Chuck Wendig: Terribleminds

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Irregular Creatures: Flash Fiction Challenge

The Shackleton’s Scotch challenge was pretty dang cool, and the results were, frankly, fun as hell to read. And a number of you said you’d be interested in more flash fiction challenges.

So, here I am, once more throwing down the gauntlet.

As you may know, I have a short story collection called IRREGULAR CREATURES (buy here), which features nine tales of bizarre-o beasties, mythological miscreants, and mad monsters — the creatures found in that collection (flying cats, Bigfoot, mermaids, mystic hobos, evil sex monkeys, the mesmerizing vagina of a fallen angel) are in many ways like the writer himself: an odd-seeming and often irregular entity.

This week’s challenge, which runs from today till next Friday (3/11/11) at noon, asks you to take those two words — “irregular creature” — and craft some flash fiction around it.

Whatever that phrase means to you, run with it.

You’ve got 1000 words.

Doesn’t mean you need to stay inside the margins of genre — while fantasy, sci-fi, horror and humor are apropos, anything goes in terms of the inspiration you take from that pair of words.

I’ll once more compile them at the end of the seven days.

Well, what the hell are you waiting around for? Get thee to the word mines!

Your own irregular creatures await.

The Results

Karina Cooper, “Looking Too Hard

Josin McQueen, “Irregular Creatures

Jamie Wyman, “Step Right Up

Angela Perry, “Dog Farts

Wes Robinson, “Irregular Creatures

CY, “Signing On

Tim Kelley, “Snowbirds

Albert Berg, “The Life And Times Of Casey Jones

Anthony Laffan, “Three Nights ‘Til The New Moon

Elizabeth Newlin, “Irregular Creatures

Amber Keller, “Running On E

MKS, “Irregular Creatures

Ben, “Coyote

Paul Vogt, “Attempt #3

Snellopy, “Dogspider

Shree, “Daddy’s Girl

Marko Kloos, “Seeds

Aiwevenya, “Writing Class

Tara Tyler, “Irregular Creature

McDroll, “My Irregular Little Creature

Stephanie Belser, “Irregular Creatures

Sroot, “Angels Or Aliens

Seth, “Three

Letters Bloody Letters, “The Story Of Dirty Mari

Michael Montoure, “Control

Boys Behaving Badly, “The Horologe

Sparky, “Waiting Room

Valerie Valdes, “Hiss

Gary B. Phillips, “Mottephobia

Dan, “Jake’s Wake

 

John Murphy, “Unintended Consequences

DeAnna Knippling, “The Last Diary Of Doctor Frankenstein

Once Upon A Playtime, Redux

Yesterday, producer Ted Hope (who is also the producer, along with Anne Carey, on our upcoming feature film, HiM), was gracious enough to let me come and stomp around his sandbox with a short post called, “Where Storytelling And Gaming Collide.” There, I said the following:

Traditional storytelling seeks to tell the story of the author, the director, the creator.

But storytelling in games is about empowering the player to experience and tell her own narrative.

I believe this more and more. I believe that games — from the smallest “casual” game to the hardest of the purportedly “hardcore” — are powerful and compelling to us as players because from the experience of playing games we gain narrative, and from that narrative we gain… well, all kinds of things, really. We gain perspective. We gain entertainment. We can be enlightened, amused, disturbed, challenged. And this is true of games even without a traditional narrative. It’s true of a game of checkers, or chess: the two opponents sitting over a board, learning about one another, traversing the peaks and valleys of competition, exploring strategy. You come out of a game of chess, you have a story — and often the way we see and retell it (in our own heads or to others) bears the elements of escalation, climax, and resolution.

(I play a killer round of Angry Birds or Words With Friends, I’ll tell my wife. It’s probably an awful story in terms of what I’m telling her, but in my head? It’s the shit.)

Anyway. Go read that post, if you please, but here, also, consider the question: how can you allow a game to tell a meaningful story? To me, the key word there is “allow.” Emergent gameplay is ultimately about emergent storytelling, and maybe that’s how we need to frame it: games do not need to tell a straightforward narrative as much as they need to leave room for emergent play and emergent narrative.

Emergent narrative.

I like that.

