How I read as a writer — an easy-to-follow template

If you’re a writer, then most likely you’ll want to develop a reading curriculum. “Read a lot” is good advice, but what exactly should we be reading?

Here’s a break-down of the curriculum I’ve developed (and keep developing). My method is highly nuanced to my goals and how I learn, but I’ve tried to distill this for the sake of sharing how I work — knowing that all you writers in the crowd might get a few ideas and use them in your own practice.

Overview of it all

My reading discipline consists of the following main areas:

  1. Novels (fiction or nonfiction)
  2. Wikipedia
  3. Articles
  4. Annex

I will go into detail on each. I leave a review on all the novels I finish on my Goodreads page, but for the sake of demonstrating the larger principle behind how I choose what I read, I’ll still cover novels here.

1. Novels (fiction of nonfiction)

It makes sense if you’re writing novels that you should read a lot of novels. I devote 1/4 of my total reading time to reading 1 novel at a time. This comes to about 6-8 hours / week.

A quick word on method

It’s important to me to read slowly and analytically. This means I read about 10-20 pages / hour and, depending on the length of the book, take about 3-4 weeks to finish (longer if it’s an enormous book).

It’s worth stopping here just for a moment to talk about this: quality, not quantity. I’m much less interested in how many books I’ve read this year than how deeply each of these books has impacted me. 52 books read in 2018 means nothing if I haven’t taken away from each book dozens, if not hundreds, of unique impacts from interacting analytically with the text; if each book has not changed me radically as a writer and a human being.

There’s no rush! When I read, I imagine I am Bilbo Baggins and that means I have 100 more years at least to read, and oh what an adventure I’m going to have each year, with whatever is in front of me (and what stories each is going to inspire me to explore deeper in my work as a writer).

How to build your novel-reading list:

It’s easy to find a novel to read and I find my pile grows by zeitgeist, but I’ve also developed some structure to keep me from getting blinkered.

The following table is the template I follow when I decide on the order of my to-read pile:(I have this table laid out in an Excel file, but you can easily do this with a ruler and paper, or using Trello lists.)

How to proceed with reading novels by this table:

The process is simple:  proceed from left-to-right, top to bottom. So on this table, for instance, you’d start with a book in the writing/editing category (more about that below), then when you complete it, move to “classic” (i.e. Oliver TwistWuthering Heights, etc.), then educational, etc.

I put the date next to each row so I know what span of time elapsed. For example, on the first row of my table, I have the date range June 2017 – June 2018 because that’s how long it took me to get across (Pat Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and the dense, but wonderfully rich Guns, Germs, and Steel were the culprits for the slower pace here).

One of these sheets can represent years of your life. When you fill it up, print/make another, and away you go. You can fold it up and keep it near you and appreciate the broad vista of your reading journey in miniature.

What each column means

Now, this table is somewhat customized to my particular reading recipe. For example, I am a fantasy writer, in my heart of hearts, so it makes sense one of the 8 columns is “fantasy”. For you, replace that column with the name of your genre, i.e. thriller writer? Then this column would be thriller.

But otherwise this table has evolved through the process of surveying the major divisions into which fiction and nonfiction novels can fall, the idea being if you read books across a row, you’ll hit one of the 8 main categories, and will stay quite balanced as a writer.

I’ll talk about each briefly:

1. Writing/editing

If you’re a writer, then learning more about your craft is crucial. It’s the same as a teacher having to attend PD days. There are numerous books on writing and editing and you can put them down in this column so you have a sense of which to dip into on your next pass. I have the Chicago Manual of Style on here and yes, I will read it front to back as a book, and I’m sure it’s going to increase my edge as a writer that much more.

Other books on here for me: Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. Your list will differ from mine, but the idea here is the ones at the top should be the ones that you are most excited to jump into (and you can make amendments as time passes if your eagerness evolves), with the help of whiteout.

2. Classic

I set classics as their own category because in my mind a good balance for any writer is to dip into the books which are the foundation of the fiction-verse we are building today in the 21st century. Awareness of the novel and how it’s evolved since the 1700s is a very important perspective!

On this column’s top rows for me are Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (currently reading, 1 day from finishing), Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. These might change. The Iliad and The Odyssey are kicking at the door, though, as you’ll see below, this is what the annex is for, so they may get read in that other quarter of my reading routine.

3. Educational

You might notice a pattern in this list: it always alternates columns between fiction and nonfiction. I think this is very important for a writer because nonfiction styles and material will further lateralize your thinking and worldview and awareness of just what it means to be a writer.

Educational nonfiction is a category equally important, in the sense that it’s focused on learning more about the world. Textbooks can go here, as can any educational nonfiction. For example Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is in this category because it served as a paradigm-shifting text that redefined my understanding of human history and diversity, especially the geographic and evolutionary impacts on how societies form. Can anyone say gold for a fantasy writer world-builder any stronger than that? (My thanks to L.E. Modesitt Jr. for recommending this to writers on this episode of Writing Excuses.)

Also on this list, Life In A Medieval Castle by Joseph and Frances Gies. I read Life In A Medieval City by the same authors, 2 years ago, and this is the companion. Up next for me after I finish Frankenstein will be Sapiens by Yuval Noah Hirari (as it’s the next column in my sheet). At some point, there will be a math textbook here, and a large atlas by National Geographic, special edition, that I’ve had on my shelf since I was 9.

For you, put whatever nonfiction book on here you feel will expand your education about the world and how things work.

4. Genre

If you write a genre of fiction, then this category can be thought of as the generalization. For for me, fantasy books do not go in here. They get their own column! But here will go all the books in genre fiction that cover other genres.

I impose a few rules here to help me further explore the waters:

-every row must switch genre

-an author only repeats after 4 rows

This creates the following beautiful effect:

  • Over time, I will explore different genres
  • Over time, I will explore different voices in different genres

I even go so far as to try an alternate gender, i.e. prioritize a book by a female author if I’ve read one by a male previously. Diversity is the goal here.

For example, I read The Shining by Stephen King, and as much as I want to read more by this author, I’ve pushed the next read down a few rows deliberately. Unless there’s some kind of Bradbury-esque burning of books, King’s books aren’t going anywhere. So why not dive into another after I’ve not only read books in other genres, by other authors, but also by authors of a different gender. For this reason, J.K. Rowling’s Silkworm, under her Robert Galbraith pen name is next up in genre: it’s not only a different gender author, but a different genre too (mystery).

5. Improvement

This nonfiction column is focused on books that improve me. You might have a different goal, but I’m of a mind that this category is universal. Why not devote 1/8th of your novel-reading time on books that teach you how to be a better person.

This doesn’t just have to be self-help. It can also be books on author marketing or marketing in general, or if you’re like me and you run a business, books on how to be more productive and effective. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey is on here, as is Influence by Robert B. Cialdini (next up on my current pass across this row).

6. Nongenre

Fiction is vast, so vast that sticking to genre fiction is going to cut you off from most of the the known fictionverse. I think it’s important to have a column just for genre, if you’re a genre fiction writer, so that when you get to this fiction column, you can focus on other great literary works.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson is a good example of a book that would fit here (and which I finished on my last pass). I also try to follow my alternating gender rule, so the next on my list is Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, despite how much I want to read Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins (I’ll get to that on the next pass).

7. Old/foundation

This column might be thought of as nonfiction and “meta”-fictional. By this I mean it’s devoted to old works. Think: Virgil’s Aeneid, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, or The Epic of Gilgamesh. Sacred texts would go here too. I plan to read through The Quran and The Vedas, as well as other key texts to the world’s major religions.

I think of this category as the one that connects you deeply to the roots of our world’s cultures, the words that all we know in our daily life are built on. As a writer, nothing can interest me more as I search for the truest, most heartfelt stories to tell.

8. Fantasy

Need I say more? Aside from what I already mentioned above, this should be home base for you. 1/8th of your novel-reading discipline is focused on knowing more about your genre. I have made a list of all the major fantasy authors, and that includes older fantasy works as well. The gender-alternation rule applies as well.

2. Wikipedia

I could say a lot about reading Wikipedia as a writer. In fact, I already did, for those who haven’t read my post on how to read Wikipedia to become a better writer.

I will briefly summarize that post here, in brief, but please be sure to read that article on my Wikipedia reading method to get more background on what I’m doing here.

Reading for breadth: a caveat

I mention a caveat in that post that’s worth repeating here: Wikipedia is not sufficient to make you an expert on any topic you’re reading about. I like to think of it as reading for breadth, to complement reading for depth (which you get from the other 3 components of the overall reading curriculum).

Many writers / teachers object that Wikipedia is unreliable. This is true, in some respects. I like to think instead that it’s inconsistent. There is a degree of accountability on article accuracy and some topics have been internally challenged more than others. The general rule of thumb is, if reciting a fact you can trace back to something you read in a Wikipedia article, you better cross reference it before you place any stakes on it.

