Evil Monkey’s Guide to Creative Writing: Tips for Beginners

(1) An early sense of entitlement is deadly to development. Don’t posture and preen well before you have any right to do so. (In fact, don’t ever.) Them that do rarely develop as writers, although some of them may become widely published over time. They just never recognize they suck.

(2) Understand that you need to pay your dues. The worst thing you can possibly do as a beginning writer is think because you have a blog, a pen, and MySpace account that you and Gene Wolfe are now best pals and should be sharing writing advice with one another. If a Wolfe-type wants to, hey–that’s great. None of us are posturing. But don’t assume it.

(3) Reach your own opinions on books. Just as 90 percent of books are merely mediocre, so too are 90 percent of reviews (as evidenced by the fact that if reviews were to be believed, 90 percent of everything is amazingly wonderful). Do not rely on the opinions of others. You might be following a fool and missing out on something wonderful.

(4) Read books you don’t like. You gain as much from understanding what you don’t like and knowing why as from reading work you approve of.

(5) Recognize that “mastery” is an illusion. Yep, that’s right. There is no such thing as mastery. As soon as you learn one thing and assimilate it, go on to the next. Writers often enter decaying orbits where they stop learning. That’s when their books begin to go all wonky and stale.

(6) Understand that fiction writing is a craft and an art before it is a business. You and you alone get to determine your relationship to your gift. If you want to tart it up and sell it to the highest bidder, that’s fine. But if you decide you are more interested in making a living at it than in pursuing the highest possible talent level you can aspire to (because sometimes these two things are mutually exclusive), don’t then pretend that you’re doing something else.

(7) Nothing worth doing is easy. Your apprenticeship might last more than a decade. Don’t whine about it. Suck it up, put in the work, and keep improving your fiction.

52 comments on “Evil Monkey’s Guide to Creative Writing: Tips for Beginners

  1. But I hate having to work? Isn’t there an easier way, like a computer program or something?

  2. Jess Nevins says:

    “Don’t whine about it.”

    Jeff, are you trying to put the Internet out of business?

  3. I’m very tall, and I have good hair and at least B+ teeth, so I don’t see how this “dues” and “hard work” stuff applies to me.

    this is America, god damn it

  4. Wow! Firm advice. I write a blog where I talk about word counts, writing accomplishments and links to useful sites for writers and people wanting to learn about publishing. I hope I haven’t broken any of these seven points from the guide! Pride is a deadly sin.

  5. There are always plenty of posts like these floating around the net, but it’s refreshing to see items 3 and 4 o n this list. All too often writers are quick to accept canon (or reject it precisely because it is canon) without coming to their own conclusions.

    4 is even more important. I’ve learned more from books I didn’t like (or more often, parts of books I didn’t like) than from a book I love. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to mention a book that didn’t have at least something I didn’t like in it. It’s hard to stress the “knowing why” part enough–learning to become a critical reader can only make you a better writer.

  6. Yeah, it ain’t anything new. Just needs to be said from time to time. Especially because I do think that the internet, for all that it is wonderful, also creates a sense of entitlement. The most important thing for writers is that we all need reminding every once in awhile to get our heads out of our asses. LOL.


  7. On the whining thing–I recently had an exchange with another writer who was going on about not being able to get anything done because of a few personal things. I’m perfectly happy to commiserate, but at a certain point all I could think of is: jesus, Ann’s shoulder’s in a sling, I had a high fever for three weeks, three intense business trips/gigs during that time, and we still managed to put two anthologies to bed and meet about 30 other deadlines, with only an occasional one-sentence whinge on the blog. Which isn’t to say I don’t have empathy for how hard it can be, but that a lot of it is attitude. Besides, Ann’s good at knocking the self-pity right out of me.

