Earlier this week, Chuck Wendig posted a piece on his blog – I Smell Your Rookie Moves, New Writers – which, as the title suggests, is a takedown of particular errors he feels newbie authors make. It’s been doing the rounds on my tumblr, Facebook and Twitter feeds, because quite a lot of people I follow seem to share his sentiments; but as often as I’ve agreed with Wendig’s rants in this past, this isn’t one of those times. In fact, my abiding reaction to the early sections in particular has been one of teeth-grinding fury.

Before we get started, let me make two things clear up front: firstly, that I have an inherent dislike of writing advice that lays down specific mandates regardless of where it comes from; and secondly, that I have enormous respect for Wendig himself as a writer. His prose is punchy, sharp and bruisingly beautiful, quite like getting mugged by a street poet, and I have zero qualms about his ability to offer good advice otherwise. This isn’t me quibbling with Wendig’s technique, nor am I taking issue with the fact that he, specifically, is the one who’s spoken – it’s just that, on this occasion, he’s said a few things I think are fucking stupid, and I’d rather like to address them.

So.

Straight up, there’s a need to compare what Wendig says in his very first paragraph to what he says in the fourth (bolding mine):

I am occasionally in a place where I read work by new writers. Sometimes this is at cons or conferences. Sometimes it’s in the sample of work that’s free online or a fragment from a self-published work…

What I’m trying to say is, your rookie efforts are not automatically worth putting out into the world, especially if those efforts cost readers money to access them. The mere existence of a story is not justification for its publication. Don’t make people give you cash for your inferior efforts. Get it right before you ask money to reward you for getting it wrong.

Oh my fucking GOD, I will flip a table. Where do I even begin with this bullshit? If someone is publishing their work free online, THEY AREN’T ASKING FOR CASH – and what’s more, no one is fucking asking you to read it. There are myriad online communities that exist precisely so that new writers can ‘publish’ their work and share it with each other, up to and including specific fandom and fanwriter sites, and I reject utterly the implication that there’s no point to those venues or those communities – that such new stories aren’t “worth putting out into the world” – just because they’re not up to Wendig’s standards. I’d take less issue with the sentiment of an established writer selflessly offering help to rookies if that’s what Wendig was actually doing; instead, his piece reads like a successful author castigating first-timers for daring to aspire to his level before he thinks they’re ready.

Listen: I am all for writers improving themselves, and in the event that I fork over money for a book, I am all in favour of that book not sucking! But look at the wording, here: “don’t make people give you cash for your inferior efforts” – don’t MAKE them, as though the author is standing behind the consumer with a loaded gun, forcing them to buy their latest Kindle release. The entire point of the goddamn marketplace is that consumers take risks on products and then share their opinions about what they bought, thereby potentially attracting or deterring others from purchasing likewise. Wanting to engage in this process in good faith is not a fucking crime, okay? This whole section reads like a form of literary class policing: know your place, and know that it isn’t good enough. 

I also think it’s telling – and grossly hypocritical, given that Wendig himself started as a self-published writer – that he explicitly mentions writers who self-publish, who are unpublished or who write for free, but not rookie authors published via traditional means. (The only nod to traditional publishing is when he talks about “tested authors,” though even then, he could just as easily mean writers who’ve released multiple stories in other formats.) Because, let me tell you: I have read my share of traditionally published works that were fucking shit, and I guarantee I paid more for each of them than I ever have for any self-published release. Never mind that “inferior efforts” is a monumental and incredibly subjective value judgement in the first place: what traditionally published authors have that their unpaid or self-supporting brethren don’t – or not usually, at any rate – is the help of professional editors. Which doesn’t mean that their first drafts are somehow magically lacking the same mistakes Wendig is so angry about here; just that they’ve got an extra pair of eyes to catch them on the first pass. Does Wendig recommend his non-traditional rookies use editors or beta readers, which is an unequivocally useful piece of advice? No, he does not – which means, in essence, that he’s holding such writers to a higher standard than their traditionally published counterparts: be so good the first time that you don’t need an editor.

And look. Okay. Wendig never mentions fanwriters by name, but speaking as someone who’s pretty heavily invested in fan culture at this point, applied in that context, his advice here is the exact fucking OPPOSITE of useful. I mean, I have my own issues with the idea in some fanwriting circles that unsolicited criticism of any kind, even concrit, is verboten, because at the end of the day, if you’re putting something online where people not your friends can read it, you’ve got to be prepared for some degree of feedback. The internet is not your perfect, criticism-free bubble, and there’s no rule saying you get to enjoy the advantages of having an audience minus that audience having its own opinions just because you’d rather not deal with them. But when people share their writing for pleasure ahead of profit – when the content you’re reading is produced for free – that rightly changes the nature of how any feedback should be offered, assuming you care about not being an asshole. A person writing for free is not necessarily interested in improvement, or in anything other than having fun as part of an online community – in which case, telling them to stop posting until they suck less is rather like running up to a bunch of kids playing ball at the park and yelling that they need to run more drills before they do that shit in public, otherwise they’re never going to get scouted. I know it’s hard for published writers to remember this, but some people do write for pleasure alone, and the internet makes that easier than ever.

