Fools and Cowards: The Classification of Writers


Charge! Wait, what was I doing again?(Photo credit: Kaptain Kobold)

There are two types of writers: Fools and Cowards.

Here is how you identify them: Fools rush in before the story is ready, and get stuck along the way. Cowards spend so much time planning that they forget to go at all.

I’ve always been more the Fool. I know, I know: the outliner, who sometimes goes as far as a scene by scene plan, says she rushes in? Pull the other one. Two points here: one, I’m not pulling anything of yours, even if you buy me dinner first; and, two, I outline that way in order to delay myself as long as possible. At least that way I have half a chance of getting some thinking on the story and the characters done before I start to write. It’s an effort to rein in my own impatience and make something useful.

But I still rush in. I still get stuck. Part of the reason is that I am a swirling vortex of primordial chaos in boots. The other is the fear of not doing.

I remember a moment from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. In fact, I remember it so clearly that, though I no longer live with someone who has all the graphic novels and haven’t read it in years, I can call it quite distinctly to mind.* Lucius, the librarian, is going through Dream’s library, where all the books that have never been written are stacked neatly on shelves. He takes down one and remarks that the lady who dreamed it nerve wrote more than a few chapters in real life, though she often spent hours thinking about it before bed.

I’ve always thought that little moment—and it was little, maybe a panel in the comic—was both true and sad. I wondered what the story was about. And knew that there are thousands of stories out there just like it: dreamed but never written.

Trust me, I know the fun of dreaming quietly about stories in the small moments before sleep hits you with a pillow-padded hammer. It’s cozy. And better than watching YouTube videos before bed.

And you know the best thing about those stories? They’re perfect. Because they almost never get told. They remain dreams, far removed from the hacking and grinding and general messiness that happens when you try to write something for real. Because the thing about dreams is they don’t have to work.

But the thinking, the dreaming, the brain work, is all necessary to tell a good story instead of another word abortion cluttering up shelves real or digital. If you neglect that stuff, then you run into problems: plot holes, dead ends, a mushy middle section. You get stuck. And when they get stuck, a lot of people give up. Which is no fucking good either.

Fools rush in, but cowards never go at all. Given the choice, I’d rather be a fool; at least they’re getting somewhere, even if it turns out to be the wrong place. But I could stand to cultivate a little more thinking before I jump in. I could do a little more brain work before I start writing the main story instead of halfway though. Or after. I have been known to do it after.

There re two types of writers by nature, but in order to get anything done properly, we need to act as both. We need to dream a little, do the legwork. But then we need to charge into the breach and damn the consequences.

*Mark of a good story teller, that.

We Can’t Stop Here, This Is Plot Twist Country: Getting Past The Middle

Time to call roadside assistance.

Okay, you’ve made it this far: you’re in the middle of your project. Pause for a moment. High fives and congratulatory ass grabs all around.


You feel it: something is going wrong. You’re losing steam. You’re slowing down. Sweet Velociraptor Jesus, you’re losing interest.

Relax. You’ve just reached the Pit*. This is where creativity goes to die. This is where a lot of stories sink into the muck, never to be heard from again. If you look under your feet, you’ll see the bones of other writers. Here’s where they fell. Don’t be one of them.

The thing is, most advice about the rough patches in the middle of stories is about fixing something in the story. But that’s not always the problem. The problem, dear reader, is also you. You’ve lost confidence. And a writer without confidence gets lost very fucking quickly.

So, here they are, my best tips for staying motivated in the middle of a story when all you want to do is give up.

1) It Happens To A Lot Of Guys. It’s true. It does. If you need proof, have a look over here. That’s Neil Gaiman’s essay on the point of giving up. Those of you who can’t be arsed to click over, I’ll summarize: every book he’s written has been beset by this particular point, where nothing feels like it’s going right. If he can manage to get through it, so can you.

2) Re-Evaluate. Sometimes you’re not stuck, you’re just lost. Did you take a wrong plot turn a while back? Have you run out of road? Go back and have a look. Maybe the way you were supposed to go will be clearer now. Maybe you shouldn’t have gone straight through to Boringville; the left at the corner of Plot Twist Alley and Some Really Fucked Up Shit Boulevard is a better route.

3) Tinker With Your Brainmeats. We humans may be pretty good at stopping, but we are absolutely balls at figuring out why. But you are no longer just a human; you are a writer, and that means you don’t get the excuse of not figuring it out.
So, why are you tempted to give up? Are you bored? Do you not know what happens next? Do you need to spend more time with the characters to figure out what the hell they want so you can prevent them from getting it? Or is it just hard? If it’s the last one, then move on to the next item on this list.

4) Suck It Up. Expecting something nicer? Buddy, if you’re looking for hand-holding, then you are in the wrong fucking place. Here’s the bottom line: sometimes things feel like shit. Sometimes writing is hard. And it’s not even hard hard, like being a coal miner or a front-line soldier. It’s just kinda hard.

If you’re one of those people who is staring at the screen and sighing wistfully an awful lot, then maybe you should take half the time you’re devoting to complaining and do something else with it. Like writing. Complaining is not useful unless it leads to a solution. So, the next time you find yourself whining about how hard this is, try to think of a solution. Fix the problem and move on. Look at number one up there. This happens to everyone. It’s part of the deal. So either fix it or shut up, because the rest of us are dealing and we are getting real tired of your shit.

Now move on. Fight the Pit, or at least go down swinging.

*Also what my sister-in-law calls her home office. I haven’t checked it for bones, but I suppose there could be some.