Being A Prolific Writer, Part 3: with M.S. Wordsmith

March is here, and that means part 3 of the Prolific Writer blog series by my friend and colleague, M.S. Wordsmith! If you haven’t read her first two posts, read the first here, and read the second here.

IMG_3562 (2)In my latest guest post, I brought up the issue of making a living, and the importance of figuring out what we need to live comfortably enough. Oftentimes, we get so caught up in the success stories circulating within the indie community about authors making 6 figures that we forget to take a long, deep breath and check in with ourselves and what we actually need. Chances are, we need much less than those 6 figures, and we sure don’t need them in the next 5 or even 10 years. Taking a moment to reflect on this allows us to step back and enjoy our own private ride again.

Today, I will share yet another question I ask when trying to figure out what my clients want from their writing— What is a realistic goal for YOU for NOW?

Figure out your SHORT-TERM goals as well as  your LONG-TERM goals

Being clear on your personal goal is great. Knowing what you want to achieve in the next 5 to 10 years will provide much-needed focus and enable you to steer your determination in the right direction. But what if that personal goal is a long way down the road from where you are now? How do you get to that point without constantly being frustrated that you aren’t there yet?

While it’s excellent to have clear goals in mind for the future, these goals are often for the long-term, and not the short-term. Yet, most of us find ourselves frustrated by the fact that where we ARE is not where we want to BE. And being frustrated about our own process tends to block our creativity and leads to less than constructive behaviour such as comparing our own creative process to that of others.

What goal is realistic for YOU for NOW?

Each and every one of us lives a different life, so it’s more than normal that we’re all at another place in our lives at any given moment. And that’s OK. Not only do we walk different paths, the distance we still have to travel differs as well. As such, there’s truly no need to compare yourself to others, not even to those with similar aims. Comparisonitis happens to the best of us, if not all of us—Joanna Penn, whose podcast The Creative Penn I highly recommend to any author, speaks of comparisonitis often and discusses it in her book The Successful Author Mindset: A Handbook for Surviving the Writer’s Journey—but that doesn’t mean we should continue comparing our own process to that of others.

With National Novel Writing Month becoming bigger and bigger each year, I can only imagine how many writers are suffering from comparisonitis throughout the process. Not only can you compare your word count to those of others each and every single day, many writers feel as if they’ve failed when they haven’t been able to reach the magical word count that is 50,000 words by the first of December.

It’s not about reaching 50k words

In June, 2016, Joanna Penn interviewed Grant Faulkner, the Executive Director of NaNoWriMo, for her The Creative Penn podcast. (Click here to listen.) I still remember the episode because, where I was afraid it would—like so many other podcasts, articles, books, and magazines out there—be on becoming much more prolific than you are right now, that reaching those 50,000 words within a month is what defines you as a writer, what I got from the interview was that NaNoWriMo is not necessarily about reaching 50,000 words in a month.

That is what you officially sign up for, but NaNoWriMo shouldn’t be a stick you can beat yourself over and over again with (which I see happening around me more often than not). Instead, one should see it as a tool to do more than you would usually do, as an attempt to prioritise your writing over everything else for just a month. What can you achieve when you try to stick to writing as much as you can for 30 days? For Grant Faulkner, there is no ‘I only wrote 20,000 words during NaNoWriMo…’ As far as he is concerned, there’s only ‘I WROTE 20,000 WORDS DURING NANOWRIMOOOOOOOO!!!’ That’s still a novel in 4 months. Or a fantasy novel in 7, if you’re writing in the same genre as I do. Not bad, right? Especially not if you’re juggling a day job, a family, a personal life, and whatever else you need to take care of yourself.

Different paths, different means

There’s hardly a greater motivator than knowing where you want to end up, yet sometimes there’s nothing more frustrating than knowing you aren’t there yet. Embrace the simple fact that you aren’t, and focus on the things you can do each day to get closer to that point. If that is writing a novel every 4 months, every 24 months, or even every 5 years, it is what it is, and it’s OK. If you expect yourself to write a particular amount of words each day—whether that’s 125 or 5000—or amount of time—whether that’s 15 minutes or two hours—and that expectation is far from realistic considering where you are in your life right now, you will be in for serious disappointment. And disappointment is anything but a good motivator. It is more often than not what makes people quit.

Different paths ask for different means to an end. Figure out what means are realistic for YOU at THIS POINT in your life and go from there.

M.S. Wordsmith logo whiteConnect with M.S. Wordsmith! 





Email list:


Posted in Guest post, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

How I created a private wiki for my fantasy world-building

Last month I talked about how I balance the act of world-building while remaining focused on story (and how the two are interconnected).

Today I’m going to offer some more depth on the exact steps I took to set up a private wiki, for those fantasy writers in the crowd who want to create your own to up your game.

Think Wikipedia, but for your fantasy world

The software I used is the same one Wikipedia is built out of: MediaWiki. As a result, the pages I build look like and link together just like on Wikipedia. Except in my case, it’s private. I can click on Chrome (my browser of choice) and navigate to the domain that loads my wiki, just like visiting a website, then as soon as I log in I can click around my wiki. I can also add/modify however I need to. The information evolves as the story evolves, which is exactly the way I like it.

If you know how to navigate Wikipedia then you’ll be familiar with its organizational power. This is the same potential at your fingertips if you set up your own world-building wiki using MediaWiki. There are other wiki and world-building platforms, of course. I just chose MediaWiki because I read Wikipedia voraciously and it made sense to model my world-building notes after it. (Why reinvent the wheel, right?)

How to set up MediaWiki

Wiki pages are website pages, so if you want to create a wiki you need a website. This means you have a domain name and a host. For example, if you website is, the address “” is your domain name, and the host is a company you pay to save your web pages on their server, thus making them accessible to the public. When you create your wiki, its pages will be published on your host’s server as web pages under your domain.

I’ll be making two assumptions in what follows:

  • You, like me, are an author or aspiring writer and you’ve set up your platform with a website, i.e. you have paid for a custom domain like and have a hosting plan—and if not, then let this be your incentive to get cracking on that! (If this post makes you decide to do this and you want some guidance on all the steps to set up an effective author platform, including a great author website, take my free 10-day course on Highbrow, “How to market your book online”. You’ll get an email each day that takes about 5 minutes to read with the day’s steps for you to work on.)


  • You, like me, are using as your host. There are other hosting services out there, but I’ve chosen to outline how to set up a  private wiki in exactly the same way I did so that you have a specific reference point to work from. (Atabyte is great anyway, so I recommend if you’re starting out fresh you pick them when you’re buying your domain and hosting.)

To get started, you need to do two things:

1. First, set up a subdomain for your wiki

A subdomain is a division of your website. It appears as a word (or multiple words joined together, likethesewordsare) followed by a period, followed by your domain. For instance, if your website is, and you choose myworld for your wiki, then your subdomain would be

To set up a subdomain with Atabyte, you simply log into the control panel and, under the “domains” section, select “subdomains”. You’ll come to a form which lets you create your subdomain. It’s as easy as that.

2. Install MediaWiki on your host server

Once you have a subdomain, you can now install MediaWiki. In Atabyte’s control panel, scroll down to the “software” section and select “Softaculous app installer”. Softaculous is the name of the database that Atabyte uses to store the data for your wiki. Once you click on this, you’ll see several options in a left menu, one of which is “wikis”. Click that and you’ll see “MediaWiki” as one of the options. Select it. You’ll now see the “install now” option on the right. Select this and you can now create your wiki.

When you set it up, choose the subdomain you just created (from the “choose domain” option). You also create your admin username and password here. This is your master account from which you’ll have access your wiki once you set your world-building pages to private, so remember it.

Make sure you do backups!

You also want to make sure you set your wiki to backup regularly. This is all available when you install MediaWiki following the above instructions, but you can return to this anytime by coming back to the “MediaWiki” option in Softaculous app installer, then clicking on “edit” where you see your wiki listed (near the bottom).

When I am regularly world-building, I set mine to automatically backup, with a backup rotation of 4 times, and a backup frequency of daily. What this means is, at a given time every day, Softaculous will make a copy of all the data in my wiki. On day 5, it will go back to day 1’s data and overwite it. So I always have the 4 previous days of my wiki handy in case something goes wrong. When I am drafting and spending less time world-building, I set it to backup weekly. This way if I don’t get into my wiki for 8 days and someone hacked it / something corrupted, say, 6 days ago, I have the previous week to fall back on rather than possibly having nothing but hacked/corrupted backups.

I am still learning more about backing up, because there are other options, like an XML dump. The XML dump gives you an added impression of your wiki on a given date in case you ever needed something beyond what the regular backups will give you.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to compile your wiki into a big text document so that you could, for example, have a Word doc of everything saved somewhere. If there is, I don’t know about it yet, but when/if I do find out, I’ll make sure to put an addendum in this post.

But, I have been reassured by someone who really knows their tech: if you have set automatic backups and have enough copies, you are already quite safe! At least, as safe as we all are from the zombie apocalypse.

How to make your wiki private

If you want to keep your wiki public, then you can start creating right away. (If so, then scroll down to where I talk about first steps for creating your wiki.)

But maybe you want to keep your wiki private like me. You want this to be a private extension of your manuscript you can open in your internet browser as needed when you write, knowing you can dump in / change any information however you want without confusing anyone. You can reveal plot bunnies and nuances you’d never want readers to see, treat it like a sandbox where you can organize and explore ideas beyond what just the manuscript will give you.

If that’s the case, then here’s how you make your wiki private:

You need to set up a restricted access namespace. This doesn’t make your wiki private, but it makes all pages you publish inside that namespace private—and it’s these pages within that namespace that will function as your private wiki for your fantasy world.

By default, all pages published on your wiki are public. That’s the point of a wiki, after all. But MediaWiki designed namespaces to allow wikis to be better divided up. A namespace (read more on it here) is a specific collection of pages within your wiki that all can be assigned special privileges for certain users, such as the ability to modify and access.

I’ll use my own hosting setup with Atabyte again for reference to walk you through this step. We’ll continue to use our example of the subdomain “”.

In the main control panel, under the “files” section, click on “file manager”. This will open up the file directory of every page on your website. On the left, in the tree display, click on “public_html”. This will cause the menu to open up and reveal a folder that’s got the title of the subdomain you created. So in our example case, we see a folder called “myworld”. Click on that.

On the right, you’ll see a display of all the files within your subdomain. Scroll down until you come to “LocalSettings.php”. Select it and click “edit”. Once the file editor opens, you’ll see a long list of code. (And please, if any of this is unfamiliar to you, get help from a tech friend—if you don’t know one, email me at and I’ll try to help.)

Scroll right down to the bottom. You’ll see that the script terminates on the last line with the “}” character. Click to the left of it and hit enter a few times so that you create some free lines above it. In those free lines, you need to enter the following:

  • (note #1: every line ends in the “;” character, i.e. hit the enter key after you type every “;”)
  • (note #2: upper/lowercase matters, i.e. SECRET is not the same as Secret)
define("NS_SECRET", 100);
define("NS_SECRET_TALK", 101);
$wgExtraNamespaces[NS_SECRET] = "Secret";
$wgExtraNamespaces[NS_SECRET_TALK] = "Secret_talk";
$wgNamespacesWithSubpages[NS_SECRET] = true;
require_once "$IP/extensions/Lockdown/Lockdown.php";
$wgGroupPermissions['*']['edit'] = false;
$wgGroupPermissions['*']['createaccount'] = false;
$wgRestrictDisplayTitle = false;

Replace “SECRET” / “Secret” with the name you want to give you world wiki’s private pages. For example, if you decide to call your namespace “Notes” then where you see SECRET you would write NOTES, and where you see Secret, you’d write Notes.

Click on “save changes” and you will now have your private namespace, and be ready to start creating wiki pages for your fantasy world-building.

A bit of explanation, for the curious:

The first five lines:

define(“NS_SECRET”, 100);
define(“NS_SECRET_TALK”, 101);
$wgExtraNamespaces[NS_SECRET] = “Secret”;
$wgExtraNamespaces[NS_SECRET_TALK] = “Secret_talk”;
$wgNamespacesWithSubpages[NS_SECRET] = true;

are all to create the namespace. Unless you want to dig into how PHP programming works, best not to worry much beyond that.

The next line:

require_once “$IP/extensions/Lockdown/Lockdown.php”;

is what locks the namespace down to keep it private.

The next two lines:

$wgGroupPermissions[‘*’][‘edit’] = false;
$wgGroupPermissions[‘*’][‘createaccount’] = false;

prevent anyone from creating their own user accounts, and from being able to edit the wiki. This is important because, although your private namespace will be locked from the public, your public wiki is still open. Someone can enter and they will land on your wiki (the public pages, not your private ones). Without these two lines of code, they can, if they want, create a username and start creating/saving/modifying pages in the public part of your wiki. If this doesn’t bother you, then you can exclude these two lines. I chose to add them because I’ve envisioned at some future date “publishing” some of my more finalized / supplementary wiki pages, and doing so would be just a matter of moving these pages from the namespace I created to the general wiki. Anyone online could then read them, but not change them, so these would function a bit like appendices to my books. And, in the meantime, I can be assured my public wiki will remain empty until then.

What if you want to have special user accounts who can access your private wiki in read only?

This is just a matter of adding two more lines of code to the list above (just add them directly below the last line):

$wgGroupPermissions[‘SpecialUser’] = $GroupPermissions[‘user’];
$wgNamespacePermissionLockdown[NS_SECRET][‘*’] = array(‘SpecialUser’);

Here, replace “SpecialUser” with whatever you want to call this special account. Replace “SECRET” with the name you gave your namespace. For instance, if you want to call these users CoolPeopleClub, and your namespace is called Notes, then you would have:

$wgGroupPermissions[‘CoolPeopleClub’] = $GroupPermissions[‘user’];
$wgNamespacePermissionLockdown[NS_NOTES][‘*’] = array(‘CoolPeopleClub’);

Now, when you are logged into your wiki and creating accounts for people, you will see “SpecialUser” (or whatever you choose to call it) listed and you can select that privilege for the users you want to have view-only access to your private wiki. They won’t be able to edit it because of the editing restriction—the only people who have that privilege are administrators like you, or other admin accounts you choose to create. This is why I highly recommend you implement the no edit / no account creation restriction on your wiki as a whole.

How to make wiki pages in your private wiki and FINALLY bring your fantasy world to life!

Now, finally, we have our fantasy world ready to be created! All that remains is learning a bit about how MediaWiki actually works.

The first and most important thing is how to get onto your private wiki.

This is a simple matter of opening your browser (Chrome, for example) then typing in the following (replace “secret” with whatever you chose to call your namespace):

The first thing that’s going to happen is you’ll come to a login screen. Use the admin username you created when you set the wiki up and login.

Now you’ll see a page that looks a bit like Wikipedia, but you’ll see a sentence on it telling you the page doesn’t exist yet. On the top right menu, there is a “create” option. Click that and it will make a text window load. You can type in anything you want then save it to create the page.

If you’re new to this and just want to create your first page so you have a “home base” for your wiki, then simply type “Hello world” then hit save. Now you’ll see, whenever you visit “” and login, the two words “hello world” in the main screen on the right.

You’ll also see secret “Secret:Index” displayed above that in larger font. This is called the display title and it’s on every page.

