Writing Isn’t Always Writing

Like many writers, I have a daily word count tracker. This month so far, I’m at -1,174 words.

Yes, negative wordage. But that’s not a bad thing. 

It can be too easy to get hung up on the idea that you must be constantly cranking out new words, and that anything short of meeting a daily word count goal means you have failed as a writer in some way. But there’s more to writing than piling on new verbiage.

Sometimes stories get longer in revision, but sometimes they get shorter. Sometimes you realize you have sentences, paragraphs, or even whole scenes that aren’t carrying their weight. That was the case with a horror story I was revising earlier this month. I wrote it back in the summer/early fall, and after having set it aside for a while, I saw several spots that either weren’t moving the plot or the characters forward, or that were muddying the thematic waters. Oh, and there’s also the part where the original ending was kind of cliché and needed to be changed. So technically, new words were written, but at the end of the day, I cut more words than I wrote, bringing the story down from 6,800 words to 5,900.

Another story I worked on this month was in that nebulous 1,500-word zone, where it’s a bit too long to be flash fiction, but it’s also too short to feel like a fully fleshed out short story. I wrote the story several years ago and could never seem to get it out of that zone. But something prompted me to revisit it, and whatta ya know, this time I was able to knock it down to 1,000 words and turn it into a proper bit of flash fiction.

The other thing I’ve been working on is developing a novel idea that’s been simmering on the back burner. With short fiction, I often dive in with only a vague idea and write an exploratory draft to figure out what the hell the story wants to be. But with novel-length works, I do better when I have more of a clue what kind of waters I’m jumping into. So first there was some research I needed to do (and I’m sure there will be more), and today I started doing some worldbuilding—working out the magic system and the setting and all that fun stuff—and jotting down some preliminary ideas on how the story might unfold. And then I shall confront my nemesis: plotting.

So that’s been my February so far: writing that kind of isn’t writing even though it really is.

The 2020 Writerly Recap

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these end-of-the-year round up posts on here. In fact, it’s been . . .

*checks date of last writerly recap*

Ok, so maybe only 6 years. But after 2020, it sure as hell feels like 84.

Despite the steaming pile of donkey balls that has been 2020, I managed to stay productive on the writing front. In large part because I’m fortunate to be in a position where the pandemic hasn’t upended my life anywhere near as much as it has many other people’s lives. Not to say it hasn’t been stressful or depressing. (Being a singer during a pandemic suuuuuucks, especially when most of your singing had been with choirs.)

We all have different ways of dealing with these things, and my way is to keep busy. I did hit an emotionally difficult patch back in the early fall where everything felt So. Damn. Hard. The thing that eventually pulled me out of my funk? Cataloging my book collection. Because I am a nerd and organization is my super power and so that’s what made me feel better.

But enough about that. Here’s what happened on the writing front this year:

Published in 2020

Written in 2020

I finished my steampunk fantasy novel, The Ashdowners—woo hoo! And I started querying agents—less woo hoo. Soul crushing process is soul crushing! But for now, at least, the search continues.

I started a new play—a comedy that, in a departure from my usual stuff, is actually not fantastical in nature. I worked on it in fits and starts early in the year, but sadly haven’t touched it since June. I’ll get back to it . . . eventually. With the pandemic-inflicted challenges live theater is facing right now, I just haven’t been able to keep myself in the right head space for the project.

And finally, I wrote lots of new short fiction this year: one brand-spanking new flash fiction piece that I’ll start submitting soon, one formerly 5,000-word story pared down to flash length (the aforementioned “The Dragon Queen of the Suffix County Public Library”), and four new short stories (or technically, three short stories and a novelette). Of those four, one is out on submission, two need some revisions, and one is likely going to be trunked unless I have a sudden burst of inspiration for how to make it something more than competent-but-predictable.

2021 To-Do List

Continue the agent search for The Ashdowners.

Revise those two short stories that I said need revising.

Maybe get back to that play.

Tackle more of the short story ideas darting around my brain like over-caffeinated squirrels.

Keep flinging my finished stories at magazines.

Do some preliminary research for a novel idea I’ve had on the back burner, then start outlining and writing.

More than anything, though, I look forward to tossing 2020 out the nearest window.

Story up at Mysterion

I’m very happy to announce that my story “This Is the Way the Prayer Ends” is now up at Mysterion!

This story began life as a one-act play. I don’t remember the exact impetus for changing it to prose. It might have been me thinking about how the production costs to mount the play would likely be too prohibitive given its short length (short for a play, at least). It also might have been because I had recently tried the opposite approach—turning my short story “Ghost Writer to the Dead” into a play—and wanted to see what I could learn from going the other direction.

When I turned “Ghost Writer to the Dead” into a play, I couldn’t just strip the story down to the dialogue and call it a day. Stripping out a lot of the pretty prose was part of the process, yes, but doing that laid the dialogue bare and made me re-evaluate how well that dialogue was doing its job when separated from the narrative supports of a short story. I had to consider which story elements could or should be done differently to take advantage of the visual and aural elements of the theater. I had to consider which details were important to include in the scene description and stage directions while also leaving room for a director, cast, and crew to bring their own vision and interpretation to the script.

Going the opposite direction with “This is the Way the Prayer Ends” was a much different experience. Turning the script into prose was like working from a highly detailed outline—not something I do very often with short fiction. (Hi, my name is Barb, and I’m usually a pantser.) The bones were there; I just needed to flesh out the bits between the dialogue. Instead of leaving room for a play’s cast and crew to bring their respective takes to the table, I had to be the cast and crew. It was up to me to build the props and scenery with words instead of with wood and tools and paint. Lighting, sound effects, costumes—all up to me to detail on the page. It was up to me to make choices about how the characters spoke and moved, and how they felt and reacted at any given moment.

Both experiments were worthwhile, not only for the pieces that resulted, but because of the new perspective the process gave me on the two formats. It was a really hands-on way to discover which techniques work in both play and prose and where your approach as a writer needs to change.

Literary Juggling Acts

As both a writer and a reader, I used to be a one-story-at-a-time kind of person. But in the last few years, I’ve discovered something awesome: I know how to juggle!

For much of my writing life, I always felt like I had to finish my current project before I could move on to the next one, even if I was so stuck that my forehead was leaving dents in the metaphorical wall I kept slamming it against. But a few years ago, I realized that unless deadlines are involved, I don’t have to do that.

So I started juggling.

When I got stuck on my novel, instead of trying to force my way through one painful word at a time, I started working on a play. When I got stuck on that, I switched back to the novel. And when I became stuck on that, I switched again, back to the play or on to a short story. Rinse and repeat. I found that whenever I circled back to a project, I wasn’t stuck anymore. I knew how to move forward. It was like my subconscious had used the time to perform a banishing spell on whatever issue had me previously bogged down.

Of course, in a recent post I mentioned how I had to stop working on short stories for a while in order to finish a novel. Because that’s another thing I discovered about my process: knowing how to juggle doesn’t necessarily mean you should be juggling. At that point in time, I wasn’t feeling stuck on the novel—quite the opposite, I was super excited about it—so there was no need for me to keep jumping back to short stories. Yet I kept doing it anyway because short stories are shiny and fun and distracting.

So that’s the writing part of this post: juggling can be a great way to keep yourself moving forward instead of wallowing in writer’s blockian anguish. But it can also keep you from finishing a project if you’re not careful.

Now for my more recent discovery: juggling with reading material!

As with writing, I used to feel like I had to finish a book before I dared pick up another one. In college, though, that was impossible. When one half of your double major is English literature, you have to read a crap ton of books each semester. So college forced me to not only juggle, but to read faster than I cared to (I’m usually a slow reader). But when it came to reading on my own time, I was strictly a one-book-at-a-time kind of gal.

Until I tried some more juggling.

Back in September, someone recommended a writing book that I really wanted to dig into (Screenwriting Is Rewriting by Jack Epps, Jr.). I was in the middle of reading a novel (Star Daughter by my awesome friend Shveta Thakrar), which normally would have dissuaded me from starting something else, but 2020 is the year of tossing norms out the window, so what the hell, right? I think it helped that the books were in different formats. Star Daughter was a hardback I could read while curled up in a chair with my morning coffee, while the Epps was an ebook I could easily whip out while doing stuff like brushing my teeth or waiting in the lobby of the doctor’s office.

Then I got really crazy in October and tried reading three things at once.

I doubt I’m going to graduate to having four books going at once. But I’m liking the balance of having a fiction and nonfiction read going simultaneously. Now maybe slow-reading me will be able to get through a few more books per year than usual.

Because juggling.

Virtual Philcon 2020

Next weekend I’ll be participating in Virtual Philcon 2020. While there’s a lot to miss about in-person cons, one plus side of Philcon being online this year: you can attend for free! (Though if you’re willing and able, they do ask for a donation in lieu of membership fees.)

Here’s my schedule:


Reading
Friday, November 20, 8:30 pm EST

I’ll probably be reading a couple flash pieces for this one.


Panel: Heinlein’s Third Rule of Writing
Saturday, November 21, 10:00 am EST

“You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.” How useful is this advice? Why do some people swear by it, and others swear that the best thing you can do is ignore it?


Panel: How Many Different Modes of Editing Are There?
Sunday, November 22, 11:30 am EST

Checking for mistakes in grammar or spelling is one obvious focus of editing your work; looking at potential problems with pacing and plot-holes another. But what about edit passes for tone, and examining how your word choices and sentence structures impact the feel of a scene? Or the value of doing a draft that looks solely at removing anything unnecessary?

Since I’ve been gone…

Is this thing on?

*blows dust off blog*

*coughs uncontrollably*

Yeah, so it’s been a while. W’sup?

Me, I’ve spent the last . . .

*checks date of last post*

*falls out of chair*

*picks self back up*

Three years, huh? Okay, since October 2017 . . .

I wrote only a small handful of short stories. More on that in a sec.

I sold some short stories, and I had some short stories published. Yay!

I finally finished the steampunk fantasy novel I began back in . . .

*checks notes*

*falls out of chair again*

*decides to just stay here on the floor*

2015, huh? Well, there’s a reason it took so long, and that reason is short stories. They are fun and shiny and I kept getting distracted by them. But probably around the same time I fell off the blogging map, I decided to give the novel my full focus so I could actually finish the darn thing. The result: I actually finished the darn thing. Go figure.

Short stories did happen, but as a breather between novel drafts. And more are happening now that I’ve moved on to the oh-so-fun agent querying part of the novel process.

That brings us to the present. November 2020. Which is, um . . .

Yeah, I’m just going to leave it at writerly things for now or else I might lose my desire to resurrect this blog. Please scream inside your hearts.

Where’s the blog?

Wow, that actual posting to the blog thing lasted long, huh?

I’m at least posting elsewhere this month, that elsewhere being Speculative Chic, where today I chime in on their weekly My Favorite Things column. Among other favorite things you’ll have to click the link to read about, I discuss People of Earth, which you all should be watching!

I also babbled there last week in a roundtable post on Our Scary Stories, in which this hard-to-scare person confesses to screaming during a haunted house visit in Niagara Falls.

And later this week, I should have a post there on the intersections of horror and comedy. Because that’s how I roll around Halloween. Or, you know, any time of year really.

Shiny Publication Roundup!

What is this? A second blog post in a matter of days?

So, shiny things. Story sales! Story publications! Some of these got pimped on Facebook and Twitter, but I’ve been crap about mentioning them here. Let me correct that:

New stories! I had two horror flash stories published back in March: “The Girl Who’s Going to Survive Your Horror Movie” in Flash Fiction Online and “Seen and Not Heard” in DarkFuse Magazine.

Reprints! It’s been a good year for those so far. “43 Responses to ‘In Memory of Dr. Alexandra Nako'” was reprinted in the anthology Funny Horror, alongside some authors I’m thrilled to be in the company of. In the podcast department, “What the Blood Bog Takes” and “Notes on a Page” were both featured in episodes of Far Fetched Fables, while “A Red One Cannot See” was included in Gallery of Curiosities.

And sales! Notably of two stories that I had an absolute blast writing: “The Stork and the Crone” will be appearing in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores in the near future, and “Seer’s Salad” will be in a future episode of the Cast of Wonders podcast. And continuing the reprint trend, “The Holy Spear” will be appearing in Digital Fiction Publishing‘s Killing It Softly 2, an anthology focused on women in horror.

Oh, and almost forgot: plays! I’ve written a few short ones, and last month I got to see one produced for the first time. “Ghost Writer to the Dead” (adapted from a short story I had published in Penumbra in 2012) was featured in a local community theater’s short play festival.

Did I mention it’s been a good year for horror and reprints? Because it’s been a good year for horror and reprints, with a smattering of fantasy thrown in there.

Now back to the writing of new stuff!

The State of the Barb: Priorities, Y’all

So, this blogging thing? Kind of hasn’t happened a whole lot recently. But usually, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Usually, it’s the result of keeping my priorities in order. If I have precious little spare time and it comes down to a choice between writing a blog post or getting in more fiction writing time, the fiction is going to win. Usually.

Unfortunately, the last two months have not been usual. My priorities got out of whack, and writing time was reduced to pathetic little spurts. I have the super fancy word tracking spreadsheet to serve as a visual reminder of said patheticness.

groot tracker
The light blue-ish lines = my yearly word count goal. The darker blue-ish lines = me and my quickly stalled out progress toward said goal. But, hey, shiny spreadsheet tool courtesy of http://svenjaliv.com!

I started out 2017 on the productive side of the Force, writing several thousand words each month. Two new short stories! More progress on my steampunk novel! Multiple writing retreats where I got to do nothing but write all day and chat with awesome people!

But as you can see in the above image, things stalled out after April. I wrote for only 4 days in May, 227 words total. In June I got whopping 6 days of writing in, 439 words total—and over half of those words were today, the last day of the month. And because of the reality distortion field that is Facebook, there were sales and publications that made it look I was being all writerly and productive when I really wasn’t.

The lack of productivity wasn’t because of some major life shakeup. It was because (a) I have a long history of being terrible at saying “no” to things, (b) for every thing I do actually say “no” to, I tend to say “yes” to two other things, like some sort of overcommitted hydra, and (c) out of an overdeveloped sense of responsibility/loyalty, I was sticking with things that stressed me out or that I was no longer enjoying. And all that shit adds up after a while.

In other words, writing wasn’t getting done because of priorities that really shouldn’t be priorities, or at least shouldn’t be bigger priorities than being a writer. You know, the thing I’ve wanted to be since the second grade.

Self-reflection is great and all, but ultimately pointless if you don’t do anything about what you see. So recently, I’ve cut back on some things that were stressing me out. Yes, there are new things (like finally taking the dive into contributing to the Speculative Chic blog, which you all should check out), but new things are good if they’re things you’re excited about and have been wanting to do but couldn’t because of the stress-inducing things. New things keep life interesting.

But most importantly, I successfully applied butt to chair this morning and wrote fiction. And even though it’s been three weeks since I last did that, it wasn’t painful. I enjoyed it. I’ve missed it. It’s a priority again, damn it.

Okay, so you could ask: given all that, why the hell are you sitting there writing a blog post instead of getting more fiction done? That’s easy:

  1. Accountability. If a writer self-reflects in the woods and no one sees, did she really self-reflect?
  2. I got some fiction writing in today. It felt good. I’m therefore allowed to unwind before bed. This post is very unwindy for me. More fiction will happen tomorrow.
  3. This blog is among the things I’ve neglected because of questionable priorities. It’s time I gave it some love.
  4. Did I mention that accountability thing? Keep me honest, y’all.

2016 Philcon Schedule

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I’m going to be at Philcon next weekend (Nov. 18-20), and there’s a shiny programming schedule posted on their site now to prove it!


Stepping Over the Bechdel Test
Sat 3:00 PM in Plaza III (Three)
Barbara A. Barnett (mod), Victoria Janssen, L Hunter Cassells, Anthony Dobranski, Sally Wiener Grotta

“Two women who talk to each other about something besides a man” was intended to be literally the lowest bar you could set for decent female representation in a story, and yet many authors seem to have taken this metric as the sole requirement for being considered feminist. Let’s talk about the myriad of ways we can do a better job of writing female individuals and female groups.


Broad Universe Rapid-Fire Readings
Sat 4:00 PM in Executive Suite 623
April Grey (mod), Elizabeth Crowens, Elektra Hammond, Roberta Rogow, Barbara A. Barnett, D.L. Carter

A group reading by members of Broad Universe, an international organization with the primary goal of promoting science fiction, fantasy, and horror written by women.


Giving and Receiving Criticism
Sun 11:00 AM in Plaza II (Two)
Oz Drummond (mod), James Chambers, Andi O’Connor, Barbara A. Barnett, Ken Altabef, Brian Koscienski

What’s the difference between constructive and destructive criticism? What should a new writer listen to and learn from, either in a workshop critique, or in an editorial rejection? What kind of advice is actually helpful, and how does the framing of feedback impact what an author takes away from it?