The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Completing the "Writing Machine" parts 8-10

Once upon a time, I created a work-flow model based on conversations with, and study of, hundreds of writers.  A “critical path” of what seemed to be the most important characteristics.    Most excellent writers have these skills in some form or other, often at the level of “unconscious competence” but it is possible to extract and refine them separately.

In communicating them to students, I gave this process the name “The Machine” or sometimes “The Garden”, depending on the preference of the student.   Over the last weeks I’ve parceled them out, but as I’m taking off for Keycon SF convention today, and  will be in crash mode for our movie next week, I wanted to encapsulate the first seven steps, and then complete the entire structure.

There are undoubtedly equally good, or better, ways to look at this, and I invite established writers to make their own suggestions, and all writers to modify to their own needs.

1) Create an output goal (a story a week, or a story every other week.  Or a
thousand words)

2) Read 10 X what you write. Read one level “up” from your writing

3)  Write stories that reflect the values, beliefs, and concerns of your own life, in indirect form.

4) Keep your stories circulating in the mail until they sell

5) Don’t try a novel until you’ve sold ten short stories.

6) Model the healthy attitudes, actions and beliefs of the writers you admire.

7) Once you’ve finished your first draft, ask  “what is the meaning of my story” and
re-write from the beginning to sharpen this.  There are two things to write about: what are human beings, and what is the world they see?   “Who am I” and “what is true?”

8) Follow structure (plotting and consciously planning) until you have mastered it (selling at least 10 short stories), then try freestyle.  If you have problems, revert to
 structure until it is internalized.  

My own structure concentrates on two things: plot and character.   I see them as being two halves of the same coin.  “Plot” is what a given character does in a given situation.   “Character” is best revealed 1) by action and 2) by the character’s internal monologues and self-image, as well as the “stories” they try to sell about who they are.  The GAP between observed behavior (concentrate on their career, their physical fitness and their relationship history) and this “story” reveals an entirely new and fascinating level to their personality.  To deepen your understanding of this, one painful thing is necessary: applying the exact same standard RUTHLESSLY to yourself.  By the way—you won’t be able to do this if you do not love yourself deeply.  In a way, it is like performing exploratory surgery on your own child.   Yuck.  But critical if you wish to move forward in life.

9)  Separate the “Flow” state from the “editing” state.   Learn to enter “flow” state at will.  This means constantly refining “left” and “right” brain modes of operation (not neurophysiologically elegant models, but hopefully the distinctions communicate.)    I would suggest meditation and the study of the most logical and intelligent human beings you can groove with.  Daily.   Logic and Intuition, shaking hands across the Corpus Callosum.

10)   Develop a circle of writers and  readers to evaluate your work.   Choose
the smartest, toughest critics you can find,  and learn to take the discomfort.  There are, of course, examples of writers who work in solitude, but even these have an “internal community” of role models and great artists in their minds, coaxing them toward greater skill, production, and honesty.    The most fortunate people have both. 

Remember: your “editing/reading” brain has far more experience AND ALWAYS WILL than your “flow/writing” brain.  It will ALWAYS be better at criticizing what you’ve created than creating new text.  The only exceptions are those unfortunate individuals who really haven’t read very much, but believe they have a calling to write.  Every writing class or workshop instructor encounters these unfortunates with stories to tell but no skill with which to relate them…sometimes with few foundational skills such as spelling and grammar!   But most of us have read hundreds of  books for every book we write. 

Don’t you get the joke?  You must read to improve, but that means your “editor” will always be vastly more experienced than your “creator”, leading to insecurity, lack of confidence, and even disgust at the huge “gap” between your first drafts and the finished work of the masters.

“The Machine” is designed to strengthen, polish and bring to conscious awareness every basic link in the chain that leads from initial idea to published work: generating ideas, selecting ideas, researching, rough draft, polished draft, rewrite and integrating feedback, submission and repetition of the process throughout a career of ups and downs.

ANYTHING that disrupts this process is “writer’s block.”  Not reading/researching, not writing, not finishing, not polishing, not submitting, not beginning your next project and continuing the cycle.
Not enjoying the process, even if it is the savage satisfaction of facing the Gorgon of our own doubt day after day.  Caring enough about criticism to learn anything useful, to feel the pain without it decisively impacting our capacity for joy in process.

No one can promise you a financially successful career.  But you CAN guarantee yourself a lifelong immersion in the fantastic world of creation.   You CAN get better and better from year to year, and have more pleasure and satisfaction than most people believe is possible or reasonable.

You CAN fulfill a childhood dream of self-expression and communication.  All these things are available to you, if you embrace the Machine…or cultivate your Garden.

Writer’s choice.   As always, the choice of metaphor is up to you.

Write with Passion!


NOTE: If you have enjoyed these notes, please support our movie, DANGER WORD, at    All donations, however small, are appreciated.  And for the next week, a portion of any purchases of products at will go directly toward the creation of our first short film.   Thank you!


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Prof. Godel Fishbreath, Otter said...

I am finding a lack of an important distinction here. Read. I have read over 5000 stories, maybe 10000. I have been on the tech track for most of my life. I am starting to write stories. And all that reading might help, but adding another 100 stories to it will not help greatly. But if I study, if I do not read for content or for the pleasure of it, but for finding technique, then I get ahead.
I did not know that modern stories should be in MLA format, nor that Bujold's latest book is a perfect collection of examples of how to do that, until I was told. But now that I know that I can find out how to do simple mechanics.
I wanted to find how to do exposition easily. I think the master is Bujold again.
I wanted to check how to do a romance. Heyer is wonderful, if a bit slow. I may enjoy her book, but I should be reading to find what she is doing, and what language subset she is using to do that. I am also using her to model upper class speech.
Failures can be very useful. Either a writer that failed to get my interest, or a review site with many stories that would fail to be published. I need to see failure as well as success. And the marginal have their uses. As in 'how did *that* get published?'.
Reading is not half as useful if it is just reading. Studying, with a desire to rip the technique and make it mine, is core.

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Steven Barnes said...

Actually, reading for the sake of pleasure is essential. No one is smart enough to learn consciously everything the mind absorbs when we are simply relaxing and letting it happen. Study is great, but daily input is even better.