This is what the final line in the script above is for:

$wgRestrictDisplayTitle = false;

It allows you to customize the display title on each wiki page you make. If you don’t add this, all your pages in your private wiki are going to have the display title: Secret:Page_name, where “Secret” is the name of the namespace you create, and Page_name is the specific name of the page you create (more on how to do that below).

To change the display title on each page, type:

{{DISPLAYTITLE:Desired Name}}

where “Desired Name” is whatever you want to appear at the top.

In our example of our first index page with “Hello world” on it, if you want to call it “Index”, you’d type in the text box:


on the first line (above “Hello world”).

From here, the world is your oyster. You can create new pages anytime you want to branch out. You just need to make sure they always take on the form:

where Secret is the namespace you chose for your private wiki, and Page_name is whatever you want to call the page. For instance, if you have lots of character notes and want those all in one page, and you want to call that page “Characters”, you just type in:

This page doesn’t exist yet, so all you need to do is is click create on the top right menu and enter in whatever text you need. You can change the display title at the top with the same syntax as above, i.e. if you want its heading to read Major Characters, the very first line should read {{DISPLAYTITLE:Major Characters}} and whenever you view this page you will see Major Characters as the main header. Enter in then whatever text you need for your notes and save it to create the page.

I like to create the Index page as the central page for the wiki. This means every time I create a new page for branching information, I put the links to those pages in an organized table.

To create a link to another page, this is just a matter of typing [[Secret:Page name|Link text]]. Change “Secret” with the name of your namespace, and “Page name” with the exact name you chose for the page. For example, with our Characters page, if I wanted to put a link to it on the Index page, I would type [[Secret:Characters|Characters]]. On the index page, all that will show up is the word “Characters” as a link. Just remember that the text to the right of the “|” character is whatever will display on the page, and the text to the left is the actual link.

There is a bit of a learning curve with using MediaWiki. If you’ve ever programmed in HTML or have worked a bit with web language, this is easy to pick up. I find whenever I need to brush up on syntax or am not familiar with how to do something, everything I need to know is in the help section ( This is available as a link on the left of every page of your wiki, so you can click on it whenever you need help.

Especially consult the formatting section for information on rules for typing the text. For example, if you don’t hit enter twice between lines, those lines will join together. If your text looks like this:

Galen works in the city of Alendryll,

He is a cooper

When you save you will get:

Galen works in the city of Alendryll, He is a cooper

because MediaWiki saves one paragraph space as a regular space.

A few quick pointers before I close:

If you want to type something in italic, then surround the words(s) in ”two single quotes”. If you want to type something in bold, then surround the word(s) in ”’three single quotes”’. If you want it bold and italic, then surround the word(s) in ””four single quotes””.

When dividing up your topics, you can use nested headers to define major sections of your article.

To give you an example, I have a page on fauna in my world. On that page, I have sections for the main countries. To create these, I have the following format in my text:

== Main country 1 ==

== Main country 2 ==

These show up as large bold headers. Within the countries, I mention specific wildlife. For example, I have a deal of notes about horses in the Pikelands, in Mithlim, and in the Mountainlands. The horses subsection in the Pikelands section takes on this format:

== Pikelands ==

=== Horses ===

Where the === indicates a division within the main division by country. On the actual page, this shows up with the largest bold font for Pikelands, and a smaller bold sub-header font for Horses.

If there is a division within a division within a division, then you can add an =. So:

==== sub-subdivision ====

This shows up as a regular size bold font, but it will act as a header on its own line. Beyond this, ask yourself if you should be dividing the page up into separate pages, because though you can keep going, i.e. =====, ======, the font is the same regular bold font after ====.

You can also make a list by starting a line with *, i.e.




will make a bullet-point list. If you want a numbered list, use # instead. If you want to nest your list items, then use ** or ***, i.e.


**Famous poetry on chivalry

**Codes within chivalry

***Valen’s Code of Knighthood

I also find tables helpful to organize information. These are bit more complicated and something you’ll only need once you find your notes really coming together and you want a directory. Here is where you can read about making tables if you need that information.

Over to you, time to get busy building!

I wrote this post with the intention of giving you a complete guide to how to get going and feel that I’ve done that. But I realize as I arrive at the end that there is so much more I could talk about. Please tell me in the comments what you’d like to know more about and I’ll factor it into a possible future post.

Posted in John's blog, World Builders, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Voice — guest post from epic fantasy author Andrew Wood

Happy Friday! To end this week, I’d like to highlight the talent of my assistant and apprentice editor, Andrew Wood. In fact, for those who enjoy the posts here on the Epic Fantasy Writer blog, Andrew is my front line, helping me prepare guest posts, and proofreading my own posts before I publish them.

Andrew is also an epic fantasy author, with his debut novel, Storm of Fury, now available on Amazon! Be sure to check it out. Meanwhile, Andrew has put together a great article about overcoming doubt, which I hope you all enjoy!

Author PicMy name is Andrew Wood and I’m a writer of epic fantasy. My first novel, Storm of Fury, was recently published through Inkshares and I’m excited to share it with you! I’ve been pursuing my dream job as a writer for five years, and devote my time to writing novels and honing my craft.

I love stories. Whether they be books, movies, video games or comics, I’m always on the hunt for more. I grew up on books like Redwall, the Wheel of Time and Harry Potter, and from stories like these my love of writing grew. Now I work full-time to tell the stories I have in my heart, and finally force them on to paper where they belong.

You can find me on Patreon, where I release monthly horror, fantasy and sci-fi short stories.

The Voice

There is a voice inside every one of us. In we authors, it sits over our shoulders and watches us as we work. It tells us that our writing isn’t good enough. It tells us to give up and it saps us of our strength. Sometimes the voice vanishes for weeks on end. Other times it persists for days.

I’ve wrestled with this voice since I first sat down at an old computer and jotted down a few story ideas I had bouncing around in my strange little mind. And with the birth of my writing came that voice. Let’s call him Doubt.

Doubt comes with us everywhere we go, and he sticks his nose in our business, sullying our day and making us shine the light of scrutiny on ourselves. While that isn’t always a bad thing, Doubt’s negative ramifications far outweigh the positive.

So, as writers, what can we do to defeat Doubt? How do we push aside the voice that says we can’t do it and tell ourselves that we can? In my experience, I use three methods to push on and recognize what I can really do.

1. Take a Break

Sometimes my doubt comes when I’ve been working too long or I’m overthinking a particular project that’s been taking over my mind. If this is happening to you, step away from your writing. Go watch a TV show, walk a mile, have something to eat. Laugh. Don’t think. Don’t write until your mind has a chance to refresh itself.

When you come back, if you’re still having trouble, switch projects if you can. I find that if I can’t stand to look at my novel, I’ll go and work on a short story or do something fun with my writing just to get my mind off of the other project for the day. It’s all right if you’re having trouble here too. The brain is not meant to be over-worked, and sometimes it’s best to just call it a day.

2. Outwork the Voice

Sometimes Doubt comes at the most inopportune times. You have deadlines to meet or word count goals you want to reach before work tomorrow. But the voice will not leave you. It throws shame or writer’s block in your face and there is no time to relieve it.

Press on. Put words down. Whether they’re terrible or not doesn’t matter. All that matters is that they exist. They’re yours, and they deserve to be down on paper. The beautiful thing about writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time. You have edits and revisions to go back and perfect what you’ve written. But for now, you must have the skeleton upon which you can build better writing. Get that out now, and leave doubt and perfection for another day.

3. The Voice of Doubt is Yours

This is the key to Doubt. It might seem like an imperious, all-knowing foe that can judge your writing with immaculate scrutiny. This is false, because the voice of doubt is your own, reacting in fear to the possibility that you might not be good enough.

Much like Doubt’s judgment is false, so too is the concept that you aren’t good enough. You are good enough, and your writing is awesome. Once you realize this and unmasked Doubt for who he really is, you can begin to understand that he is not a part of you that you need give voice.  Ignore it. Silence it, and it will go away.

When the voice of Doubt seems insurmountable, remember that it only has as much power as you give it. Put an end to its ramblings and realize that you are in charge here, and that your writing matters, no matter what people might say. Or what you say, when you’re feeling down.


You may not be able to escape Doubt, but that’s okay. If you can find your own way to overcome it and push forward, you realize that it’s not as powerful as you might think. I still struggle with doubt every week, but I know I can put it aside and be confident in my own writing. They key is being confident in yourself, and the rest will follow.

Do you have any preferred methods of dealing with doubt? How do you do it? Comment on the post and share your thoughts, I’d love to hear from you! And a special thanks to John Robin for the opportunity to share a post on his site!

Be sure to check out Andrew’s brand new epic fantasy novel, Storm of Fury

SoF Cover FinalFor as long as Kaven can remember, Lantrelia has been at war. Yet its foe is not flesh and blood, but the eternal rage of the god Na’lek. Incarnate in a mighty storm called the Fury, Na’lek’s rage has butchered mankind by sending forth armies of supernatural monsters. Soon, the Fury’s attacks will sweep humanity away.

Determined to become a war hero like his father, Kaven sets out on a treacherous quest to stop Na’lek. With only three companions to aid him, he plans to enter the heart of the Fury and face the god himself to plead for mankind’s deliverance. Yet nothing can prepare Kaven for the truth he will encounter, for far greater forces are at work, and his quest, if successful, will come at great cost.

Will he put an end to Na’lek’s storm of Fury and prove his worth to his father? Or is his duty to his fellow man more important, even if it means he is a failure as a son?

Storm of Fury is now available as an ebook for $2.99 and a paperback for $15.99!

Connect with Andrew:





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

The Art of World-Building by guest author Montgomery Mahaffey

Given this Tuesday’s post on how I used a wiki to build my world (missed it? read it here), I’d like to follow in the world-building vein with a guest post. Please welcome Montgomery Mahaffey, author of Ella Bandita and the Wanderer, who has taken the time to share on her world-building process. Take it away Montgomery!

AuthorMontgomery Mahaffey is a fantasy writer who has told her stories all over the country. Alaskan winters shaped Mahaffey as a writer, and her work is built off of the myriad of personal and collective experiences formed underneath that mystical landscape. Born in the south to a family of storytellers, Mahaffey has developed her own voice that is suffused with the temperament of the wanderer instinct. Set in a world where magic is at once subtle and pervasive, her novels bring to life symbols and stories of the old fairy tales told with wry humor and passion. In 2005 she was granted the Individual Artist Project Award from the Rasmuson Foundation in Anchorage, Alaska. Ella Bandita and the Wanderer is her first novel.

An introduction to World-Building

It would be nice if we were able to take a quick course in world building, but unfortunately school’s don’t offer that yet (you have to go to a writing program or enroll in an online course somewhere)! So how can we self-teach world building?

The first thing to do is to look to those you want to learn from.

Pull books from your shelves of your favorite authors and interrogate their books for world-building elements. You’re going to destroy this book with your highlighters and pens, but this is a practice you can’t afford to not do.

When you peel apart the mechanics of one of your favorite books, you’re learning from the best teacher—someone who resonated with you and who you feel like you could really learn from.

Often, as authors, we admire other writers to point of wanting to write just like them. So if you love Tolkein, or George R.R. Martin, or Steven King, grab a book and start learning.

Evaluate how the author shapes their world. What senses do they open with to orient the reader? Smell? Sight? Sound? Touch? Speech? What do these senses describe about the place? Do they give it a particular feeling? What can you infer from these sensory descriptions?

Make notes on this in your notebook.

Once you really understand HOW your favorite authors are crafting their works of art, and what elements they’re using to develop plot, character, and the environment, you’ll have a in-depth and intelligent idea of how to write your own.

Lesson 1: Decide where to start

Worlds aren’t created ex nihilo from authors. Every element comes from something, whether it be inspired by or directly informed by real events, places, or people. To find your ideal starting place, try this:

Write about a place that’s familiar, and change one tiny element.

For example, write about garbage collection day on your childhood street where trolls are in charge of collecting all the garbage.

Notice how making one small change can shift your entire world. Because now a whole slew of questions have been opened up from that one, small change:

Where did the trolls come from? Why do they collect the garbage? What’s in the garbage that makes them better suited to collect it than humans? What do they do with the garbage once it’s been collected?

Your world can broaden out of answering these questions, and pretty soon you’ll be on track to create a rich, interesting environment that is at once familiar and new.

The key is to start small and work your way out, so that you don’t get overloaded with chaotic elements that you find yourself having to explain so frequently that the world-building gets in the way of your story.

Harry Potter is a great example of a familiar story turned fantastical by one single element shift: witches and wizards are real.

You don’t need everything to be different to be fantastical—many of our favorite stories could happen in the ‘real’ world. Keeping it closer to home will make your story more believable, and you’ll have more opportunity to go deeper with your story.

Lesson 2: Discover your world’s infrastructure

Once you’ve developed a good starting point on a microcosmic level, start working out the macrocosmic details.

These are the big things like politics, language, religion, sociology, and what values the people of your world hold, all the way down to the littler things like what they eat, how they deal with waste, etc.

Now, you may not be including all of these directly in your story, but knowing, for example, how the politics of your world run (is it a totalitarian state? Communist? Are there kings and queens and serfs?) will help your world become realer, deeper, and richer.

Lesson 3: How to build worlds that feel real

Many new authors fall into a trap of creating worlds that don’t feel real. That’s largely because the little things are being ignored.

You should know how a summer day smells versus a winter day. You should know what a busy day sounds like versus a calmer day. You should know what the path looks like behind the castle.

J.R.R. Tolkein went so far as to create an entirely new language (which only featured in a fraction of his story!) and this lent a level of “realness” to the Lord of the Rings series that can’t be denied.

When you know your world thoroughly, writing description will come effortlessly.

It will be much easier to supplant in the minds of your readers what your world looks like, smells like, feels like, and how it works, when you give glimmers of the little things.

Here’s an example of a rich level of description from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, The Wind Through the Keyhole:

Two hours later, just shy of noon, they breasted a rise and halted, looking down at a wide, slow-moving river, gray as pewter beneath the overcast sky. On the northwestern bank—their side—was a barnlike building painted a green so bright it seemed to yell into the muted day. Its mouth jutted out over the water on pilings painted a similar green. Docked to two of these pilings by thick hawsers was a large raft, easily ninety feet by ninety. It was painted in alternating stripes of red and yellow. A tall wooden pole that looked like a mast jutted from the center, but there was no sign of a sail. Several wicker chairs sat in front of it, facing the shore on their side of the river. Jake was seated in one of these. Next to him was an old man in a vast straw hat, baggy green pants, and longboots. On his top half he wore a thin white garment—the kind of shirt Roland thought of as a slinkum. Jake and the old man appeared to be eating well-stuffed popkins. Roland’s mouth sprang water at the sight of them.

This excerpt includes a lot of sight cues—we know just what the landscape looks like, and that the building and the raft that are described don’t seem out of place. Chairs are made of wicker (a very familiar, ‘real’ material). Pop-kins, which King made up, is a mouth-watering food of a sort, probably like a sandwich.

To bring this level of depth to your stories, consider using a description builder, which will give your descriptions all five senses to use during a significant scene in your story or novel.

Lesson 4: Practice

The last piece of world building advice to give you is the most important one: practice.

