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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sometimes I feel like an odd duck.

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

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

So I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Branding your self-published production as an Indie author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Branding: make a team and be authentic

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Active work vs. reactive work

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

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

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

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

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

Clearing the air: the real purpose of down time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A never ending onion of importance

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

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

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

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


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How to Invent a Fantasy/Sci-Fi Race: with guest author Randy Ellefson

Today I’d like to welcome Randy Ellefson, author world-building reference guide Creating Life, to speak to us on the art of creating new species for our Fantasy or Sci-Fi works. Take it away, Randy!

Creating a fantasy or SF species/race is one of the more rewarding, but challenging, aspects of world building. The competition from established races like elves is fierce, especially if we use those alongside our creation; comparisons are inevitable. In SF, we may have no choice but to invent races or make the humans go it alone, because there aren’t any standard ones we can use, except for little green aliens. So how do we go about inventing something competitive?

Let’s look at a few often overlooked points to challenge ourselves and our audience’s expectations.

Species vs. Races

There are different ways to go about creating races, including deciding if we’ll call them a race or species. A hierarchy using both terms is recommended for clarity. Using standard fantasy races as an example, consider this structure:

  • Elves
    • Wood elves
    • Dark elves (drow)
  • Dwarves
    • Mountain dwarves
    • Hill Dwarves
  • Humans
    • White
    • Black

Doing this, we can call elves, dwarves and humans species, the implication being that their DNA is different and therefore causes predictable results, such as dwarves only giving birth to dwarves. You may have noticed that we have dwarves (little people) on Earth, but they are still human, which means a “dwarf” can give birth to a “human” and vice versa. But is that what we expect in fantasy? No. So on Earth, dwarves and humans might be considered races (shared DNA), while on a fantasy world they’d be considered species (different DNA).

Looking at the example above, if elves are a different species from others, we’d then say that wood elves and drow are races of elves, etc. This makes more sense than calling both wood elves and drow “races” and also saying elves and humans are races. Elves and humans are more substantially different from each other than wood elves are from drow. Such a hierarchy provides better clarity than just calling everything races.

Another advantage is that we can have an evil race (drow) and a good race (wood elves) of a species. We may decide they look similar and can impersonate each other, with some degree of success. This adds intrigue to stories and less certainty for our world’s inhabitants; with whom are they really dealing?


The previous point raises another idea. Sometimes we have an “evil” race out in the woods. They aren’t allowed in society with the “good” races due to the traits that make them evil: violence, unlawfulness, and general creepiness. This has advantages in making them like a monster and just a threat for travelers, but this is limiting. Might it not be better to have them in cities, too?

Having a race of a species is one way to achieve this. Imagine we have a troll species. Then we create mountain trolls and hill trolls as races. Perhaps the former are the evil ones because they seldom see other species and are paranoid. The hill trolls can be less obnoxious and possibly even reasonable. Maybe they’re allowed in town and even become part of a military, whereas the mountain trolls are more uniformly evil and shunned. If the two species look largely the same, they can impersonate each other, causing havoc. That hill troll in the army might be a mountain troll spy.

This sort of thing lets us have our cake and eat it, too: a shunned “evil” species with a “good” race of them. Or we can do the opposite: a good species like elves with a corrupted race of them like drow. We can do this with public domain ones or those we invent.


Human authors write for a human audience. Maybe that explains why, in fantasy, it often seems like settlements are largely built by humans for humans, with only a small percentage of other races. Similarly, the other races are often depicted as being holed up in mountains, forests, or hills, and mostly shunning humanity. This has never struck me as realistic. Authors often justify this by giving every species a bad attitude about humans, and while this is fine, it’s an unnecessary cliché. Why are humans the only ones who will live just about anywhere? Shouldn’t there be more competition and integration, at least on some of the worlds we create?

When inventing a species, consider having them be much like us in their willingness to live in many places. Rather than this diluting prejudices, it can strengthen them and cause even more conflict. There can still be neighborhoods where a race typically lives. Depending on that race’s values, the area might be crime ridden or relatively free of such concerns. This helps us create dynamic settlements. Imagine government ruled by opposing mindsets and concerns. One settlement might have fairly integrated species while another is dominated by one that oppresses minorities (which could be the humans).

A village that humans built near an elven forest might have only a few elves there, but as it grows to a town and later city, isn’t it likely that elves would be a significant if minority population? Wouldn’t their ideas become incorporated into the settlement’s design as it grows?


If you’d like to learn more about inventing species/races, you can join my free newsletter at and receive world building tips and free templates for creating gods, species, animals, plants, monsters, undead, and more. Additional templates will be emailed to subscribers each time a new book in The Art of World Building series is released, whether you’ve bought the books or not.

