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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s quite simple in how it works:

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

The spreadsheet does the rest:

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the reward system works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • A “NaNo push”
  • Level handicap

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

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

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

Do you want to join the Awesome Daily Writers Spreadsheet?

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

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

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

You can also join us on Twitter at #AwesomeDailyWriters.

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

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

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How to Learn Something New Every Day in Just 5 Minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you’re curious about my courses in particular:

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

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

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

Here are a few other courses I highly recommend:

For writers looking to improve their craft:

For creatives seeking better goals, clarity, and productivity:

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

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

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

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

Figure out YOUR ideal word count

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

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

Plotter word counts

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

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

The creative process

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

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

Counting words and/or counting minutes

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

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

So remember…

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

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

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

Enjoy the ride. Your ride.

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How to make magic believable — guest author Brian Declan

When I world-build, I break my world into categories. Most of these are practical: people, culture, society, organizations, history. But magic has its own category. It is a whole universe unto itself, as important in generating story as drawing maps.

So I thought today to add some perspective on how magic works I’d invite author Brian Declan onto the blog to talk about it. If you enjoy his exploration on how to approach magic in fantasy, then be sure to also check out his book Hidden in the Reeds. (More on that at the end of the post.)

Take it away Brian! 

authBrian Declan is the author of the Hidden in the Reeds Series and part time Game Developer. Born and raised in New Jersey, he has traveled for much of his life and currently resides outside of Washington, DC with his wife, Olya. Both are long time lovers of fantasy in all its forms; novels, TV, movies and video games.

How to Make Magic Believable

What is a fantasy world without a little bit of magic? Well, frankly it’s just a world. No matter how detailed or grand the fictional world is, it needs a bit of magic to make it fantastic. But add too much magic and you will send your world to the trash bin of unbelievability in a heartbeat. It’s a delicate balance that we fantasy writers need to find, but luckily we have a few advantages.


First and foremost is that we can steal. I mean leverage what others have created. Toss out the word Dragon or Vampire and unless your readers have been under a rock for the past two thousand years, they get a powerful image of a fire-breathing monster of doom or a pale blood-sucking dude with a funky accent. No legwork required, just use the word and you’re good to go. 

The second advantage is that we are creative people. This is what we do. Give us lemons and we give you dancing unicorns with bleach blond hair. Creating some new magical creature or twisting the laws of physics is the bread and butter of fantasy writing. 


So how do you go about adding your own magic to the world without unbelievability swallowing it up? 

In all the time I’ve spent analyzing, reading, writing and creating fictional worlds, I have found two methods that work best to give your world a touch of magic without letting it turn into Frankenstein’s monster. The first and what I consider to be the easier of the two methods I call the Mystery Method. 

1. The Mystery Method

The Mystery Method is where you keep the use of magic very small and somewhat mysterious. This tends to work well in coming of age stories where the protagonist is unaware of magic’s existence and learns about it very slowly over the course of the story. The major benefits of using this method are that you never need to explain why or how magic works. It just exists in some small part of the world and that’s it. By never explaining it, you create an air of mystery that entices your readers to keep reading, because like the protagonist they want to know more. 

The key, however, is that magic must be used sparingly. If every scene has some element of the magical world throwing things out of whack or coming in to save the day, then it stops being special and the reader will either start to wonder why nobody noticed it before or worse, stop being entertained. As magic plays a larger role within the world, the reader has a need to understand more about it. If they don’t understand what is happening the story becomes too unbelievable.

In other words magic cannot be used to cover up poor storytelling. Keep it small and mysterious. If the story can’t stand on it’s own, magic is not going fix things. A great example of using the Mystery Method well is George R. R. Martin, author of A Game of Thrones. In A Game of Thrones there are only a handful of magical elements. You are amazed by them and Martin never has to explain how any of it works. Dragons exist. Boom, done. White Walkers, okay, that’s just a frozen zombie. Bran is the three-eyed raven—doesn’t look like a raven, and where’s the third eye? No explanation, but whatever, it’s still pretty cool.

Now the Mystery Method is great for authors like George R. R. Martin, but what if you’re like me and love magic too much to push it to the background? Then you need to use a more systematic approach, what I inventively call the System Method. 

2. The System Method

The System Method requires a little extra forethought and creativity. You need to create rules and limits for how the magic system works. Then, introduce this to the reader. Often the latter part of this is done by having a master mage teach a gifted apprentice how to use their abilities or something similar. Kinda boring, but effective. Regardless, I’m not going to discuss how you introduce it to the reader in this post. It’s a topic in itself.

Okay, so back to the meat, rules and limits. Just like saying your character has a six shot revolver or a rusty old knife you need to restrict their ability to solve their problems. After that sixth shot they’re in trouble. The same goes for using magic. What is the cost? Do they pass out after the sixth fireball or do they lose their powers all together? Doesn’t matter what, you just need something.

What happens to a guy who comes back from the dead? Is he plagued by demons and ghosts? Does he lose his sense of smell or touch or hearing? Is he immortal now or did he use up his one get out of jail card? I think you get my point.

It doesn’t matter what the rules and limits are, you just need to have them and they need to be cohesive. What I mean by cohesive is that they apply universally to everything and everyone, like gravity. You can’t say that people only come back from the dead once and then later break that rule and make someone come back as much as they want. There must be consequences for breaking the rules. 

Some of the best examples of rules and limits come from video games, where a character has a set amount of magic points. Once they use that amount they need to rest and recharge. One of my favorite examples of an inventive magic system was the game Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. You can rewind time, but only about ten seconds, and only as long as you still have “sand juice”.

Anyway, at the end of the game the Prince rewinds the entire adventure (breaks the rules) and is hunted by The Guardian of Time for screwing with time too much.

Take Away

A few final notes:

1) Magic is not a replacement for storytelling. Start with solid storytelling and flavor it with magic.

2) You don’t need to choose between the Mystery Method or System Method. Just understand how they work. Both can be used for different aspects of your world. It may get a little complex, but whatever floats your boat.

3) If you want to throw everything I’ve said out the window go for it, but I suggest you turn the story into a comedy because it’s the only way I’ve seen this work.

Best of luck in your next story.

Let me know what you think about the two methods in the comments. Which do you prefer?

Be sure to check our Brian’ novel, Hidden in the Reeds!


Pride. Joy. Pain. Sorrow. Just weapons. Weapons that can burn a man to cinders, or inspire him to greatness and beyond. For decades Frederick Lockland has wielded them against those who threaten the realm. Pride killed a tyrant. Sorrow ended a war. Passion united a fractured nation. When the ancient city of Reed falls, he must draw on his most powerful weapon.


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Transcription: learning directly from the storytelling masters by typing up their words yourself

You’ve likely heard the advice that in order to become a better writer, you should learn directly from other master storytellers by typing up their work. After all, what do most painters do when they are start out? They travel to the museums where they can find the works of their most beloved artists, then make studies to learn by imitation.

Likewise, if you’re taking an MFA in literature or something writing-related, you’ll learn directly through deeper analysis of selected literary masterpieces. You’ll pore over one particular book and copy out quotes and passages for your analysis. You’ll study a book’s composition, and an author’s technique and style by going much further than just reading a book cover to cover.

If you’re a writer, how much more reason to devote some time to deeper analysis. I already wrote about how to create a good reading curriculum as a writer, and in that post I alluded to one additional habit that goes deeper than reading and learning. Namely: transcribing books I admire.

I’m not going to focus on why you should transcribe, because like with the topic of why you should read as a writer, there are numerous articles already about this. Instead, I want to explore how I incorporated transcription into my routine and share some tips.

Establishing a maintainable practice

I’m a firm believer in consistency. I write every day for a minimum of 2 hours. There are some exceptions to this—like flexing a bit on weekends and the reality that some days there just are those kinds of day—but overall when tracking my habit in the spreadsheet I share with a few other writers, I find I am consistent writing every day for usually 2+ hours.

I don’t necessarily sit down and write for 2+ hours straight. I use a lap timer that counts up and I push myself, usually in 2-3 solid sessions of 30-60 minutes that I fit in around my work schedule. I always finish the day to the nearest 10 minute interval. So for example, if I’m at 2:07 and I feel like quitting here, I’ll push for an extra 3 minutes to make an even 2 hours 10 minutes for the day. I never leave off where I feel done. I leave everything in limbo, sometimes a sentence half-complete with a note for the next day. This is because I know I’ll be picking it up fresh tomorrow and I always like having something simple to do to get me started.

So with this all in mind, it made sense for me to simply add transcribing as sometime to do after I finish writing. Now, every Monday-Friday when I’ve decided I’m done writing for the day (usually by about 6PM), I transcribe.

