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

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

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

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

Species vs. Races

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage 1

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

Stage 2

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

Stage 3

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

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

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

Line edit

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

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

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

Content or substantive editing

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

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

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

The downward progression of the editorial cycle: avoiding circular revision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to use twitter as an author to reach more readers: tips, etiquette & twitter marketing strategies

A few weeks ago, in this post on book marketing, I outlined the basics on how to build an effective engagement and outreach strategy as an Indie author. While Craig and I continue to work on the marketing follow up to How to Self-Publish Your BookI will periodically touch back on some of the fallout topics from that post. Today I thought I’d talk about Twitter marketing, since one of the most common places authors start when they self-publish is Twitter, and there’s often a lot to learn.

Twitter basics: How TweetDeck will make your life so much easier

I’m going to start by assuming you’re new to Twitter, but that you have an account and understand what an @ handle is, what it means to follow, be followed, and send/receive direct messages.

So you’re using Twitter, but you really don’t know where to start.

The most important tip I can give you at this point is to go to the website and use that website for Twitter when you’re managing it on your computer. (Or, if you’re on a Mac, there’s a handy desktop app to easily use Tweetdeck.)

Tweetdeck is a software that lets you use Twitter with much more efficiency. You can log into multiple Twitter accounts at once, and it allows you to add columns to the screen to keep tabs on the tweets.

Let’s assume you just have one Twitter account for your author Twitter. Here are some columns you’ll have in Tweetdeck (and if you don’t have them you can simply add them by clicking on the “add columns” button, which looks like a + on the left).

  • Home column (displays the tweets by everyone you follow, all at once)
  • Notifications column (displays all the tweets where your @ handle has been mentioned, or lets you know if someone has followed you)
  • Messages column (displays your private messages)
  • Scheduled column (shows all tweets you’ve scheduled to get tweeted at a later date)

Twitter tip: pin your promotional tweet to the top of your feed

There’s one exception to the above suggestion about TweetDeck. Whatever your most important promotional item is, create a tweet for it using the Twitter website (since TweetDeck doesn’t let you edit your own feed of tweets).

Usually, if you’ve just published a book or if you’re about to publish it, this tweet should have a link to where readers can buy (or read about) your book, and it should include the cover added as a photo to the Tweet itself, a brief log-line, and relevant hashtags.

For those not familiar with the term, a log-line is a (usually) 1-sentence hook that summarizes conflict, stakes and character for your story. You’re essentially telling readers at a glance what they can expect if they click on the link.

“In a world where art is illegal, a weaver whose skill is a gateway to magic discovers she’s the heir to a long-lost throne.”

That’s a log-line I used at one time for Blood Dawn, and as you can see in that I’ve capture character (the weaver), conflict (she’s an artist, therefore she’s doing something illegal), and stakes (if she’s the heir to a long-lost throne then that means it’s on her to use her criminal power to supplant the powers that be, overturn their harsh laws, and assume her rightful place).

Writing a log-line is hard, and you may find you come up with many of them and they will change with time as you get different reader input, or you might find different log-lines bring out different aspects of your book and belong in one place over another. For Twitter, the log-line you use should be short and should tell new prospective readers who click on your profile just what your book is about.

If you’re having a hard time, don’t overthink it. Create one. Pin it to the top of your feed. You can always make a new tweet and pin it to the top (the original will get unpinned and will jump down to wherever it belongs in chronological order in your feed of tweets).

Limit self-promotional tweets to 20%

The purpose of pinning a promotional tweet to the top of your feed is twofold.

On one hand, it means prospective readers when they click on your profile to check out who you are and what you do will see that tweet right away when they look through your feed. It lets you list your book front and center. (You’ll also find that several people will retweet it or like it — this is because, being pinned to the top, it’s there in place for them to help you share it.)

On the other, it avoids the need to tweet about your book or book deals incessantly.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with tweeting about an important event or a time-limited deal. This is important and is more of an update / event that counts as notifying your fans of something important.

What I’m talking about is repetitive tweets that aren’t sharing anything new, but are rather pushing for the same result on something old. Good examples of this are tweets that continue to read something to the effect, “Get [My Book XX Goes to YY] on Amazon for only $0.99!” along with seven hashtags, i.e. #kindle #kdpselect #amazon #readers #books #buymybookbuymybookbuymybook. (That last one isn’t actually a hashtag, but if you want to be the first to create it, be my guest.)

To be clear, I’m not saying you shouldn’t have promotional tweets that highlight something from your book. In fact, you should have several of these that go out throughout the week, and I’d recommend using Tweetdeck to schedule them. (More on that below.) However, try to limit it to approximately 20% of what you tweet.

How does this look in practice? Don’t get your calculator out. Simple open up your Twitter feed in the Twitter app on your phone (or on the Twitter website) and comb through everything you’ve tweeted. Roughly 1 in every 5, or 2 in every 10, or 8 in every 40 tweets should be promotional.

A useful rule is to schedule 7 unique promotional tweets to go up every week (you can queue them all on one day), then during that week make a point of tweeting about 30 times. The tweets can be simply sharing something about your day, a thought, how your writing’s going (but not too much on your writing — readers want to get to know you not just your books and how you write them).

Also, and this is a big one: tweet @ other people. In fact, I want to call that the Golden Rule of Twitter, because if you’re stuck on how to tweet about 30 times in addition to the 7 or so scheduled self-promotional tweets you’re generating, you’ll kick yourself out of that rut as soon as you get in the habit of, say for 5 minutes every morning scrolling through your “Home” feed and seeing if there’s anything you can comment on. Hit “reply” to a tweet — maybe one of your readers read a book you absolutely loved and commented on it and you want to say something to add to the conversation. Really, get creative. Think of that Home feed on Twitter as a large party room full of people and you’re in there listening to snippets of what people are saying and looking for opportunities to jump in.

You can also retweet books of other authors that you think your readers might like, or blog posts these authors might have shared. Just be careful with this as excessive retweeting can alienate your audience. I have unfollowed many people because I noticed, as I was going through my Home feed, there was nothing but retweets from them, and nothing from them.

What is the point of all this? 20% is not a magic number. You can go ahead and queue 10 promotional tweets for the week and tweet only 25 times in addition if you want. The point is this: a new prospective reader checking out your Twitter feed is going to see that for the most part you are an engaging person. You don’t just retweet a bunch of things. You don’t sell sell sell. You don’t obsess about your writing. You share things about yourself. You interact with other people. You’re all around a cool person, the kind of person they want to follow, and maybe, the kind of person whose books they might just check out…

Scheduling tweets and SocialJukebox

I have two confessions. The first is that I don’t tweet as much as I should. That said, I follow the 20% rule by default since I’m not promoting a book! That said, I direct the strategies of several Twitter accounts through my editing and cover design company, and have established systems for those who run them to follow the 20% promotional, 80% engaging rule.

The second confession is that the resource I’m about to share with you is something I’ve never actually used, but it’s something we use to manage content on some of our Twitter accounts. It’s called SocialJukebox (here’s the link) and I’m not going to teach you today the ins and outs of it. However, it is easy to use and easy to learn so I’m going to tell you how it will make your self-promotional tweeting life a walk in the park.

Let’s say you follow the above strategy of 7 promotional tweets per week. You go into TweetDeck and create 7 tweets. Perhaps you have some great quotes from your book, or catchy log-lines to highlight different aspects of it. The point is, one day of the week you have to go in and spend some time (maybe 20-30 minute) creating all these tweets and setting a date and time for them to go live, and you have to do that again each week.

SocialJukebox does something quite amazing. Why create something new every week when you could instead sit down for an entire evening and write up about 40 awesome tweets, then put them all in place and let a program like SocialJukebox randomly choose 7 of them to go live at times you set in place. If you want to let it run and you forget about it, SocialJukebox will keep to the schedule you put in place, so you only need to go in if you want to change the tweeting times, or if some of the tweets feel old and stale (or if you’ve had some inspiration and thought of better tweets).

Lastly, your author bio, #dont #fill #it #with #hashtags

Hashtags are great. There are many that are useful to writers. #amwriting #amwritingfantasy #amreading #amediting #writing #writer #writers #reading #readers #books … I could go on and on.

(Quick tip: if you don’t know what to pick for hashtags, pay attention when you look through your Home feed. There’s a good chance you follow some authors who are doing the same thing you’re doing. What hashtags do they use? Click on them and see if lots of people use them, or if the content in that feed is somewhere your tweet would fit.)

One place hashtags should not go is your author bio, for the same reason why you shouldn’t relentlessly tweet for people to buy your book. Why? It’s pretentious. If you’re a #writer who is always #amwriting, then let those hashtags go in the tweets that show this.

Instead, use your bio to tell people who you are. And not just who you are, but why you do what you do and what drives you, as well as why you’re cool and worth following. Not literally in words, but your “why” should come through, as well as a few neat things about you. Think of it as your whole self in a few brushstrokes.

Do you write erotica where gender doesn’t matter? Your bio might read “Erotica author, lover of all pairings. Passionate LGBT2SQ+ enthusiast, dragon queen, also called crazy cat lady.”

You also don’t need to put your website or a buy link in your bio. There’s a “website” field in your profile where you can link to your blog or website. Simply use every space available to you to communicate what you do, and most importantly, why you do it, and, with what space is left, show a bit more. It’s the same reason you want to have about 80% engagement tweets: it makes new prospective readers more likely to want to follow you, interact with you, and hopefully, check out your book(s).

What about emoticons and cool character combinations? Go for it, if that’s natural to you and part of who you are. Ask me, it adds flare and shows you know how to have fun.

Enough for now, but I hope if you’re new to Twitter I’ve given you lots to dig into. Please let me know if you have any questions. I feel like even with this more in-depth discussion, I’m still just scratching the surface of what I could share!

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How to proofread a book: where proofreading fits in the editing process and useful techniques

Proofreading is a good place to start if you’re first getting your feet wet as an editor. But there are many misconceptions on proofreading and how it works. Let’s break apart these misconceptions, and in doing so, unearth the process and skills required.

Proofreading is not done in a Word document.

Think of proofreading as quality inspection of a product that’s ready to launch. When you proofread a book, it should no longer be in Word format at all. The author (or publisher) delivers a book in the format it’s ready to be published in, either as an ebook or a printed book called a galley (the more global term for this is an ARC, which stands for Advanced Review Copy since it’s sent out to reviewers in this form before publication).

As you read through, you will note any errors in a separate place. This is often called an erratum sheet or erratum list. If you’re reading in ebook format on an iPhone for example, you can start this list in the Notes app and flip back and forth with a double-tap between iBooks and Notes whenever you have to mark an error.

My erratum list is simple, and I recommend you do likewise:

Write down four words in succession where you find the typo. If it’s an obvious typo you don’t need to write anything else (you’ll see why a few paragraphs down). If it’s not obvious, make a quick note in brackets. The idea is to make it quick so that you don’t lose the momentum of reading the book at reader speed.

You can keep this list by hand if you prefer, or at your computer, but do not — do not — proofread the book’s Word document file! The moment you do this you’re copyediting, not proofreading.

When you’re all done reading the ARC and compiling your erratum list, then you open the Word document and, using your words as a search key, go through it and mark the corrections in the document, then send that back to the author so they can approve them all then proceed to publication.

This might sound like a roundabout process but the point is you want to experience the book as the final product it’s going to be published as, and the book is not going to be published as a Word document.

Proofreading is not fixing word choice and improving sentences.

While there might be some errors in wording or incomplete sentences that were missed by the previous editors, a proofreader is not editing a Word document of a manuscript for the very reason that they are not editing the book. Therefore, when you’re making your erratum list, if you find yourself marking down four words in succession, then making long notes about how a sentence seems off to you and you’re providing alternatives, then you’ve wandered off the track.

Many aspiring editors who start out proofreading will go in and start rewording sentences and asking for revisions, not realizing they are actually not doing the author a favor, since proofreading should be happening after all that critical editing has happened.

Proofreading is supposed to be fixing errors, and the moment you start asking for rewriting, you’re asking for more errors, and the necessity for yet another proofread. (If you’ve ever watched a dog chase its tail, this process of proofreading-gone-wrong looks a little like that.)

A good guideline is 6000-7500 words / hour. If you’re taking longer then either you’re being too subjective in what you’re considering “errors” or the book needs to go back to the previous editors because you’re doing someone else’s job.


Proofreading is not just fixing typos.

Proofreaders must exercise restraint and assume all editing is done, but this doesn’t mean all they fix are typos.

As the proofreader, you are reading the ARC as if you’re reading a book that’s just been purchased by a reader (I’ll get into this process below), and you are looking for anything that would stand out to you as a mistake. Typos are the usual suspect, but that said, a proofreader must have a sharp skill set that extends to copyediting and developmental editing. For instance, you might notice that a character’s eye color changed, or there is a major plot hole you can’t ignore, or the opening of a scene is flat and totally off the rails and you’re wondering if the developmental editor forgot to drink coffee the morning they edited that particular section. As the proofreader, you would note all these things on an erratum sheet and pass it back to the original editors and author to address these problems.

Should such larger errors occur, rewrites will be done on spot and the proofreader might be asked to review the specific rewrites to ensure they are free of errors.

Proofreading is not just fixing the author’s mistakes.

Aside from being a quality inspector, another good way to think of a proofreader is as a safety net. Developmental editing and copyediting, the two stages of editing that precede proofreading, are high stakes tightrope acts. There’s lots of rewriting, changes of tense, cutting clauses and moving them elsewhere, changing characters or plots. Rewriting sentences. Rewriting sentences. Rewriting sentences. It’s a real mess, and you better bet there will be lots of outstanding errors that have come out from the process of rewriting.

So, the mistakes you’ll be catching, especially the typos, will actually be a result of the editing process and will have little to do with the manuscript the author originally delivered to the first editor.

As a proofreader, you will think of typos with special names (I’ll get to that below), since you’ll understand exactly how these sorts of typos come into being and will proudly flag them knowing it’s part of your role so that developmental editing and copyediting can get messy and creativity can go as deep as it needs to for the novel to get in shape. I have done several proofreading jobs (it’s actually my area of specialty) and I absolutely love catching these typos because I can appreciate the twirling acts that went into creating them.

(I’ll get into the flip side of this in my caveat on typos that are the result of no editing below.)

Proofreading is not something just anyone can do.

Some authors hire friends to proofread their book. I have, in the past, advised clients on a tight budget who want to forego proofreading to get a team of beta readers to read their edited book to compensate, but with that comes the caveat that the “proofread” will only be as good as the editing knowledge of the beta readers (the reason I advise this, of course, is because thorough beta readers, no matter how trained they are in editing, will at least spot obvious typos which would otherwise detract readers from the hard work that’s gone into revisions from the editing process).

Anyone can find a typo here and there, but if someone is paying you money to proofread their book, you must have an edge that goes above and beyond guesswork. Are you the kind of person who will stop and do a Google search of “lean-to vs lean to” just to verify your instinct to choose the latter? This is the kind of instinct you must have if you’re getting into proofreading. Leave no stone unturned. If not knowing how to spell camaraderie makes you get up and grab a dictionary (or open a Chrome tab like I often do), then this instinct is going to carry you far as a proofreader. (For the record, yes you can rely on Google searches to resolve spelling, hyphenation, or word/phrase/dialect usage curiosities. The internet is so saturated with free resources and forums where writers or editors have queried the very issue you are curious about. Just make sure you consult multiple sources to verify, through corroboration, that your conclusion is correct, and cite this for the author.)

All that aside, though, if you’re serious about becoming an editor, you should have a more senior editor inspecting your work so that you can learn from them. I train apprentice editors through my company and we always start with proofreading, for the same reason you don’t teach someone how to juggle ten balls until you can inspect how well they juggle two. If you’re just wanting to proofread and make a bit of money on the side, what with how hot the self-publishing author market is right now, then you don’t need to do this, but in my opinion, if you want to do this professionally, you should. You don’t necessarily have to affiliate yourself with an editing company or publisher — you can offer a small percentage of the fee you’re charging for a proofreading job to a more senior editor for the purpose of inspecting your work and teaching you as you go, as a per project basis.

Whether you choose to hire / affiliate with a more senior editor or not, you should complement your practice with education. I don’t mean getting an MFA or going to a college to take editing courses (though that’s definitely not going to hurt). I mean read, a lot. Specifically, read books on grammar and writing. There’s really no magic formula for what exactly you should read, so instead I recommend you keep your ears open and eyes peeled for titles that come up often in writer/editor circles.

To get you started, here’s my recommended reading list, and if you read all these books you’ll have a pretty good foundation:

  • The Little, Brown Handbook (The latest is the 13th edition, but I read the 5th. This is a great resource for grammar, punctuation, and formatting rules if you want a compact tour de force on the matter.)
  • The Elements of Style by E.B. White & William Strunk Jr. (This book is very short and will teach you a lot about common mistakes of word usage and style. It will also give you deeper knowledge of effective writing techniques if you want to level up to try copyediting and developmental editing.)
  • Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss (If you want to double down on making sure you’re not a victim of the punctuation misunderstandings that prevail, even in professionally published fiction, this book is great.)
  • The Art of Punctuation by Noah Lukeman (I can’t go on enough about how important punctuation is, hence why this book is so important because it makes you think outside of the box, where voice and style often dictate punctuation choices that deviate from what the rules would tell you to do. I even want to say 70% of proofreading is fixing punctuation, and of that, probably 70-80% is fixing misuses of the almighty comma.)
  • The Chicago Manual of Style (If there’s any book you should buy a physical copy of and keep in your office, it’s this one. Almost all the time, authors or editors, and publishers, will cite the conventions of this manual for formatting or rules of grammar or punctuation, and this is one place your Google searches likely will not help you since they have it all locked down online. You don’t have to read it all, though if you’re like me you probably will because the thought of reading an editing book is as exciting as childhood memories of time on the Tilt-A-Whirl.)

Proofreading will not make a book 100% perfect.

To type is human, and to typo, divine. Big publishers like Harper Collins and Penguin sometimes pass the final ARC of a book they are putting lots of muscle behind to 30 staff in house. These staff will read it before it’s published and provide erratum notes. Even then, there might still be a missing period on page 346.

Why does this happen?

If you weed your garden and there’s years’ worth of weeds layered in deep, you’ll probably find after several rounds of weeding you’ve got almost everything, but you could go over the soil again and find a few tiny things you missed while you were busy tugging out those giant dandelions. Likewise, you’ll probably notice, after you’ve purged the soil of every pest — lo and behold: a dandelion cowering next to your lilacs and trying to blend in, somehow missed, what with the angle of the sun and how you were weeding every other inch of the soil.

The process is the same for editing a book. Three editors — one who handles developmental, one who handles copyediting, one who does proofreading — is not a magic number that equates to the abolition of all typos for all time. It’s just a good business measure. Big publishers use this as a baseline minimum, and to authors who are self-publishing it’s also a good idea, but it’s important to never ever give the impression to an author you are proofreading for that you will catch every single error. (You’ll certainly try, and indeed should you catch every one then it’s mission accomplished, but heck, if a team of 30 can’t do it, don’t beat yourself up.)

That said, if an author is taking the care to invest in developmental, copyediting, and proofreading, you should find that your role as the safety net will result in a final book that is near perfect, and a far cry from the commonly encountered situation in unedited or minimally edited ebooks (usually a typo every 1-3 pages on average).

Typos broken down: splice-os, word-os, and surgical mishaps

Most typos you’ll encounter as a proofreader come as a result of how the rewriting process works when an author starts working with an editor. I’ve seen some of these patterns so often I’ve come up with fun names for them.


This is the kind of typo that results from a word or sentence being cut then pasted into another part of a sentence. It can also result when an author has rewritten a sentence somewhere in the middle then deleted the parts that no longer fit. For example, when I revise these blog posts I notice lots of splice-os in when I do a revision because I am constantly optimizing sentences as I write.

What you’ll see is a comma left behind, or a missing close quotation in dialogue, or a period at the beginning of a sentence. Cut and paste is not always the most precise method, but it’s the quickest, for it’s these kinds of typos that you’re there as the proofreader to catch.


These are the cousins of splice-os. Often, when authors or copyeditors rearrange phrases, words will be left behind that no longer match tense or even fit in place. You might see “had had” or “the the” or such nonsense. The author didn’t maliciously insert that just to make you work harder. Somewhere in the moving of furniture, one of those poor words got orphaned.

Surgical mishaps

Sometimes I can really tell an author has gone to town. This usually is carryover from the developmental edits where rewrites are so hot the page is more red than black. (For those not familiar with Word’s track changes, all new writing shows up in colored font, usually red.) Somewhere, a whole paragraph got inserted in the middle of a scene, or sentences were juggled, mutilated, half-inserted, cannibalized by other, better sentences, etc. I don’t spend my time trying to think of how exactly said war played out on the battlefield of that page, but I certainly am grateful as proofreader to be of assistance as I mark everything down.

Cat walked on the keyboard

This is a serious one and I’ve seen it a few times. Numbers in the middle of words or words that are strangely spaced apart, or a capital letter in the middle of a word. I’ve swiftly fixed these errors and done my best not to think about just what kind of mechanical process went into the making of said typos.

Author empathy: understand the process and be grateful for your role.

It might be surprising how many typos and occasional plot/narration errors show up in an “edited” book. This comes down to understanding the process, and as the proofreading, understanding this is critical to developing author empathy.

The developmental editor usually goes through at least two rounds of revisions with an author, requesting rewrites on a broad level. This can go as far as cutting characters, rewriting entire scenes, or changing the tense or voice. You better bet there’s going to be typos, unless of course the author is an infallible typing machine (such a thing does not exist, to the best of my knowledge). The developmental editor, when going over the revisions, is not concerned with typos. They are concerned with whether or not the author made character X more spunky, or whether plot A now matches the villain’s motives, or whether scene 13 has the tension it was lacking.

The copyeditor, who will look at the manuscript fresh after all rewrites are finished with the developmental editor, will go over it line-by-line and focus on grammar, punctuation, formatting, logic and clarity, and effective word choice. Yes there will be lots of correcting typos, but as the copyeditor will often suggest clarifying sentences, this will mean that the author will rewrite or reorder words in a sentence, which can lead to typos. As a general rule, if an author has gone over and types, or if an editor has gone over and moved text around, there’s a chance typos are going to come into being.

So now here you are, the proofreader. As you’re reading the ARC of this book and marking down errors, when you encounter mistakes think back to the analogy above about being tightrope walking. Instead of cursing the author for their clumsy typing, or the editor for missing the change of character A’s eye color, simply make your note and be glad you’re there to catch the error. After all, it’s your role and you can be proud to say you were the one who polished everything up to shiny perfection so that readers can enjoy the story unencumbered.

Danger: what happens when someone asks for “proofreading” but has never had other editing done on their book?

Because many writers new to self-publishing might not be familiar with editing terminology, it’s not uncommon to be asked for proofreading by someone who has written up a first draft and know, if they want to publish it, that someone should read it and check spelling, grammar, and punctuation, etc.

If you are taking on a proofreading job, you should always ask what editing has been done beforehand. The reason this is important: there is a different between the above mentioned categories of typos proofreaders find and the kinds of things you’ll find if you attempt to proofread a manuscript that has never been edited before.

Probably my most frequent client is the author who wants proofreading or proofreading + grammar fixes (as a result of the diverse demands for one-revision editing I’ve developed three services that are extensions of proofreading, based on the amount of issues that need fixing). But the point is if you’re going to go ahead with proofreading and a manuscript has never been edited, be sure your client understands the need for more editing and, if they still insist, absolve yourself of the other mistakes that are going to enter the published book.

If you have any questions about proofreading, feel free to reach out. I’d love to answer more questions, or follow up with more discussion on proofreading at some point in my How to Edit A Book series.

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How to put your writing time first and get your writing done, no matter what

It’s late and everyone in your house has gone to sleep.

If you’re a writer, there’s a good chance this might be your favorite time of day. No one is around to interrupt you. You’ve had time to have dinner, watch TV, maybe spend some time with friends; plenty of time to decompress from your stressful day job. There’s nothing in the way now between you and your computer.

You make your favorite beverage, fix up a snack, and then in you go to your office and close the door. Even the cat won’t interrupt you now.

You turn your computer on and after a familiar series of clicks your cherished Word document is loading. On the screen, your story flashes to life in lines of text you’ve been toiling over for weeks now — or has it been months? You’ve lost track. All that matters is this time of day when it’s just you and the story.

You might spend two hours or more with it. You really don’t keep track of time. Around 1am you get hungry and tired, but if the story is really pulling you in you might make a small meal and even have some coffee and write until 3 or 4. Never mind that you have to work tomorrow morning. Sleep’s overrated. Story comes first.

Have you found as a writer that often the night time is your best time to write? In fact, it’s somewhat of a trope for writers in general, the image of the writer nourishing their very lifeblood late at night with their story, then wandering soulless through their waking hours and menial day job, eager for night to come when it’s time to feed again and revive.

I certainly can relate. My greatest writing experience of all time happened quite similar to the above scenario.

The only problem is, romanticism aside, it’s not sustainable. If you as a writer want to embrace the reality of being a writer, in the context of living a wholesome life, then unless you work night shift at a hotel where you’re allowed to work on your story, this routine can only go on so long.

Is it true, though, that there is a magic to that late night creative zone?

First of all let’s look at the psychology behind why this “magic” exists.

First things first, a principle that will give you true power as a writer

Stephen R. Covey, in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, describes a principle by which one can take action to shape one’s destiny proactively. It is the third of his seven habits, which he calls “putting first things first”.

You might be familiar with President Eisenhower’s “priority matrix” (here’s a good article on that if you aren’t). The topic of how to prioritize decision-making based on this matrix is worth an article unto itself, but what I’d like to draw on is what Eisenhower himself said regarding why he created this matrix to prioritize his decisions: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

We often spend our time reacting. We get up and check phone messages that are waiting for us. We go into our email and answer email. We catch up on the games on our phone. We deal with interruptions. We get pinged in Facebook messages or see on our Facebook feed something interesting and vanish in a conversation that steals away our day — then dammit, what the heck happened to that wonderful afternoon of writing you had planned out?

The most important step to take to claim your creative time is to recognize, like Eisenhower did, that what’s urgent is not truly important, and to instead make the decision to make what’s truly important urgent. And if you’re a writer who wants to write a novel, probably many novels, then how you use your time and how you choose to put your writing first, before anything else, is critical.

First things must come first, as Stephen R. Covey outlines in his third habit. You must make the decision, though, that you are going to put your writing time first and that means embracing your writing time as sacred.

So now we’re ready to unpack the psychology of night owl magic.

If you’re writing late at night when your “creative spark” is going strong, and if you feel that this time is your sacred time, the only thing that matters, then what’s happening here is you’re putting first things last.

There’s a magic that exists because, psychologically, you can go to bed knowing you’ve ended the day doing what’s most important. Your creative mind is fully awake because all the distractions and madness of your reactive day, from the time you woke up to a blaring alarm all the way to perhaps putting the kids to bed and cleaning the kitchen, has finally come to an end and your mind is able to exist solely for your story.

But does it have to be this way?

I personally affirm the value of healthy living. This means work does not crush the other three quadrants of life (personal, social, spiritual). It also means getting sleep, 8 hours minimum if that’s possible.

While I have been mystified by the magic of late night writing, I’ve proactively made changes to how I write and when, which brings us to the other popular myth about writers.

You must write first thing before you do anything with your day: myth or half-truth?

Many writers squeeze in their writing time before work. This might mean getting up at 4am and writing until 7am before the rest of the family gets up. It might mean writing on the train ride to work if you have a long commute.

The point, though, is that it doesn’t matter exactly what time you write (that’s going to vary according to your schedule). What matters is that you write before you turn your mind to any kind of work that’s going to get you into reactive mode.

I personally prefer this method over all the other methods I’ve tried, and I don’t write before I do anything else. My schedule is fairly set (I have developed a distinct morning ritual which I follow every day): I wake up to an alarm, shower, have a cup of coffee and pray and reflect, then I read for an hour. During this time I do not touch my phone so that I can’t react to the world at all (I use an app called Forest which blocks my phone and plays a calming background thunderstorm recording). After this I eat breakfast then I usually will get in the car and find one of my favorite coffee shops to write at. When I arrive I order a drink then, using Forest again to block my phone, I write for 2 hours. I do not stop writing or do anything else until that timer is finished. As soon as this is finished, I usually go to the gym for my run and/or strength training, then I go home for lunch and begin my work day.

The result is that I carry into my work day a fresher energy because I know I’ve done what’s truly important.

Now, I am at an advantage with my time in that, being self-employed, I can decide when and how I work. I apply similar methods to my work as an entrepreneur and editor as I do writing. At the end of every day I make a to-do list and from it I select the six most important things I need to get done the following day. I then put them in order. When I start work, usually around 1-1:30PM, I set a timer for 2 hours and I focus. For example, it’s Thursday and I’m writing this article, which is an important task that I do as one of the roles for my company. My timer is on and I’m listening to the sound of a thunderstorm. I’m focused and I haven’t reacted to anything yet today.

Doing things this way leaves me a space of time every afternoon to deal with things I need to react to. My team and everyone who works with me knows that I work this way, so I can be rest assured that unless there is an emergency that comes up (rare), I can remain focused on important work first, then give urgent matters the attention they require in the time that remains until 6PM. Just like entering my work day fully charged from having done my most important work (writing) first, I likewise enter that small period of time fully charged knowing I have doubled down on the most important work tasks that require my time.

And the effect ripples further. I stop work at 6PM and eat dinner and spend time with my husband. Right now we’re watching Better Call Saul (such a good show). The whole evening is mine and I can relax knowing I stacked my day correctly. When 9 o’clock rolls around I usually begin a wind down period that involves playing piano, more reading, cleaning the house, and relaxing. I like to think that my day actually begins when I go to bed tired and properly wound down, because really, it’s putting a good night’s sleep first that allows me to enter the next day ready to dive into story.

There are many hybrid ways to get your writing done first without losing sleep

This method works great if you are completely free to schedule your own time, but what if you work a job that fills your day where you don’t have the flexibility to plan it around your writing?

Regardless of what you do for work and how your day is structured, there are other ways to put your writing first. It will mean sacrifice (I’m sure some of you already do this).

For example, maybe you bring a small laptop with you to work and work on your story on all your breaks. That’s time you could be checking email or playing games or chatting on Messenger. Instead, if you wake up and decide your story comes first, then as the day passes on, every time you get a spare chance, out comes your story. You might set a goal for yourself (usually a word count) and when you hit it you can move onto other things.

Or maybe you get up really early like in the above example. The sacrifice here means going to bed earlier. Your friends might call you a hermit for retreating back home at 8:30, but you can affirm, “I’m sorry, I get up at 4am to work on my book because that’s the most important time to me.”

There are many ways to claim your writing time and put it first, within the context of a healthy lifestyle, so long as you can orient yourself to devote the time you get to yourself first and foremost to your writing.

And once in a while, allow yourself to discover the late night magic. After all, as much as rules are great, there’s something to be said about being spontaneous.

How do you fit in your writing time? Do you have a unique method you’ve had to develop that works well for you? Please share!

Posted in John's blog, Story Perfect Newsletter Posts, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

5 lessons to improve your world-building: with guest Susan K. Hamilton

Continuing our series of guest posts, Susan K. Hamilton, the author of Shadow King, brings us some important tips to make your world-building great.

SusanFantasy and fiction author Susan K. Hamilton published her first fantasy novel—DARKSTAR RISING—through Xlibris in 2003. The experience only fueled her interest in writing and in 2016 she was a Top Ten finalist in the Launchpad Manuscript Competition. Her entry—SHADOW KING—will be released later this year from Inkshares, and she is working on a new manuscript tentatively titled THE DEVIL YOU DON’T. An avid horse enthusiast, Susan spends her spare time (when not writing) at the barn and in the saddle. She lives near Boston with her husband and cat.

Five Lessons I’ve Learned About World-Building

When writing fiction, especially when it is some sort of fantasy or science fiction, the world you build is a fundamental and critical part of your story. Your world is the backdrop, and sometimes the bones, for your story. There are many wonderful and terrible ways to create your world. Top-down world building means you work from the broad concepts—politics, religion, cultural social mores—and directs how your characters interact. Bottom-up world building, as you may infer, grows more organically: as your characters evolve, so does their world.

Frequently the two types of world-building can co-exist. You may start with one, and then find there is a need to switch. And you also can vary in how extensive or minimal your word is.

Personally, I have written two novels (that the public currently has or will have access to), as well as three others that are in various states of disarray. Each one of these has required that I build a unique world, and I’ve learned several lessons about world-building through my various efforts, both the successes and the mistakes.

Lesson #1: Don’t let anyone tell you “no”

There isn’t one right way to world-build. You are the all-knowing, merciful (or merciless as the case may be) God or Goddess of your Universe.

It’s your world; build it the way you want.

Don’t let anyone tell you that top-down world building is best or bottom up is best. What works for J.K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin, R.A. Salvatore – or me, for that matter—might not work for you and that’s okay. We all think and work differently; that’s one of the wonderful things about creativity.

Personally, I feel I’m more of a bottom-up world builder. While it might be possible for me to get an idea for a world, if I don’t come up with a character who speaks to me, I don’t end up connecting with the world emotionally and then I get tired of it very quickly. Writing the story and meeting the characters makes me wonder what kind of world I want them to live in, love in, and—yes—often die in. That’s where the fuel for my world-building comes from. So often my world emerges organically and the story unfolds.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve never delved into top-down world building.

I think a great example of my blending of the two can be seen in my first novel, DARKSTAR RISING. As I wrote the first draft, I started to build a world around my main character, Darkstar, adding details as needed so that the world suited the story I wanted to write.

But then I hit a point where I realized Darkstar was really starting to interact with people from other countries and races, and I felt like I didn’t have a solid grasp of who these people were. That was when I switched to more of the top-down system. I took my countries—and the characters who were from there—and put some thought into each. I thought about religion, customs, social mores, how the genders related to each other, and more. I knew I had to define these broader parameters because these things would influence how my characters interacted.

That system worked for me… But remember: Your world. Your method. Own it.

Lesson #2: Your memory isn’t as good as you think it is

When you find those key, critical parts of your world, the ones that are the foundational bricks and interdependencies, for the love of everything good, write them down SOMEWHERE.

I don’t care if you’re totally tech-savvy and know how to build a wiki to keep track of your world (which sounds like a pretty cool option), or if you kick-it old school and use a notebook, or if you’re somewhere in the middle with an Excel spreadsheet. If your story is detailed enough, at some point you’re going to forget something, and you’re going to need to look it up.

Having a system is going to make that so much easier for you.

If you don’t have a system to help you remember, you run the risk of putting conflicting details in your story, and these—even very minor ones—can create a kind of cognitive dissonance in your readers. If this dissonance is significant enough, it will pull your reader out of the flow of your story, and no one wants that.

I’ll confess, I’m not the greatest at writing things down, and when I do, it tends to be a bit of a hodge-podge. In fact, I just went through some of the folder I have for SHADOW KING and made an attempt to organize it into “Older Material,” “Background,” “Drafts,” and then a folder for things pertaining to my publisher. And even with that, it is still pretty disorganized.

I tend to just keep track in a Word doc or Excel sheet where I can keep the things I need to reference about both the world itself as well as the characters’ bona fides. I probably ought to make myself a standard template to use; but that’s been on my “gotta get to it one of these days” list for a long, long time. I’ll be starting work on my next manuscript soon so maybe this is the time!

Oh, and one other thing: back up your files. Seriously. You’ll thank me for that someday.

Lesson #3: Do the autopsy—even if you don’t want to.

If this is the first time you’ve done world-building, you’re going to look back on parts and think, “Sh*t, that didn’t go the way I planned.”

You know what? Even if this is your fifth novel, or tenth, from time to time, you’re still going to ask yourself that very same question. That sentence crosses my mind, and comes out of my mouth, more times than I care to admit.

We’ve all done it. Mistakes are how we learn and how we do things better the next time around. There’s no shame in that, but you need to remember to learn from your mistakes.

Once you’ve completed your story, I highly recommend you do some sort of personal debrief or post-mortem. Think about how you went about not only writing the story but also how you built the world and the characters within it. I bet you think of a few things that bogged you down or sidetracked you.

This is a much harder thing to do than it might first appear. For starters, once you’re done with a story, you want to move onto the next thing whether that is marketing or pitching what you just finished, or starting to write that next great manuscript in your head. Who has time to go back and deconstruct what you just did? We’re burning daylight!

You should. I should. We all should.

We should make the effort to figure out what didn’t go so well and then remember those things so that maybe, just maybe, we can do it a little differently next time. Conversely, if you found something that worked AWESOME, then keep doing it! There is a reason people tell you not to mess with a good thing.

Lesson #4: Don’t just build empty cities

World-building is wonderful, and it’s fun, but a world without characters and emotions and turmoil is nothing more than an elegant ghost town.


Fill your cities, your countries, your planets! Fill them to the brim with love, hate, despair, adoration, revenge, recrimination, passion, lust, bravery, cowardice, insecurity, arrogance, hope, sorrow, joy, betrayal, forgiveness, humor, and sarcasm. Fill them with the wise and the foolish, the smart and the stupid, the seers and the blind.

I mentioned this earlier but I’ve definitely noticed that my method for world-building is inextricably connected with my characters. As the characters grow, so does the world. As the characters grow, they tell me about their hopes and fears, about their childhoods, and those details inform the world I’m creating.

In my current book, SHADOW KING, the very first thing I created was my male lead: Aohdan Collins. Once I knew who he was, the world he would live in started to take shape. This was an interesting world to work with. Because the novel is a dark urban fantasy, the main setting is the city of Boston, so there were certain things that had to be real and concrete, and that I didn’t need to create. What I did need to create was this alternate Boston where Aohdan (who is a Fae) and his companions exist, blending elements of the human realm that we all know with elements of the faerie realm that Aohdan and the others have brought to the world.

And in Aohdan’s story there is plenty of love, lust, ambition, betrayal and revenge. One of the things I found especially interesting was how the faeries and humans interacted in my world, how much prejudice there was (or wasn’t).

Each aspect of the world is enhanced by the emotions that fill it.

Lesson #5: The Devil’s in the Details

This lesson is a crazy, kissing-cousin to #4. When you’re building worlds, you need to fill them with characters and feelings, but you also need to make sure you remember the little stuff. Because the small stuff matters!

Have you built an industrial city? Make sure people get soot on their hands, and have the odor of fuel on their clothes. Is your society agricultural? Include the smell of warm soil and fresh vegetables, of sweaty horses and cow manure. Include the grunt of oxen as the pull the plow and the feel of calloused, work-weary fingers. Do your characters gather at a seedy pub? Include the sour taste of inferior wine and the greasy texture of stew made with gristle and half-spoiled vegetables.

Those are the details that make a world come alive once you’ve built the beautiful bones: What does it feel like, what does it smell like? Are there places where your reader would feel at home? Where they would have a beer with a friend? You don’t have to overload your work with these details, but a few very vivid ones, strategically placed can make your world so much more real to your readers.

In my own work, I tend to focus much more on dialogue than I do on details, and I often need to remind myself to go back and look for opportunities to put these small details in. At one point in SHADOW KING, one of my characters is walking down the sidewalk, and it is winter. At first I didn’t say much about the snow but when I read the scene over, I realized that snow in the city can look a lot different than snow in the country. So, I made sure to add in that the snow was gritty and blackened from dirt, sand, and salt used by the DPW crews. It was only a few words here and there, but in the end I think those details help (plus, they are a good reflection of how this character feels on the inside during that moment of the story).

You’re missing a huge opportunity if you leave these things out.

These are just five lessons I’ve learned as I’ve made my way through my various stories and manuscripts. I’m sure for some of you they’re familiar, for others maybe I sparked a new idea or two. And I’m sure that there are thousands of other lessons out there that we can all benefit from – I’d love to hear more about your lessons in the comments!

Discover Susan’s latest book, Shadow King!

Susan CoverShadow King was a Top Ten finalist in the 2017 Launchpad Manuscript Competition out of over 1,000 entries from 24 different countries. It will be published by Inkshares through their Quill imprint later in 2017 (anticipating fall, but specific release date is TBD).

Connect with Susan:



Twitter: @RealSKHamilton


Amazon Author Page:


Inkshares: (if you register on the site, you can follow both her as an author and Shadow King as a book)

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

How to edit a book: a writer’s guide to understanding the process

I have been working as an editor with self-publishing authors for several years now. A year and a half ago my work load grew so big I had to expand and form a team. Since that point I’ve become a senior editor, and recently, thanks to connecting with some great talent my editing company is expanding into a publishing services company with a publishing division.

As time goes on, my duties for my company mean I get to spend less and less time involved directly in editing, but I am still heavily involved in the editing process as I work on a more “meta” level through training apprentices and directing the team on editorial standards. But still, in my heart, I am an editor, and a large part of that is because in my heart of hearts, I’m a writer.

One thing that has been on my to-do list for more than a year now has been to write a manual on editing. Such a document was meant to be internal, something in-depth for my editors to consult, since (to the best of my knowledge) no such book exists. Imagine that: a book called “How to Edit a Book”. I sure wish I’d picked that up when I decided I wanted to try my hand as an editor. I suspect it’s never been done before because the subject is so nuanced and one editor’s opinion cannot account for the body of editing practices as a whole. You can ask any editor and most will tell you the same thing: in order to learn how to edit, you need to read a lot of books, consult various manuals and read up on writing craft and techniques, and get practice by apprenticing under a more senior editor.

I agree with all three parts of that, and indeed my path to being an editor involved following each one, but nonetheless, I have a to-do list item to cross off, and limited time with which to do so. Given that I devote a set period of time every week to preparing an article for the writers who I like to help, it made sense to me that, instead of being overly ambitious and writing a book on editing, or being insular and writing manuals for my team only, why not cover all the bases.

How to edit a book: a comprehensive guide via blog series

Starting next week, I’m going to start a blogging thread that will be ongoing, a “book in progress” of sorts. Though book is the wrong way to think about it because in my mind I don’t see there being an exact beginning or end or reason to read the things as a whole.

For the last several weeks, as I’ve explored topics on writing, I have been building a content directory (and will continue to build it based on the red slippers that fall out of each post), the equivalent of a table of contents. I’ve also been asking the editors on my team to send me topic requests and I’ve been organizing it in the master list accordingly.

Nothing is going to change from what you’re used to seeing. Every Friday I will write something inspiring relating to writing, publishing, or the writer’s lifestyle. However, periodically I will add another installment to this series on how to edit a book.

Based on the feedback and requests I receive, I may write a post weekly just on this topic, in addition to my Friday post. This would mean one day of the week is devoted to the editing series and you can look forward to the next installment in your morning inbox every day that week.

My goal is that, long-term, both my editors, and writers / other aspiring editors will have a great reference on editing and how it works. The good thing about doing it this way is it doesn’t mean adding an extra duty to my mountain of duties. (Apologies to any Lan Mandragoran fans for butchering his eloquent expression.)

Stay tuned for the first in the series: proofreading, what it is, how it works, and techniques to do it effectively for yourself or someone else.

If you have any topic requests please leave them below! I can write endlessly on topics and will organize my topic directory accordingly, but my goal with this series is to be as comprehensive as possible, so why not make this a community endeavor.


Topics so far (this will be updated as installments are added):

Posted in how to edit a book, John's blog, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments