I Don’t Know Writing, But I Know What I Like…

I can’t remember where it was suggested or by whom, but someone recently asked me to write a blog post on craft. How I write. How I plot. How I come up with my characters and my stories.

I dutifully sat down to write a blog post on my process — and then I realized that I have absolutely no clue how I do these things. To be honest, I don’t think I’m all that good at the business of writing. You should see how brutally painful the process is for me. My rough drafts go from unreadable notes and musings into something with a semblance of story, but it doesn’t happen easily. It isn’t pretty.

I just finished a science fiction work from a debut author. It isn’t out yet (they wanted me to blurb it), and all I could think was how far superior this writer is. I marvel at his ability to turn a phrase, the character development, the plot, the pacing. It’s brilliant. How does anyone do this? How do I do this?

After watching myself write the last few days with this question in the back of my mind, I now have an idea of what makes me a decent writer. It’s a combination of being a practiced reader and a persistant motherfucker.

Reading is the best lesson on writing. It’s like listening to music over and over again until you learn how a good song is supposed to sound. I think I “write by reading” the way some people can “play by ear.” When I’m writing a rough draft, I can tell that my words suck. It’s painfully obvious. When I go back to revise, I take those sucky words and I keep rearranging them until they stop sucking. Eventually, the words flow and convey meaning in a manner that I’m tolerant of. With the next pass, more of these spots are sanded down until they don’t trip me up. Enough passes like this, and my stories start to read about as decently as anyone else’s. I just stick with it until I don’t hate it. I bang on the keys until a tune pops out.

Learning to be this persistant was difficult. For two decades, I started stories only to abandon them. I never put enough work into them to love them, and thereby to love the process of writing. It wasn’t until I received feedback for some lengthy blog posts and sailing adventures that I felt encouraged to write to completion. After that, I began writing book, film, and product reviews that won a bit of praise. This fed my drive to be more persistant with my novels. I finally tunneled my way through to the end of a manuscript. I cleaned it up until the words stopped stabbing me in my eyeballs. I fell in love with this process.

How do I write? The same way I take pictures (another hobby that people mistakenly think I’m good at). I do a lot of it, and then I delete the bits that suck. I’m a great reader. I’ve been doing it all my life. I know what’s good and what’s bad. I just have to make a lot of the bad in order to get lucky and stumble on some of the good. And then I publish my greatest hits.

My best advice, then, is to write a bunch and write to completion. Start small. Write reviews and post them on Facebook or a blog. Write journal entries about your day or days from your past. Write short stories. Write fan fiction. Stick with it for years. I know that seems like a long time, so I suggest you enjoy the process along the way. Enjoy each piece you finish. Share your work. You’ll get better, believe me. And I think, when the words align just so and you write something with perfect pitch, that you’ll surprise yourself. You’ll see that this is something anyone can do. You just need to get a lot down and know what you like when you see it. Be persistant, motherfuckers.

38 responses to “I Don’t Know Writing, But I Know What I Like…”

  1. I used to write stories when I younger, much younger, but never went anywhere with it.
    Something I’ve never quite understood is the physical construction of a story, and how you make it interesting for the reader. How you take what is essentially a simple story of a dystopian future that could be told in no more than a few paragraphs into thousands of words containing mystery and intrigue.
    Take for example a massively complex story like GRRM’s A Song of Fire and Ice, how does one even start to make what was once probably just an idea in his head into the tale it is now, with all it’s backstabbing and subplots and double crosses. Do you have to perhaps be like an actor and put yourself into the mind of a character and ask ‘what’s he going to do?” then take a step back and write from the perspective of someone watching? Even once a story starts to evolve how do you decide where the chapters will fall? Why start the story with the Sheriff being sent outside, then flash back?

    1. In GRRM’s case, his epic story started out as a short story about a family finding direwolf pups in the woods (the first Bran chapter.) He purports an Architect vs. Gardener theory of plotting. Architects (JK Rowling for example) have their story points meticulously outlined beforehand while gardeners (like George) start with only a vague intention in mind of where they’re taking the story and allow the story and characters to grow out of the central idea. In his case, this is both his blessing and his curse. ;)

  2. Harry O'Connor Avatar

    I just started reading Steven Pinker The Language Instinct – one of those books I keep starting but never finding the time to finish. Pinker points out that language is an amazingly complex, but instinctive process. To analyse, distil and explain a single aspect of it, such as story telling is as difficult and alien to us as summarising the process of breathing. We do it naturally without thinking about the flow of elements circulating through our lung’s alveoli, without how it interacts with oxygen starved blood cells and circulates and renews throughout the body. We don’t have to think about it at all.