Once you have your world, and you’ve played around with creating infrastructure, richness, and depth, practice with it.

Think of a random person in your world and describe them. Are they a baker? a prince? a teenager? a child in school?

Then run them through a typical day—where would they go? who would they talk to? what would they encounter? what conflicts arise? how would they feel at the end of the day?

This is a fun way to play, and it’s likely that a story will blossom out of one of these practice sessions!

A brief note on what not to do:

Under no circumstances should you forget about diversity—no two people are alikeno one thinks exactly the same, believes exactly the same ideas, or acts in the same way. Create your characters like real people, which means giving them different motives, different ways of interpreting the same event, and different reactions to circumstances.

About Ella Bandita and the Wanderer:

unnamedElla Bandita’s life nearly came to an end in the depths of an icy river. Before she threw herself in the roiling waters, a strange voice called out.

“There’s a better way.”

Now, Ella Bandita is far from dead. Having studied the art of seduction under the Sorcerer of the Caverns who saved her that day, she must now make a life for herself as Ella Bandita, thriving on fresh hearts for survival. The immortal seductress moves from village to village, seducing and stealing the hearts of only the most licentious and undeserving men. It’s a lonely life, filled with grief and rage.

Until the day she meets a Wanderer in the woods, who engages her in a deadly game of cat and mouse, fueled by his unruly desire for this strange young woman. His refusal to quit her makes Ella Bandita act, and the Wanderer finds himself transformed into a Wolf, forced to live life searching for the one thing that can make him a man again. Hunting down the immortal seductress becomes necessary for survival. At the old Sorcerer’s Caverns, they will meet again, Ella Bandita and the Wanderer.

In a dark tale of romance, lust, and desire, Ella Bandita and the Wanderer is driven by intrigue and explores the darkness of the human heart and the allure of erotic obsession over love.

Connect with Montgomery!

Twitter —

Facebook —

Amazon —

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

How I built my fantasy world while staying in the story

You might have heard of “world-builders disease”. If you haven’t, then listen to this episode of Writing Excuses, from Season 5. If you have, but haven’t listened to that episode of Writing Excuses before, then I highly recommend you listen to it anyway.

Now, I personally hate the term “world-builders disease” because it implies there is something wrong with spending time world-building. I’m sure all you fellow fantasy writers in the crowd can relate to the struggle of knowing just how much world-building you must do before you feel you know the world adequately enough to start writing your book.

Today I’m going to share with you some of the techniques I have been developing during my latest foray into world-building, in the hope that it may inspire you in your own endeavors.

Developing a bottom-up, top-down process

I have been building my world for almost 23 years. I also have been writing the stories that accompanied this process for the same period of time. I started when I was in grade 8, a 13-year-old boy inspired first by the work of Dennis L. McKiernan, then Tolkien via The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

There was never a point at which I said, “I’m going to build my world so I can write stories set in it.” There was never a point at which I said, “I’m going to write stories so I can build my world.” The two happened all together. Every morning while delivering newspapers (I was a paper boy until I was 17), stories took shape in my mind. They were cinematic, but they were also expository. Some mornings I was discovering the stories of how gods and powerful wizards betrayed one another. Other mornings, I was wandering through enchanted lands hidden by veils of mist. Often, I heard languages.

The process of trying to write this all down was about a lot more than just trying to write a book or a short story. I drew maps as much as I composed prose. I wrote out charts for my languages and continued to make up new words for them, usually in my room at night while hovering before my humidifier. I annotated my maps, and stories lurked within these annotations. I started a story but it detoured into a chronicle of a new people I had not previously heard of. Years passed, I read more fantasy books, my work evolved, and it wasn’t until I was 26 that I finally completed a first draft of a novel. But not at all during that time would I have said I was not telling stories.

Instead, what I learned is that the world gives life to story, just as the story gives life to a world. It’s in the doing that both are created. And for writing fantasy, a lot of doing is needed for a truly lofty epic to come together.

I’ve come to think of this as a bottom-up, top-down approach to world-building. Bottom-up because, first and foremost, I discover my world through doing. I get my hands dirty, be it with trying new stories set in the world, or with simply finding new ways to explore my world beyond writing stories that follow novel or short story format (maps, languages, chronicles, glossaries, setting sketches, to name a few). Top-down because, as I move forward in this process, I employ world-building rigor to further grow my stories. But bottom-up, top-down because, in order to employ this rigor, I must start by creating and making a mess.

My process over the years then has been about learning how to make a mess and clean it up, and keep making more messes and keep cleaning those up, and get better and better at it as I go. It is, in a sense, about learning to create an ever-evolving mess-making-cleaning-up system.

Using a private wiki as a world-building tool

When I finished the fourth draft of A Thousand Roads, I allotted time exclusively for “world-building” while I waited on my editor. I went into this with no idea what that meant. The obvious starting point for me was to create an index of my notes, to bring them all together in one place, so that is exactly how I began.

I had done this, to some extent, with Blood Dawn. (You can read more about that here.) With Blood Dawn, I created a list and added to it every time I mentioned something in the draft relating to the world. As the manuscript grew, the list grew and I organized it into a directory to keep it accessible. I was using Scrivener, and though its tree display is convenient for me to quickly access the relevant location, eventually the directory got too large and it was cumbersome.

What was coming together was essentially a wiki, but Scrivener was the wrong environment for it. So, as I began this January to unify my notes during this exciting, long-awaited world-building period, I took a leap of faith and started my index in a private wiki. (Much thanks to my friend and fellow fantasy writer, and world-builder extraordinaire, Malkuthe Highwind, for his patience and guidance along the way.)

Now, for those who are familiar with wikis, I will clarify that when I say I created a wiki, it was not for the conventional use. I have set it all to private so that it functions as a extension of my writing notes. I can keep it open in an internet browser while I write, allowing me to access relevant articles and modify as needed.

My choice to keep this private was twofold. Mainly, these are my notes. I have details about future books, both as part of the articles under the “history” directory, and through character bio pages. I want to be able to dump in whatever I need to freely, without worrying that I might confuse future readers.

I also am chaotic in my notes. Sentences are half-completed in many places, or in point form. While consolidating three conflicting articles on magic, instead of belaboring over this task, I simply left a bold note to myself at the top that the material must be integrated at a later date. While nearing the end of this phase and realizing there was so much more to do (as in, if I got a magic ring and was able to live to 133, I would still be doing it), I simply resolved myself to setting future goals (likely between future drafts while waiting on editors or readers) to gradually iterate over the entire thing in stages, further unifying or expanding or correcting as seems fitting at such time. (For instance, I have put on my project board a future task, “consolidate magic directory” and would, during that project, focus exclusively on going over all my magic notes and emerging with my “notes to self” somewhat resolved.)

The other reason I’ve kept my wiki private is because usually, fans write wikis for the fantasy epics they fall in love with. For instance, Brandon Sanderson’s fans have built and maintain Coppermind. George R.R. Martin’s fans have one as well ( In neither of these cases did the author write their wikis. I prefer that, if the community of fans who gather around my work in the years to come wish to share their knowledge and passion for the books, they will do so without my interference. I might contribute here and there, but mostly I would lurk, as I’m sure they will find numerous inconsistencies or errors that I have missed, and this I will use to my (and ultimately their) advantage.

What I created in my world-building wiki

At first, I created chaos. This was due mostly to the fact that my notes were scattered all over the place. I had hand-written notes from A Thousand Roads from when I wrote the first draft. I had notes from the Scrivener directory file I created while writing Blood Dawn. I already had several disorganized articles on my wiki from when I was learning how to use it. I need not mention notes from 23 years of discovering this world (which I intend to, over the course of the next few years, append to the wiki during later phases of iteration).

But the wiki allowed me to dump in what I needed, and I organized as I went along.

To start, I created an index page where I would drop material if I didn’t know where it belonged. This wasn’t required for long. I quickly saw how my notes broke down into various categories, and subcategories, so I created pages for each of these.

For instance, I have many character notes. I organize my characters based on how important they are, the usual main, secondary, and tertiary. As I was transferring character notes, I created the character category. But as I have so many notes on characters, eventually I created pages based on whether they are main, secondary, or tertiary, as the note-taking system I employ for each differs (i.e. tertiary characters are usually passing people in a scene so I might only have a sentence or two about them to give me a deeper sense of the interpersonal or setting dynamics).

In the same manner, other categories came together: people, with subcategories lineages, culture, society, and organizations; life, with subcategories flora, fauna, and races (to be clear, I mean race in the traditional fantasy sense, for instance, humankind, the Dwarf Men, Dragons, and other sapient beings); constructions, with subcategories language, religion, symbols, art, measurement.

Sub-subcategories also came together within these categories as I proceeded further. For instance, the races subcategory breaks down quite a lot since of the two dominant races of the world, humankind and the Dwarf Men, both are unique species who have diverged into racial groups over time. The lineages subcategory is a whole universe unto itself as the various dynasties of both Dwarf Men and humankind are listed there, and these dynasties are specific to different nations and time periods.

As a rule, I tried not to impose too much top-down prodding at this point, so the resulting category, subcategory, sub-subcategory breakdown was an emergent property and not artificial. It was, strictly, me trying to organize my notes.

But I did do a lot of further writing as a result of seeing the larger structure coming together, and this is where the bottom-up, top-down approach I’ve employed all my life became manifest. For, it is inevitable for me to engage with my notes and my world and not explore a bit further.

Sometimes I saw that categories or subcategories, or sub-subcategories were missing, or I would create a brief note to summarize something (i.e. “The Black Faith” under “Religion” under “Constructions”, which I wrote a great deal on beyond my notes, and “The Old Faith”, which I discovered through listing out related religions that were not in my notes before but which came to me from this particular top-down view). Or, when filling in a given note on calendar systems and elaborating, I would discover a detail about cultural history behind that system and could now quickly access the part of the culture category that deals with that particular culture. As the system came together, it inspired me to write about the world from its own perspective in ways that my notes from the manuscript-writing process would not have.

I arrived at the end of this process greatly satisfied. Not only did I unify my notes, I also defined a process which will continue this objective, and I am now excited to return to it time and time again.

Taming the world-building beast

I could write endlessly on what I have learned about world-building from the last month alone, but I will close instead on the most important insight, which is the issue of how I jumped into world-building without losing my sense of “true north”.

In fact, I found the discipline I learned while working on the previous drafts of A Thousand Roads translated directly. Working on these drafts taught me to stay grounded on one thing at a time, and to do so with a governing objective, aka the “true north”.

In the case of the fourth draft of A Thousand Roads, I had an editorial letter from my editor (and the pressure of a publication schedule) to not just keep me committed to writing every day but also keep me on task. I could have tinkered and obsessed endlessly on that draft. But instead I learned to trust my editor’s edits and the specific revisions objectives I had to achieve, and, most importantly, to accept that the draft I would deliver back to him for the next round of edits was still going to need work; but that would be for the fifth draft, and I’d achieved what I needed to in the fourth.

Likewise, while world-building, I stayed focused on my objective of unifying my notes. I had in fact looked forward to this since the fall. Many times while stressing over revision in the fourth draft, I pushed ahead eager for the time to finally be able to put the draft away and work on something fresh and exciting—and what can be fresher and more exciting that pure world-building?

So I stayed grounded in this world-building process, and those many times along the way where I saw a rabbit hole, I tagged it as such and left it, knowing I would in due time come back to it. This gave me a sense of knowing when I would be “done” world-building, this particular time around.

Most importantly, I finished this task with my notes in one place. This will serve useful as I write the 5th draft of A Thousand Roads (as I can now access/modify my wiki directly as needed), and when I dive back in to pick up on the next “world-building” phase, after I am done the 5th draft and waiting on my specialty readers.

In fact, I have come to appreciate this world-building phase as somewhat of a discovered half of a wheel, whose turning has brought me back to the familiar other half, drafting. I will draft the 5th draft of A Thousand Roads now; then, completing that, roll over into the next phase of world-building, then roll over into the 6th draft. And on and on, and beyond A Thousand Roads there is the space between that and the sequel. In my mind, I get excited thinking of how this wheel will continually turn as the epic evolves, and the world itself will grow more concrete and loftier, how I will be, as I was 23 years ago, using many facets of creation to bring this world to life.

Now please, someone give me a magic ring.

Posted in John's blog, World Builders | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

On Being a Prolific Writer, Part Two

Welcome back to M.S. Wordsmith for her second installment in her Being A Prolific Writer series. If you missed the first one, read it here. You can also find out more about Mariëlle on her website.

IMG_3562 (2)In my last blog, I brought up one of the first questions I ask when dealing with clients who feel overwhelmed by the constant pressure to write more: Where do you want your writing to take you? Discussing the fact that there are no universal goals when it comes to writing, I argued that this isn’t only a question we tend to overlook, I also pointed out the urgency of answering this question for ourselves if we want to stay sane in the current writing climate.

Today, I will share another question I ask when trying to figure out what my clients want from their writing—What does ‘making a living’ mean to you?

Figure out YOUR financial goal

keep-calm-and-make-money-121There are so so many articles out there that will tell you about writers who managed to start earning a 6-figure income through their writing, and how you yourself can become as successful within the next 2 to 5 years. Earning that much money through your writing sounds absolutely fabulous, but do you really need that kind of money? Is that truly a goal you have to set for yourself? Or is it far from what you need?

We all know that there are particular standards that differ per country/culture as to what making a living amounts to. There are numbers we look up to, numbers we look down upon, and numbers we would be OK with, or would at least be enough for us to live our lives comfortably enough (which is the basic meaning of making a living, after all). So, how about we figure out what we need to live comfortably enough before raising the bar to numbers that are bound to leave us breathless?

Living comfortably enough

What does living comfortably enough mean to you?

– What kind of place do you need to live comfortably enough?

– What kind of car(s) do you need to drive?

– How often do you need to go out, for dinner, to the theatre, to the cinema, to your local pub?

– What type of clothes or groceries do you need to be able to buy?

– What kind of holidays do you need to go on, and how often?

My partner ‘only’ works four days a week because he doesn’t want to work five. And he doesn’t need to, either. I combine a variety of different jobs that make my heart sing and easily work 60 hours a week, just for the fun of it. We’re the only ones in his family who rent a place instead of own one because juggling those different jobs makes it impossible to get a mortgage. Despite that, we’re happy where we are now financially because, while we earn less than all the other couples in the family, we understand that we’re in fact living comfortably enough. Would I mind earning 6 figures through my writing? Not at all. But it’s not a goal of mine; it’s not the income I need right now, so it’s not where my bar is set.

Raising the bar

That said, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t raise the financial bar little by little, if you want to. My partner and I lived in an apartment for over a decade and it wasn’t until the last two years or so that my tiny office at the back of the house stopped working for me. My business was growing and I was spending more and more hours in that less than inspiring space. We tried refurbishing it—the rental market in our hometown was so slow at the time that moving to someplace bigger wasn’t an option—but it wasn’t enough. Lucky for us, that’s when the market shifted and we found our new place, a three story house with a giant attic that I turned into the best workplace imaginable. Yes, it’s more expensive than our old place, but we reached the point where raising our standards made all the sense.

What I’m saying is that there’s nothing wrong with wanting more than you currently have. There’s nothing wrong even with wanting that 6-figure income, although I suggest you might want to read those articles and start kicking your own ass (and ask yourself, while you’re at it, whether you need to reach it within the next 2 to 5 years). But, you do need to remember that none of us needs to put that kind of pressure on ourselves. What you do need to do is figure out what kind of ‘living’ you need right now, and turn that into your current goal. YOUR current goal. Once you reached that goal, that’s when you make up the balance and see whether it’s time to want a little more. If not, fine. We don’t have to want more or it all. If yes, go for it.

M.S. Wordsmith logo white

Connect with M.S. Wordsmith! 





Email list:



Posted in Guest post, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

How I’ve created a reading curriculum to become a better fantasy writer

Now that I have finished the fourth draft of A Thousand Roads (if you’re not on my newsletter and want to hear more about that, click here), I am turning to related writing tasks, like this one. Today I want to talk to you about something that evolved as I wrote the draft, and which I think truly helped me improve as a fantasy writer: a focused reading curriculum.

If you’re a writer, you have likely heard the advice that every writer must read. That might be a case of Stephen King’s advice from On Writing popularized in our mainstream writing culture, but the fact is it resonates with advice from many writers over time. My goal is not to convince you about the benefits or relative necessity of reading, as many articles are out there that do that. Instead, I want to explore the more important question: if you’ve decided that as a writer you must read to improve, then what exactly must you read?

Becoming targeted about what books you want to read

When I got serious about reading earlier in 2017 and began a daily practice, I just ran with it. It made sense that as a fantasy writer, I should probably read fantasy books. For that reason, I made a point of reading The Name of the Wind by Pat Rothfuss.

But when I finished that book I was faced with a burning question: what do I read next? More fantasy? Or outside my genre—and what exactly does that mean anyway?

I decided as a simple rule I wanted to stay balanced. My initial strategy: alternate fiction and nonfiction. I kicked off 2017 by reading The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People by Steven R. Covey, which changed (and is continuing to change) how I approach my work/lifestyle on a daily basis. But then, because of applying this rule of fiction/nonfiction alternation, I also read On Writing by Stephen King, Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, and Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond.

I decided to explore this rule of alternation a bit further. Beyond simply a binary fiction/nonfiction rule, I instead highlighted the main categories of fiction I want to be investing my time in.

Being a fantasy writer, it makes sense that I have a fantasy category. Because of this, I also read American Gods by Neil Gaiman last year and am happy to say in 2017 my perspective on the fantasy genre grew as a result. (I also apply a rule of not reading a book by a given author back to back in the same category; for instance, as much as I want to read Wise Man’s Fear, sequel to The Name of the Wind, I am going to stick to my curriculum and wait until the fantasy category comes up again.)

But wanting to be a balanced writer who brings something diverse to my genre, I saw the value of having a balanced influence from other genres. For this reason, I have a “not fantasy genre fiction” category. Because of this, I read Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey, The Shining by Stephen King, and I’m presently reading, as part of this rotation, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi.

And, to keep my feet on the ground further, I defined a “non-genre fiction” category where I can be directed to include anything else, such as classics or just generally popular fiction books, even works from antiquity (like Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, which is on my roster). For this reason, I labored my way through Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, a feat which I would not have managed if I didn’t have my curriculum, yet which, after completing it, added some valuable perspectives to my appreciation of how the novel and language in the novel has evolved (plus Dickens’ wondrous skill with describing rural setting, which rubbed off on the fourth draft of A Thousand Roads). I also read (well, listened to—see below) Dracula by Bram Stoker, which also inspired me, especially with regard to parallel tone and symbolism in the end of A Thousand Roads—and which I was inspired to read only because of the momentum I created by learning to read something that does not quite interest me at first, but which I know is good for me. I’m presently also reading (listening to) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, which I find drags on a bit but which has taught me a lot about moving story through polarized dialogue, and which has in turn inspired me for some dialogue revisions I’m planning to make in the fifth draft of A Thousand Roads this February.

The big takeaway for me from this curriculum is that reading whatever we feel like reading can—like the choice to not read at all and just focus on writing more and more—limit us from the level we might otherwise attain as writers. There are so many books. Several million, according to several internet estimates. Where do we start?

The answer is that we will never know exactly what books we should be reading. But creating a curriculum that uses this sort of alternation is a sure way to at least create some balance in our reading diet.

Becoming targeted about what it means to read

But this is just one dimension of the problem. What do we read? And what does it even mean to read, anyway?

The obvious answer, books, is as limiting as deciding that reading books equates to reading only our genre or whatever we feel like reading.

Books are just one thing we can read. We live in the age of the internet at our fingertips. This is a good thing and a bad thing. The bad thing is that it serves us up the equivalent of junk food—anyone can publish anything, and if you think being overwhelmed by the millions of books to pick from is a problem, the billions (trillions?) of online publications in the form of blog posts, forum posts, message threads, and other click-and-publish content is even more overwhelming. The good thing is that, if you become targeted, you can cull from this pile a list of worthwhile material—much like you do when picking the books you plan to read.

Before I talk about what I did online, I want to talk about what I did offline. Another important goal for me over 2017 has been to create a proper evening routine so I can sleep better. On a typical day, I have done my end-of-day housework by 11PM and I’m in bed reading for an hour before lights out at midnight.

I’ve had piles of magazines building up on the headboard of my bed for the last several years. Scientific American and Writers Digest to be exact. To keep up on them, I will skim through, maybe read an article here or there.

I decided instead to read one all the way through, the way I’d read a novel. Even the articles that did not at first interest me. What I found was, like persevering through Oliver Twist, I learned something every article, usually many things. My perspectives changed. I went to sleep, my brain cleared out its cobwebs of the day, and I awoke the next day often applying these new perspectives to the work I did.

I now have been reading every single article of both Scientific American and Writers Digest, and the pile on the headboard is empty. This has become part of my reading curriculum, and I am so inspired by it that I plan to get a subscription of National Geographic so I can have a great trifecta of material (in part inspired by reading Guns, Germs & Steel and the desire to further appreciate cultural diversity). I want to keep up on all three of these through all of 2018, then I will see where the rabbit hole leads from there. (Time MagazineMacleans?)

Now, to the online content. First off, let’s talk about the need to be ruthless in saying “no” to 99.9% of material that comes our way. Every time I choose to say “yes” to reading something, even if that’s a message thread or an interesting article that caught my attention in my news feed, that’s time I could be spending reading material in my reading curriculum.

If something truly catches my attention, I will flag it and come back to it later. This is why I like to subscribe to educational email newsletters, or follow blogs like Writer Unboxed, so I can flag the email I receive and include that in my morning reading time if something does seem worth reading all the way through.

What I do focus on is Wikipedia. Don’t get me wrong, Wikipedia is not the place to back up your scholarly paper, but I’ve found that, to get a general sense of information about the world and how it’s all connected, it’s excellent. For a fantasy writer who wants to build a cohesive world that will make sense and draw on layers of how our own history, culture, geography, science, and biography come together, it’s an absolute gold mine.

And I’ve become a gold miner. In fact, reading Wikipedia, about the same amount of time I spend reading whatever novel I am working through, has created true balance in my reading curriculum to complement magazine articles at bedtime.

There’s a trick to doing this. Wikipedia will get you lost quickly, as you no doubt can attest if you’ve ever wandered down a series of links that cause your query about a type of French wine to evolve into reading about the 24-hour 25-lover tour of the infamous Messalina. My goal was to avoid this.

To do this I created a reading track. In order for this to work, I needed to create some rules that would keep me on it.

The obvious starting point for me was the English monarchs. I say obvious for me because I am forever curious about who’s who when it comes to English kings and queens and can’t get enough of TV shows like The Crown and Victoria. I had found whenever I look up a monarch on Wikipedia I’d end up following the lines of succession backward, and I would want to understand how the events of a previous monarch influenced the next one.

