Follow the PenMonkey – The Truth of Chuck Wendig

Actually, I’m already having second thoughts about that title. Still, here we go…

Screenshot of Chuck's blog. Reproduced without permission, and I fully expect to be eaten by wild dogs as a result. And not in a good way.

Screenshot of Chuck’s blog. Reproduced without permission, and I fully expect to be eaten by wild dogs as a result. And not in a good way.

Chuck Wendig is wise. He dispenses a good deal of wisdom on the subject of writing in his blog, but the latest post I read really summed up the grim truth of writing:

You have to DO IT!

I am lazy. I’ve tried about a dozen different musical instruments, searching for the one that I can play without effort. I had a go at lots of different sports to see if I had an aptitude for any of them without lots of practice. In my life, the two disciplines I have stuck with are juggling and writing, and they have remained because…well…

Juggling WAS actually that mystical thing that just clicked. I could do it straight away, or at least with enough ease that I was willing to put in the work to get even better. I’ve taught juggling for long enough to know that it is this way for some people. My earliest juggling partner, Dougie, could watch a trick being done a few times, then just give it a go and it would usually work out. He was a natural, better than me. My good friend Mike didn’t have the same flow, but he had way more determination and would work at a trick until it worked. Months, if necessary. If I’d had to put in that effort, I would have walked away.

Writing hasn’t been easy, but I wanted to be a writer, and with the birth of Eldest Weasel I was given the opportunity to try it. Early success in the sale of a story and an article gave me encouragement, and I had the support of Mrs Dim, something for which I can never be grateful enough.

So even though the actual writing wasn’t easy, the ideas have never stopped coming, and I have never lost the desire to be a writer. But by nature, I’m what writers call a “pantser”, following where the story leads and hoping it’ll get where it’s going in a reasonable word count. It can be an exhilarating journey, but you have to be prepared for the occasional trip down a blind alley, or running out of steam in the wilderness. In my virtual desk drawer I have more than one great idea that’s still awaiting the arrival of roadside assistance to de-coke the engine and refill the tank.

So Chuck is right – the deepest truth, the unavoidable fact is that YOU MUST WRITE. There’s no easy way, no method to skip the work and get the prize, you have to write. To coin another metaphor, you have to go down to the coalface and hack out your story. No argument from me.

But here’s something I’ve learned, (and maybe Chuck would agree): While you’re hacking away, sometimes it’s good to step back and look at THE WAY you’re working. Are you using the right end of your pickaxe? Are you swinging with a steady rhythm? Could you maybe use a power drill? And lots of other mining-type questions. I’ve been a pantser for years, and it’s worked pretty well, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way I can write. Maybe trying a new method will reduce the number of unfinished pieces, and make better use of my time at the coalface, as it were.

2000 cover

To this end I picked up “2000 – 10000” by Rachel Aaron, a book that promised to improve your daily word count. That wasn’t exactly my aim, since I’m mostly writing plays, but increased efficiency is a good goal. The book is short, and available for the Kindle, so I downloaded it and read it in one evening. It makes a lot of sense.

Rachel’s main point – the one that resonated most with me – is that working out the story is most of the heavy lifting. And pantsers like me do that work while we’re writing. We’re not just hacking out our coal, we’re trying to work out where the best seam is, indicate it to other miners, ensure everyone is wearing the correct safety equipment and make lunches for the miners WHILE STILL MINING! (This was a lousy metaphor. I should have used ships instead.) She said that by taking five minutes at the start of her writing time to outline what she was aiming to write, the bones of the scenes, she could write with more confidence and better direction. She had to edit less, because she knew the whole scene was worthwhile, and she knew how it was going to play out.

For someone whose stories have often gone off the rails as the characters grab the plot and run away with it, or slump in the corner and refuse to play, this was a revelation. Not just a vague outline that says “And then they work out their argument and get married” at the end, but an actual breakdown of the whole thing! Brilliant!

To test the theory, I have given February over to an old favourite project of mine. I wrote the general outline, then broke that down into acts and scenes. I’ve taken each of those scenes and written a more detailed outline. In a couple of days I’ll have detailed outlines for every scene and have a plan – a detailed plan – for the whole play. No one gets to go astray, because I know where they have to be next. If I get stuck on one scene, I can go on to the next and work on that, confident that it’s part of the plan. I have high hopes.

On the wall is the plot overview, beneath it are the two scene breakdowns, then the individual sheets are for each scene.

On the wall is the plot overview, beneath it are the two scene breakdowns, then the individual sheets are for each scene.

This is a good method, but the real secret of the book is “Look at the way you work”. You don’t have to adopt Rachel’s method, or use Robert McKee’s graphs, or Blake Snyder’s beat system, but you should try something new from time to time, see if the way you’re working is the best way for you. There’s no magic bullet that will make writing (whether books, poems, plays or condolence letters) easy, but you can make things easier on yourself.

And when you’ve got a good method, you’ll just have to DO IT!

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4 responses to “Follow the PenMonkey – The Truth of Chuck Wendig

  1. This is brilliant. I have only one question:
    What the heck is a coalface?

    • Ah, I see I’m revealing my roots as a son of the North of England. When coal is mined, the area of the coal seam facing the miners, the bit they used to stick their picks into, was called the coal “face”. Coalmining is a fascinating thing to learn about, as long as you are absolutely certain you will never have to do it yourself.

  2. i learned to do something similar when taking Holly Lisle’s How To Think Sideways course. I could never get passed the first twenty pages or so because I had no clue where I was going and like you said the characters hijacked the plot so I was off in weird directions I didn’t want to go.

    Once I learned to outline it made all the difference. I got a book outline out of it and I’ve written several ‘finished’ short stories since. It is definitely worth the time to sit down and figure out what you’re doing first. For what it’s worth I consider the outline more of loose guideline than anything else. Pantsers should not feel like they have to follow their pre writing to the letter.

  3. Pingback: Writing method trial – the result | Damian Trasler's Secret Blog - Do Not Read!

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