What Ails You, Penmonkey?

First, as a head’s up: I triumphantly declared Thursdays to be reserved for guest posts and interviews, and you’ll realize that, erm, this isn’t that. I’ve got some good guest posts and have some incoming interviews (and have to send more out — be advised that this baby we have is some kind of goddamnable time vampire the way he eats hours of our lives), so those will come.

But — but! — for those weeks when I don’t have something in the pipeline, I figure I’ll bounce the ball into your court. Ask you a question. See what you got going on.

Today’s question is about: you and your writing.

In case you’ve been locked in a steamer trunk deep down in the darkest cavern, here at terribleminds I talk a lot about writing and writers, and I like to think I’m talking about stuff people find useful, but fact is, I never really know. This is one way for me to know. So, I ask you here: tell me about your current projects and, specifically, any problems you’re having as a writer. Anything at all. Babble away. Read other comments, too — maybe what one person considers a problem is something you’ve already figured out. Help each other. And this helps me, too — it lets me know how to gear future writing posts.

Sit on my lap. Tug on my wizened beard.

And tell Old Man Wendig your problems.

… okay, that sounds weird.


Ahem. Anyway. You know the drill.

You. Comments. Go. Deposit your think juice in my blog box.


  • Thank you, Chuck. I will endeavor to tame my wayward junk (figuratively).

    I hear what you’re saying about learning the fundamentals. As I mentioned, you’ve sort of helped light a rocket under my ass, and I’m in the process of trying steer. It seems that part of my flight should be getting my hands on some educational reading. Anybody have any recommendations?

    Regarding your message to all, the few short stories I have banged out were edited for the glaring trouble makers (missing words, misspellings, and the like), and immediately sent out to a small circle of friends for multiple third party reads. Trouble is, the initial response rate was pretty low (it’s about time for a friendly reminder), and responses I did get were very…safe. I begged for honesty, made clear I was trying to toughen up my skin, and it seems I was still handled like glass.

    Anybody else have similar issues with informal reviews? If so, how do you get what you need?

  • @Ryan J: I have the same result whenever I send to friends, whether they’re writers or not. Either nobody knows how to delve deep and figure out what’s wrong with the story, or they’re just unwilling to tell me it’s total crap. That’s why I’ve hired an editor to look at my story come September; the one I got is a professional and I’m hoping she can give me the critiques I so badly want.

    Of course, I could totally come to regret that and have an Oh No Speshul Butterfly! moment when I get the first edits. *lol* Hopefully my artistic wailing/flailing will only last an hour or so. ;)

  • I wrote my first novel a year ago and in the middle of a rewrite now. If writing the first draft was a pain in the ass, revisions/rewriting is prison time with Mandingo. Having a hard time getting into my MC, did in the first draft, same with the second. That suggests, to me, that I need to change the MC, but that would mean scrapping the entire manuscript and starting over. For reference, I was the little kid that was devastated when I had to leave my crib.

    Second novel, so far, is going well. I’m getting words down, anyway. I like it better than the first, so we’ll see how it goes.

  • Tim, I never managed to finish reading STORY. I’m more of a SAVE THE CAT! guy – which I recommend if you haven’t read it. What I do when I’m unsure about my plot is showing it to somebody. Most plot holes your brain won’t see will be obvious to most writer types.

    On an aside, I had to check your site because your name seemed familiar. Of course, Feng Shui ! I translated those books you wrote in =)

    Kara, regarding the getting the words done without revising as you go issue, have you tried typing blind? I call this the Zatoichi technique : move the keyboard away from the screen or, on a laptop, change the font size to 3. You’ll do plenty of typos, you’ll start sentences again, you’ll think out loud on the page. But you’ll get the bloody stuff out. Your second draft will be a bit harder to work on, but I usually find it saves time overall.

    Andrew, Kate, Elizabeth, thanks a lot for your suggestions.

    I try to create villains with motivations that go beyond making the protagonist miserable. I also try to make them failed good guys, or people who think they’re doing good. It’s mostly their plans that don’t make sense, or aren’t detailed enough. I guess I should pay more attention to that bit when plotting stories.

    The mirror thing, I’ve heard on a podcast somewhere. It’s also something I try to think of when writing up my villains. Maybe I should also try to mirror the way they face situations, it might make it easier to decide of their actions. Hmmmm…

    *Goes back to his file*

  • “Hell, I wasn’t where I needed to be when I wrote it.”

    Chuck, this, this, this.

    I started writing my WIP 25 years ago. I was not the person I needed to be to write what I wanted to write. I was all about sorrow and loss, cause I’d had some of that. Writing was my therapy. Actual therapy would probably have been faster and more effective.

    In the interim, I’ve acquired a stellar husband and a vampire time-sucker who doesn’t require so much time any more, and a healthy, radiant sense of joy and an actual sense of humor. While sorrow and loss can add resonance to your writing, nobody wants to read *only* that. It took me a long time to see that’s what I was doing. OTOH, I can make you cry your eyes out . . . .

    I’m able to love my work now. To think of it *as* my work, my way of giving back to the world. Not always, not as whole-heartedly as I may be able to some day, but enough. This is what keeps me at it.

    @james knevitt, maybe the voice in your head is onto something. Don’t you trust it?

    @Elizabeth Poole ever read any Buddhist writings about being “in the present moment”? The past doesn’t matter. What is, right now, is the only thing that’s real. If you love your WIP right now, what does the past matter? (WIPs are like husbands that way.) BTW, thanks for this: “The really awesome thing is when you look at it like that, then you realize that your MC is essentially fighting his OWN dark side.” That’s helpful, that is.

    @athena, have you considered putting that joy into words and handing it to other people, who will surely be grateful?

    @ryan jassil Jason Black’s Plot-to-Punctuation blog has excellent writing advice. I’ve learned a lot there.

    @lesann All I’ve got to say is, when you do decide to be done, it’s gonna feel . . . good.

  • Other than the fact that the kiddo is home from school and very much demands my time…thus, Mommy doesn’t get to write (and thus Mommy goes batshit)? My gripe right now is that I’m trying to do a sequel to the zombie novel I wrote last year. I’ve got this plot arc that stretches over about 3-5 books. I know where I want these characters to end up, I know some of the things I want to throw at them. Problem is that Book 2 eludes me. Everything I want to do with this character RIGHT NOW is Book 3 material because of personal growth. Feels like I’m missing something in between Book 1 and the material I want to write right now. Then, an apocalyptic finale popped in my head for the end of that series and it’s clearer than Book 2.

    AND I’ve got another character poking me to tell his/her story (YA Transgender fiction). That one is very time-consuming and research heavy at the moment.

    And I have a short project that I want to finish up. And shorts that I want to polish up and submit for lit mags etc.

    Yeah. I need about 30 more hours in the day, most of those with a babysitter. Or a clone. Maybe both.

  • @Wes – Finish it anyway. Get the rough draft out of you, let the story finish and THEN tweak it. That’s why you have a rough draft. You get a mulligan. Or four.

    @Athena – yay for you being happy! That just means you have perspective when it comes to darkness. The best thing for you to do? Torture others. Fictional others, that is. Make their lives hell so that they can see the brightness of joy that you’ve found in your own life. :) Start with shorts if you’re having issues with writer’s block.

    @RR KOvar, Comfy Denim and Josh and anyone else with query issues: Keep the faith, yo. I’m back in the query game after 8 months with an agent who turned sour. Do your research, polish the letter and keep on working on other projects. Hone your craft. If the rejections start piling up, take a look at the book again and objectively see if there’s something that needs work. If agents “just aren’t excited about the project”, tweak the query so that it’s more engaging.

    …will check out more comments later. Gotta go be Mom.

  • I had such a crappy day today! My mind just didn’t seem to click with the characters or the story.
    I am tweaking a 60k project and yesterday I was truly disappointed with the writing of the first chapters. There I was bug eyed wondering if I had really written those words!
    Today the writing was better more to what I was expecting, but still I felt too sluggish to do any serious work on it.
    I have been working on the story for a year and a half, even longer maybe, and it is time to close it and find a publisher.
    So much work and still the uncertainty of ever getting published to deal with!
    Still, I wouldn’t change it for the world.
    If I make it, it’s going to be the best achievement of my fucking life!

  • My biggest problem right now is re-writes. So I’ve got a bunch of short stories I wrote a few years ago that I’m planning on putting on a future website. The biggest thing about them is that while they don’t suck and they actually do have a few good ideas to them, they’re just not good. They writing style I was using was very formulaic and it really ended up hurting the stories themselves. In short, they were mediocre, about the literary equivalent of a Kate Hudson/Matthew McConaughey rom-com.

    So…re-writes. And not just re-writes it seems, but desperately trying to approach the stories themselves from a different angle. Trying to sex them up a bit. If there’s a scene in there where it’s just plain exposition I’ll try to come at it from an angle where it’s at least entertaining exposition. Of course this means I have to pretty much entirely ditch what I’ve written for in some scenes, This also means that I’m just writing the story once again from scratch, only this time I’ve got a write up of what didn’t work the first time.

    Le sigh. Sexing up is hard to do sometimes.

  • Another problem I have–thought I guess I hate to admit–is that my writing is too stiff and distant. It’s really difficult for me to open the vein and pour some soul into the story. It’s just a lot easier putting the ideas down as clearly as possible, even if that makes it lifeless sometimes.

    It’s hard balancing between being clear and being creative.

  • I’m cheating on my novel with a book length non-fiction project, and I’m having to ignore the fetching advances a too-long short story that’s dying to be massaged to a full novel draft.

    I’ve been a bad bad girl, and the summer is going to end before all of these projects reach a satisfying conclusion.

  • @Josh and @comfydenim

    Knowing absolutely nothing about your submissions to agents, I’ll jump in and make a sweeping generalized suggestion. I am so-o good at those.

    Go back to what you submitted and look at 2 things and 2 things only:

    Emotional punch


    If the verbs are muddy, prose bogs down. (Is that a pun or something?) The thing is a lot of us forget the propulsion power of the flaming hot verb.

    If there’s no poking at the coals of the emotions, fear, lust, etc, agents/readers can’t feel. If they can’t feel, they nod off.

    When you’ve exhausted your search for verbs and emotional punch, pick two more things and comb through the pages for those. Be systematic, it speeds the rewrite process. Or not.

  • My short ebook, Farting in Church, has sold 6 copies and been downloaded 21 time during my freebie campaign. Thanks mum and friends. My next thought is, “How do I gain new readers who know nothing about me?” That is, how can I make converts. I mean ‘drink this cool aid and join me in Glory for all eternity’ kind of readership.

    I’ve got some land in Guyana, but no one’s moving in. How do you gain readers?

  • @Elizabeth: I mainly try to write in the few hours they’re not home during the day, and late at night/early morning when they’re asleep. Unfortunately our library is in the process of relocating, so that’s out. My room has no room for a desk (it’s just my bed, a set of drawers and a bookshelf) and the lighting is crap, so even if I took my laptop in there, I’d be too uncomfortable to write for any length of time.

    Telling them off does nothing, since even though I’m 25, they still see me as their “child” and therefore whatever I’m doing as a hobby can’t be that important. Still, I’ve got to the point where I no longer give them IT advice, since they ignore me and still screw up their computer and then blame me anyway :D

  • I wanted to offer up a few ideas for people before I drag everyone down with my problems. Writing verses editing, and editing as you go: stop fucking doing it. Just stop. I write (if you can call it that) in notepad. No frills, no distractions. No multicolored squiggly lines demanding that I correct something–maybe I MEANT to spell it that way. Maybe I’m making up a new word. Maybe my goddamn fingers are too bigm for the keyboard. The point is, write, and don’t look back.
    When you don’t feel like writing, or have constipation of the brain…go back and look at what you wrote. I swear to God, you need to wait at least 72 hours. Make some corrections, or whatever, and look at it with fresh eyes. You’ll start writing.
    The chick who said her writing seems too distant to her (I might be too lazy to scroll back up and get her name. Are you going to make something of it?) and others–I write a blog to practice my writing technique. It’s just a journal of my stupid life, but I write it various ways. I write some entries like they are fiction. I write some in poetry. I wrote one where I intentionally misspelled every word. I try on different voices. It’s practice, and I’m comforted by the fact that no one reads my blog.
    I don’t want to unintentionally offend anyone with a degree in some kind of writing or communication field (as opposed to intentional, when I am in your face) but I want to encourage people WITHOUT writing degrees. Who’s with me on this one? You can teach technique–you can learn structure, grammar, and other stuff that I don’t know the words for–but you can’t *teach* creativity.
    But you do have to practice. So practice, bitches. My favorite thing that I’ve come to on the internet is this website, because of the writing challenges. It’s a chance to write for an assignment, and a chance for people like me (unread, unwashed, unloved) to get read. The people that have come to my blog and read my shit and have passed along a few nice words to me are now my closest and dearest friends whom I will stalk and eventually capture and tie up in my basement. What are friends for?
    Geez, don’t freak out. But a little encouragement goes a long way. A little pat on the back, just a note that says, “Hey, I read your story and it didn’t suck as much as I thought it would” really makes my day. We all need to encourage each other. But mostly me, to feed my narcissistic ego.
    Man, did I ever get off track. It’s late and I need to go to bed. I work two jobs. I still find time to write. Maybe it’s late at night. Maybe it’s early in the morning, if you’re a freak of nature. Give yourself an hour at the end of the day to write. Lose an hour’s sleep. Why do think God invented coffee?
    But I wanted to add that writers need to read, also. Read different things, so that you don’t subconsciously mimic any one writer. Read stuff that you read years ago, and pay attention to the writing, and the voice, and the style. What did you like about? What drew you in, what attracted you to it? What do you not like, now that you are paying too much attention? Try to apply that to your own writing.

    Now, to my own problems, for which I require your undivided attention:
    First, some people don’t understand when I’m being sarcastic, because I sound sincere all the time. Maybe that’s not a thing.
    I have approximately 5 dozen story ideas. Most are just that–ideas. Maybe a paragraph or a page, so I wouldn’t forget. Some, however, have more than that–50-60-130 pages. The one I have the most written of, however, is kind of a cheat: It’s stuff from my blog. I realized that with all the experiences I’ve had working in restaurants for 25+ years, there was a story there.
    I’ve been going back and trying to fill in the holes, remember the good times and the bad times. My question is kind of a quirky technical thing that I’d like an opinion on:
    If I go back in my memory and write about something that happened 17 years ago, should I write about it in the present tense, like I wrote in when it was happening? Or should I write it from the future, looking back at the past? What do you think is best? I’m thinking this is a memoir, more or less. Of course there is a fictional element, because i can’t remember what I did last week with accuracy. For shit two decades ago, you better believe I’m making some of the details up. The basic story is true. As far as you know.
    I’m done. Thanks.

  • My main problem at the moment is feeling like I have no right to complain.

    I’m in a good position and have taken a year off to write, which started in April. I started, like we all do, full of excitement and joy at getting the chance to do something I am passionate about.

    Problem is, as the rejections for the short stories I sent out come back, I feel less like writing my novel. And there is nobody I can have a moan with/to. Everybody else has more valid complaints about fuckhole bosses and cunty colleagues.

    I’m doubting myself.

    I hear you, Chuck, saying that I should keep on writing, even if the first draft is a bag of wank, but it’s hard to let go of the ideals that I was going to do something good.

    Added to that, my beta readers have full time jobs and pestering them for their feedback seems way too selfish an act.

    I did briefly consider alcoholism, but it seemed such a labour intensive choice I couldn’t be fucked to do it.

    I’ve just re-read what I have written so far and I seem like such a whiny cunt. Sorry about that. It’s just nice to unload.

    Actually, posting it here may be the best thing for me, as, while I have been writing, I have started to feel better-ish.

    Also – @Rachel – tell them all to twat off, or you’ll not share your massive fortune when you are a world renowned best selling author. Or failing that, keep coming back here for us to sympathise with you.

  • Kate Haggard, rewriting is evil. It’s a special circle in hell, I’m convinced. BUT (and you knew that was coming) everything you do to your current WIP will make it better. It’s small steps toward a goal. I recently did rewrites on something (god help me) I THOUGHT was done. It wasn’t. I killed off one character’s parents. I made another character more crazy. It was a lot of work, but looking at the manuscript now, it was totally worth it.

    Take it one scene at a time. Make yourself a schedule, if that helps. Kick its ass! You can do it.

  • Okay, so I hope people are still checking these comments a day later. I totally meant to keep participating, but I was in a minor car accident yesterday afternoon. No damage to the car, but I’m pregnant so the day was spent in the emergency room making sure me and the baby-kins are okay (which we are, except very sore).

    @Stephan Blackmore: Nathan Bransford has a post on a series bible here: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/05/series-bible.html Which I’ve found to be very helpful. I like your idea of short stories too. :D I would suggest getting a separate binder and putting all your information in there. I actually use a cheat sheet even for stand alone novels because I suck at remember all of the secondary characters’ names and physical description.

    @Ryan: Here’s a secret. You are never going to feel like you have it all figured out. Seriously. Other people correct me if you feel differently, but I’ve been writing seriously for at least five years now (and dabbling in writing my entire life) and I STILL feel like I am just scratching the surface. I read every writing book I could get my hands on. The “Write Great Fiction” series is good, especially “Plot and Structure” by James Scott Bell. I will also sing the praises of Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. I also read a lot of industry blogs by agents, editors, and other writers (like the wonderful terribleminds). I also have some friends who give me feedback on my work. Still, I am working towards writing a great book and getting an agent.

    This may sound depressing, but really it’s not. The great thing is you will always be learning. You will always being growing as a writer.

    You also have to resist chasing the shiny at all costs. Really. I didn’t write a full length novel for years because I constantly chased the shiny. I’d lose interest halfway through, and abandon the book. I did this for YEARS. My entire writing career in high school. My early adulthood. It wasn’t until I pushed through the urge to chase the shiny and finish a book did I really start to learn what it takes to write a novel. Chuck says real writers finish what they start. It’s true, because you can’t edit a half written draft. You can’t query a half written draft. A lot of writing starts AFTER you finish that first horrible draft.

    If you’re in the middle of a book, and you get this great idea (which is normally when they come) and you’re just ON FIRE about this idea, try this: open a new MS Word document or whatever you write in, and jot down the shiny new idea, and then get back to work on your current project. Give yourself a time limit. “I will brainstorm the Shiny New Idea for 15 minutes, and then I will get back to work.”

    Really though, that’s the atom bomb of a solution. I wouldn’t do that for every single shiny new idea.

    Good luck and welcome to terribleminds!

    @Lesann: Have you tried outside feedback? Sometimes you get to the point where you literally have no idea if what you wrote is good or bad. It can be really eye opening to get someone else’s eyes on your work to give you some direction.

    @Dana: don’t feel too bad about the fan fiction. A lot of my writer-friends have their start in fanfiction. It’s a really great way to learn how to write without having to come up with characters and setting and such. You don’t realize it, but you ARE creating stuff in fanfiction. Unless you are just copying down what JK Rowling wrote, you are coming up with brand new dialogue, and new situations for the characters to respond to.

    Your biggest hurdle is then something original. But you can steal from the ideas you love. The act of saying, “Wow, I really love Harry Potter, but what if he was a girl? And I don’t like musty castles, so let’s set this baby in a tropical setting. And I am not in the mood for YA, let’s make it an adult story. Also, I’m not feeling the magic thing, so let’s do something techno, like the Matrix. And I just read this awesome book where people with special skills where running from the government, so maybe Harriet and her friends escaped from government lab and are on the run.” Suddenly, the idea inspired by Harry Potter looks nothing like it.

    You just have to take it a few steps further than, “What if Neville was the Chosen One instead?” It sounds like you’re just nervous about taking your training wheels off. Maybe you could write some original short stories, like fan fiction, to get you in the habit of making everything up yourself.

    @Ryan and Selena: Yeah, helpful feedback is the white unicorn of writing. It really helps if the people reading your book are writers. And you know the person well enough, that you can say, “Please, tell me if this scene sucks. I would rather know NOW than when I query an agent and get a request for a partial. You wouldn’t let me walk outside with broccoli between my teeth.” If the person isn’t being specific, try asking them specific questions. Like, “Was it believable that my unicorn mage turned against the Great Fairy and doomed Elfland?”

    @Eric: Oooooh, it’s his plans. Yeah, those are a pain in the ass. Sometimes I have an entire outline that is JUST the antagonist and what he is doing. What really helps me is to figure out for each scene what the antagonist is currently doing. Even if the antagonist isn’t directly in the scene, I write a little sentence like “ Meanwhile, Dr. McEvil is out torturing puppies and donating blood to the Red Cross.” There might be a ton of scenes that the antagonist doesn’t appear in, but a lot of time what he does will have a ripple effect to your MC. So maybe later on, Mary Sue goes to the Red Cross and sees that Dr. McEvil has left his decoder ring of Villainy there, and this gives her the key to stopping him.

    @Susan: YES. Thank you. That is great advice. I am terrible about thinking how things were, and what might happen, and completely ignoring the here and now. I just need to focus on right now, because nothing else matters. :D And I am glad to help.

    I also second your suggestion of Jason Black’s Plot to Punctuation blog.

    @Rebecca: Yesh, that sucks. I suppose you could always chloroform them to get some extra writing time in.

    Chuck, one of my favorite things about your site is the other people commenting. *coughcough* forums maybe? *coughcough*

  • My biggest problem is that I have a million ideas and never enough time to properly flesh them out. I have so few finished first drafts even, and even fewer pieces I’ve gone back to and truly edited to get them where I want them to be. On top of that, I I’m a freelance writer still in that gruesome phase of having to do mostly work that I don’t enjoy. On top of that, I’m building my website/online portfolio and trying to get a blog off the ground to help move me more into the writer space I want to be in, and with all of that going on, I’m not getting any closer to figuring out how to get myself alone in a quiet room with just one project that I can truly focus on… Any words of advice for the writer just a couple years into it, who still hasn’t figured out a rhythm in her art or career?

    Thanks! LOVE your blog!!

  • I don’t really have any woes, per say, other than I’ve finally went ass over teakettle into the abyss and decided if I’m not going to win the frakking lottery least I can do is sit on my ass and throw finger jabs, left pinkies, and index uppercuts at the keys till they submit to my will of writing a story/book. I really have 1) you our bearded beloved Charley and your wonderful writing advice to thank 2) the damnable, disappointing lottery for not forking over that damnable 200 million to my sweaty, greasy blood stained palms (and partly my brain for constantly perplexing what I’d do with that much in over-inflated green paper,) and 3) my fellow self pub’d author Liz Staley (http://adrastus.comicdish.com/index.php) She’s always creating stuff and I’m tired of being jealous of that so I’m finally uncaging just one of the ideas I’ve held tied up in the attic all this time.

    The problem I do have is, where the hell were you 12 years ago when I sat in English class and all the teacher explained about writing was put pen to paper and write. Then we covered the unit I really should have failed, punctuation and grammar. As you can probably tell. So I was born unto this world as a pantser. Now I’m reading Confessions and while I’m learning a lot, I know nothing of this story outline and character bible you speak of. Do you know some good resources, so I may learn the ways of the plotter? While at work I did attempt a quick story outline by just jotting down action points I wanted to hit and found it kind of weak in the middle. Granted I’m only a little over 2k in have a ways to go before I have to fix the sludge of the middle. Hopefully I can atleast slap something down close to what I’m looking for and fix it in post. See I was paying attention oh great bearded one.

    Well I’ve shot most of this day in the foot enough. It’s a quarter till midnight and I haven’t written a thing. Good thing I bought a BFC of Monster so I can sip it’s sweet nectar and keep on plugging away at the word count till my heart explodes as the sun rises.

    Your friendly schizophrenic amateur ink junkie
    John Doe

  • i know im late, but here goes.

    i blogged about this myself, but my biggest issue is ADHD wrapped in depression. when i write, i write my ass off. when i edit, i edit with blinders that drive my boyfriend insane. but when the bouts of depression hit or when i see something really pretty on the internet, im a goner. i look at the clock after however many hours have gone by and the depression gets deeper. ive tried ADHD meds. they work with focus, but they focus you like a meth head. ive taken electronics apart and cleaned the fuck out of my house, but got no writing done.

    i’ve just finished a manuscript that will be in the revising booth for the next month before its due to my editor and then i have to finish up the final edits on a book that will be other later in the year. i know i can do it (know = have to so i dont break my contract), but it would be lovely to pass the next few months with fewer distractions and less moments where jumping off my building seem like an excellent idea.

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