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Guest post: world-building tips from author K.M. Cooper

Today I welcome another guest to share more tips on world-building, following Craig Munro’s great post from last week.

mewriterselfieK. M. Cooper is a creative director and self-professed Jacqueline-of-all-trades who specializes in fiction writing and world building. Her first book, Hub City Survival, is a zombie horror novella based in her hometown of Moncton, NB. She currently resides there with her husband–actor Brad Butland–daughter Amelia, and two very distracting cats.

In my many years of writing fiction, I have found fantasy world-building to be my favorite non-writing-but-still-writing-related activity. There’s nothing like the feeling of creating whatever your imagination fancies and throwing your characters in to interact organically with your chosen environment, and being able to lose yourself within the world you have created.

I’d like to discuss a few tips and tricks to help you along during your journey to build a fantasy world that not only lives and breathes, but walks and talks, too. Crafting a world from the ground up may seem daunting, but it can be fun and intuitive, and an ideal way to help keep you interested in your work if you need a break from the actual writing.

Find your starting point:

My world-building process always starts with a single detail of sorts. Everyone’s process is different, but I love going with one tiny thing and building from there. Often it’s an image online or in a magazine, or a location I find beautiful. Sometimes it’s as simple as seeing a flower and imagining a world where that flower is as big as a tree. Sometimes I’ll print out an image that inspires me, save it on my phone, or take a picture, all to remind me of the kind of feel I want my world to have.

After I have my initial details, I use a number of processes to expand from there. Here are a few techniques that I put into practice. I hope they’re useful to you, as well!

Start with the general:

What kind of place do you want? What kind of “feeling” do you want it to have? Do you have an overall theme in mind? Is your world based on a place in real life? All of these questions can help you get a big picture of your world, from which point you can build on the finer details. Get to know the general image, get comfortable with it, and use it as a foundation for your future ideas. 

The devil is in the details:

I’m not saying that you should insert the population of your town or its main exports into the story during the opening paragraph—in fact, that inclusion of detail tends to bore readers and have them skipping over your hard work. Instead, plan the details, and allude to them within the story. Instead of saying that the town’s main exports are baked goods, allude to the scent of bread wafting through the air as the protagonist goes along, or the abundance of bakeries on street corners. Know your stuff so you can drop hints inside the story. In fact, you could write a Wikipedia-style entry for your main town. In summary: know your details, create a reference point, and come back to it so you can allude to those details and make your world feel more alive.

Make a list of rules:

This comes twofold. Firstly, your world should have a set of rules to abide by. By this, I mean that you must ask yourself what is or isn’t possible in your world. What kind of magic is there? What’s off limits in the realms of possibility? It’s good to have a general idea of what can or cannot exist, using blanket terms. Specifics will come later, but having a general set of rules like these will give you another reference point for you to go back to when you aren’t sure if your writing is fitting with the overall image of your world.

Secondly, give your town or city some policies, laws, and bylaws. Throw in a couple of weird ones, just for kicks, and don’t let anyone know about them. All of this will contribute to you knowing your world better, and being able to write in it through your own intimate knowledge. Don’t spend too much time on this, as it can seriously detract from the actual writing, but there is something to be said for knowing your town or village’s way of life.

Ask yourself questions based on ordinary life:

What will take your world from being a cardboard cutout of other worlds and transform it into something living and breathing is the day-to-day, ordinary stuff. A good way to get a feel for the ordinary is to observe it in your own life, and translate it to your world. You could go for a walk outside and envision yourself in the world you’re building. Notice a squirrel run across the street. What kinds of animals or insects make your world their home? Feel the sun on your back. What is the climate like in your world? Notice the cars driving by. Is there a trade route, and do people ride horses and carts along it? Is there a different sort of vehicle that fits into your world? 

All of these questions can help translate your current real-world situation into your fantasy setting. While it doesn’t hurt to separate your work from others’, originality for the sake of originality won’t feel genuine to your readers. Following along with the general idea, as outlined earlier in this article, will help you stick to your theme.

Log your details:

As I mentioned previously, writing a Wikipedia-style entry for your world and its details is immensely helpful for fleshing out your universe. I also recommend taking it a step further and writing them out in a book.

Make sure the writing takes the center stage:

World-building can be engaging, and is a creative exercise in envisioning your world—but don’t let it get in the way of the actual writing of your story. At the end of the day, your story deserves and requires your attention the most, though world-building can be a handy side-focus if you encounter some writer’s block. 

Instead of limiting your focus to world-building, you are welcome to let the details come as you write, as well. As all manuscripts require multiple edits and re-writes, you can also write the details in later if you wish. An important footnote to this is that any world-related additions to your story should feel organic and seamless, not forced. Follow your intuition, and give a section of your work to a friend or editor if you’re not sure about the authenticity of your additions.

You’re welcome, of course, to accept or reject any of this advice. My style may not necessarily match with others’, so cherry-picking the suggestions that work best for you is recommended. I hope some of these suggestions are useful to you while you craft your own living and breathing world.

Let me know which tip you plan on implementing in your process! 


mushroomandanchovyM. Cooper’s current novel, Mushroom and Anchovy, is a steampunk adventure with fantasy elements. It is currently being funded in a campaign through Inkshares. At 250 preorders, the book will receive publication.

Mushroom and Anchovy follows the journeys of Patricia “Anchovy” Finnigan and Vladimir “Mushroom” Kalkov, professional adventurers. Their adventuring company, the Panzerotti Group, organizes hunts and adventures to locate fabled or lost items. Mushroom and Anchovy work together for the first time to locate jewels, but find a lot more. When a fellow agent is murdered, they have to learn to work together, and fast. Especially since anything can happen in a cursed cave…

You can preorder Mushroom and Anchovy at this link: https://www.inkshares.com/books/mushroom-and-anchovy


Connect with K.M. Cooper!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/nekonezume

Website: http://kmcooper.ca/

Posted in Guest post, World Builders, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Special Lesson on World-building: with guest author of Bones of the Past, Craig Munro

Today I’m thrilled to welcome a special guest to the blog — Craig Munro, author of the newly released The Bones of the Past, a dark fantasy epic in the flavor of Steven Erikson. Craig has been my guest before in the World-builders series (here’s a link to that article for the curious — a more in-depth expose on the nuances of his world, DnD style).

Craig has put together a lesson for fantasy writers, based on his world-building methods as he developed them through writing his book, so without further ado, I’ll let him take it away from here.

notebooksI am a complete fanatic of fantasy books and have been since my parents handed a copy of the Hobbit to their nine-year-old son who, until that moment, absolutely hated to read. I am also very much into gaming in all its forms, and a recovering MMO addict. I have worked in a variety of fields from government, to language instruction, to tech blogging, all while somehow earning a degree in molecular biology. I have also been fortunate enough to travel extensively. I have lived in nine countries in Europe, North America, Asia, and the Middle East, and have traveled to many more besides. It is my hope that my experience with different cultures and places in the real world has helped to enhance my imaginary one. I am forever indebted to my lovely wife Margo, my amazing sister Kirsty, and my friend Chris McArthur who have been my alpha readers and general sources of feedback and awesomeness.

Pantsing a world

I am an unapologetic pantser when it comes to writing. I do have ideas for later parts of my story of course, and I’ve even written some of them down in a semi-organized manner, but that’s not how I write the majority of my stories and it wasn’t how I created the world for my novel. For the most part, events or scenes occur to me and I jot them down in a frenzy before I can forget them. Often, I’m not even sure who is performing the actions I’m describing and I fill in names with placeholders. I have a whole stockpile of these story fragments sitting and waiting to be used. When I’m unsure of how to proceed with a specific section, I pull out my stack of notebooks or my story fragment scrivener file and I invariably find exactly what I’m looking for, already written and ready to go.

When I’m creating (as opposed to cleaning up stuff I’ve already written or assembling bits into a greater whole), I generally sit somewhere with a notebook and pen and just let anything at all come out. Some of it ends up being good, other stuff less so. But it never ever fails – within a couple minutes ideas start flowing out onto the paper. At times those ideas are influenced by where I am, who I’m with, or the music I’m listening to. Other times there’s no correlation whatsoever (or if there is one, it’s beyond my ability to recognize).

I truly believe that writer’s block doesn’t really exist. Creatives of all types have a tendency to judge themselves too harshly and block themselves. By taking away the computer and making my creative efforts much more clearly drafts (anything I write this way has to be transcribed at the very least, after all), it helps me take one step farther back and cut myself a little more slack – I haven’t felt blocked this way a single time since I started, and my world just continues to develop and expand.

My World

For The Books of Dust and Bone — of which The Bones of the Past is the first installment — I spent upwards of four years writing about events and places in my own (totally undefined) fantasy setting before I decided to start working on an actual novel. I had ideas for world shattering events, for a massive independent city peopled by undead, and a dizzying variety of deities. I wrote out these stories as they came to me, not even realizing they were all parts of one epic story. It wasn’t until I wrote about the fall of Sacral (roughly a thousand years before the events of The Bones of the Past) that I realized how nicely all of these pieces fit together if I stretched out the time frame sufficiently (OK maybe not quite all of them).

I truly believe that writer’s block doesn’t really exist. Creatives of all types have a tendency to judge themselves too harshly and block themselves.

From there, I needed to extrapolate on the relative locations and culture of each country, with each nation growing organically out of the various characters I’d already written about. Characters and armies, wars and cataclysms that I had imagined (sometimes very roughly) were all I needed to work backwards. Battles, mages, and warriors gave me the countries and peoples — their names, clothing, armaments and magical abilities all helped flesh out their cultures, while the conflicts and alliances gave me the first indications of where these places could be located relative to each other.

At times details become clear immediately. At other times, I have to let things take shape on their own. The Books of Dust and Bone took root early in my writing with the title of a song that came on shuffle — The Forever People by My Dying Bride. Something about that title sparked my imagination and I ended up writing about a city of undead besieged by the living — Sacral (which takes its name from a bone —  my time in med school wasn’t entirely wasted!) and its fall. Other aspects of the city took shape years later — the final form of the city and its architecture came to me while I was sitting outside a temple in Cambodia (Angkor Thom to be exact). Now the city I envisaged isn’t a copy of these ruins by any means, but it was the idea of the carvings everywhere, the religious iconography, and the massive statues that just fit. Similarly, the grand temple took shape while I was sitting with my notebook outside a very impressive temple in South Korea (Bulguksa Temple).

The Characters

The characters are really the key to everything for me. While a large part of the world did spring up around the idea of Sacral, the story grew out of the people I was describing, out of their wants and desires. Some of the characters in my story are inspired by people I’ve met in my travels, others were inspired by some of the locations, real world local legends or even characters from role-playing games I played in my high school and university days (Skeg’s first incarnation was as an NPC in a Shadowrun campaign I was running). Again, each one takes shape in their own time.

The Map

craig-munro-map-final.jpg

Books of Dust and Bone map, drawn by John Robin

The basic shape of the primary landmass came together on its own, without me needing to do much more than flesh it out and make sure the relevant countries all had borders in common. Sacral had been a neutral ground (and a lone source of water) at the heart of a wasteland and offered the only neutral ground between two larger neighbours. This became the heart of the first scribble of a map.

From there, I added in access to the seas, if they were a seafaring people, and generally had a little fun with experimenting a little based on how events were to play out. I made a couple of (very) rough drawings (I have absolutely no talent for that sort of thing). Then I had a succession of progressively more artistically talented friends redraw and refine the map culminating in the version attached which was drawn by none other than the amazing John Robin who is hosting me today! Each version not only improved in terms of quality, but also forced me to further define the world as a place.

The Story

It may seem counter intuitive to write the story before investing in the world building, but I feel that the reversal helped me put the story first instead of trying to shoehorn it into a setting that I had already detailed down to the tiniest detail. I now have a rich, detailed world where I can discuss history, theology and cultural preferences for many of the countries presented, all without having to deal with situations where even a minor change might have created a cascade effect where it became necessary to rejig half a continent, or worse, create inconsistencies in my setting (something that irks me in any speculative fiction).  The story grew organically from the wants and desires of the characters I was describing and even manages to surprise me quite frequently when I realize where it’s going.


About Craig’s novel, The Bones of the Past, an exciting new fantasy epic:

The Bones of the Past Cover ImageThe Night Guard walk the streets of the old kingdom of Bialta seeking out threats that are beyond the abilities of the common soldier. Nial is one such threat a girl changed into something other and on the hunt for human souls. Salt, a sailor recently rescued by the Night Guard, has been inducted into their ranks. He s a quick study, but as new threats multiply all around them, will he have what it takes to survive?

Bialta is not alone in its woes. Sacral, a city that vanished in the distant past, has reappeared where it once stood at the heart of the Wastes. Like many of Sacral s people, Maura is content living a quiet life, ignoring the outside world. But she finds herself desperately fighting to save her home as war comes to the city returned.

Meanwhile, across the Great Desert, creatures are stirring. Carver, the last living master of the magic known as fleshcarving, has won the support of the tyrant of Tolrahk Esal. Together they will unleash his twisted creations to sweep across the land and forever disrupt the balance of power.

In this epic tale, there is no good and evil. Armies march, demons feed, and deities unleash their powers on a world that will never be the same.

You can get Craig’s book in your local Chapters or Barnes & Noble (request it if it’s not already there), or you can buy it right now on Amazon.com.


Connect with Craig:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/BonesofthePast

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Craig.Munro.Author/

Posted in Fantasy, Guest post, World Builders | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The last push: finding the creative gold in those moment when you would have quit

I am an avid runner. I used to run 5 times a week and have done a full marathon, and a half. I sprained my ankle 3 years ago, and during the year it took for that to heal, I cut back on the frequency and soon got into strength training. Now, I run 2-3 times a week, and I get to the gym for a 40-50 minute strength training workout about that many times as well, depending on rest/recovery needs.

I used to be motivated by competition, but now it’s simply health. I push myself because I want results, but that isn’t so I can get better body or place in the summer Olympics. It’s because I know that if, week after week, I continue to either maintain or slightly improve on how I performed previously, overall my fitness becomes that much better. Most importantly, it’s enjoyable and attainable because I’m not pushing toward a synthetic goal, but rather, am working on how I can improve upon a previous result I know I have attained.

To do this, I need to keep track of my progress. I do this using a note in the Notes app on my phone. In a given 7-10 day period, I do about 30 different strength training workouts, which I break into 3 sessions. Over about a 12-17 day period, I do 5 different kinds of runs that target different intensity intervals. The reason for this variance in numbers is because I do not stick to a cookie-cutter workout of XX sessions per week. Instead, I follow a rule of alternating days between run / strength / run / strength and so on, breaking this up for 1-2 days of rest as needed.

For strength training, I track my reps in a given set. For running, I track my heart rate (I wear a Polar M400 monitor), speed, and distance of a given interval (the Polar has a GPS built into it, which tells me my speed). All these numbers go into my note in the Notes app.

Now, why am I getting at this and what does it have to do with writing?

The whole point of tracking myself is so I can measure my performance. My goal is not to strive toward a given result. For instance, I might wish I could run 10x 100-meter sprints at 17mph, keeping my heart rate about 185-189, but this isn’t very realistic. I don’t even know what it will require for my body to adapt to that kind of result!

I know only how I performed in a given session. The next time I do that exact same run, because I wrote down the critical information — speed, distance, heart rate — I can set that as my goal. Maintain, that’s all I strive for. In reality, more often than not, it gets easier and I make a gain. Then, the next time, I maintain that.

It’s this last part that is crucial. In my last run, I was working on 1600m sprints. In that run, I do 3 of these, with about a 2-3 minute walk in between. The first two are difficult. The last one is usually where I want to quit. But because I’d written down my previous results, I pushed myself to at the least maintain. The last 400m of that last sprint was where I hit the true edge and would have quit.

At that moment, I recognized that this exact pain and burn I felt was that exact moment I’d pushed through 2 tough sprints and the first 1200m of a 3rd one to get to. This is it. This is where the real work is happening. I grit my teeth and pushed through, and pain turned into satisfaction until the end. Not only did I maintain and get to the end of that interval, my heart rate was lower than last time and my speed was 0.1mph higher.

The aim to maintain led to a gain. I cooled down and wrote it down for next time, and now for next time, I’ll work to maintain that. And in this way, continually improve in a manner that my body is able to accommodate.

This concept translates to any act that requires perseverance. Productivity especially.

The goal of being productive is not to spend all day working and getting as much done as possible. (Should not be, anyway.) If you enter your day with a to-do list the size of a mountain and decide that success on that day is getting it all done, you might be skipping lunch and working until 10pm and going to bed with a tension headache. Never mind what that’s going to do to the rest of your week.

If on the other hand you enter the day with a to-do list and an intention to set aside focused work periods, tackling this list in order of priority, then you might not get everything done, but you can end your day knowing with satisfaction that you advanced your tasks with the same — or slightly better — efficiency than the previous day.

In my work day, I set aside 2 hours for writing every day. Then I set aside 2 hours to do work that requires focus. For example, writing this blog post right now is part of my 2nd 2-hour work period and all my attention is on this one task that I know, from previous weeks, I can accomplish in well under 2 hours. For the afternoon, I push for 5 20-minute focus periods and tend to tackle projects that have short-term shelf life, like answering emails, supervising editing projects, anything under deadline.

In all cases, having this specific time window forces me to push at some point. I always find that there is a drop off on a given day during one of these periods. But because I have this structure as my template, I push during that time and find that often, that’s when the best solutions happen.

The same applies to when I write. My focus is time spent at the keyboard, so if I have a tough revision task, or see an opportunity to one-up my game in a given scene, I don’t decide that I’ll tackle it later because it’s hard and I need to be “in the right head space”. Instead, I’m there, “doing my time” so to speak, and this fosters a willingness to push. Because of this approach, I’ve come back to the manuscript for A Thousand Roads for now more than 180 days and have maintained the quality of writing, with incremental gains, which I continually maintain. Comparing the results in my writing efficiency to what I was doing in December, I’m seeing a quantum leap rather than a slight gain (or the merry-go-round of frustration rewriting/revision can feel like when it comes at you left, right, and center).

This is the true beauty of adopting this maintain-only mindset. When you are focused outwardly on results, your attention shifts away from the most important thing: the specific work you are doing and how you can improve that. For a runner, this leads to injuries. For a creative or freelance person, this leads to burnout. For a writer, this leads to stagnated writing, frustration, half-solutions, circular revision, chasing ideas that lead nowhere.

When you are focused inward on process though, you truly grow because your mind is on the specific work before you and how you can bring everything you have to that work. This lets you be in tune with that awesome meta-moment that comes right when you hit your edge. It lets you decide, Good enough, I’ve made progress today, so you can go on and do the same, or better, tomorrow. It’s the kind of focus that will take you 10x beyond what you’re doing now.

I have a long way to go on A Thousand Roads. But I stare ahead into what will be 13 months of rewriting every day, numerous drafts, continual improvements, a strong, relentless push right until the end, and I’m encouraged by the mystery of thinking: if I’ve improved this much since January, what is the final book going to look like?

Do you relate to this in your own work? Please, do share you thoughts and some examples below.

 

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Maintaining your writing discipline: staying focused in an age of distraction

Sometimes I feel like an odd duck.

Ever since January 1st, I have not missed a day of writing. Every day, no matter what, I’ve set a 2-hour timer on my phone, using the Forest app, and I used that 2-hour period to stay focused on further developing A Thousand Roads. I average about 1000-1200 words of newly written material. On a bad day, I write about 700 words. On a really good day, such as earlier this week, I might push over 2000.

But on every day, I’ve spent focused time on A Thousand Roads, and the manuscript I’m working on has improved at accelerating pace. When I started, I was just trying to finish a second draft so I could put it away then figure out what to do next. Then the coals got warmer. By the end of the second draft I was so excited about the momentum I was generating that I saw ahead, shimmering like a mirage, the things I needed to do in a third draft to fix the big problems I knew remained in the second draft. Something about that momentum of showing up every single day, no excuses, and writing for 2 hours, pushed me to jump right into the third draft.

So I did.

I am now a few weeks away from finishing the third, and I’ll write a fourth, then a fifth, then a sixth. I’m entering the editing phases of production now, which will help further inform my revision choices, but needless to say writing every day has helped me appreciate that overcoming the obstacles between the crappy, disjointed work I’m in the midst of trying to fix and the final vision I have for this book is a matter of time in, not magic.

I’ve come to appreciate that writing a book is a bit like sorting through a room full of tangled string. One knot at a time, unraveling two twisted cords at a time, we sort through, we move around, we give up on one frustration and turn our time to another. It’s a mess and on any given day the prospect of sorting everything out seems hopeless.

But it’s the commitment to coming back regularly that adds up. Over time, we gain perspective. Through regular investment, we think about the sorting problem when we’re away so we can tackle it fresh when we come back. Over time, it all adds up and that hopelessly disastrous room becomes beautiful.

But, I’m an odd duck. Whenever I try to share this concept with writers I can tell they think I’m crazy, or there’s some kind of catch to what I’m telling them. Maybe I’m not really writing for 2 hours but I’m just playing Minesweeper to process some writer’s block.

The point is, I’ve been on the other side of the fence I understand how unbelievable it seems to look at someone who somehow makes sure they write no matter what. I dipped my foot in a little after I read On Writing by Stephen King and was inspired by his 7-day-a-week writing method, but it was really Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck that threw me in flailing — then swimming with grace.

Essentially, I came to a realization, after one of many mental breakdowns earlier this year when I despaired over whether I should give up on this writing thing or not (where I have no idea if there’s money) and just focus on editing (where I know there’s money). The realization: I am a writer, first and foremost, and I need to learn to work during work time and stop giving a f*ck beyond that. I was so moved by this that I got a red marker and wrote it on my whiteboard (it’s still there in my office and I look up at my bold F-word inspiration on daily basis).

At first it seemed contradictory. “What about growing my business?” “What about paying the bills?” “What if my writing doesn’t make money?”

As Mark Manson puts it in his book: not giving a f*ck is not about not caring. It’s about realizing you only have so many f*cks to give, and so you must give them carefully. And, for all those f*cks, there is a mighty f*ck that, if you could give a f*ck about nothing else, you’d pick above all.

For me, that’s writing. Interestingly, in the wake of this realization, where I went full feet in and sculpted my day around this habit, I found if anything, I started caring more about other areas of my life with much more passion. Why? Because I wasn’t scattered all over the map, scrambling to do everything indiscriminately. Now, at the least, I had one habit hardwired into my day, and given that this is the one thing above all I want to do with my life, having this accounted for as a matter of priority brought about a Zen-like calm within that rippled through all other aspects of my day and week.

When I’ve forced myself to spend 2 hours writing every day before anything else, I start thinking about how little time I have left to do everything else and now I have to use my time more carefully. Then I started seeing how this principle applies elsewhere, and now I’ve become even more productive in my work day and, most importantly, have stopped working earlier (getting more done in a work day than I used to) and spending time looking after myself, as well as keeping up a busy social life on weekends.

And suddenly, I started seeing how much time I’m wasting on the wrong things. The devil exposed: my iPhone.

I’ve written about action-drive versus reactive work, but today I want to hone in on this topic as it applies to maintaining our writing habit. Distraction is not our friend. Writing, especially, takes focus. It’s not just the kind of focus that you need to read a book or drive a car. It’s the kind of focus you need if you are a neurosurgeon doing a delicate surgery with someone’s life in your hands.

We do need to be connected, but our phones and social media apps we use on the computer will convince us we need to be a lot more connected than we actually are. Using the Forest app, I grow the equivalent of 10 hours of trees in a given day. This means that, for 4 2-hours periods, and 6 20-minute periods, my phone is out of use while I intentionally focus (2 of those 2-hour periods are during the evening when I’m not working, since I’ve found that I also waste time on my phone when I could be doing something more valuable like playing piano, gardening, or reading). I considered the alternative of just turning off notifications and checking messaging apps / emails 1-2 times / day, but the problem with that is I oversee several projects and many of them are time-sensitive — if one of my editors has hit a wall on a project and needs my help, I need to respond, so I prefer the shorter periods where I’m blocked from messaging apps so that I can get work done for a solid focus period, then respond quickly where I’m needed in the breaks between.

If you are struggling with distraction and how it’s killing your writing habit, or leading you to general frustration, then I hope I’ve inspired you to try some of these things out. I might seem like an odd duck, but really, I’m just following some basic principles that anyone can apply. And, as I look ahead into 2017, I get excited thinking, if this is the momentum I’m gaining from just 2 hours of writing per day, what will it be like when I can afford to write for 3, or 4…

I’d love to hear from you on your struggles with writing and distraction. Have you figured out a way to keep your writing goals front and center despite distractions and obligations?

Posted in John's blog, Story Perfect Newsletter Posts, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Finding you audience as a fiction author: taking steps to success as a self-publishing author

As I shared last week, and in my newsletter the previous week, I’ve put plans in motion to publish A Thousand Roads through my Dreamsphere Books imprint next fall, part of embracing the self-publishing process fully. While I’ll certainly be doing my part to follow the traditional publishing process to a T, and that includes getting advanced copies out to reviewers early, there’s still no guarantee of the market. I’m investing in the creation of something that I’m truly passionate about, but at the same time I struggle with a big uncertainty: how will readers receive this book?

If you’ve followed the self-publishing path then I’m sure you can relate to this fear. Even traditionally published authors have no guarantee come launch week their book will take off.

Many authors are rejected by traditional publishers (agent / editor submission) and feel this is the end of the line for that particular book. The book will never work or receive readers because, simply, rejection by the gatekeepers means there must be something wrong with the book.

I strongly believe this couldn’t be further from the truth — most of the time (I want to say almost all of the time) the reason for rejection is the given agent/editor simply didn’t connect with your story in a way that made them feel acquiring it was a sound investment. Professionals in the traditional publishing industry make their choices based on in-depth understanding of current and near-future market trends and, while they will sometimes take a risk on someone new because there’s some great promise (perhaps a unique premise or voice), often the decision is based on knowing what’s selling well and what people want more of, and marketing predictions of buying trends 18 months down the road (since books are put out about 18 months after they are acquired).

Many agents or editors will take on a book that needs further work, just as they will reject a book that’s perfect but doesn’t connect with them as something they are confident they can sell. When you strip it all away, you’re dealing with a select group of people who work together in a tight-knit network, with subjective tastes, highly varied but even so, given the sheer complexity of the perspectives of a planet of more than 7 billion people, still very limited.

The representation fallacy: most great books are hidden by the ones that are decidedly great

The winners write history, as the saying goes. Likewise, the successfully, traditionally published books we see in bookstores represent to the majority of readers the books that have been selectively picked by the publishers. Missing from this is the vast majority of books that exist, many of which will never see the light of day, but which are just as relevant to smaller niches of readers, either abandoned by authors or hiding in obscurity because the authors have self-published then found no success. As our technology advances, it’s my hope that soon it will help connect readers to the best books for them, which will not be biased to who the book is published by or what crowd popularity dictates.

Not every writer has the same goal when it comes to publishing. If your goal is breaking into the traditional market, then indeed, you will write a novel, revise it, submit it, then move on and repeat until you get a deal. Most likely by the time you break in you will have a pile of earlier books that never made it (and which will serve as a scrapyard for future books to be developed now that your career has taken off). Case study: Brandon Sanderson, who wrote 13 novels before finally selling his 6th. There’s nothing wrong with this approach if it’s your preference.

Some writers pick one book and stick at it until it’s perfect, getting input along the way until they push to land their deal. Case study: Pat Rothfuss with The Name of the Wind.

Some writers will write numerous novels, revise them, submit and get rejected, write more, learn craft, improve over years, get critiqued, write and write and still not get a traditional deal. They might give up and find another hobby.

For those writers who never land a deal (and they are many, you just don’t hear their stories in publishing magazines or guest author blogs posts because, you know, the winners write history) they might fear, because of common wisdom in author circles, that they are “writing the wrong book”. I’ve heard advice from several traditionally published authors about how they started in the wrong genre then finally found a different genre and broke in. Case study: author Dan Wells of the Writing Excuses team, who abandoned his epic fantasy novel to write paranormal horror, which kicked off his career.

This is good advice if you’re trying to breaking into the traditional market; if you’re writing based on what’s selling, then you need to write for them what people want to read. But is this the best approach for all writers?

If every writer wrote only what was marketable, we’d only see a fraction of the truth that the collective human perspective has to offer — and one great value of reading is the ability to learn vicariously about the human experience in ways beyond what your day-to-day life will offer.

Indeed, as a writer it’s good to try different things, and I definitely advocate for setting your work aside if you’re getting frustrated with the it. But what if you’re absolutely in love with what you’re writing and are passionate about getting it out to readers, even if you have no basis of evidence that there’s a market for it? What if you just need to get it out there because there’s a message — something important you have to communicate to whoever is going to listen?

Self-publishing with your whole heart and soul: your legacy as an author to the fiction world of tomorrow

Last August, to kick off my Dreamsphere Books imprint, I released a niche book called Pet Human, an owner’s manual written by an advanced machine consciousness that details how we as humans will be cared for as pet by our advanced machine descendants.

This book had no market and I knew that going in. But it had an audience and a message, and that message aligned with my vision of the kind of fiction I want to be bringing into the world, so we published it. As you will see if you check out the link, it has received some great reviews which, to me, have validated that my instincts were right to publish it.

The book is out there, not to be famous and leapfrog our company into profit, but simply to be there communicating a message we feel strongly about, itself a foundation for the kind of vision we will be sharing through my work and other niche works that explore the realities of cultural and creative transcendence in an age of progressive digital realism.

I haven’t even tried to break in traditionally with A Thousand Roads simply because I want to apply the work I do for self-publishing authors to my own book and I love the production process as much as writing. My book will come out and it will be a part of this platform and all that I do, and I will proudly move on and write more.

I’ve always been inspired by Beethoven and his nine symphonies. I’ve listened to them all the way through several times. In my mind, when I conceptualized the nine installments I want to write for my epic arc, of which A Thousand Roads is the first, I imagine it much like Beethoven’s nine symphonies.

Beethoven made a lot of music and applied his skills to the full, and the net sum of that paid his expenses enough that he could live and continue to focus on making music. He never wrote his symphonies because the market told him they would someday be the hallmark of twentieth-century culture alongside disco remixes of Bach. He simply had a vision to make something beautiful and he poured all his passion into making it. He created, invested 100% of his being and breathed even his soul into that work. And that is how the symphonies as we know them came about.

Beethoven didn’t write one symphony then try to get acceptance for it before deciding to write another. He wrote them, an aggregation of his experience as a composer and musician pouring into this work, left them behind as milestones.

Likewise as writers, we must follow our heart and pour our passion into what we create. There is no failure. There is only incomplete work and work to be done to complete it so it can be showcased.

We live in a brilliant age of opportunity, where self-publishing means there can be many more winners who contribute to the publishing history of fiction in the twenty-first century. You have the tools to professionally publish your own work and then find your audience as a fiction author. Even if your audience is a niche, or if you grow one reader at a time, your book can exist in the world to be found. Most importantly, it will stay in the world long after you have left it, and if you’ve done your diligence, it will shine like a star in the vast vault of storytelling.

You can see, perhaps, why I’m so passionate about the work I do as an editor and director of a book production company. Being self-published should not be associated with being of poor quality or being inferior, and I think we’ll see over the next few years the stigma diminish, particularly in the ebook arena, as self-published books that have been produced with professional finesse stand out more.

The overall point isn’t that self-publishing authors should expect that putting their book through all the bells and whistles of production will lead to sales that  sustain a full-time author career. Even the majority of traditionally published authors whose books we see in bookstores earn only enough that they require other revenue to supplement living costs. We can’t all be the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or George R.R. Martin. But we can do everything in our power to pour our heart into creating books we are proud of.

Did you know that Moby Dick was a flop in its day? (Check out this Writer Unboxed post by David Corbett for more on that.) What is it you bring to your fiction for the readers of today and the future? How do you decide when you’re “done” if you’re self-publishing?

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Branding your self-published production as an Indie author

Last week, I announced in my fan newsletter that I will be publishing A Thousand Roads as my debut epic fantasy novel on October 31st, 2018 in ebook (January 9th, 2019 for print). This was a pretty big moment for me, and in fact, though I’d been planning to do this for months already, it took me two weeks before I could finally write that newsletter and make the announcement.

Today I want to talk about what helped push me over the line, because it’s a topic that relates to any self-publishing author.

When you hit “publish” and your book goes live on Amazon and Smashwords (and other platforms), you are becoming not just author, but publisher as well.

I have worked with numerous self-publishing authors. Often they adopt the term Indie author. I personally like using self-publishing because really, it stares the stigma in the face and says “there’s nothing wrong with this”. In the dozens of self-publishing authors I’ve worked with, one pattern I’ve seen is that those who have established solid careers are the ones who go the extra step to further define their role as publisher, separate from author.

This is not just creating your author brand and stamp of professionalism as an author. This is creating, in addition, your publishing imprint which will have its own brand across all the books you self-publish. Just like a reader recognizes the logo for a major publishing house, they will come to recognize your brand logo based on the reading experiences they’ve had with books you’ve self-published under your imprint.

Creating your self-publishing imprint: your own company to be proud of

This is an important point to nail home if you are self-publishing as an author: you are starting your own publishing company! That company is going to be exclusively specialized on publishing your books. It doesn’t need to be registered with the government as a business, nor do you need a business name, nor do you need a publisher website. You need only know that, aside from being the author who wrote the book and will sell it, on your author platform as an author, you are also the publisher who published the book and will sell it, on your publishing platform.

Now, in practice, these two usually merge quite closely. You need not separate the two in the same way a publishing company would create a business identity for itself, since you’re not accepting submissions and publishing fiction beyond your own work. What you do want to do, though, is establish consistency and a process so that when readers see your imprint logo on the spine of your books, or in the opening copyright page, that logo will mean something.

Here are some things that will help give your imprint a professional edge that brings out more of the “publishing” aspect of “self-publishing” to create a final product closer to what a traditional publisher would produce:

Branding: make a team and be authentic

You don’t have to have a website, but you could do this. I created a website for my imprint, Dreamsphere Books, but I did so because I have plans to publish niche fiction beyond my own over my career. In fact, as you’ll see, I launched Dreamsphere Books last year to get it off the ground, using a fun piece of experimental science fiction.

Notice on that site I am honest about what the publishing imprint is and what my goals are. I don’t put up smoke and mirrors to try and give readers the impression this is a publishing company who has “acquired the rights” to my book. I state explicitly on the website that this is John Robin’s publishing imprint. This kind of transparency is so important if you are self-publishing because it instills trust in your readers. You are effectively saying, “I am a self-published author and I’m proud of my production, so much so that I’ve gone to all these steps to give you the books you see.”

And that leads to the most important point about branding your publishing imprint: “all these steps” implies something bigger than yourself. Traditional publishing is collaborative and involves a large team, often 30+ staff who will be involved in the production of a book. Unless you’re sitting on $25,000, you likely won’t have 30+ team members involved in the production of your book, but nonetheless, a team is a team and it’s important to establish roles so that you can wear your author hat while others can wear the publishing hat to help your imprint from the publishing aspect.

Some key roles: team members who help define the publisher role

As the self-publisher, think of yourself as the director of your self-publishing imprint. Imagine you’re running a small restaurant. While you can step in and do anyone’s job, your goal is to learn how to train the professionals who will do each job and then oversee the operation. Likewise, there are critical roles involved in self-publishing a book and, while you may know how to / be able to do them all on your own, think of the amount of time you could have spent writing or promoting your book instead!

Editors

You’ll need editors, ideally a team who will be consistent across a series. At the very least, you should have two editors, one who does a higher level content edit, and another who does a copyedit. If you can’t afford a proofread, try to find some grammar-savvy beta readers to proofread your book, all formatted and ready to publish, before publishing, but after the editing is complete. This helps you reduce typos drastically, which will make your self-publishing imprint stand out.

Designers

You’ll need at least one person who is skilled in design to make you a great cover, as well as formatting the interior. These are two different things, so often an author will separate the two in their production: you’ll have an awesome cover artist who becomes your go-to for all your books, and an awesome interior design company/designer who takes your final copyedited manuscript and turns it into the final ebook / print book.

For Dreamsphere Books, I’ve added an artist to my team of two who will be collaborating with me on the maps, as well as some interior panels and custom chapter headers. You don’t need to have an artist involved, but if you want to have art inside or custom chapter headers, you might want to get an artist involved to give it a special touch in addition to the great touches the interior designer will add.

Copywriter

Many authors forgo this but you shouldn’t because your book summaries are as important points of sale as your cover and your opening pages! Copywriting involves writing the copy that readers find on the back of the book (or in the description field on Amazon/Smashwords) or other related summaries. A copywriter can match style based on comparative titles so that your summary catches the right readers.

Copywriting is a skill that copywriters specialize in, and I firmly believe it’s not something to cut corners on if you’re wanting to make your self-publishing imprint stand out.

Often times, if you want to save some money you can give this role to your editor, as many editors are skilled at copywriting and might help you refine your copy. I have several clients I’ve worked with who usually work with me on copywriting prior to publication and often find the perspective I bring as editor is different and helps pinpoint the market.

Marketers

This last part is the one self-publishing authors can often neglect, or get carried away with, and sadly, lose lots of money on. You don’t have to hire a publicists or a PR specialist or a marketing organization. You can do this and there are numerous examples of self-publishing authors who succeed by utilizing these team members, but these aren’t the actual brass tacks.

You only need one team member, and it should be someone other than yourself: a review and outreach coordinator. You can add more than one team member to help with the review and outreach coordinator’s work, depending on how large you want to your campaign to be, but the point here is: to get your book off the ground, you need to connect it to reviewers and influencers, as a publisher separate from yourself.

Reviewers usually have blogs and you can contact them to request a review (or what’s called a “blurb” — that reads like a review but they will do this for you after reading just an excerpt / summary and you can think of it as more of a recommendation). Influencers are bloggers or other online hubs where you might have a guest post/contribution that helps expose you to potential readers.

As the author, you will want to try to get as many reviewers and influencers on your radar as possible. But there are many who would better be approached by your publishing imprint, represented by the review and outreach coordinator. Again, it’s down to the power of a team: you, the author, trying to sell your self-published book, will have a different impact than a review coordinator asking for a review / placement for you, as a member of your team (and offering FREE copies to review, not asking for sales).

You should do both of these, of course! But this valuable team member will give the marketing role of your imprint a different kind of edge that will help you get more reviews, recommendations, and appearances, and ultimately, help you gain more exposure to readers.

Do you have a self-publishing imprint? What kind of things have you done to separate your role as publisher from author to define a professional edge?

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Time off and gaining perspective: reactive vs. action-driven work

Last fall I got in the habit of taking every seventh week off. Something about working hard for six weeks then resting on the seventh seems fitting for one who spends their time creating. On my week off, I turn to less urgent work and give myself permission to throw out everything that makes demands on me.

The only appointment I need to keep: a day-long retreat at the spa where I cook myself repeatedly in the sauna or scented steam room, float around in pools of various temperatures, then relax by a fire in a hammock reading a book of choice. This week’s book was The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson, and wow, what a great book to read on a day when you’re in the mood to break the mold before heading back into the forge — a bit of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, with a more contemporary application, in the vein of George Carlin.

I find that, with the urgency stripped aside, and that mandatory mental health day at the spa to uncoil any unseen springs, I turn to deeper work. I still write every day, first thing (because that’s something I want to do, never something pressed upon me), but even so, complete cessation is not the point of this week off. The point is being able to really stop and connect to the infrastructure beneath all the work I do, those deeper “why” forces that drive me and often get buried in the chaff of go-go-go.

Active work vs. reactive work

We all have responsibilities we can’t avoid. I mentioned in this post about putting your writing first the concept of Eisenhower’s priority matrix. Those responsibilities we can’t avoid fall under the category of reactive work. Whether they be important (a customer has showed up and needs your attention) or unimportant (the phone is ringing), they linger around you like a cloud of flies and for every time you swat at them, they come just come back; for every demanding task you crush, others seem to swarm in from some hidden breeding ground and you’ll never get the things done you want to get done.

Action-driven work on the other hand is the things you really want to be doing but don’t have time to do when you’re busy reacting. If you’re a writer and you want to finish your book, or get time in on your writing projects, this is your active work. This kind of work is not being pressed upon you. You have to take action and decide you’re doing it for the sake of its importance. You’re acting upon it, rather than it acting upon you.

I’ve struggled a lot with this one. For those of you who might envy me for being free to flex my work time, don’t, because one trades the inflexibility of a set schedule for a work queue that has no end to it save for self-imposed boundaries. I’m the senior editor for the editing division of my company, the director of the whole company, which now includes a publishing division (for which I’m also the production manager and general director) and a cover art division. With that comes the need to put out fires, coordinate now more than ten different team members, oversee numerous projects going on simultaneously, and find time for the editing jobs I take on personally (we’ll get to this last one below).

Now, yes, I’m free to flex my time and decide how I want to perform in all these roles. But there’s an insidious force at work that might not be obvious (unless you’re also an entrepreneur and can relate): psychological distress. True, I can neglect the work I need to be doing, but this will have consequences. I can decide to black out the world and open my manuscript to steal away glorious hours of writing, but the whole while in the back of my mind I’m distracted by thoughts about the pieces in motion I should be tending to, the pile of to-dos that really, if I powered down on them, I’d be ahead — until tomorrow when more things come in.

And on and on it goes, a cloud of flies swarming around me which I’m swatting at with half as much attention as the attention that’s going into the important work I’m trying to actively pursue.

Clearing the air: the real purpose of down time

Let’s say instead of swatting at the flies, you decided you are going to stop everything you’re doing, get a fly-swatter and a bug bomb, suit up if necessary, then commit yourself 100% to exterminating every single fly in the vicinity, seeking out nests and destroying them, going to the source, no survivors. That might take a bit of time, but in the end, when you’re done, you’ll return to your work and guess what? You can focus entirely on important work that you choose to do, as 100% committed as you were when you decided to solve your fly problem — because there’s no flies now to bother you!

That’s more or less what goes on for me during those weeks I take off. Remove the distractions, not for the sake of resting and relaxing (though I do designate an entire day for “extra sleep” in addition to my spa day), but for the sake of active analysis. My mind turns to a different sort of work, more of a relaxed meta-work where I take the time away from my usual routine to assess how I can better improve.

It was during the previous holiday I took in April when I realized the importance of putting writing first, no matter what. For the last 7 weeks, I’ve begun every day with 2 hours of writing, no matter what. My team knows I do this, so there’s no psychological distress for me that I’m ignoring my other duties. (That’s not entirely true, there is, but I’m getting better and not feeding that fire; it really is a bit of a boogeyman scenario.)

During this last holiday I realized the importance of activating a principle I heard about from the former CEO of Moosehead Brewery: “Nose in, hands out.” With this insight in mind, I made a to-do list (my fly extermination process) and followed up on some difficult actions to help me step into more of a director role — the hardest of these being the choice to no longer take on any editing work.

The end goal: entering this week I have been able to focus my work time on bigger project to help grow our company and function more effectively as a director. One night, when watching Star Trek: the Next Generation, I commented to my husband that I need to become Picard and learn how to channel “command mode”, and I liked the term so much I’ve written it down on my desk to remind me of this whenever I’m asked to take on something that will pull me out of this role.

The results: this week, I finished writing a course for the education website Highbrow. Highbrow delivers courses in the form of 10 emails, delivered once a day over 10 days, with more than 300,000 subscribers.

I reached out several weeks ago to ask if I could contribute something, and one of the co-founders suggested I write about how to market a book online. This was a big and very important project that would have been pushed to the wayside — blogging and outreach work are two tasks that can easily get buried in the swarm of reactive work — but when it comes to the work day and what I do for the company, these are among the most important avenues of work!

A never ending onion of importance

In my heart I’m a writer, first and foremost. Far, far down the road, I’d see myself becoming the creative director of my company but my time investment would be in writing. I’d be a spoke on the wheel for my company, as well as a wind blowing it in the right direction.

That’s the big picture anyway, and to get there requires defining the intermediate steps. Most fundamental (and most long-term) is the process of investing in my writing. More intermediate is the process of growing my company into the vehicle which will publish and market my books on par with what is put out traditionally. The latter is not merely subordinate to the former, because in my heart my prime drive behind why I write is for the sake of creating community around my work; likewise, the process of growing my company — the vehicle which will carry my writing to my readers — is about creating community around the type of work that brings the touches of the traditional publishing industry to self-publishing books.

It might be a long time until I get to the place I’m envisioning, but until that point, I look forward to my weeks off. That’s where the magic happens, another step deeper into the onion layers of importance.

I’ve deviated a bit from my usual style today to share a bit more personally about my process and my work, but I hope you might find some inspiration in it. Please do share your thoughts, or shoot me an email if something here has got you percolating.

 

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