Wendig’s Golden Prolific: A Conversation with Chuck Wendig
Chuck Wendig is the author of the published novels Blackbirds, Mockingbird, The Cormorant, Under the Empyrean Sky, Blue Blazes, Double Dead, Bait Dog, Dinocalypse Now, Beyond Dinocalypse and Gods & Monsters: Unclean Spirits.
He is co-writer of the short film Pandemic, the feature film HiM, and the Emmy-nominated digital narrative Collapsus. Wendig has contributed over two million words to the game industry. He is also well known for his profane-yet-practical advice to writers, which he dispenses at his blog, terribleminds.com, and through several popular e-books, including The Kick-Ass Writer, published by Writers Digest.
I had the pleasure of chatting with him about corn-punk, Pac-Man, muse elves, and the shedding of literary illusions regarding the novel.
By now it’s well-known that you’re a prolific writer, but I’ve heard you mention that when you were writing Blackbirds (2012), the first Miriam Black novel, you were unable to finish it for four years. What were some of the key things that you learned during that time?
I often refer to myself as a pantser by heart but a plotter by necessity, so when someone taught me how to outline—well, not really taught me so much as just forced me to sit down and do it—it was pretty amazing how suddenly I was able to get all the ducks that had previously been wandering akimbo in one neat little duck row.
I had this idea that the outline killed magic. And I understand the point, and people still say to me, “When I write the outline, it’s not fun. It doesn’t feel like I’m originating the story anymore. I’m not harnessing magic so much as I’m just writing details.” Which I understand, and I think some people can over-outline, and kill their own enthusiasm about a book by getting down to every beat. But I think if you hit the tent-pole pieces, the broad bases, the magic is still there. Planning a journey from point A to point B, whether you’re walking it, or doing in a car, or doing it in a story, you’re always free, upon execution of the journey, to make changes, and take exits you didn’t think you would normally take. And that’s where the magic still exists.
Part of it was also just about shedding some of the illusions I had about writing novels. I had already gotten rid of some of those illusions, because before that novel I was a freelance writer for the pen-and-paper game industry, so I was very good with discipline and deadlines, which are necessary for a writing career. But somehow I still held the novel as this artistic pinnacle, this thing that was very high up and required all these artful things. Losing that illusion was valuable to me.
Now that you do follow a more structured approach, do you find that your characters still surprise you?
It’s one of those things where I’m aware that I control the characters. I’m not under the illusion that they’re mysterious entities from beyond space and time who puppet me, and I’m just their machine. Sometimes we have this idea—and it’s a cool idea—that we’re like a conduit for the characters, a prophet for them in some way. But I think what happens is that you have to let your conscious and sub-conscious minds have a little field day.
The stuff in the outline is stuff you’ve thought about more completely in the front of your brain. But then there’s all the stuff that goes in the back of your brain, stuff that happens in the life you live, stuff you’ve seen, experienced, things that happen when you sleep. Your brain is like a slow cooker when you sleep, and all kinds of weird ideas bubble up.
So for a lot of that, you just have to have the opportunity for it to come out. You can’t be so married to an outline that you’re not willing to seize those moments of inspiration. But again, it’s important to see that those moments of inspiration are not externally driven. There’s not some little muse elf under my desk quietly feeding me Post-it notes when I’ve appeased him well. It’s all me. We’re our own gods in this world: we just have to listen to all the weird, secret, unconscious/sub-conscious language.
Given that your earlier works are horror- or crime-centric, what led you to YA science fiction with the Heartland trilogy?
It started with a joke. I was just kidding around on my blog. I do flash fiction challenges and talk a lot about writing and genre. I was talking about “-punk”, like cyber-punk, diesel-punk, steam-punk, and I wanted to create new types, so as an example I came up with “corn-punk.” It’s about a world taken over by corn, and the rich people control it, and the poor people tend to it.
And then I thought about it and said, “Dibs, you can’t have that” but I still put it in the post and waved everybody away, and made it clear it was mine by urinating on it or however it is you mark things. That was the seed of the idea. It wasn’t really a story or a book yet, but the core, or kernel—pun—of an idea. It was around that time I discovered that my wife was pregnant.
Talk about a kernel!
Right. Talk about a seedling. So I realized that my books up until this point had really put the “adult” in “adult fiction,” and since I wouldn’t want my son to read them until he was at least thirty-five or thirty-six years old, I thought, “Let’s get a little closer to his age and meet him halfway.” Now when he’s maybe fourteen or fifteen I’ll have a book for him.
Did you find that your approach had to change because it was science fiction?
Yes, because it requires a lot more worldbuilding. I spent a lot more time not just on worldbuilding but on the draft in general. Previous to that, while Blackbirds took four or five years of being lost in the wilderness like old people get lost in the mall, Mockingbird (2012) I wrote in thirty days, The Cormorant (2013) in forty-five. There wasn’t a ton of worldbuilding there. I was very comfortable and confident in what I was doing.
The first Heartland book took me about a year. I still wrote the first draft in about two months, and literally finished it the week my son was born, but it still took a year after that to draft and redraft. By the end of that probably half of the book was entirely rewritten. I was trying to make sure all the worldbuilding didn’t overwhelm the story. You still have to tell a story about people doing awesome things, you can’t be like, “Here’s a detail about corn.” So it was all about finding the balance and managing it.
You were setting out to write the Dune of corn.
Yes, corn-Dune! Actually, John Hornor Jacobs, who has written his own wonderful YA with The Twelve-Fingered Boy series, blurbed it as “Star Wars meets John Steinbeck.” That’s one of my favorite descriptions.
Can you share anything about what we can expect in volumes two and three of the Heartland trilogy?
Sure. I’m writing three now, so I won’t go too deep into that one. But Blightborn, the second book, which comes out in July, is almost twice the size of the first book. Not only is it more epic in scope, it takes us up into the skies, into the flotillas, and it focuses more heavily on Gwennie, in addition to Cael. About half the book is from Gwennie’s perspective and it shifts perspective a lot more. There’s more worldbuilding details in this one: more about the history of the Empyrean, the religion and so on. It’s much meatier. The third one will probably be slimmer again, more like the summation at the end of a standoff.
Given the book’s preoccupation with genetically-engineered corn, I’m interested in whether you watch documentaries like Food Inc. or Fed Up, and if you monitor your own consumption of corn/corn-derivatives in your diet?
Yep. King Corn is a good one. All of that stuff informs the book.
And yes, we do, not because I’m somehow heavily anti-GMO, but because I’m anti the power behind GMOs. I don’t like any one thing in concentrated corporate power. Specially now, having a son, we’re more aware of what goes into his mouth, as well as mine, so we try to keep to things that are not highly processed. I don’t worry too much about fats, and even to some degree sugars, as long as they’re natural and not over-wrought, but it’s tricky. It’s amazing how many things are made of corn.
Do you have a career plan for the next few years?
It’s very much about options for me. If I want to write X, Y, Z books and those books aren’t selling, what do I do? If for some reason a certain publisher or market falls apart, what do I do? I’m frequently telling people on my blog that you need to cleave to diversification in your work. You can’t just publish one way with one company with one genre and expect to be safe. You might be, by the grace of all of the gods and that little elf under your desk, but if for some reason that all breaks apart like a cookie under a foot, you have to wonder where you’re going to jump to next. If you have already diversified, you have ways to move that don’t feel artificial, to you or to your audience. That’s the key for me: being diversified.
What’s the worst writing advice (besides “Quit”) that you’ve ever been given?
I went to school and I focused on fiction writing in English. There were two schools of thought. My actual advisor and the teacher who I worked most with was literarily-minded but very genre-friendly. You could sit and talk with him about Fantastic Four or Hulk comic books. There was another teacher who was a poet laureate, and anytime you tried to write something for her class that was genre-based she would say, “Stay away from genre.” I don’t think all literary writers are like that, but certainly in academia you find a little of that.
Given that I make my money from writing genre fiction, and from what I understand she does not make money from writing, except teaching writing, I’m going to go with that genre writing was a pretty good choice for me.
Do you gleefully send her a signed copy of each new novel you publish, with a few dollar bills tucked inside the pages for good measure?
I should do that. Here’s a couple of bucks: enjoy your poems.
Wow, that would be such a jerk move. But so tempting.
Last question: Any chance that we’ll ever get to see a re-tooled version of the buddy-up adventure between Pac-Man and the Xenomorphs from Alien you thought up when you were a kid?
If I could get the rights to those stories, if someone were to allow me to write a licensed comic book featuring Pac-Man vs. the Xenomorphs, I would be on that like flies on a dead body.