Vol 1 - BiggerCREATING LIFE (THE ART OF WORLD BUILDING, #1) is a detailed how-to guide on inventing the heart of every imaginary world – life. With chapters on creating gods, species/races, plants, animals, monsters, heroes, villains, and even undead, it draws on the author’s quarter century of world building experience. Pointed questions, and an examination of answers and their repercussions, will help readers decide on goals, how to reach them, and whether they are even worth pursuing. Always practical, Creating Life will quickly improve the skills of beginners and experts alike, making a time consuming project more fun, easier, faster, and skillfully done.

Unlike other world building guides, the series discusses how to use your inventions in stories while balancing narrative flow with the need for explaining your world. Tailored examples illustrate this. Extensive, culled research on life forms is provided to classify and understand options without overwhelming world builders with extraneous details.

Storytellers, game designers, gamers, and hobbyists will benefit from seven free templates that can be downloaded and reused. CREATING LIFE will help your setting stand out from the multitude of fantasy and science fiction worlds audiences see. THE ART OF WORLD BUILDING is the only multi-volume series of its kind and is three times the length, depth, and breadth of other guides.



Creating Life is available now at all major retailers. Creating Places, and Cultures and Beyond, are forthcoming.

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The editorial cycle: proofreading, copyediting, and understanding the different kinds of editing steps

In my first installment for How to Edit A Book I covered what proofreading is and how it works. I also mentioned how proofreading is often confused with copyediting.

Copyediting (also called copy editing or copy-editing, or ce for short) is the second last editing step in the process of book production. The editor who handles copyediting is called a copyeditor. After copyedits are complete, a book will be formatted for publication (the Advanced Review Copy), then it is sent to the proofreader for proofreading.

I will talk specifically about copyediting, what it is, and how it works, much like I did in for proofreading, however, before I can do that I should talk about where copyediting fits in the larger editorial cycle so that its objectives make sense.

The editorial cycle is the series of steps that occur from the time a manuscript first arrives (either to publisher or, for self-publishing authors, their editing team), to the time the final book is published and available to readers. It can be broken down as follows:

Stage 1

  • Editor 1 receives the manuscript and reads it, a process called an editorial assessment
  • Editor 1 delivers an editorial letter to the author, outlining all editorial issues (this is sometimes called a structural edit)
  • The author performs rewrites based on the editorial letter, usually on the level of adding/deleting/changing scenes, character, plot, sometimes even voice
  • The author delivers the manuscript back to editor 1
  • Editor 1 then goes over the manuscript again, this time marking the actual manuscript. Because we live in the digital age, this will usually consist of comment bubbles in Word, instructing on further rewrites (this is sometimes called a developmental edit)
  • Editor 1 sends the manuscript back to the author and the author performs rewrites based on the specific comments, usually on the level of adding/deleting/changing specific parts of scenes, finer nuances of character or dialogue or description or narration
  • The author delivers the manuscript back to editor 1 and then the editor may go through a second, third, fourth, etc. pass on outstanding areas where the rewrites still are not sufficient (but each pass / rewrite becomes quicker since it only addresses outstanding issues)

Stage 2

  • Editor 1 ensures all markings or comments left behind in track changes are removed and delivers the cleaned manuscript to a second editor (called the copyeditor)
  • The copyeditor performs a line-by-line copyedit. A copyedit involves fewer comment bubbles and more direct markings to the manuscript (achieved by keeping track changes on in Word), and is focused on grammar, punctuation, spelling, formatting, clarity, and logic
  • The copyeditor sends the manuscript back to the author and the author approves the corrections and/or supplies rewrites to sentences as needed. Sometimes they will have to rewrite sections to address outstanding logical errors
  • The author delivers the manuscript back to the copyeditor and, as with the end of stage 1, the copyeditor may follow up on the author’s rewrites, and the author address outstanding issues, until both parties are satisfied

Stage 3

  • The publisher (or author, if self-publishing) formats the manuscript into final ebook form (the ARC, or Advanced Review Copy). If an author / publisher is publishing in print format through a printing house (not the same as CreateSpace or other print on demand services) then the manuscript will also be typeset to format it for publishing. Both formatting for ebook and typesetting can introduce new errors; note that formatting for print book even on CreateSpace, IngramSpark or other POD services involves file manipulation and copy and paste maneuvers that can also introduce errors to the print book that were not in the eboook format
  • The publisher (or author) delivers the ARC to a third editor (distinct from the first two) for a proofread
  • The proofreader goes over the manuscript and checks for outstanding errors and makes note of them, then passes it back to the author/publisher for correction
  • Depending on the exact publication formats and launch steps (i.e. some author/publishers opt for a soft launch of ebook first, followed by a print book sometime later), the same proofreader, or a separate one, might go over the ARC of the final print copy before it is published. The point here: it’s never safe to assume because an ebook file has been proofread that there will be no errors in the printed book since they are created by different processes!