More to the point, though: writing shouldn’t begin as a woodshed exercise for every single person who wants to try it for money, and part of what makes new authors better – especially if they’re the type of rookie who can’t afford an editor and has no access to reliable betas – is getting feedback on their work. I mean, let’s be real: Wendig is acting like charging money for crap books is a crime, instead of just part of the literary-commercial ecosystem. Crap books – and we won’t always agree on what they are, because it’s a judgement call – are always going to be published, and some people are always going to regret buying them, but that doesn’t mean they should never have been written or published in the first place.

Except 50 Shades of Gray, maybe. That is some abusive, rape-apologist bullshit right there.

But I digress.    

Here’s my point: so long as you continue to write, your writing style will change. Maybe you’ll get better, maybe you’ll get worse, and maybe you’ll just get different – write for long enough, and you’ll probably do all three. But if you really want to succeed as a writer, hesitating to publish through fear of your own inadequacies is going to get you vastly fewer places than publishing in confidence, but learning to accept criticism. That being so, I’m not angry that Wendig wants new writers to improve; that’s fair enough. I’m angry because a statement like “don’t make people give you cash for your inferior efforts” isn’t going stop an uncritical egotist who already thinks they’re the next John Green, but it’s sure as hell going to stop the kind of self-doubting beginner whose problem isn’t accepting criticism, but finding the necessary confidence to parse it intelligently.

Which brings me to the topic of Wendig’s actual advice, and the reason I’m always sceptical whenever I see anyone lay down hard rules about what to do, or not do, in the course of writing: it’s because, 90% of the time, that sort of advice doesn’t account for differences in individual style any more than it accounts for differences in individual taste, and therefore has the effect of teaching someone, not how to write well, where well is a universal, but how to write like the person giving the advice.

It is compelling, I know, to figure out every single thing that is happening all the time always in your story. Characters smile and laugh. Okay. They fidget. Fine. They drink a cup of tea with their pinky out. Sure, why not? But if you’re writing out every hiccup, burp, fart, wince, flinch, sip, and gobble, you got problems. A character turns on a lamp? Super, you don’t need to describe how they turn it on. I don’t need to see John Q. Dicknoggin unzipping his fly before he pisses, and frankly, I may not need to see that he pisses unless it’s telling us something about his character.     

On the surface, this is a reasonable thing to say. The problem is that it’s only contextually reasonable, in that some people will be helped by taking this advice, and others hindered. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, for instance -widely regarded as a genre classic – could never have been written if Peake wrote to Wendig’s specifications, and regardless of whether his work is your cup of tea, you can’t deny that many people are extremely fond of it, even though – or especially because, depending on your perspective – it contains passages like this:

The speed of the door as it swung on its hinges was extraordinary, but what was just as dramatic was the silence – a silence so complete that Bellgrove, with his head turned towards his staff and his hand still groping in the air for the bell-pull, could not grasp the reason for the peculiar behaviour of his colleagues. When a man is about to make a speech, however modest, he is glad to have the attention of his audience. To see on every face that stared in his direction an expression of intense interest, but an interest that obviously had nothing to do with him, was more than disturbing. What had happened to them? Why were all those eyes so out of focus – or if they were in focus why should they skim his own as though there were something absorbing about the woodwork of the high green door behind him? And why was Throd standing on tiptoe in order to look through him?

Bellgrove was about to turn – not because he thought there could be anything to see but because he was experiencing that sensation that causes men to turn their heads on deserted roads in order to make sure they are alone. But before he could turn of his own free will he received two sharp yet deferential knuckle-taps on his left shoulder-blade – and leaping about as though at the touch of a ghost he found himself face to face with the tall Christmas-cracker of a butler.

Intense, tight, detailed description of settings, people and actions is a valid stylistic choice. That doesn’t mean it can’t be executed badly – just that doing so is not synonymous with executing it at all.

Enter Wendig’s second objection:

We tell stories because they are interesting. We offer narrative because narrative is a bone-breaker: it snaps the femur of the status quo. It is in fact the sharp, gunshot-loud fracture-break of the expected story is what perks our attention. Guy goes to work, works, comes home, has dinner, goes to bed? Not interesting. Guy goes to work, has the same troubles with his boss, endures the standard problems of the day (“where are my goddamn staples?”), goes home, eats an unsatisfying dinner, goes to bed and sleeps restlessly until the next day of the same thing? Still not interesting. Guy goes to work and gets fired? Okay, maybe, depending on if he does something unexpected with it. Guy goes to work and gets fired out of a cannon into a warehouse full of ninjas? I’M LISTENING.

Well, of course you are, Chuck: you write SFF, and are therefore highly likely to prefer ninjas to the minutiae of daily office life. But this doesn’t change the fact that there’s an entire literary tradition based around slice-of-life realism: stories where the big emotional tension really does hinge on the fact that someone was fired after struggling with their boss, and what this means for their family. Hell, you basically just described the first third of American Beauty. What you’re really railing at here is the idea that domesticity is fundamentally uninteresting – which, don’t even get me started on the gendered implications of that logic when applied in wider contexts, aka The Reason Why So Many Goddamn Fantasy Stories Focus On Big Dudes With Swords Because What Women Do In The Castle Is Girly And Unimportant – in conjunction with a dislike of stories that privilege a character’s emotions and internality above external conflict. Which is to say: this paragraph tells us a great deal about what Chuck Wendig looks for in a novel, but conflates this preference with what good novels look like, period.

Description is the same way. You don’t need to tell me what everything looks like because I already know –

Not if I’m describing something that’s purely fictional, you don’t. Which is to say: the fact that I don’t need to tell you what everything looks like doesn’t mean I shouldn’t tell you what anything looks like.

– and most things aren’t that interesting. Leaves on a tree are leaves on a tree. For the impact of story, how many points each leaf has or how they move in the wind is not compelling.

AUGH. Look: I get that this is meant to be a random example illustrating why we shouldn’t include information that’s totally irrelevant to the plot, but it’s a really shitty example, because even ignoring the fact that sometimes, it’s just nice to set the scene, I can think of a dozen reasons off the top of my head why detailing leaves specifically might be relevant. A ranger describes a particular plant which, in addition to its historical significance, can be used as life-saving medicine. The king’s poisoner tends their herb garden, teaching their protégé the various uses of each. A paleobotanist suddenly encounters plants she thought extinct, and promptly goes into raptures. But Foz! I hear you cry, Aren’t you being unfairly specific? When would that ever happen, really?

Reader, I just described to you actual canonically important scenes from The Lord of the Rings, Robin Hobb’s Assassin series and Jurassic Park. The devil is in the motherfucking details, dudes. Sometimes you can do without them, but sometimes you really can’t.

Trim, tighten, slice, dice. Pare it all down. Render. Render!…

Whatever it is you’re writing, it’s too long. Cut it by a third or more. Do it now. I don’t care if you think you should do it, just do it. Try it. You can go back to it if you don’t like it. Consider it an intellectual challenge — can you utterly obliterate 33% of your story? Can you do it mercilessly and yet still tell the story you want to tell? I bet you jolly well fucking can.

Merciful fucking Christ, if I never see another piece of writing advice that involves the phrase “pare it all down” it’ll be too soon. I mean, look: I love a stylistically wham, bam, thank-you ma’am novel as much as the next person, but sometimes I want to indulge myself. Really settle in with the slow-burn detail, rolling around in lush descriptions of bright new worlds. Sometimes you want a bit of junk in the literary trunk, you know? Every single novel does not have to whip its metaphorical dick out on the first page and then spend the next thirty chapters furiously jacking itself to climax like a pornstar trying to hit his mark for a neatly-timed cumshot. Your novel won’t implicitly suck if you slow down and take your time teasing the reader.

Plus and also? I know we have a cultural stereotype that says rookie writers consistently produce pages and pages of unnecessary drivel, but a lot of newbies underwrite, too – in which case, telling them to pare back an already barren story isn’t going to help. There’s a reason why so many early creative writing exercises teach students how to describe, how to build: you need to get to the point of creating excess before you can learn how to cut it back, such that assuming the presence of excess as a default is a bad way to go.

The story begins on page one.

Repeat: the story begins on page one.

It doesn’t begin on page ten. It doesn’t start in chapter five.

It starts on page one.

Get to the point. Get to the story. Intro characters and their problem and the stakes to those problems as immediately as you are able. You think you’re doing some clever shit by denying this? You think you need to invest us in your luscious prose and the rich loamy soil of the worldbuilding and the deep nature of these characters — ha ha ha, no. We’re here for a reason. We’re here for a story. If by the end of the first page there isn’t the sign of a story starting up? Then we’re pulling the ripcord and ejecting. We’ll parachute out of your airless atmosphere and land on the ground where things are actually happening.

This is one way to tell a story, certainly. But it’s not the only way, and it’s not always a good one. I have had my absolute fill of – to pick a single example – first-person YA fantasy novels that start with the character in the middle of a battle for precisely this reason, but which never slow down sufficiently to explain why the fight unfolded that way in the first place, because the author never bothered to figure it out. Listen: I’m aware that there’s a debate about the utility of prologues in SFF, and some people hate them for exactly the reasons Wendig has outlined above. The story should start when it starts; if you can’t communicate that earlier information in the first chapter, then it doesn’t deserve a prologue. And in some cases, that’s correct.

But prologues also constitute an important stylistic break. In a story that’s otherwise written entirely in the first person, for instance, having a prologue in the third, containing information the viewpoint character couldn’t possibly know, but which is materially relevant to interpreting their actions, can be an extremely clever move. Think about every film you’ve ever seen that starts in one place before the opening credits roll, then cuts to the protagonist once they’ve finished. That, right there? That’s setting the scene, and even though it’s not always obvious how that first scene relates to the subsequent ones, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t ever have been there in the first place.

Despite his presumptuous use of the royal ‘we’, Chuck Wendig is not speaking for everyone when he says that readers aren’t interested in stories that take longer than a fucking page to establish worldbuilding or character. Good novels can be slow. Not to bring up Tolkien again, because I get hives when people hold him up as the be-all, end-all of the genre, but Christ: do you even remember how The Fellowship of the Ring starts? It’s with a prologue entitled Concerning Hobbits that goes on for pages before Frodo Baggins is ever even mentioned by name, and that doesn’t stop people loving it. Writing books is not a goddamn race, is my point, and I’m sick and tired of seeing brevity held up as an unequivocal literary virtue when it’s just as liable to produce dross as gold when used inexpertly.

Dialogue, for instance, is one of those things that has rules. And for some reason, it’s one of the most common things I see get utterly fucked.

On this point, I agree with Wendig. But then, he’s not discussing style here so much as the basic rules of grammar – and even then, if you’re doing it intelligently, with purpose, as opposed to because you’re unaware of the conventions, even these can be fluid. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet eschews all quotation marks, and it’s a gorgeous novel: yes, it’s an exception to the norm, but I mention it because Wendig’s decision to situate adherence to actual grammatical/formatting rules as identical to meeting his personal narrative preferences makes me bristle. Generally speaking, electing to fuck with the standard protocols is not something you’d do with a first novel, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t ever been done successfully. Returning to an earlier point, it’s the kind of problem that, for a traditionally published author, would (one hopes) be caught in editing – so if you’re not too sharp on the basic conventions and you care about getting them right, you can either look them up, ask a knowledgeable friend to beta your work, or hire an editor. This is line-edit drama, not a problem with poorly-executed style, and there’s a goddamn difference, please and thank you.

You need to let your characters talk.

Dialogue is grease that slicks the wheels of your story.

And eventually it gets tiresome. You love the characters and you think they should be allowed to go on and on all day long because you think they’re just aces. They’re not. Shut them up. Keep the dialogue trim and vital. Concise and powerful. Let them have their say in the way they need to say it — in the way that best exemplifies who those characters are and what they want — and then close their mouths. Move onto the next thing. Let’s hear from someone else or something else.

Generally speaking, I agree with this, too. Unless your character is giving a speech, monologuing to a captive audience or engaging in a soliloquy, they’re probably not going to speak uninterrupted for any length of time. The conversation will go back and forth, and eventually, it’s going to end, and you don’t always need to show every single exchange in order to get the point across. I will, however, take issue with the idea that dialogue must always be “trim and vital, concise and powerful” – because many people aren’t. Naturalistic dialogue can be a powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal, letting you establish voice, dialect, setting and any manner of other things. That doesn’t mean letting the characters talk about anything under the sun with no reference to plotting; it means that not every single exchange has to be geared towards the narrative end-game in order to make a positive contribution to the story.

Each character needs to be a shining beam — each distinct from the next. Bright and demonstrative of its own color. Not archetypes, not stereotypes, but complex and easily distinguished people. And I want a reason to care about them.

This, I agree with: absolutely, 1000%.

Right out of the gate, I want this. I need to know what they want, why they want it, and what they’re willing to do to get it. I need, in very short terms, their quest. Whether desired or a burden, I gotta know why they’re here on the page in front of me. That’s not true only of the protagonist, but of all the characters.

Who are they?

If you can’t tell me quickly, they become noise instead of operating as signal.

Aaaand we’re back to disagreeing again. Because, look, Chuck – I don’t know what your fucking deal with speed is, here, but I’m going to say it again: storytelling isn’t a race. There are times when I want to know quickly what a character’s motivation is, and times where I can stand to wait a little. Sometimes, the best characters slowly emerge from the background, insinuating themselves into the story in ways you didn’t expect at the outset. A great recent example of this was Csevet in Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. A courier who initially brings the protagonist, Maia, the news of his ascension to the throne, Csevet seems at first to be a background character, someone who’ll disappear once he’s fulfilled his immediate purpose. This isn’t because Addison fails to make him a distinct individual, but is rather a consequence of the story being told with a tight focus on Maia’s perspective: Csevet’s needs aren’t as important in the first chapters as Maia’s are, and as Csevet initially appears to deliver a specific piece of news, we’re not expecting Maia to keep him around. But he does, and so the character expands, steadily revealing more and more of himself as the narrative progresses.

You don’t need to give a physical description of every single character the second they first appear in the story, because that information might not be immediately relevant. A character can move in the background as a seeming bit player before ever coming to the fore, and even once you can see them, their motives won’t always be transparent. I don’t just mean this in the facetiously obvious sense, that some characters have hidden agendas: I mean that if you’ve got six characters in a scene, the fact that the primary focus is on two of them doesn’t mean the other four won’t come into their own later. This is even more important to remember if you’re writing in first person, where describing a character or making an observation is synonymous with the character doing those things – and while the author might want to give certain details, the character might not even pick up on them for another three chapters.

What I’m saying is this: Wendig is completely correct in saying that your characters, even the minor ones, should be real, distinct individuals. But that doesn’t mean you have to give their quest away up front, or make it immediately obvious that a seemingly minor character is going to come into greater prominence later. I dislike working from the assumption that your audience is impatient, easily bored and allergic to surprises – especially as I’m not that sort of reader myself.

It’s very hard to manage a lot of characters.

I do it in some books and the way that I do it is by introducing them piecemeal — not in one big dump like I’m emptying a bag of apples onto the counter (where they promptly all roll away from me), but one or two at a time.

Which is kind of what I’m getting at, but from the opposite perspective: it’s okay to empty your bag of apples, provided you subsequently gather them all back up again. Otherwise, you’re permanently restricting yourself to writing early scenes where only one or two characters are present, which… personally? I find that boring; or at least, I wouldn’t want it as a staple. I like stories that challenge me by throwing me in the deep end, asking that I figure out a bunch of characters and navigate their relationships on the fly by way of teaching me the setting. Elizabeth Bear does this wonderfully, as do Kate Elliott and Alaya Dawn Johnson, which is a big part of why I love their books. Particularly in SFF, the social roles the characters inhabit can tell you as much about them – and the world – as their personalities and motives, and the fact that there might be a tension between how a character behaves in an official capacity and who they are otherwise can lead to some extremely satisfying characterisation. Thus: you might first show me the faceless Executioner in Chapter 1, letting them appear as a background authority in Chapter 2, so that when I finally learn their name and their hatred of the Emperor they purport to serve in Chapter 3, I feel the contradiction far more strongly than if you’d simply said as much to begin with.

…if each character sounds like a replicant of the next, you’ve got a problem. It’s not just about vocal patterns. It’s about what they’re saying in addition to how they’re saying it. It’s about their ideas and vision and desires. Look at it this way: it’s not just your prose that makes you your author. It’s not just your style. It’s whatyou write. It’s the themes you express. Characters operate the same way. They have different viewpoints and needs. They have their own ways of expressing those viewpoints and needs, too. Get on that. Otherwise, they’re all just clones with different names and faces. 

Exactly.

Stop doing stunt moves. You can do that later. Right now, assume that you have a single goal: clarity. Clarity is key. It is king. If I do not know what is going on, then I’m out… Do yourself a favor and aim to just tell the story. Get out of the way. Be clear. Be forthright. Be confident and assertive and show us what’s happening without compromise and without burying it under a lot of mud.

You don’t get points for being deliberately ambiguous.

On the surface, this is good advice: it’s just that, given the emphasis on speed in the rest of this piece, I’m inclined to think that Wendig thinks of clarity as a synonym for simplicity, as per the injunction against “trick moves”. Which, yes: if you’re a very new writer, you need to make sure you’re being understood before you can play with expression. But natively, not everyone is going to have the same style or be interested in writing the same sort of book. It’s not a “trick move” to want to have a big cast, or to tell a slow-burn story, or to be interested in description. In fact, I’d argue that writing in a sparse, clean style takes just as much skill as writing more lavishly: there’s an art to economy, and I’ve never liked the idea that it’s somehow a better, easier choice for beginners just because it uses fewer words. Ask any artist: understanding negative space and its impact on the picture takes skill and practice, just like drawing does.

I guess what I’m saying is this: Chuck Wendig has written a piece that’s enormously helpful if you want to learn to write like Chuck Wendig and/or have a natural inclination towards his style, but which is vastly less helpful if you want to learn to write like anyone else; like you, for instance. There’s some good advice there, to be sure, but the parts that aren’t – which conflate his personal preferences with universal truths; which tell new writers they’re not good enough to be worth the cost of admission, no matter how cheap – those parts can fuck right off. Not everybody needs to write books the exact same way, just as everyone doesn’t need to read and love the exact same things, and I’m sick of writing advice that’s really just one person’s taste masquerading as objective truth.

Comments
  1. Des Livres says:

    This makes me want to chuck a TJ Klune book at him. Particularly his latest! (All right, chuck an electronic copy at him – I’m not into violence.)

  2. brsanders says:

    Yes, his post really bothered me, too. It was extremely condescending and if I had read it five years ago might have put me off writing altogether. And on a personal note, the “trick moves” things would have actually worked against me as a fledgling writer, where I wanted very badly to try out as many very weird things with form as I could. I essentially broke as many rules as I could with my shitty writing in order to prove that the rules were there for a reason as I settled into fairly conventional narrative structures. But you couldn’t have told me to do that to start with.

  3. Jon Chaisson says:

    I personally have an issue with speed as well. I’m a huge fan of Asian literature, where the pace is sometimes slow and deliberate on purpose. Minae Mizumura’s ‘A True Novel’ (where the prologue is a good 1/3 of Book I at 150 pages!!), or the slow setup of Cixin Liu’s ‘Three-Body Problem’ or Chang-Rae Lee’s ‘On Such a Full Sea’, or many of Haruki Murakami’s novels…these books are slow on purpose because the story isn’t just about the action. It’s about the setting or the situation, which has also become part of the story.

