All posts by barb

process improvement for writers

Cross-posted from my blog,

If there is one thing I learned from writing Demonspine, it’s that I don’t actually have a process yet.

It’d be easy to fall into the trap of thinking I did. I mean, I’ve been writing for six years, almost seven now. I’ve logged a lot of novels (lost count somewhere, which is fine because most of them don’t deserve to see the light of day anyway), and I’ve learned some stuff… right?

Well, yeah. There’s a lot more to learn, too. Not just fiction techniques and storytelling and words, but how to better use my time. How to spend less time spinning my wheels.

Because that was my downfall with Demonspine, and the reason it took 18 months to release it after Angelhide. To give you an idea of how much time I wasted, I actually had 90% of the first Demonspine draft done at Angelhide’s 2014 release and it still took me 18 months.

Granted, most of those months weren’t writing. They couldn’t be. I don’t quite remember what all I did then (other than a couple NaNoWriMo projects) but it wasn’t working hard on my next novel like I knew I should be doing. And I could play the ‘but but toddler’ card, but let’s be honest–it wasn’t his fault.

These hard lessons in self-awareness and procrastination have come at a cost–my time.

I can’t be alone in this. But I have some good news. There are a couple of things I’ve found that really improve my process, that help the writing go smoother and be more fun. And when it’s more fun, I suddenly ‘find the time.’ (And some days I still have to make the time–that will never change).

Without further ado, a list!

5 Process Improvement Tips

  1. Journaling. This one still surprises me. For the longest time, I compartmentalized journaling as that thing other writers do to daydream and that’s cool but that’s not me.Except it is.There’s a lot of junk in my head and it’s amazing what getting some of that junk out can do. Sometimes it’s writerly junk, I can’t do it, this is awful, why did I think I could write? but other times it’s health. I couldn’t sleep last night and now staying awake hurts. I’ll make a deal with myself–one more cup of caffeine for a serious attempt to finish this scene.

    I would have thought that allowing myself to whine in notebook form would create a storm of negativity that I can’t get out of, but the reverse is true. The junk comes out, it gets acknowledged, and it gets solved. This is soooo especially true for the writerly junk because once I get the words I’m so bad at this out they just stare at me until I keep going–I feel this way because I’ve stalled in a scene and I’ll feel better as soon as I fix it.

    After a page of working through ‘it’ (whatever it is at the moment) I usually have a pretty good writing day.

  2. Goal-Setting. This one seems super obvious, but every week that I don’t set goals is a week I get next-to-nothing done. What’s been working the best for me lately is plotting out the entire week, keeping in mind my other obligations like work and family. The big mistake I made at the beginning of September was I didn’t account for my family coming up over Labor Day weekend. Naturally I fell behind, but instead of whining it out in my journal and moving on, I stagnated. I didn’t set goals again until last week. Thankfully, my long-term schedule for Heaven’s Most Wanted hasn’t been fatally compromised–I built in a little fudge factor for getting the first draft done. Now that fudge is gone (I still want more chocolate), but I can do this.
  3. Aspire higher. Normally I cringe when other writers say they are aspiring writers or aspiring authors (author is a person who has written, so are you seriously aspiring to have written? Please, no). Stop aspiring and start writing! Your future writer self will thank you.But… I look at my greatest time sinks in writing. Combat and high-danger scenes take me so much longer to write than fun banter. For a long time I just accepted that as part of my writing self. It’s ‘how it is’. Except, it’s not! Writing to a halt became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It takes longer because I expect it to. Oh, here comes another of those scenes, gonna spend a week on that and hate every minute…

    This attitude is completely unprofessional. I aspire to be professional, to treat writing like the career I want to have. A professional doesn’t accept this kind of junk and gunk. A professional asks, how can I improve this process?

    I read a writing book on conflict. I wrote in my journal and learned that the reason I don’t enjoy writing these scenes isn’t the scenes itself–it’s because of the time sink I’ve made them into. The self-fulfilling prophecy of doom has come full circle.

    I made a list of ways I can work more professionally, and the most pivotal is this one:

  4. Prewriting. How many times have I started a scene and got 25%, 57%, 83% into it, only to realize I’m going approximately half a word an hour and I don’t like where I ended up.Whenever I take a page from Rachel Aaron’s playbook (the ultimate process improvement guide) and pre-write each scene before I get started, everything goes so much smoother. In fact, the difference is so extreme that some of my fastest, funnest scenes come out when I block each and every beat out before I actually write it.

    It’s like plotting to the extreme. First I ramble through concerns and questions I have about the scene–what’s really at stake here? What disaster is looming? Is there enough conflict? Is this an interesting location? It’s amazing how often asking a question, not just in my head but putting it on the screen or paper, gives me the answer.

    From there, I take that overarching idea and block it out. It’s tempting at this point to just start writing, but then I slow down again. I gotta keep it simple, even if that means making the beats ridiculous and the dialog unpunctuated. In fact, keeping it that raw keeps the flow.

    And once that’s done, it feels like no work at all to clean it up. I’m happier with what I wrote, it took me less time and anguish, and I still have energy to tackle the next scene. What’s not to love?

  5. Intrinsic motivation. The thing about writing and art in general is that no one cares if you do it. Oh, we say we do. We ask how it’s going and give a thumb’s up when you tell us you’re plugging along.But at the end of the day, the only person who can finish that draft is me. No amount of external pressure will make that happen (I’ve heard a contract deadline helps, but I’d still argue there’s strong intrinsic motivation propelling a writer to meet said deadline). Intrinsic motivation is the key–finding yours is a personal thing.

    I’m still looking for mine. Sometimes I remind myself where I want to be in a five years. I think about what my life would be like without writing. Almost always, I ask myself why the story I’m writing is important to write right now, more important than all the other things I could be writing. That’s usually a good jumpstart.

    How do you improve your writing process?


it’s not too late for the self-pub seminar!

Great news, everyone!

Due to the overwhelming interest in our self-publishing seminars, I got the okay from  the library to move the seminar from the conference room to the Civic Space. That means we can fit 7 more people in the group!

Sign up if you want to go. I know this is last minute notice, but I’d still love if you could make it.

Details on the seminar are here.

Register here.

Hope to see you there!

writerly energy

We had our monthly meeting last Monday.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay the whole time.


It was still an awesome meeting. New faces, varied backgrounds, many projects. I enjoyed meeting each one of you and hearing your stories, what you’re working on, hearing your processes.

The forty minutes or so I was there was a big jolt to my writerly energy. There’s something about getting writers together to talk about writing–story planning, editing, publishing–that makes me feel like I can totally conquer my next story.

Which is good, because I’ve promised my readers they are getting that story in the next six weeks.

Thank you, dear writer-types, for this gift of energy. I’m doing my best to use it wisely (though the universe conspired against me earlier this week when my keyboard broke. I’m not letting that slow me down, though! I’ve been writing in a notebook). I’m working on a first draft, which is kinda fun to get all messy and ink-blobby onto paper. It’s a good feeling. I’m energized and ready to write.

I hope you’ve got some good vibes and lots of enthusiasm. How are you using your writerly energy this weekend?

self-pub seminar II now ready for signups!

I’m pleased to announce the Self-Publishing Seminar I hosted earlier this month was a success. We had a great turnout and covered a lot of ground.

Of course, there was a lot of ground we couldn’t cover. Three hours is just not enough to dig deep! Because I had to gloss over cover art, book packaging, and social media in the first seminar, I’ve scheduled another on September 12th, same time, same place. We’ll delve into promotion and all sorts of post-press ‘I hit publish, what now?’ kind of stuff. A lot of it is new territory for me, too, so I’m trying new methods and doing tons of research to make sure I’m ready for some great discussions.

If you missed the first seminar, don’t worry! I haven’t set a date yet, but I’ll be hosting that one again sometime this winter (when it’s too cold to be doing anything but reading and writing, anyway!). So keep writing, and we can hit the ground running in 2016 with the workshop that helps you choose service providers, format your book, and get published.

PS Self-Publishing II: Book Packaging, Social Media, Promotion, and Author Branding is by registration only and there’s only one spot left. Please sign up ASAP if you want to come, or put yourself on the waiting list.

Happy writing!

book review: the art of empathy

The Art of Empathy: A Training Course in Life’s Most Essential Skill by Karla McLaren

I know, I know–you’re probably wondering how a psychology book founds its way onto my reviews of writing books.

But here’s the thing I love about psychology and sociology books. They teach us about ourselves and others, and isn’t that like one gigantic, never-ending character study?

In short: yes.

Empathy, argues the passionate author McLaren, is the sum of your emotional intelligence expressed in myriad ways. All our emotions are gifts to guide us through social interactions and everything else in life–anger to warn us that our boundaries have been violated, shame to warn us to avoid confrontation, fear heightens our senses to protect us. These emotions, and our skills in dealing with them, are key to our survival and to resolving conflict.

I enjoyed this book. The language is accessible and assumes nothing of the reader, save a desire to learn. It handles tough relationships with a gentle, caring hand, and offers emotional honesty. Like I said, it’s a self-help book for people who want to handle their emotions better, but all throughout I saw great information for writers. I have another tool in my toolkit and a new lens to focus my people-watching–the gifts of our most basic emotions, and how everyone deals with them.

Verdict: check it out from the library!

writing against the clock

The older I get, the more I realize I will never have enough time.

I’m not even ‘old!’ (And I’m definitely not complaining).

There is no ‘I’ll get to it later’. There is no ‘just a few minutes, then I’ll begin.’ With a toddler on the loose, a pile of laundry, and two hours before I have to be at work, there is only now.

I need to get better at managing my time. Do I have an easy answer for you that will solve all our time problems? Hah, I wish. There is no easy.

With Camp NaNoWriMo coming sooner than I want to admit, I realize I only have two options: drop my current revisions and start afresh with new words, or use revisions as part of my Camp project. New words are fun. Putting a project on hold is not. I still don’t know what I’ll do — in true Barbarian style, I’m waiting till the last minute to decide.

The spirit of NaNoWriMo isn’t really to ‘write fast’. If we’re writing against the clock, it’s not a words per hour metric. We each have twenty-four hours in a day, and it takes gumption to write when there are chores and meetings and other obligations. It takes courage to say no, I can’t do that favor for you because I have to write today. It takes willpower to keep plodding along when the end is not yet in sight.

But we do it anyway, because we’re all writing against the clock.

story trumps structure: a review

Story trumps structure: how to write unforgettable fiction by BREAKING THE RULES

by Steven James

This book’s title is telling. On one hand, yes, story trumps structure. A good story trumps all. I’m on board with that. But the rest reads like a gimmick.

What this book means by ‘break the rules’ is actually this: ignore all those other rules, but follow MY rules (and we’ll call them principles so it’s totally not the same thing hahaha aren’t I clever?) and write your novel without any ‘structure’ at all. Just use this other kind of structure which we will not call structure, we’ll call it more principles to guide you, see, still clever!

75% of this book you can find in other writing books. Full stop. The ideas might get different titles, but they’re there. This book rehashes concepts like tension, conflict, plot twists, escalation, and story promises–all of which are familiar territory to anyone reading other contemporary writing books.

The other 25%, if you’re a quote-endquote organic writer, might actually be useful. Most professional writers who have written writing books are the organized, plotting types, so this is the first place I’ve seen this kind of in-depth discussion of writing by the seat of your pants and making it work. However, I still have a couple of quibbles…

For one, the plotters are not at war with the pantsers. There is no war. Got it? Okay. I hate the dichotomy of you’re either this or this, especially when it comes from writing teachers. If you’re a student of writing (and we’re all students of writing) what works now might not work in ten books. And ten books from then, you’ll probably have new methods and prefer different techniques. And that’s how it should be. I pants a lot more than I did when I was writing my first book, but I still love my outlines.

I don’t buy into the attitude that if an outline didn’t work for you once, that must mean you’re not an outliner so just throw it away and be freeeeeee! No, no, no. I’ve had so many outlines that didn’t work because I wasn’t good at outlining yet. It’s a skill, one of many. There is no war between plotters and pantsers. We’ll get along just fine as long as I get that last cookie.

Some of the advice for organic writing is simply not sustainable–such as rereading large chunks of your novel before you sit down to write every day. I want to know how to to enter this mythical universe where hours of solitude and privacy are handed to me every day. I eek out my writing time a few minutes at a time. Being a plotter helps because with an outline or at least a clear idea of where I’m going, I spend a bit less time exploring. But where in the laws of the cosmos does it dictate that organic writers can’t be organized like their plotting peers? All writers, regardless of process, can benefit from tools such as lists, journals, and a side-document filled with ongoing questions, concerns, and ideas.

Like many others, this book is rife with casual sexism. Heroes are hes, unless they’re mothers or really want to get married, then they’re shes. If you want to hurt your protagonist, hurt his wife or some other woman that ‘belongs’ to him. And it seems a bit pointless to complain, because hey all the other writing books do it, too, right? But it doesn’t have to be this way. Considering that more than half of writers and readers are women, why do male authors assume that other men are the default of their audience? Using gender-neutral pronouns is so laughably simple and would include everyone–not just men and women.

This book doesn’t make it on my recommended list, for the obvious reasons. If you can snag a copy from your library, Part II (organic writing) is worth a read, but otherwise, the rest is a gimmick to make readers think they’re ditching the rules, when really they’re just learning the rules under different, flashier names.

Oh, and the troubleshooting chart in the back is downright insulting. I appreciate these kinds of charts for baking, but for writing, not so much, because they assume I’ve already figured out the problem. Do I need a chart to tell me that if my problem is ‘too many flashbacks’ (pg 286), the answer is to cut them? That isn’t helpful. How about a chart that makes me answer questions about how important each flashback is, so I can actually determine if it’s needed to tell the story? Obvious chart is obvious.