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The Art of World-Building by guest author Montgomery Mahaffey

Given this Tuesday’s post on how I used a wiki to build my world (missed it? read it here), I’d like to follow in the world-building vein with a guest post. Please welcome Montgomery Mahaffey, author of Ella Bandita and the Wanderer, who has taken the time to share on her world-building process. Take it away Montgomery!

AuthorMontgomery Mahaffey is a fantasy writer who has told her stories all over the country. Alaskan winters shaped Mahaffey as a writer, and her work is built off of the myriad of personal and collective experiences formed underneath that mystical landscape. Born in the south to a family of storytellers, Mahaffey has developed her own voice that is suffused with the temperament of the wanderer instinct. Set in a world where magic is at once subtle and pervasive, her novels bring to life symbols and stories of the old fairy tales told with wry humor and passion. In 2005 she was granted the Individual Artist Project Award from the Rasmuson Foundation in Anchorage, Alaska. Ella Bandita and the Wanderer is her first novel.

An introduction to World-Building

It would be nice if we were able to take a quick course in world building, but unfortunately school’s don’t offer that yet (you have to go to a writing program or enroll in an online course somewhere)! So how can we self-teach world building?

The first thing to do is to look to those you want to learn from.

Pull books from your shelves of your favorite authors and interrogate their books for world-building elements. You’re going to destroy this book with your highlighters and pens, but this is a practice you can’t afford to not do.

When you peel apart the mechanics of one of your favorite books, you’re learning from the best teacher—someone who resonated with you and who you feel like you could really learn from.

Often, as authors, we admire other writers to point of wanting to write just like them. So if you love Tolkein, or George R.R. Martin, or Steven King, grab a book and start learning.

Evaluate how the author shapes their world. What senses do they open with to orient the reader? Smell? Sight? Sound? Touch? Speech? What do these senses describe about the place? Do they give it a particular feeling? What can you infer from these sensory descriptions?

Make notes on this in your notebook.

Once you really understand HOW your favorite authors are crafting their works of art, and what elements they’re using to develop plot, character, and the environment, you’ll have a in-depth and intelligent idea of how to write your own.

Lesson 1: Decide where to start

Worlds aren’t created ex nihilo from authors. Every element comes from something, whether it be inspired by or directly informed by real events, places, or people. To find your ideal starting place, try this:

Write about a place that’s familiar, and change one tiny element.

For example, write about garbage collection day on your childhood street where trolls are in charge of collecting all the garbage.

Notice how making one small change can shift your entire world. Because now a whole slew of questions have been opened up from that one, small change:

Where did the trolls come from? Why do they collect the garbage? What’s in the garbage that makes them better suited to collect it than humans? What do they do with the garbage once it’s been collected?

Your world can broaden out of answering these questions, and pretty soon you’ll be on track to create a rich, interesting environment that is at once familiar and new.

The key is to start small and work your way out, so that you don’t get overloaded with chaotic elements that you find yourself having to explain so frequently that the world-building gets in the way of your story.

Harry Potter is a great example of a familiar story turned fantastical by one single element shift: witches and wizards are real.

You don’t need everything to be different to be fantastical—many of our favorite stories could happen in the ‘real’ world. Keeping it closer to home will make your story more believable, and you’ll have more opportunity to go deeper with your story.

Lesson 2: Discover your world’s infrastructure

Once you’ve developed a good starting point on a microcosmic level, start working out the macrocosmic details.

These are the big things like politics, language, religion, sociology, and what values the people of your world hold, all the way down to the littler things like what they eat, how they deal with waste, etc.

Now, you may not be including all of these directly in your story, but knowing, for example, how the politics of your world run (is it a totalitarian state? Communist? Are there kings and queens and serfs?) will help your world become realer, deeper, and richer.

Lesson 3: How to build worlds that feel real

Many new authors fall into a trap of creating worlds that don’t feel real. That’s largely because the little things are being ignored.

You should know how a summer day smells versus a winter day. You should know what a busy day sounds like versus a calmer day. You should know what the path looks like behind the castle.

J.R.R. Tolkein went so far as to create an entirely new language (which only featured in a fraction of his story!) and this lent a level of “realness” to the Lord of the Rings series that can’t be denied.

When you know your world thoroughly, writing description will come effortlessly.

It will be much easier to supplant in the minds of your readers what your world looks like, smells like, feels like, and how it works, when you give glimmers of the little things.

Here’s an example of a rich level of description from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, The Wind Through the Keyhole:

Two hours later, just shy of noon, they breasted a rise and halted, looking down at a wide, slow-moving river, gray as pewter beneath the overcast sky. On the northwestern bank—their side—was a barnlike building painted a green so bright it seemed to yell into the muted day. Its mouth jutted out over the water on pilings painted a similar green. Docked to two of these pilings by thick hawsers was a large raft, easily ninety feet by ninety. It was painted in alternating stripes of red and yellow. A tall wooden pole that looked like a mast jutted from the center, but there was no sign of a sail. Several wicker chairs sat in front of it, facing the shore on their side of the river. Jake was seated in one of these. Next to him was an old man in a vast straw hat, baggy green pants, and longboots. On his top half he wore a thin white garment—the kind of shirt Roland thought of as a slinkum. Jake and the old man appeared to be eating well-stuffed popkins. Roland’s mouth sprang water at the sight of them.

This excerpt includes a lot of sight cues—we know just what the landscape looks like, and that the building and the raft that are described don’t seem out of place. Chairs are made of wicker (a very familiar, ‘real’ material). Pop-kins, which King made up, is a mouth-watering food of a sort, probably like a sandwich.

To bring this level of depth to your stories, consider using a description builder, which will give your descriptions all five senses to use during a significant scene in your story or novel.

Lesson 4: Practice

The last piece of world building advice to give you is the most important one: practice.

Once you have your world, and you’ve played around with creating infrastructure, richness, and depth, practice with it.

Think of a random person in your world and describe them. Are they a baker? a prince? a teenager? a child in school?

Then run them through a typical day—where would they go? who would they talk to? what would they encounter? what conflicts arise? how would they feel at the end of the day?

This is a fun way to play, and it’s likely that a story will blossom out of one of these practice sessions!

A brief note on what not to do:

Under no circumstances should you forget about diversity—no two people are alikeno one thinks exactly the same, believes exactly the same ideas, or acts in the same way. Create your characters like real people, which means giving them different motives, different ways of interpreting the same event, and different reactions to circumstances.

About Ella Bandita and the Wanderer:

unnamedElla Bandita’s life nearly came to an end in the depths of an icy river. Before she threw herself in the roiling waters, a strange voice called out.

“There’s a better way.”

Now, Ella Bandita is far from dead. Having studied the art of seduction under the Sorcerer of the Caverns who saved her that day, she must now make a life for herself as Ella Bandita, thriving on fresh hearts for survival. The immortal seductress moves from village to village, seducing and stealing the hearts of only the most licentious and undeserving men. It’s a lonely life, filled with grief and rage.

Until the day she meets a Wanderer in the woods, who engages her in a deadly game of cat and mouse, fueled by his unruly desire for this strange young woman. His refusal to quit her makes Ella Bandita act, and the Wanderer finds himself transformed into a Wolf, forced to live life searching for the one thing that can make him a man again. Hunting down the immortal seductress becomes necessary for survival. At the old Sorcerer’s Caverns, they will meet again, Ella Bandita and the Wanderer.

In a dark tale of romance, lust, and desire, Ella Bandita and the Wanderer is driven by intrigue and explores the darkness of the human heart and the allure of erotic obsession over love.

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How I built my fantasy world while staying in the story

You might have heard of “world-builders disease”. If you haven’t, then listen to this episode of Writing Excuses, from Season 5. If you have, but haven’t listened to that episode of Writing Excuses before, then I highly recommend you listen to it anyway.

Now, I personally hate the term “world-builders disease” because it implies there is something wrong with spending time world-building. I’m sure all you fellow fantasy writers in the crowd can relate to the struggle of knowing just how much world-building you must do before you feel you know the world adequately enough to start writing your book.

Today I’m going to share with you some of the techniques I have been developing during my latest foray into world-building, in the hope that it may inspire you in your own endeavors.

Developing a bottom-up, top-down process

I have been building my world for almost 23 years. I also have been writing the stories that accompanied this process for the same period of time. I started when I was in grade 8, a 13-year-old boy inspired first by the work of Dennis L. McKiernan, then Tolkien via The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

There was never a point at which I said, “I’m going to build my world so I can write stories set in it.” There was never a point at which I said, “I’m going to write stories so I can build my world.” The two happened all together. Every morning while delivering newspapers (I was a paper boy until I was 17), stories took shape in my mind. They were cinematic, but they were also expository. Some mornings I was discovering the stories of how gods and powerful wizards betrayed one another. Other mornings, I was wandering through enchanted lands hidden by veils of mist. Often, I heard languages.

The process of trying to write this all down was about a lot more than just trying to write a book or a short story. I drew maps as much as I composed prose. I wrote out charts for my languages and continued to make up new words for them, usually in my room at night while hovering before my humidifier. I annotated my maps, and stories lurked within these annotations. I started a story but it detoured into a chronicle of a new people I had not previously heard of. Years passed, I read more fantasy books, my work evolved, and it wasn’t until I was 26 that I finally completed a first draft of a novel. But not at all during that time would I have said I was not telling stories.

Instead, what I learned is that the world gives life to story, just as the story gives life to a world. It’s in the doing that both are created. And for writing fantasy, a lot of doing is needed for a truly lofty epic to come together.

I’ve come to think of this as a bottom-up, top-down approach to world-building. Bottom-up because, first and foremost, I discover my world through doing. I get my hands dirty, be it with trying new stories set in the world, or with simply finding new ways to explore my world beyond writing stories that follow novel or short story format (maps, languages, chronicles, glossaries, setting sketches, to name a few). Top-down because, as I move forward in this process, I employ world-building rigor to further grow my stories. But bottom-up, top-down because, in order to employ this rigor, I must start by creating and making a mess.

My process over the years then has been about learning how to make a mess and clean it up, and keep making more messes and keep cleaning those up, and get better and better at it as I go. It is, in a sense, about learning to create an ever-evolving mess-making-cleaning-up system.

Using a private wiki as a world-building tool

When I finished the fourth draft of A Thousand Roads, I allotted time exclusively for “world-building” while I waited on my editor. I went into this with no idea what that meant. The obvious starting point for me was to create an index of my notes, to bring them all together in one place, so that is exactly how I began.

I had done this, to some extent, with Blood Dawn. (You can read more about that here.) With Blood Dawn, I created a list and added to it every time I mentioned something in the draft relating to the world. As the manuscript grew, the list grew and I organized it into a directory to keep it accessible. I was using Scrivener, and though its tree display is convenient for me to quickly access the relevant location, eventually the directory got too large and it was cumbersome.

What was coming together was essentially a wiki, but Scrivener was the wrong environment for it. So, as I began this January to unify my notes during this exciting, long-awaited world-building period, I took a leap of faith and started my index in a private wiki. (Much thanks to my friend and fellow fantasy writer, and world-builder extraordinaire, Malkuthe Highwind, for his patience and guidance along the way.)

Now, for those who are familiar with wikis, I will clarify that when I say I created a wiki, it was not for the conventional use. I have set it all to private so that it functions as a extension of my writing notes. I can keep it open in an internet browser while I write, allowing me to access relevant articles and modify as needed.

My choice to keep this private was twofold. Mainly, these are my notes. I have details about future books, both as part of the articles under the “history” directory, and through character bio pages. I want to be able to dump in whatever I need to freely, without worrying that I might confuse future readers.

I also am chaotic in my notes. Sentences are half-completed in many places, or in point form. While consolidating three conflicting articles on magic, instead of belaboring over this task, I simply left a bold note to myself at the top that the material must be integrated at a later date. While nearing the end of this phase and realizing there was so much more to do (as in, if I got a magic ring and was able to live to 133, I would still be doing it), I simply resolved myself to setting future goals (likely between future drafts while waiting on editors or readers) to gradually iterate over the entire thing in stages, further unifying or expanding or correcting as seems fitting at such time. (For instance, I have put on my project board a future task, “consolidate magic directory” and would, during that project, focus exclusively on going over all my magic notes and emerging with my “notes to self” somewhat resolved.)

The other reason I’ve kept my wiki private is because usually, fans write wikis for the fantasy epics they fall in love with. For instance, Brandon Sanderson’s fans have built and maintain Coppermind. George R.R. Martin’s fans have one as well ( In neither of these cases did the author write their wikis. I prefer that, if the community of fans who gather around my work in the years to come wish to share their knowledge and passion for the books, they will do so without my interference. I might contribute here and there, but mostly I would lurk, as I’m sure they will find numerous inconsistencies or errors that I have missed, and this I will use to my (and ultimately their) advantage.

What I created in my world-building wiki

At first, I created chaos. This was due mostly to the fact that my notes were scattered all over the place. I had hand-written notes from A Thousand Roads from when I wrote the first draft. I had notes from the Scrivener directory file I created while writing Blood Dawn. I already had several disorganized articles on my wiki from when I was learning how to use it. I need not mention notes from 23 years of discovering this world (which I intend to, over the course of the next few years, append to the wiki during later phases of iteration).

But the wiki allowed me to dump in what I needed, and I organized as I went along.

To start, I created an index page where I would drop material if I didn’t know where it belonged. This wasn’t required for long. I quickly saw how my notes broke down into various categories, and subcategories, so I created pages for each of these.

For instance, I have many character notes. I organize my characters based on how important they are, the usual main, secondary, and tertiary. As I was transferring character notes, I created the character category. But as I have so many notes on characters, eventually I created pages based on whether they are main, secondary, or tertiary, as the note-taking system I employ for each differs (i.e. tertiary characters are usually passing people in a scene so I might only have a sentence or two about them to give me a deeper sense of the interpersonal or setting dynamics).

In the same manner, other categories came together: people, with subcategories lineages, culture, society, and organizations; life, with subcategories flora, fauna, and races (to be clear, I mean race in the traditional fantasy sense, for instance, humankind, the Dwarf Men, Dragons, and other sapient beings); constructions, with subcategories language, religion, symbols, art, measurement.

Sub-subcategories also came together within these categories as I proceeded further. For instance, the races subcategory breaks down quite a lot since of the two dominant races of the world, humankind and the Dwarf Men, both are unique species who have diverged into racial groups over time. The lineages subcategory is a whole universe unto itself as the various dynasties of both Dwarf Men and humankind are listed there, and these dynasties are specific to different nations and time periods.

As a rule, I tried not to impose too much top-down prodding at this point, so the resulting category, subcategory, sub-subcategory breakdown was an emergent property and not artificial. It was, strictly, me trying to organize my notes.

But I did do a lot of further writing as a result of seeing the larger structure coming together, and this is where the bottom-up, top-down approach I’ve employed all my life became manifest. For, it is inevitable for me to engage with my notes and my world and not explore a bit further.

Sometimes I saw that categories or subcategories, or sub-subcategories were missing, or I would create a brief note to summarize something (i.e. “The Black Faith” under “Religion” under “Constructions”, which I wrote a great deal on beyond my notes, and “The Old Faith”, which I discovered through listing out related religions that were not in my notes before but which came to me from this particular top-down view). Or, when filling in a given note on calendar systems and elaborating, I would discover a detail about cultural history behind that system and could now quickly access the part of the culture category that deals with that particular culture. As the system came together, it inspired me to write about the world from its own perspective in ways that my notes from the manuscript-writing process would not have.

I arrived at the end of this process greatly satisfied. Not only did I unify my notes, I also defined a process which will continue this objective, and I am now excited to return to it time and time again.

Taming the world-building beast

I could write endlessly on what I have learned about world-building from the last month alone, but I will close instead on the most important insight, which is the issue of how I jumped into world-building without losing my sense of “true north”.

In fact, I found the discipline I learned while working on the previous drafts of A Thousand Roads translated directly. Working on these drafts taught me to stay grounded on one thing at a time, and to do so with a governing objective, aka the “true north”.

In the case of the fourth draft of A Thousand Roads, I had an editorial letter from my editor (and the pressure of a publication schedule) to not just keep me committed to writing every day but also keep me on task. I could have tinkered and obsessed endlessly on that draft. But instead I learned to trust my editor’s edits and the specific revisions objectives I had to achieve, and, most importantly, to accept that the draft I would deliver back to him for the next round of edits was still going to need work; but that would be for the fifth draft, and I’d achieved what I needed to in the fourth.

Likewise, while world-building, I stayed focused on my objective of unifying my notes. I had in fact looked forward to this since the fall. Many times while stressing over revision in the fourth draft, I pushed ahead eager for the time to finally be able to put the draft away and work on something fresh and exciting—and what can be fresher and more exciting that pure world-building?

So I stayed grounded in this world-building process, and those many times along the way where I saw a rabbit hole, I tagged it as such and left it, knowing I would in due time come back to it. This gave me a sense of knowing when I would be “done” world-building, this particular time around.

Most importantly, I finished this task with my notes in one place. This will serve useful as I write the 5th draft of A Thousand Roads (as I can now access/modify my wiki directly as needed), and when I dive back in to pick up on the next “world-building” phase, after I am done the 5th draft and waiting on my specialty readers.

In fact, I have come to appreciate this world-building phase as somewhat of a discovered half of a wheel, whose turning has brought me back to the familiar other half, drafting. I will draft the 5th draft of A Thousand Roads now; then, completing that, roll over into the next phase of world-building, then roll over into the 6th draft. And on and on, and beyond A Thousand Roads there is the space between that and the sequel. In my mind, I get excited thinking of how this wheel will continually turn as the epic evolves, and the world itself will grow more concrete and loftier, how I will be, as I was 23 years ago, using many facets of creation to bring this world to life.

Now please, someone give me a magic ring.

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On Being a Prolific Writer, Part Two

Welcome back to M.S. Wordsmith for her second installment in her Being A Prolific Writer series. If you missed the first one, read it here. You can also find out more about Mariëlle on her website.

IMG_3562 (2)In my last blog, I brought up one of the first questions I ask when dealing with clients who feel overwhelmed by the constant pressure to write more: Where do you want your writing to take you? Discussing the fact that there are no universal goals when it comes to writing, I argued that this isn’t only a question we tend to overlook, I also pointed out the urgency of answering this question for ourselves if we want to stay sane in the current writing climate.

Today, I will share another question I ask when trying to figure out what my clients want from their writing—What does ‘making a living’ mean to you?

Figure out YOUR financial goal

keep-calm-and-make-money-121There are so so many articles out there that will tell you about writers who managed to start earning a 6-figure income through their writing, and how you yourself can become as successful within the next 2 to 5 years. Earning that much money through your writing sounds absolutely fabulous, but do you really need that kind of money? Is that truly a goal you have to set for yourself? Or is it far from what you need?

We all know that there are particular standards that differ per country/culture as to what making a living amounts to. There are numbers we look up to, numbers we look down upon, and numbers we would be OK with, or would at least be enough for us to live our lives comfortably enough (which is the basic meaning of making a living, after all). So, how about we figure out what we need to live comfortably enough before raising the bar to numbers that are bound to leave us breathless?

Living comfortably enough

What does living comfortably enough mean to you?

– What kind of place do you need to live comfortably enough?

– What kind of car(s) do you need to drive?

– How often do you need to go out, for dinner, to the theatre, to the cinema, to your local pub?

– What type of clothes or groceries do you need to be able to buy?

– What kind of holidays do you need to go on, and how often?

My partner ‘only’ works four days a week because he doesn’t want to work five. And he doesn’t need to, either. I combine a variety of different jobs that make my heart sing and easily work 60 hours a week, just for the fun of it. We’re the only ones in his family who rent a place instead of own one because juggling those different jobs makes it impossible to get a mortgage. Despite that, we’re happy where we are now financially because, while we earn less than all the other couples in the family, we understand that we’re in fact living comfortably enough. Would I mind earning 6 figures through my writing? Not at all. But it’s not a goal of mine; it’s not the income I need right now, so it’s not where my bar is set.

Raising the bar

That said, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t raise the financial bar little by little, if you want to. My partner and I lived in an apartment for over a decade and it wasn’t until the last two years or so that my tiny office at the back of the house stopped working for me. My business was growing and I was spending more and more hours in that less than inspiring space. We tried refurbishing it—the rental market in our hometown was so slow at the time that moving to someplace bigger wasn’t an option—but it wasn’t enough. Lucky for us, that’s when the market shifted and we found our new place, a three story house with a giant attic that I turned into the best workplace imaginable. Yes, it’s more expensive than our old place, but we reached the point where raising our standards made all the sense.

What I’m saying is that there’s nothing wrong with wanting more than you currently have. There’s nothing wrong even with wanting that 6-figure income, although I suggest you might want to read those articles and start kicking your own ass (and ask yourself, while you’re at it, whether you need to reach it within the next 2 to 5 years). But, you do need to remember that none of us needs to put that kind of pressure on ourselves. What you do need to do is figure out what kind of ‘living’ you need right now, and turn that into your current goal. YOUR current goal. Once you reached that goal, that’s when you make up the balance and see whether it’s time to want a little more. If not, fine. We don’t have to want more or it all. If yes, go for it.

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How I’ve created a reading curriculum to become a better fantasy writer

Now that I have finished the fourth draft of A Thousand Roads (if you’re not on my newsletter and want to hear more about that, click here), I am turning to related writing tasks, like this one. Today I want to talk to you about something that evolved as I wrote the draft, and which I think truly helped me improve as a fantasy writer: a focused reading curriculum.

If you’re a writer, you have likely heard the advice that every writer must read. That might be a case of Stephen King’s advice from On Writing popularized in our mainstream writing culture, but the fact is it resonates with advice from many writers over time. My goal is not to convince you about the benefits or relative necessity of reading, as many articles are out there that do that. Instead, I want to explore the more important question: if you’ve decided that as a writer you must read to improve, then what exactly must you read?

Becoming targeted about what books you want to read

When I got serious about reading earlier in 2017 and began a daily practice, I just ran with it. It made sense that as a fantasy writer, I should probably read fantasy books. For that reason, I made a point of reading The Name of the Wind by Pat Rothfuss.

But when I finished that book I was faced with a burning question: what do I read next? More fantasy? Or outside my genre—and what exactly does that mean anyway?

I decided as a simple rule I wanted to stay balanced. My initial strategy: alternate fiction and nonfiction. I kicked off 2017 by reading The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People by Steven R. Covey, which changed (and is continuing to change) how I approach my work/lifestyle on a daily basis. But then, because of applying this rule of fiction/nonfiction alternation, I also read On Writing by Stephen King, Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, and Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond.

I decided to explore this rule of alternation a bit further. Beyond simply a binary fiction/nonfiction rule, I instead highlighted the main categories of fiction I want to be investing my time in.

Being a fantasy writer, it makes sense that I have a fantasy category. Because of this, I also read American Gods by Neil Gaiman last year and am happy to say in 2017 my perspective on the fantasy genre grew as a result. (I also apply a rule of not reading a book by a given author back to back in the same category; for instance, as much as I want to read Wise Man’s Fear, sequel to The Name of the Wind, I am going to stick to my curriculum and wait until the fantasy category comes up again.)

But wanting to be a balanced writer who brings something diverse to my genre, I saw the value of having a balanced influence from other genres. For this reason, I have a “not fantasy genre fiction” category. Because of this, I read Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey, The Shining by Stephen King, and I’m presently reading, as part of this rotation, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi.

And, to keep my feet on the ground further, I defined a “non-genre fiction” category where I can be directed to include anything else, such as classics or just generally popular fiction books, even works from antiquity (like Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, which is on my roster). For this reason, I labored my way through Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, a feat which I would not have managed if I didn’t have my curriculum, yet which, after completing it, added some valuable perspectives to my appreciation of how the novel and language in the novel has evolved (plus Dickens’ wondrous skill with describing rural setting, which rubbed off on the fourth draft of A Thousand Roads). I also read (well, listened to—see below) Dracula by Bram Stoker, which also inspired me, especially with regard to parallel tone and symbolism in the end of A Thousand Roads—and which I was inspired to read only because of the momentum I created by learning to read something that does not quite interest me at first, but which I know is good for me. I’m presently also reading (listening to) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, which I find drags on a bit but which has taught me a lot about moving story through polarized dialogue, and which has in turn inspired me for some dialogue revisions I’m planning to make in the fifth draft of A Thousand Roads this February.

The big takeaway for me from this curriculum is that reading whatever we feel like reading can—like the choice to not read at all and just focus on writing more and more—limit us from the level we might otherwise attain as writers. There are so many books. Several million, according to several internet estimates. Where do we start?

The answer is that we will never know exactly what books we should be reading. But creating a curriculum that uses this sort of alternation is a sure way to at least create some balance in our reading diet.

Becoming targeted about what it means to read

But this is just one dimension of the problem. What do we read? And what does it even mean to read, anyway?

The obvious answer, books, is as limiting as deciding that reading books equates to reading only our genre or whatever we feel like reading.

Books are just one thing we can read. We live in the age of the internet at our fingertips. This is a good thing and a bad thing. The bad thing is that it serves us up the equivalent of junk food—anyone can publish anything, and if you think being overwhelmed by the millions of books to pick from is a problem, the billions (trillions?) of online publications in the form of blog posts, forum posts, message threads, and other click-and-publish content is even more overwhelming. The good thing is that, if you become targeted, you can cull from this pile a list of worthwhile material—much like you do when picking the books you plan to read.

Before I talk about what I did online, I want to talk about what I did offline. Another important goal for me over 2017 has been to create a proper evening routine so I can sleep better. On a typical day, I have done my end-of-day housework by 11PM and I’m in bed reading for an hour before lights out at midnight.

I’ve had piles of magazines building up on the headboard of my bed for the last several years. Scientific American and Writers Digest to be exact. To keep up on them, I will skim through, maybe read an article here or there.

I decided instead to read one all the way through, the way I’d read a novel. Even the articles that did not at first interest me. What I found was, like persevering through Oliver Twist, I learned something every article, usually many things. My perspectives changed. I went to sleep, my brain cleared out its cobwebs of the day, and I awoke the next day often applying these new perspectives to the work I did.

I now have been reading every single article of both Scientific American and Writers Digest, and the pile on the headboard is empty. This has become part of my reading curriculum, and I am so inspired by it that I plan to get a subscription of National Geographic so I can have a great trifecta of material (in part inspired by reading Guns, Germs & Steel and the desire to further appreciate cultural diversity). I want to keep up on all three of these through all of 2018, then I will see where the rabbit hole leads from there. (Time MagazineMacleans?)

Now, to the online content. First off, let’s talk about the need to be ruthless in saying “no” to 99.9% of material that comes our way. Every time I choose to say “yes” to reading something, even if that’s a message thread or an interesting article that caught my attention in my news feed, that’s time I could be spending reading material in my reading curriculum.

If something truly catches my attention, I will flag it and come back to it later. This is why I like to subscribe to educational email newsletters, or follow blogs like Writer Unboxed, so I can flag the email I receive and include that in my morning reading time if something does seem worth reading all the way through.

What I do focus on is Wikipedia. Don’t get me wrong, Wikipedia is not the place to back up your scholarly paper, but I’ve found that, to get a general sense of information about the world and how it’s all connected, it’s excellent. For a fantasy writer who wants to build a cohesive world that will make sense and draw on layers of how our own history, culture, geography, science, and biography come together, it’s an absolute gold mine.

And I’ve become a gold miner. In fact, reading Wikipedia, about the same amount of time I spend reading whatever novel I am working through, has created true balance in my reading curriculum to complement magazine articles at bedtime.

There’s a trick to doing this. Wikipedia will get you lost quickly, as you no doubt can attest if you’ve ever wandered down a series of links that cause your query about a type of French wine to evolve into reading about the 24-hour 25-lover tour of the infamous Messalina. My goal was to avoid this.

To do this I created a reading track. In order for this to work, I needed to create some rules that would keep me on it.

The obvious starting point for me was the English monarchs. I say obvious for me because I am forever curious about who’s who when it comes to English kings and queens and can’t get enough of TV shows like The Crown and Victoria. I had found whenever I look up a monarch on Wikipedia I’d end up following the lines of succession backward, and I would want to understand how the events of a previous monarch influenced the next one.

So, to kick off this reading track, I started at the beginning. I used the line of succession to direct me, i.e. as soon as I finish the article of a given monarch, I go to the tick and click “succeeded by” under the quick facts, to take me to the next stop. (I am presently on Mary I, aka “Bloody Mary”, whose reign reminds me an awful lot of our recent political landscape with the rise and fall of Stephen Harper’s government.)

Now, Wikipedia is wonderful for its links, and I would be missing out if I didn’t take some time here or there to wander down one. In fact, it seemed wrong to stick to the rule of only reading the biographies of the English monarchs and nothing else. That’s like going on a vacation and sticking only to the hotel and tour bus and never getting out to enjoy the setting. But, as is the case when traveling, I don’t want to get lost.

To help keep me on track I generalized my rule a bit. I read on a tablet which allows me to tap on any link I’m curious about as I’m reading and read a preview of the start of the article. Usually, this is enough. Occasionally, I feel the context is very important and I will visit the article and read at least the opening. For example, today while reading about Queen Mary I’s engagement to Philip of Spain, I was curious about just who the Habsburg’s were (I keep seeing them mentioned as I’m reading). That was good enough. I was curious, and boy did I want to read more. But I stuck to my principles. (You might be surprised how much you can still learn about the world in general just through sticking to the stories of those who were major players in it.)

And this is the key point here that I’ve learned in practicing how to tame my Wikipedia reading habit: the goal is to get more and more curious, and trust that information is layered. I am reading to become less ignorant in general, not to know everything. Drop the ego and become a curious child, and the world can only get more interesting.

Now what do I do when I get to Queen Elizabeth II? The answer has come to me in the process of doing, as it often does. Inevitably, reading the articles on the English monarchs leads to lots of name dropping. Numerous Scottish monarchs. Welsh rulers. French kings—lots of those. Popes. Holy Roman Emperors. Overall, an awareness of other lines of succession that are fascinating. Needless to say, I’m likely going to face death by old age before I run out of options here to keep this reading track going.

This curiosity from the process of doing also opened my mind to a second kind of Wikipedia reading track: topical. Reading biographies is great. In fact, as a writer, I feel like I am stoking my character inspiration fire to no end. But reading biographies alone limits me from the much needed desire that’s come up many times to take a really good look at a topic.

As with the English monarchs, I picked the topic that was closest to my heart as a natural starting point: mathematics. I started with the main article, and that alone was a worthwhile read. From there, I have embarked on reading the main articles that branch off it. When I’m done this, I’ll read the articles that branch off those articles. I may change it up now and again by picking at other topics, i.e. take a break and read through the article for “computer science” or “music” or “philosophy” or “religion” or “geography” (etc etc), following a similar pattern of reading down main topic branches should I want to follow up further on any topic. I’m not concerned with keeping track of these—if I forget that I’ve read the article on music, then I probably need to read it again.

These two tracks add wonderfully to my book reading and, together with magazines at bedtime, have become a great reading curriculum that is accelerating my daily improvement as a writer. In fact, if anything, I’m convinced only that I need to read more, and even if I got the opportunity to make a living on my writing, I’d probably add more reading time before I crunch to get in 4-5 hours a day of writing. (In my mind, full-time-writer-heaven looks like: 5 hours of reading a day, and 3 hours of writing, 7 days a week, except lighter on weekends and holidays.)

Beyond reading: becoming targeted about what the purpose of reading is as a writer

To close, I want to touch on one last level of abstraction that over 2017 has helped hone my reading habit: the context in which reading fits. The why behind it all.

I read for about two and a half hours every day. This is not including time I might get to read as part of my work as an editor. I read before I begin my writing for the day, right after I get up and as I’m enjoying my first cup of coffee. I actually set a timer to hold myself accountable, the same as I do when I write. Reading is, as far as I’m concerned, part of my work as a writer.

But why? Because it’s one component of a thing every writer can level up by doing: research.

Now, we all need to research on a given book we’re writing. I make mention of horses in A Thousand Roads. I’ve never had to care for a horse for a living, and the one time I rode one (as kid) I almost fell off. This is not “writing what I know”, so you better bet I’ll be doing specific research on horses. I even have consulted another author who is willing to read the next draft and call me out on my horse foibles, as I’m sure there will be many.

This is all reactive research though. Research itself can also be a regular discipline that’s part of our writing discipline.

By way of example: If you wait until you have a health emergency before you go to the doctor, you probably are going to maintain many bad habits and be unaware of many underlying factors which are creating the tip-of-iceberg problems that will keep you coming back. But if you instead use your relationship with your doctor as a partnership so you can be a good steward of your health then not only are you going to be better equipped to tackle health emergencies, you’re probably going to have fewer. Plus, you’ll be fitter, feel better, (most likely) live longer, and overall, be happier.

Likewise, researching, by way of reading and its many aspects, can be part of a curriculum we as writers practice daily (or whatever is your optimal pattern). I realized this higher level when I discovered how I am often wasting more than a hour of my day in the car. Probably what I find most shocking is I am a co-host of the Write Right Podcast, and even though we just finished recording our second season, I didn’t have the insight to realize until this summer that I should be listening to podcasts when I’m driving.

Well, I started, and holy space cows! Complemented with my reading curriculum, that filled space has added a new dimension to a kind of learning that I understand as the research aspect of my discipline as a writer. I quickly found my way to great historical and educational podcasts like Tides of History, The Fall of Rome, and Lore. In fact, I have a queue that’s layered with about 30 different serial-education podcasts covering writing craft, history, culture, business, and biography. Among them: BBC’s In Our Time, the many TEDx feeds, Writing Excuses, Planet MoneyStar TalkStuff You Missed in History ClassStuff You Should Know, Totalius RankiumThe History of Rome, and the Grammar Girl podcast. You can find more podcasts like these by simply googling, “Podcasts to get smarter,” or “Great educational podcasts.” Or email me and I will send you the list of podcasts in full. But you can start by adding some episodes to your queue and running with that. You’ll find that many of them plug other related podcasts, so discover a few you love and add others that interest you and you’ll soon find you have no end of content to learn from.

Discovering audio led me to audiobooks. I’ll admit, though, that they haven’t quite caught on for me. I mentioned above that I “read” Dracula and am presently “reading” The Adventures of Huckleberrry Finn. However, I don’t feel like I truly am reading when I listen to audio. It might be the type of learner I am (I am very audio-visual and kinesthetic), and the fact that, when taking in only audio information, my brain launches off onto tangents to creatively process said information. In a Podcast that’s forgiving, because you can miss some discussion and grab bits and pieces. Not so much in an audiobook. That’s like skipping a page here or there then hoping you can still follow everything.

If you enjoy audiobooks and find you retain them the same as physical reading (or better), then this one would definitely be an opportunity to deepen your overall research discipline. I’ve found simply alternating the two works well, or associating a certain activity. For instance, I’ll put on my audiobook when I’m taking a walk, and keep to podcasts whenever I’m doing something built from simple/repetitive tasks, like driving or lifting weights at the gym or gardening.

There are further opportunities—watching YouTube education videos, transcribing books I admire, and occasionally, taking out a pen and doing a study of an image that catches my attention when reading Wikipedia. Of these, transcribing has become something so big it’s worth its own blog post, so I’ll save it for another time. But for the others, I try to do them more occasionally and spontaneously as further exercises to deepen my overall skill and hone my writing senses.

At the end of the day, it all comes out in that 2 hour window of time when I’m in front of the keyboard. But the advantage is that, when the tap’s on, the water flows all the time, and the torrent is strong and its sustenance rich.

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On Being a Prolific Writer, Part One

Happy Friday!

Today’s guest post is something I’ve been looking forward to sharing since December. M.S. Wordsmith is one of the writers in my small writing accountability group. I chat with her almost on a daily basis as there we share our daily successes and struggles.

She’s also an editor. We’ve compared notes many times about the process and have found we are very much kindred spirits. (In fact, we have a deal signed in blood…er, I mean red ink, to be reciprocal beta readers on our own novels.)

Needless to say, her message is one that I want to share on this blog. In fact, we have a whole series of posts lined up and you can expect a follow-up on the first Friday of each month until April. As that is the 6th of April and not the 1st, I promise it will not be about the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Mariëlle, over to you!

IMG_3562 (2)Who is M.S. Wordsmith? That would be me, Mariëlle S. Smith.

But who am I? And how did I get from being regular old M.S. Smith to being M.S. Wordsmith?

Being the child of a Scottish expat father and a Dutch mother, I have always been intrigued by language and how it works: how is meaning created and what becomes lost in translation? As a child, I was either writing stories or reading them—I always wanted to borrow more books in one go than the library allowed—and often carried around a heavy dictionary to translate Dutch songs into English or vice versa. I excelled in English at secondary school level, and my love for this language brought me to the University of Utrecht, where I studied English Language and Culture, with minors in Gender, Post-Colonial, and Conflict Studies, followed by a Research Masters in Gender and Ethnicity.

Throughout my studies, teachers, professors, and anonymous peer-reviewers from academic journals complimented the quality and clarity of my writing. The moment my professors started asking me to translate and edit their work, I realised I needed to start using this skill to help others. Originally starting out as an academic editor, the rekindling of my passion for creative writing inspired me to expand my services to include the mentoring of creative writers and the editing and critiquing of their work.

Next to being M.S. Wordsmith, I am also editor-in-chief of the bilingual journal Tijdschrift voor Genderstudies (Journal of Gender Studies). In between these jobs, I call myself a writer of fiction.

On being a prolific writer I – What is YOUR goal?

If you want to become a writer and make a living as a writer, it is important to write Keep Calmmore than one book. It’s also considered an absolute necessity to write these books at a certain interval, so that your readers don’t forget about your very existence. I bet this doesn’t come as a surprise.

However, if you’re new to the playing field and go online, searching for keywords such as ‘how to become a writer?’, ‘writing tips and tricks’, and ‘how to make a living as a writer?’, you might notice (actually, it’s quite hard not to notice) how much emphasis there is these days on being prolific—especially so if you find yourself in the world of self- or indie publishing. The best way to market yourself is simply through publishing that next book.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve fallen in love with indie publishing a long time ago and there’s no community I’d rather be in, but that doesn’t take away the fact that there is enormous emphasis on how many words you write each day, how many novels you intend to publish in the next year, whether you made it through NaNoWriMo without a scratch, and so on.


You want to make a living as a writer? Great! Publish at least a novel a year and the odds are entirely in your favor! Can you produce more? Excellent! The more you publish, the sooner you can quit that day job of yours!

The thing is, these voices aren’t wrong. If your story telling abilities are good enough, and you are able to publish at great speed, you probably won’t have any trouble becoming an ‘authorpreneur’. There’s a reason why there are so many articles, books, podcasts, competitions, and more that focus on making you a faster writer: they increase your chances of becoming a full-time writer.

But, amidst the friendly competitiveness that comes with this sense of always having to write and publish more, those writers who don’t have the ability to set apart large portions of their days to write might feel absolutely overwhelmed. Those writers working in the more demanding genres—genres that need loads of research and/or world-building, such as fantasy or historical fiction—might feel even more pressure: imagine being short for time AND having to build a world from scratch or get the details and facts as right as possible.

Never enough

I remember how I felt when I first happened upon the field: I was constantly worried I wasn’t doing enough, and convinced I would never ever make it as a writer because I didn’t know how to find the time to write 5000 words a day, let alone write that many words AND do all the research and world-building (I’m working on a YA fantasy series at the moment). What’s more, I became close to feeling blocked: if I couldn’t do it the way I should, why try at all?

As a writing mentor, or coach, I speak to a lot of writers who are, like I’ve been, overwhelmed by all this. So, what do I tell them? I tell them there is no one way of doing this, this becoming a writer. I tell them they need to figure out for themselves what becoming a writer means to them, and go from there. There are a few questions involved here, and I will address each of them in a separate post.

Figure out YOUR personal goal

I have yet to come across a book that isn’t written for those who want to become full-time writers. There are often a few words on ‘hobby writers’ or what have you, but, in general, the audience targeted are those who want to quit their jobs rather sooner than later. As if making a living writing automatically means making ALL of your living writing.

One of the first questions I ask my clients when trying to figure out what becoming a writer means to them is ‘Where do you want your writing to take you?’

You’d be surprised to find how many people haven’t thought the answer to that question through. There’s so much focus on those who want to write full-time, it almost seems the only option available. I know enough people who do want to write full-time, and I’m not saying they shouldn’t (by all means, follow it if it’s truly your dream). However, the moment you reach that point in your life you realise you want to take your writing more seriously, it wouldn’t hurt to ask yourself what taking it more seriously entails exactly.

What does becoming a writer entail?

What does it mean to you to become a writer?

  • Does it mean you can quit your day job(s) within the next 5 years? Or 10 years?
  • Does it mean you want to make enough of a living with your writing to, at the least, start working part-time?
  • Does it mean you just want a particular story out of your system?
  • Does it mean you want to start entering competitions just to see where you end up?
  • Does it mean you finally have an outlet for your thoughts, your frustrations, your whatever?

If it’s your personal goal to quit your day job(s) within the next 5 years, by all means, read those books, articles, what-nots, and get cracking! Stop reading this post and get your ass-to-seat!

If it’s your personal goal to make enough money with writing so you can start working part-time and devote the rest of it to writing, take a good, deep breath. If it means you want to get a story out, enter into competitions, have an outlet, take a good, deep breath as well. There’s no need for you to get caught up in the being prolific frenzy. Different goals come with different paths and different time frames.

If you do want to get caught up in the frenzy, please do. Some writers thrive under that constant pressure, are better writers because of that constant pressure. Just make sure you make that decision consciously and not because you feel there’s no other way. And if, after trying, you find it isn’t for you after all, accept that it isn’t and continue in a slower pace.

There are no universal goals

I got caught up in it once, the idea that I needed to write more so I could quit the work I was doing and become a writer full-time within the next 10 years. It wasn’t until I remembered I absolutely love the work I was doing—writing, editing, mentoring, teaching—that I stopped hitting myself over the head because I wasn’t writing a book a year. I realised I didn’t want to imagine a life without any of these jobs—even though combining these jobs and making time to write is a daily struggle—but that I needed to find a way to balance these in such a way that I have enough time left for writing. This is when I changed my goal from ‘becoming a full-time writer in the next 10 years’ to ‘having reached a balance between writing, teaching, mentoring, and editing in the next 10 years’.

There is no universal goal when it comes to writing. There are only personal goals. What is yours?

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Thomas Welsh guest post — Anna Undreaming, where art meets magic

Welcome to 2018! I will be sharing a post to recap what I’ve been up to over the holidays in a few days, but before that I want to kick off this year’s roster with a great guest post by author Thomas Welsh.

Tom and I connected over the holidays and he told me a bit about his upcoming novel Anna Undreaming. I was intrigued right away—here’s a real kindred spirit writing a story with a magic system relating to art in a richly imagined fantasy world. Needless to say, I’ve asked Tom some questions specific to world-building and craft so he can share with you all about his process.

Take it away, Tom!

TomTom is 37 years old and lives in Scotland. His first novel Anna Undreaming is a dark urban fantasy story that will be released in March 2018 by Owl Hollow Press. It is the first entry in the Metiks Fade trilogy. He was the winner of the Elbow Room fiction prize for his short story “And Then I was Floating” and has also been published in short story collections, including 404 Ink and Leicester Writes. He’s written about games for a various websites including Unwinnable, GlitchFreeGame and Kotaku, and his audio story “Suicide Vending Machine” will soon be featured on the Pseudopod Podcast.

What made you want to write a Dark Urban Fantasy story? Where did your idea for the story’s concept come from?

With Anna Undreaming, I think I wanted to write a story that included elements of horror, fantasy and even sci fi. I came up with the idea of artists who can warp and change reality while watching a modern dance performance. The music and the dancing and the effects on stage combined in a hypnotic way, and I remember thinking to myself that in that moment, reality seemed so far away. That’s where I came up with the idea of the Aesthete—a kind of modern magician that could rewrite the rules of reality with art. Once I had that central idea, I realised that the worlds the Aesthetes created within my story could be horror, sci fi, fantasy or any other area I wanted to explore. 

What tools did you utilize to build your world? Was there a specific strategy you followed?

I am still figuring out my process, so I wouldn’t want to give anyone else advice!

How long did it take you to write the book? When did you first start working on it?

Probably about a year for the first draft, and another year in edits, but that’s been interspersed with writing more books.

How many other books have you written, if any? Do you plan on publishing them?

I’ve got a number of short stories in print. I’ve written first draft of book 2 of the trilogy, and I have a few other projects kicking around. The most developed is a dark fantasy called Hope is Coming to Eat your Heart. 

Who is your favorite character in Anna Undreaming? Why?

Oh that’s tough! Anna is the central character of course, but I’m too close to her to say she’s my favourite. I just hope people like her! Personally, I like Elise a lot because she is fun and annoying and brave all at once. She’s the only main character without any powers or special skills, but though everyone treats her like a child, she’s very often the one that tips the odds in the favour of the protagonists.

What can you tell us about your writing process? How do you function as an author?

I just like to write. Even if I wasn’t getting published, making the stories in my head and getting them down on paper would still feel good. It must be brutally hard to be an author if you don’t like that process. I think some writers want to be an author or want to have a book published more than they want to write one, and that’s setting yourself up for misery.

How did you design your magic system? What was the most challenging part about creating it?

I wanted the rules to be consistent and I wanted the story to take shape around them, rather than bending the rules for the supernatural elements around what the story demanded. I also managed to write a hundred and six thousand words about a magical world without ever using the word “magic”. Not once. Quite proud of that!

How did you design your characters? What was you process for that?

I have no idea. I feel like they were already there in my head, sitting around, waiting for me to write a story so they had something to do.

When did you first start writing in general? Why are you passionate about it?

I started properly a few years ago, but even then, I only took it seriously in the last year. I always wanted to be a writer, and some teachers told me I was good at it. I guess I was just too lazy before now. 

Do you have any tips or ideas for people who might be struggling with their own world-building?

Don’t speak about your ideas to anyone. You communicate them in your writing. When you tell people your ideas, you fritter them away and lose the desire to share them. Store them up in your writing, and that will fuel you to keep going.

Check out Anna Undreaming:

Cover TomAnna is a student surviving the city, and she lives by a simple credo, “Never play their game; their game is always rigged.” For every man she has ever known, it’s a saying that has served her well.

That all changes on the night of “The Big Storm,” when Anna is slipped a date rape drug. Though she saves herself and her best friend, Anna is lost to the dark heart of the city and finds herself hunted by The Night Collectors. Unsure if these monsters are real or hallucinations, Anna nonetheless fights them as best she can. The battle attracts a stranger—Teej—who saves her using powers she cannot understand. He explains that she is an Undreamer and possesses the same powers, and in the future, he will not be the one to save her. She will save him.But Anna is not yet ready to join Teej and stand against The Dreamers. She has difficult decisions of her own to make. Decisions she has always run from. She still has her partner’s suicide letter. It remains unopened. She still wears his ring, though she can’t seem to remember his face.Anna learns of The Dreamers – artists so preeminent in their respective fields that they can paint, dance, sew or sing new realities—and as she travels through their creations, she learns that there’s as much beauty in the world as there is horror. With a complex conspiracy at work within the community of Dreamers that threatens to undermine reality itself, Anna will have to look deep within herself, and eventually have to face the horrors of her own past, to save her old world as well as her new one.

Anna Undreaming is a dark urban fantasy, and the first book in the The Metiks Fade trilogy, released on March 20th 2018 by Owl Hollow Press. You can pre-order it here:

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Jerry B. Jenkins Guest Post — Overcoming Writer’s Block

Today I’m pleased to feature a guest article by Jerry B. Jenkins, author of the Left Behind series. Here is his advice on how to deal with that ancient scourge, Writer’s Block. Be sure to check out his website and follow him on Twitter!

jerry-jenkins-300You well know the frustration.

It comes time to write, and you can’t produce a single word.

Maybe you’ve tried for weeks, months, or even years. But still nothing comes.

You’re suffering the dreaded Writer’s Block while your writing dream, your story, and the message you long to share with the world all collect dust in the attic of your mind.

If you don’t find a cure soon, you’re going to give up—and your story will never reach the masses like you hoped.

Good news! I’ve discovered how to crush Writer’s Block once and for all, and my more than 190 books, 21 of which have been New York Times bestsellers, prove it.

You don’t have to quit, and if you already have, you can change your mind and get back to writing.

So what’s my secret?

I treat Writer’s Block as the myth it is.

“Wait!” you’re saying. “Foul! If it’s a myth why am I suffering from it right now?”

Believe me, I know what you’re going through. I’m not saying I don’t have those days when I roll out of bed feeling I’d rather do anything but put words on the page.

But I know how to get unstuck.

During my career I’ve learned to turn on a faucet of creativity—even when, in fact especially when, I find myself staring at a blank page.

My approach stops Writer’s Block in its tracks, and it can do the same for you.

How can I call Writer’s Block a myth when you and countless others seem plagued by it?

Let’s think this through.

If Writer’s Block were real, why would it affect only writers? Imagine calling your boss and saying, “I can’t come in today. I have worker’s block.”

You’d be laughed off the phone! And you’d likely be told never to come in again.

No other profession accommodates block as an excuse to quit working, so we writers shouldn’t either.

If writing is just a hobby to you, a diversion, something you can take or leave, it shouldn’t surprise you that you find ways to avoid it when it’s hard.

What Is Writer’s Block? Something All Writers Need to Know…

What we call Writer’s Block is really a cover for something much deeper.

Identify that deeper issue and you can overcome Writer’s Block and finally start writing.

Overcoming Writer’s Block: Confronting the 4 Real Causes

Cause #1: Fear

Do you fear you’re not good enough?

That you don’t know enough?

Do you fear the competition? Editors? Writing itself?

You have big dreams and good intentions, but you can’t get past your fear?

Would you believe all of the above describes me too? Yes, even now, every time I begin a new book.

Let’s be honest: Writing a book is hardThe competition is vast and the odds are long.

That kind of fear can paralyze. Maybe it’s what has you stuck.


So how can I suffer from that same fear and yet publish all those titles?

Because I discovered something revolutionary: After failing so many times to overcome fear,  it finally dawned on me—my fear is legitimate.

It’s justified. I ought to be afraid.

So now I embrace that fear! Rather than let it overwhelm and keep me from writing, I acknowledge the truth of what I’m afraid of and let that humble me.

Legitimate fear humbles me. That humility motivates me to work hard. And hard work leads to success.

That’s why fear doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Better to fear you’re not good enough than to believe you’re great.

Dean Koontz, who has sold more than 450 million books, says:

The best writing is borne of humility. The great stuff comes to life in those agonizing and exhilarating moments when writers become acutely aware of the limitations of their skills, for it is then that they strain the hardest to make use of the imperfect tools with which they must work.

I’ve never been motivated by great amounts of money (not that I have anything against it!), but that quote comes from a man worth $145 million, earned solely from his writing.

How humble would you be if writing had netted you $145 million? Yet, humility is the attitude Dean Koontz takes to the keyboard every day.

If you’re afraid, fear the “limitations of your skills.” Then, “strain the hardest to make use of those imperfect tools with which you must work.”

That’s how to turn fear into humility, humility into motivation, motivation into hard work, and hard work into success.

Fear can be a great motivator.

Cause #2: Procrastination

Everywhere I teach, budding writers admit Procrastination is killing their dream.

When I tell them they’re talking to the king of procrastinators, their looks alone call me a liar.

But it’s true.

Most writers are masters at finding ways to put off writing. I could regale you for half a day with the ridiculous rituals I perform before I can start writing.

But my track record says I must have overcome Procrastination the way I have overcome Writer’s Block, right?

In a way, yes. But I haven’t defeated Procrastination by eliminating it. Rather, I have embraced it, accommodated it.

After years of stressing over Procrastination and even losing sleep over it, I finally concluded it was inevitable.

Regardless my resolve and constant turning over new leaves, it plagued me.


I came to see Procrastination as an asset.

I find that when I do get back to my keyboard after procrastinating, my subconscious has been working on my project. I’m often surprised at what I’m then able to produce.

So if Procrastination is both inevitable and an asset, I must accept it and even schedule it.

That’s right. When I’m scoping out my writing calendar for a new book, I decide on the number of pages I must finish each writing day to make my deadline. Then I actually schedule Procrastination days.

By accommodating Procrastination, I can both indulge in it and make my deadlines.


By managing the number of pages I must finish per day.

If Procrastination steals one of my writing days, I have to adjust the number of pages for each day remaining.

So here’s the key: I never let my pages-per-day figure get out of hand.

It’s one thing to go from 5 or 6 pages a day to 7 or 8. But if I procrastinate to where now I have to finish 20 pages per day to make my deadline, that’s beyond my capacity.

Keep your deadline sacred and your number of pages per day workable, and you can manage Procrastination.

Cause #3: Perfectionism

Many writers struggle with Perfectionism, and while it can be a crippling time thief, it’s also a good trait during certain stages of the writing process.

Not wrestled into its proper place, however, Perfectionism can prove frustrating enough to make us want to quit altogether.

Yes, I’m a perfectionist too. I’m constantly tempted to revise my work until I’m happy with every word.


Separate your writing from your editing.

As I said, Perfectionism can be a good thing—at the right time.

While writing your first draft, take off your Perfectionist cap and turn off your internal editor.

Tell yourself you can return to that mode to your heart’s content while revising, but for now, just get your story or your thoughts down.

I know this is counterintuitive. When you spot an error, you want to fix it. Most of us do.

But start revising while writing and your production slows to a crawl.

You’ll find yourself retooling, editing, and rearranging the same phrases and passages until you’ve lost the momentum you need to get your ideas down.

Force yourself to keep these tasks separate and watch your daily production soar.

Cause #4: Distractions

It’s like clockwork.

Every time you sit down to write, something intrudes on your concentration.

Whether it’s a person, social media, or even a game on your phone, distractions lure you from writing.


How serious is your writing dream? If it remains your priority, It’s time to take a stand.

Establish these two ground rules to safeguard your work time:

  1. Set a strict writing schedule.

Tell anyone who needs to know that aside from an emergency, you’re not available. That should eliminate friends and loved ones assuming “you’re not doing anything right now, so…”

It’s crucial you learn to say No. During your writing hours, you’re working.

  1. Turn off all other media.

That means radio, TV, email, or social media.

When we feel stuck, our inclination is to break from the work and find something fun to occupy our minds.

That’s why Facebook, online shopping, and clickbait stories and pictures can keep us from writing.

When we should be bearing down and concentrating on solutions, we’re following links from the “10 Ugliest Actors of All Time” to “15 Sea Creatures So Ugly You Won’t Believe They Exist.”

Before you know it, your time has evaporated and you’ve accomplished nothing.

A Writer’s Block App I Recommend

To stay focused on writing, use a distraction-blocking app called Freedom. (This is an affiliate link, so I earn a small commission at no cost to you.)

Freedom allows you to schedule your writing time and blocks social media, browsing, and notifications on your devices till you’re done.

You set the parameters and can override it for emergencies, but it’s a powerful tool.

Writer’s Block Quotes from Bestselling Authors

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us get up and go to work.” — Stephen King

“My cure for writer’s block? The necessity of earning a living.” — James Ellroy

“Writer’s block is just another name for fear.” — Jacob Nordby

“I don’t believe in writer’s block. Just pick up a pen and physically write.” — Natalie Goldberg

“If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.” — Anne Tyler

“If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. ‘Count on me,’ you are saying: ‘I will be there to write.’” — Norman Mailer in The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing

“The secret to getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” — Mark Twain

You Can Defeat Writer’s Block

  • Stand up to it the way you would a bully
  • See it for the myth it is
  • Turn your fear into humility and humility into hard work

That’s how to defeat Writer’s Block once and for all.

Have other questions about Writer’s Block? Ask me in the Comments.

This post was originally posted on as How to Overcome Writer’s Block Once and for All.

Be sure to check out Jerry B. Jenkins’ book, Left Behind!

Left_BehindAn airborne Boeing 747 is headed to London when, without any warning, passengers mysteriously disappear from their seats. Terror and chaos slowly spread not only through the plane but also worldwide as unusual events continue to unfold. For those who have been left behind, the apocalypse has just begun…

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