How’s it sit with you? Swish it around your mouth. Bulge your cheeks, get it in between your teeth. Is it minty fresh? Or is it sewery spew? If you dig on it, what can help a game offer greater opportunity for emergent narrative? I could make a case that Minecraft is hella good at this “emergent narrative” thing I just made up two minutes ago, and that I didn’t actually make up at all — turns out wiser minds than mine (which is to say, most) already conceived of it and use it for games like The Sims or Deus Ex, though I’d argue the idea suits games that go beyond the expected roster.

It also occurs to me that sometimes, when I talk about games, I don’t even know if I make any damn sense. But it’s fun, innit? I mean, sure, my extremities have gone numb, and my shirt is missing.

Ultimately, what I’m saying is —

Aren’t the stories born from gameplay just as important — if not more important — than the stories the games purport to tell in the first place? Isn’t that what playtime is all about?

How can game designers and game writers facilitate this?

(Remember, if you’re in NYC, to swing by DIY Days. There I’ll be talking about the collision of gameplay and storytelling with game designer Greg Trefry. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself, of course. More information can be found here: DIY Days.)

Can’t Finish That Novel? Try Dopamine!

So, you’re writing a novel.

Sure, sure.

Let’s see if this has happened to you.

Somewhere around the 20,000 word mark, or maybe at 40,000, a slow, creeping dread settles in your bones. It’s cold, like saline in your arteries.

You stop and think:

“Okay, let’s figure this out. I’m going to write this novel for three months. Then I’m going to need another month, maybe two, maybe three, to get it read, get it cleaned up, get a second draft out. Might need to do a third draft. Or a fourth. This could take me a year. And then what? A month to find an agent? Six months? Then it’ll take that agent the same amount of time to sell — or, more likely, not sell — the book. Then it’ll be a year before it comes out. God only knows how well it’ll even sell. Is it original? What if someone beats me to market? Dolphin Vampires are hot right now, but in… let’s do some math here… two years? Advances are shrinking. Borders just fell into a pile of its own sick. I heard a rumor that nobody’s publishing any new authors. This book isn’t even that good. I’m not really that good. I’m, what, C+ at best? What am I doing? Who are these characters? Why are they saying these things? Are these even sentences? Should three commas be shoved together like that? Where are my pants? Why can’t I feel my legs? My mouth is dry. I need a drink. I need a gun. I need a gun that will shoot a drink into my brain. The Scotch-Gun. The Wine-O-Blaster. I don’t think I want to write this novel anymore. By god, what’s the fucking point?”

Then you kind of melt into a puddle of insignificant goo.

Problem is, writing a novel is like a walk across an endless expanse. You only start to see the end when you’re, duh, near the end. The rest of the time, you’re left wandering. Uncertain. The sun is bright. The land is bleached. The peaks and valleys you found when you started have evened out.

It’s time for —

No, wait, I need to do this in all caps.

IT’S TIME FOR SOME MOTHERFUCKING DOPAMINE.

Dopamine is released when we complete or achieve something. It’s why those stupid Xbox achievements are small but meaningful — that little bubble window that lets us know bloop, we just earned the 10 point achievement for “Donkey Wrangler” gives us a tiny spike of dopamine. Video games mete out achievements and successes in a smart way — a mini-boss here, a new weapon there.

Writing a novel has none of that.

Not really, anyway.

So, we need to trick our brains into releasing some dopamine along the way, into convincing us that this is indeed a worthwhile endeavor. Because it is. Because telling a story is a glorious thing deserving of mighty praise. You are laying down legendary footprints. You are ripping open the Bigfoot’s stomach and showing the world its contents for the first time. Storytelling is some awesome shit.

As writers, we need something that rewards us — like how when the rat does something good, he gets a food pellet or a mouse comes out and tickles his nuts with a feather.

Part of me thinks, dang, those god-awful goblins that plague a writer — lack of discipline, procrastination, self-doubt — could be cured if we just figured out a way to trigger dopamine in our penmonkey brains.

Some of it we can do ourselves, right? We set benchmarks and, at each benchmark, gain rewards. Could be graded like experience points in a game. “When I get to 1,000 words, I get a cookie. When I get to 5,000 words, I get an ice cream cone. When I get to 10,000 words, I get a handjob.” And the rewards continue to escalate from there: oral sex, new video game, ice cream cake, a day off, a pet komodo dragon.

And what-have-you.