    I see where he’s coming from, but he seems to be talking for people who want the ‘hard fast rules’, and his blog entries do often tend to be just on this side of overcaffeinated. There really aren’t any of those rules, other than basic grammar and spelling. In reality, I’ve found it’s less about following the rules than using the rules to your advantage.

    If anything, over the years, the only rules I’ve followed are Bradbury’s, which are pretty much distilled to ‘sit down and write, and have a hell of a fun time doing it.’

  4. Lurkertype says:

    I had vague feelings about this, so thanks for articulating it.

    SF/F often needs MORE description since there are things no one has ever seen. If you’re John Cheever writing about an Ivy League campus, just telling me there are trees with leaves is fine. But if you’re writing about an alien planet, I’d like to know the color and shape of them.

    Writing a bazillion pages about what the characters are eating and wearing doesn’t seem to have done GRRM any harm in the market.

    I do like my free fiction (fanfic or otherwise) to be spelled and punctuated correctly, but that isn’t anything to do with style.

    And not all of us seem to bore as easily as Chuck does. I have a really long attention span! I read ALL the appendices in LotR. I like to figure things out.

    • Des Livres says:

      I have been thinking about your blog entry and the comments since yesterday. My initial response to reading what Wendig wrote is unchanged: “what an idiot!” (I still want to throw TJ Klune books at him – I know they would afront him on so many levels) I note your concerns about the harm he could do to any neophyte writer reading his views, and agree with them. I am now a total reader, having walked away from writing a couple of decades ago, after some bad things happened.

      My advice would be “read lots, write lots”. I have a friend who has taken up writing, who has hardly read at all. (I don’t understand it either) and it’s been very hard for him in many ways. We have had quite a few conversations with me saying things like “yes, you can write a story from more than one point of view”. His other problem is that he has watched immense amounts of opera, so he keeps having the woman die at the end of his stories, and doesn’t see the problem with it.

      • Lurkertype says:

        Your friend actually might do well reading these rules, ironically.:/

        • Des Livres says:

          Lurkertype, my concern would be, like Foz and the other posters here, that these “rules” imprison a neophyte, and shut down what could be magic. Foz and the other posters here could all come up with instant examples to refute the “rules”, due to their extensive reading backgrounds. What I’ve done with him is encouraged him to give me his work to read, and I give him feedback which introduces various notions that way, but all in the context of being positive, and improving on work which isn’t too bad. If something is dreadful, I tend to say “why don’t you look at what (author 1) did, or (author 2)? The writing process is elastic and magical. We have to see the writing and whether the sentence (or whatever) works in its’ own context.

          Fond memories of showing my poetry to a respected poet over 30 years ago – he whipped out his red pen and got very blunt about conscious archaisms. Me? I love’m. I’d point them out to another writer, and the effect they have on the text, and whether that was what the writer wanted.

          • Lurkertype says:

            Hmm. I see your point. However, the part about “be readable before asking for money” would probably do him good.

            I thought poetry was supposed to have archaisms! Where else they gonna fit in best?! What a mountebank.

  5. megpie71 says:

    Speaking as not so much a newbie writer, more a long-term amateur (about 10 years of fan-writing), I tend to take all pieces like this with a fairly hefty helping of salt, because so often, as you point out, the authors of them are telling you “how to write LIKE ME” or “how to write something I WILL LIKE”. Which is all well and good, and I can come up with a piece just like it myself[1]. But it’s not precisely helpful if I don’t share their tastes, or if their taste and my particular style are never going to mesh.

    I suspect it’s something which is a flaw inherent to the genre (said genre being “pieces by writers about how to write”) because writing is something which is so very personal – everyone’s writing style is shaped by the inside of their own personal head, and it isn’t something which is necessarily transferable to the inside of someone else’s. Sometimes it seems other people share your particular style, but even so, it’s being interpreted through their brain, not yours, so there will be differences.

    Which is all to say, yeah, you have a point, and so does Chuck, and so does Stephen King, and so did my instructors in the professional writing degree at the University of Canberra back in the early 2000s. Whether any of those points are applicable to my work… well, that’s up to me to pick and choose.

    [1] Actually, I have done. It’s just never been published, and if I get my d’ruthers, it never will be.

  6. Aine says:

    “In fact, I’d argue that writing in a sparse, clean style takes just as much skill as writing more lavishly: there’s an art to economy, and I’ve never liked the idea that it’s somehow a better, easier choice for beginners just because it uses fewer words.”

    This is so true…I appreciate a sparse and clean approach in my own writing, but it’s difficult to achieve. There’s a balance between just enough and not enough. And just because I like that style doesn’t mean it’s the only Good one or appropriate for every story I’m telling.

  7. Nya Rawlyns says:

    Reblogged this on Love's Last Refuge and commented:
    Now, now… I’m not taking the easy way out, letting others’ words populate this blog page instead of my own dulcet tones. But… there are posts that need to be shared and reshared because the message is important.
    This message? Find your own voice.
    Sounds a lot like “be true to yourself”, doesn’t it? Sometimes those old saws are still sharp as a tack.

