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Ask A Writer: “How Do I Write What The Audience Wants To Read?”

At Tumblr, Pallav asks:

“Every reader wants to read something different from a fiction author. How do you reach that place which intersects what you want to write and what the readers want to read?”

My very short, very incomplete answer: “You don’t.”

My slightly longer and still woefully incomplete answer: “You don’t, at least, not on purpose.”

My much longer and probably incomprehensible answer: “Okay, fine, you can do this on purpose but really, you shouldn’t, because doing something like this on purpose means chasing trends and writing only to a market and becoming a brand and standing on a platform and cobbling together a product rather than a story and basically just, y’know, hammering a circle peg into a square hole — so don’t.”

Now, let me explain in greater — and less gibbery-babbly-rambly — detail.

It is time to choose as a writer whether or not you are going to fill a niche, or rather, emit a barbaric yawp and headbutt the wall to make your own motherfucking you-shaped niche.

Filling a niche means:

Examining the marketplace.

Seeing that hey, pterodactyl erotica is super-hot right now. Or, maybe being a bit savvier and saying, “By scouring the publishing trends and reading these here pigeon entrails, I can surmise in an act of libriomancy that the next big trend will be ‘Mennonite spy thrillers.'”

Then finally, writing to that market: “Now I will write the novel, THE BONNET GOES BOOM, followed by its sequel, THE GINGHAM DECEPTION. Starring Mennonite super-agent, Dorcas Brubaker!”

You have crafted a product for the marketplace.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with that.

It’s a fairly solid — if a little safe — business decision. You found a need. You wrote to that need. You created a brand for yourself and shouted that brand from atop your platform. Game over. Good job.

Oh-ho-ho, but consider the following:

First, chasing trends and predicting niches seems a safe play but also ridiculously difficult. You decide, “I’m going to write that pterodactyl erotica, 50 SHRIEKS OF PREY and then make so much money I can buy my own animatronic pterodactyl that I can sex-bang in the barn,” well, fine. But you better write super-fucking-apeshit-fast, hoss. Because trends are like storms. They come in fast. Make a lot of noise, knock over some trees, and then, like that — *snaps fingers* — they’re gone until the next one rolls in. And, by the time you bring your book to market, people might be burned out on all that soft-core dino-porn.

(This is, by the way, what happens when someone says something like, Vampires are over. They don’t mean that. What they mean is, the vampire trend is over, which further means, you won’t be able to just bring any old piece-of-shit vampire novel to market in the hopes of riding this trend because the trend already galloped out of the stable, so now your vampire novel has to actually be really, actually good.)

Second, nobody wants to read a “product” written by a “brand.” If they wanted that, they’d read the back of a fucking cereal box. Nobody reads a book and says, “Shit, Bob, you know what? This was a really great product. I’m really happy they tailored it to the reading habits of my market. I am crazy loyal and love the work of Kyle Snarlbarn, Author Inc. — I love his brand. I love the way he shotguns us in the eyes with endless adverbs and descriptions of pterodactyl bondage.”

Now, here I’ll add: I’m a little bit wrong. Woefully and regrettably there actually is an audience out there who wants to read products by brands even if they don’t know that’s exactly what they want to read. Right? There are readers who will read anything that even smells like TWILIGHT. My own mother will read anything ever with the words “Robert Ludlum” on it, even if that name was scrawled in the margins of the book with a permanent marker. I had this discussion on Twitter the other day that there will always be readers who don’t give much of a shit for quality in writing or quality of storytelling. This is true in food, too — I mean, a whole helluva lot of people don’t care that McDonald’s is basically the nutritional equivalent of wasp spray, right? They don’t care that it’s less food and more product of food science. McDonald’s is a very strong brand. And they turn out a freakishly consistent product.

Is that who you want to be?

You want to be the authorial equivalent to McDonald’s?

Do you want to write for that comfortable and wildly undiscerning segment of the population?

