping my nether-cheeks. It sometimes squirms as if I’ve underpants full of eels. Electric, bitey eels.

What if I die without giving away my recipe?

What will my legacy be?

How will any other writer ever be successful if I don’t transcribe these hidden truths onto a digital scroll? If I don’t light the path with the flaming torch-skulls of my fallen writer enemies, who will?

Thus I spill the secret to you here, now, today. No matter that I will be hunted for giving away such precious, preening truths. The Council shall come for me, and I shall be waiting with eyes of ink.

You can see it in the digital scroll (created with Ye Olde Fotoshoppe) above, but just in case your eyes are burned out of your head by such heretical Internet enchantments, the secret is:

Write as much as you can.

As fast as you can.

Finish your shit.

Hit your deadlines.

Try very hard not to suck.

(The magic incantation is WAFHT. Which sounds like you’re really drunk and trying to say, “What the fuck?” Or, perhaps, trying to verbalize the acronym for said phrase, WTF.)

It’s quite complex, I know! Nearly impossible to replicate. To reproduce such maddening cosmic geometry you’d have to thread the needle perfectly — calling upon dark powers in such a way that it requires the mystical dexterity necessary to tattoo an ancient sigil on the testicles of a Kodiak bear blasted on sweet Columbian nose-candy. But, I dare not contain the secret of my ways any longer.

May you keep the secret or spread it wantonly, like ringworm.

(Feel free to share that graphic. I’ve opened it on Flickr with a Creative Commons license)

54 responses to “The Secret To Writing?”

  1. So, it’s alchemical, right? Which means it’s made in a cauldron… So…
    The above is what it all boils down to???

    Sometimes, I amuse myself. I am, fortunately, easily amused.

    But seriously? As ever, oh bearded overlord, thou sayest the sooth. Work hard. Fulfill obligations, even if they are just to yourself. Don’t suck. The only thing I would add is to refuse to listen to the unhelpful, the perpetually negative and the just plain crazy. Get the latter to mix the drinks. 😉

    Thanks for the latest 25things, btw.

  2. Lighting the way with torches from the skulls of enemy writers sounds so cool. I have to go about finding enemy writers ASAP so I can use them in the future.

  3. ….if they’re invisible, how do you know they’re leprechauns?

    Also, thanks for being all sneaky in sharing the secret. The internet is totes the best place to hide info.

    And does that top image come in a hi-res version? It would make great wallpaper for young penmonkeys.

  4. Others such as Heinlein and Ellison have said similar things reguarding the ‘secrets’ of writing. Not saying that this post isn’t valuable, just that its on par with similar types of good advice.

    However, I never heard back from that story idea company in Schenectady. Starting to think Ellison is full of shit.

  5. Sounds good! I expect nothing less from the author behind the venerable “Blackbirds” (review incoming). That said, will reading help your skills as an author or does reading simply serve as a way to get fresh ideas?

  6. Sometimes secrets are right out there in plain sight, for all to see, and yet we miss them. Shockingly I’ve found writing leads to more writing, while not writing leads to more not writing 🙂

    Seriously, your advice is excellent. Writing faster helps muzzle the inner critic, deadlines help the writer as well as the publisher, and trying not to suck is always a good goal.

  7. Oh great sensei, I go forth to polish my pen and slay my enemy. Wait, my enemy is usually myself….hmm. Maybe I need to rethink my strategy.

    I will engrave your magical incantation electronically at the top of my editorial calendar so that it is always the first thing I see each day. I shall salute the sun each morning with WAHFT. It will be my new mantra.

  8. I was just browsing your book covers and fell head over ass in love with the title Shotgun Gravy. Damn. I’m utterly depressed that I never put those two words side-by-side in a poem before. Utterly.

    And yeah. FINISH YOUR SHIT is a very good thing to keep in the writerly noggin.

    Dig the image, by the way 😀

  9. And here I’d been thinking the secret was to destroy my enemies, to see them driven before me and to hear the lamentations of their women.

    Do you know how hard it’s gonna be to change this tattoo?

  10. Printed and taped to my writing table!

    The sad thing is, I already knew this. But often the “Try very hard to suck” gets place on top and that’s where it goes all downhill. I’m going to remember that comes later. I think there’s a reason it’s at the bottom of the list.

    Thanks again for straight to the facts, no B.S., honest advice. It’s what you’re known for and it’s your best quality…other than all the cursing and pantlessness 🙂

  11. Been pondering this. Finally think I have an answer.

    The secret to writing? Is wanting to be a writer so damn much that you are prepared to invest as much time and energy as is required to be a writer.

    If you do not want to be a writer that much, you WILL NOT be one.

    This is the same secret as to being just about anything, with a few word changes.

  12. I hate it when he is right. And damn good at saying it too. Geesh. Alchemy dalchemy. Boil, and bubble, toil and trouble…. The evil man has made me go write. Again.

  13. Simple. And oh so very true. I love your no BS approach to everything. It’s fun without the fluff and pretentious hoo-hah.

    Reposting this on my site.


  14. Back in the 70s, Lawrence Block did an informal survey of more than 100 novelists at the time (he mentions this in his book WRITING THE NOVEL: FROM PLOT TO PRINT). He found that the novelists he surveyed averaged 1000-1250 words per day. Given the length of most modern novels — say, 90,000–120,000 words — that means that a *lot* of professionals are finishing their books in about 3–4 months and producing probably 2–3 novels per year (if you factor in any time spent editing). Stephen King and Robert J. Sawyer each write 2000 words per day. Sawyer probably finishes his in about 2–3 months. King writes longer books, about 180,000 words or more, but with his output he still manages to complete them in about 3 months. Block’s own writing method, according to his book, has him editing the previous day’s work before starting the current day’s work, so that when he types “The End” it really is “The End.” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the STRANGE CASE OF DR JEKYL AND MR HYDE in a matter of days. Charles Dickens wrote his novels in weekly installments to be printed in the newspapers of the day, hardly a process conducive to taking one’s time.

    Clearly, writing quickly is one of the keys to success, despite the misguided belief that writing the best fiction is a slow and painstaking process. People just don’t like the idea that something good can be produced quickly, even though the time taken to produce *anything* has no bearing whatsoever on the final product.

  15. […] But that’s the point of NaNoWriMo for people like me who like to write about 25k – 30k of a novel and then bail because “it’s dumb” or they have a better idea they want to work on instead. The point is that you keep writing anyway because all first drafts are dumb and suck. You keep writing and you finish your shit. […]

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