10 Tips about Process

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So recently, when guest speaking at a college creative writing class, I was asked for ten writing tips I’d like to pass along to students. My first impulse was to run screaming from the building, but, when I thought more about it, I realized that the one sure thing I’ve gained in knowledge is an understanding of my own writing process, something I didn’t have a clue about while working on my first two novels.

Today, I thought I’d pass those tips along. I’m not suggesting you adopt them, just telling you what works for me.  After you read, I hope you’ll share some tips of your own.

1. Ask the question, but don’t necessarily answer it: “What if?” is almost always the question that inspires my stories. As I work, I usually find that this initial, situational question leads to a deeper, more philosophical one, which becomes the theme of the novel. I don’t try to answer that deeper question. I don’t presume that I could. I hate to see the ego of the writer in a story, and I’m not fond of stories that tie things up too neatly.  Certainly plot must be resolved and characters must arc, but I believe that writing and reading are collaborative, and I leave the larger question for my readers to answer for themselves.

2. Write a mess of a first draft and never show it to anyone:  The initial pages I write are almost always discarded, but somewhere among them, I discover the beginning of my story. The first draft is where I begin to hear the voice of the main character and allow myself to follow her for a while, never knowing where she might lead. If I thought I had to show those pages to anyone, I’d probably stop writing. I think first drafts should be messy, like finger painting. When I finally finish the book, I burn them.

3. Write detailed biographies for every character: For me, character creates story, so I always do this first. If I get stuck, I generally find the answer by going back to the biography. As I write each character’s backstory, I sometimes try to become that character, as an actor might do to prepare for a role, venturing out and behaving as the character would. Warning: This kind of behavior can cause a number of problems, depending on who your character is and where you live, so, if you try it, be careful. In my town (Salem, MA), just about anything goes. People barely notice, or, if they do, they’re not mentioning it to me.

4. Listen to the Characters: What does each character want? What’s keeping her from getting it? If I put the right characters in a situation and understand what motivates them, the plot seems to develop naturally. If I’m trying to control the outcome instead of listening, the story always falls flat.

5. Treat place as Character: I create biographies for location, asking and answering the same questions I would ask my human characters.

6. Is the action of the book in the right order?  This is a weak point for me. Sometimes I find myself writing very fast, following an idea in order to capture it. When I look back, the progression of paragraphs almost always needs reordering. Or, I might have a character skipping steps by taking an action early on that shouldn’t happen until later in the story, a sure way to leave the character with no options going forward.

7. Study psychology: I always say that if I hadn’t been a writer, I would have wanted to be a psychologist. A great deal of my leisure reading is about human psychology. For me, this has been an invaluable tool for character development.

8. Outline, but not too early. Then follow the outline:  I don’t outline until I’m well into the first draft and certain I know my characters well enough to understand their motivations. If I outline too early, I become blocked.

9. Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite: I’m never happier than when I’m revising. There may be bits of good writing that come earlier, even ones that inspire the story in the first place, but the poetry, if there is any, comes at this stage for me. There is something about having the initial story down on paper and knowing that it holds together that frees up my creativity.

10. Read aloud: I do this at least three times with different groups of trusted readers. First: to see if the story works. Does it flow? Do the characters ring true? The second time I read for rhythm: Is the dialogue of each character unique? Does the rhythm vary? The third time I read for continuity: Have the changes I’ve made necessitated other changes that I’ve neglected? This is something I have to watch carefully.  I once changed a character’s birthday, which resulted in a pregnancy that lasted 15 months. Hopefully, this third reading is where I catch and correct that very embarrassing kind of error.

That’s what works for me. What about your process? Do you have any tips to share? 


About Brunonia Barry

Brunonia Barry studied literature and creative writing at Green Mountain college in Vermont and at the University of New Hampshire, and was one of the founding members of the Portland Stage Company. She's the first American Writer to win the Woman’s International Fiction Festival’s Baccante Award. Her first novel, The Lace Reader, a New York Times and international bestseller, was translated into more than 30 languages. Her second novel, The Map of True Places released in May, 2010.


  1. says

    *Read aloud…*

    I would like to add to that and say: ‘Read aloud and act it out.’

    I have found that acting out the gestures of my characters makes it easier to write their – sometimes colourful – body language into the story.

  2. says

    Lovely post! I love how the first draft is messy and that the poetry comes in the rewriting. And who wouldn’t delight in becoming one’s characters out in the “wild.” I’ll have to try that. The warning is well-taken. Thanks for sharing and the reminder that place is character too.

    • says

      Marialena, I’d love to hear how it goes for you out in the wild. It’s a very interesting exercise, and you may find yourself doing many things that wouldn’t ordinarily occur. It’s quite amusing if you run into someone you know.

  3. says

    Great article! I agree whole heartedly about not trying to plot to early. I would also say that it is important to stick to a story until it is finished, because if you let yourself give up, you never learn from your writing. Until recently I always started a new story whenever I got stuck. Recently I decided I had to start finishing my stories and I’ve been learning a ton about the writing process ever since.

    Another thing I’ve learned recently is that getting across the meaning is more important than the plot. I started this story and halfway through realized what I was trying to say. I spent a whole month writing this short story and rewrote several sections multiple times. I finally forced myself to finish the story only to realize that it wasn’t the plot that was the problem, but that the point I wanted to say simply couldn’t be expressed in this story. I set it aside and wrote another one. I finished it in 3 hours. There was very little plot, but my point came across and I was satisfied with it.

    One day I hope to return to the first story and give it a new meaning, one that will fit the plot. But I feel that I’ve learned a lot from this experience, and from now on I’m going to stop and ask myself why a story is sticking, rather than just trying to plow through it.

    • says

      Thank you, Annie. Meaning is so much more important than plot. It’s good to remember. It’s so easy to lose track of what inspired the story’s inception.

  4. says


    This is inspiring. Every fiction writer should make a list of ten tips. Your post reminds me that the process is a long one, too, somewhat akin to a journey. So, I made up ten rules for the road.

    1) Know where you’re going with your story but distrust the map, you’re going to find the best route along the way.

    2) Roadblocks and obstacles are your friends. Getting around them is more satisfying than sailing smoothly down an empty highway.

    3) Ask bystanders for directions but don’t regard them as sacred.

    4) It’s okay to backtrack or even start over.

    5) Take pictures, really get to know every town where you stop. The more you linger the faster you’ll get to your destination.

    6) Your fellow travelers aren’t just there to carry your baggage. Every one of them are people too with their own baggage, journey and reasons for taking it. Ditto secondary characters.

    7) Which stretch of road is the most fearful to go down? Go down it–in the dark without a flashlight.

    8) Travel changes you every day. How? make sure your characters change as much in every scene.

    9) Pause to ask yourself why you’re taking this trip in the first place. Is it to get somewhere, to make peace with the place you left behind, to discover yourself through the journey–or all of the above? Wait…is that you or your main character?

    10) Arriving at your destination is grand but when you look back on it you’ll realize that the best part of the journey was the people you got to know as you traveled. Ditto your novel.

    Whee, that was fun! I want to do it again. But then, er, maybe the point is not making lists but using them. Hmm. Back to the coffee pot and work.

    Thanks, Brunonia.

  5. says

    This is superb, Brunonia. I especially love (and use) 3), 7), and 9).
    Had a chance to read Don’s list of 10 as well and between your points and his, I appreciate that these rules are more about ways to enter an organic process with success versus approaching it with a closed mind and ending up with something stilted (aka incomplete).

    I’m a bit of a mystic when it comes to writing. Yes, it’s a craft and art, but I do feel like I’m connecting to and living in something deep and surreal when I’m unearthing the a story’s treasures. It’s a rich, rewarding process, with enjoyable milestones, something I find important to keep in mind along the way that keeps me from rushing.

    And oh, how I love that first coffee, dark mornings, and the voice of story singing its chorus in my head.

  6. says

    So true that everyone’s process is different, and having different things to try is how we find our own. For me, your #3 would send me running to the hills, yet I still write my books around the characters. I prefer to use the writing as discovery (mostly because I’m lazy, and hate the idea of spending all that time figuring out what my character’s astrological sign is, or how many siblings he has, or where he went on vacation when he was six if those details are never going to play a part in the book. However, as I write, I do discover these details if they’re going to help the story. I like Deb Dixon’s GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict) to get started. Then I plunge in, fixing as I go. So I don’t really write that disaster of a first draft. I re-read from page 1 until I get to page 50 every day, and that grounds me in the story. And I always start by rereading the previous scene/chapter.

    • says

      Thanks Terry. It’s comforting to know we can reach the same destination taking many different routes. Goal, motivation, conflict is certainly a great map.

  7. says

    I am pleased to see your 10 steps in the process. When I began this journey to write my first full length story I had to depart from the shores of the known that come from years of writing short essays, devotionals, and sermons. To jump from a simple message to a plot with character development that in the end reveals a relatable and real story in the mind of the audience is a huge leap.

    I am nearly completed through the completion of my manuscript before I go back and start the edit and rewrites. What you shared reaffirms what seemed clear to me while I have been tackling this project. I just decided to finally outline my final chapters to have a clear vision on the finish line of the story, yet with a vision of writing the rest of the story in at least two future projects.

    I have painted pictures of my characters and like the idea of writing a profile separately to maintain the canon of the story line for future projects and ensure the fidelity in this one. That also includes the location and settings too…

    I have yet to do but I agree with the rest of the steps in the process, 100%. The biggest statement I can offer to this: Do not get in hurry to finish. It will get done when it is ready to be done. TIME percolates the imagination and nurtures the process. Enjoy the whole process of creation. A deadline sounds far too ominous and foreboding if we rush to get there. I believe we need to not see a deadline but a proper birth time (delivery date).

    Thanks for the sharing your experience and expertise.


    • says

      Mike, you are talking directly to me with your advice about deadlines. I struggled to manage to a deadline in this third book and almost lost my love of writing in the process. That would have been a sad day indeed. I have pulled back. The book will be born when its ready. Thank you for the reminder.

  8. says

    I love what you say in # 9, about the freedom that comes at this stage, when you know your story and can polish the language. It’s like going around a thousand times on the merry-go-round and finally grabbing the brass ring. I’m sure that dates me, but oh, well…

  9. says

    Wow, this is great, Brunonia. I like 7. Study Psychology. I’ve attempted this but some of those books are just too clinical or something. Do you have a favorite title you might recommend that is easy to follow?

    • says

      Paula, I tend to like psychology books that contain case histories. Since I’ve been studying bipolar disorder lately, I find Kay Redfield Jameson’s works very helpful. Both “Touched With Fire,” and “An Unquiet Mind” provide great source material for character development. I often read journal articles to find out what’s new in the field.

  10. says

    Love this article! I’m a follow-my-nose kind of person, but just because you have a good sense of direction doesn’t mean you should leave your map at home! I always write my outline after the first draft, and stray from it whenever better paths present themselves, knowing it is there for reference. Drawing my main characters – literally – was the starting point of my trilogy, then creating a language and genealogy; it was only after that I felt like I knew them well enough to write how they would feel and act. I really appreciate the importance of questions, feedback and editing, but try to remember that sometimes the first, sloppy impressions put on the page are the most powerful.

    • says

      It’s funny, Cynthia. Those “first sloppy impressions,” the ones that never make it into my final drafts, almost always serve as inspiration for everything that follows. Thanks for the reminder.

  11. says

    Love these, Brunonia . I love the messy first draft idea. In regards to #s 3, 4 and 9, two parts of my process for revision have developed from my association with WU folks.

    First, I started using ideas from Robin LaFevers’ character interview outline, here: http://www.robinlafevers.com/2012/10/25/pre-writing-its-all-about-the-character/ I particularly love digging for their core beliefs and fears—both those they share with the world and those they hide (sometimes even from themselves).

    The second I almost hate to share. It’s the kind of thing that would’ve made me stop reading this comment, even just a few short years ago. It’s a process I learned from my mentor and coach, Cathy Yardley. I chart every scene on a spreadsheet (I can hear the groans and click-ways from here – “Ugh, spreadsheets!”). I chart the POV character, what their goal is in the scene, what motivates it, what comes in conflict with it, and the crisis it leaves behind. Then I actually color-code the problem areas (yellow is: needs work, red is: uh-oh, rethink this).

    When I go to rewrite the scene, I first jot down the GMC of the scene from memory, then go back and review my chart, to see if I’m subconsciously on the same course as I was while I was being all analytical, making my spreadsheet. It’s been a huge help. And I’m with Graeme: a bit of a mystic about writing. But I’ve found I can make even deeper connections with… Whatever or wherever this stuff comes from—the subconscious, the muse, a past life. Apparently my muse likes my spreadsheet, and that’s all that matters.

    Thanks for sharing your great tips!

    • says

      Thanks, Vaughn. I think my muse (though also mystical) might like a spreadsheet as well. I’m intrigued and determined to try it. I’ll keep you posted.

  12. says

    I love what you said about the poetry in the revisions. And I love the comment about not just reading it out loud, but acting it too! I’m working on the climax of my novel right now, first draft. It’s a heavy action scene that I can’t quite seem to visualize. And of course, if I can’t visualize it I won’t be able to write it effectively.

    I’m drawing it out on paper like a map for the scene, complete with where the vehicles are parked, the landscape elements like boulders, waterfall, etc., and stick figures for each of the characters involved. I haven’t tried that before.

    It’s amazing how many creative methods we writers come up with to help enhance our processes.

  13. Marcy McKay says

    10 terrific tips, Brunonia! I saw you and Becka Oliver speaker a few years ago in Austin @ the Writer’s League conference. You were WONDERFUL! The only thing I’d add is, DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE FEAR. To me, fear is part of the creative process, but know many who let it stop them. The only way to stop the fear is to write through it.

    • says

      Ah, fear. That’s the biggie. It has run me out of the house a few times during the writing of this new book. But I always come back. Thanks Marcy. I hope to get back to Austin soon. That was a great event!

      • Marcy McKay says

        Thanks for responding, Brunonia. You’re as delightful on the page as you are in person. :)

  14. says

    Great advice, Brunonia. The first draft, to me, is like slogging across three miles of mud and trying not to get my hands dirty. It’s the rewrite that I enjoy. Even though I outline, I find that the story must deviate at some point, otherwise I’m forcing my characters to behave…well, out of character. Thanks for the post.

    • says

      Good point, Ron. The characters really do have to drive everything, don’t they? I stray from outline when something seems forced. I usually find I’ve misinterpreted a character or simply not listened well enough.

    • says

      What a great idea, Simone! I know the test, and have taken it myself. Do you go to the site and take the test as your character? I love the thought of doing that. It’s even better than my walk around town, I think.

  15. says

    My favorite tip comes from Sol Stein On Writing: you may have everything you need in a paragraph, but it doesn’t yet work because the ORDER of the pieces – in phrases, sentences, within the paragraph – is not yet correct.

    The beginning and the end are the places where the eye looks for emphasis, for example, so really think whether your last word in a paragraph should be something like ‘it.’

    These power positions work in sentences, too – simply switching two clauses (and modifying their transition) can make a useful sentence into a strong statement.

    A lot of this happens on rewriting – once you’re conscious of it and paying close attention.

    Thanks for all the other great tips.


  16. says

    A great spread of tools and ways to look at the process, Brunonia.

    I’m so glad you brought up #5 – Treat place as character. Individuals and whole cultures form their stories/ego narratives in conjunction with place, in feelings of possession of it; it becomes inseparable from who they are. (Perhaps this is why even people whose lives have been miserable in their place of origin will fight tooth and nail to go back when they are forcibly removed from it. So much sadness comes from that separation.) I’m finding place is another access to deep emotion for each character, embodying as it does part of what they want or fear, part of what restricts them or launches them, images of where they learned about time, space, sex, heart . . .

    I’ll keep this list close.

  17. says

    Great to follow along the pathways of another writer. And yes, I also read aloud, acting out in accents and specific voices, complete with gestures before the dog, and I record the performance as well. The dog is a powerful critic, but perhaps too generous with her praise since I remain staunchly unpublished. I live in the woods with squirrels and crows my only neighbors — really tough critics. Can’t fool a crow! (Squirrels are borderline illiterate anyway.)

    I used to dance, so in the first draft, I close my eyes while typing and choreograph the scene, visualize the characters in place, move them around the stage with surprising and sometimes scary results. (This can be problematic if your fingers stray from the correct keys.) I’m also a painter, so I “see” specific compositions in the scene, the colors, the light effects. Much is later edited out, but I hope that the mood lingers on the page.

    Thanks for the tips. Made me analyze my own process.

    • says

      Mara, my dog (a recently rescued border collie) is the harshest of critics. She actually yawns when I go on for too long. And you’re right about the crows. I don’t trust squirrels, never did. I love the idea of choreographing your work. I have two left feet, but I’m going to try. Thank you.

  18. Thea says

    I am working on those detailed biographies. I coulda used this list yester– ahem. A bit earlier in the game, teach. Thank you!

  19. says

    Great article. I’d really like to hear more about your way of developing settings and locations. What sort of questions do you put in your biographies for them? I sometimes struggle with this aspect of my writing so I’m really interested in your take on it!

  20. says

    This makes me want to get out there and have swordfights in my backyard. I think my neighbors are used to my crazy so here’s to hoping they won’t notice!

  21. says

    I’m a pantser or an intuitive plotter, so a lot of mine is simply to trust the process and the characters and not second guess anything. But also:

    Focus only on the scene I’m writing. Don’t think about how it’s supposed to end or what’s supposed to happen next.

    Write a clean first draft. If it gets messy, it means I will spend years trying to fix the story in revision. As a result, I’m constantly going over the story to shake things out.

    Bounce around as needed. I don’t always get ideas in the right order, so I have to be able to move at will around in the story.

  22. says

    Great pointers. I’ve found that letting a manuscript sit
    for a few weeks, between rewrites, brings greater clarity. Detailed
    biographies of characters is good, especially when peppered
    throughout the book- no point in giving too much away too early in
    the narrative.

  23. says

    All good advice Brunonia. On # 7: I once wrote a novel based on my studies in Jungian psychology, the protagonists, a psychoanalyst and his client. I’d read that psychoanalytical novels were rare so I said, “Why not?”