Now Drop and Give Me Twenty Character Descriptions!


You might remember my rant about how the majority of books about writing are shit. As I’ve preached for some time now, The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction by John Dufresne and 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might by Pat Walsh are head and shoulders above most of the other writing books that are downright insulting. And of course, John Gardener’s books are justifiably legendary in their excellence.

The point is that, with those few exceptions, I’ve been avoiding writing books like the plague. But for some strange reason I found myself staring at that section in the bookstore and came across this little gem. Novelist’s Boot Camp: 101 Ways to Take Your Book From Boring to Bestseller by Todd A. Stone has a super cool design, seems like it contains useful information, and it’s written by someone who knows their stuff.

Decked out in olive green, including maps, old-school soldier illustrations, and chapters with titles such as “Battle Plan Charlie: Development: Mission IV, Devise Your Operations Order,” this is what happens when G.I. Joe takes over a creative writing class. Admittedly, presentation gimmicks and snazzy book design aren’t for everyone. But this one looks like it was executed well and pulls off the gimmick. If you’re into that kind of thing. I think it’s pretty cool.

I used to work with Stone a few years ago over at and he had some tough theories on literary interrogation scenes that made the writers scream with frustration. But after we got over our irritation, it became clear that he was always right. Stone kept everyone on their toes, demanded good work, and wasn’t afraid to challenge you if it made the story better. I haven’t been in Stone’s crosshairs for a while so I don’t have any inside information about the book just yet. And I haven’t read much of the text yet, but I’m confident that Novelist’s Boot Camp carries some useful literary ammunition.

In just the first few pages, Stone skewers the whole romantic notion of writers who spend all day in coffeehouses talking about art with a capital A and even mentioning the word “muse.”

In the civilian world, the budding novelist thinks of writing her novel as something almost mystic. She sits around and waits for some faceless muse to call. The would-be author performs countless unfocused free-writing exercises, or engages in hours or days of general research while waiting for the words to flow.

Maybe tomorrow, the wannabe novelist dreams, I’ll feel what genre I want to write in. Maybe tomorrow my character will reveal himself to me. Maybe tomorrow my story will make itself clear.

It’s time to start thinking of writing your novel as a mission. A good novel isn’t something that just happens–it’s a mission you accomplish. You’re in charge. You’re responsible. There are no maybes and no tomorrows. You don’t wait for inspiration. Instead, you make a long-term battle plan for accomplishing the drills and tasks in this book. Then, each day, you do a bit more. You make steady, quality progress toward accomplishing your mission–writing a novel…

Instead of waiting around for the muse to call and being frustrated when she doesn’t, instead of getting ten, twenty, or thirty pages into a work and then feeling it die out, think of your novel as a project or mission. Carefully plan for its success, then execute small tasks each day…

Many people dream of writing a novel, but that’s all they do–dream. The way to turn your dream into reality is to change the way you think about writing a novel. Don’t think of your novel as some magical creative thing that will just happen–or it just won’t happen. Make it a campaign, a mission, a long-term project. Devise a plan, make a calendar, expect both hard works and moments of deep satisfaction, and discipline yourself to see it through by making progress each day. You’ll be justifiably proud of the results, and of yourself. 

Stone, a former assistant professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, makes it clear who is the drill sergeant and who is the maggot here. In Drill 3, entitled No Sniveling Allowed, Stone puts his recruits on notice.

Part of boot camp training is learning to follow directives. Drill sergeants instruct trainees to do it this way, and they don’t bother to explain the exceptions or entertain the quibbles. There may well be 1,001 ways to fire a rifle–but in boot camp there is only one way. No drill sergeant in her right mind would tolerate a training whining, “You mean we always do it that way? Isn’t there an easier way? How come other people say there’s a different way to do it?” A trainee who sniveled in that manner would find herself doing enough push-ups to move Georgia a mile close to the Gulf of Mexico.

Sniveling is not permitted in novelist’s boot camp, either. Getting a novel written consists not of joyous creative rapture but of applying your bottom to the chair and your fingers to the keyboard and grinding things out word by word, sentence by sentence. You can whine or you can write, but you can’t do both.

You battle plan for writing your novel will involve specific drills to follow. Within those drills, you’ll receive specific advice and direction on how to accomplish certain tasks. Your job is to execute the instruction in that drill to the best of your creative ability. For example, you’ll learn that you don’t use dialogue for the sole purpose of showing the reader some aspect of a character’s personality or for revealing backstory.


Never. As you’ll learn in the dialogue drills, your characters should use words as tools or weapons to fight for and get what they want, both within a given scene and within the overall story.

I can’t use it to convey information to the reader?

If that information comes out as part of a confrontation in which your characters are fighting to get what they want, then yes. Otherwise, no.

Never? Other how-to books say you can.

Can you read? No sniveling? This is not other how-to books. This is boot camp. We’re not going to qualify every instruction with normally, usually, most of the time, as a general rule, based on genre considerations, with some exceptions, try your best to, or in most cases.

But best-selling and acclaimed authors break the rules all the time

Are you a best-selling or acclaimed author? No. You don’t even have a book yet. After you’ve written and published your third, fifth, or tenth book, you can break all the rules you want. Until then, to get your idea on paper, to produce a complete book-length work of fiction, just to get the darn thing written and get it done and done well, do as your told… No more buts! Do it the Novelist’s Boot Camp way. If that doesn’t work for you, you’re free to find another method. Until then, knock off the sniveling and get busy. Or do some push-ups.

Admittedly, not everyone is going to favor this type of tough-love writing advice. And for established writers, you might not get into some of the more basic drills. But that’s cool because officers shouldn’t have to go through boot camp again anyway. For those of you looking for a kick in the pants to get started, Stone’s book should be extremely useful.

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