  3. Excellent advice, Hugh. You hit the nail on the head with this one.

    I recently published a short story on Amazon. I wrote and wrote and revised until I thought it was perfect. Then I gave it to my editor, and after reading his notes I realized there was a lot I could change to improve the writing. So I used his suggestions and reworked the story until I thought it was perfect. Then I gave it to my girlfriend who attacked the first chapter with a red pen. So I went through her edits, figured out why she was crossing out certain lines, and extrapolated that throughout the rest of the story.
    I went through the book myself 5 or six more times until I was satisfied, but this time I knew it wasn’t perfect. And I knew it would never be. But I had worked damn hard on the story and made it the BEST that I could. And that’s all anyone can ever ask of you or your writing.

    Create the best work possible, and your passion for writing and storytelling will shine through to readers, and that’s all we–as writers–can hope for.

    1. Harry O'Connor Avatar

      Some people advise that writers give themselves a break from their work while they review it. I read somewhere that for a full length novel it should be a number of months, and a short a few weeks or so – so that you can revisit it with a clear head. Did you do this with The Runner?

      1. The Runner was actually created while I was taking just such a break from my novel, Binary Cycle. I finished the rough draft of BC on December 1st, then spent the next six weeks writing and revising The Runner. The whole story came about because my fingers felt too guilty remaining idle while I allowed the novel to ruminate in my head.
        Now that the short has been out for two weeks, it’s time to delve back into my novel.

        1. Davies, I have yet to read the Runner. It’s on my list, I just need to finish SHIFT first.

          Thanks for sharing your experience. My expectations for the Runner are huge.

          1. I just finished Third Shift today, finally! It was great. My favorite was his little companion :)

            Wow, I’m not sure The Runner will live up to your huge expectations, but I hope you enjoy the story nonetheless! You may want to save it until you’re really dying for that Wool fix.

  4. Persistence is always the greatest key.

    And when you find the formula for perfect writing, please be so kind as to pass it along. :-D

  5. Again you shine the light on your process for us. Awesome.

    My debut fantasy novel, The Final Warden, is now available from amazon and createspace. I would not have found the courage or the means to bring it to a finish without the insight into the process you have shared with us.

    You gave me the roadmap to follow soon after I started writing. The things you have shared about your process influenced me to go independant–I am a self promoter nor do I think I can withstand countless rejection letters from agents and publishers–now I know the route around that, and if an agent wants me, they will find me.

    Thank you, Hugh, I really mean that!

    1. oops! That should read NOT a self promoter…and also a horrible proofreader.

    2. I wish you all the best, Thomas!

  6. I suspect most people feel the way you do about their early drafts. A few years ago, I read an interview with Elmore Leonard, who said he usually throws away about three-fourths of what he writes. I’m no Elmore Leonard, but I have written a few non-fiction books, and that sounds about right. So I think you really nailed the process, Hugh – read, read, read, write, write, write. Rinse and repeat. Persistence!

  7. Love love love the Wool and Shift books, and will be monitoring the progress bar on Dust (probably daily–but no pressure).
    I’m an avid (some would say rabid) reader and I have already finished Third Shift. I appreciated your heads up to the omnibus, but just couldn’t wait for it to come out to find out what was happening in the Silo’s!
    Very much looking forward to stepping back into that world when Dust is published…and if ever needed, I can provide feedback just a couple of hours after the book becomes available for Kindle.
    Thank you for sharing your imagination!

  8. John in Hollywood Avatar
    John in Hollywood

    I hope you never lose that sense of humility Hugh, I admire it almost as much as I do your writing :-)

  9. “Reading is the best lesson on writing. It’s like listening to music over and over again until you learn how a good song is supposed to sound.”

    Yes! You took those words right out of my head. Only the second author to read my mind (the other one being good old Uncle Stevie…)

  10. Oh and thank you. I’ve been writing fanfiction and poetry and miscellaneous things for myself for years, but never loved them enough to completion. I’m hoping that someday I can love something enough to stick with it.

    You inspire. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Thank you.

  11. I have been lucky in life as I was always self employed. I always did what I really liked. I humbly was pretty dang good at what I decided to do. But you are correct. If you don’t fully commit you will never be “good” at what you do. I could teach you and everyone here what I did, but few would ever be as good if they didn’t love the pain of doing it.

    Don’t try to figure it out. You might spoil it.

  12. I just love how you’re amazed at the popularity that you are gaining and that strangers are reading your books. A coworker had recommended Wool to me several times, telling me repeatedly how fantastic that it is. I finally took his advice late last year, and you quickly have become one of my favorite authors of all time. Somewhere along the way in the series, I went from telling my husband that I think he should read Wool to downright nagging him about it. I’ve been similarly nagging friends and can’t wait for them to catch up so that I can discuss Third Shift with them. We are enjoying the ride. I can’t wait to see where you will take us next in the series. Meanwhile, I’ll be checking out the rest of your books and stalking the blog for your progress. Thank you for being so persistent!

  13. My problem with writing a story is that whole “story” part of it– a coherent plot to lead someone from A to B. I’m good at worlds and characters and painting them out, but the rest is a jumbled mess.

  14. It’s really interesting to hear another writer’s process, and how different it is from your own.

    I’ve found I excel best when my writing has a lot of prepwork to back it up. I plan obsessively — I write sprawling 20-page outlines, that delve into EVERYTHING at a microscopic level. I don’t even begin writing until everything is totally and completely 100% squared away, and I know exactly where every word will go.

    I then deviate from this immediately, as various scenes ring untrue, characters don’t work, jokes fall flat, stories don’t pan out, and I basically take on the task of course-correction. How can I jazz up this scene or this character or this joke in a way that makes it work, and allows me to get back on the track I have outlined? Sometimes I’ll write an entire scene or chapter, hate it, get up in disgust, go for a walk, come back, and then immediately delete it and write the entire thing over again, in a way that’s completely different.

    You describe it as playing by ear. For me it’s like trying to play a piece I’ve composed, while tuning the instrument at the same time.

    But other writers do without any prepwork at all. They launch into massive first drafts without a lick of understanding where the story will take them (or so they claim, but I’m not sure if I believe that). Then they tear the whole thing down and write it again from scratch. I can’t imagine writing like that — as I’m sure they can’t imagine writing like I do.

    To each his own, I suppose. The hardest part is figuring out how to stop emulating writers you like, and instead trying to find the process that works most efficiently for you.

  15. Nice and honest, Hugh. For a more thorough work on story structure, there are a lot to read up on out there. I can whole-heartedly recommend David Baboulene’s The Story Book, which I’ve used actively: http://amzn.to/WKRjbu Both funny and instructive, building on research on the position of story-telling in human history. Oh, and Back into the Future is the running example, which is a plus in my book.

  16. That’s about what I do, so that’s comforting. Just wondering though, where is a good place to post short stories? Is putting short stories (unless they are more novella length) on Amazon inciting the wrath of readers who are wanting something longer?

  17. Hugh, thank you so much for sharing this, times a thousand.

  18. All of my favorite authors spell “motherfucker” as one word. Kudos, my friend.

  19. Good to see that established authors see others’ work and think, “How in the Hells can I compete with this? It’s brilliant!”

    Hugh, you do, obviously, but for me, it’s refreshing to read that. Self-doubt is a part of the process, I believe, and a simple message that tells us to get better at the craft, to work harder at the things we feel are lacking in our own writing, or to just stop and give up. People that want to be writers give up (and I was there for a couple decades myself), while writers soldier on.

    My congratulations for the well-deserved success, you have most definitely earned it. And thanks for your thoughts on the craft and your own processes.

  20. I am not, nor have I ever been a persistent motherfucker, I prefer to always do things right the first time, and to make everything I do seem effortless to others, call it a character flaw.
    It’s not to say I don’t have it in me to see things to completion, just the opposite really, I will work myself to exhaustion to finish a job, but maybe it’s ingrained in me from the all the years serving in the army and being in the concrete business. I don’t have the option very often to go back and fix things, to dabble and tweak, I need to know the endgame at the start and make every step towards that end be a step forward. Nothing stings so much as undoing something you spent precious hours and uncounted effort accomplishing because it was wrong.
    Authors tell me that while writing I should just write through the mistakes and typos and go back and fix those little things later. That it is more important to get your ideas down before they disappear. I can’t even relate to you how hard that seems to me. If I get a sentence down and don’t like it, the compulsion to fix it “right now” is nearly insurmountable. I’m a foundation guy, I build layer by layer, according to a plan. I need to see the whole picture before hand, it just the way I’m wired.
    So to know that many of you struggle to write your way through your books, that you agonize over them, and constantly go back and revise them, until you finally abandon them and say “good enough”, well I think the Germans would call what I feel hearing that “schadenfreude”.
    I love what you and others like you do. You give us untold hours of entertainment. I hope you never stop. It’s a unique ability.

    P.S. I can’t believe I had to go back and edit this motherfucker.

  21. Thanks, Hugh, for this great post. I’ve always admired the discipline you must have to put out great books so often. Now I know it isn’t as easy as you make it look, and that you have just as hard of a time as I do!

  22. Thank god you have no process!

    One of my friends read a draft of my 2nd book, which is still in editing phase, and she asked me how I did it. How did I just create those characters, twist and turn and unravel a plot, and make her stay up three nights straight reading my book. I said, “Uh…l don’t know…I just did it.”

    My first novel was painful, and I had almost given up twice for various reasons. But that was the struggle I needed to go through in order to learn what works for me. After much reflection on my second book, I believe I found my “process” or “method”. (I actually wrote a post about this a few days ago, here’s the link if you are interested -> http://www.tanyamiranda.com/2013/02/what-my-second-novel-has-taught-me.html)

    Once I found my process, my second book was more enjoyable to write, and my few “test” readers have told me it comes out in my writing. They can almost see me biting my nails, tearing up, or laughing as they read a scene. It really was fun to write.

    As for reading works better than my own, I am inundated. For this reason I find it difficult in promoting myself. I just can’t picture myself saying “Look at me, my book is awesome!” when I know there are better authors out there. I know self promotion is part of the job, but I find this is the hardest part of the writing business. I can bang out a suspenseful story…but can I sell it? (Didn’t mean to go off topic…)

    Great post. Now go back and create more eye-stabbing content!

  23. Like the old Hemingway quote: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

    Great post, Hugh.

  24. Hmm.. it took you two decades to be this persistent.. I’ve written short articles and news releases most of my life and only started writing novels 3 years ago. I’ve worked out how I like to write, pantser-style, I don’t plan and am now learning how to persistently edit, it’s taking a while! Great post, many thanks. My persistence has been given a boost.

  25. Thanks for articulating how I feel. I read another author’s work and find myself wishing I had their skill. I once found myself stuck with a sentence that I just couldn’t get right and thought to myself, “How would John Sandford describe this scene?”. At that point, I seriously considered alcohol and just left the room for a couple of hours. Your persistent polishing pays off, Hugh. I didn’t read much in your genre before I started writing myself. Once I began to write, I didn’t want to be influenced by writers in my own genre while I was working so I branched out. The Wool series was recommended by a friend. Now I never miss one of your books. I also frequently stop and stare at a line and think, “Damn it. That’s so freaking good. I wish I had of written that.” I’m going to wind up quoting this post.

  26. This blog post really rang true. I always seem to bite off more than I can chew, and I’ve been trying to make myself finish some of these projects I’ve stared, but some days it feels like trying to bail out the ocean with a bucket. It’s okay – I mean, I’m stubborn as hell, but in the meantime I made myself start finishing some one-page drawing/writing combo pieces and just put the work out there already, dammit. I have no idea where it’s going, if it’s going anywhere, but it’s incredibly liberating.

  27. Great blog post! Great advice!

  28. I’m glad Hugh Howey has to work at his prose [because I do too] but even if he wrote in monosyllables, his knowledge of human nature would still shine through.

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