Your Penmonkey Report Card

So, last night, I was working on edits for Mockingbird, the sequel to the upcoming Blackbirds, and generally speaking, I enjoy revisions. While at times they make me want to pound my head against a desk until it’s the consistency of rice pudding, that’s still oddly a good feeling — like, the way way that tonguing your sensitive gums somehow hurts but also feels awesome at the same time? I dunno. Shut up.

Point is, as I go through the draft — and this is true of a lot of my drafts — I become aware of my deficiencies and trouble spots as a writer. I know my problem isn’t really going to be in the editing — I turn in pretty clean copy. Minimal typos, grammar in good order outside stylistic concerns, etc. I think I stay on point with character pretty well and I think pacing and suspense and theme are all well-handled.

Really, my problem is plot.

Plot is tricky li’l sumbitch. It just… it squirms away. Like an oiled up ferret. And the hell of it is, soon as you find one of those plot threads that needs to change or get cut you find that it shows up everywhere in the draft — and suddenly it’s like tearing out weeds. You can’t just pop out the tap-root. This fucker’s got shoots and runners and tendrils everywhere.

So, anyway, that brings me around to a question:

What’s your deficiency? I ask because, well, I’m curious. But also because it’ll help me focus future blog posts. Where do you run into problems? It can be something technical, something more abstract and story-based, or something that has to do with all the vagaries of the writer’s life. Hit me with your best shot. Take a good long look at your writing and your writing process.

Where could you use work? I don’t mean just a little bit, but like, if you were some kind of Sinister Penmonkey Supervillain, what would be your greatest weakness, your vulnerability?

Lob ’em at me.


  • Oy. Plot x10,000. It’s worse than usual too, because I’m trying to pick up a story I dropped halfway through, and I didn’t know how to plot properly then. Now that I finally have a full outline, do I focus on editing the shit out of the pre-existing text first? Or do I forge ahead to have a complete draft and just temporarily try to ignore major structural problems/loose plot threads in the beginning? Tendrils! So many tendrils… I just want a giant Monty Python hand to poke out of the clouds and point at where to start.

  • I don’t struggle that much with making up a plot. Rather, I’d love to learn how to balance plot-moving action with necessarily sluggish descriptions and explanations without horribly pacing the thing.

  • Dialogue. The number of times I’ve just wanted to change a story to only contain blind deaf mutes have been great. Using dialogue as a carrier of the story is one of my greatest hurdles.

  • Plot. I’m totally a pantster and I stubbornly refuse to sit down and work out the plot. I know I should. But still I insist on just writing and “letting” it happen. Of course, all that happens is that I write myself into a corner, and have to sit down and work out a plot.

    So, yeah, I sux wit da plot.

  • Plot like damn and whoa. For most of us who have plotting issues, it isn’t that we don’t understand plot. Hell, ever since my college days, I’ve always had mad skillz in deconstructing literature. I can see it clearly in other people’s work and tell them exactly where they dropped the ball, how to pick it up again, where it impacted with the pavement, and how many times it bounced. Try that for my own work and I might as well be the ball. Dropped over a cliff.

    I’m a pantser that needs to be a closet plotter. Any time I’ve struck gold in writing it’s because when I started writing, I had an idea in my head of where to go and how to get there. It was vague and amorphous, but I did it fast enough so that I didn’t lose that sense of direction, and psyched myself out and ended up 3/4ths of the way through the story before I even realized I was writing. But that was a month I care not to repeat because the house and family damn near turned itself inside out AND exploded.

    All who are sharing your troubles are inspiring–it’s good to know we’re not alone in wangsting through all this. Writing processes are unique and fluid and they change on us like cats made of quicksilver, where they can be just as random as cats and ephemeral as liquid mercury. And leave turds behind the couch.

  • As far as I can tell, I suck at everything at some point. If the plot is boiling along, the characters are flat, or the revealed internal motivation is missing, or the transitions suck balls, or I can’t keep the voice consistent, or the action is muddy, or, or, or….

    Although I must say I have consistent problems with transitions and sex scenes. My editor also has a running commentary on my lack of “gettin it on the page” where background knowledge or inner dialog is concerned. I hate the feeling I’m beating the reader over the head with stuff, but I tend to go too far the other way sometimes.

  • Punctuation. I kills me. That and letting go. It’s so tempting to make just one.more.edit…
    I can hardly wait to ship my toddlers off to school, but sending my writing out into the world takes serious will power…and several strong drinks.

  • I need better vocabulary. An easy fix of extensive reading is underway.

    My main issue is that I want to focus on the personal interactions and don’t give external conflict everything I could because it is only accessory to the character development. Your input helped me improve that a lot.

    Otherwise, I have struggled with plot sequence. I know where I am, and know where I want to end up, but when I hang scenes and chapters with suspense, then the clusterbomb climax stuff becomes very tricky to do without having some element be ‘not right’ in some way. It takes brainstorming and tons of notes, but I got it. I just can’t juggle that damn much. I live on notes and dry-erase boards.

  • My main concern right now when it comes to long fiction set in new worlds is making sure my beginning has a hook. Multiple hooks, if possible. Instead of casting a wide net full of exposition and cool ideas, I need to sharpen things down to ONE singular thing, ONE particular aspect, that will grab the reader by the small hairs and yank ’em in nice and close for the ride to come.

    I’m really having trouble with that, and until I know I’ve got it I’m not sure what more I can do.

  • Two things: energy to write after my commute, and when I do have energy, which project do I work on? So, I suppose, focus. Each project seems like the right one for right now, so how can I choose?

  • I have found I’m doing more editing and more teaching about writing (the blog is blowing up after I did Pitch 101 and now with Character 101), and it wouldn’t take much for my nemesis to fully distract me from writing by just offering me more writers with more problems so that I never got around to getting back to my books and scripts on a more intensive and aggressive timetable.

    Writing-wise, I’m often boxed in by my desire to have the story do TOO much – what started as an insurance thriller became a murder mystery became a whodunit became a noir mashup became a detective story. Either I’m too influenced by what’s around me and not confident in what I can specifically do, or I keep thinking that I’m only going to get ONE shot at writing.

  • I tend to underwrite descriptions on a first draft, which leaves my prose looking… let’s be charitable and call it “utilitarian”. So in addition to worrying about filling in massive plotholes on my first rewrite, I have to make sure that I’m building a properly rich world with emotional resonance around the plot and dialogue.

    I have a different problem with characters, in that I’m not very good at keeping my cast list down to a manageable size. More than once I’ve had to go in and merge flat unitasker characters into a more interesting composite creature.

    As for plotting, I can do well either planning or pantsing. The latter just tends to have (many) more holes I need to fix in revision.

  • My description is weak. It’s either very sparse or (I fear) very boring. I read short and vivid descriptions in other writer’s work, but I never seem to manage it in my own.

    But I keep trying.

  • Plot, I can do. Plot is my bitch.

    Voice? Got that gong on. You can tell when a piece of fiction is mine.

    Description, though, ye Gods. The deficiency in my Voice is that even in prose my description is so stripped it reads like a screenplay.

    Note to self. Must try to get work as a scriptwriter.

  • I swear, I had a bunch of good ideas when I first read your post! Then they all just sort of flew away . . .
    Either way, here’s three things that seem to give me trouble.

    First, I’m not really that good at description…I’ve been getting better, but sometimes I still feel like it’s missing something. I have no problem being all like, “I don’t need to describe a forest, the people know what a forest looks like!” But then when it gets to something more abstract, I’m all like, “Do they know what I mean when I say-” And then I get worried or nervous. Maybe it’s a draft 3 thing. Maybe I just have to start working that out in the third draft, and it’ll help.

    Two, I’m pretty damn sure that I have an addiction to the dots of doom, the semicolon, and the hyphen. No, seriously. If I was going to have a blind orgy, I swear they’d be joining me.
    …is that as weird to read as it is to type?
    Anyway. As seen above, the dots are a little nutty. Maybe I just like making people pause a lot.
    *dramatic pause*
    The other two get no explanation – they just come out of nowhere. Again, maybe a draft three thing, but eh.

    Three, apparently I don’t work well when I’m collaborating, because I like being able to control every aspect of a plot. Not a big deal, but . . . fuel for the writerly furnace?

    That’s all I have to say. Besides this: ever tried index cards with your plotting? It works a charm, man. Works a charm. Just look at it. *waves index card in face*

  • I have a pretty bad tendency to re-use specific styles or tempos. I don’t mean my “voice,” but more specifically it often feels like I’m re-using a whole page and a half of tempo, sentence structure and metaphor. Like I’m just plugging in words to a pre-existing latticework. I always have to go back, find those bastards and root them out with a knife (usually they’re a sign that one of my writing sessions was too long)

  • Well, I think this is a little like asking me what my weaknesses are vs. asking my husband. You will probably get a much clearer answer from my husband. And maybe that’s my issue, not knowing exactly what my issues are. I do think plot is trickier for me than voice or characters or setting. And I’m a pantser, which doesn’t help. Because you hit those points where all you can think is, “Oh shit, where was this going?” Plot always comes to me last. I mean, I’ll get points. I’ll know the inciting incident or the ending or both, but the rest will elude me for some time. And connecting those dots can be tricky. I don’t know if I always do it as well as I need to. I usually feel the least secure about my plots.

  • @Dan- think about taking a screenwriting class, maybe? It helped me figure out redundancies in my sentences while remaining descriptive. Just a thought 🙂

    For those with issues finding a way to start a story- sometimes what we first write at the very beginning is purely for our own sake. The story shouldn’t really start there, but you might have needed it to in order to get there.

  • Revising is number one in my book. I don’t know how to do it. I mean, I can read what I wrote and know there are problems- plot holes, stuff that needs expanding on, deeper characterization, whatever. What I DON’T know how to do is put that stuff into the story. Where it goes, how to tweak the scenes, add descriptions or plot elements.

    Descriptions are another bugger. I naturally tend to write sparsely, but then I’m left with people in a room and no idea what they look like or what’s around them. I know some of that needs to be there for setting and keeping readers interest, but when I do expand, it always seems like way too much and will be boring. I can’t seem to find a happy medium I can be content with. (But maybe that’s my problem. Maybe it’s the cranky mediums who know best?)

  • Thought of something else- endings. I can’t seem to stop. Not that I don’t know how it ends, I can’t seem to get to the wrap up where things are tied up and worked out, and then… Everything always seems weak and silly when I try to write endings

  • I have several stories which haven’t found markets yet, and I’m getting the impression that Ye Olde Intestinal Flora have been misleading me about their shape.

    I’m going to start abusing said stories by twisting them into new and ragged incarnations just to see what happens.

    It’s worked in the past: I never used to write in first-person, but that made a huge difference to several stories. I’m sure it’s not a perfect fit for all situations, but a change in point of view was what was needed.

  • Transitions and scenes with a lot of precise blocking and actors.

    Really convoluted fight scenes take me forever and I’ll spend hours trying to figure out how to get a character to walk across a room until I finally realize what I’ve done and just type, “Bob walked across the room.”

  • Holy Comments Bearded One! You really opened the flood gates.

    1. I love dialogue too much.
    2. Forgetting to follow-through with foreshadowing.

    And I have a hard time believing that Kat Richardson sucks at anything. ;p

  • Having spent today copy-editing my script, I can say the following things:

    1. If I can get a good, organized hold on my script (that is, plot it), it generally flows pretty easily, I just have to make myself do that.

    2. But, the biggest thing. The biggest grand-high poobah problem I have? Typos. Typos and spelling errors. I am goddamn awful about them, which is a bit awkward as I hate seeing typos in a submitted script or manuscript.

  • Letting myself suck on a rough draft and just tell the damn story. That’s one I’m working on. As far as issues with story, I always think I have voice issues but I’m told my voice is where I shine? Go figure. The one I *know* I have problems with is deepening conflict and taking tension to 11. Part of that is a craft thing (I’m still learning and growing and strengthening my tools). Part of it, though, I recognize as fear. Fuck fear.

  • I have a problem with organizing revisions so that I can get through them a) without paralysis and b) without taking for-ev-er. I can get through a book by writing 2500 words a day, but I can’t pace my revisions for the life of me. Argh! Would love Mr. PenMonkey to help with that bane.

    Thank you so much for this blog…it’s great.

  • My biggest problem is just putting my ass in front of the keyboard, writing, and actually finishing something. The stories are there, just need to get them out. I dunno what the great witch doctor can do for that, but I could use something.

  • Chuck love your site love your books love your random posts.

    I need plot help bad bad bad. I’m willing to use nail guns on cute puppies to get some real plot help. (ooo that sounded a little sick) I see the whole three act thing in the movies and books and I can point to the parts – here’s the hook, here’s the inciting incident, here’s the lull before the storm. I cannot whip my dumbass characters into following the format. Don’t they know they’re on a Hero’s Journey?

    Also, I want a penmonkey t-shirt and if you were any kind of American you would be selling them. If you won’t do it for your devoted fans, you should sell tee shirts for the rug rat’s college education.

    Former lurker.

  • My biggest problem is failing to take the job of writing as seriously as my old 6 pm to 3 am job. Finding a way to turn off distractions. My next problem is trying to plan a career that juggles blogs, writing, community outreach and homemaking.

    Scratch the planning. It’s just not getting me anywhere. But I can plot, can revise, can research. Yeah, problem number one. I need to slap my butt into the chair and stare at the keyboard for an hour each day.

  • I forget to use dialogue. Weird, right? My favorite movies are ones with quick-fire dialogue (His Girl Friday, The Thin Man, etc.), but my characters all end up avoiding conversations.

    Forget writing advice, I think I need therapy.

  • Commas are the bane of my existence and anyone that gives feedback about them just tells me its wrong not why. How the hell pointing out a mistake to me but not explaining why is supposed to help I’ll never know.

    Also I have a tendency to skip transitions from scene to scene making it jumpy to read.

  • When I first started writing, my absolute biggest deficiency was trying to push readers around instead of persuading them to follow me. And I still do that when I’m feeling lazy or tired or rushed.

    This pushing becomes very obvious with the overuse of adverbs (“he ran quickly” instead of “he sprinted”) and adding explanations after the dialogue (“I feel like the world is about to end,” she said feeling very depressed).

    Reading that crap makes me want to kick my own ass. I can only imagine how other readers must feel bullied by it.

  • I love plotting to the point that I’m simply taking my characters on a ride–“Sit down, buckle up, and shut up,” I’ll tell them, “You be whoever I want you to be.”
    Which never makes for believable, likable, or interesting characters.
    So this year I’m setting my characters free. Since I’m naturally a structured writer, I’m concentrating on my characters–finding out who they are before I take them on a wild ride.
    So you DO write good characters, and once you said that Atlanta Burns just walked into your brain one day and you knew who she was. Did you have to plan out who she was at all? I’m curious about that, as right now I have to write pages of backstories and goals and weak spots and whatnot, because if I don’t I just won’t think about it.

  • Not writing, that’s my problem. I have performance anxiety. Compounded by the dread that I don’t possess any original stories worth telling, so when I do actually put pen to paper, I overcompensate—thick words and long sentences in a vain attempt to distract the reader from the lack of throbbing meaty content with a shower of purple prose. It’s bloody annoying, is what it is.

  • For me spelling is the worst thing at the moment. Since my native language is German and my writing is in German aswell I really struggle with our reformed and later re-reformed way to write. 🙁

    Other than that I’m probably kinda “over-plotting” to compensate for my lack of natural feeling for transitions in stories.

    People who struggle with plots should take a look into the various software tools for writers and outliner software. Adding Scrivener and Aeon Timeline to my toolbox helped me alot to improve speed and quality of my plotting.

    Oh and Chuck, I got another nice German word for your collection:
    “Drecksjob” = a dayjob that keeps you from writing or being creative 🙂

  • *I’m most productive on a project when it’s not the one I’m supposed to be working on.

    *Voice. I have many, some of which I’m more comfortable with than others, but I’m not in love with any of them (and I struggle to find the ‘correct’ one for each project).

  • Voices in the air… That’s how a few of my critiquers called it. I tend to forget dialogue tags or the action that is going on around the characters and their conversations. And Like Stephen Blackmoore said about convoluted fight scenes… Oy vey!

    Though I have to agree with Yversa and Scrivener helping me with some of that. When I wasn’t looking a a big long file of “the whole story”, I suddenly started seeing all the blank spaces I needed to fill in. And I WISH the Aeon Timeline was available for Windows as well as Macs.

  • Characterization. My stories lack the proper use of characterization because when I comes to actually using it, I’m stuck. I know it’s important and I want to get better at it, but I don’t even know where to begin. (This is what happens when you’re like a robot, and you consider emotions bothersome things that impede your judgement)

  • Well, at the risk of repeating everything everyone has said already, plot and cohesive storytelling. I have a great point A, point B and Point Z, the there’s this little bit in the middle known as *everything else that goes on in the damn story* that I stumble over. I’m pretty happy with my dialogue, my characters (even in my worst work I’ve been told my characters all maintain a unique voice), my motivations are reasonable. My premises and themes are pretty well thought out, but *man*, when it comes to getting the characters through an adventure so they can come out the other side and beat up the bad guy there’s this big giant chasm of ‘what the eff do they do next?’ I know where they start, I know what tools they have to adventure with, and I know how they get the bad guy once they reach the end… but what they do in the meantime? Hell, what the bad guy does in the meantime? You got me.
    I also have trouble with revision, but that’s the advantage of never finishing anything… if it ain’t finished I don’t have anything to fix.

  • Plot and structure, Chuck.
    I learn a lot from my writing workshop group, although I sometimes learn more from the other group members’ pieces. That is, I can see the problems with their pieces easily, yet when they point out problems with my work, sometimes I just can’t see it.
    Writing requires practice.The more you write the easier the technical parts become.
    I don’t mind revision at all. I can write a first draft of a short story, and then mold and cut it to a word limit pretty easily.
    But I have problems with longer pieces.
    I was stalled on my novel (my first) until I decided I didn’t care if it was the next American Masterpiece, the Greatest Story ever told, or even good.
    I just don’t care.
    I’m writing the thing for practice, and to get the experience of writing a novel. When I finish the first one, I’m going to put it away for at least 3 months, before revising and editing, and start on the second one.
    But I think if I had the plot figured out, (I’m still working on that) I could just sit down and write it.
    I’m a pantser for short stories, but I’ve found I need to plan the novel.
    Along the way, I hope to make it a somewhat interesting story.
    I’ve learned a lot from your challenges, Chuck.
    One of the biggest criticisms I get at the workshop is that I don’t explain enough in my stories.
    One of the reasons is (may be) the word limits.
    I just finished reading Stephen Blackmoore’s ‘City of the Lost’, which I enjoyed totally. I was sorry when it ended.
    And then, because I am a sponge, I wrote a first person 999 word story for your FridayFlashFiction photo challenge, about a ghoul. One of the guys at the writer’s group said that he normally doesn’t like science fiction or fantasy, but that my story had made him a convert.
    Then they proceeded to shoot it down in flames.
    But it’s what happens. You can take the critique or not, but it’s a good idea to listen to what people aren’t getting about your story on the first read through. You don’t want your readers to have to stop and go back to try to figure out what the hell is happening.
    Anyway, I think I’m getting better, simply by doing.
    Practice, read, and keep trying to figure out your weak points and work on them.
    Also, I would appreciate a group of beta readers. I don’t have any.I write about a short story per week, but my writing group is not always in session, nor are they nearby.
    I will tell someone honestly what I don’t understand in their work on the first read through, and point out typos and punctuation, and I would appreciate someone doing the same for me.
    I think beta readers would help people see their weaknesses, and address them.The more often you hear a certain complaint, the more you will be aware of it and eventually learn to recognize it yourself and fix it immediately.

  • Correct wording. Choosing words that work together instead of verbal diarrhea.
    Read these posts above (and probably below) and this problem is universal.

  • I’m actually going to throw a last minute addition I’d really like to talk about:

    I have a bad tendency to be too vague in a story because I forget that the audience doesn’t know everything in my head. That is, there’s stuff happening in my head that I don’t put on the page. Whether because I don’t think it’s necessary, I think the audience can figure out, or I just plain forget, it is a major malfunction.

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