  8. Why I look sideways at writing advice from people who seem to have written more books of advice than they have novels…

    “His prose is punchy, sharp and bruisingly beautiful, quite like getting mugged by a street poet,” and on that recommendation I have just bought two of his books. But the blog turns me off more often than I find value in it.

  9. There was something about Wendig’s piece that didn’t sit quite right with me, and I think you nailed it. There are some good points there, definitely, but a lot of it is about writing *like him*, rather than writing generally. Not everyone is looking for the next Wendig book. Some people want the next Katherine Addison, or Seanan McGuire, or Cixin Liu. If I was a completely new writer, that rant would have scared the pants off me.

    I’ve been fan writing for fifteen years, which has given me the experience to work out how to tell stories that other people want to read, so it didn’t scare me. It made me a frustrated, because so many new writers will take too much of it as gospel and try to apply every word of it to their own writing. Everyone is looking for the right advice and newbie writers are the most prone to thinking a published author must always be right about how to write.

    Different people tell stories in different ways. The best advice I’ve ever been given is to read a lot, read widely, and absorb how different authors use words and ideas.

  10. Ah, the dreaded Rules of Writing. Because even when written by Wendig, that’s what they were. Thank you for articulating what I actually thought.

  11. You know, I’ve liked a lot of Wendig’s advice posts in the past, and I have a fairly strong preference for writing advice in a nice firm declarative and then leaving the reader to figure out what does and doesn’t apply to them, so I came into this post all ready and raring to disagree with you.

    But I don’t. That advice wasn’t firm, it wasn’t declarative. It was mean. I have both written and read some pretty terrible amateur writing, but I certainly woudn’t compare even the most terrible of fanworks to vomit. That’s just rude and disheartening.

  12. Look I have no one to proof read…. I am new and I feel I rant. So my quotations are quotations because in the future I may refer back to the moment for a dissertation or something.

    My bat girl moves are forward thinking: grammar and sentence construction zero. I would love to know the difference in novels. But now I feel informed. Thank you.

  13. seedoconquer says:

    You’re awesome, truly awesome. The arguments you raised are spot on. Cheers!

  14. […] the “rookie moves” he thinks new writers make, and Foz Meadows disagrees with his post. Strongly. Her view […]

  15. Jay Sparrow says:

    “Wait, so you’re saying you didn’t care for Wendig’s rules?” he asked while turning on the lamp in a slow, deliberate, almost Zen-like manner. (wink)

  16. Casual Procrastinator says:

    Awesome. Just awesome.

  17. I feel like I just watched a Rap battle, a genre of music I am not particularly fond of, yet was engrossed in watching Eminem battle it out in rhyme and rhythm with those who had practiced and perfected it years before him; in a horrible movie called 8 mile. I want to cheer for you and offer to buy you a drink and leave Wendig standing on the fucking street corner alone.

  18. Cool post I hope yell like mine too yours is awesomer then mine though well good luck

  19. marymtf says:

    Fan fiction writing is great practice for rookie writers. You’ve already got the universe and the characters set up for you. In the end, and while it’s interesting to read how someone else has done it, you develop your own style if you keep plugging at it.

  20. there should be a term for people like that……..oh wait there is……narcissistic

  21. Zeron+ says:

    I see Your Preferences,Wendig
    cool..

  22. Love this! You hit so many points spot on. So much is based off of your own style. Take it all with a grain of salt and keep yourself humble so you down start to sound snooty. No one likes a snooty writer.

  23. Thanks for writing this. There’s so much out there to scare or discourage aspiring writers. You make such a great point that they need space to lean and grow, to try and fail just like with any other job, art, skill or craft. If I had read his advice, I’d probably never have the confidence to submit my work anywhere. Getting rejected is a good experience. Even just learning how to submit is a good experience. Being critiqued online could be a good experience (if by someone whose intention is constructive).

    Also, I wholeheartedly agree that there are different ways to write that can be equally successful. Imagine telling Foster Wallace to be concise???!!

    Basically, I’m sick of hearing “How to write,” advice from other writers. It should be labeled as “How I write, and if you like it cool, if not, that’s cool too.”

    So again, thank you. I actually feel encouraged as opposed to the regular mountain of discouragement I generally feel in regard to reading anything online about writing well.

  24. Thank you for writing this.

  25. I really like this post. Not because it is perfect but because he is being real. A lot of people seem to find this difficult. He is right on a few certain points. One, I can give tips on writing; however, the tips I give would be tips that work for me. Second, no one forces anyone else to shell out cash for any recreational activities (i.e.books, movies, music and so on.) It is your option and yours alone what you spend your money on. Lastly, this is where I somewhat disagree. These errors and crap that is discussed is NOT only committed by rookies. Some of my favorite authors have written books that I found subpar. Some have teamed up with Co authors making the books virtually unreadable. All in all you are the only one who can decide what is crap, what is decent and what is good. Don’t let anyone tell you how to decide.