We can certainly incorporate others into our Quest For Dopamine, too. Have friends, loved ones, sex monkey partners and writing buddies help you out — high-fives and offered rewards for achieving certain milestones.”Get to 5k, I’ll send you an e-card. Get to 50k, I’ll send you a bushel of apples. Finish the novel, I will grant you the power of God.” Or whatever.

But dang, it’d be great if we could programmatically do that. Like, when you literally hit that mark, your computer bings and you get some kind of Storyteller Badge. You could get achievements for using a certain rare word or for utilizing alliteration without appearing like a douche. (Shut up, I love alliteration, stop dumping pig’s blood on me at the Prom.) This sounds like a hot mod for Scrivener.

I’m not just being glib. I’m actually serious.

We writers need to trick our brains into ejaculating a creamy packet of dopamine.

And so I put it to you, Internets. Let’s talk about this. Let’s figure out how to set up rewards to get us through the grim, tireless expanse of writing a novel. We need to crowdsource this bee-yotch. We need to hive-mind it. We should smash all our brains together until it is one treacly ball of mind-clay.

Writing.

Rewards.

Go.

(Sidenote: I now want to create and market a new brand of candies called DOPAMINTS. They will be crisp peppermint suckling candies that dissolve sweet, sweet dopamine into your body. Nobody can take that idea from me. I call dibs. I call dibs! By the Law of Dibs, it shall be mine!)

Pantser Versus Plotter

Ever go into a room and you forget why you went in there?

Yeah. Me too.

Used to happen when I would go into record stores, too. Remember those? You’d saddle up the ol’ Triceratops and head on out to buy some “used CDs?” I’d go into the store with a head full of bands and albums I wanted to check out, and soon as I stepped through that threshold — whoof. Gone. Kaput. Brain: tabula rasa. Then the clerk would point to my crotch and be like, “Dude, you just wet yourself.” And I’d be like, “Shut up!” and he’d be like, “I’m just saying,” and then I’d get some urine on my hand and go quick wipe it on his face. Hipster asshole. Now you got pee on your face! Boom!

It’s easy to forget little things. Especially if you’re me. If I try to go to the grocery store without a list, dude, I am fucked three ways from Sunday. I will come home with an armload of jelly beans, Swiss chard, cat food, and Clamato juice. Meanwhile, all the stuff we needed — milk, bread, eggs, uranium for my particle accelerator — is stuff we still goddamn need because I didn’t pick it up.

What the hell am I trying to say, here?

I’m saying, if I can’t remember what the hell I was supposed to do in the kitchen, if I can’t remember a band’s name or that we need to pick up milk, how the crap am I supposed to keep an entire unwritten novel straight in my head? Short answer: I’m not. And neither are you.

My name is Chuck Wendig.

I am a reformed Pantser.

The Disclaimer Before The Froth Flies

Many excellent writers are pantsers. (If you aren’t familiar with the definition — a “pantser” writes without doing outlines or other prep-work, while a “plotter” tends to outline and perform other preliminary planning efforts before diving into the book. Good? Golden.) Stephen King reportedly writes without an outline. Great writers and great minds tend to have no problem just springing forth like a whipped gazelle and tearing ass across the open meadow without fear, without concern, without a plan in sight.

For them, I say, well done.

I am not a great writer. I think I’m a good one. As a good-but-not-great writer, and similarly as a guy with a brain like a porous swatch of moth-eaten cheesecloth, I must advocate planning over pantsing.

I have in the past gotten a little zealous over the subject, and in this post I will again get a little zealous. Because who wants to read wishy-washy advice? Isn’t it more fun for you if I pound the lectern and throw chairs at the students? Well, it’s more fun for me, anyway. That said —

I do not seriously believe that pantsers cannot write excellent novels. They can. They do.

What I do believe however is that while some writers are natural pantsers, others are pantsers-by-default, pantsers-by-laziness. They do not plan, they do not outline. They don’t because it’s hard. And frustrating. And irritating. That’s why I didn’t used to do it.

But if not writing an outline works for you and has earned you the result you’re looking for (ideally, publication), then keep doing that. I don’t care if you wear a hat made of raccoons when you write — if that hat gets you the stories you want, wear the hat. But if you find yourself hitting a wall, if you find yourself spinning around in circles until you throw up, may I offer a suggestion?

Try doing some planning.

Now? Time to throw some chairs!

Stand Up Straight, You Lazy Slobbering Muckabout!

