Where is the best place to write a book? Coffee shops and the writer’s office

Picture the inside of a Starbucks — what do you see?

I’m willing to bet you see at least a few people hunched over laptop computers typing away furiously. While some might be students and others might be entrepreneurs, a few of them are likely writers. In fact, if you’re reading this post, I bet you’ve been one of them.

A coffee shop: the writer’s office. It’s almost a cliche, but there is some truth to it, and for good reason.

Most writers know the story of how J.K. Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book in a coffee shop in Edinburgh (it’s called The Elephant House and in fact, I’ve put in a few writing sessions myself there, many years ago). Did the “writer in the coffee shop” stereotype originate there? Perhaps the popularity of it did. I’d certainly be curious to know if anyone’s ever looked into a correlation between the spread of J.K. Rowling’s success story and the sudden prevalence of writers going to coffee shops to work on their novels.

But I think, inspiration aside, it’s about a lot more than wanting to emulate the formula of someone else’s success. J.K. Rowling, in choosing to lay the foundation stones of her career through going to that coffee shop to write, channeled something universal, a phenomenon behind what defines a great writing space.

Breaking the cycle of isolation

Writing is a very solitary pursuit.  Unless you go out, you’re usually sitting at a laptop or desktop computer in the corner of some room of your house or apartment, with no one around you except perhaps a cat that’s asleep next to your keyboard.  After all, when we write, we need as little distraction as possible.

Sometimes the silence can be deafening and draining, though, and in order to break it, we think of where we can go to work in a more public setting. Or maybe that cat who should be sleeping next to the laptop has a habit of sleeping on the keyboard (such is life with my cat, Wizard, and my one true source of writer’s block).

There’s many places you could go. A university study hall. A library. Heck, you could even go to a restaurant if you make sure you tip the server and agree to feature them as a character in your book. But the coffee shop usually trumps all these options for many reasons.

On one hand, there’s the susurrus of random chatter, a dull drone that makes you feel like you’re in the middle of a busy town square in the middle ages, an artisan perfecting your work while the busy world encircles you. The best thing about this drone is occasionally you might pick up conversation and, being a writer, you know the rule about how you should always be listening to how people talk and filing away in your mental archive some further notes on the nuances of dialogue.

But maybe you hate background noise when you’re writing, or maybe the conversation closest to your table is loud and annoying and is slowly making your WIP evolve into Act 5 of a Shakespeare tragedy. Thankfully, there’s headphones, and, in the age of ubiquitous internet and YouTube, there’s music and sound samples of endless variety available to give you the perfect writing mood for your writing session. In that case, being in a coffee shop lets you simply enjoy that you are out among people.

Whether it’s every time you write, or once in a while, the appeal of the coffee shop helps writers break outside the cycle of isolation.

Beyond coffee shops: writing is not always solitary

But do we really need to write in coffee shops? In my mind, there’s a lot more to J.K. Rowling’s successful completion of Harry Potter than escaping to that coffee shop to get her pages written, and to get there, we need to dig a bit deeper.

While many writers do like to write in coffee shops, there are just as many who cannot write anywhere except for their sacred space, wherever that might be, in isolation. In fact, I know some writers who do not feel isolated at all while working from the space at home or some other isolated office they have defined as their writing space. Stephen King, in his book On Writing advocates for the necessity of writers treating their writing space as sacred and has a special place in his home for it. He’s even symbolized the importance of his space by how his desk supports a corner where two walls meet — since “life does not support art, it’s the other way around.”

I have an office and as far as I’m concerned, whether I’m writing at home or writing at a coffee shop, my writing space is not physical at all. When I truly enter my writing space, it happens after the specific location has allowed me to filter out the world (and I’ve spent a long time experimenting to determine best conditions for that); see, my writing space is not part of this world, it’s some abstract corner of my mind which only opens its door when I shut the world out and decide I am committed 100% to the given story before me. You can ask anyone who’s tried to get my attention when I’m in a focused writing block — I startle as dramatically as someone who’s just been woken from a dream by a bucket of cold water over the head. (And they will also tell you about the glare that follows…)

Regardless of where I write, when my 2-hour timer comes on, I write and, on the best of days, I enter that place and delight in every moment of it. On the worst of days, I experience the writer’s equivalent of airplane turbulence. However, I’ve found both with practice, persistence, and perseverance — the willingness to sit through a hurricane of I just can’t write I just can’t write I just can’t write and prove the voice in those winds wrong — well, I can write no matter what, and the storytelling that comes out is the same regardless. After all, it’s coming from the same place; it just depends on how good a job I’m doing of keeping the door open and hauling the story out effectively.

