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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Being A Prolific Writer, Part 4: with M.S. Wordsmith

April has come, and that means wrapping up the awesome Being A Prolific Writer series by my friend and colleague, M.S. Wordsmith! If you haven’t read her first three posts, read the first here, read the second here, and read the third here.

IMG_3562 (2)In my third guest post, I brought up the difference between our long-term and short-term goals, and the necessity to consider both. It’s vital to have some sense of where you want to end up in the long run, but if you merely focus on where you want to BE without being realistic about where you currently ARE, chances are you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. And often, it is constant disappointment that makes us quit.

In today’s post, I want to discuss another question I ask when trying to figure out what my clients want from their writing—How many words do YOU want to write per day?

Figure out YOUR ideal word count

These are just a few of the books published in the last couple of years that stress the importance of learning how to write not only better, but also faster. 10,000 words a day? NaNoWriMo just became a piece of cake!

I am not against writing better, faster. On the contrary: what’s not to love about learning how to write better, faster? If you could write 10,000 words a day, think of just how fast your career could pick up. Can you imagine how many words you would be able to write? A week? A month? A year? And if you could write 5,000 words per hour, you’d only need two hours a day!

Plotter word counts

Trust me when I say you won’t be writing 3,650,000 words a year if you figure out how to write 10,000 words a day. And not just because you need weekends. When we want to measure ourselves against the people who say they write so many words per hour or per day, we first need to understand what it means to write 1,000, 2,000, or even 5,000 words in a particular timeframe. These word counts are plotter word counts.

What kind of word counts? Plotter word counts. No-one is hitting these hourly or daily word counts throughout the year: they start writing those amounts of words after they’ve outlined their new novel in such a way that, in Libbie Hawker’s words, ‘all it needs now is words’. In that period, once the researching and the thinking and the plotting and the outlining is done—and before the editing of the project commences—that’s when these writers start producing crazy numbers. And afterwards? Most writers need a break to refill their well of creativity. Even the most prolific of my clients do (even though they don’t like to admit it).

The creative process

There are different theories on how many stages the creative process actually has, and I’m not going to argue whether there are four or five or even more stages here. No matter the amount, all models amount to the same: they start with what is often called the ‘preparation’ phase—the research period—and they end with the ‘implementation’ or ‘elaboration’ phase, which is when the actual writing takes place. In other words, there are at least three or four stages we go through before we reach the point where ‘all it needs now is words’. That means we have already spent quite a bit of time on our projects before we can actually start counting words.

When we are new to a genre, or are writing in genres that need more time in those first few stages, we’ll spend even longer not counting any words than those authors who know a genre by the back of their hands, or write in genres that don’t need elaborate world-building or endless fact checking. Imagine being a fantasy author starting a new series… You’ll need more time developing your world and figuring out what you want to say about it than your fantasy author friend who’s working on the fifth book in a world already established.

Counting words and/or counting minutes

So, before you start hitting yourself over the head because you don’t write 3,650,000 words a year, figure out how many words you want and can write considering your particular circumstances. Not all day, every day, but in that particular period when ‘all it needs now is words’. If you don’t make those words duringthe researching, the thinking, the plotting, the editing, and the refilling of your creative well, that’s OK. You’re not supposed to anyway.

And, if you do want to make sure you invest daily in your writing career when you’re not producing new words, do what many of my author friends do: figure out not how many WORDS you can write but how many MINUTES you can devote each day to your writing and count those instead. This way, you can track your progress and remind yourself you are doing the work, even when no new words are appearing on the page.

So remember…

While the Internet and our online and offline communities are an invaluable resource, and I’m utterly convinced that we, as writers, cannot do without, we should always keep in mind that goals, no matter how many people seem to share the same one, are not universal. All goals are personal, and we shouldn’t get caught up in following dreams that aren’t necessarily our own. Instead, we should take a moment to reflect on what our personal goals are, what we want from our writing, and to what extent our personal circumstances can accommodate those wishes.

What do our finances look like, and how does that influence what our current goals should be? What path are we on, and where do we want it to lead us? What means do we need to get there, and what is realistic for us at this particular moment in time to eventually get to that end? If we’re unwilling to ask ourselves these kind of questions, and keep comparing our own circumstances to those of others, how will we able to fully enjoy the wonderful ride that is the writer’s life?

Each time I find my creativity blocked, or despair over the slow pace of my writing, it’s not because I haven’t fully embraced the path I am on: it’s because I momentarily let myself be distracted by prominent voices in the field telling me to do things differently. And I should, if their goals were mine as well. But they aren’t, and all I need to do is keep reminding myself of that. And you should too.

Enjoy the ride. Your ride.


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