I wrote… mm, I guess five or six novels via the Pantser’s Execution. Actually, the novel that’s on submission with my agent, Blackbirds, was initially written without plan or direction, too. This is in addition to the two or three dozen completely unfinished novels that, you guessed it, all underwent the “Let’s Just Open The Word Processor And Run Amok!” method of writing.

They were all awful. Only when I finally was told to step back and outline Blackbirds did I suddenly gain the ability to see the story for what it was. Only then could I line up all the pieces and make the plot work. Since it has at its core a kind of reverse murder mystery, the plot elements needed to line up for it to make sense and ‘click.’ By plotting, I drew a path through the maze before I had to walk it. Before I could get lost.

But I resisted. Oh, Lawds A Mercy, did I resist. My gut trembled. My sphincter tightened so hard I could’ve shattered a ruby. I had my excuses. “But it’ll steal the creative spark.” “But I’m not writing a term paper.” “But then there’s no sense of discovery!” What it really translated to was:

“I’m actually quite lazy. I might even be allergic to work. Also: I don’t wanna.”

Then I cried and threw my sippy-cup across the room.

Then I did the outline.

Then I learned the truth:

Planning and prep-work may cure what ails you as a writer. How, you ask?

First, Let Me Shoot Some Myths In The Head

Outlining does not steal your creative spark. In part because “creative spark” is not a real thing. It is a myth, like Bigfoot, Nessie, the Muse, and Writer’s Block.

I liken it to the notion that finding out the sex of your baby before the birth somehow “ruins the surprise.” Pfft. It does not ruin anything. It merely changes the timing of that surprise. So too with outlining and prep-work. You’re still “writing” the novel and still going on that path of discovery, you’re just doing it in a tighter, more truncated way.

Planning doesn’t limit your sense of discovery. It isn’t a prison. You don’t have to religiously stick to your plan. Planning won’t write the book for you. It just puts down trail-markers. I planned a drive and hike for us in Kauai, but planning isn’t the same as experiencing. I didn’t experience beauty in the planning phase, but I did during its execution. Your writing is still a journey. Doesn’t hurt to have a map is all.

So, then, how does planning help soothe your ills?

Planning Helps Strike Down The Fear Of The Blank Page

One of the worst feelings is the “Blank Page Syndrome.” You open the story in the morning. You stare at the white snowy expanse of screen. You are overwhelmed by both the raw potential your story holds and your inability to pluck a single cogent thread from that hoary no-nothing nowhere void. You void your bowels. You take a nap, quivering in your sleep. You dream of your mother’s safe bosom.

An outline will go to great lengths to defeat this.

Imagine that in the morning you open the file, then you look to your left and you see, “Oh, here I am, on Chapter 14: The Dragon’s Barbed Nipples, wherein the hero must steal the goblin milk from the craggy peaks where the Hell-Harpies hold their infernal book club.” You know where you left off. You know your place. You know roughly where you’re going next.

You have a map. You have a safety net. Every day is not a sudden crush of cold water as you dive in to deep, dark channels. You have breadcrumbs. You have torches. Move forward without fear.

Planning Will Crotch-Kick Your Self-Doubt

You get in the middle of a longer work and next thing you know, you’re crippled by uncertainty and self-loathing. You just want to close the file, delete it, format your hard drive, then hit yourself in the nuts with a ball peen hammer. No. No. Don’t do that. Fuck that shit. Get shut of the doubt. Don’t let the doubt crotch-kick you. You need to crotch-kick your doubt.

Planning will help you do that.

When you plan, you lay the story out. You build confidence in it before you even truly begin. It’s like this — say you have to get up and give a talk in front of 1000 people. Would you rather give that talk utterly unprepared? No notes? No research? Nothing? “Just gonna wing it!” As you gain confidence in the topic, you gain confidence in your ability to execute.

Further, you can have others look at your outline, make sure it gets a thumbs-up.

It dissolves some or all of your doubt. Trust me on this.

Planning Helps You Write Faster, Like Meth-Cranked Ninja

Without planning, some of your time must be spent in deep thought. Often a day of unprepared writing is accompanied by that period of, “Uhhh. Well. Hmmm.” But, with a map, with an outline and some prep-work around characters and worldbuilding, you can move more swiftly. You already spent time in the contemplation chambers. Now it’s just time to write, write, write.

Planning Will Cut Down Number Of Drafts With A Machine Gun

Your first draft is your worst draft. This is true whether or not you’re a pantser or a plotter. Ah, but, your first draft will often be a better draft if you’re a plotter. Why? Because you had a map. Because you had focus and direction from the get-go. What this means generally is that you won’t need as many drafts to get to the final one. It’ll tighten the draft. It’ll cinch up the middle (generally, the second act). A little work on the front end saves you a lot of nasty gruntwork on the back-end.

(Heh. Back-end. Grunt!)

(Shut up.)

Planning Will Hone Your Discipline To A Hair-Splitting Sharpness

Writing requires discipline.

Creativity is raw and flickering like fire — you want to make use of it, you have to bring often ugly, unpleasant metals to it and forge that shit into the shape you desire. It’s hard, sweaty, sometimes grumpy work. Nobody wants writing to be about discipline. We all would love it if it were the equivalent of catching fireflies in a moonlight meadow. We wish it were fun and goofy, like icing cupcakes in zero gravity.

But it’s not. It’s tough work. Satisfying work, yes. But tough just the same.

What many writers struggle with is the ability to find the sticktoitiveness necessary to complete something. Discipline isn’t gained overnight. It’s farmed over time — sown, seeded, grown, harvested.

Discipline is the product of your habits.

You plan your work, you’ve started a habit. That habit is itself a kind of discipline. It reinforces itself. Discipline begets discipline. No, really, it does. You feel good for having completed something — an outline, a synopsis, character notes — and that impels you forward. It helps you put your ass in the chair every day and write. It’s what helps you belly crawl through the mud and the blood.

And that means, ultimately…

Planning Will Help You Finish

Planning draws the map. Outlining shows you the end of the road. And it helps you get there.

After all, that’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it? To finish something?

Try planning. Never mind the fact that someone is going to ask you to do it someday anyway and so you might as well be prepared (no, really, someone will demand it of you — don’t believe me? I’ve often been asked to provide an outline before committing to the work). It’s good for you as a writer. It’s good for the story, too. You don’t have to be an outline lawyer. Nobody’s forcing you to marry it. I’m just saying —

Try it.

I hate to do it. I still do. But I’m always happy when I have it, and cranky when I don’t.

Fuck laziness. Eat your vegetables. Drink your milk. Do the writing.

And if planning doesn’t give you the results, then I would say… fuck it, try pantsing that bad-boy, instead. (Pants it good and hard. Nnnngggh. Yeah. You like that? You like that.)

Do what must be done to complete the work.

ABW.

Always. Be. Writing.

How Not To Starve And Die As A Writer

Cue sad Sarah McLachlan song such as “Full of Grace.”

Gaze over images of various writers trapped at their desk with their sad faces, quivering lips, and snot-bubble noses. One writer extends a gruel cup in an inky paw. Another is missing an eye, uhh, just because. A third writer wears nothing but a dirty pair of Hawaiian shorts — he feels his very-visible ribs with one hand as he shoves his keyboard into his mouth with the other, gnawing like some kind of squirrel.

“Did you know that fewer than 1% of writers are able to make a living wage, or even scrape together enough money to buy black market Ramen flavor packets from dubious Laotian street merchants? Every minute, three people give up their dreams of being a writer and become inept middle managers. Every hour, seven writers die on the streets of Los Angeles, New York, and for some really weird reason, Sedona, Arizona. But you can help stop the tears. By donating no less than $25,000 a year — less than the cost of 25,000 cups of coffee — you can contribute to and keep afloat our Instruct Writers How Not To Starve And Die In Sedona fund. Only you can keep stories in the world. Only you can stop writers from putting out their eyes with fountain pens.”

Here, then, is how you feed yourself, clothe yourself, and pay rent or a mortgage with naught but the power of your writing. Ready to roll? First, three caveats.

Caveat The First: Am I Really Talking To You?

Let me separate this out by talking first about fishermen.

Let’s assume, however falsely, that two types of fishermen exist in the world. The first identifies as a fisherman when he is asked, “What do you do in your spare time?” The second identifies as a fishermen when he is asked, “What do you do for a living?” Nothing fundamentally wrong with either answer. But each answer says something different about each type of fisherman.

Ask yourself the same question about being a writer. Is it a spare time thing? Or is this an, “I want to do this for a living” thing? Sounds obvious, but if you’re in the hobbyist camp, no harm, no foul to you, but this post probably isn’t for you.

Caveat The Second: Your Dream Of Creative Integrity Is Cute And All

I am a huge fan of creative integrity. I am also a huge fan of unicorns. My Trapper Keeper? Covered in unicorn stickers. And yet, despite my love of unicorns, I also realize that they are not real, or, even if they are, they’re not helping me pay the mortgage. At least not without taking them to the abattoir and selling their precious meats (or making weapons from their horns).

Creative integrity is a good thing to have and it will at times serve you well, but if you steadfastly hold to some kind of lofty notion of your work — say, you fall more on the “artiste” side of things than the “craft” side of things — then it will be more difficult for you to make a living wage. You may create more transcendent, beautiful work; I dunno. But with it you are unlikely to feed your baby (or your unicorn sticker addiction) with it. Once again, I may not be talking to you in this post.

Caveat The Third: This Will Not Happen Overnight

No “Magical Ink Fairy” exists.

You will not get an apprenticeship at the Wordsmithy.

Tomorrow, I am not going to quit being a writer and suddenly transform into a marine biologist. So too are you not going to eject from your job and become a full-time paid writer. Sure, it happens, but only if you take a writer position or writer job. Most writers I know do not have “in-house” writing work. (And those that do: I’m not talking to them because those lucky gits have it covered.)

Self-Evaluate Honestly And Find An Hourly Wage Or Salary That Keeps You Alive

Oh-ho-ho, you might be saying, “Hey, writers don’t make an hourly wage,” which is technically true. You also don’t make an annual salary. But you still need to determine those numbers. You enter into the fray with only a hazy cloud of possibility in your head, then only a hazy cloud will return to you by the end of the year. Which means — yup, back to the street to hit up the Laotian for more Ramen flavor packets. (“Ooh, this one’s called ‘Oriental.’ How exotic! It tastes like soy sauce and boot leather!”)

Let’s say the bare minimum of what you need to be making before taxes is $35k a year. If you’re where I am, that might do you okay — but if you’re in LA or NYC, you’re probably going to have to crank that number up because I think that’s how much the average homeless person makes in the city and they’re, y’know, homeless. So, you take that magic number — $35,000 — and figure out, okay, how much do I need to make per week to live?

Consulting my abacus and these pigeon bones, it looks like you’ll need $650-700 a week.

Second thing to figure out: how much work can you accomplish in an hour? I write about 1000 words an hour on average. Generally speaking, I get paid five cents to $0.25 per word, but let’s look at the bare bottom of five cents. A thousand words at five cents is fifty bucks an hour, which means I’d need to work a total of 14 hours a week to earn out. Kind of awesome, but betrays the reality: first, you have editing time to factor in there (the better you get, the more you’ll cut this down), and second, you may have a hard time constantly scaring up work. Be ready for inconsistent work schedules.

Will You Work Freelance, Or Is It All Creator-Owned?

If you work freelance, you will always be trying to hunt down work and deadlines will be your best friend and worst enemy. But you will earn a steady rate and have contracts that bolster your efforts and you’ll be building up a resume in a professional arena.

Creator-owned is a little more personally satisfying, but also the harder road. (By “creator-owned,” I mean you’re going to rely on putting out and selling your own work, whether that work is short fiction, long fiction, screenplays, comic books, and whether or not that work is self-published or published through traditional channels.) If you were to choose to thrive on short stories alone, let’s say, and you publish short work that is paid the minimum pro-rate of five cents a word, you’d need to write and sell —

*spells BOOBS on a calculator*

— 140 short stories in a year. Which is not impossible, but it’s pretty fucking epic just the same.

Some work pays a helluva lot better than others. Film and TV pay very well, especially compared to novel-writing. The average novel advance these days is, according to Tobias Buckell, $5,000. Now, playing Herr Doktor Pessismist, I’ll assume you won’t ever surpass that advance, which means you’d need to write about seven novels a year (and sell each one of those crazy sumbitches) just to earn out.

What does this tell you?

Always Be Writing, And Diversify That Shit

This is when Alec Baldwin steps to the chalkboard and writes ABW, “Always Be Writing” across it. And then you go to pour some coffee and he tells you to put that coffee down, coffee is for writers only. Then something something, fuck you is my name, something something, set of steak knives.

You need to always be writing. I don’t necessarily mean that you need to fill every hour with word count (screw food, so what if my baby is crying, I can just pee in this Snapple bottle — best stuff on Earth, bitches, hahahaha *sob*), I just mean that you need to peg a daily word count and hit that word count every day you can manage. If you take weekends off, fine, fuck it, but fold that word count into your week.

Also: diversify. Do not rely on one revenue stream. When I asked the question above about freelance versus creator-owned, it’s something of a false dichotomy — I set a trap for you, and you fell right into it. And now I will eat your sweetbreads. Which are not breads at all, but rather, your delicious pancreas. Wait, whuh? I dunno. What I’m saying is, you can and perhaps should do both. Novels and short stories combine together to form part of your Wordmonkey Voltron. Throw in there some freelancing, some scripting, some under-the-table smut writing, whatever, and you start to see the whole package emerge.

And by “whole package,” I do not mean genitals. So calm down.

Have The Right Tools

Tiny point: have the right tools. Have a good computer. Have a good word processing program. You don’t need the best, but you do need what fits you and what works. Writing, like any other self-involved career, is an investment — it costs a lot less than a start-up restaurant, so spend a little bit of money to get the bare minimum of equipment you need. Once you start making money, hey, look, tax deductions!

Wait, Where Do I Find Freelance Work Again?

Ehhh. Uhh.

*knocks over a stack of plates, runs for the exit*

No, seriously? I don’t know. Here’s the thing, though: writers make the world go ’round. You wouldn’t think it looking at some writer pay rates, but it’s true. In nearly everything that exists, some kind of writing went into its making. Somebody has to write menus and placemats and planograms. Somebody has to write technical manuals. We are the word of God. We say “light,” and by Sweet Molly McGoggins, there is light.

Okay, that’s a little overwrought, but the idea is firm: writers are everywhere, and this is true of creative content. Turn on the TV. Pick up a magazine. Check out a website. Writers are there. If not like gods, then like roaches, we’re that ubiquitous. So, the work is out there. You just have to keep your eyes focused on finding it. Gaining work is some mystical combination of knowing the right people, seizing opportunities when they arise, and building up a small portfolio of work in that realm.

(It also involves saying “yes” a lot and nailing the shit out of deadlines.)

You might ask, “But what about sites like eLance?” To that I’d say, I dunno. I’ve never used it. From what I can see, it feels like a race to the bottom in terms of pay, and a lot of the jobs there look a little dubious. It doesn’t seem like a great way to work a living wage, but alternately, it might be a way to get started and get some paid credits under your belt. If anybody has used a site like that, sound off.

Also, those of you out there who are freelancers: share your sordid tales of how you got your work the first time. I tell people that working your way into a full-time freelance life is like digging a tunnel through a mountain and then detonating it behind you — every path in seems to be different.

So, Self-Publishing Is The Future?

Sure, maybe, I dunno. I don’t live in the future, though, I live in the present. (You know how I know it’s the present? No jet packs. No teleporters. No hoverboards.)

I do not think you should jump right in and hope to subsist on a self-publishing revenue stream. Again: diversify. But that does mean it behooves you to try it out. If you self-publish something and it’s good enough to get you $1000 over the course of the year, well, now you’ve only got $34,000 to go.

Slow Like Molasses

I got my first short story published (for $$$) when I was 18 or 19 or something. I started freelancing when I was 23 or 24. I was able to go full-time and earn a living wage when I was 30 or 31. Again: not an overnight sensation. And it’s still a struggle, every year, because it’s not something you can sit back and allow to happen. But that is also part of the joy. To go back to the fisherman, you get money for every fish you sell. It’s an elegant form of commerce: I did this thing, and this thing is worth money. At a desk job, for every spreadsheet you do you get… well, what? You get a check every week no matter how many spreadsheets you do. The commerce is muddy. The reward, uncertain.

Me, I like being a writer. It requires a bundle of sacrifices. And it makes you crazier than a shithouse owl.

But it feels good to go down in the ink mines with my pick-ax and chip away at the word count clustered on the wall like pretty, pretty crystals. *chip chip* *sob*

Final Notes

No, this doesn’t cover the breadth and depth of the topic. It in fact is merely a hangnail — if I start to pick it, a strip of skin will peel back all the way to my elbow and suddenly you’ll be tasked with reading a 5,000 word blog post, and nobody wants that. This is long enough already. I can’t say how useful this post actually is — it ultimately covers the generalities, but it’s a start, at least. Future posts down the line will deal with more specific tidbits (dealing with editors, managing money, and so forth).

Also —

Yes, I had to crawl inside a deer carcass to get that picture at the fore of the post.

I dunno. Shut up.

Drop comments, questions, add-ons, marriage proposals, or hateful screeds in the comments below!

March Is The Month Of “Penmonkey Boot Camp”

(I don’t really think you’re maggots. You’re all lovely people. Well. Most of you. There’s a few of you out there, with your squirrelly eyes and your sweat-slick palms. Fiddling with your pockets. I know you’re up to something. Be advised: you’re being monitored. Weirdos.)

Fellow penmonkeys: each of you, stick out your chin.

Open your mouth a little. Smile. No, really. Smile!

Because it’s time for me to punch out your baby teeth.

Pow!

This is the month of no-holds barred writing advice. I will rant. I will rave. My spitflecks will land in your eyes and you will need to blink them away and as you’re blinking them away I will jam my wingtip up your pooper and cram a fountain pen in your neck and I’ll suck up a draught of your neck-blood and then together in your blood we shall write a list of our failings as writers so that we may overcome them.

Or something like that.

Fact of the matter is, we writers are our own worst enemies: so much of the time it feels like we’re in our own out-of-control minecart, speeding toward an uncertain resolution. Fuck that shit, George. No more of that. It’s time to get control of the minecart. It’s time to stop dicking around. It’s time to learn where our failings might be. It’s time to call out our worst excuses so that they may be trampled under foot. It’s time to gaze ahead and find purpose and plan. You will improve your craft. You will dispel illusions. You will discover the kind of writer you are and the kind of writer you want to be.

Okay, I don’t know that any of this is really true. You might not learn shit from me. But by god, that’s not going to stop me from gargling meth and screaming in your faces for 30 days, will it? Woo!

So, you’re on notice, compatriot penmonkeys and ink-badgers. It is time to shit or get off the pot.

Ah! But! I need something from you. I need you to tell me where you feel like you’re falling down. It’s time to evaluate your shit, hombres. I have some posts already percolating in the septic bubbler that is my brain, but I need some of you to step into the firelight and say, “You know what? This is where I’m sucking hind tit right now. I want sweet milk, but all I’m getting is a mouthful of rancid brine.” Feeling like you can’t muster the discipline? Got plot problems? Don’t grok structure? The rewrite burning your short-and-curlies? Plagued by self-doubt? Throw it out there. Whatever it is, I’ll paint it on the back of my hand and slap the problem out of your skull. Because that works, right? Violence and rancor solve everything!

I don’t promise to address everything. I am only human, after all. Well, okay, I’m 12% cannibalistic humanoid underground dweller and 7% insane spam robot. But I’m also 0.03% Cherokee, so that gets me all kinds of sweet-ass motherfucking tax breaks.

So. You. Go. Comments. Now.

Before I conclude this post, a quick word:

I reiterate this a lot but given the sometimes cranky attitude toward writing advice and the dubious dispensers of said advice, I feel like it bears repeating: none of my advice is sacrosanct. It is not Penmonkey Law. It is not the Word of God. The issues I address are issues that I have myself dealt with and what you read here are generally my own personal solutions. You are free to examine them and deny them at your leisure. You are free to disagree with me, and in fact, disagreement is good. When you receive a piece of writing advice and you hold it up and gaze into its unblinking eyes, you make a decision: “I totally will dig on this,” or, “You know what, this just isn’t for me.” And at that point you’ve done what you need to do as a writer: think about your craft. You’ve made an evaluation and have come to terms with what kind of writer you are and, more importantly, why you are that way. Self-examination leads to self-determination, which in turn leads to… well, I think it leads to pie. Or maybe cake. See, even there, you’ve made a critical distinction: do I prefer pie or do I prefer cake? Answer honestly, because it will determine if your name goes on the list for the next pogrom.

That being said, tomorrow I welcome you to the Penmonkey Reeducation Boot Camp.

Please sit still in the barber chair as we shear your head so that the tinfoil cap may sit as close to your brain as possible. Here, too, is your cyanide packet Kool-Aid drink mix.

See you in the comments, and catch you tomorrow.