All right, if I haven’t proved that I’m a quirky writer (maybe that I’m just plain nuts) then I hope at the least this demonstrates that really, writers don’t need to write in coffee shops. And, returning to the example of J.K. Rowling, I think she would have written Harry Potter on a street corner if that’s what it took to get the story out (though I’m sure she got there much sooner, and in a much happier state, thanks to the comforts of The Elephant House).

Wherever you write, write with your whole heart and you won’t fail

Does it matter if you’re in the attic with a long, vanilla-scented candle burning on the top of your Great Aunt June’s china cabinet, with the lighting dimmed to 30% and all your notes laid out correctly around the keyboard? Or if you write in a cold room like Hemingway, early when you’re uncomfortable and your mind is quieter and less critical? (The topic of when we write is something I’ll be exploring in a future blog post.)

In my opinion, the answer is it depends. All of these very specific conditions for the right writing session are emanations of a specific inner belief about what it means to write. Do you believe that your ability to write or not write depends on external situations and thus is subjected to your circumstances? Or do you believe that your ability to write is wholly dependent on your own willingness to write, no matter what your circumstances? If you lean toward the latter, as many writers do (myself included), then really, where you write doesn’t matter at all, just so long as there are no obstructions getting in the way of your ability to focus.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to believe in a sense of magic in your writing space (heck, keep in mind I’m the guy who, above, just outlined how my writing space is not based in the physical world), but it’s important to realize that regardless of where you write, that magic comes from within you, not your writing space. It’s a manifestation of your will to be the shaman who goes into the Story World and brings forth Story. The importance of finding an appropriate writing space then is more pragmatic, based on learning what spots will keep you grounded in the Story World, as efficiently as possible, so you can channel as much Story as possible.

I’d love to hear from you on where you write and if you’ve struggled to write in different places. Do you have an ideal place, or do you write wherever you’re able? Please share about your writing space so that other writers can compare notes.

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

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

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


Check out the topics and submission guidelines here

Aside | Posted on by

How to decide if you’re ready to publish: channeling your inner ideal reader

Probably the most common editing clients I work with are romance writers. Romance is a very competitive genre, one that requires several releases per year, preferably monthly, to stay competitive and to maintain a readership.

Romance authors, understandably, crank out a huge number of books and can’t spend too much time on any one book, for fear of getting behind and perhaps losing readership. These authors have to quickly perfect their plotting, writing, and revising skills so that their writing is pretty solid from the first draft. (Side note: if you want an interesting read of just how romance writers do this, check out  The Five Day Novel by Scott King.)

Readers of the romance genre tend to devour books — with some of them reading as much as a book a day. Granted, some of these are shorter books, so it is easier to read one, cover to cover, in a day. Readers therefore demand much higher turnaround of their favorite authors, meaning romance writers have to be more resourceful, but with skill that comes with writing many novels, great romance writers can turn around books quickly and effectively, because they know how to create the most important thing: a love plot that is worth rooting for and relentless conflict that has you reading on in suspense hoping your protagonist and love interest will get together in the end.

Readers of science fiction and fantasy, on the other hand, are much more interested in the nuances of plotting, world-building, and prose.  These readers often, but not always, take more time with their reading than a romance reader does. They aren’t in a rush to get through and will often stop to enjoy the view. Due to the nature of these genres, readers want to be immersed in new worlds, filled with fantastic technology and strange beings.  They also prefer their books to be longer, especially in fantasy, so time spent on world-building and added layers of plotting is a must.

Thus, authors of science fiction and fantasy know the risk is much higher that they won’t engage their audience if they don’t go to the extra lengths their readers expect on every book. Science fiction and fantasy readers tend to be okay with waiting for your next book if they know it’s going to deliver on all the extra layers of amazing storytelling they expect. Even George RR Martin’s fans, who have waited now nearly 6 years for the 6th book in his Song of Ice and Fire series, despite some frustration you hear about from fans, know that when the book comes out it’s going to be stellar because he’s demonstrated with the painstaking time he invests in his work that it translates to a book executed with mastery.

And somewhere in between all that is the broad vista of YA, NA, paranormal fantasy, urban fantasy, action, thriller, adventure, horror, and many of the genres where readers can’t get enough of their favorite authors’ series and the expectation is at least 1-2 books / year, where there is a lot more interest in plot and payoff and the standards are higher, but not so high that you need to make every book a masterpiece. (If there is anyone in the world capable of writing 1-2 masterpieces per year, please let me know because I’d like to study more of their methods!)

Am I ready to publish?

The main point I’m making above is that knowing if your book is ready to publish requires knowing your audience, and that means knowing your genre well. Usually (rarely not), the genre you will devote most of your time to writing in is also a genre you love to read. How else can you know what’s going to excite your readers? (I’m not taking into account the exceptions, such as someone who might write a weight loss book based on their strategy to lose 200 pounds; or a fiction writer who had a profound life experience and turned that into a book that captured the hearts of millions.) When asking yourself if you’re ready to publish, you have to consider what your potential readers will think of your book.

It’s important to know that, while editing can give your story an edge and prepare it for publication, it can only go so far if your story is not ready for publication; and only you can address that through strategic revisions, possible reworkings, continued education on craft and storytelling techniques, immersion in fiction to expand your awareness of the standards your readers will have (especially outstanding books in the genre you write in), and most importantly, a willingness to be relentless about finishing what you set out to do. When you submit your work, either to your agent, or to an editing team, your part of the work must be done so that the editing process can work effectively.

I write epic fantasy. I’ve been working on my novel, A Thousand Roads, for a few years now. I’ve had a few beta readers who have gone through earlier drafts of the book. I’ve even hired editors to work on some drafts (including my present one). The draft I’m finishing is hanging together pretty good and there’s lots of improvements; in fact, I would be so bold as to say the book is moving into the territory of being very good. But I am also an avid reader of the epic fantasy genre and I know what I’m striving for in this book. I am a fan of exactly the “species” of books my book is striving to be like, and when I work on this book I know what I want this book to be, and this means the potential I’m aiming for is nowhere near tapped yet and I have a long way to go. I’m not discouraged at all because I understand, this being the genre I’m in love with, it just goes with the turf. It’s part of the process, and many epic fantasy writers will fail (either through continued rejections, or indifferent readers should they self-publish) because they compromise the I need to get published instinct for I want to do this right.

But that’s my set of criterion. You as a writer most likely know your genre, and as a reader and fan of your genre, you know what it is you want in your book. You also know your process and methods that help you create that book, and it’s important to trust those instincts.

The important takeaway above all is that the process of channeling your inner ideal reader is a sure criterion for helping you understand if the book you’re trying to complete is actually done or not, provided you belong in that group. Why is this? Because if you are a fan of a specific subgroup of book types that have sold well, then you are one of a large group of people who have read those books and want more. You are writing your book because you are creating more for that group of readers, and you, being one of them, know exactly what you’d want in a book, were you to pick it up off the shelves and read it.

The power of channeling your inner ideal reader

Are you ready to publish? Simply ask yourself if the novel you’re about to send out into the world is the kind of novel you, as your own reader, would want to read. Is there anything lacking? Are you left wanting? Address that, and ask this same question, and repeat until there is nothing to do. Depending on your genre, this might be a quick process, spending an extra few days with your  manuscript and booking those days off work; it might be years’ long and seventeen drafts which will later win you a Hugo award (you deserve it if you stick it out that long).

Either way, know your reader, and write for your readers, because you are also that reader, and you know when your work is ready.

What’s your genre? Are you a big fan of it as a reader? What expectations does your audience have and how does this shape your process of adding touches to your story before you decide it’s done? I’d love to hear from you!

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

Posted in John's blog, Story Perfect Newsletter Posts, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Creative writers and artists alike: why you should be getting more than 8 hours of sleep a night

Sleep is something I’ve struggled with all my life. Being a writer has only complicated things, as, over the years, I’ve lain awake many a night for hours on end, my story unfolding in my head, tempting me to get up and write things down. More than once in my lifetime I’ve used it as an opportunity to rise at some insane hour like 12:45am and write, sometimes even making coffee and working until just before sunrise.

I can’t do that anymore, and in fact I’ve learned that, sleepless nights or not, I’m wise to see those periods of nocturnal windmill-mind as times where I need to focus on how I might better enter the land of Nyx, not on how I might defy the laws of nature.

Why sleep matters (especially) if you’re a creative person

But why bother, though? Shouldn’t writers defy the rules of reality and embrace the creative spirit when it strikes? Is it about art above all, that desperate need to get out of the way of yourself and your limits and let something far greater than you come into being?

I used to think so. But then I started to get health problems, and, my natural default being to tackle all problems proactively, I started to do research and lo and behold, I discovered the importance of sleep  — namely, the role of sleep in a host of health problems, many of which were the ones I was having. I made some radical changes to my lifestyle and made the priority of getting 8+ hours of sleep a night my top priority above everything else, and my health problems went away.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg, and not the actual eureka moment that made me jump in fully to this paradigm shift. It was an article I read by James Clear (http://jamesclear.com/sleep) which outlined not only the health considerations of sleep, but the impact on cognitive function as well. I highly recommend you read that article, but the main point that struck me was one of the studies that was done on sleep. It showed that people who slept 6-8 hours / night were as cognitively impaired as people who slept 4-6 hours / night. While those who slept 8+ hours were top of their game. Specifically, this was for complex processing and learning tasks.

Any writer I’m sure can agree that writing a book is as complex as neurosurgery. Maybe more complex. Thesis stated: if you want to be at the top of your game as a writer, you need to be getting that extra bit of sleep, and here’s why.

Every night once we fall asleep, we go through a series of 90-120 minute sleep cycles. During one cycle, we pass through REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep — when dreaming happens — and non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep has three stages, but it’s the third when our brain frequency drops to its lowest (called Slow Wave Sleep, or SWS) and our body tends to deep maintenance tasks like cell repair and growth. When you fall asleep, you are essentially returning to the well and dipping in two different ladles every sleep cycle, one for the SWS sleep and one for the REM sleep.

You might have experienced how in the morning you wake up and are aware of your bedroom, and you’re still tired but could get up, so you choose to go back to sleep and then you wake up after having had some bizarre dream, but then when you wake up this time it’s like the cobwebs have cleared and you have a big stretch and feel rested and it’s time to get up. In other words, both ladles for SWS and REM are full and you’re ready for the day.

For writers, it’s the REM ladle that is most important. Though the function of dreaming is still not well understood, the function of REM sleep is known to help in the formation of new memories and restore brain chemistry to its normal balance. If you want a metaphor, think of a computer defrag. If you don’t run it, your computer will still do it’s job, but it won’t take long for things to end up a real mess and for your processing to slow right down. This is what happens over time to people who consistently sleep less than 8 hours / night. The REM ladle keeps coming up every morning 80% full, and the damage is slow and mostly invisible.

How to get 8+ hours of sleep a night so you can write better books

For me, getting a good night’s sleep is all about priorities. I work out regularly, and follow a specific regiment of strength training and running, and the days I show up to the gym are as fixed in place as a meeting with the doctor. In fact, I schedule them so that I don’t book that time for anything else.

Exercise is a high priority for me, but sleep is my top priority, so just like with exercise, I’ve found forcing my life to flex around my sleep time has allowed me to ensure I get the sleep I need so I can approach my writing and editing work with my creativity fully juiced.

The strategy is going to differ for everyone because some people fall asleep quickly, others don’t. If you can’t fall asleep though, my recommendation is to read a book. Not on your phone (screens can stimulate your mind, and your phone will tempt you to go on Facebook where you will be as mentally active as someone at a late night party), but a back-lit ereader is fine. Go ahead and read and read and read and read (and read and read …) until you feel tired. I find when I do this it doesn’t take long to get to sleep, and most importantly, I go to bed with some new fresh insights about storytelling that have struck me from what I’ve read.

The hardest part now is the other end. Have you ever gone to bed planning out your day, seeing how it’s going to start at, say, 6am, and with that you block in all the things you’re going to get done. But then you’re lying in bed unable to sleep, and that’s just getting you more frustrated. It’s now midnight and you’re only going to get 6 hours, but screw that, you have so much to get done, oh well — and hey, there’s coffee, a couple of cups and you’ll be talking a mile a minute, even thinking a mile a minute (never mind if those thoughts will be bordering on manic chatter). Then tomorrow comes and you either do one of two things: hit the snooze button and sleep in, then get angry all day and grumble about being behind; or, get up and find for the rest of the day you feel like a ghost haunting a caffeine-possessed body.

Okay, I’m personalizing that paragraph, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not alone in that kind of experience. What I’m trying to illustrate is just why the waking up part is the hardest part of making sure you sleep enough: rationalization. Specifically, our scarcity mindset.

For those not familiar with the terminology, scarcity and abundance are two sides of a coin. Those with scarcity mindsets look around and see problems, and where things are lacking. Those who have cultivated an abundance mentality look around and see solutions, and how many opportunities abound. I used the word cultivate intentionally: our default is to look around, see all the problems creeping in like weeds, panic, and into survival mode we go. 6am comes and we’re up, or we give in to our frail mortal coil and we go through the day crucifying ourselves for it.

What if, instead of laying there at 12am freaking out over the fact that you’re only going to get 6 hours of sleep, you instead decided to throw your plan out the window and decide you’re going to get up when you feel you REM ladle is full? What if you instead decided to wake up and go into that next day not beating yourself up for having less time, but cherishing the fact that for what time you have you’re going to feel energized, creative, present, and grounded in it?

So there might be consequences. I had to embrace the consequences when I decided to treat my gym sessions like appointments. I even had to turn down editing jobs that would have paid well, because they were on deadline and I knew I would be housebound for the few days it would take to complete them. Likewise with sleep I’ve had to change around my entire lifestyle to make sure I get those 8+ hours, even on nights when I don’t get to sleep right away.

Strangely enough (and here’s that scarcity mentality lie shown up) I’ve found that my daily life has actually gotten easier and, like with the gym sessions, grown around that commitment. Most importantly, when I’m working, be it on my novel or on an editing project, or overseeing production and direction for my company, I’m full present and doing the best work I know I can be doing.




What about you? Do you prefer Edison’s 2 hours per night so you can dust off your best creative ideas? Are you a night owl? A morning bird? Are you a reformed night owl like me and if so, what habits have helped make that lifestyle work for you? How do you cultivate an abundance mentality in how you put sleep first?

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

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

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

How Much Does Editing Cost (aka Why the Heck is Editing So Expensive?)

I drive a 2004 Toyota Camry. It’s a good car — I got it second hand and seemed to really luck out with it. Even though Toyotas last a long time, or so I’m told, this one is doing quite well for its age.

Part of it, I believe, is that I have it regularly serviced and maintained. There’s an autobody shop around the corner from where I live, which happens to be the one that my husband and his family have used for decades.  The mechanic’s name is Tony (if I were editing a book about a mechanic, I’d suggest the author change the name because Tony is a little stereotypical a name for a mechanic) and he knows my car very well.

Tony isn’t the cheapest. If I wanted cheap auto maintenance, I’d find a friend who is a mechanic, or learn to do it myself. But that’s just asking for trouble (though if you know the right mechanic friend you might be as lucky as, say, the survivors in a Russian roulette game).

While Tony isn’t cheap, he’s honest and reliable, and never leaves me in the dark. One time, for example, I wanted him to investigate a periodic clunking that came from under my car. He told me it was about a $300 job but not critical. “When you have some spare change and want it fixed, we’re happy to do that for you, but if you want to save some money it’s not going to cause any harm.” Another time, my husband’s car wouldn’t start in the winter — it turned out his plug-in cord was severed. It took fifteen minutes for Tony to replace it and he only charged for the cord, a mere $30.

Then there was the time, a few months after I bought my car, when something went seriously wrong. The engine seized on me and the car shut down, right in the middle of an intersection. Three different warning light went on that had me worried I’d bought a lemon after all. I had no choice but to get it towed to Tony’s. The next day, when I got the call from him with the prognosis, he explained that it was a special part called the throttle body, and the repair was a $1200 job. It was standard for such resilient engines like those in the Toyota for the computer to kick in and shut the engine down when it detected the part needed replacing, so as not to cause further damage to the engine. Such features are a large part of why many Toyotas make it up to 700,000 km and even then refuse to die. So, I paid the extra money and did so with optimism, because of the trust I had in Tony. I knew the  work was necessary and indeed, to this day, the engine has run strong.

Here’s where I shift gears to writing.

When an author finishes writing a manuscript, they’re similar to someone with a car in need of repair. The author could manage a self-edit or perhaps get a well-read friend to edit it.  While there is some benefit, for sure, in self-editing or having a friend look at it, there is a greater benefit in having a professional editor go over your manuscript.  It’s more expensive, yes, but just like a higher price for car repairs ensure you’ll get service you can trust, paying for editing can help ensure you receive a more professional and comprehensive edit than you or your friend might be able to do.

Just like the example of my $1200 engine repair, a good investment in an editor can give your story true mileage with readers and reviewers. While your investment might not earn out from book sales, it will earn out in a much more meaningful way in that the book you put out will stand strong and be something you can be proud of as an installment in your writing career.

But you don’t have to pay for everything. When it comes to editing especially, author beware is a very important motto to stick to.

What kind of editing you can’t cut out

At the very least, make sure you have an edit that addresses developmental issues. This is sometimes called a substantive edit, or a content edit. Both terms imply the edit is considering the “meat” of the story — so the editor is considering the abstract level of the story itself beyond just the line-by-line correctness of the prose. (Such an edit is called a copyedit, which I’ll get to next.)

The reason developmental editing is so important is because there are many stories that are published that get “edited” when in fact all that’s been fixed are various typos, spelling, grammar, punctuation, and repetitive words. An editor who does a developmental edit is thinking about the story and using storytelling principles to instruct you on rewrites, and that editor will catch plot holes, inconsistencies in characterization, problems with voice or point of view (usually called POV), pacing, and narration — to name a few of the heavy hitters.

Having developmental (or substantive or content) editing done is like making sure you get your trusted mechanic to work on your engine and the parts of the car you’ll likely break if you try to fix it yourself.

A developmental edit can sometimes cost a lot of money. Typically, when I do a developmental edit I average about 6 manuscript pages / hour when there are a lot of problems, and 10-15 pages / hour when it’s smooth sailing. If your manuscript is 300 pages, then you do the math and you’ll see it comes out to anywhere between 20-50 hours. (I want to be absolutely clear though: in my career working on more than 100 manuscripts to date, I have yet to see a manuscript that was that length and needed an hour for every six pages from front to back.)

Now, I’m going to make a very bold statement here: editors deserve to be paid as much as auto mechanics because the work they do is as complicated (maybe more complicated). Just as auto mechanics know all the basic components of a car and what needs to go where, editors are trained in all the essentials of storytelling, writing craft, and grammar, to know what in your story still needs work. Most importantly, like auto mechanics who have stripped down and put back together countless cars, editors who have earned their stripes through editing many manuscripts aren’t just going to use book smarts on you.

How you can save yourself a lot of money on editing

I don’t take my car in to the shop when I’m out of windshield wiper fluid, nor do I take it in when I’ve got a burnt-out tail light.  There are some tasks I can do myself, or get a good friend to help me with.

Likewise, you can save yourself a lot of money by developing an effective self-editing and revision strategy.

Let me talk a bit about that universe often feared and not well understood by most writers. Revision. I’ve heard it said that revision is 80% of writing a book, and though I doubted it in the beginning, I’ve come to understand that it’s true. If you think you can bowl through a draft then rush it off to an editor, then either you’re asking for a steep bill or you’re so gifted you will be the object of contempt by 99% of the rest of us who say “Amen” when we hear Ernest Hemingway’s proverb, “The first draft is always shit.”

The problem, though, is that many writers take it to the opposite extreme and feel there is no end to revision. In reality your book is never going to be perfect. But it can be sufficiently amazing, a term I just invented which means: “Revised to the point that the reader cannot tell the difference between their version of perfect and yours.”

As a writer, you’re wise to develop a drafting strategy. Many writers use beta-readers or critique partners, and will plan to write at least two drafts (usually three or more). There is no magic number, because it’s going to differ based on the writer and the specific project, but the idea is, with every step of revision, you want to make sure you’re getting closer to the final vision you have for your book.

And when you reach that point where you’re convinced this is done, then off it goes to your editor.

I hope you see that if you develop a great drafting strategy (I will be elaborating more on the art of self-editing and revision in a few weeks), you can save yourself the need for multiple rounds of editing, or a $2000 bill for a developmental edit vs. an $800 one. It’s the same as saying good auto maintenance can mean your trip to the mechanic only requires you replace some O2 sensors, not that you have to repair a cracked cam shaft (the demise of the first car I owned).

What other editing you should have done if you plan to self-publish

You may be familiar with the term copyediting. Sometimes you’ll see it written copy editing. Both are correct, but I use copyediting just because the term has stuck and I enjoy rebelling against the spell-checker in another case of knowing I’m right and it’s wrong.

Strictly speaking, copyediting comes after developmental editing, and this should make logical sense. After you’ve done the incredible juggling act of cutting scene X and transplanting it in the middle of scene Y to address a cause-effect issue in your narration, or rewriting the crap out of the three paragraphs where your POV character’s motives weren’t clear, you’re going to have a big mess to clean up. The idea is you can get your hands dirty when you’re doing a developmental edit, knowing after it’s all done, a new editor with a fresh set of eyes is going to come and focus on keeping everything tidy.

If the developmental editor is the same as the guy at the mechanic shop who goes in and rips your car apart and fits everything back together the right way, the copyeditor is the same as the girl (let’s keep this a gender-balanced work place) at the shop who comes in after he’s done and looks everything over to make sure all the plugs have been put back on the right way, maybe tightens a few bolts, and while she’s at it, checks all your fluids to make sure there’s no other issues before you come and drive your car back home.

Copyeditors do not focus on story, unless the element of the story is an actual error. Copyeditors, typically, focus on spelling, grammar, punctuation, formatting, logic and clarity. I want to expand on that “logic” item, because it’s a loaded term. By logic, this is the part that sets a copyeditor apart from a proofreader. That word means the copyeditor is thinking logically about everything your manuscript is saying, line-by-line, and questioning if what you’ve written is the best way to write it.

You might sometimes find a copyeditor has cut a lot of words from your manuscript, or rearranged many of your sentences. This all comes down to that “logic and clarity” part, because many times the way you will write a sentence has made what you’re trying to say confusing or otherwise difficult to grasp. “He rushed up the steps, his niece following close behind,” is much clearer than, “His niece close behind, he rushed up the steps, ascending hurriedly.” The first kill in that sentence is due to logic: “ascending hurriedly” is implied by “rushed up the steps.” The reversal of clauses is due to clarity (and partly logic too): seeing his niece close behind him is immediately confusing: what’s he doing for her to be close behind him? He rushed up the steps establishes for the reader an immediate vision of exactly what’s happening, then adding his niece following close behind him allows us to add in an extra detail from an already established visual. Now it’s clear, and logical.

I hope I’ve convinced you that copyeditors put in their share of sweat and hard work, and, like the girl in our example mechanic shop, the work they do is just as important. You wouldn’t want to take your car home only to find out a loose screw on your engine came off and caused damage, nor should you as a writer want to pay for developmental editing only to find that all the juggling around you did in your rewrites confused your readers.

Last but not least: proofreading

Let’s face it: editors are human. People miss things. Even the big publishers, who often have up to 30 sets of eyes on a book before it goes to print, still will miss a typo or two. Even if you’re just paying a thank-you sum of money to a friend, or if you’re lucky to have a group of die-hard fans who will gladly be the first readers of your book before it comes out, do not skip this step before you publish. A third (at least) set of eyes, especially after copyediting is complete, is vital. This is a chance for someone to read your book as though it’s published, and make a list of outstanding typos.

If you can afford it, have a professional editor do it. The editor, unlike a friend or beta-readers, is trained in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and formatting, and will spot more in the proofread than a reader who might not be familiar with all the rules of spelling and grammar. Your friend / beta-readers might catch the part of your manuscript where you have the,y went to the store but they might not catch the typo go to the sign in table (sign-in is the correct form since it modifies the noun table).

So there you have it. If nothing else, I hope you learned that editing, while as expensive as engine repair on your car, is just as important.


All right, your turn! Have you had any bad experiences with editors who charged too much? Who didn’t give you the editing you were expecting? Are you one of those authors who sees the color red when you hear the word revision? I’d love to hear what you think about the cost (and necessity) of editing and why we can’t live without it.

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

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

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

4 Steps to Make Your Fantasy Map Great

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step Two: Your map is part of the story.

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

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


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

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

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

Step Three: Aim for elegance, not complication.

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

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

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

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

Step Four: Explore, iterate, and deepen.

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

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

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

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

Posted in John's blog, World Builders, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should every writer should read?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to read and be open without be swayed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in John's blog, Story Perfect Newsletter Posts, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments