March Is The Month Of “Penmonkey Boot Camp”

(I don’t really think you’re maggots. You’re all lovely people. Well. Most of you. There’s a few of you out there, with your squirrelly eyes and your sweat-slick palms. Fiddling with your pockets. I know you’re up to something. Be advised: you’re being monitored. Weirdos.)

Fellow penmonkeys: each of you, stick out your chin.

Open your mouth a little. Smile. No, really. Smile!

Because it’s time for me to punch out your baby teeth.


This is the month of no-holds barred writing advice. I will rant. I will rave. My spitflecks will land in your eyes and you will need to blink them away and as you’re blinking them away I will jam my wingtip up your pooper and cram a fountain pen in your neck and I’ll suck up a draught of your neck-blood and then together in your blood we shall write a list of our failings as writers so that we may overcome them.

Or something like that.

Fact of the matter is, we writers are our own worst enemies: so much of the time it feels like we’re in our own out-of-control minecart, speeding toward an uncertain resolution. Fuck that shit, George. No more of that. It’s time to get control of the minecart. It’s time to stop dicking around. It’s time to learn where our failings might be. It’s time to call out our worst excuses so that they may be trampled under foot. It’s time to gaze ahead and find purpose and plan. You will improve your craft. You will dispel illusions. You will discover the kind of writer you are and the kind of writer you want to be.

Okay, I don’t know that any of this is really true. You might not learn shit from me. But by god, that’s not going to stop me from gargling meth and screaming in your faces for 30 days, will it? Woo!

So, you’re on notice, compatriot penmonkeys and ink-badgers. It is time to shit or get off the pot.

Ah! But! I need something from you. I need you to tell me where you feel like you’re falling down. It’s time to evaluate your shit, hombres. I have some posts already percolating in the septic bubbler that is my brain, but I need some of you to step into the firelight and say, “You know what? This is where I’m sucking hind tit right now. I want sweet milk, but all I’m getting is a mouthful of rancid brine.” Feeling like you can’t muster the discipline? Got plot problems? Don’t grok structure? The rewrite burning your short-and-curlies? Plagued by self-doubt? Throw it out there. Whatever it is, I’ll paint it on the back of my hand and slap the problem out of your skull. Because that works, right? Violence and rancor solve everything!

I don’t promise to address everything. I am only human, after all. Well, okay, I’m 12% cannibalistic humanoid underground dweller and 7% insane spam robot. But I’m also 0.03% Cherokee, so that gets me all kinds of sweet-ass motherfucking tax breaks.

So. You. Go. Comments. Now.

Before I conclude this post, a quick word:

I reiterate this a lot but given the sometimes cranky attitude toward writing advice and the dubious dispensers of said advice, I feel like it bears repeating: none of my advice is sacrosanct. It is not Penmonkey Law. It is not the Word of God. The issues I address are issues that I have myself dealt with and what you read here are generally my own personal solutions. You are free to examine them and deny them at your leisure. You are free to disagree with me, and in fact, disagreement is good. When you receive a piece of writing advice and you hold it up and gaze into its unblinking eyes, you make a decision: “I totally will dig on this,” or, “You know what, this just isn’t for me.” And at that point you’ve done what you need to do as a writer: think about your craft. You’ve made an evaluation and have come to terms with what kind of writer you are and, more importantly, why you are that way. Self-examination leads to self-determination, which in turn leads to… well, I think it leads to pie. Or maybe cake. See, even there, you’ve made a critical distinction: do I prefer pie or do I prefer cake? Answer honestly, because it will determine if your name goes on the list for the next pogrom.

That being said, tomorrow I welcome you to the Penmonkey Reeducation Boot Camp.

Please sit still in the barber chair as we shear your head so that the tinfoil cap may sit as close to your brain as possible. Here, too, is your cyanide packet Kool-Aid drink mix.

See you in the comments, and catch you tomorrow.


  • You know, the problem I constantly have is being able to channel my writing to the page. It seems like when I’m out and about, my brain is writing good shit, overflowing with it. But as soon as I’m in front of keyboard I turn into a drooling invalid (no offence to invalids in the audience). All that lovely Putlizer prize worthy banter and description deserts me and I’m right back to clichés. Does anyone else have this problem? Does your brain tease you with greatness only to leave you in the lurch when faced with the blank page?

  • The two main problems for me are depressingly common.
    First is a lack of discipline. I am getting better but damn it I need to spend more time slapping myself in the face for going to youtube and not writing or revising.
    The second is over thinking everything. I have a lovely little world set up that I created as part of an assignment for my Cult Television class (yes it exists). I have written stories for this world but most of the time I start one then back away for fear of it not being good enough as I get lost in a tangle of questions about the nature of the world or the semi formed plot.

  • Problem #1: Distraction. I’m not talking TV or games or oooh shiny! I’m talking sick family, sick extended family, job searches, future uncertainty, anxiety over getting in a position to finally make this duo a trio – all the little (or big, in some cases) stresses that add up to a big ball of nerves. How, future Papa Wendig, do you get yourself in a state of mind where you can actually turn off the distractions for a few hours and write?

    Problem #2: Yeah, a little self-doubt. Not so much “I suck, wah wah wah!” More like “mmmmph, I’m never going to finish this if I can’t shut everyone up and write, dammit.” Ok, maybe a little of the first one too.

    Problem #3: How to turn the dial to 11 when you completely wimped out on your first few drafts (because you were a-feared of being too over-the-top).

    That should be all.

  • 1. Agree with Tobias on his point 100%. This is also my biggest problem. Getting thoughts from paper to brain is like trying to translate English into Dog Bark.

    2. Dialougue. I’m still terrible at writing the interactions between people.

  • What problems don’t I have?

    I come up with characters first. I think about awesome fictional people I want to write about. And then I try to put them in a story, and the story is completely lame and not befitting them at all, so I stop writing after about the first chapter or so. This is if I get to that point at all, because I have the same problem as T.N in the first comment, where all my ideas come when I’m driving, or doing errands, or otherwise occupied and unable to jot them down. By the time I finally get to the computer or pen and paper, I’ve forgotten most of them.

    Assuming I can get past the “this story is crap and I can’t keep going” stage, I run into problems where I have scenes in my head for these characters, complete with dialogue and setting, and I think they’re pretty good, but I can’t string those scenes together into a cohesive whole. How do I get Awesome McCoolpants from Scene A to Scene B in a way that makes sense and isn’t obviously reeking of filler? I know where I want the characters to go, but I often can’t get them there without blowing a mental tire.

    Lastly, I think I want too much out of something I write; that it not only has to be entertaining and driven and move at an exciting pace, but it also has to Say Something Important, because all the stuff I’ve ever read that stuck with me Said Something Important. I guess I need permission to lower my standards at least some of the time so that even though I’m writing crap, I’m still writing, still practicing, because I know that’s the only way that I’ll eventually put out something worth reading. I can’t give that permission to myself. It doesn’t work.

    Also, having children kills the writing spark, as long as you’re the full time parent, which I am. I wrote a poem about it once. That poem ended up being the only thing I wrote in seven years.

  • I have two main problems. The first is my brain’s utter determination to do anything — ANYTHING — rather than let me write stuff for myself (as opposed to stuff on a deadline for an editor, which is easy). Even thinking about doing so is enough to risk suddenly becoming endlessly fascinated with the patterns of dust on top of my pencil sharpener, or to send me scurrying to Wikipedia to discover the 500,023rd digit of pi.

    The second is, I suspect, intimately linked to the first, and that’s the sheer preponderance of ideas. I have lots of ideas. Hundreds of them. More come every week. I keep a file of them, and sporadically weed out the clearly bad ones, and there’s STILL hundreds of them. Any time I try to settle behind any one idea — whether fresh or from the stack — it’s a matter of minutes before demons start whispering “Ooh, but this is a silly idea. Silly, silly idea. SILLY! That other idea, the one about the Steampunk RoboHooker and the jar of orange peel, that’s SO much better… Mmm, RoboHooker…” Consequently, my mind bounces from idea to idea like a meth addict in a gigantic pinball machine, and I never get to do a frakking thing.

    Annoying, really.

  • I have done some serious pondering, Sergent, and I’ve come up with what I think are my greatest weaknesses.

    1. The king high weakness of mine is planning. You said, a while back, that you were a pantser by inclination by had to make yourself a planner. That is what I need to do more than anything else. Now, it is something I am working on, and am achieving more in these past months, but it’s something I really wrestle with. I start work, and just write and write and write and find myself in a dark morass, with no map to guide me. Just ready to be eaten by some kind of Gru.

    2. From that, I sometimes have trouble reaching into depth of characters. Often times, their depths aren’t realized to me until after considerably into a work. I’d like to be able to noodle around a character, figure out who they really are, without writing an entire work just to get to that point. I mean, rewriting will happen, sure, but too often I feel a bit like I’m working with not-people for too long.

  • I can sit at the computer and start typing and out comes…. drivel! It takes me forever to finish a page because I am trying to write and edit at the same time.

    Doubt sits on my shoulder all the time, and is damn heavy. I am starting to walk around like Quasimodo.

    • So far, looking at a lot of:

      a) Self-doubt.

      b) Distractions and, as @Andrea puts it, slackitude.

      c) Inability to reach climax — er, I mean, inability to finish what you started.

      d) Translating the shining diamond in one’s mind to the page and making sure it’s not just a load of black slag.

      e) Lack of discipline.


      All right. Awesome. Keep it come, word nerds.

      — c.

  • “You will improve your craft. You will dispel illusions. You will discover the kind of writer you are and the kind of writer you want to be.”

    Sir! Yes, sir!

    It can’t be just coincidence that I watched Full Metal Jacket last night and was blown away (again) by Lee Ermey’s drill instructor.

    My real writing problem is that I’m just too damned slow. I act as if I have all the time in the world and let myself be distracted from what I need to be doing. And right now, that is editing. And more editing. And getting my first novel out into the world where people can sneer at it.

  • My biggest failing (or at least the one I feel is holding me back the most) is my inability to make a truly devious plot for the villains (and sometimes heroes) to carry out. When I want them to steal souls/commit suicide by ghost to collect insurance/take vengeance upon a superpowered childhood crush, I always end up with something really weak and transparent.

  • This should be fun. I have strange definitions of the word “fun.”

    Having recently sat down to evaluate how I’m doing freelancing, I have a list:

    1) Time management.
    2) Hustling work that pays decent rates.
    3) How not to screw up Quicken. Probably too big a topic for here.
    4) Recently learned but may be of use: how to write a freelancer’s resume.
    5) Backups and emergency files (“In case of my death, please contact…”)
    5) Will writing for writers.
    6) How to get Twitter to @#$%^& push tweets over to FB again.
    7) How to know when you have a whole story vs. the start of a novel.
    8) How to quit bitching about my college creative writing courses that set me back years.
    9) How to confront my fear that I’m writing stories that nobody likes.
    10) How to make certain clients shape up and send me contracts, etc., in a timely fashion. (I suspect the answer to this is: you can’t save someone else’s business for them.)
    11) How to have patience for myself with all the things I don’t know.
    12) How to handle copyright for short stories and self-pub (currently reading Nolo’s Copyright Handbook, but I’m curious to see what you’re doing).

    I feel like I can’t complain. I’ve traded up for these problems, after all :)

    I’d also like to recommend NaNoWriMo for anybody whose writing is too slow and doing freewrites a la “Writing Down the Bones” for almost everything else–know thyself. Everybody should read “Style: Toward Clarity and Grace” in order to go, “I meant to do that” with regards to grammar (it’s not a grammar book but a style book; it’ll help you work through which rules look better broken). And I highly recommend “Techniques of the Selling Writer” and “The Freelancer’s Survival Guide.”

  • I need rewriting help. I can identify the bits that are especially awful, but I never know how to fix them! How does one learn that? Is there some kind of scene and/or character analysis process? What are some common problems with scenes that don’t work? How do I convince my critique group to offer solutions instead of reiterating the problems I already found?

  • If feel the sudden urge to post a link to the clip of the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket :D.

    My main problems have been already mentioned … discipline mostly. I have ton’s of ideas, keep them on file and I love to think about what it would be like to actually write it all, I see myself sitting there for hours and write and stuff … but other than the odd writing burst here and there I haven’t managed to sustain a writing routine for more than a few days. I’d have so much to write, there is so much awesome content in my head, but getting that on the page is another problem altogether.

  • I think I probably suffer from pretty much all those problems to some extent or other, but top of the list is that particular form of self-doubt that goes ‘Who is ever going to want to read this stuff?” every element of what I’m writing gets stuck under this cloud at some point or another, I worry that people will find my prose style pretentious, my characters too grim and / or bizarre, my plots too convoluted / non – existent / bizarre (and yes I’m capable of worrying that my plot is both convoluted and non-existent at the same time… I am an Olympic standard worrier such contradiction is no bar to morale-sapping self-criticism). So yeah, basically I look at the mountain of editing I have to do and think ‘Is it really worth it? Is anyone going to want to read this weird mix of existential philosophy and explosions? What the hell am I doing this for?’ and so on and so forth.

  • DeAnna: “Having recently sat down to evaluate how I’m doing freelancing, I have a list:
    2) Hustling work that pays decent rates.

    This. I want to change my answer to this.

  • Penmonkey boot camp! Sweet!

    Distraction is a big thing for me as well as trying to get the character depth my main character needs because the first book is completely about her. So that’s always a challenge.

  • That thing Sara said: “Also, having children kills the writing spark, as long as you’re the full time parent, which I am. I wrote a poem about it once. That poem ended up being the only thing I wrote in seven years.” I know some folks manage to produce quantities while parenting babies/toddlers, but I’m not one of them, so I get this double whammy of guilt for not producing quantities as well as not being the best mommy I can hypothetically be. Sometimes your choices seem to screw both your true loves over — your career AND your family. That’s my biggie. Although it’s going to solve itself in August when Kid2 starts Kgarden. Oh yes it will. And rainbows will come out of my cats’ butts (probably because the kids feed them Skittles when I’m too busy writing to pay attention to said kids).

  • Hmmmm I second (or third, or millionth) the procrastination problems.

    I will also add to the mix: staying interested and shutting out the din of publishing voices.

    I have written three books. Finishing a novel isn’t a problem for me—it’s staying interested. I have also started at least three books and either halfway through the writing stage, or after the preplanning stage, or even worst, during the revision stage I utterly loose interest in the book. I am not talking about the waning interest that happens in the middle of writing the book. I am talking hard core “Couldn’t care less if the characters live or die and would rather be undergoing torture from the Spanish Inquisition at a Nazi death camp than spent another second on this book”.

    The other, more recent issue I am having that has utterly crippled my writing is shutting out the din of publishing voices. Like a good little penmonkey, I have researched Things. Genre things. Agent things. How to write a query letter things. All the “things” a good writer should know about. You hear about how we have to “stay current with the market” and I have done so. But when I returned to writing my novel, I suddenly, erm…couldn’t perform. I couldn’t shut out all the dos and don’t of writing, the whisperings of ebooks, and what’s current in the genre, and how many bajillion copies the latest bestseller has sold. Instead of me and the words on the page for that first flawed, yet glorious first draft, it was me writing a book while the rest of the world look on.

    Clearly I can’t employ the method I used as a child to ignore things I didn’t want to think about, which was stick my fingers in my ear and say “lalalala not listening!”. Because a writer DOES need to be savvy about publishing. I just don’t know how to compartmentalize myself to “writer working on first draft caring only about the book” to “writer revising novel and thinking all about the good stuff she’s learned from the Interwebs”.

    Thank you from the bottom of my shriveled heart for making this writing boot camp month. I quiver with anticipation to the awesomeness you are going to cram down our throat holes.

  • My biggest problem right now is a fear of rewrites. I love rewriting in general and I’m okay when for the first couple of drafts, but at some point I become terrified that I’m making everything worse. I ruined a book once through too many rewrites. It became a wooden, incomprehensible mess.

    Aside from fixing specific issues (like for an agent or editor), if all the basics are covered and the story is solid, how much is too much?

  • I struggle with coherent plotting and general story planning skills. I’m better at dialogue, set pieces and characters but they could still use some improving,

    Unleash the polar bear of truth upon us!

  • Ah, procrastination. Slackitude. After a long day having my energy and motivation sucked away by the attention-pirhanas that masquerade as my children, it’s too easy to think, well I have to write a shopping list/fold the washing/do some more washing/make some calls/have a cup of tea and a lie-down, I’ll just do that writing tomorrow night. I know I can fix this, as I am the nerd who does all her homework twice when i have deadlines from other people; I just can’t be bothered most nights.

    But the other problem I find full-time child-minding gives me is an inability to generate ideas. Brain-space is needed for this. Any thoughts on how to create some when your grey matter is dribbling out your ears?

  • I’m another one panicking at novel rewrites. I just find it really hard to keep myself motivated over pages and pages and pages of rereading and improving and what-the-fuck-did-I-mean-by-that moments. So I ignore the whole thing for weeks on end, feeling sad and dirty, knowing that just a scene a day would be progress but then that seems like not enough, like not fast enough, shouldn’t I be faster at this yet?

  • Another vote for some discussion of dialogue. My daughter is learning how to read and I wish I could write scintillating, erudite dialogue like the people who write her books. (Except with sometimes more than two syllables.)

  • Jody – I was the same way. Diapers = no writing. After my daughter potty trained, it was like the world opened up again. But then she went to day care about the same time, too, and I went back to work fulltime.

    Oh, rewrites. My current theory is to write new words until you know what rewrites you need on the words you’ve already written. Because they have to be YOUR rewrites, not somebody else’s. [Sob]

  • Procrastination/perfectionism/trouble actually getting started.

    This used to involve recreational cooking, video games, naps, etc. Now it also includes paying the rent, caring for my kid, keeping my house in order, doing promotion on Book #1 (vs. working on Book #2), fiddling needlessly with already-finished pieces, sending stuff out to journals, and many other valuable and worthwhile activities. But it’s still procrastination, if of a more evolved variety. Everyone else’s needs get met first. The easy writing stuff gets done. But the hard work of starting and maintaining the New, Difficult, Exciting, and Ultimately Rewarding goes by the wayside.

    I feel crappy. Help.

    P.S. I know, this has just a wee bit to do with me being a woman/wife/mom. My husband just does the writing and screw the consequences/dishes/bills/whatever. And yes, I envy (and occasionally resent) him for it. Yeah, he has other writerly issues, as we all do. Y’know, manly issues. But/and: there’s also my underlying procrastination, fear, and perfectionism, the stuff that knows no gender.

  • “But the other problem I find full-time child-minding gives me is an inability to generate ideas. Brain-space is needed for this. Any thoughts on how to create some when your grey matter is dribbling out your ears?”

    Sarah: I feel your pain. I don’t know if it’s my kid turning 5, his starting school, or my actually starting to READ again, but somehow the ideas are starting to return. It will happen for you, too. In the meantime, try to steal some tiny bits of time for exposure to whatever used to trigger ideas – hide in the bathroom and read, talk to smart people, whatever. It will get better – hang in there.

  • I’m with many others here that actually sitting myself down and writing is a biggy, as well as getting the awesome, fully written and punctuated stuff out of my head, and on to the page.

    One of my other issues is judging/censoring what I write by what my imaginary panel of critics (or even worse, people I actually know!) might to say about what I’m writing. “Oh, she really didn’t need to swear so much here. What a shame she ruined her whole story by being a total potty-mouth!” or “Why did she write about such weird stuff?” It’s kind of a bummer when my potential audience are already canning my stuff, so I think ways of getting out of my own head would be helpful (can anyway say crazy person?). Or not caring about haters.

  • Everyone has covered everything that I fear I am suffering from…oh and one more: never quite finishing anything I write (unless I have to hand it in for workshop or to an editor). Have these great stories in mind, write about 20% and then poof…never finish ‘em…but think constantly about finishing ‘em…tell myself over and over again that I must finish ‘em…and nothing….(at that point out comes the wine and the my-life-is-worth-nothing reverie).

  • Crippling self-doubt that sometimes leads to me taking on paying freelance editorial jobs rather than using my spare time to continue with my WIPs because I think, hey, at least the editing WILL pay now; the novel may sit in a drawer and never pay (and certainly won’t if I don’t pull my finger out and finish it!).

  • Focus. I’m writing every day. Some days it is junk, so I turn to blogging because that is easy. Then I look at the settings and get lost in reading other brilliant ideas. Two hours goes by and the dinner is burning, the children’s math is not corrected, there are weeds twelve inches high in the veegtable garden and who fed the dogs? My office called and i am two hours late.
    I also fall in love with characters, right now I have this evil ADHD mass murderer who I think does not smell when he sweats. I need to put him through some real trials but now I just think he is so lovely.

  • There is *some* distinction, but I think in general “distractions” and “lack of discipline” can be collapsed into the same category. I mean, if the distractions are necessary & have to be dealt with (i.e. illness, avoiding bankruptcy), then they’re not distractions; they’re priorities. Otherwise it’s all a matter of time management. Also maybe giving one kid (the louder one) up for adoption.

    All this self-doubt in the comments makes me sad!— but is also totally understandable given that creative folk have to scrounge like street mongrels to make a living, while the practical business-y type at least have some mainstream cred., re: income.

    My own stumbly flail centers:
    – Figuring out how to have at least SOME passable social skills while also writing successfully (which for me, necessarily involves being a loner and generally awkward/introverted)
    – Oh, holla at writing a freelancer resume. Because saying that I spend afternoons “just imagining things” is not great for business.
    – How to hustle up a paycheck without selling the aforementioned child (which I don’t have, anyways, or I definitely would). Or, more importantly, without being forced to take a “paycheck job” that sucks energy and creativity. What kinds of shit jobs have you worked in the past?
    – I’ll second the Planning advice: whatever you’ve got.

  • The self doubt is the worst for me when I have too much time on my hands. The waiting between queries, waiting for beta readers to finish reading my crap, the waiting for everything that I have no control over. I start to feel like a teenager waiting for the phone to ring. Maybe I am just a control freak.

    My biggest problem in the self doubt department is that while I have been writing on and off my whole life I just now decided to get serious about it. I feel like it’s a race and that I’ve been sleeping on the starting line for 20 years.

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