For a writer though, this whole caveat goes out the window:

The sole purpose of reading your way across the topic-verse that is Wikipedia is to get inspired, break outside of biases and limitations, and do so in a faster way. This is reading for breadth, and by that I mean roving the map to get a sense of all its contours; to complement reading for depth, where you deep-sea dive into the coves that interest you most (books, articles, artifacts).

My general rule is that my mind must get blown 10-20 times every weekday when I do my Wikipedia reading from the various nuggets of information that change how I think. That’s the quality vs. quantity part: if your aim is to learn literally everything and be smarter, you’re guaranteed to fail. When I began this endeavor, it wasn’t to get more smart, it was to get less dumb. In this regard, you can view this as a process that will only help more and more to further inform you, and this will translate into the fiction you write in thousands of interconnected ways, more and more each day / week / year you invest in the practice.

My main Wikipedia tracks

I talk about creating reading tracks for Wikipedia reading in my longer article on the process. Here are the 7 tracks I use:

  • Biographic
  • Major topic
  • Minor topics
  • Linguistic
  • Geographic
  • Chronological
  • Literary

I read Wikipedia for 50-75 minutes, Monday-Friday, and during this period I will cycle through all 7 of these, spending about 7-15 minutes on each (the time always depends on where specifically I’m at in any given article).

1. Biographic

Currently, I’m reading my way through the English monarchs. I began with William I and just today arrived at Elizabeth II (this took me about a year).

A quick note: when I say “read” I mean I read each article top to bottom, no skimming. I do follow linked articles, with the rule that, unless very short, I read only the summary to get a sense of the topic. No following links within those linked articles — that leads to hell.

The English monarchy was my starter lineage. You might wonder why I didn’t start with Alfred the Great, and that’s a great way to make an important point: there is no beginning but what you make it, since you’ll be able to double back to earlier lines each time you finish one.

For instance, when I’m done with the English monarchy, I plan to sweep back to Julius Caesar then read my way forward along a much longer arc, by way of the Roman Emperors. I will continue forward in time and follow various branches, such as Popes, Western and Eastern Emperors, French Monarchs, Spanish Monarchs, and so on. The rulers of Wessex may factor into this (probably when I read up on the lines for the 7 kingdoms that merged into England), in which case I will reconnect to that partial thread that evolved into the English monarchy.

I’ll update this page periodically as more of that picture unfolds.

2. Major topic

My major topic is math, so this is where my reading might not interest you. If you want to follow the same principle, pick your major topic and work sequentially over its main branching articles. Read my Wikipedia article for more explanation on the method.

You might wonder why as a fantasy writer I’ve chosen mathematics as my focus (why not epic fantasy?). I think this is a good demonstration that one can write fantasy and bring in diverse interests, so as to make that fantasy even more unique. It’s no wonder that my magic system, and the world-building at its core, is highly based on a mathematically-endowed beings (the Dwarf Men), though I promise readers of my books, this will remain background except for those who want to delve into my world-building appendices.

3. Minor topics

You can think of this as the larger parent tree from which the particular major topic you choose branches. What I’ve done is make a list of all the topics I can think of. There are about 40 on this list right now. Here are some of them, so you get the idea:

My main objective is to read my way through the main articles for each topic, i.e. cosmology, psychology, science, medicine, computer science, economics, law, business, etc. Then occasionally, double back on a topic I found interesting and read the main branching topic articles in it. For example, philosophy. I want to go back and read through the articles on the major divisions within this topic (i.e. knowledge, western philosophy, Islamic philosophy, etc). When finished, I’ll resume working my way through the main topic list.

The list will grow a bit as time goes on, each time I think of another vast topic that’s worth exploring. This way each time I finish one article, I have plenty to choose from.

4. Linguistic

My original reason for wanting to add a linguistic track to my Wikipedia reading was to gain a broader appreciation for the different languages in the world and how they work, the idea being that this will further inform how I use my own language, English, when I write stories. (It also helps me make more realistic languages in my fantasy world.)

So, I started at the top, reading the article on language. After reading it through, I decided I would maintain a meta-focus for a while before going into a survey of the main language branches, then starting to read more about some of the 6,000 languages of our world.

Of course I’ll never get anywhere close to reading about all of them, but the point of this process is to always give me a sense of “where to next?” that will drive me forward like the narrative of a story.

5. Geographic

Just like with language, I started meta on this one by making my parent article the list of sovereign states. As with language, it will take a while before I begin reading about the individual nations/states/regions of the world, but this time in the dugout is important to appreciate just what “nation” means, and how this concept has formed (and is forming) in our world today.

I’ll update this as I go, but for now it’s safe to expect once I finish the main branches of the parent article, I will focus on the commonwealth states, then the original 51 states of the UN.

Should I wish, as I proceed, I can read about the divisions of states, or former states no longer in existence, by way of doubling back. But the overall logic behind this track is I can always be reading about the world from a geographic lens.

6. Chronological

Reading with a chronological lens is also useful because it allows me to follow stories not tied to a region / individual. For example, I can read about the Middle Ages, ancient history, World War II, or the major battles of the War of the Roses. It also broadens my perspective a lot to avoid the tunnel vision I’d get by sticking to history through dynasties  (i.e. English monarchy tells me a lot, but what was happening in Japan? China? Southeast Asia? America?).

As with the previous two list-based tracks, I started at the top with the timeline of world history article. From here, it lets me read through all the major divisions and sub-divisions of historic events.

7. Literary

There are more than 100,000,000 books in existence (according to Google). I’ll be lucky if in my lifetime I can read 2,000. But meanwhile, I want to have a bit of a survey of the major books and read summaries of a wider vista, so I created this track.

Start here:

This one is not as easy to navigate, so I’m following my nose a little. You can use this as your guide (just be sure to refresh the page as every time I finish an article, I’ll be adding it to the tree). If you prefer not to, then the general principle is to start with the parent article (i.e. fiction or nonfiction) then read the main topics branching from it.

For example, within the narrative article I’m reading, the first paragraphs are a goldmine of major branching links, i.e. anecdote, myth, legend, short stories, novels, etc. I’ll likely branch off on those before I go back in and start reading about all the specific genres of fiction and more on representative authors and works.

8. NO MORE TRACKS

As much as I could keep going with this, I’ve set a limit, because I want to be able to spend 5-15 minutes / day on each one.

This brings up an important caveat: the goal isn’t to read all of Wikipedia.

The main purpose is to learn several interesting things every day. These tracks just keep that happening in a way that drives it all like the narrative of a story. Otherwise, reading Wikipedia is no different than reading an encyclopedia — there’s no order or structure to make it cohesive.

The story that comes together as you invest in this process evolves into beautiful perspectives over time, as you appreciate your progress, and how it can continue and continue. And Wikipedia will only continue to evolve into a more efficient epicenter of information as time and our technology progresses.

3. Articles

Articles are the other major component to reading.

I read from a curated mix that, like with Wikipedia and novels, I’ve created to try and balance me across my biggest areas of concern. It’s quite simple:

  • Every article of every issue of Scientific American
  • Every article of every issue of National Geographic
  • Every article of every issue of Discover Magazine
  • Every article of every issue of Writer’s Digest
  • Every article of every issue of Nutrition Action
  • Every article in the occasional miscellaneous magazine (i.e. Wildlife)

When I say I read every article, I mean that. I even will read ads and study pictures, this more as a writing exercise where I try to notice details about composition and how I would describe these, and what I can learn or appreciate differently.

On Saturday, I read:

  • Articles in email that I starred during the week (includes links to online articles I’ve decided are worth reading)
  • Highbrow courses
  • Other longer emails that require attention (i.e. author submissions)

On Saturday, I also always finish whatever magazine I’m reading. I read 1 magazine per week. I find this pace, with Saturday as catch-up-if-needed day, lets me read all those magazines listed above.

I also read the weekend issue of the local paper, The Winnipeg Free Press. I try to read it all. Even the obituaries. Actually, those are probably the most inspiring to read as a writer, not just the details of real lives lived, but the perspective through which those lives are told. My favorite one so far? “Goodnight.” That was all — nothing else, not even a funeral announcement. That had my creative brain going for a while (still does).

Reading the paper was the one part of reading I resisted the most, but I’ve been surprised. I would now say that, of all the things I read, the articles in the paper are a goldmine (x 1,000) for storytelling.

But there’s more behind my decision to read every article: I don’t want to be one of those people whose opinions about world events are based only on reacting to headlines or skimmed summary, but rather on the nitpicking details, all the angles behind different issues. I try not to have an opinion, since as a writer I feel my role is to focus on what’s behind the opinions one might draw from the basic details. This leads me to tap into more interesting characters, conflicts, and moral arguments than I’d come up with on my own.

4. Annex

Occasionally I just want to throw all the structure out and read freely. When I do this, I have a pile of things I like to think of as the annex.

The annex is what it sounds like. It’s the extra space where I can build a completely random reading queue, for that reading I might want to do above and beyond my targeted reading.