Some distinctions: line editing, substantive editing, content editing, and more

You might have heard the term line edit or content edit, or substantive edit. Depending on the publishing house, or the editor / editing team that’s using these terms, they can mean different things, so I’m going to clarify them because they don’t quite fit on the list above.

Line edit

One common misconception about copyediting is that it’s about cutting word count down. This is not true. This is the function of line editing, which is not the same as copyediting.

Line editing is all about cutting down words, simplifying, and laying it on heavy. Line by line (where its name comes from), the line editor goes over a manuscript and cuts and suggests alternatives. Usually, an author does their own line edit as a step before sending it to their publisher, or before starting the editing cycle. (Commonly, this is part of the industry formula second draft equals first draft minus 10%.)

Line editing has often become synonymous with copyediting because many smaller publishing houses refer to the “second step”, which covers copyediting and proofreading together as “line editing”. Usually, for smaller publishers, or authors who are working on a budget, if the process is reduced from three editors to two, the first editor will handle stage 1, but a second one, sometimes called the line editor, will handle stages 2 and 3. (That said, usually these publishers and/or authors will cover the proofreading step by having someone else go over the ARC before publication.)

Content or substantive editing

Content and substantive editing can refer to a broad spectrum of editing, and, like line editing, have been popularized to substitute as the structural / developmental steps of editing for smaller publishers, especially when both steps are combined into one revision.

Simply put, content and substance imply story and storytelling beyond simply grammar, spelling, etc. If an author asks for a content edit or a substantive, they are asking you to consider plot, character, scene and the writing itself and make suggestions, whereas if they ask for a line edit or copyedit, they are wanting the story to be left alone but to fine-tune the words.

However, I always recommend you clarify and use the correct terms since it’s important author expectations will be met in the work you do for them. Find out where in the editorial process you fit, what work has been done before you, what work will be done after, to make sure the work you’re doing is going to contribute to the production of a final book that is editorially sound.

The downward progression of the editorial cycle: avoiding circular revision

The crucial principle to understand in the progression of the editorial cycle is that it progresses downward from global to specific. Both editors and authors must follow this or else they will run into the problem of circular revision.

Circular revision is exactly what it sounds like, and if you’re a writer you will no doubt relate to this in your own revision process sans editor:

You make changes, then you have to change something later, but you then get to that spot and make more changes to make it even better, but that means changing something else, and guess what? Now that you’re there you have a BIG epiphany and it’s time to write a new beginning. But that means a new ending now, because that new beginning is great. Okay wait a minute, third person past tense? No, that just doesn’t work. Let’s go for first person, that will make it better. And on and on your go, and every time your friends ask if your book is done yet, you tell them to $&#@ off.

That’s frustrating to any writer personally, but it’s twice as frustrating to a publisher / editing team, and hence why we use the downward progression principle. The editorial letter deals with the broadest issues, and during the revision that follows, the author has the most freedom. Scenes can go. New ones can crop up. Characters can get the axe, and darlings will be slaughtered. Next, the developmental edit will zero in a bit more. At this point, unless instructed (or given approval in discussion during revision) the author will not be writing new scenes or changing plot or character. Now is the time to tighten the scenes up, fine-tune dialogue, etc., etc. Next, the copyedit will put everything through the laundry press. The author will labor over every sentence and word where it’s called into question. At this point, unless there is a logical problem, there is no rewriting scenes and changing the manuscript. Why? Because then the copyeditor has to copyedit that, and the process is going to become circular. Last, the proofread is the final polish. When the author is going over that, even deciding they don’t like a phrase or want to reword a sentence is a bad idea, and in fact most publishers forbid it, only allowing “erratum that are strictly errors”.

Many authors cringe at this and for an editor it can be difficult to deal with. It’s important before the editing cycle begins that authors are sure they are ready to go, following the axiom of Leonardo da Vinci in trusting that they have chosen the correct time to abandon that particular work of art and declare it finished. The author then enters a trusting relationship with the editors who will move their manuscript through the editing cycle, and, though they will go above and beyond and knock their revisions out of the park, it will always be according to instruction, or, where the path may deviate, discussion and collaboration.

The editing cycle is very much a team partnership, and the author is the hub on that wheel that turns manuscript into polished book.

Stay tuned for the next installment! I’ll be covering each of the editing steps, some in more than one article, and other fallout topics as they arise. If you have any questions of suggestion, please let me know!

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