  8. what do you know, there is a Gene Wolf on myspace. I just friended him. Don’t think it’s Gene Wolf, Gene Wolf, though. What does he look like?

    re:#1: that’s always going to be there, everywhere people exist. IMO, if someone’s inclination leads to posture and preen they should be upfront about it right from the beginning. I might or might not read them, although I’ll make up my own mind as to the self-professed genius, thank you, and I might still pay attention to their opinions on certain topics. But, whether famous or noob, least I’ll know right from the start they’re dicks.

  9. Does Gene Wolf sing? cause the myspace one does.

    btw, don’t know if you’d be interested, but there is a wordpress plug-in where you can activate threaded commentary similar to livejournal. No idea how well it works, seems more restrictive. lj comments are easier to read than wordpress comments, though.

  10. Well, there’s Gene Wolf and then there’s Gene Wolfe. One of them writes great novels. The other doesn’t, at least not that I know of.

    I’m one of approximately two people in the universe who didn’t like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, so I suppose I’m particularly in a position to learn from #4.

  11. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Curious–what didn’t you like about it? (I haven’t read it yet.)

  12. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    What i can’t understand is why people think this post is so interesting when I just also posted Hamster Smacked in Ecuador. Where are your priorities, people?!??!!?


  13. Well, surely everyone’s been slapped with a hamster at least once already, so, you know, bit tired and everything…

  14. Yeah, I guess you’re right. You’re also weird…very, what’s the term? “freshly weird”? “not ancient weird”? “differently weird”? I swear, it’s on the tip of my tongue…

  15. kelly says:

    As someone with no aspirations to write, only read, I think writers who blog would greatly benefit from following these rules.

    It may be my loss, but I can think of at least three well-reviewed writers who I’ve passed on because of the whiny or arrogant tone of their blog.

  16. At this point in my career, I think I like 4 and 6 best. Though with 4, I’d add: don’t be afraid to dissect books that you thought were OK or enjoyed but had issues with. Dissect the issues. Figure out *why* those parts didn’t work and the other parts *did.* It tells me a lot about the types of books I like to write and what I’m gunning for in my own fiction when I pull out the things I don’t like even in books I “enjoyed.” I don’t like writing a lot of rah-rah reviews of stuff I’ve read. There’s always something you can learn from each of them. No book is the perfect book.

    And 6 is just a personal pet peeve. Yeah, dude: writing like Goodkind and selling like Goodkind is great! But please don’t tell me you’re an “artiste.” I write slash-n-hack fiction. I don’t pretend it’s anything other than a good time, and maybe for that reason I do get really teeth-gnashing about folks who write hack and say it has some deep, spiritual meaning that mere mortals just can’t understand. Call what you’re writing. You’ll be a better writer for it.

    Also, who wants to sound like Anne Rice when talking about their books, honestly?

  17. Ian Rogers says:

    Of all the points you listed, I think entitlement is the one I see most of all. Writers who feel they deserve story acceptances, book deals, etc., simply because they feel it’s their right.

    Or worse, they criticize other writers in order to make their own work look better. My story was better than that one by Jeff VanderMeer/Joe Hill/Kelly Link/Brian Keene, but MINE keeps getting rejected!!! It’s obviously a conspiracy!! The editors are doing everything they can to keep me out!!!

  18. But I LOVE Anne Rice. It’s hi-larious!

  19. Jeff – I think the politically correct term is post-differently normal.

  20. R. Schuyler Devin says:

    This post gave me great joy; your words are so true. It seems as though Jeff has been provoked by a querulous pack of writing prima donnas. These days it seems that entitlement, haughtiness, and self-delusion has become a rampant disease. It affects more than just novice authors: the American Idol auditions are filled with self-importance; a students belief in the collegiate experience being the beginning of wealth and reward, are symptomatic examples of this spreading sickness.

    I have been writing since early childhood, but when I declared to myself that I wanted to become a ‘writer’, it was for the love of the craft; not for any expectant payoff. You do have to be realistic: it is not glamorous; it does not pay well (there are a few recent exceptions in the publishing world), and it requires time, travail, and tenacity. My expectation was 7 to 10 years before I saw even a mote of recognition: anything that comes before this time or beyond meager earnings, is a fortunate reward. It is an honor to succeed as an author, a by-product of work and practiced skill: never an inalienable right.

    Whew, Jeff got me fired up. Sorry for my 2 cents wrapped in a rant.


  21. Jonathan–great! That’s our next antho after Squidpunk.

    Mr. Devin–actually, not beset, just been thinking about it lately.


  22. I’m planning to put something together for the Squidpunk antho. Had a quick question. Is it necessary to have both actual squids and a punk attitude, or is this more of a Steampunk thing where a vaguely aquatic setting and a stray mention of a tentacle here and there will do? Thanks!

  23. Andrew says:

    I agree that 90% of books are mediocre… there are very few books that get me really excited and I’m always extremely pleased when I find one.

  24. R. Schuyler Devin says:

    Well, given the decades you have been an editor, I can easily believe that it would be on your mind occasionally.

  25. Larry says:

    I guess I better add a corollary to #3 and note that maybe it’d be best (for me, an occasional reviewer) to review more than just the books that I personally liked. I suppose I should have written more about why certain books just were merely “average” or “okay” works and nothing special, but I’ve been of the opinion that if a book doesn’t let me engage it enough to be interesting, I’d rather not mention it if at all possible, in case I promote something that I could care less about. One of those sticky situations that I’ve come across as a reviewer; I’d rather just give the “silent treatment” than to waste time writing about dull books that neither irritated or excited me because they were “just there.”

  26. Also something should be added to this list:

    Self-publishing is almost always a terrible thing. Please visit A.C. Crispin and Victoria Strauss’ “Writer Beware”, and learn why what they say is vitally important for all beginners to learn.

    Hm… I’d also add this:

    If you want to be a pro, act like one. Everyone has to start somewhere, sure. But, don’t sell yourself short just because you don’t think you’re good enough. Also, don’t act like a prima donna, act like a pro.

    And, one more:

    Your friends and family are more important than your dreams of being a writer. If you have a choice to go watch your kids play baseball and to write your first unpublished novel, go watch the baseball.

  27. Good advice, but I’d add as a caveat that there are two times self-publishing is just fine: If you’re unable to find a publisher for a story collection even though several of the stories have been published in high-profile publications and also for a first book generally that’s very strange/uncommercial, so long as you don’t do it through iUniverse, etc. (We’re so used to the publishing model that’s in place that we don’t keep in mind things like the music model, where bands put out their music on their own labels all the time.)

    The second instance is when you’re an established writer and you have a non-commercial project you want to do and self-funding is the best option.

    And yes to that last one.

    Re the “pro” thing–recognize that acting like a “pro” isn’t about the dollars and cents or being out from a commercial publisher–it’s just a do what you’re say you’re going to do, basically. And also recognize that half of the writers out there are what I’d call “disorganized writers”–they’re never going to act “professional” and yet as cantankerous as they can be, their prose is often amazing. And that’s professional enough for me.


  28. This is really humbling. Thanks for posting this.

  29. As a newbie (I think I’m still aspiring to be an aspiring writer), my four word mantra:

    What Would Neil Do?

    Excuse me, I have to go get a load of black clothes from the washing machine.

  30. Ha! Only problem is a writer like Neil is so removed from the indie press and mid-list, in terms of being involved in the gears and cogs of that, that while I’d trust his general creative writing advice and general career advice, he might not be useful on a more micro level at this point, if you know what I mean. Which is why it’s important to get advice from all different kinds of writers.

  31. Cat Sparks says:

    Fuck yeah!

  32. Er, to what part? LOL!

  33. Neil always seems to be polite and quietly humble. I’d like to be like that. At least until I’m rich and famous enough to build my new gold-plated robot body and bestride the earth like the colossus I am. Then YOU WILL KNOW MY HUMILITY!


    “Your friends and family are more important than your dreams of being a writer. If you have a choice to go watch your kids play baseball and to write your first unpublished novel, go watch the baseball.”

    So true.