  26. […] I’ve read about making charts, timelines, index cards: I’ve read about new software and apps and other new-fangled tools to boost productivity. I’ve read about time management. Recently I read (and forwarded) not only this article from Chuck Wendig but its indignant rebuttal from Foz Meadows. […]

  27. I really liked reading this post, it is so honest, real and true

  28. christinadrh says:

    He was a rookie once. Now he’s an intolerant, Narcissistic published writer. Free will is alive and well. If you don’t like what you’re reading, stop. If you don’t like what you’re watching on TV, change the channel or turn it off. It’s a big world out there. Wonderful post, a good purge!

  29. i’d never heard of wendig, or you for that matter, before reading this post. i linked to the offending original and read your piece and maybe because of my age i am jaded, if not jaundiced, but it sure looks like a whole lotta ego duking it out for a corner in the blogosphere.

  30. This is really interesting…

  31. socialdee says:

    I was just talking to someone yesterday and he was saying he prefers classic novels, because of the descriptions. He went on to say that now books are all action scenes, like Hollywood blockbuster movies. I had never really thought about it like that before, books being made more like movie, but I think he’s right. Culture wants stimulus now now now. I love rich, vivid descriptions. I enjoy a good description of a leaf and love Bartleby the Scrivener, no ninjas involved. Stephen King’s advice to write 1000 words a day is much better. Enjoyed this post a lot.

  32. I disagreed with some of his article too and there are quite a lot like it out there. But mostly, as an unpublished lover of writing, it made me feel entirely inadequate and worsened my fear of showing people my work, because it is not perfect. I wish he had been softer in his approach.

  33. Thank you for this. Chuck should thank you for this good feedback. I like how you detailed the point and how precisely it was expressed. This one is a must-read for new writers like me AND for fucking writers like him!

  34. runmyssierun says:

    BRAVO!!!!! *Standing Ovation*

  35. Arbie says:

    “Get to the point. Get to the story. Intro characters and their problem and the stakes to those problems as immediately as you are able. You think you’re doing some clever shit by denying this? You think you need to invest us in your luscious prose and the rich loamy soil of the worldbuilding and the deep nature of these characters — ha ha ha, no. We’re here for a reason. We’re here for a story. If by the end of the first page there isn’t the sign of a story starting up? Then we’re pulling the ripcord and ejecting. We’ll parachute out of your airless atmosphere and land on the ground where things are actually happening.”

    This section bothered me for exactly the same reason it seems to have bothered you. It’s all the rage to start page one in the middle of a whirlwind event. So much so, that I now put a book down if the first line is anything that is obviously trying to keep my attention but doesn’t do anything.

    That being said, because of the numerous amount of times I have seen this advice I took it to my own novel. I completely deleted my first chapter and then worked on my second chapter cutting away at everything until it was nothing but the action, but what pushed the story forward. I hated it, my beta readers hated it. It lost the atmosphere, it lost the characters, it became nothing but a run on page of “Are you entertained yet?!”

    I think that what it comes down to, one of the best pieces of advice that should be given to new authors is to find their voice and their style and learn what advantages and disadvantages come with it. The first thing any novice writer needs to figure out is how they write, not worry about how others are telling them to write when even they all have different opinions.

  36. […] Foz Meadows, who just got a two book deal, does take Chuck to task on there being no rules for writing fiction. (This one’s for you, Andrew! She writes better than I do, but given it’s her blog it […]

  37. harithapa1 says:

    Reblogged this on harithapa and commented:
    Yes

  38. Jack says:

    Reblogged this on Wyrdwend.

  39. Thank you for this… to infinity + one.

    Also, thanks for mentioning The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, which I am reading, and will be the first SFF book I will finish in over a year. (It’s that good, folks!) And, yes, I love it for the fact that minor characters later on become important to the story.

    Another example I thought of — Sirius Black is just the dude Hagrid borrows his motorcycle from in the first Harry Potter book — he’s just a name when the series starts!

  40. Regina Sent says:

    This post was awesome! I wish it didn’t swear so much otherwise I would reblog it, but I utterly agree with it.

  41. Lisa V says:

    Great post! I read that Wendig piece and had many of the same disagreements that you did. Thank you for being so eloquent, especially regarding the “slow burn” aspect of novel writing. Thanks again for the good read.

  42. Lindsey Kay says:

    Love your points here. Pretty condescending of him. How are people supposed to become better writers with advice like this? Complete poo.

    Lhicksblog.wordpress.com

  43. “…assuming you care about not being an asshole.” Enough said.

  44. Reblogged this on Further Annotations and commented:
    ‘I guess what I’m saying is this: Chuck Wendig has written a piece that’s enormously helpful if you want to learn to write like Chuck Wendig and/or have a natural inclination towards his style, but which is vastly less helpful if you want to learn to write like anyone else; like you, for instance.’

  45. E says:

    Imagine how boring books would be if everyone followed this advice. His advice doesn’t even apply to the SFF genre, because they are plenty of current authors who break Wendig’s “rules”.

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