4 Steps to Make Your Fantasy Map Great

This last November I kicked off what I called “world-building season” here on the blog, and today I’d like to pick up with one of the posts I promised to touch upon. Today’s topic is one that’s close to my heart, as I’m sure it’s close to the hearts of many fantasy writers: maps!

Nothing better encapsulates the grandeur of a fantasy story than a fascinating, intricate map. It was the map of Wilderland in The Hobbit that pulled me into fantasy books to begin with, and to this day when I pick up a fantasy book the first thing I flip to is the map.

In this genre built upon an imaginary world, a map serves as a foretaste of what is to come, hinting at the author’s setting, potential for story lines, as well as being a useful reference for the reader. Having a map at the beginning of your book can help draw the reader in, give them promises of what you plan to do with your world, and paint a better picture of what you have designed.

But what exactly makes a great fantasy map? What makes it work, and what doesn’t? In four basic steps, let’s dive in.

Step One: Have a clear vision of what your world looks like.

As applies to world-building, having a clear vision of what your world looks like is fundamental. Not all maps have to feature continents; some focus on cities, or smaller patches of land. Just make sure that it’s relevant to the story, so as to further draw in your reader.

Take a look at real-world geography, as well as the artwork of other fantasy map artists. This past post, by our contributor Melissa Berg, is an AMAZING reference. Build a frame of reference for yourself, so that you can best understand how the map should look and feel. Also be sure to check your own work and make sure you don’t contradict the details of your story, or change your continuity. Depending on the length of your work, it can sometimes be hard to keep track of all the small details, which is something that maps often call for.

Something that I do is build a rough-draft of my map as I write my story. Every time I come up with a new detail, I add it to this map outline so that I don’t become confused or leave something out. It looks a bit like a homunculus, but the point is all the names and spatial relationships are represented there, and handy for later reference.

Step Two: Your map is part of the story.

Often times, authors forget that the purpose of the map is to add to the story, not just to help readers avoid confusion. You are creating an appetizer to set alongside the main course of your story; not a menu.

The 1726 publication of Gulliver’s Travel’s featured a map of imaginary isles southwest of Sumatra, setting the tone of adventure for the book. Bernard Sleigh’s published a map of Fairyland in 1918, communicating on a more fundamental level a yearning for pre-war beauty lost:


One of my favorite childhood stories, Winnie the Pooh, had a map of the Hundred Acre Wood — a touch that made it instantly mesmerizing for me and eager to enter its story. And of course there is the Lord of the Rings map of Middle Earth, which often is used as the basis for all fantasy map-makers. But Tolkien, like Milne and Sleigh and Swift, was not creating the map just to make a map: it was to shape the story.

It goes a step further too. This great article shares Tolkien’s own description of how making a fantasy map creates story, and story in turn creates the map. The effect is much like M.C. Escher’s Drawing Hands: “For Tolkien, the art of writing and the art of drawing were inextricably intertwined.”

When you begin the process of making your map, when you have all the tools necessary to its construction, bringing the same passion that you put into the story into the map is not only a chance to make a great map, but to make your story even better — and deeper.

Step Three: Aim for elegance, not complication.

A common problem that most authors get entangled in during their world-building phase is the danger of over-building. If you didn’t catch my November post on top-down vs. bottom-up world-building, here’s a bit more on the incredible balancing act that faces all fantasy writers: https://epicfantasywriter.wordpress.com/2016/11/03/world-building-what-makes-for-a-great-fantasy-setting/

Be careful of this issue when constructing your map. It can be easy to lose yourself in the creation, and your map can become swiftly over-crowded with detail, color, or embellishments that are not congruent. The balance between too-much and too-little in a map can be difficult to pinpoint, often at the expense of lost elegance.

How do you get around this? One thing I’ve found helpful is to reference other successful maps. When I’ve created maps, I’ve actually sketched the maps from other great fantasy books (Tolkien, Martin, Jordan, Brook, McKiernan, to name a few). In fact, I have several pages of a sketch book full of parts of these maps.

I especially love the elegance of George R. R. Martin’s map of Westeros. By that I don’t mean the official colored maps recently put out, but the original black-and-white maps in the books (here is a website that has high-quality scans of them for your viewing pleasure). The lesson for me with those maps is to not get carried away with fancy names. Martin’s use of names that could belong in an alternate version of our world is excellent. The Reach, Shield Islands, Bridgewater Keep, Horn Hill, Sharp Point, Cape of Eagles, The Fingers, Whispering Sound, Blackwater Bay, The Smoking Sea, Basilisk Isles … (I’ll stop here before this sounds like the name-dropping in a Jon Snow chapter from Dance with Dragons.) Each of those names tells a story of its own, and in the case of many of those, part of that story is told through the landmark it belongs with, and other surrounding lands. The elegance is the dialogue which emerges from the process, and if you can achieve that, then you’ve created the allure that pulls a reader in past the names and lines that make the map, and inward to the story waiting in the pages of your epic yarn.

Step Four: Explore, iterate, and deepen.

It is important that you always leave room for exploration in your map-making process. I’ve found that it’s the process of redrawing, much like the process of redrafting a manuscript, that leads to a better map. Each time, going into the redrawing process with willingness to make radical new discoveries and throwing out the firm boundaries of before is very important (again, the similarity to writing a new draft is striking).

I was commissioned to draw the map for a fantasy artist (Craig Munro, The Bones of the Past. You can view it here and while you’re at it, check out Craig’s book. It launches in May and if you love the Malazan books by Steven Erikson, this one will likely be right up your alley). During the process, I drew the map 4 times before arriving at the final. The first time, I collected detailed notes I’d asked Craig to write, and worked from a sketch of the world he’d provided. I then scanned the first draft and sent it to him, then asked him to print it and add more to the map based on whatever inspired him, as well as to provide me further information on the world. For each draft of the map, I approached the redrawing with as much creative freedom, and the intent to deepen the conversations on the page. The back-and-forth of my drawing based on being inspired by Craig’s added notes, as well as Craig’s chance to sit with each draft and see what creative juices percolated as he thought of further touches that would bring the world of his story to life, created a synergy that was responsible for the magic that comes through in the resultant map.

Of course, the principle at play here is to let step #3 be your guideline as you proceed through this step of deepening. The point is not to add complexity, but to get to deeper layers of your map. The complexity, in a sense, if what’s hidden in the space that the reader can fill in their mind. (Again, just like in the final draft of a book!)

What tricks and tips do you use for map-making? What are some of your favorite fantasy maps? What do you think makes a great fantasy map?

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Reading as a writer: how to be inspired, while staying true to your vision

I’ll admit that I don’t read nearly as much as I wish I could. Since I write all weekend and during the week I’m immersed in editing projects, I often find that my brain wants anything but words by the end of the day. It is for this reason that I always turn down requests to beta read or to read anything that isn’t the one thing I am compelled to commit to.

However, I do make a point of reading. In fact, time to read is as fundamental to my day routine as taking a shower or brushing my teeth. While I’ve experimented with best times to make this happen, at the very least I read for half an hour before I go to sleep, even if it means going to bed half an hour later.

I don’t read fast, though this is by choice. I know of many who can read fast but they admit they don’t take everything in. One friend who I know is a fast reader once told me he reads fast and notes where exciting things are so he can come back to them later. I can definitely relate to reading this way — I do it all the time for non-fiction articles or research (especially online), but not for fiction or books I’ve chosen to read in their entirety.

When it comes to reading a book for my dedicated reading time, I don’t feel I’m adequately experiencing the book unless I’m truly reading it, and that means reading at a speed that allows me to be immersed in every single thing that’s happening, live-time.

I don’t press 3x-play when I watch a 1-hour TV show so that I can get through it in 20 minutes, and likewise, I don’t rush through reading.

Should every writer should read?

For writers, reading is an act of professional development. By reading, we are studying what our contemporaries are doing or what the greats who have gone before us have done. Even if we pick up a particularly bad book, we receive an education in what not to do.

It’s also wise to read beyond the genre you write in. While there’s great value in studying authors in your genre, being limited to specific genres is a sure way to risk putting blinkers on. For example, though I write epic fantasy and, as you’ll see if you study my Goodreads shelf, I’ve read more fantasy books than any other genre, I read a lot of non-fiction, science fiction, and general fiction. I keep lists of books to help me remember titles I hear of, but when it comes to deciding what to read next, I believe in the power of intuition: in fact, many times I have experienced the phenomenon of how the exact book I need just ends up in my hands at the right time.

There is something meditative to reading. It’s not just about professional development, but broadening your mind as a human being. In fact, this is the more important part for storytellers, in my opinion, because while it’s great to analyze fiction and fiction techniques for inspiration in your own storytelling, this is just the surface layer of what can be gleaned from being open to the far deeper layers of meaning and inner transformation that reading can bring about for us.

Beware the urge to jump ship (otherwise known as managing your influences)

There is also a real danger to reading if you are a writer, and it’s this danger that often is the background excuse for those writers who claim they must not read lest they get influenced. I am no stranger to this one.

In fact, I have a fresh anecdote to share. This last weekend I nearly gave up on A Thousand Roads. This was due in part to reading Stephen King’s On Writing and realizing, as I immersed myself in his early life stories, how, after discovering Tolkien at the age of 13 I all but forgot about my previous love for horror stories — one which goes back to the age of 6 when I’d sneak to my friend’s place after school and watch horror movies.

In fact, I had my first story published when I was 11. It was called The Shack, a horror story about a boy whose brother turns into a monster and hunts down his family after a possessed egg from some other dimension takes him captive. I’d submitted it for a school contest and came in second place, which meant I didn’t win the 1st place prize of getting published by one of the local presses. However, the principal liked the story so much that, unbeknownst to me at the time, she went home and typed it all up, then had it printed and bound. A few mornings later, we were called into the library and she took out this little book and read it to everyone in place of regular story time, much to my shock (and embarrassment).

I still have this story and, as I read about Stephen King’s childhood and found many parallels with my own imaginative early years, I fished out this little book and read it again.

Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. Reconnecting to this abandoned path made me doubt what I’m doing now. When the weekend came and it was time to work on A Thousand Roads I wanted to write something else, saw my plan to stay the course and learn how to finish a book as misguided. Heck, I could use a break, work on something fresh and different.

Without realizing it at the time, my free creative space was being influenced by what I was reading.

You might relate to this as a writer if you’ve ever gone through this vacillating story idea effect. I don’t know about you, but I find this usually happens after I see something I absolutely love where I can just tell the author is brilliant and has found true gold to share. Usually, not long after this experience, a new story idea appears, and it doesn’t take long to trace the derivative lines.

How to read and be open without be swayed

There’s nothing wrong with being inspired and influenced. The key, in my opinion, is discerning the difference between knee-jerk inspiration and inner inspiration that is as strong — and slow and inevitable — as the shifting of tectonic plates.

In the case of A Thousand Roads, the knee-jerk response passed when I relied on the much deeper muscle of my years’-long discipline to come back to the same story and discover it in its pure form. Interestingly, after persevering and having an amazing writing weekend wherein I got more fully invested in the potential of the story, I arrived at the part of King’s On Writing where he talked about Carrie and how he’d nearly abandoned that book but his wife’s persistence pushed him on to write a story that he was convinced wasn’t worth it. He pushed on and learned about the importance of going the extra mile, of going on even when he felt like he was “shoveling shit from a sitting position” (love that line).

Much like what we choose to read, we must choose what to write. If we read 20 books at once and bounce back and forth, our experience of any one book is going to be hampered, and no doubt a book we might have gotten a lot out of we might not even finish. Likewise, if we are fickle in which books we choose to write, we lose the opportunity to bring into realization a story that is our pure, unique vision.

Reading and writing are a symbiosis, provided our mind is rooted in our own vision

I’m learning every time I resist the knee-jerk influencing urge to trust the larger-scale call of the work I’m invested in, the work of my own unique vision.

As I mentioned last week, I saw the Fifty Shades Darker movie this week. What a fantastic movie! I’m not speaking as a critic, but as a storyteller going in and appreciating the unique vision of someone else whose heart and passion shines through in the story. Going into that movie and experiencing some of the brilliantly captured scenes and emotional moments presented me with a dichotomy, but I chose the right path.

The wrong path is to get inspired by what the movie does and then go and immediately try and recreate that in my own fiction. Jumping into such left-brain analysis closes me to truly receiving the lesson of those deeper levels of the story. It’s kind of like having a conversation with someone and, instead of listening to them and empathizing, wandering off into thoughts about the plans for the rest of the day.

The right path is much like empathic listening in a conversation, and it made my experience of the movie wondering, and spared me conflict in my storytelling life afterward, because I found myself truly appreciating how one of my contemporaries brought out the gold in her story and how she made her unique vision shine. It inspired me not to copy her, but to listen and learn and appreciate, and try to cultivate that same passion in what is my unique yarn which only I can tell.

Now, I’d love to hear from you. Are you a super fast reader and think I should enroll in a speed reading course? Do you read slowly and agree with the benefit? How do you manage your influences when you read or otherwise experience story?

If you want to receive more of these kinds of inspiring posts on writing, editing, and productivity and wellness practices for writers, sign up for my weekly newsletter with Story Perfect Editing Services, here.

You can also listen to a more in-depth discussion on this topic in our week’s episode of the Write Right Podcast, here.

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The Walls are Closing In Paints a Chilling Picture of the US in the Year 2090

Today I want to welcome a special author guest! I’m pleased to have Jacqui Castle join us to share some words on what it’s like to segue from being a journalist to novelist.

john-robin-authorJacqui Castle is a professional freelance writer and journalist residing in the forested Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina with her husband and two children. She regularly contributes to a local publication, Mountain Xpress, and has been published in numerous print and online publications, including WNC Woman and Asheville Grit. Castle specializes in food journalism, but sporadically branches out and dabbles in other topics, including health and wellness, parenting, book reviews, and political reporting. Her first foray into the world of fiction, The Walls are Closing In, is currently undergoing a funding campaign on reader-driven publisher Inkshares and is ‘closing in’ on guaranteed publication.

Q: When did you first begin writing?

I first dove into the writing world when I began working part-time at family-run business Quill & Brush. My family has always been overly saturated with book-lovers. Books lined the walls in my parent’s home. My grandparent’s home, where I spent a large portion of time during my childhood and adolescence, features a library for their in-home business collecting and selling rare and first-edition books. I began working as a part-time fact-checker on my grandfather’s book, Collected Books: The Guide to Identification and Values, to earn some extra money here and there. I soon realized that I enjoyed the work, and this led to trying my hand at online blogs, articles and other web content. This served as a flexible part-time job throughout college and after the birth of my son. Though I have had many jobs over the years, writing has always occurred alongside.

Q: Did you begin writing as a journalist first, or a novelist?

The novel thing is a fresh endeavor for me. I have been a freelance editor and writer for about ten years, and a journalist for the past five. Honestly, I never saw myself writing fiction. But, about a year ago, the idea for The Walls are Closing In came to me during the primary election campaign, I started it as a short story, and it snowballed from there. Now, I can definitively say that I envision myself writing fiction for a long time to come.

Q: How do you balance journalism and book-writing?

Fortunately, I am a part-time freelance journalist, and only find myself up against a handful of deadlines per month. I have a seven-year-old and a three-year-old, and due to the flexibility of my job, I am fortunate that I can spend a lot of time with them. My husband also works flexible hours, and we are adept schedule-jugglers. When the kids are home, one of us is with them. I genuinely can not tell you where I found the time to write The Walls are Closing In. I had a concept, I started writing, and four months later the first draft was complete. Looking back, I do not know how I found the time other than through the tested patience of my husband, and the overwhelming compulsion to write to get through 2016. I can tell you that once I started writing, it came out fast.

Q: What do you love about journalism? What about fantasy writing?

Regarding journalism, I adore telling the stories of others and providing a voice for businesses that are doing their part. I live in a town where real food is highly valued, great comfort is derived from cooking, eating, and sharing a quality meal, and the farm-to-table movement is spreading like wildfire. I feel honored to be the one to go behind the scenes and tell a story that may otherwise never be told. When I see a piece that I wrote framed in the hallway of a restaurant I covered years ago, it is an enormous honor.

Fantasy writing and fiction, in general, is another beast entirely. It is cathartic in a way that non-fiction is not. Being able to express your frustrations and desires through characters that you mold in any way that you choose is strangely liberating.

Q: What is your ideal writing space? If you prefer an office, describe how it is set up.

I spend more time than I care to admit in coffee shops and tea houses around Asheville. Because we live up a winding road in the mountains, it is a long trek home after dropping my children off at school, so I often find myself at a local tea house with my laptop, a manuscript printout and a pen, or a book that I am reviewing. If I have the luxury of being home for the day and the weather is fine, I have a sunroom where the breeze and the sound of the flowing stream filtering in make for a wonderful writing atmosphere. And, you know, sometimes I find myself reclining in bed with the computer on my lap. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone.

Q:  Was it difficult to transition from journalism to novel writing? What was that process like?

It has been a transition, to say the least. Difficult is not exactly how I would describe it, though. I was staggered at how easily the words filled the page once I started writing fiction. I will be the first to admit this though, the initial draft of The Walls are Closing In was lacking in dialogue and read as a journalistic info dump. It took me awhile to transition to the “show don’t tell” mode of fiction writing, and now the manuscript reflects the story I was itching to tell from the moment I started it a little less than a year ago.

Q: After your debut novel, what are you planning on doing next?

The Walls are Closing In is set to be a stand-alone novel or the start of a series. I would like to see the story evolve through future works. The world that is created is poignant in our current times, and exploring the stories of others that are living in this rigid 2090 is tempting, especially as the news headlines continue to emerge here in 2017. I also have a few historical fiction ideas brewing.

Q: Tell us a bit about The Walls are Closing in:

The Walls are Closing In takes place in a post-border wall America in which mass surveillance, confinement to city centers, and addiction to mindless entertainment keeps everyone subdued and in line. Citizens are conditioned from a young age regarding acceptable conversation, history and world geography are classified, and a charge of ‘treason’ is slapped on just about everything outside of strict compliance. The protagonist, Patricia Evans, is a scientist who has the rare opportunity to work in some of the last remaining locations where one can have an unrestricted conversation— dilapidated national and state parks only protected because the uncontaminated soil contains final strains of the healthy bacteria needed for medicine and food production. While on a routine assignment, Patricia and her co-worker Rexx discover unedited banned books in a pre-wall van tucked out of view. This leads them on a destructive journey to dissect the truth about the time surrounding the erection of the border walls.

About Jacqui’s novel,  The Walls are Closing Ina dark novel set in a chilling future:

john-robin-coverDecades after The Seclusion, during which America constructed massive border walls and sealed itself off from the outside world, thirty-one-year-old Patricia Evans lives within the panoptic nightmare of a total surveillance state. A cautionary tale.

“In the beginning, in 2022 when it was first erected, they say the entirety of its length was rigorously patrolled for twenty-four hours a day. No more. Decades have passed, multiple generations have been born in its shadow, and it has become as natural a part of the landscape as the wildflowers that innocently climb its base.”





The Walls are Closing In is now available for pre-order at Inkshares! As many of you may recall, I spent a year on the Inkshares platform and from time to time certain books really catch my eye. Jacqui’s is one of them, and in fact I was so compelled by her trailer video (watch it!) and opening that I decided to reach out and get her to share here.

At the time of writing this, Jacqui only needs 15 more pre-orders to hit her pre-order goal. Order now if you want to help out!

Connect with Jacqui:

Website: https://www.inkshares.com/books/the-walls-are-closing-in

Twitter: @WritesAsheville

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TheWallsareClosingIn/

Fan email address: JacquiCastle@gmail.com


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Fifty Shades Darker: Why Reviews (Shouldn’t) Matter (to Authors)

I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I’m seeing the movie “Fifty Shades Darker” next week, the second movie in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy. Since it seems a fitting time for confessions, I’ll also admit I saw the first movie as a Valentine’s Day date two years ago when it came out.

At the time of writing this, the movie has not yet been released. I believe that when this hits your inbox, it’ll be the movie’s release day. Thus, I’ve not seen any reviews yet. I’m assuming that critics will more or less pan the movie, as they did with the first movie and with all three books.

When I saw the first movie — “Fifty Shades of Grey” — it was because I wanted to go to the local VIP theater with my husband and that was the only movie showing.  I never planned to read the books, and was only familiar with passages of it (as narrated by Gilbert Gottfried), so I figured this was my shot to find out what the story as a whole was all about and to see if I could look beneath all the reviews and discern just what was happening on a storytelling level to pull so many people in.

Reviews: why they (don’t) matter

For the most part, readers of the Fifty Shades books simply didn’t care about the reviews — they just wanted to read the books. And when they read the books, they were satisfied. So when the first movie came out, those who read the books simply didn’t care about the reviews — they just wanted to see the movie. Myself included.

Reviews certainly can be helpful and they may even sway your decision to pick up a book or to watch a movie, but often they have little actual impact on the reader or viewer. By the time you look at the reviews, you’ve usually made your mind up that you want to read a given book or watch a movie. At that point, you’re checking what the mass consensus is, and trying to get a feel for trends.

That’s the important point here: Individual reviews are not what counts. Even swarms of glowing reviews that group together can be misleading (after all, how many authors have large rings of collaborators who agree to give each other 5 star reviews and positive high-fives?). What counts is the whole and the underlying principle:

Reviews can be left by anyone, so looking at the whole allows the intelligent reader to discern for themselves.

And as authors, we must trust that our ideal readers are smart. When someone reviews a book, they’re giving their opinion of it. Parts of the review may be objectively true, such as grammatical and spelling errors, though beware even these, since there do exist some self-appointed grammar and spelling gurus who actually don’t have their rules right. But more importantly, reviews are mostly subjective, simply a reader’s opinion of what they liked and didn’t like.

Bad reviews are unavoidable. Robert J. Sawyer once said to me that a great book will tend toward one and five star reviews.  This is because you’re nailing your target audience — the people giving you five stars, who are absolutely satisfied with the stellar work you’ve done — and those who have come to read your book just to hate it because they hate all the attention it’s getting. The worst type of review trend is one that’s centered on three stars.  Yes, even a one star is better than a three star.

Three stars is essentially the reader saying, “Meh… it was okay.”  A one star, even though it’s considered a bad review, at least inspired enough passion in the reader for them to make the claim that they thought your book was terrible. At the time of writing this, there are 160,080 1-star reviews for Fifty Shades of Grey on Goodreads.com, and 562,137 5-star reviews. It doesn’t take much sifting to see that the predominant trend in the 1-star reviews is people infuriated how such “bad writing” can sell so well and capture peoples’ hearts; this is because (my opinion and analysis) many of those readers specifically bought and read Fifty Shades of Grey to convince themselves it was trash, then found it was actually good, but the writing was so bad, but they still love it, so they hated the fact that they loved it and that hate was what inspired the “I hate it” review.

I’m generalizing, of course, as the trend is much more complex, but the point here is to illustrate just how 1-star reviews and bad reviews do not always mean your book is bad and as an author looking to make your way through Alligator Skin 101, learning to put reviews in perspective is very important.

So if you receive poor reviews — and every author does — here’s what you do about it: NOTHING.

As I said above, readers are smart and as authors it’s important that we trust them to arrive at their own conclusions. It’s inevitable that they’re going to see bad reviews for a given book, possibly your book. But they’re likely going to search out the reviews that explain why someone loved or hated a book (and more than one), because that gives insight into what will be in the book. A well-written bad review can actually help sales. I know I’ve chosen to read books or watch movies simply because someone wrote a bad review — and in doing so, highlighted something they hated, but I knew I’d love.

The best example I can come up with is Charlie Jade, a one-season Canadian/South African sci-fi TV show from several years back. A local TV critic panned the show, saying it was too bleak and too complex. However, I was finding sci-fi TV just a little too generic at the time and I was actively searching for a sci-fi show that was different from the rest, perhaps something more complex, requiring the viewer to pay more attention. When I saw this bad review, I knew I had to watch the show.  While it certainly wasn’t the best show on TV, it held its own, and I was really glad that I had taken the time to watch it.

So, with “Fifty Shades Darker,” I already know it’s going to get bad reviews. However, I’ll be seeing it for two reasons:

  1. I haven’t read the books, so I want to see what the fuss is all about.
  2. The first movie, as flawed as it was, ended on such an emotional cliffhanger that I can’t not see the sequel.

Okay, and maybe a third: it’s this year’s Valentine’s Day date too!

When your book gets bad reviews — as will inevitably happen — don’t get too discouraged. It’s likely that it will have little effect on your sales and your core readers. If anything, it’s a chance for you to learn what people are enjoying or not enjoying, and to look for patterns in the feedback to help you with the next books you’re writing.

If you want to receive more of these kinds of inspiring posts on writing, editing, and productivity and wellness practices for writers, sign up for my weekly newsletter with Story Perfect Editing Services, here.

You can also listen to a more in-depth discussion on this topic in our week’s episode of the Write Right Podcast, here.

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Busting the Myth of the Creative Muse: Harnessing the Power of Concrete Milestones

Yesterday, it snowed again.

I live in the very wintry city of Winnipeg, and this winter has been particularly snowy. In the five weeks spanning December and the start of January, this city had five blizzards, accumulating as much snow as typically falls in a year in this city.

And it’s still snowing.

If weather predictions are correct, we are in for a very snowy February, as there is a major winter storm pattern headed our way.

As you might imagine, shoveling the sidewalk and driveway is becoming more and more laborious with each snowfall. While I try to see each jaunt as an opportunity for exercise, I find myself now wondering if this winter will ever end.

Writing is a lot like winter in Winnipeg.

Sometimes a project feels like it will never end. No matter how much you chip away at it, no matter how many hours you set aside to write, that same deep exhaustion settles in and writers (myself included) sit back and contemplate giving up.  Maybe motivation and energy will come to me if I just put it aside for few months.

Imagine if I treated snow shoveling that way.  It would pile higher and higher with every winter storm, until it would become so overwhelming, I’d just give up. Snow would reach knee-height (or higher, given how this winter is going) and I’d do my best to ignore this problem that confronts me every day when I leave my house, until I can no longer open my door.

That’s the risk we run when we put our books aside for lack of motivation, or when we give into the many other pressures that might tell us the great writing idea we really want to be investing our time in just isn’t worth our while. The feeling of neglect, that we’re really not doing what we should be doing with our life, will only get worse with every passing week.

What about the case of setting aside one project to write something else? That’s an entirely different topic (because sometimes it has merit, especially if the project you’re working on is something you’d rather not be working on), but for the sake of this argument, let’s focus on the project you are truly passionate about, the book(s) you really want to write. Maybe you’re not even writing it now and, like the recalcitrant shoveler, you’re realizing just how dissatisfied you are by not writing what you’re truly passionate about.

Bust the myth of the creative muse: you are your muse, and you call the shots.

Many writers believe they are at the whims of their creativity, often citing their “creative muse” as the source of whether they can write or not. I’ve been one of those writers myself. There is indeed validity to the fact that certain seasons of life, or certain emotional highs or internal nodes we might hit align just so and bring to the page something special that is not merely the result of mechanical novel-writing. It feels like magic. To this day, I still hold in my mind the memory of my greatest writing experience ever, an all-night adventure fueled by a French Press of coffee and discovering just how deep and alive a story can become. To this day, that is probably one of the richest chapters I’ve ever written (and was incentive to return to A Thousand Roads because that one chapter in the old manuscript captured just what the manuscript was, and for me, 2 years later, helped me understand what the next steps were).

But I’ve long since busted the myth of the creative muse. True, there have been many moments where deep intuition and a sort of magic align like constellations and bleed into my work. I can never predict when or how. I can only predict that I will continue to show up and do the work and put in a session, good or bad, trusting that the hard work  — like shoveling snow to keep the paths clear  — will add up.

I’ve also discovered that creativity can be forced — if I sit down and force myself to write, it gets my creative mind going, and then the creativity flows from my fingertips and onto the computer. It requires the willingness to sit with my manuscript and accept that writing time might require time spent sitting in the chair, leafing around the manuscript, thinking about the story, or reading earlier chapters or related notes I’ve made on promises I need to fulfill. The act then becomes not throwing words on the page, but creative problem solving. I’ve learned, by rejecting the myth of the creative muse, that it’s possible to be proactive about harnessing creativity, and the key is this:

Knowing what to write next is not about knowing what words to write next, but about asking deep questions about what the story wants from us. The answers inform then become our guide as we write forward, an intuitive counterbalance to hone our sense of if the story is on track or not on track, a bit like rails keeping a train on course.

Concretize your process: define incremental milestones for your project.

Every time it snows, I must go outside and shovel. If I just went outside whenever I wanted, I might discover when I do go out that there are packed layers of ice or uneven patches on the sidewalk that will break my shovel.

Likewise, having a regular discipline for your project, with concrete milestones, is a sure way to turn “I want to write this book and get it published” into a certain plan. This is important, because without developing a discipline that progresses in concrete forward units, you risk descending into relativism: the dreaded novel that you’ve spent years on, convincing yourself it’s just “not right yet”, when in fact, most of this time has been spent on lateral growth that hasn’t advanced the novel. You’re revising and changing, without moving forward so much as moving sideways, like a ship going in whatever direction the wind blows.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t spend years on a novel. I’m also not saying those years blowing in many directions didn’t add rich and unique layers that will make your book great; nor am I saying that lateral growth is not also a component of forward growth. What I am saying, though, is there’s a more efficient way to do it that will take less time, and be more rewarding, if you develop a concrete discipline.

For myself, I’ve also found it helpful to have accountability. I pay for an editorial coaching service wherein I must submit 20 pages of manuscript every Monday. Having a deadline, like needing to go out and shovel snow, for me makes the difference between spinning my perfectionist wheels and making clear-cut writing decisions that advance by one tiny, yet significant milestone my writing goals. It’s helped me develop a concrete writing discipline of flipping into writing mode every weekend and putting in whatever time it takes (and that will vary depending on the specific story problems that come up) to deliver 20 pages. The process of doing this has defined for me the importance of committing every weekend to working toward a specific milestone with A Thousand Roads, and after I’m finished the second draft, I will continue to commit every weekend to further iterations through the manuscript, under a revision regime that will soon segue to pre-publication production with the editing team I have on board to help turn this manuscript into a finished book.

You don’t have to write every weekend, but the idea is to define your end goal — the complete book in your readers’ hands, amazing as you can make it be — then define achievable, incremental milestones that you can meet to get to that point.

And if you’re snowed in and want to get back on track, maybe you need to bust out the ice-chipper and a blowtorch. Craig, the outreach manager for my editing company, is also an author. He had a project he’d been putting off for months. I finally gave him a kick in the pants and told him to get it done. He sat down and wrote 16,500 words in one day. Talk about clearing away all the snow with sweat and fire!

Now, with that goal met, he’s given himself momentum to take the next steps, and already has given it to his editor who is defining the process to publication so it can land well with readers.

Your turn! What is the project you’re passionate about? What does the end goal look like for you and how can you define clear, achievable milestones to reach it?

If you want to receive more of these kinds of inspiring posts on writing, editing, and productivity and wellness practices for writers, sign up for my weekly newsletter with Story Perfect Editing Services, here.

You can also listen to a more in-depth discussion on this topic in our week’s episode of the Write Right Podcast, here.

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Saying No: 3 Way to Stop Spending Your Time on Good Ideas So That You Can Find Your Great Ideas

This week, while our blizzard woes have evolved into a brief interlude of almost-spring, I’ve found myself swimming in chaos in my own work life. The slush goes something like this:

While I work hard on editing projects that occupy most of my work day, I confront opportunities frequently, and all of them offer something good. In fact, they all seem great in the beginning.

Some opportunities are my own “light bulb” realizations. You have a thought, and it starts a spark in your mind, which erupts into a wildfire before you know it. Here are a few of mine (as they first came to me):

“I’m going to spend less time on editing and more time on ghostwriting.”

“I’m going to start hybridizing my writing platform to write marketable fiction, and put the fiction I’m more passionate about on the back-burner while I try to make a living writing.”

“I’m going to put my work up on Wattpad and build an audience before I publish my book.”

“I’m going to submit the book I abandoned to agents, even though it’s not ready, because you never know, they might like it.”

Other opportunities are external, someone offering me something I might value but might later come to regret (or not) if I’d had time either to think about it more, or had a chance to see how the idea works out on execution. A good example I’m sure any writer can relate to: “Can you beta read my book for me? I’d really appreciate it and I’d beta read your book later.”

No doubt you’ve heard about the importance of saying “no” to conserve your precious time as a writer, but what’s often not talked about is the most difficult (and key) aspect of this, and that’s saying “no” not just to the obviously bad ideas, but to those ideas which seem great, but in fact are at best, good.

And, time being finite (extremely finite), this is of utmost importance because there are so many good ideas that, if you don’t make this distinction, then for every slot of time you are invested in good ideas, that’s time you’re not spending on great ideas.

A deeper kind of saying “no”, cutting away the good to get to greatness

As creatives who need to carve out time for our writing projects and activities which advance our fundamental goals, we cannot afford to be wasting time on ideas that are only good.

So, how can you tell the difference between a good idea and a great idea? In reality, there is no such thing as a meter that helps us determine just how “great” an idea truly is. But there are some things that will help.

1) The first and most important thing to know is that good ideas and great ideas start as good ideas, but only great ideas stand out and pass the test of time. 

Take the simple example of the “aha” idea every writer stumbles on which defines the keystone of their success: “I need to sit down and write.” Now, that idea is simple, but from it stem many other ideas, all of them which also might seem great:

“I’ll just keep writing no matter what and push myself through.”

“I’ll take breaks whenever I hit a wall.”

“I’ll listen to writing podcasts and read about craft while I write and make a point of trying to practice these tips as I write.”

Now, of all these ideas, you can appreciate there is only one that’s going to endure without a doubt: you have to sit down and write. Your story is not going to write itself. No matter what you do with your time or how you spend it, if you remove the act of writing, writing will not happen and you will not have a story to publish, and you will have no career as a writer to build.

But all the other ideas are not necessarily fundamental. Why? Because they don’t necessarily stick. They might be true for a time but will change with time, or they might not be true at all but you don’t realize they’re not true until you’ve tried them out for some time.

For example, I tried writing 500 words a day, every day. I found by about 3 weeks in that I felt so frustrated and aggravated, had a hard time connecting to my story, and even at times felt ill — as Bilbo Baggins put it, I was like “butter scraped over too much bread”. It seemed a great idea when I started! “I’m going to do the Hemingway method and write all the time, and build up my resolve as a writer!” But was it a great idea? No. It broke me and, fundamentally, went against my core “WHY” behind why I write in the first place.

And that’s the second important way to tell if an idea is truly great, even if it passes the test of time:

2) Great ideas align with our personal “WHY” and advance our core motivations.

Good ideas are clever little things. They like to disguise themselves as great ideas, so that they might feed on your precious, precious time, and they don’t always have to relate directly to our writing time.

For example, around the time I started meditation, I’d started Duolingo as well, because I heard that learning a second language helps with memory, and also began playing a game called Words with Friends to increase my vocabulary. However, I soon realized that, while the intentions of these projects were good, they simply weren’t good enough. Their long-term benefits did not outweigh the time I was siphoning into them — specifically, time I could spend in the evening unwinding and relaxing. Meditation, on the other hand, completely changed how I live, think, and work. Of the three new things, I only kept one because it not only passed the test of time, it also aligned with my personal “WHY”.

We all have a “WHY” that drives us, and the process of understanding that “WHY” is itself iterative and something we will refine continually as we do the work we do. It’s because of this simple reality that we don’t just suddenly start working and spend our time on nothing but great ideas. We are in a continual process not only of improving ourselves, but understanding ourselves.

And that’s the key to the final way to discover those great ideas:

3) Great ideas can only be discovered through the act of trying good ideas

If I didn’t try Duolingo, I would never have realized that it wasn’t giving me the benefit I thought it would. If I didn’t try meditation, I wouldn’t have realized that it was going to advance my effectiveness as not just a writer, but a person as well. If I didn’t try writing 500 words every single day, there’s a good chance I might be romanticizing the idea of writing a little bit every day, wondering if writing only on the weekend is the only way to write.

The important takeaway message from this post, if any, is not to say “no” to all good ideas because you think they won’t be good, but to say “no” to actions and opportunities you’ve had a chance to explore and determine that, while good, they just aren’t great.

Now your turn! What do you think makes ideas great? What are your thoughts on the use of good ideas? What writing habits or schedules do you follow to perfect your craft?

Don’t be discouraged if you find that you have a hard time defining good ideas and great ideas. Just do what’s best for you, what best helps you become a better writer, and most importantly, always learn new reasons to say “no” as you continually refine your understanding of why you do the work you do.

If you want to receive more of these kinds of inspiring posts on writing, editing, and productivity and wellness practices for writers, sign up for my weekly newsletter with Story Perfect Editing Services, here.

You can also listen to a more in-depth discussion on this topic in our week’s episode of the Write Right Podcast, here.

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The Slow Change of Seasons: Finding Your Next Fiction Project

The deepest, coldest part of winter may finally be over here in central Canada. We still have a least two months of winter before all of the snow is gone and spring finally takes hold.

It’s an interesting time of year. The days start to get longer, even if only minutely so, and the days start to get just a little bit warmer. There’s hope for the rejuvenation of spring, for the new life that the new season brings.

Yes, this happens every year, but every year is a little bit different. Every year is a new spin on the same old story, and I always find myself in December, when the snows capture us in their relentless hold, anticipating something new amidst something familiar.

This winter, barely half over, saw my city receive 150% of our annual snowfall in just five weeks. Our arctic temperatures caused my back door to freeze shut — which I had to thaw with a hair dryer every time I wanted to leave the house. On Boxing Day, my husband and I had to divide and conquer the shoveling it took for us to get out to the family breakfast we had planned for that morning, and that still took us 40 minutes. And yet, for all the adversity in the weather, as each day of late December and early January has passed by, I’m reminded how this winter, and this year ahead, is unique and something I’m living now that I will never live again.

As ever, I’m reminded of stories and the process of storytelling.

When you choose your next project, how do you know which is the right one to be telling? How do you know, even, that the story you’re writing now is the right story to be telling? You get up, go through your day and get your writing time in — or perhaps your week, if you batch your writing time to the weekends like I do; you push forward into the unique season that is your current story and those moments translate into prose.

Winter is winter. There’s snow. There’s cold. There’s space heaters and cozy indoor offices with a narrow window to look out onto the whiteness and stillness. It’s all the same, and yet, it’s not. It’s always different.

And so it is with stories. No matter what you’re writing, what I’m writing, there’s a good chance it’s been done before. But what’s not been done before is this: it’s never been done before by you.

You, the author, with your unique vision and your unique voice, are the only person on the planet capable of writing the story that is your story. Perhaps you’re feeling discouraged because you’re writing a YA fantasy romance and you feel like you’re an imitator. Or maybe you’re writing in a genre you’re so passionate about but you feel hopelessly inferior to your contemporaries — there’s just no topping that, so why bother writing the story you’re writing at all? Does any of this sound familiar?

If so, step back for a moment and ask yourself, archetype and genre and tropes aside, what is it that you bring that will make your story unique?

Allow me to share how I relate to this problem and that question. As many of you may know, I’m presently writing a dark epic fantasy novel called A Thousand Roads, a reworking of my third novel which I devoted most of my writing time to in 2013 and the majority of 2014. While I am disciplined to show up, weekend after weekend, to write 20 more pages of the second draft, and I’m more than halfway and am on track to finish by March, I’m met, more often than I like, with self-doubt.

These are just some of the Gollums that echo in my mind:

“This isn’t unique.”

“This is too generic.”

“The pitch falls flat, who wants another epic fantasy book anyway?”

“Story of an orphan who wants to find a home? What kind of book is that? Plain. Bland. Blah!”

“Just give up. Write something marketable. Epic fantasy isn’t for you!”

Seriously — these are very real thoughts I struggle with on the way through the writing season for me that is “A Thousand Roads draft 2”. But what I find, when I put aside those thoughts, particularly when I’m at my keyboard early on a Saturday or Sunday morning for my usual startup 3-4 hour writing session, is that regardless of those thoughts, I’m telling a story that I’m very passionate about. In fact, when I write and the storytelling muscles kick in and the story has a way of just coming to life I flip to the other, almost delusional “wow, this is great!” side of the spectrum. I’m here, right now, in this, and what’s coming out of me isn’t a “generic epic fantasy” or a work that’s going to fall flat because it’s been done before. It’s my unique vision, my passion, the fruit of painstaking hours spent learning more about what this story is and translating that for others to enjoy it.

The season will change. The next story will come (already I see glimmers of that spring that is the next novel waiting for me), but right now, like our cold Winnipeg winter, I’m here in A Thousand Roads and fully in it. Like when a snowfall comes and the choice is there to curse it and wish I had a blowtorch instead of a snow shovel, so do I have the choice to fret over my work and let all those doubts poison the results — or to go in eagerly with a positive outlook, and discover that extra layer that I would have missed otherwise.

Shoveling snow can be fun! It’s good for the muscles, a good way to remind you that you are alive, a chance to feel like you’re strong against whatever the environment will throw at you, a time to think about hot chocolate waiting for you after you go inside and put your wet mitts on the heater to dry. Likewise, really going in and giving your time to your story, to pour out your unique vision and understanding of the world into your prose, is a chance to showcase all your skills, techniques, and insights into the world as you’ve come to know it, to grow as a writer and a human being and a storyteller.

So, while there might be plenty of bestsellers on the shelf which you feel are telling your story better than you can, those books are not your story. Your story has your spin on it and is unique. The framing might be the same, but the dressing is different. And no one turns a book down because it reminds them of another (in fact, many people pick up a book because it reminds them of one they read where they wish they could get “more of that”). Often, when someone turns down a book, it’s because there is nothing fresh and unique that comes from it. It “falls flat” as the expression in the industry goes.

What is it that you bring to your fiction? What is your unique vision and unique touch? Even if you can’t put it in exact words, just thinking about this and being aware of it as a key part of what makes the difference between living fiction and stilted fiction is a sure way to navigate to books that will always matter.

No matter how much has been done before, stories will never get old. Ever.

If you want to receive more of these kinds of inspiring posts on writing, editing, and productivity and wellness practices for writers, sign up for my weekly newsletter with Story Perfect Editing Services, here.

You can also listen to a more in-depth discussion on this topic in our week’s episode of the Write Right Podcast, here.

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