  34. LOL!. Yes–he is a great guy. Always helpful and never forgetting his roots.

  35. This may be seven or eight Coronas talking, but I thought you just wrote “never forgetting his robots”…

  36. That’s funny, since we’re on our third Belgian beer over here…so I don’t know if I wrote that or not.


  37. Ha! Belgian beer… they can be potent. I’m a fan of German beers – zero chemicals, minimal hangovers. Nice!

  38. timblynod says:

    yes, Sensei.

  39. Terasita says:

    Gene can and does sing. His favorite? “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

  40. You asked way upthread why I didn’t like Oscar Wao. I was not taken with the narrative structure, which jumps about for no apparent reason. I also did not find the inconsistent use of voice to be easy to follow. While other reviews I’ve read say that the book is narrated throughout by Yunior, I don’t think that’s the case; I believe there are portions narrated by others — it’s possible I wasn’t reading closely enough, or that I just didn’t catch on as to who was narrating quickly enough, but I was confused by it. I was also very annoyed that the Spanish in the book was often impossible to translate for a non-Spanish speaker. Even with a year of college Spanish, I often couldn’t figure out what was going on. No, I’m not one of those crazy English-firsters; I just think you should be able to communicate with your audience if you’re writing a novel. But I must be provincial, since everyone in the world disagrees with me.

    Don’t get me wrong — the story itself is powerful. I knew nothing of the history of the Dominican Republic, and now I know something, which is not to be discounted. Oscar’s own personal history, and that of his mother, will stay with me for a long, long time. But I think there were better books last year, and lots of them.

  41. There is sometimes a kind of bandwagon effect–a couple of prominent high-profile reviews and then the herd follows…thanks for the analysis, Terry.


  42. Andrew says:

    Read books you don’t like… good idea.

    I read this fantasy book where NOTHING BAD EVER HAPPENS to the main character. She’s invincible, and she’s annoying. I couldn’t stand her. Which is why in my stories, the characters get wounded, sidetracked, and, sometimes, killed. How can you create suspense when you know nothing bad is going to happen?

    Another thing: Terry Brooks. I enjoy most of what I’ve read of his, but in this recent book, I got bored because the characters always seem to squirm their way out of every situation. Plus, when a character dies, in my opinion, he should stay dead unless there’s a GOOD reason why not.

    Do you guys agree with what I’m saying?

  43. As an aspiring writer I would add one thing:

    Writing is NOT a Zero-Sum game. You do not have to put down other
    writers to get ahead. If your work is good enough, it will stand on its
    own merit. On the flip-side, no amount of complaining or comparing
    or slamming will get bad writing to the top of the slush pile.

    Writers should support each other. Because, at the end of the day,
    if you concentrate on putting down others to get ahead, you’re just
    another asshole.

  44. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I totally agree, Thaedeus. The fact is, the interconnectivity and creativity that results from helping each other out, in addition to the good karma, makes up for any kind of “advantage” a writer thinks he or she gives up by being helpful. And yet, and yet, I know at least five writers who are stingy at best in this department, who never pay it forward, who are always selfish, and who will always defend their little territory. I say “five” because most writers I know are generous and nice and share information willingly.

    I know that if I share my contacts with five beginning writers of promise, it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do, because of that connectivity. Because we are in fact all in this together.

    The great Gentleman of this is Mike Moorcock–a more generous and giving person you will never find. And I take my lead from him as much as possible.


  45. #7:


    You are far too kind.

  46. Aaron Singleton says:

    Gene Wolfe is an all-around nice guy. I wrote him a letter once and he was kind enough to write me back. And his response wasn’t short and generic, but two pages long and every bit as entertaining as his fiction. He is also very modest about his talent and success, always unsure whether his next book will be published. I find that endearing in a man who is SF/F’s most praised (rightly so) writer.

    I also love the work of Jack Vance, but according to many folks I have spoken to, he could care less if anyone likes him or not. He is still a lovable curmudgeon.

  47. I really enjoyed this!

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