For example, my editor for my book gave me targeted reading on surrealism, and as I’ve tackled this reading, I’ve put it here. I also use this to explore wild cards, like comics or graphic novels. Beta reading, when applicable (but I do say no to 99% of requests because as you can imagine, this annex is small and must be filled with care).

5. Beyond all this…

Structuring reading time means having to say no to a lot of things, and be okay with that.

That said, I do practice skimming. Once in a while, usually on my breaks (I work in 25-minute blocks and take 4 minute breaks between), I’ll wander into a post or chat thread. I try to see what I’m missing, but admit I miss a lot.

A simple technique I use to add blogs or online articles that come up during the week:

1) Open a compose email in my email

2) Copy link to article in body

3) Subject: name of article

4) Email to myself

5) Open email and star it

This means I’ll read it as part of my Saturday star email reading. There, done. Now I can get back to work without getting off track.

There are a lot of great blogs and other feeds. I’m missing those. But I’m not missing them.

I feel inundated by information, especially online. I avoid it all as much as possible. I’m quite active on Twitter for the networking and for promotion, but when I’m on there, it’s to connect and share and be open to opportunities.

I don’t feel like I actually get to read until I’m unplugged, and that’s the whole reason for developing the system I’ve developed. Take this or leave it, but my hope is if nothing else you’ll see the idea behind it and it will inspire you to create your own system so you can read with more purpose. There are so many books and articles out there, and our time is limited, very very limited (with respect to how much there is to read); therefore, there isn’t even a minute to waste on reading the wrong thing.

Some last words

I’ve been criticized by some other writers about how I read. “You take the joy of out reading, making it so systematic,” would be a common kind of comment I’ve heard in conversation.

While this may be true, it’s also true that any job takes the fun out of the activity (in a sense). For instance, if I had to make espressos and fancy drinks at Starbucks for a living (which I once did), I wouldn’t have the same fun making those drinks as I would making them for myself at home for friends.

The same goes with reading as a writer. What I’m doing with this method is defining reading as a job. Like any job, I want to do it as best as I can. Why? Because I fully believe (and have seen results) reading is as critical to my writing skill as triceps workouts are important to bicep curls for overall arm strength.

For the record, I don’t find this takes the joy out of reading at all! In fact, I love my job! I have even more fun seeing how this practice is evolving and growing. I also enjoy how every day I read I learn several small things that change me in large ways.

If you’re resisting this kind of structured practice because you’re afraid it’s going to take the joy out of reading, then I’d suggest you challenge that assumption. Reading might be fun right now, but with more tactics and strategy, you’ll trade in fun for deeply rewarding, and never look back.

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Twitter for Authors: The Writer’s Guide To Book Promotion

I’d like to welcome a special guest on the blog today — Michael Dinich, who runs Your Money Geek, and is here to share his expertise on growing an audience through Twitter.

Authors, get ready for a lesson on how you can reach more readers!

If you have spent even a minimal amount of time on social media, you’ve undoubtedly been pitched by some “guru” to make you a social media superstar. All you have to do is buy their course or eBook or hire them to run your account.

The new gold rush is the “make you famous” industry. Most of these experts lack a significant following and frequently the ones who do, all disagree on how to build an audience, and more importantly turn that following into leads and ultimately customers.

Today I’m sharing with you some tips, tricks, and hacks to grow and engage your audience, as well as some best practices to follow. But don’t worry, I’m won’t try selling you eBooks, courses or social media management.

My background? I’m a financial advisor (yawn, I know) and I am a huge geek. I am a serial side hustler who launched a blog in February 2018. It went from zero to over 50k monthly sessions in less than six months. I’ve landed interviews with celebrities and been quoted in major publications, all using Twitter.

Now, you might be thinking, “that’s great Michael, but I’m not a blogger.” Well, the tools to grow a Twitter following are the same regardless of the content you have to share. Plus, remember when I said I was a geek? My most successful blog post to date, is on the lessons of Grand Admiral Thrawn, so I’m not just some marketing guy, I’m a consumer and fan of fantasy /sci-fi.

How to Grow Your Audience with Twitter

First, to use Twitter successfully in promoting your product, you’ll need to invest both time and money.  Software is required to best identify and grow your audience, and spending time daily managing your following is a worthy investment.

There are a few commercially available tools; I tested almost all of them, and my favorite is Tweepi.com. They offer a free version; however, if you are serious about growing an audience, you will want to upgrade to the premium service. Tweepi allows you to target followers and identify those likely to follow you back based on keywords you choose.

Tweepi will provide daily recommendations on who to follow, who to unfollow, and what posts you may like. I skip the recommendations of tweets to retweet, however, as the software often recommends old and irrelevant tweets.

I do recommend when choosing keywords, you pick those most relevant to your work, but you may also wish to select some related to any hobbies you have. You want your Twitter audience to be diverse. Many of your readers may be tweeting about interests outside of books, such as video games, tabletop gaming, or even business.

I see this mistake with personal finance bloggers. They tend to focus on Twitter users who are solely focused on personal finance. Then they are surprised when their Twitter following is comprised of just other personal finance bloggers.

Real users will be much more eclectic in their interests, so feel free to connect with a diverse group of people. Should those people turn out not to be interested in your content they will unfollow and move on.

Tip: I also recommend this approach when sending out tweets. If you’re only tweeting out your book content, then people will not find your content interesting. If you’re looking for an excellent example of someone nailing it on Twitter, check out Delilah Dawson, author of Phasma.

A word of caution: leave politics off your Twitter feed. If you need to be politically active, make a second account.  Not only do you risk turning off people who disagree with you, but you also run the risk of turning away people who agree but are politicked out. The news runs in my office all day. When I want to geek out online, the last thing I want is politics from my favorite author.

Getting Your Content Out There

Next, I highly recommend the website/service Viral Content Bee. It’s is a free service based on a simple premise; users earn points by sharing the work of others, and the points you earn can then be spent to have your own content shared.

Viral Content Bee is an excellent tool for not only allowing your content to be shared by other users but also for the quality content it provides you to share. It also offers the opportunity to network with other content producers. (Read more on my in-depth review of Viral Content Bee.)

Viral Content Bee is effective for a few reasons.

  1. The points system is fair. Points earned or spent depend on the audience size of the person sharing the content. This prevents people with small followings from spending all the points you earned.
  2. Content is moderated, so you don’t have to worry about sharing subpar content from others.
  3. You can schedule sharing from within the website. If you are looking to build up points, you can log in once a day, add in the posts you want to share and queue up a day or two worth of tweets. Scheduling out the sharing of content prevents you from spamming your audience with numerous tweets at once.
  4. It’s not solely for Twitter. Content sharing on other networks is available. Using Viral Content Bee, you can focus your efforts on Twitter while ensuring others share your content on LinkedIn, Pinterest and Facebook.

Tip: While Viral Content Bee is a great way to get your content shared on Pinterest, to be successful on Pinterest you need to make great pins. You can create these yourself on Canva using one of the available templates, hire a virtual assistant to do it for you, or hire someone through Fiverr.

To be most effective with Viral Content Bee it’s ideal to own a blog. Having a blog allows you to interact with your fans, increases the odds of being found on Google, and builds your brand.  Blogs are inexpensive to set up and can serve as the basis for additional revenue via advertising or monetization of an email list.

If a blog is not feasible for one reason or another, I suggest reaching out to other bloggers to offer a guest post. Bloggers are always looking for additional content, and many would jump at the opportunity to host a short story or interview. (Especially with an offering to promote the post on social media.)

Tip: To get the best leverage out of Viral Content Bee, use it to diversify and expand your audience. For example, if you have a book don’t just add posts in entertainment. Consider other categories it may fall under, perhaps autos, technology, or even family. Not everyone on Twitter is one dimensional. Don’t be afraid to grow your reach.

If you use Tweepi and Content Viral Bee together, your audience will multiply rapidly. Don’t get discouraged as you are building your Twitter audience when gaining and losing followers. It happens. As your account grows you may even hit plateaus where progress seems to stall, but if you keep following your daily recommendations, you will begin building it again.

Twitter may take some work and dedication; however, the effort is worth it.

Hopefully, this guide will have you Tweeting like a pro in no time. I would like to thank John for lending me his platform, and I look forward to connecting with you on Twitter @michaeldinich.

About Michael Dinich: Michael has worked in the financial services industry for nearly 20 years. He lives in rural PA with his wife, two children, and too many animals. Michael shares his experience, unique insights, and profiles inspirational success stories at Your Money Geek.

And thank you Michael for providing this great article for my blog! Here are some bonus tips to help you take your Twitter platform even further:

Best Practices when Using Twitter

It’s important to tweet purposeful content intended for your audience. Unless you are a marketing professional, your audience probably does not care how many followers you gained, how many you lost, or about your blog traffic.

These stats may be of interest to your network of peers but putting your focus on the interests of your current and potential readers instead is the smarter move. If necessary, make a second account for professional networking. This is a common practice among celebrities who may maintain one account as a brand account and another as a personal or networking account.

Do’s and Don’ts

Some of this I say as a fan and some as a professional.

Do follow back your supporters. I know some celebrities can get away with not following back, but unless you’re Mark Hammel you should follow back your fans — the exception being offensive accounts or bots of course.

Don’t follow people who don’t follow you back. Every person you follow not following you back is messing up your follow back ratio. If you’re interested in seeing the tweets of some politicians or celebrities, create a list so you can view their tweets without following them. Alternatively, create another account.

Do use hashtags but not more than two. Nothing says I’m a marketer on social media like hashtag stuffing a tweet. I understand you want your tweet retweeted but tagging some indie author bot with hashtags is not going to get you meaningful engagements.

Do post witty or whimsical comments or tweets.

Don’t use Twitter as a microblog to chronicle your daily routine. It’s not 2007 anymore. Followers are not looking for your daily play by play.

Do post often. The lifespan of a tweet is only about 18 minutes. As long as you’re not tweeting all at once, or the same thing repeatedly, you’re not going to scare off your audience tweeting a few times in an hour.

Don’t use Truetwit. The service is spam and should be banned by Twitter.

Don’t auto direct message people. But if you’re going to ignore my advice on this, at least don’t auto-DM people a massive wall of text asking them to join you on every single social media platform there is. Just because I follow you on Twitter doesn’t mean I want to be Facebook pals or let you crash on my couch.

Do use lists. Twitter lists are a great way to keep track of people. I have several lists, one being my most engaged followers. Every day I try to like or retweet some of their posts.

Do you have your own tips on using Twitter as an author? Dos and donts learned from experience? Please share in the comments!

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Why I write what disturbs me

My book is dark. Once, when describing it to an interested reader, I said, “Think of Game of Thrones, but darker.”

The thing about that though: I was describing the first draft, which was far less darker than where my revisions have taken me now in the 5th.

There have been times I hate this book and wanted to get rid of it. Not because it’s a bad book. Actually, I’m quite pleased with the prose and the storytelling.

This war inside me has been due more to a principle: if the apple’s rotten, there’s no use cutting out the rot. Throw the whole thing away and try another.

A Thousand Roads is a rotten apple. And yet, as I’m learning, that rot is exactly what makes it what it is. That darkness exists for a reason—there’s a reason it’s only compounded as revisions have gone on. That darkness is part of the story I’m telling.

I write what disturbs me. And the more I read, especially world history and world news, the more I am disturbed. I read a lot, because I want my writing to be that place where truth and personal insight meet.

Stripped of its darkness, A Thousand Roads would be very much a classic high fantasy tale: a young man in search of a home goes on an adventure and in the process discovers his place in the world.

Boring. That’s all been done, time and time again. What’s not been done, in my mind anyway, has been the dark inverse of Tolkien’s there-and-back-again story. The Hobbit meets the Alien franchise. Bilbo’s quest to confront a dragon becomes a young man’s journey into his own darkness—a dragon within his soul—and the tragic results of this. It is a there-and-back-again, but the end is bitter-sweet. The darkness has touched our hero, in a way that will not leave him, and yet somehow he is able to go on and become a figure of legend.

In fact, because of that darkness, he is able to become the great person he is. Only because of it can he rise so much greater, where there is true inner strength.

That, in a nutshell, is what my book is about.

I appreciate this view, here in the writer’s chair as I mentally rest from intense revision on the 5th draft, and prepare to go in just as intensely on the 6th. The darkness is calling, I can already hear its echo. I am terrified, and yet I am alive with it.

I’ve come to accept that writing what disturbs me is where to start. I believe there is great light and hope and all the highs and wonders found in literature that makes your soul shiver. I’ll get there, but I must start here. Just like Jak, my hero, must start with his own journey into darkness.

But it’s in claiming this darkness that I have, myself, been opened up to strange ventures of creative expression, ones which, you might have noticed, have been rippling across my platform.

One such darkness: becoming acquainted with the Manifesto of Surrealism by Andre Breton. I’ve been tweeting the parts of it that shake my foundations, not just because I as a reader am reacting, but because I as a creative writer with a story on a similar doorstep to the start of the surrealist movement (so I’m told) have felt a deep resonance.

My editor, Dale Lui, pushed me in this direction. On the last draft, he told me I was almost there, pushing the lines of point of view and showing how minds can join and self can be lost in the fluid exchange of being that is Necromancy at its height. That’s the heart of the novel and, while I was almost grasping it, Dale said I need to go deeper, right into surrealism itself.

So I’ve read, and so I came across that essay, and it changed me.

Probably the biggest change is Breton’s talk about automatic writing and the free movement of thought, beyond the confines of words. There was something in that that sparked my imagination. What if I simply let go and began automatic writing? Descended into that Freudian space of mind, that unmapped unconscious?

Why the darkness? That goes back to that same question, Why do I write things that disturb me? I don’t know. I just write them, and somewhere in that process I appreciate truth all the more, and I pass it on to others. Together, we all grow, each of us doing what we are most passionate about.

Meanwhile, I am preparing myself to write the 6th draft of A Thousand Roads. It’s safe to say my mind and heart are ready to go in deep and really discover, to not be afraid. I want to tell the story as true as it can be. Though there is still time (and plans) in the production timeline for further revisions, it’s the 6th draft where I’m hoping the most significant depths will open up, then I can busy myself in the early fall’s 7th draft with polishing and augmenting further, still with time before the final proofread.

I don’t have an objective with this blog post, other than to finally just get this pent-up darkness out of my lungs, somewhere just throw up my hands and say “I write dark things, I’m a dark writer, I love it, it’s what I am!” and feel acceptance by those in the crowd who throw their hands up as well and tell me they do the same, and now together, we can support one another in our quest for true stories.

It’s been a long work day and I still have many things to write, so on I go to those. This one will get published, unplanned, without schedule. There’s something good about breaking routine, especially when you have a routine as solid as cement blocks.

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7 tips to help you make a living as an Indie self-published author

There’s a certain allure to self-publishing your books. As an author, it gives you power to take charge of your brand. You are able to connect to your readers and grow your audience over time.

There’s no waiting and “aspiring” when you work at the keyboard. When you’re writing, you know you’re producing, and have a sense of where it fits. You get to make your own timeline, create your own production process, and analyze reviews and sales to help you know what to write next.

The challenge then is: how do you make a living doing this? How do you define yourself so you can get to the point where you feel like a successful Indie self-publishing author?

Tip #1: Believe your book has readers, and go find them

The thing that holds most writers back is what I like to call “gatekeeper syndrome”. You obsess and obsess (and obsess and obsess (and obsess some more)) about that first book and just what it will take to be perfect. You submit and submit (and submit and submit (and submit and…)) and get rejection, rejection, rejection that tells you nothing. Is it getting better? Are you getting closer? Are you writing the right thing? What is the right thing to write? Why have half your beta readers told you something completely different than the other half, and why can’t agents just tell you what’s wrong so you actually know what direction to take?

Don’t get me wrong. For the fortunate writers who happen to write the book that happens to be the big craze that editors in the Big Publishing World are buying, getting a 5-6-figure starting book deal and kicking off your career with that baseline security is wonderful.

But not all stories told from the heart and rendered with care are going to get the attention of the gatekeepers. That’s not because they’re bad. It’s just because, in terms of market data and sales predictions, those things won’t sell right now, or even more generally, they might not sell, or at least we’re not sure enough to take a chance. It’s also a case of the things in the top 99.9th percentile eclipsing all fantastic work in the 99.8th percentile and lower.

Self-publishing has been called the Wild West, but let’s think about what that means for us:

Not that it’s rugged and unpredictable and you might get shot in the head. What this really means is it’s a wild open space with unclaimed land and opportunity for those of us who confidently set out to establish our hold.

Go out as a self-published author and believe in your book. Believe in your brand—your author voice, your message, your vision. Put out that message and connect with the people who show up. Develop those relationships.

When those tough times come and you need to fight a duel at high noon, stand your ground. When your debut novel falls on an empty field and only dust devils show up, shrug your shoulders and move on. There’s plenty of ground to cover, and endless opportunity, because you call the shots, and book 1 is just the beginning…

Tip #2: Diversify

Making a living as an Indie self-published author doesn’t mean what you might think, and here’s why.

I quit my job more than 4 years ago. I’ve had no employer since then. I decided I’m going to make a living out of my dream.

What a wild ride it’s been, but here’s how I managed to keep doing what I’m doing:

I diversified.

My goal is to invest time in my writing craft. This means I’m making progress in the writing projects that are going to become published works and ultimately, units for sale that readers can buy. Already, I’ve seen that happen and I have a real sense of value on all the work that’s on my plate right now. Eventually, like any good investment, that value will go up and up until I can live off it.

But month by month, as I’m building this, I have to pay the bills.

I started a business on the side. I took on whatever small jobs I could. I dug into my savings and took on debt. At one point, I had more than 10 revenue streams, covering everything from tutoring to editing to residual profit-share payments to casual coverage work in a group home. I always made sure that, whatever I took on, I could still keep up my writing routine and meet my writing goals. I bent myself in all sorts of shapes to make this work. Eventually, things settled down a little as I expanded my editing company, then added a cover art company, then co-started a publishing company.

But in none of these did I go wholly in where I lost my focus. I could have become a full-time editor, but I chose not to, because it was against the stream of what I’m really trying to do. I could have become a full-time tutor because I had enough demand to fill my days from sunup to sundown, but in the end I chose to walk away from that.

They key thing for me was to get out of a day job that tied me down. Suddenly, all the pressure is on for me to define myself. I’m a writer, I’m laying the pieces of my career. All I have to focus on is paying the bills so I can be a writer this month, and making sure I can repeat next month.

This year, I’ve made a considerable amount just from writing alone. This has been rewarding for me. I’ve been able to cut back several revenue streams and spend more time writing. I’ve finally been able to cement a reading routine to complement my writing time, and it’s upping my writing skill exponentially, progress I notice in my work on an almost weekly basis.

It’s insane, but the moment you do it, there’s no looking back.

The big thing though is, you’re looking ahead. You’re no  longer “aspiring to be a writer” from your day job which you hope to one day quit. You are a writer, and you’re now pushing everything you’ve got into making it work.

When you take on additional jobs to diversify and add revenue, these are, specifically, additional jobs to diversify and add revenue. It’s moonlighting to pay the bills.

And even if you still hold a full-time job while you do this, you can still apply this inner logic: all that time at the office is just time in to diversify and add revenue for your career as an Indie self-publishing author. Like any other revenue stream, you’ll eventually drop the day job when your writing makes you more money, but until then, that’s what it is: a means to an end.

Tip #3: Diversify what you write

When I decided I wanted to be a full-time writer, I was focused on a work of epic fantasy. I used to think my goal was to be an epic fantasy writer, but I’ve since seen that’s not the case:

My goal is to be a writer.

I came to this realization when I pushed myself to write a lot every single day. When I was waiting between drafts of my epic fantasy novel, I had to find something to write. And that’s when things really opened up.

I’ve written courses for Highbrow. I’ve started publishing nonfiction relating to my journal system, the first of which is now available (Your Daily Journal: 100 Day Starter). I’m presently working on a related book about my productivity system. I’ve ghostwritten for other self-publishing authors. I’ll be reconnecting to my science fiction stories eventually (right now scheduled in early 2019 before I begin the 1st draft of A Thousand Roads‘ sequel, Blood Dawn). I’ve also started a crime fiction novel which I anticipate will be coming out near the end of the year under a different pen name (final plans for all that in the air right now). None of this is aspiring. All of it is stuff in the works with publication plans and a production timeline. I’m a cog in the wheel.

The point here is if you force yourself to write every day, then it’s inevitable you’re going to write other things. But this brings me to the next tip, a caveat.

Tip #4: Write from the heart, and from the market—both at once

Don’t write something just because you think it’s what you need to write to sell. It will come out stilted, and readers will be able to tell.

But don’t just write from the heart either. We all can fall in love with our prose. But if we’re the only people who love it, then if we’re trying to make a living as an Indie self-publishing author, that’s valuable time wasted.

Find the middle ground. That’s the place where heart and market intersect.

Right now, as mentioned, I’m working on a nonfiction book about my productivity system. Originally, I was going to just write a book about my planning system, after I finished putting out my journals.

But I’ve been hearing from people as Your Daily Journal: 100 Day Starter has started connecting to them. I also learned a lot about writing for a self-improvement audience as I was completing my latest Highbrow course on logic puzzles (publication in progress). This all went together and my plans for this planning book evolved into something else. Something from the market, and—stronger—from the heart.

I’ve never been so on fire with writing as I have been with this book. It’s a book whose premise is derived entirely from knowing the market. It’s never something I would have written if I didn’t already have my feet in the water self-publishing fiction and learning from readers. I’ve found a place where market intersects with passion, and that ignites the voice and the prose that are coming together.

There are literally trillions and trillion of writing ideas you can latch onto. Your heart is the size of the universe. The space where market can live within it is its own planet. Find it, and center yourself there as a writer.

Tip #5: Hone your writing time with laser focus

Your time is valuable when you decide you’re going to make a living as an Indie self-published author. Everything you spend your time on should either be part of that means to an end that’s allowing you to keep investing in your writing career, or else the writing that defines your career.

Take this blog post, for example. It actually began 3 weeks ago as a “how to edit your own book” post. Entirely from market, as I was basing it on some of my most popular posts (which are the ones on editing techniques).

But my heart wasn’t in it. I knew I was wasting my valuable writing time, so I put it away. Then, I had a Eureka!

What if even writing blog posts are just like publishing fiction or nonfiction? What if I treat even this post as a publication? What are the stakes? Who is the reader? What do they want to hear?

That question helped me find the center where heart and market intersect. I tapped into the same voice I’m finding in my current book on productivity, but applied it to what I knew about writers who might want to read this. I’m not just coming up for air to fire off a blog post before I “get back to writing”. I’m writing, and this is as serious to me as larger fiction or nonfiction. I’m not just writing a post that I hope will become popular. I’m adding a publication to my archive of articles on my blog for access for all time by any reader who might stumble upon it—just like a book for sale.

Apply this concept to your own writing time, especially with blog posts or shorter fiction. If you have an author website you have to update, how can you reorient that to be part of your writing time? Can you get a friend to be in charge of the website and bake them cookies in return? Treat each web page as a page in a Word document then write it like a small publication that counts toward your writing time and writing output for the day?

Leave no stone unturned. It might mean having to say no to some things, or, even better, finding the middle ground.

For example, I am in charge of production for a small publishing company, Deep Desires Press. One thing that takes me a long time is the copywriting. It used to feel like a chore and I wondered if I had to delegate, but this is an added expense so I could not completely delegate everything right away.

But then I realized this is writing. I changed how I look at it. I now approach copywriting as a part of my writing day and block off concrete time periods to focus on it. The production wheel turns with the publishing company, and as a result of my writer focus going to this task, there’s real synergy in the copywriting that’s coming together and we’re selling more books and putting out products we’re more proud of. Doing this also helped me define a new process for more effective copywriting, such as developing a procedure that begins with an in-depth synopsis with the author and back-and-forth collaboration to really get at the core of the story premise and understand it before developing the jacket copy, log-line, and ad splashes. It’s also allowed me to bring on board a new team member who I’ve trained in this method, and who is now helping me with the copywriting (shout out to M.S. Wordsmith, a past blog guest).

Tip #6: Constantly self-improve

I decided I should spend as much time reading as I spend writing, but I didn’t want to just “read”. I wanted to be as deliberate in this practice as the time I spend writing. So, I developed a curriculum. In fact, I wrote a blog post about about how to become a better writer through reading. (And while you’re at it, you might also like my article about my Wikipedia reading technique that will make you a better writer.)

What I didn’t explore is the rationale. Since writing that post, I’ve gained a lot of perspective from the act of doing.

Ultimately, as a writer, you want to self-improve. We can only see so far when all we’re churning is the words on the page. It’s a bit like leaving a plant in a dark room. If you have high word counts but you aren’t reading a lot as well, then a good chance a lot of what you’re writing you might not have written if instead you balanced your pace with reading that reshapes you on a weekly basis.

We need to learn, constantly. As a writers, the best way to learn is through reading.

Why is that? Because when you read, you are seeing the inverse of what you’re doing when you’re writing. You spend your time at the keyboard typing words that make sentences and paragraphs and then scenes and chapters. Plots and settings and character arcs come together like weft between shifting warp threads. You conjure voice.

But you are one tiny leaf on a vast network of branches. When you read, you wander across the expanse of boughs, you see all the many leaves, all the angles. Then when you write, you write with the overall shape in mind, what you are, what the world around you is, how you can be a little different, channel a deeper message.

I also learn in other ways. If I’m doing anything that doesn’t require my undivided attention, I hit play on my podcast queue and I learn. I listen to information podcasts relentlessly, half of which are balanced news sources, the other half historic or academic series. I watch math videos on YouTube, usually to relax before bed.

I also learn through courses delivered by email, from Highbrow. You can read more about this method and how you can learn something new every day in just 5 minutes.

Whatever you do, continually self-improve and that will help you up your game as an Indie self-publishing author. You have a message to share with the world, and the world and the knowledge, as well as the many voices of other writers (be it authors of books, article writers, blog writers), will only compound that message further.

Tip #7: Don’t churn

You might begin your Indie author career fixated on one dream. Maybe you have a book that you want to make into a series like Harry Potter. You want that book to take off, and you’re already working on book 2. You’re visualizing all 7 books of your series.

But book 1 comes out and you get crickets. You’re already getting book 2 together, and you just have to write the whole series.

This is churning. Don’t do it.

Instead, reorient: book 1 and book 2 are gateways to a different kind of dream. This series you’re envisioning is just part of it. You might write it all, but in between books…

Diversify. Follow the tried-and-tested rule that you should always put a draft away and work on something else before picking it up and writing the next draft. Always work on something else.

You might be a romance writer who’s passionate about a book series idea. In between book publications, you might get other ideas based on what you hear your readers like. There might be other book ideas you would explore if you were done your series. Use this space between to write those books.

Some things might surprise you, but this is all part of the power you have as an Indie self-publishing author. You plan your publication dates, you plan what books you want to write,  you define for yourself, based on learning as you go, who your readers are and what they want.

The Wild West is open, and unclaimed. Go out now and claim the place where your author brand will live!

Last up…

If you want to learn more about how to start and maintain your author career, why not take my 10-day course through Highbrow, How To Begin (And Maintain) Your Career As An Author.

This course is FREE when you sign up, as you’ll get a month of the Premium for free. But I highly recommend after you take it that you check out some of the other amazing courses in the Writing section. If you have other interests, like how to be more productive, how to start a business, how money systems work, or anything really, Highbrow covers it all, and their catalog is growing.

If you love it and want to keep going, you can get $18 off the 1-year subscription ($30, reduced from $48), if you enter my coupon code: JOHNROBIN.

Like I said, there will be another course by me up there soon in the Mathematics section, a tour of 10 compelling logic puzzles and how to solve them. So go check it out, and thank you for reading this today. I hope you’re inspired to kick off your career.

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A Wikipedia reading technique that will make you a better writer

Wikipedia is hard to tame. We all know what it’s like to wander down that endless rabbit hole of links. There is so much information there, and it’s put together in such a compelling way. French history soon turns into the biography of Charles the Great, which soon turns into the founding of Rome, which soon turns into Romulus and Remus. Is it any wonder that, by the time 20 minutes have passed, you’re reading about archipelagos?

I’ve found a way to read Wikipedia every day and stay on track. It took me some time to develop this in my reading discipline, but now that it’s come together, I’d like to share it with you writers out there—or anyone who wants to boost their general knowledge about the world.

Find your main reading tracks

When I use the term “reading track”, imagine I’m talking about a book.

For example, right now I’m reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (translated by Gregory Hays). I’m reading it front to back. This is a procedure. I will pick it up each day and resume where I left off the previous day. I will do this over a certain number of days, until I finish the book. And beyond that, when I’m finished, I will move to the next book in my reading queue. In this way I’ll always have a procedure for “reading books”.

This is the general way to describe the process of reading we’re all familiar with.

Our goal, then, is to create “books” in this sense with Wikipedia tracks. Another way to think of this: linear reading goals. This means you have a procedure that gives you a sense of “beginning to end”. More importantly, you have a sense of where to pick up tomorrow, and how to keep going so that you feel like you’re reading a story.

Dynastic reading track

The simplest track is the dynastic one. Start any dynasty with its founder (i.e. English or French monarchs, Egyptian pharaohs, Roman emperors, Chinese emperors, Numidian kings). Read the article about them, in full, then at the top “quick facts” section, click on the “succeeded by” section, i.e. their successor. Starting with Alfred the Great, you will come eventually to Queen Elizabeth II—and what a great tour you’ll get on the way!

For me as a writer, I love this track the most. I find the best inspiration for stories is found in the stories about real people. Real lives. What’s important about dynasties on Wikipedia is these lives intersect with so many other topics that have shaped the common concept we share of the world. It’s inevitable that in reading through dynasties, you’re going to get curious about all sorts of other topics that knit together the world as we know it.

If you don’t like “dynastic” you can generalize this concept. Take any office or administration where there is a line of succession. Some examples:

  • The U.S. Presidency, for example, starting with George Washington
  • The Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (starting with Henry Lucas)
  • The CEO of any business that’s been around for a while (i.e. Ford or IBM)

It doesn’t even have to be limited to a line of succession. The goal behind this really is to create a linear story line that will start somewhere important then move forward. You could begin with the biography of Socrates then, once you’ve read it, pick up on the biography of someone who stood out to you who he influenced (i.e. Plato). You might do this then eventually come to Alexander the Great then follow the lines of succession after him that eventually mingle (in time) with the rise of Julius Caesar. You could conceivably continue on this way all the way to the end of the German Empire, with several branching lines to double back on (i.e. French monarchs, Italian monarchs, etc).

But don’t spend too much time deliberating the perfect way to do this. Just think of what interests you the most. All you need is a starting point. Guaranteed, once you start, the options will soon abound.

Topical reading track

Reading dry facts can be boring. Fortunately, if you start in the right places on Wikipedia, moving forward through topics can unfold as a story about people and the world much like with dynasties.

The key is picking broad topics. Mathematics. Economics. Business. Law. Politics. Science. Physics. Psychology. Archaeology. Geology. Try to think of every major subject that comes to you.

The key to picking broad topics is they all branch into several other major articles, then these in turn branch out into further major articles. If you’re curious about shingling, put that article away for some other time. You want topics that will have longevity—much like the dynasties.

The routine is straightforward:

Read the article for a given topic top to bottom. When you’re done, start at the top again and this time click on the “see ….” links at each of the major header divisions. Mathematics, for example, has major branching articles on history of mathematics, fields of mathematics, arithmetic, number theory, etc.

As you can see, the idea is to read top to bottom and each time go one level deeper. But as you go deeper you’ll have to use your intuition. Reading your way through a topic’s first level of branching articles, there will be further branches that catch your eye. When you get three or four levels deep, there will be so many branches you’ll have to pick the ones that seem more interesting (hint: pick the ones that also seem gateways to further levels).

You can choose to focus on one or two topics, or you can rotate this around. For instance, you might read the article for “physics” then after that, read the article for “sociology”. Then you might want to go back to the “physics” article and read through its first level of branching articles.

Keep track of it on a list. I have mine written on a piece of paper. To help me remember where I’m at, I put a tick (i.e. physics’ ) to mark how deep I’ve read. If I see music” then I know I’ve read two levels deep on that topic.

Having the visual list helps with overwhelm of feeling like there are just too many topics to keep track of, and to restrain the urge to wander off and forget your objective. On the other hand, having the freedom to switch topics after each iteration frees you up from getting locked too long in one topic.

List-based reading tracks

There is yet a third approach beyond lines of succession and topics: lists.

For example:

  • Lists of the different cultures in the world (cultural)
  • Lists of the world’s nations (geographic)
  • List of world time lines (chronological)
  • List of world languages (linguistic)
  • List of world religions (religious)
  • List of world races (ethnic)
  • List of works of fiction (bibliographic)

I recommend you only pick 2-3 of these and focus on them, based on your core learning goals. These are the three I’ve chosen and why I like them:

Geographic:

I can start at the top with a list of all the nations of the world and work my way down all the sub-articles over time. This keeps me well-balanced in developing a broader perspective about world diversity. Even the idea of what a “nation” is, i.e. “state” vs. “sovereign state” is important to consider when one thinks about just what the nations/countries of the world really are. And as a fantasy writer, this is one topic I will milk and milk and milk for many years to come.

Chronological:

Reading dynasties is great, but it’s possible to fall into a tunnel. I’m reading my way through the English monarchy right now. I picked it because of all the dynasties this is the one that I’ve always been curious about. However, I find I’m often wondering about the French perspective, or the Spanish, or the Islamic, or the African, or the First Nations’, etc.

Starting at the top of an article that lists the world time line provides this broader narrative. Working progressively down its sub-articles is giving me a perspective of the broader strokes of time from the Big Bang all the way to the present. It’s a good balance.

Linguistic:

I am fascinated by language. While I enjoy constructing aspects of the language for my story, I’m often guessing.

But reading about language for me is about a lot more than inventing better languages for my stories. Reading my way from the top down from the “language” article, then eventually through a tour of the major languages of the world and how they work, is giving me a better perspective on how I use language, as I write in English, based on how other people who speak other languages approach phrasing.

Just like with topics, you read your way down the main branching points. With these lists, you’ll eventually get into articles of sub-lists and this will spread out. Again, you’ll need to use your intuition to keep this on track the further you go.

Approach this like a martial art: you need flexibility and flow. I guarantee you as you get into any one of the lists, you’ll get curious and develop a sense of where you want to go next and how to do so without freezing up.

Putting it into practice

1. Determine how many tracks you’ll read, and for how long

Once you have your tracks chosen, you can begin on each of them. I recommend you pick the number of tracks you can keep up daily. I have 6 and I spend about 10-15 minutes on each.

Now, for reading a novel, that would not be enough time for me to feel any momentum, but for Wikipedia, my goal is to try and learn something new every day. Even just 5-10 minutes of reading in one track, I will take away a few things I didn’t know before. There also is no rush to finish, like one might feel with a book—this is about the journey; the destination is only a way of making sure you keep your daily tour of stops interesting.

I have one dynastic track, then two topic tracks. I begin with those.

Two topic tracks lets me have one that I’m more interested in and the other that’s general knowledge. You might think of it as “major” and “minor”, like topics in university. The major track right now is mathematics and I’ll keep working on this one and the iterations that take me down deeper branches of main sub-articles. The minor is a rotation, where my goal is to get through the main articles on my very large list of main topics. I just read philosophy and physics and am now on chemistry. When I finish one of these articles, instead of starting again and moving down the sub-articles, I move to the next topic.

My major might change, and I might do a 2nd level of reading on one of my minor topics now and again, but the idea is one track allows me to latch onto whatever I am most curious about, while the other forces me to keep learning outside that so as to broaden my awareness.

I always let my intuition guide me as I read. Sometimes I might spend a bit more time reading my dynastic track and topical tracks, then quickly touch base on the 3 remaining list tracks (geographic, chronological, linguistic). But I always read from each one so that I keep the tap flowing.

2. Set boundaries on link-hopping

Aim to read an article top to bottom. There will occasionally be links that interest you and it’s okay to wander into them briefly.

I like to use a simple rule: preview, then read the summary if relevant.

This means if I’m curious about a link, I’ll click the preview of the first sentences of the summary to get a sense of it. If that’s not enough, I’ll wander in to briefly read the overview. For example, at one point the Order of the Garter was mentioned and I was curious about it. I wanted to know a little more while I was there. Reading the full article would be off track for my purposes. As a rule, if I’m spending more than 2-3 minutes on a “detour” I’m off task.

A good analogy would be a tour bus. It will make stops on the way and you can get out to look around, but you better be back on time or the bus is leaving and you’ll be lost.

3. Separate “need to know now” from “can find out later”

It’s important to remember that this Wikipedia method is simply a daily reading method that will help you learn something new every day on Wikipedia. It’s balanced and broad, and allows you to go deep.

But it’s not the only way you can read Wikipedia. You’ll probably find, as I have, that over time your instinct to need to know now cools down a little the more you learn to restrain it.

It’s a bit like thoughts that enter your mind during meditation. Focus on your breath and let the thoughts come then go. Over time, you’ll get better at focusing on your breath.

If something is genuinely important, you can always look it up quickly on Wikipedia later. Try to separate this Wikipedia practice from “quick fact checking” that you can do any time, as needed.

One thing I find helpful: I have the Wikipedia app on a tablet that I use just for reading. This concretizes my Wikipedia reading habit. I have the Wikipedia app on my phone, and of course I can pull up a Wikipedia article anytime in my browser. When I have a moment I need to check something, i.e. “Who is that actor on The Terror who plays the captain and the king in The Crown?” I can do that on my phone. My tablet though is sacrosanct.

CAVEAT

Wikipedia is “good enough, but not enough”

What I mean by this statement is that for the purpose of expanding your general knowledge, Wikipedia will suffice. But for the purpose of being an authority on a given topic, it’s only a starting point.

For example, you might have learned a lot about Richard II of England in your tour through the English monarchy reading track. In a conversation, you might be able to throw in a great one-liner, “He was a real tyrant. He was deposed by Henry IV.” Whereas before, all you might have known about him was, “He came after Richard I, was he in one of Shakespeare’s plays?”

But beware. If someone in the conversation has read their history, especially if they’ve specialized in the history of the English monarchy, you’re in trouble. Wikipedia is helpful, I find, at giving you a roundabout sketch. This is especially true of popular topics where the content has been through thorough editing by their committees, and has been worked by various authors. You will usually see this in comments where they contrast opinions.

For example, Richard II is described as a tyrant. But wait a minute. That’s someone’s opinion. What are the facts that support that?

Try to steer clear of those sorts of statements, at least in terms of pieces you might pull out in conversation. Far better are the sentences in an article that reflect discussion and citation. For example, Richard II “was athletic and tall; when his tomb was opened in 1871 he was found to be six feet tall” is a good fact, taken from John Gower’s Historia vitae et regni Ricardi II.

But this is all beside the point if you’re reading Wikipedia as a writer. The point isn’t to have a perfect scholarly recollection. It’s to give yourself inspiration grounded in the real world. If you need to dig on a specific topic (say you’re setting your book during the reign of Richard II) then you’ll need to read further as part of writing for that book.

But for general reading practice, to gain awareness about the diverse topics and broaden your knowledge in the ways you want, this is “enough”. Think of it as opening doors that otherwise you would never have known existed. And that is what makes for the best stories.

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An ongoing NaNoWriMo with more flexibility, and how you can join us

I’ve always been inspired by the idea of NaNoWriMo. In fact, A Thousand Roads started as a NaNoWriMo project back in November 2012.

That said, I didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo. In fact, I’ve been aptly labeled a NaNoRebel. By December 1st, 2012, A Thousand Roads was at about 28,000 words. But by that date, the habit of writing every single day to get a book done had kicked in.

After December 1st, I wrote every single day until August 2013 when I finally finished the 138,000 word first draft of that book.

Some days I only wrote 50 words. I was in the middle of a very busy math degree, and worked also as a tutor, so my days were all over the place. But I kept up the daily writing habit because I really liked how the NaNoWriMo method gave me a deeper connection to my novel by working on it every single day.

The most important thing about this is writing every single day is sustainable when the goal is simply write every single day. What is not sustainable is when you put a word count on it. That’s doable, but if life comes up on a certain day and you can’t hit your word count, you feel like you failed that day.

I picked up this “write every single day” habit again in early 2017, shortly after picking up A Thousand Roads again in a second draft. One thing that gave me an extra kick was when fellow writer Elan Samuel invited me to join a variation of the Magic Spreadsheet.

The Magic Spreadsheet is a motivational tool for writers. Every day you write, you must meet a minimum quota. The starting quota is 250 words. The spreadsheet tracks your streak (number of days in a row meeting your quota) and consistency (more general measure of how many days you meet your quota over time).

You get points based on how many words you write, your streak, and your consistency. You start at level 1 and as you get more points, you level up. Every time you level up, your quota goes up. For example, if you make it to level 26, you have to write 2000+ words every day.

Now, this got a bit addictive for me and I found myself going nuts to keep up. It made for good competition too because logging into this spreadsheet and seeing other writers nailing their word counts gave me the extra push to say, “Forget Netflix tonight, I’m going to write and write and write.”

But I’m a big picture kind of guy. By the end of summer 2017, “write XX words every single day” started to burn me out a little. I needed to see a bigger picture beyond just day to day. What end am I aiming for here in doing this? On a monthly level? On a yearly level? On a career level?

Most importantly, I needed grace if I’ve had a tougher writing day. Looking back to my time on the first draft of A Thousand Roads, particularly those days I wrote 50 words or less—where I simply opened my manuscript and connected to the story just a little bit, and kept things moving forward—those days were just as valuable as awesome days where I’d avalanche 7,000+ words and stay up all night with coffee.

So I created my own spreadsheet, and that is what I’m going to tell you more about today, in the hope that you’ll reach out and join us.

The Awesome Daily Writer Spreadsheet: writing group accountability without the guilt

I wanted to reward writers for being awesome and writing every day, no matter what they write, and give them a feeling of reward in proportion. Instead of just thinking about whether today was a success or fail, I want writers to feel like every day’s input is a reward unto itself. I wanted to create a monthly and a yearly perspective beyond just a daily perspective.

This has led to the Awesome Daily Writer Spreadsheet, which currently has 5 faithful members. (And I hope to increase that as a result of this post.)

For all of us, it’s like an ongoing NaNoWriMo, except here we can set and adjust our pace. Our goal is simply to write every day, and the beautiful thing about the spreadsheet is we can see at a glance all the months of progress and how we’re doing.

It’s quite simple in how it works:

  • You can enter how many words you wrote today
  • (And/or) you can enter how many 20-minute writing sprints you completed today
  • In addition, you can enter a short note to describe important milestones for the day (i.e. CH 26 done) so that when you look back on your days you can appreciate how your various writing projects have come together

The spreadsheet does the rest:

You’re rewarded 200 words for every 20 minute sprint you complete (600 words/hour, which I set based on the typical writing speed range, 500-750 words/hour).

If you’re keeping track of the actual words you write though, and you’re writing faster, then the spreadsheet will award you whatever is greatest. For example, if you write for 3 hours (9 20-minute sprints), and you get 3,600 words done, you would be rewarded 9 x 200 = 1,800 words if you hadn’t tracked word count. But since you got 3,600 words done, you’ll get rewarded points based on those instead.

The idea behind this is the day in the life of a writer can vary over time. As much as NaNoWriMo is great for helping you kick off a new first draft, the reality of being a career writer is you have to be able to get through second drafts, and third, and fourth, and fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, etc.

So for a daily writing motivation spreadsheet, I wanted to create the basic community idea of NaNoWriMo, but extend it to all kinds of writers, since if you feel like you always have to write new drafts in order to keep up, it means putting off necessary revisions that will get you ahead in your career, and/or overburdening your days by feeling you have to write new as well as revise old, to the point of burnout.

So, if you’re on the 10th draft and lots of your time is spent reading / analyzing / problem solving, it’s unfair to reward yourself only for new words written. Time spent on your writing craft is what matters.

The most important thing about the Awesome Daily Writers Spreadsheet is your daily streak doesn’t depend on hitting a minimum. The point of the spreadsheet is to encourage all writers to write every day. I don’t know about you, but for me on Saturday and Sunday I have lots of other things going on like visiting friends and extra yard work, so it’s easy to just kick back and say I’m not going to write. It’s also not a good time to freak out about having to hit my writing quota. For me, personally, knowing I just have to open my manuscript and put in a 20-minute sprint makes it easy. I can do that before bed if I have to.

How the reward system works

Despite all I’ve just said, the spreadsheet is pointless if there isn’t some push to it. After all, NaNoWriMo’s 1,666 words/day gives you a sense of push—and knowing thousands of other writers are doing it makes it competitive to push you even more.

For the Awesome Daily Writers Spreadsheet, I decided I would make the point system like D&D.

Whereas the Magic Spreadsheet uses general points and levels, the Awesome Daily Writers Spreadsheet awards experience points, based on your words for the day.

These experience points grow a bit more as your streak increases. For example, if you’ve been writing for 17 days in a row, and on day 18 you write 250 words, you’ll get about 320 points for that day. Whereas on day 2 you would get 258 points.

These experience points also grow based on two other important all-time bests:

  • Your biggest word count of all time
  • Your biggest streak of all time

On the left column where you see your main stats, the spreadsheet will show you your all-time biggest word count. Mine is 11,622, for example. It will also show you your all-time biggest streak. Mine is 112 (the reigning champion on our sheet though has 294, unbroken since he joined the spreadsheet!).

Your experience points then are inflated a bit based on these two numbers. For example, if I’m on day 34 of a streak and I write 300 words, I’d get about 430 points. But with my maximum word count and my maximum streak, I’ll get 480 points instead.

Now, I said D&D, so that means where there’s experience points, there’s levels. In fact, I used an RPG level calculator to calculate your level based on your experience points over time. The idea here is like in any RPG: level 99 is as high as you can go. For the sake of this sheet, you would need to write about 100,000,000 words to get to level 99. If you can get more than that in, over your lifetime, then you deserve to be the first RPG-er to get to level 100 and beyond.

Every month, I maintain this spreadsheet. This is why I’ve kept it invite-only. (So please, email me at johnrobinrt@gmail.com if you want to join.) It takes a bit of upkeep to get everyone set up for the next month. But I also try to improve it every month so that the game keeps getting more interesting.

June’s spreadsheet, for example, will introduce two new features:

  • A “NaNo push”
  • Level handicap

For the NaNop push, I asked our writers what their annual goal is for 2018. One of our writers wants to write 1,200,000 words. My goal is 800 hours. Based on these, I’ll be adding, on the far right “extra stats” column, a number that tells you how many words you’d need to write every day in November and December to hit that annual goal. It lets you see realistically how you’re doing. Most importantly, if you’re having a rough week or have missed some days, you can see in the bigger picture—how you’re doing for the whole year. When NaNoWriMo hits on November 1st, you can push yourself based on that number to hit your annual goal.

For the level handicap, I want to add some challenge to this sheet. Unlike the quota imposed by the Magic Spreadsheet, I want your increased level to make your bonus experience points decrease. So, you’ll still get your streak and your reward for being awesome and showing up to write every day. But as your level goes up, you need to write more (either more time, or more word count) if you want to keep gaining experience points. This is much like how in a field battle in an RPG, the monsters get harder in proportion to the greater experience points you get for beating them.

And in any RPG, there’s always magic. I’m conscious of that and am contemplating (probably for a July or later update) including this with certain levels. What kind of magic would a writer need to do? Well, keeping your streak for one, if you take a day off. We’ll see where that leads, but suffice it to say, this motivational spreadsheet will keep getting more interesting as I keep innovating it, and as we all use it to push ourselves together to write every day.

Do you want to join the Awesome Daily Writers Spreadsheet?

I’m all about one-on-one relationships, especially with regard to the writers I connect with. That’s why I haven’t made this spreadsheet public, and why I’m not just putting a link up here so anyone can join. I want to make sure the writers who join this are going to get the most out of the sheet. I want to get to know you a bit too. So please email me at johnrobinrt@gmail.com and tell me more about your interest in this spreadsheet.

Over time, I’d like to see a small, sustainable community of writers come together, all motivated to work together and be awesome daily writers, the kind of NaWriMo you can win at day after day.

Do you want to get in on the Awesome Daily Writers Spreadsheet? Let me know by email — johnrobinrt@gmail.com —  and I’ll help get you set up to join.

You can also join us on Twitter at #AwesomeDailyWriters.

Are you wanting to improve your daily habits and take charge of your creative time?

In addition to running the Awesome Daily Writers Spreadsheet, I’ve expanded my daily wellness tools to now include journals. You can read more about this opportunity in this recent feature on M.S. Wordsmith’s blog:

http://mswordsmith.nl/en_GB/yourdailyjournal/

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How to Learn Something New Every Day in Just 5 Minutes

Today I want to talk about a learning method I’ve been using for the last 2 years, as well as shine the spotlight on another important part of my writing career.

You might have noticed, on the sidebar of this blog, links to some of the writing courses I’ve written for Highbrow (http://www.gohighbrow.com). Over the last year, I’ve written four courses, and presently have another one in progress. (You can view them all here, and when you sign up, enter JOHNROBIN as the coupon code to get an $18 discount.)

Highbrow has been around for a few years, and I was hooked as soon as I took my first course. To date, I’ve taken more than 50 courses—productivity, economics, history, self-help, business, they cover it all. I still take courses. Every time I finish one, I start another.

The beauty about Highbrow—and why I’ve stuck with it—is you get your courses delivered in the form of an email that takes 5 minutes to read. One course is 10 lessons, so you get emails sent over a 10-day period. It’s the perfect way to learn a little something each day as a part of keeping up on your inbox.

These courses are all very well written. Highbrow is a premium service. You pay an annual fee of $48. ($30 if you use my JOHNROBIN coupon code when you sign up.)

That’s actually an extremely good price: you could feasibly take 36 courses in one year. Even if you only took 15-20 courses in one year, $30 for that amount of learning is a fraction the cost of what you’d pay (sometimes per course) for this kind of information.

What sold me, though, was the quality of the courses. As an author of 4 courses with Highbrow, I’ve also had the chance to see inside their production process for each course and I’m even more impressed. These aren’t just carefully curated email newsletters. Instructors who have a specialty in the area of knowledge they write about have carefully put together a course to teach about their passion. With the editorial help of the Highbrow team, they’ve built these courses to flow well and take you on a journey over 10 days. They are also careful to avoid overlap of information so that the knowledge you have access to will continually expand as you continue to learn through them.

I personally have been changed by a few of the courses. For instance, How to Create A Productivity System gave me the foundation of many of the productivity skills I use now that lead to continual clarity and improvement on a weekly basis. Almost every course, I’ve taken away at least a few things, especially since the way each one is written, the instructor delivers enough information that you can think about it, ruminate, and apply.

The other thing I like about Highbrow is they are continually adding more courses. Even if I took a course every 10 days, there are more coming in.

In practice, I sometimes get behind in email. I’ve learned to use the “star” feature in gmail, so if an email comes in, I can open it then get to it later. This lets me kill my inbox. If something is junk, delete; if it needs a reply, “star” and reply at a later time when I’m in “answer my emails” mode. (Actually, some of these tips come from one of the Highbrow courses I took a while ago called Master your Gmail To Get More Done.)

Now, when I’m signed up for a Highbrow course, I’m going to get an email from them every day for 10 days. (At the end, you get an email inviting you to start a new course, but no more until you sign up for the next one.) In the above spirit, if I’m busy, you better bet since I’m paying for these emails I’m not deleting them! So I hit “star” and don’t worry about it.

In fact, this has created somewhat of a ritual for me: every Saturday morning I go to Starbucks and have an americano and catch up on my Highbrow courses, as well as other emails. These courses not only are designed to teach you a bit every day, but they also flow together brilliantly when you go through the lessons in one large batch like that.

I cannot recommend Highbrow enough! And I’m not just saying that because I want you to sign up for my course. As you’ll see if you check out their course catalog, there’s more than 100 courses, all of them diverse.

If you’re curious about my courses in particular:

The course I’m working on right now is going to be about logic puzzles—it’s one of the projects I’ll be working on after the current draft of my book, A Thousand Roads, which, by the way, I just finished today!

Remember, if you sign up for any Highbrow course, you can get 1 year for only $30 by entering JOHNROBIN as the coupon code.

Are you already a Highbrow student? If so, what are your favorite courses?

Here are a few other courses I highly recommend:

For writers looking to improve their craft:

For creatives seeking better goals, clarity, and productivity:

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