You don’t have to do this of course. But I do recommend you work in your transcription time around your writing time because you’re using your writing muscles. Some writers transcribe before they write, as a warm-up exercise. I like to use it as a cool-down. It certainly is relaxing and I find that, if I had the time, I could type a lot more than my daily goal of 1 print page.

Set a reasonable goal

I type up 1 print page from the works I am focusing on (more about these below). This is usually about 30-35 lines of text and takes me 4-8 minutes. When I was trying to get this started, just to keep up the habit I tried transcribing just until the clock hit the next 5-minute interval. I did this at the end of my work day. So for example if I was closing up at 6:07, I would open Evernote (where I keep my transcription files) and transcribe until 6:10. In the beginning this helped me see that 1) I could keep this habit up and 2) that I love it and want to keep this as a core of my writing practice. So it’s become part of my core writing routine Monday-Friday, as fundamental as my 2+ hours of writing every day.

It’s tempting to really get carried away with this. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If you sit down and transcribe a whole chapter of a particular book on a whim, all in one sitting, you’ll get something deeper from this level of immersion than you will if you only do a little to warm up / cool down.

If you want to get something out of regular transcription I recommend setting goals that are attainable. You can learn a lot just by typing a few sentences of another author’s work. And often, on a day-to-day basis, it’s the little lessons that stick. And if they stick every day, they add up to a lot over time.

Techniques to make transcription effective

You don’t just want to type out words without interacting with them. My goal is to always notice something about what I’m typing for the day, ideally on the sentence-by-sentence level.

You also don’t have to make notes and break sentences apart and analyze them. You can do this, but this is no longer transcription. I will stop occasionally to think when something really strikes me, but I keep myself going; stand too far back from the waterfall and you don’t get wet enough.

Your goal with transcription is to internalize another author’s voice and techniques—and their whole slant on storytelling—and the best way to do this is to move at the same speed you as a writer would type a story.

What I’ve found helpful is reading each sentence aloud first, then typing that up from memory. If the sentence is long, I’ll break it up, but usually I try to say it all and process it, then I type it up. Then after I’m done I check back on the sentence and correct anything I was wrong about.

This step is very important—it helps me see how my instincts as a writer / understanding of sentence flow differs, and it’s here at this step that I start to really notice what a given author is doing. For instance, I have typed up the first few pages of A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and I found that almost consistently I interchanged adjectives when typing up a longer, compound sentence. She uses lots of adjectives, but she uses them uniquely and concisely. I learned from this exercise that I tend to throw adjectives at the wall without thinking and took that insight to all subsequent writing sessions (bad habits die hard, of course, but even so there have been many moments I was rewriting a sentence in A Thousand Roads where I caught myself red-handed and asked, “What would Margaret do here?”).

There is also an automatic awareness that comes, a sort of meta-narrative that I engage in from the slower pace and the act of writing a story up myself following, word-by-word, how another author wrote it. I am nearly 2 chapters into transcribing A Game of Thrones and find with this work in particular, I continue to learn things from Mr. Martin about how to deftly weave story with economy in every phrase. I am 2 chapters into Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and continue to unearth insights on narrative and stylistic choices that hold the reader effortlessly in a vivid, real-time narrative present.

But it’s always the act of speaking aloud, processing, writing from memory, then checking that brings these two aspects of learning to the fore.

Picking your major works

Just like you pick a major and minor in university degree, or a sub-field in your Master’s, when transcribing it’s important to decide which works you want to dig into the most.

When I determined my transcription plan, I wanted to have a balance of particular books that I would go very deep into and books that I would only type a page here or there of. And, like a good university degree, I wanted the freedom to jump deeper into something if I explore it and realize it’s much more interesting up close than at a distance.

In order to do this, I determined my focus. I picked 4 books I wanted to focus the most on (they are the top 4 fantasy books that I love and want to write like the most) and assigned them a day, Monday-Thursday. This way, until I feel I’m done with them, I will focus on the given book for Monday when each Monday comes, the given book for Tuesday when Tuesday comes, etc.

I left Friday open as a wild card. This means every Friday, I can do anything. I’ve been using this to work through my bigger list of books I want to read or am interested in (or just aware of). This means lots of flexibility: the first page of something from 52 new authors across scattered genres at one extreme, and free space to focus on a few “minor” works, i.e. books I might come back to repeatedly now and then, at the other.

However you put your plan together, it will be good to decide on what particular books you want to go deep on, and how you’ll allot your time, and what books you want to just sample a bit. I’ve found it helpful to start a list that I can break down by categories as I add to and organize it. Now whenever someone tells me about a new book, instead of thinking, “Oh, I have to add that to my to-read list,” I think, “Great, I’ll add that to my wild card transcription list!”

Learning from everything

I was worried initially about picking up bad habits from doing this. Robert Jordan, for example, has a tendency to write at pedestrian pace and to over-inflate his narration, particularly in the first chapter of The Eye of the World. But guess what? I noticed this. I didn’t just internalize this style and say, “Hey, Robert Jordan writes like this and so I need to copy this style.” Instead, I found that being aware as I transcribe—because I’m allowing space and process by speaking aloud, typing from memory, then checking accuracy—makes me also a bit more critical. Perhaps its my revision brain as a writer kicking in: that instinct to check what I just wrote and see if it’s on track.

That’s really the big caveat in this whole thing. If you can transcribe while not holding any author on a pedestal, then you’ll get lots out of this process. The goal is really no different than with reading: even reading bad books will teach you as much as good ones, because you’ll see exactly how not to write.

The beautiful thing about transcription, though, is you’re even more aware of holes or weaknesses in the writing of top-selling authors. “Wait a minute, this is an info-dump.” Or even subtler things like double-references or unclear scene-setting (for example, I caught something in the part of the Bran chapter in A Game of Thrones when Bran first treads through the snow to Robb and Jon and sees Robb holding a bundle—the pups—then later when he’s finished reacting to the sight of the dead direwolf, he sees Robb holding a bundle “for the first time”). I find myself doubtful when I spot flaws in the writing of someone esteemed, but nonetheless with transcription, my goal is to hold no one on a pedestal, because the truth is, no matter how good we are as writers, we can always be better, and published, iconic books, though they might have been the best of the best when published, were pioneers of the time; and times are always changing. We can always do better, which is why transcription is for me a true way to stand on the shoulders of giants.

There really is no place you can go wrong with what you choose. Obviously, it makes sense to choose wisely, as goes with reading. But the beautiful thing about transcription is, if you pick a book that you really regret, you only are going to type one page of it. And you will learn so much in the process—then on you go to the next stop.

Your turn! There are many ways to transcribe, so I’d love to hear from you if you have a different method.

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An epic space opera has arrived — featuring debut novelist Cara Weston

As many of you will recall, I first got my feet wet on the Inkshares platform. While there, I had the opportunity to not only share my work in progress, but also connect with numerous authors who were—like me—trying to fund their books for publication.

A small group of us became leaders of a vibrant author community that has continued on past those days when Inkshares was the place to be. One of them, A.C. Weston, you might recall. She is the talented artist who drew this Blood Dawn dragon image, and is overall a brilliant coordinator (especially seen in the review-a-thon she orchestrated in December 2015). She also is an author and like me chose an Indie path to publish her book.

And now…her debut day has come!

If you like action-packed space opera, daring spaceship chase-and-rescue, and deep character relationships, then you’ll love She Is the End. Get ready for a ride that doesn’t stop—but also, it’s book 1 of an epic space opera trilogy called the Vada Chronicles, so you can look forward to more to come. It even has space witches!

I’m excited to have A.C. Weston on the blog today to talk about She Is the End and share some advice on the publication process. She Is the End is now available on all major ebook platforms, and it’s available as a paperback. (Find out more at the end of this post.)



A.C. Weston wrote her first book at the age of seven and hasn’t stopped writing since. She spends her days supporting the public health of Minnesotans as a data coordinator at the MN Department of Health and her evenings writing and doing freelance art. She is very introverted, which is not the same as being shy. She lives in St. Paul, MN with three brilliant little monster children and one beloved husband.


JOHN: What important message do you feel your readers will take away from the story of Relai and her daring space adventures?

AC: First and foremost, I’m hoping people will fall in love with the characters, and be willing to follow them through the next two books! I also hope they’ll think about the different perspectives portrayed, and how everyone has a point but everyone is also wrong in some way. I’m aiming to produce optimistic science fiction that acknowledges and tackles the complexities of intersecting social issues without offering simple answers.

JOHN: Do you think there are some current world issues that we might appreciate better in the pages of She Is the End?

AC: I was working through the emotional and social ramifications of constant reports of police brutality against people of color, as well as a personal experience witnessing police brutality against a child I know, while I was writing this book. I think those issues definitely come out in the dialogue in the book, and I’m hoping that I did the complexity of the issue justice. I’m also aiming for an anticolonialist message, but that will become more clear over the next two books. My book is feminist but not specifically only about issues commonly discussed in feminist circles; both men and women in my book reflect on times they’ve been harassed or assaulted, and I hope I’ve done those experiences and the related emotions justice.

JOHN: How do you relate to Relai and your other characters? We all hear how writers often pour aspects of themselves into their characters. What is your inspiration behind each one?

AC: Part of me is in each of these characters. Relai has many of my mental health struggles, and she begins working through the realization of her own privilege just like I have been doing (although I’m not a princess!); Tannor has trouble with faith and doubt, just like I do; Ky has to fight not to simply believe that life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, just like I do; Goren was raised to blindly believe a bunch of nonsense about politics and culture and finally starts to question them, like I did when I went to college; and Milo has to figure out how to deal with incandescent rage at the injustice of the world, which I strongly relate to. Tom Wood lives in a house in Uptown, Minneapolis that I lived in right after college, and he has my affinity for biking and tattoos. Each characters is truly their own self, though, and none of them are mostly me.

JOHN: You’ve chosen an Indie path to publication (and I love this, having proudly chosen this path myself). What advice would you give to other authors who want to go Indie with their books?

AC: Do a lot of research before you make any final decisions! There are a lot of options and I think everyone should be able to find a path that works for them. I wish I’d gone through this Indie process with a smaller, less important project first, because this book means so much to me that every decision felt absolutely monumental. I know some people would rather submit their finished manuscripts to agents and trad publishers and just cycle through the process of silence and rejection, over and over again, in hopes of finally being in that tiny percentage chosen for publication, but that’s just not for me. I’d rather put my book out and have a few people read it, than wait for years and years with no one reading it just for the chance to have it released by a publisher that probably won’t be willing to put money into marketing it, anyway. Many excellent books are rejected by agents and publishers every day, and I’ve read many lukewarm trad-published books. I’m inspired by the ability to do it myself, even though it has taken a very long time and cost me time and money upfront. But that’s just me! To each their own!

JOHN: What was the most challenging part of writing, editing, and publishing She Is the End? What about the most rewarding?

All of it was challenging. I think the murky middle, when I wasn’t sure how the book would ever possibly come together into a solid, coherent, GOOD story was the hardest part. The final stages of revision were hard because I kept really thinking I was done, and then  I’d notice more mistakes or inconsistencies. It is REALLY hard to get a manuscript perfect! Mine is still not perfect, to be honest.

The most rewarding part is getting a positive response from readers. People have said they’re obsessed with my characters, which is nice because now I’m not alone! And a few readers are already demanding the sequel, which is very motivating for me. I have 16K already written for it, and I’m hoping to release the sequel in two years.

6) We met on Inkshares way back in the day—and here we are now, spreading our wings. What is the most valuable thing about choosing to debut your talent on the Inkshares platform?

I really like the clarity and control of knowing what stage my manuscript is at, being able to find my own editor and work directly with them, set my own pricing, and know how many copies I’m selling on various platforms. I have a long-term plan for how I’ll release and promote my series, and I feel confident in that plan. I’ll never regret going through Inkshares because of the incredible people I met, and I’m happy with my plan for the future.

Be sure to check out She is the End, by A.C. Weston!

front-cover-1-18.jpgRelai Aydor, the tyrant queen of the galaxy, has been hiding and sunning on the resort planet of Earth while her home planet, Arden, crackles in the grip of her distant rule. Milo Hemm escaped that hell and tracked her down to bring her to justice with help from a man with too many secrets and zero morals. A pair of Ardenian soldiers is the only thing standing in his way… until they realize she hasn’t been ruling at all.

And now everyone wants them all dead.

Space witches, violent rebels, hired assassins, government suits, and a conspiracy theorist podcaster are the least of their problems—they need to get off this planet to reclaim Relai’s throne. With our galaxy on the line, they’d better learn to take care of each other… before they tear themselves apart.

A thrilling blend of deep character relationships and breathtaking action, She Is the End begins an epic trilogy about trust and doubt, justice and mercy, friendship and love.

Find out more about it by visiting where you can check out character sketches, a preview of episodes I-III, and purchase a copy of the book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo

Connect with A.C. Weston:

Facebook: A.C. Weston

Phone: (651) 271-9583
Twitter and Instagram: @acwestonwrites

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