So, to kick off this reading track, I started at the beginning. I used the line of succession to direct me, i.e. as soon as I finish the article of a given monarch, I go to the tick and click “succeeded by” under the quick facts, to take me to the next stop. (I am presently on Mary I, aka “Bloody Mary”, whose reign reminds me an awful lot of our recent political landscape with the rise and fall of Stephen Harper’s government.)

Now, Wikipedia is wonderful for its links, and I would be missing out if I didn’t take some time here or there to wander down one. In fact, it seemed wrong to stick to the rule of only reading the biographies of the English monarchs and nothing else. That’s like going on a vacation and sticking only to the hotel and tour bus and never getting out to enjoy the setting. But, as is the case when traveling, I don’t want to get lost.

To help keep me on track I generalized my rule a bit. I read on a tablet which allows me to tap on any link I’m curious about as I’m reading and read a preview of the start of the article. Usually, this is enough. Occasionally, I feel the context is very important and I will visit the article and read at least the opening. For example, today while reading about Queen Mary I’s engagement to Philip of Spain, I was curious about just who the Habsburg’s were (I keep seeing them mentioned as I’m reading). That was good enough. I was curious, and boy did I want to read more. But I stuck to my principles. (You might be surprised how much you can still learn about the world in general just through sticking to the stories of those who were major players in it.)

And this is the key point here that I’ve learned in practicing how to tame my Wikipedia reading habit: the goal is to get more and more curious, and trust that information is layered. I am reading to become less ignorant in general, not to know everything. Drop the ego and become a curious child, and the world can only get more interesting.

Now what do I do when I get to Queen Elizabeth II? The answer has come to me in the process of doing, as it often does. Inevitably, reading the articles on the English monarchs leads to lots of name dropping. Numerous Scottish monarchs. Welsh rulers. French kings—lots of those. Popes. Holy Roman Emperors. Overall, an awareness of other lines of succession that are fascinating. Needless to say, I’m likely going to face death by old age before I run out of options here to keep this reading track going.

This curiosity from the process of doing also opened my mind to a second kind of Wikipedia reading track: topical. Reading biographies is great. In fact, as a writer, I feel like I am stoking my character inspiration fire to no end. But reading biographies alone limits me from the much needed desire that’s come up many times to take a really good look at a topic.

As with the English monarchs, I picked the topic that was closest to my heart as a natural starting point: mathematics. I started with the main article, and that alone was a worthwhile read. From there, I have embarked on reading the main articles that branch off it. When I’m done this, I’ll read the articles that branch off those articles. I may change it up now and again by picking at other topics, i.e. take a break and read through the article for “computer science” or “music” or “philosophy” or “religion” or “geography” (etc etc), following a similar pattern of reading down main topic branches should I want to follow up further on any topic. I’m not concerned with keeping track of these—if I forget that I’ve read the article on music, then I probably need to read it again.

These two tracks add wonderfully to my book reading and, together with magazines at bedtime, have become a great reading curriculum that is accelerating my daily improvement as a writer. In fact, if anything, I’m convinced only that I need to read more, and even if I got the opportunity to make a living on my writing, I’d probably add more reading time before I crunch to get in 4-5 hours a day of writing. (In my mind, full-time-writer-heaven looks like: 5 hours of reading a day, and 3 hours of writing, 7 days a week, except lighter on weekends and holidays.)

Beyond reading: becoming targeted about what the purpose of reading is as a writer

To close, I want to touch on one last level of abstraction that over 2017 has helped hone my reading habit: the context in which reading fits. The why behind it all.

I read for about two and a half hours every day. This is not including time I might get to read as part of my work as an editor. I read before I begin my writing for the day, right after I get up and as I’m enjoying my first cup of coffee. I actually set a timer to hold myself accountable, the same as I do when I write. Reading is, as far as I’m concerned, part of my work as a writer.

But why? Because it’s one component of a thing every writer can level up by doing: research.

Now, we all need to research on a given book we’re writing. I make mention of horses in A Thousand Roads. I’ve never had to care for a horse for a living, and the one time I rode one (as kid) I almost fell off. This is not “writing what I know”, so you better bet I’ll be doing specific research on horses. I even have consulted another author who is willing to read the next draft and call me out on my horse foibles, as I’m sure there will be many.

This is all reactive research though. Research itself can also be a regular discipline that’s part of our writing discipline.

By way of example: If you wait until you have a health emergency before you go to the doctor, you probably are going to maintain many bad habits and be unaware of many underlying factors which are creating the tip-of-iceberg problems that will keep you coming back. But if you instead use your relationship with your doctor as a partnership so you can be a good steward of your health then not only are you going to be better equipped to tackle health emergencies, you’re probably going to have fewer. Plus, you’ll be fitter, feel better, (most likely) live longer, and overall, be happier.

Likewise, researching, by way of reading and its many aspects, can be part of a curriculum we as writers practice daily (or whatever is your optimal pattern). I realized this higher level when I discovered how I am often wasting more than a hour of my day in the car. Probably what I find most shocking is I am a co-host of the Write Right Podcast, and even though we just finished recording our second season, I didn’t have the insight to realize until this summer that I should be listening to podcasts when I’m driving.

Well, I started, and holy space cows! Complemented with my reading curriculum, that filled space has added a new dimension to a kind of learning that I understand as the research aspect of my discipline as a writer. I quickly found my way to great historical and educational podcasts like Tides of History, The Fall of Rome, and Lore. In fact, I have a queue that’s layered with about 30 different serial-education podcasts covering writing craft, history, culture, business, and biography. Among them: BBC’s In Our Time, the many TEDx feeds, Writing Excuses, Planet MoneyStar TalkStuff You Missed in History ClassStuff You Should Know, Totalius RankiumThe History of Rome, and the Grammar Girl podcast. You can find more podcasts like these by simply googling, “Podcasts to get smarter,” or “Great educational podcasts.” Or email me and I will send you the list of podcasts in full. But you can start by adding some episodes to your queue and running with that. You’ll find that many of them plug other related podcasts, so discover a few you love and add others that interest you and you’ll soon find you have no end of content to learn from.

Discovering audio led me to audiobooks. I’ll admit, though, that they haven’t quite caught on for me. I mentioned above that I “read” Dracula and am presently “reading” The Adventures of Huckleberrry Finn. However, I don’t feel like I truly am reading when I listen to audio. It might be the type of learner I am (I am very audio-visual and kinesthetic), and the fact that, when taking in only audio information, my brain launches off onto tangents to creatively process said information. In a Podcast that’s forgiving, because you can miss some discussion and grab bits and pieces. Not so much in an audiobook. That’s like skipping a page here or there then hoping you can still follow everything.

If you enjoy audiobooks and find you retain them the same as physical reading (or better), then this one would definitely be an opportunity to deepen your overall research discipline. I’ve found simply alternating the two works well, or associating a certain activity. For instance, I’ll put on my audiobook when I’m taking a walk, and keep to podcasts whenever I’m doing something built from simple/repetitive tasks, like driving or lifting weights at the gym or gardening.

There are further opportunities—watching YouTube education videos, transcribing books I admire, and occasionally, taking out a pen and doing a study of an image that catches my attention when reading Wikipedia. Of these, transcribing has become something so big it’s worth its own blog post, so I’ll save it for another time. But for the others, I try to do them more occasionally and spontaneously as further exercises to deepen my overall skill and hone my writing senses.

At the end of the day, it all comes out in that 2 hour window of time when I’m in front of the keyboard. But the advantage is that, when the tap’s on, the water flows all the time, and the torrent is strong and its sustenance rich.

Posted in John's blog, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments