The Terrible Mind of Chuck Wendig, author of Blackbirds
In Chuck Wendig’s debut novel, Blackbirds, a mix of gritty fantasy and noir, death and torture wait in the wings. Miriam Black, a broken-down, take-no-shit, young woman, has a terrible affliction: she can see the future. At the slightest touch, skin on skin, the other person’s death flashes before her eyes. She’s seen horrible things, fates she’s tried to alter but whose warnings have had no effect.
Now, while hitching a ride with Louis Darling, a lone trucker going her way, Miriam shakes his hand and witnesses his end. In just thirty days he’ll die a torturous death … while calling out her name.
In a fight to outwit a seemingly unalterable outcome, a battle between free will and determinism forces Miriam out of complacency and into the role of fierce heroine.
Wendig is the man behind the website Terrible Minds, a site where he offers weekly writing tips in his column “25 Things You Should Know About Writing.” Not your average instructor, Wendig’s advice has included “25 Reasons I Hate Your Main Character,” “25 Ways to Unfuck Your Story,” and “25 Things I Want to Say to ‘Aspiring’ Writers.” In one of his recent lists, “25 Things I Learned While Writing Blackbirds,” under the second tip, “Your First Novel Usually Ain’t,” Wendig writes, “Blackbirds is my debut original novel, but it damn sure isn’t the first one I wrote. It’s just the first one that mattered. It’s the first one that deserved to live.”
Author, screenwriter, and all around “penmonkey,” Wendig took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss his difficulty with plot, the importance of reading nonfiction, and what self-publishing and traditional publishing can learn from each other. After reading what he has to say, I urge you to follow Chuck on Twitter.
THE CONTEXTUAL LIFE: What made you start your “25 Things You Should Know About Writing” series?
CHUCK WENDIG: The writing advice in general is there for me above all else. I like to yell at myself. Whenever I run into problems with my writing or see funny things about the writing life, it feels a good place to both vent the steam and mine the “cray-cray.” That’s what the kids are saying these days, right? Cray-cray? Whew.
The “25 Things” in particular are my attempt to pare down the advice – which sounds, er, strange because those lists are pretty huge. But I pack a lot into ‘em, with each of the 25 items ideally being a weird Zen nugget of dubious writer wisdom.
This sounds like a good writing routine.
It helps me focus. Helps me tackle problems. Helps me help other authors, which in turn helps me by inflating my ego and making me feel like I actually know what I’m doing (and I most assuredly do not). Plus, on the barest, most simplest level, I’m writing. Any writing I do helps me to write better.
Plot is your trouble area. What have you done to overcome it?
Who told you that? Do you have cameras in my house? Is my computer bugged? Are you some kind of publishing witch?
Ahem. Yes. Plot is my biggest stumbling block. I countermand my own weakness by planning, plotting, scheming. I am a pantser by heart, but a plotter by necessity. If I don’t outline, then the book is lost in the woods for 5,000 pages. Covered in briar scratches and hunted by bears.
How was it to plot the first book in a series?
I did not know that Blackbirds would be the first in a series, necessarily. It was written to stand on its own, with the hope that it would one day earn a second in its series (which Angry Robot Books was good enough to grant me at the outset).
The trick in plotting was again outlining. I wrote an epic – and frankly unfinished – first and second draft that was meandering, unfocused, so blurry that as an artist I must’ve been considered legally blind. I found the first draft recently and read some of it. The core of the story and character are there, but it’s almost painful to read the way it stumbles around, zombie-like.
The way I focused the book was… erm, unorthodox, and just goes to show that every writer digs his own tunnel into this practice and business. I won a screenwriting mentorship with screenwriter Stephen Susco, selfishly thinking to use it to help develop Blackbirds both as a film property and then as a revived novel. First thing Stephen told me was to outline, and I laughed. “Ha ha ha, ohh, silly-man-from-Hollywood, I don’t do that. That would steal my thunder. It would wound my creative spirit!”
But he kept on me. And grudgingly, I tried it. Suddenly, I had a story that was gaining focus – and by the second outline, had a laser-like focus. So my fumbly bumbly book suddenly had a spine and a place to go. It was a zombie no more. So, I write the script, then used the outline and the script to rebuild the novel. The book that will be published is almost no different than that first post-outline draft.
What I find interesting is that Blackbirds is both the start of a series but can be read as a standalone. I find that refreshing, why did you set it up that way?
It was important in consideration of selling it. I didn’t want myself or my potential publisher to be pinned down in either a single or a series book. Plus, from a reader’s perspective, I didn’t want them to pick this up expecting it just to be a part of a story. It’s a whole story. A real boy. Nothing missing. All fingers and toes attached.
The next book in the series, Mockingbird, will it also be written as a standalone?
Well, it’s not precisely standalone – I mean, it helps if you read the first one. But I don’t think that’s precisely critical, either. You could pick up Mockingbird and it still gives you the information you need to move forward into the story. Further, the concept surrounding Miriam is, I think, relatively simple to understand: she touches you, sees your death, and then the question becomes, can she do anything about that and how hard must she fight fate to achieve it?
You’re also a screenwriter. The draft of Blackbirds was massive — about 90,000 words. Did your screenwriting background help you pare it down?
The screenwriting thing is all about brevity and focus. Each page of the script matters – in screenwriting terms, a single page equals a minute of screentime, and a minute of screentime is like, in Hollywood money, a bajillion-fajitallion dollars. So, you can’t blow up your script to 150 pages and expect to sell it. You have to compress. You have to possess an elegance of language – only including the dialogue that matters and the most critical descriptions.
Though there’s a lesson for screenwriters, too – the script still needs to be readable. I don’t mean legible, I mean, write to be read. Write to entertain even at the script level.
So, from screenwriting I borrowed that level of focus, particularly in descriptions. Dialogue, less so – and even still, Blackbirds still has to feel like a novel, still deserves to dig deeper than what you get in a script and on screen. I didn’t want to abandon what makes novels awesome, but I wanted to take some of the beauty and potency of scriptwriting and jack that into the novel mold.
As such, the novel is pretty mean and lean, I think.
I think so, too. It really moves along. It’s also a visual story. Is this because of your screenwriting experience? What are some things you’ve carried over into your novel writing?
I do write more visually. Some novels spend a lot of time in character heads or dally in scenes that, on-screen, would never work – oh, how often you see scenes of dialogue where it’s like puppet theater, just two characters standing there as mouthpieces for their respective ideas. Over-sharing, too. “Let me tell you my evil plan!” Blah blah blah. An expositional karate punch to the reader’s mouth.
I try to keep things moving. Try to show instead of tell – though there’s certainly a place and a way to “tell” the audience things, and that’s okay, but even there you kind of need to nest it in a process of showing. The way a character tells something or demonstrates a thing is powerful and meaningful. Or can be, at least.
You consider the author Robert McCammon a major influence on your writing. You first read him in your teens and would still read him today. What’s made you stick with him? How has he affected the way you approach your writing, and writing as a career?
McCammon’s Stinger was not the first horror book put into my hand, but it was the first I read and relished. My sister tried to get me to read some Stephen King and, as a young teen, wasn’t into it. But then she put Stinger on my desk and it was like – BOOSH, mind blown. Next came Swan Song, and that book blew even Stinger away. Epic 1000-page post-apocalyptic nuclear America. Powerful and horrific and with a spate of incredibly strong and damaged characters.
That book alone is plump with writing lessons if you care to find them.
But at that point I was reading McCammon – or, rather, devouring his entire back catalog – as a reader, not a writer. I knew I liked writing and telling stories but I wasn’t really sure it was a thing I could do. (Though I certainly wanted to.)
It was his book Boy’s Life that clinched it. It’s a coming of age book, not strictly horror, but it’s also very strongly about storytelling. And that told me: this is what I want to do. I want to write. I want to tell stories.
Interesting note is that, not long after, McCammon retired – despite being a bestselling author he had troubles selling non-horror work and he was moving away from that genre. So he dropped off the map for years, which was troubling to me: and it was my first glimpse of how being a writer was as much a business concern as a crafty, artistic one. It showed me that this would be a tricky industry.
You read nonfiction as well as fiction and consider it something all fiction writers should do. What kind of nonfiction do you read and how does it help you with your writing? What are the benefits of stepping away from fiction?
I do think that’s important! Reading fiction is reiterative. You’re reading other people’s creative pursuits and the best you can do with that as inspiration and research is remix and regurgitate (and you can see in Hollywood how much of it is a remix culture – some of that is fun and clever, but the lack of original ideas can be troubling).
Non-fiction can still be creatively delivered but is not itself reiterative or regurgitative. You read non-fiction and you get ideas that cannot come out of reading someone else’s story. It’s a far more fertile seed-bed in terms of both idea-farming and bringing pre-existing ideas forward through research and pleasure reading.
You read fiction, you can learn the craft and pick apart what XYZ writer is doing. Which is good, and essential. But it’s also an act of diminishing returns. Non-fiction doesn’t suffer from that.
As to what I read?
I’ll read anything. My non-fiction shelves are 75% of my total bookshelf space, with fiction only taking up 25% of it. Right now I’m reading a book about ants. Specifically: Adventures Among Ants by Mark Moffett. But I’ve got books on mythology and symbols and gun repair and Medieval weapons and warfare and the NSA and sex and culture and death and… well. The list goes on and on. And on.
In Blackbirds, your main character, Miriam, if she touches them, can see how people eventually die. What was it like to imagine peoples’ deaths? How did you come up with the idea?
Coming up with deaths are both fun and horrible. Some based in things I’d heard and seen. Others just straight up plucked from the twisted folds of my parasite-ridden brain.
The idea for Miriam comes out of that helplessness of death – both the helplessness you feel when your loved ones die and when you realize your own death is fast incoming.
A few years ago, there was a lot of death around you. At one point a few of your family members had passed away. I’ve heard it said before that much of fiction is working out personal problems. Do you think Blackbirds, specifically Miriam’s ability, which leads her to question free will, was a way of working out your thoughts on immortality? Maybe as a way to take control of it or maybe to face it head on?
Morality more than immortality – but yes, this is definitely me ripping off the scabs and letting the blood flow in an issue like this. Blackbirds in that way represents a harsh dose of reality (hey, holy shit, people die, you’re going to die, your dog will die, we’re all going to die) and also the fantasy (what does it take to move the seemingly immovable boulder of fate and force one’s free will by turning away the Grim Reaper’s hand?).
You’ve self-published in the past and were almost considering self-publishing Blackbirds before Angry Robot picked it up. What aspect of traditional publishing have you enjoyed so far and what are you looking forward to as your book goes out into the world?
I do think that writers these days – especially writers looking to make a living solely on their rampant penmonkeying – need to have a diverse publishing strategy which means taking advantage of all the publishing options that exist for us.
But while I do self-publish some work, I’m certainly enjoying traditional publishing, too. Listen, self-pub is tough stuff. You have to do a lot of stuff which is not writing – cover design and e-book formatting and needling self-promo. Admittedly, some of that is there with traditional publishing, but it’s amazing to me how much of what I do with self-pub just… magically gets done with traditional.
It’s like, out of nowhere reviews for Blackbirds started popping up like spring-time daffodils and I had nothing to do with it. And I see blogs talking about this kick-ass cover from Joey Hi-Fi, a cover I wouldn’t have earned by my lonesome, a cover that is most certainly a book-seller all by itself. (I cannot stress enough how lucky I got on the Kick-Ass Cover Artist lottery. I may not have won the Mega-Millions, but I won that one, for sure.)
I’m having a Blackbirds launch at Mysterious Galaxy in LA – also not an easy option for self-published authors. Sold German rights for it – not an easy option for self-pub. Talking to agents and filmmakers about film and TV rights – repeat after me, not an easy option for self-pub.
What are you working on now?
Eating some waffles.
Oh, wait, you mean creatively? Oh. Ahh. That makes more sense.
Well. I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. I’ve got the third Miriam Black book outlined and ready to roll. I’ve got the start of a new series with Abaddon (tentative series title: Gods & Monsters). Got the next two of the Dinocalypse trilogy to finish now that the Kickstarter for that has gone through the roof. Plus, the Kickstarter for my Atlanta Burns novel, Bait Dog, went over 200% funded, so I’ve got that going on, too. I am, it turns out, a busy little ink-slinger.
Plus I do work with my writing partner, so there will be films and other digital endeavors. Fingers crossed on those!
Fingers crossed here. Thanks so much for speaking with me.
Thanks for having me, Gabrielle!