Now, to go back to TWILIGHT and Robert Ludlum — regarding both of those, you may be saying, “Both of those were ehrmagerd holy-shit success stories, you dumb, beard-faced shit-wit.” To which I’d say, correctomundo, senor, but here I’d also point out that neither Meyer nor Ludlum appeared to be writing to fill a niche — they did not seek to write products from the POV of brands. They wrote what they wanted to fucking write. They did not embrace a pre-existing niche but instead blew their own hole in the wall with literary C4 and walked in. Others followed them; they didn’t follow others.

Like their work or not:

They wrote what they wanted to write.

Which leads me to my third point:

Writing to a market isn’t particularly engaging to you, the writer. I mean, I’m sure for some it is — and if that’s the case, may the Force be with you, Young Skywalker. But, creatively, most authors write best when they’re writing something that speaks to them as a storyteller, not something that speaks purely to a trend or market segment. You should be excited about it. It should mirror you in some way: it should call to your heart, sing your pain, inject your life onto the page. It should be organic to who you are, not artifice cobbled together to meet an unscientifically-determined, uncertain and probably temporary market segment.

I’m reading a book now that was sent to me for blurbing purposes — THE DEVIL OF ECHO LAKE, by Douglass Wynne, and the book is about a rockstar who gives up his soul for his music, and it opens right out of the gate with a very strong paragraph and ends thusly: “I sold my soul, he thought, and it fit. Like a perfect chorus summing up the verses of his life, it rhymed with the rest of him.”

I’m not saying to sell your soul.

I am saying to write the stories that rhyme with the rest of you.

Write your story. Not somebody else’s story.

The audience will be there. I don’t know how big or how small that audience will be. But they’ll be there. The magic happens when that thing that speaks to your heart also speaks to theirs — that seems awfully “lightning-strikey,” and hey, you know what? It is. But I assume you didn’t get into this thing to get rich. And you can maximize your chances by continuing to put stuff like this out there — material of both quantity and quality. You’re a lot likelier to get struck by lightning if you walk out into an open field during a storm while carrying a lightning rod.

Let your voice and your style be your brand.

Let your best work act as your platform.

Let someone else worry about the product.

Ask your own writing or storytelling question at:

Ask A Writer: In Which I Exhort You To Care Less

Once again, time for another session of The Little Miss Wendig Writing-and-Storytelling Advice Column. Want to ask a question? Go to and deposit it there under a name or as an anonymous human of the Internet. If I pick your question (and you’re not anonymous), I’ll toss you a free writing-related e-book of your choice. Easy-peasy George-and-Weezy.

Amber Gardner asks:

“What would you say to someone who were to run up to you and say: ‘Help! I have terrible performance anxiety whenever I sit down at the keyboard! Like my chest tightens up and physically feel like shit. I want to just sit down and write through it, ’cause writers write, and that’s the whole penmonkey attitude, but the more I try to force it, the worse it gets and what I write is awful anyways. What do I do?!'”

Care less.

That’s my answer.

I’ll give that a second to seep in.

Care. Less.

*whistles a tune*

Okay, I think I’ve given that enough time for it to crawl into your brain-bone.

Let’s talk.

Your writing is just that. Words written on a page.

And yet, we come to our stories loaded for bear with expectations. They’re like children, in that way — we deeply hope they’ll go out into the world and cure cancer and solve the down economy and grow up rich and happy and maybe be a lawyer, too, and a nuclear physicist, and have a litter of darling Village of the Damned-looking grandkids and, and, and. We wish the best for our stories. We want them to be great. We want them to win awards and climb to the top of the bestseller mountain and maybe they’ll change somebody’s life and earn us a giant sack of cash which will allow us to buy a jet-boat or an oil drum full of that very rare civet-poop coffee. Maybe a jet boat fueled by civet-shit coffee. Who knows?

We step up to the blank page — this snowy tract that hasn’t earned even a single footprint across its virgin expanse — and the potential overwhelms us. Or, it has me, at least — once upon a time upon starting a new story I’d feel like I was standing drunk on the ledge of a skyscraper. Vertigo overwhelming as if even typing one letter would send me dropping down in that cavernous concrete abyss. And this sense of woozy dizzy gonna-fall-itis is compounded by the heavy burden upon one’s shoulders — that burden of potential, of a story that must succeed if it is do anything at all, a story whose entrance into the marketplace would not be enough, a story on which hung my life, my career, my hopes, everything, all of it, OMYGOD I CAN’T FEEL MY LEGS CAN’T BREATHE PANIC gaaaaaasp *pees pants falls down cries a lot*

It’s bullshit, of course.

It’s always bullshit, these mental games we writers play with ourselves.

Our words are just words. Our stories are just stories. Maybe they transcend their form. Maybe they don’t. It doesn’t matter. Repeat after me: it doesn’t matter. Care less. Fuck it. Fuck it. Write like you don’t give a damn. Write like there’s no expected outcome except a finished story. Write the story that sings in your heart, not the one that whispers in your brain. You’re not curing cancer. You’re not saving the whales.

You’re writing.

One word after the other. No wants, no needs, no fears.

Only words.

There’s no real risk to writing except your time. (Well, and maybe your sanity, but let’s be honest — the fact that you choose writing as a profession suggests an already disintegrating SAN score.)

Nobody’s watching. You get as much time as you like. As many do-overs as you like. Er, all this presupposing you’re not on deadline. Deadlines present another axis of stress — some authors work well with a gun at their temple, some feel hamstrung by the pressure. But therein I still suggest the answer is to care less. Take the pressure off however you must.

You free yourself by caring less. By dumping the dueling goblins of Fear and Expectation out the back of a C-130 and into the mouth of an open and active volcano named Mount Don’t-Give-A-Shit.

Sure, it would seem that the answer would be to care more — how can you possibly care enough? If this is a thing you want to do and a thing you love, well, why not give it all the caring you can possibly muster?

Because we can smother the things we love by caring too much. Sometimes you gotta let your kids play in mud. Sometimes you gotta let a dog be a dog. Sometimes you have to let your story just be a story.

Care. Less.

There you go. That’s my answer.

Now, as an addendum, there could be other things going on. First, I’ve gone on the record time and time again to say that Writer’s Block is not a real thing, in the sense that writers don’t own mental blocks anymore than any member of any other profession — anybody can get blocked, be they gardeners, physicists, or insane government assassin cyborgs. But they don’t get special names for it (“I have a bad case of Gardener’s Trowel!”), so why do we? Further, the solutions to defeating said block is almost always to just write through it — head down, run the gauntlet, get out the other side.

But the thing is, there is another form of Writer’s Block where you are crippled by the process and writing through it just yields greater frustration and sadness, and in this case Writer’s Block is likely due to depression. Which means it’s not Writer’s Block at all but, uhh, well, depression. So, if you go at the problem trying to treat “Writer’s Block,” you will be treating a symptom and an outcome, when really you need to be treating your depression. How you do that is up to you: meds, meditation, therapy, oolong tea, chakra-realignment, I don’t know. What I do know is that depression is not at all uncommon in writers and many writers with depression are not crippled by it and are, in fact, quite successful. But it’s something that must be dealt with day in and day out — this all sounds a bit glib and dismissive, when the reality is that depression can be quite limiting. But just the same: you either deal with it, or it deals with you. Easier said than done, but must be done just the same.

(After I saw this, I caught sight of this post by the Mighty Mur Lafferty that touches on the subject of depression and caring and so on. It is, of course, a cracker of a read, because she rocks.)

So, that’s one thing that could be happening.

The other thing is: you don’t like writing.

Throughout my life I’ve thought that I liked things more than I actually did — like, say, watercolor painting. I liked the idea of the thing, but turns out, I did not like the thing in practice or habit, and attempting to do that thing did not salve my artist’s soul but rather enraged it in the way that you might enrage a giant gorilla by attacking it with helicopters. So, sometimes we want to like something or find a connection with a task or an act and the fact is, it’s just not our thing.

I don’t know how you know that except maybe by stopping and discovering, “Oh, hey, I’m much happier not sitting down every day and banging my head against a keyboard till it’s bloody.”

Do with this as you will. Hope it helped.

Now go forth and write.

Without pressure, without fear, without the expectation of doing anything but crossing the finish line.

Ask A Wendigo: “Just What The Fuck Do You Do, Anyway?”

Time then for another installment of, Ask A Wendigo. Or WWCWD. Or Interrogate The Penmonkey. Or Hide The Salami. Wait, that last one might be different? Whatever.

Want to ask me a question about writing or storytelling? Then here’s the link.

Once again, two related questions came in around the same time:

The Mechanical Doctor Anonymous asked:

“Chuck, something that I’ve been wondering about is the mechanics of your writing. I generally start out with pen on paper. I do a little light revision on that paper before typing it into the computer. From there, I save successive drafts as separate files until I’m done. At that point, I keep the separate files, but get rid of the original paper draft. What does your process look like, and how much do you keep after you’re done?”

And Mister Crankypants asked:

“On the subject of “how much do you write every day” your answer is superficial. 2-4k of new content. That’s, what, a few hours, right? Then there’s the blog stuff — maybe a couple more. Take time off for lunch, take a shit, or a shower, whatever. Before you know it the whole day is gone. When does the stone polishing happen? What about the 150k words you wrote months ago & have forgotten about completely? When is there time for that? What about planning? How to you keep track of it all?”

To me, both questions are asking a fairly straightforward — and completely complicated — question. That question is: how do you write? Or, just what the fuck do you do around here, anyway?

Setting aside all the non-writery stuff I do (hover over Twitter like a hungry fly, play with my 1-year-old, stalk and kill mutant caribou, drink coffee, drink gin, gloomily masturbate), I suppose I can get into the nitty-gritty of my overall “process.” But here is where I must throw up (*barf*) a warning:


What you do needs to be what you do. For me, writing advice is always and forever just a polite suggestion, not a gospel carved in a brick which is then used to bludgeon you about the head and neck.

If something works for you, adopt it.

If something does not work, discard it.

That said, let’s rock.

The Out-Of-Control Idea Factory That Is My Brain

I’ve said similarly before, but the big question one should ask an author is not Where do you get your ideas? but rather, How the hell do you make your ideas stop? Because my brain is like a moon colony force-field constantly being pinged by fiery spears of idea debris. I can’t stop the ideas.

The spigot is busted. The water just keeps running.

I take any ideas that survive the Identification and Scrutinization Process (which is to say, I take a long stare into the idea’s dark heart to see if there’s anything there or if it’s just a hollow wiffle ball rattling around my skull-cage), and I write those down. This is a somewhat broken part of my process because I fail to have one consistent place where I organize this material. Sometimes the phone. Other times a notebook. Occasionally I input ’em right into Word. I completely fail at having my ideas wrangled into a single enclosed space. I do eventually rustle ’em up and throw ’em together, but it takes me far too long to do so.

The good news here is, ideas that continue to bubble up to the surface regardless of their scattershot rag-tag nature are usually the ideas that matter most to me — they demand my attention instead of scurrying away.

The Chalk Outline

I outline because I must, not because I particularly enjoy it. I am a pantser by heart, a plotter by necessity — without outlines, my novels spiral drunkenly toward utter incoherence, breaking like a dropped cookie.

The way I outline is different for every book, but here’s the general gist of it:

I figure out my major story turns, broken out into acts.

Then I start jotting down plot beats — this happens, then this happen, then that, then this. Maria dies. The unicorn ascends to the Aluminum Throne. John steals the Camero. The end. How many of these beats I outline isn’t preset; I just keep going until the thing is done. The beats are generally large and sequence-shaped rather than small and scene-flavored. The key thing is to make sure I hit all my tentpoles — meaning, those plot events that are needed for the story to stand up and not collapse upon itself.

Sometimes I use spreadsheets.

I don’t generally outline much in the way of character or dialogue or even the bigger, broader story — because I have a hard time with plot, it’s important that I get the story sequence down right from the get-go.

Those other pieces I prefer to discover within the outline. Though once in a while I’ll write down three key character elements that mark the arc — meaning, the character’s transition from A–>B–>C.

I outline whenever I have time. Afternoons, nights, weekends. I often outline a number of novels far ahead of the writing; I’ve long had a rough outline for the third Miriam Black book, The Cormorant, f’rex.

The Actual Writing

For writing, I tend to begin at 6AM and end around noon.

As noted, I write 2-4k per day, most days. Toward the end of a project I may see as much as 10k in a day.

I write the actual book inside Microsoft Word, though my (admittedly slow) transition to Mac may see me soon writing a first draft in Scrivener and then porting over to Word for edits.

(If I’m writing a script, I use Final Draft.)

I have to unearth the “proper” font for every project. It’s one of my few writing rituals.

I write nothing in pen because my handwriting looks like the bloody footprints of a wounded sparrow. Or, if you prefer a different metaphor: the sloppy hieroglyphics of a meth-addled Pharaoh. YOU DECIDE.

Upon each new day of writing I like to read over the last scene or chapter just to freshen myself up. At the end of each day of writing, I tend to jot down a couple quick notes for the following day’s efforts.

I also like to stop writing in the middle of a scene instead of at the end. I used to try to get to a conclusion point but I find cutting in the middle gives me unexpected energy to jump back into it.

I work in one file on my actual computer, but I save multiple copies across DropBox, one per day of writing. I also have a backup drive that my file goes to. If I’m feeling particularly paranoid, I’ll email it to myself.

I also save obsessively. Every five minutes I hit the save hotkey. This, erm, “saves” me a lot of frustration.

I do not write new blog content during the week, usually. That’s reserved for the weekend.

To Fix It, You Must Break It

That is a thing I believe about writing and, in fact, most things: to fix something, you sometimes gotta break it. And editing is often about breaking a thing apart — I realize I’m repeating myself, but it’s my bloggy and I’ll reiterate if I wanna: writing is when you make the words, editing is when you make them not shitty.

I edit in the afternoons. A couple-few hours every day, provided I have a project to edit. I do not edit a story as I go, but only after it’s complete. (Once in a while if I identify a problem very early on I’ll do some major rewriting before I finish, but for the most part I find to be productive I have to churn and burn through the draft before I get to the editing phase, where the story is truly born.)

Ideally, I let the story sit for a month or three.

At that point I tend to do a pass on my own, and get a second draft out of it.

I then move that draft onto… well, whoever. Readers. Editor(s). Agent. My toddler. Your Mom. Etc.

I do my own notes and expect notes back using Word’s Track Changes function. Comment bubbles and in-draft redlines are key to my process. No word processor I’ve found has this function down outside Word.

How badly I edit the story really just depends on the story. Blackbirds saw years of writing and rewriting, but when I actually had a finished draft, very little of it changed from that draft to the one that published.

But Popcorn, the first book of my upcoming YA trilogy (“Heartland”), saw a year’s worth of rewriting. I wrote it the month before my son was born, and spent the rest of the year hammering it into shape at the behest of my agent. And the edits I’m sure are far from done — I’ve got new edits coming in from my editor at Amazon Children’s Publishing. (And I’m very excited to see those.)

Post-Coital Shame

A project is never done but there comes a point when I say, “It has to be done whether I like it that way or not,” and deadlines really help to form that critical and creative Rubicon.

When I’m done, I send it off to whoever needs it (agent, editor, a cat in a spaceship orbiting Pluto), and that’s that. I feel a wave of excitement and triumph and sometimes reward myself with “something” (new music, ice cream, a cat in a spaceship orbiting Pluto), and then somewhere thereafter I feel a sense of post-masturbatory shame — like, a great yawning emptiness brimming with the ghosts of shame and guilt and creative undoing, all of which are nicely mitigated by me going back to the beginning (idea! outline! writing! editing!) and riding the storytelling carousel around for another go.

*insert creepy calliope music here*

And that’s it.

That’s my process.

Every book is different, of course.

And every writer is different.

Now go and find your own process. Plant a flag. Buy intellectual real estate.

And dance upon the gassy corpses of anybody who said you can’t do this.

Because fuck those people right in the face-holes.

Ask A Wendigo: The Speed With Which One Ejaculates Prose

Looking for the requisite Tuesday “list of 25?” HA HA HA IT’S NOT HERE. You just got served! Ahem. The lists-of-25 are going on an “every other week” basis as I wind them down to completion — that’s not to say I won’t do them from time to time but I’m looking to get another 10 or so for a book and then I’ll pull the ripcord, at least until I have something more to say on the subject. So! In the “every other, uhh, other week” slot goes this: you ask me questions at Tumblr and I answer them here. Let the inquisition begin!

I had two folks ask me very similar questions.

Anonymous Abby asked:

“My name’s Abby and I just bought your 500 Ways to Tell a Better Story (surely that means I count!). My question comes from reading Dean Wesley Smith’s blog. He often blogs about writing fast and not believing that the longer it takes to write a book, the better it is. I’ve heard of writers who’ve written books in just a few weeks and I was wondering, for a first draft, what’s the shortest time it’s taken you to complete a MS?”

And Anonymous Not-Abby asked:

“How fast can you, Wendig, type out fiction (of any quality) and, if you’ve honed this as a skill, how did you go about getting faster (and, perhaps, better)?”

Let me answer the second question first: I write at bare minimum 2000 words a day. Ideally I write 3-4k a day, but hey, not every day is ideal. It is, however, very rare that I dip below 2k per day — days where I’m sick or on vacation or eating the frozen hearts of wayward campers as I chase them through the woods with my big stompy Wendigo hooves, those might be days I don’t make my goal. But I only need 13 frozen hearts to survive one full century, so? Pretty rare. Rare as a bloody steak. Rare as a dodo orgy.

That means, for me, every week I’m generally writing 10 to 15,000 words of new content. That does not include blog content, by the way. By the end of a year I have, bare minimum, a half-a-million words chipped into the digital marble that is my computer screen.

Are those good words? Do they make up good stories?

Fuck if I know.

I like to hope they are. But they’re never good enough on their own — a word doesn’t just tumble out of my finger-holes as a pure and perfect entity, unmarred and forever impervious to criticism. Words change. They need to get extensions or repairs. Or have friends added to them. Or be thrown into a dark yowling abyss where they are eaten by ancient God-Worms and defecated out to form the deviant sub-layer of Gaia’s subconscious mind. (YO I’M DROPPIN’ MYTH ON YOUR FACEBRAIN, SON.)

And this leads me to the first question:

Speed is not an indicator of quality in terms of fiction. That’s true of one’s relative slowness or swiftness — taking 10 years to write a book or taking 10 days to write a book (or a comic or a film or an angry postcard) guarantees nothing in terms of how good or how bad that story is.

Put differently, the story needs what the story needs.

Now, I’ll grant you: many stories are like wine. With more time they ripen and the flavor deepens — not automatically and not without authorial intervention, but over time an author can sift out the sediment and play with additives and subtractives, changing the formula gradually over the many moons. Of course, some wines should be consumed young, shouldn’t they? Bottled and guzzled with, oh, a nice shellfish dish. Or the pudding-like brains of your foes. So, there the wine metaphor yields some truth across the board: some wines are better aged, some are better right after you squirt ’em in the bottle.

Which tells us, yet again: the story needs what the story needs.

If it’s fast and it works: it works. If it’s slow and it works: it works.

Who gives a fuck how many days it took if the story crackles? If it makes us think, feel, laugh, cry? The audience doesn’t care how long it took. The audience only cares if it reaches deep and grabs their guts.

Blackbirds took me yeaaaaaars to write.

The sequel, Mockingbird, took me 30 days. And was almost 10,000 words longer.

Ah, but here’s the trick: where some stories are fast and others come slow, one thing I believe to be true: the writer needs time to age. Authors need time and experience to reach fruition — and so you must have the patience to develop a voice, to train your skill and hone your talent, to practice the craft of writing and foster the art of storytelling (for that’s how I see them: writing is the craft, storytelling the art).

Give yourself that time. Because that’s how you get better. And, sometimes, how you get faster.

Worry less about how long it should take to write a story.

Worry more about how long it takes to become a storyteller.