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Today marks the 10th anniversary of The Creative Penn Podcast. The first episode went live on 15 March 2009 and there are now 422 episodes with over 3.2 million downloads across 215 countries. In today's show, I reflect on the development of the podcast and my own creative journey. 

Podcasting is such a big industry now that there are lots of courses on how to do it and lists of best practices and how to launch and a lot of detail that can seem overwhelming. A bit like writing a book really!

But like writing a book, or self-publishing, you can learn as you go, adding to your process over time and outsourcing as you start making income.

Also like writing a book, many people will start the journey but very few will continue for the long-term.

I recorded the first episode in the spare room of my house in Ipswich, Queensland, Australia. I phoned my interviewee, Rachael Bermingham, on a landline, put it on speakerphone and held my MP3 recorder next to the phone to record it. Rachel was the co-author of 5 Ingredients, one of the first breakout self-published books in Australia. She was all over the news so she was basically famous and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing but I did it anyway.

I’m so glad I took that first step because my podcast is one of the best things I’ve created in my life. It is an important part of my creative body of work.

Today's show is sponsored by all the wonderful listeners who support the show on Patreon. Thank you! Your support makes it clear that you enjoy the show, find it useful, and want it to continue. You can support the podcast for just a few dollars per month and receive the extra Q&A audio per month, plus the audio backlist. Just go to www.Patreon.com/thecreativepenn

What have I discovered in 10 years of The Creative Penn podcast?

In this article, I’ll take you through a journey of the development of the show and share tips along the way, and then talk about my next 10-year slow pivot. The tips are relevant for anyone who wants a long-term creative business, not just specifically if you want to podcast because the principles are essentially the same. I hope you find some interesting ideas for your own author business!

March 2009 – First episode. I started by doing everything myself!

I started podcasting in 2009 as a way to build my author platform. I was still in my job as a business consultant and I wanted professional speaking work as well as a way to sell my non-fiction books and courses. I was determined to build multiple streams of income so that I could leave my job and become a full-time author-entrepreneur. I knew I needed more than books to make a decent income (and I still believe that’s true for most authors).

With some of my early books in 2009 (no longer available in those editions!)

I self-published my first book, How to Enjoy Your Job, in 2008 (later rewritten as Career Change) but I had only sold around 100 copies even though I’d made it onto national TV and radio, so I decided to put all my energy into online marketing which looked to have better results.

My mentor, Yaro Starak, had a podcast and it was one of the main ways I learned about entrepreneurship. Yaro has been on the show several times, most recently in episode 406 to talk about long-term success and he continues to be a great model of sustainable online business and living a happy life. [Check out his Blog Profits Blueprint here.]

I listened to a lot of audio from bloggers in the US at the time and realised that it was a fantastic way to reach people with a message and I also bought products from people I listened to, so I knew it worked as a marketing funnel. There were very few authors producing podcasts (and it’s still rare) so I thought it might be a way to differentiate myself and build an audience over time.

I wanted to learn and share my journey, as well as help other people. I also wanted to connect with other authors.

I was deeply lonely in my little town west of Brisbane, Australia. It was a cultural wilderness and I wanted to meet other creative entrepreneurs. Interviewing them seemed like a good way to connect, especially as many of them lived in the USA.

TIP: Only start a podcast if you are doing it for more than the money. It has to be intrinsically rewarding first before you ever make a dollar from it.

Podcasting takes time to grow.

For about six months, it was like howling into the wind. No traffic, no listeners, no nothing. This was back when self-publishing was still a dirty word, but as the Kindle took off, things began to change, at least in the USA and the podcast began to gain traction. I started to get listeners and I started to connect with people. I even made some (online) friends!

Technically, I did everything myself.

Learning by doing is one of the most important principles for the independent creative entrepreneur. Stop talking about it and get on with it

I still think this is important. In fact, I have a note pinned by my desk based on Steven Pressfield’s books, Turning Pro and Do The Work.

“When we turn pro, everything becomes simple. Quit the monkey mind. Do the work.”Click To Tweet Sept 2011 – I left my job to be a full-time author-entrepreneur

I was able to leave my job because I made an income at that point from multiple streams of income. I’ve been through this in my books, How to Make a Living with your Writing, and Business for Authors, in more detail, but basically, I was bringing in money from book sales, speaking, consulting, course sales, and affiliate income. Marketing my business and services was all based on content marketing, so people found me through the blog and the podcast.

TIP: Podcasting is a form of indirect marketing.

Making videos at the British Museum, London – just part of the job!

You can give calls to action with specific links which you can also include in your show notes, but podcasting is really more of a brand-building exercise over time.

People can’t click on a link as they might do with ads or a blog post because they are listening at the gym or driving or while they’re doing other things, but they might go looking for you later if they connect with your message.

I can’t point to a specific percentage of my income that has come from the podcast, but over the years I’d say that it’s responsible for the lion’s share of my creative business because it has led to so many opportunities and has enabled me to reach an audience directly — without advertising.

This is another reason I’m so passionate about content marketing, especially at a time when authors are obsessed with paid ads. I’ve never paid to advertise my website or podcast. It’s grown organically over time through search engine traffic, social media shares and word of mouth.

It’s creative, sustainable, long-term marketing which suits my personality much better than focusing on paid ads.

[If you’re interested in specifics around content marketing for fiction, check out my mini-course, Content Marketing for Fiction.]

Jan 2013 – I started doing an introduction ahead of the interview

After four years of interview-only podcasting, a listener emailed me and suggested that I talk about what I found interesting in an intro before the show.

I didn’t think anyone would be interested, but it turns out that many of you tune in for the intros and not always for the interviews

So, I’ve expanded it over the years to include more segments — news, futurist things, my personal update and anything useful like webinars, and I’ve realised how powerful it is to be able to communicate so personally. I try to share openly about my creative journey and sometimes it’s these little snippets that seem to connect the most.

Voice is powerful for connection. People do business with people they know, like and trust.Click To Tweet

Always make sure you’re connecting with your audience in some way. It’s important that people get to know YOU, not just your guests. This is how you build up a trusted brand over time and foster a real connection with your listeners.

June 2013 – I started doing transcripts for search engine optimization

I was teaching Guardian Masterclasses on self-publishing in London by 2013

Up until this point, I made detailed show notes myself during the audio editing process but it was more of a round-up, not a transcript.

If you want organic traffic for a podcast, you need transcripts for SEO (search engine optimization)  purposes because audio is not (yet) searchable.

This costs around $1 per minute, so a 45 min show is $45. I use www.speechpad.com but there are many other services. You still have to edit and format the transcript for your website, which I did myself initially and then my VA, Alexandra, eventually took over that job. That kind of help might add another $20-$40 per show, depending on how long your interview is. There are also services that will do everything for you, including all the audio tech, but they cost a lot more.

I’m glad to have transcripts for accessibility purposes, and because many people prefer to skim the text rather than listen, but I do it for the traffic. That means transcripts are not for everyone. It’s got to be worth the investment.

TIP: You need to be a business powered by a website to make effective use of transcription.

Words on web pages bring people to your site through search traffic, but what do they do when they get there?

I have books and courses you can buy, my free Author Blueprint and tutorials that lead to affiliate income, as well as an email list you can sign up for that has more products within. I turn traffic into revenue every day.

Most podcasts don’t have an associated business model, so they fail to capture the benefit of transcripts and therefore most don’t do them anyway, which also means they don’t get enough traffic to justify paying for them. It’s a chicken and egg situation.

Podcasting is content marketing.

I get organic traffic of over 700,000 uniques per month and many thousands of the words on this site are generated from podcast transcripts. They produce long-tail traffic and may even be more effective in an age of voice-first search because the language is natural and spoken, rather than written.

[More on content marketing in How to Market a Book, and also my Content Marketing for Fiction mini-course.]

Feb 2014 – I decided to give up the podcast

With indie superstars Bella Andre and Hugh Howey, London, 2014

Yes, I really did think I was going to give it up!

By this point, the podcast was taking a LOT of my time. Since I was still doing everything myself, each podcast took around 5 hours each week.

The downloads had begun to creep up which meant more people were listening, but it also meant the show was costing me more money. I use Amazon S3 hosting which is cheap and scalable, but the costs go up as downloads increase and I was paying over $100 per month on hosting, on top of $60 per week on transcription. If you factor in my time, the podcast was getting pretty expensive.

Was it really worth it?

I was still getting the benefits I’d aimed for — connection with other authors, learning new things, brand-building and indirect sales, but at that point, I was not earning a big income from my author business. I had not hit six figures and I wanted to, so something had to give.

It was you guys, my listeners, who convinced me to continue — and who still keep me coming back every week. So many people told me that the podcast was useful that I decided to monetise it. I would double down, instead of giving it up.

TIP: If something isn’t working, why isn’t it working?

Do you hate the topic, or have you run out of ideas, or does no one care?

OR/ do you have an audience but you just need to figure out how to make it pay?

What is your business model?

[For more on this, see How to Make a Living with your Writing and Business for Authors: How to be an Author Entrepreneur.]

May 2014 – The first corporate sponsor, Kobo Writing Life, joined the show

Thanks to Mark Lefebvre who believed that supporting the podcast was worth it, and to Chrissy Munroe for continuing to support the show even though it is a lot more expensive now as there are so many more downloads every week  

Over the years, I’ve welcomed new sponsors, all companies who I work with for my own books and can therefore personally recommend. I’ve turned down a lot of offers from companies I don’t work with as it’s important to me that I only promote useful things.

Thanks to all the sponsors: Kobo Writing Life, Draft2Digital, IngramSpark, and PublishDrive.

TIP: If you want a sponsor, foster relationships with companies who want to speak to your specific audience.

Don’t pitch too soon. Wait until you have a decent audience so you can put together download figures.

Only work with companies you can authentically recommend. Your reputation will always be the most important thing for a long-term business.

August 2014 – I started using Patreon

I felt terrible about asking for patrons at first because the podcast had been free for so long. But a few things changed my mind.

I read The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer (I’m one of her patrons now!) which is a great book that essentially says that people want to help the creators they love, so just ask. I also had a discussion with Jim Kukral about his book, Go Direct, (episode 191)  where we discussed artistic patronage and how creatives have always been supported by people who love their work. So I started asking.

In Sept 2014, I made $15.88 from patrons. In Jan 2016, it ticked over $100 a month, so it was definitely slow growth. Now it’s over $2000 a month, so you guys make the podcast financially viable alongside the corporate sponsors.

With Mark Lefebvre at Kobo HQ in Toronto, July..

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Our world is fast becoming audio-first. With experience in radio, Jules Horne is perfectly positioned to share suggestions for focusing on how your book will sound once it's narrated.

Are you interested in publishing your books in audio form?

With audiobooks now one of the fastest-growing markets, many writers are looking at publishing their books on audio platforms such as Audible.

But some writers are going a step further, and writing with audio performance first in mind. In other words, writing first of all to engage the ear, rather than the eye.

In many ways, this makes perfect sense. Spoken storytelling is far older than the world of reading books. And if you can write a novel that engages readers when read aloud, chances are it’s a great read, too!

So if you want to go this route, what’s different about writing for performance? Do you need to change your writing style at all?

I write fiction, but I also write audio-first, thanks to a background in broadcasting and radio drama. I’ve also written stage plays and performance poetry where spoken word techniques come first – and writers in these other worlds do think a bit differently!

So I’ve compiled some tips from audio-first writing, so you can tweak your script and get the best results for your audiobook.

1. Audio writing needs to be super-clear

Audiobook ‘readers’ are often doing something else at the same time as listening to your book, such as driving, walking, or doing the dishes. They may have a split focus.

And even if listening with full concentration, they usually just get one chance to understand your words as they fly past.

This is very different from reading a book, where people can reread, scan, jump about and even flick to the end. So you really can’t be clear enough!

I’ve seen broadcast studio managers use tiny, cheap speakers to test their recording. If it’s good enough to come through lo-fi speakers with clarity, it’s ready to face the different scenarios it’ll encounter with listeners out in the field.

What to do:
If you’re writing non-fiction, include plenty of signpost words (“connectives”) to highlight change of flow.

Words and phrases such as finally, therefore, and on the other hand help to pull the reader through more easily, by drawing attention to contrast, emphasis, escalation and other changes in the underlying shape.

If you’re writing fiction, informal signal words such as then, while, so, but, and although are all the more important.

Repetition of key orientation words such as the character name are helpful, too.

2. Listeners need attunement time

It takes a few seconds for listeners to tune into new voices and changes of scene or emphasis. This might be because there’s suddenly an unfamiliar voice, or because they’ve drifted and a fresh topic has perked up their attention.

That’s why you hear radio presenters using a lot of phrases like ‘in other news', ‘meanwhile in Scotland', and ‘staying with domestic news…'

Opening phrases and words are important, but those very first words of fresh attack sometimes get lost, because the listener is still getting attuned.

What to do:
Try beginning new sections with the main orientation words a few words in. This is particularly helpful in fiction, where you can’t rely on section headers.

For example, ‘It was a dark and stormy night as Mike arrived at the mansion.' Mike (protagonist) and the mansion (setting) are more important than the weather, in terms of orienting the reader securely with your story. The detail can come later.

Or, for example, if we need to know that Mike has a knife, put it near the top for orientation, but not in the first few seconds, to allow for attunement.

Don’t use this rhythm too often! You need to ring the changes or it’ll sound repetitive. Just be extra careful to plant clear opening signposts in audio.

3. Performing nouns and landing

Audio-first writing has a lot in common with oral storytelling and other spoken forms such as performance poetry. Performance writing has its own structures and tropes, including the use of repetition and rhythm.

All writers use these to a degree, of course – the effects are just far more pronounced with the spoken word. However, not all words are equal.

An experienced stage director I’ve worked with says the secret of performing text for clarity is to “land the nouns”. As long as the nouns are clear, the audience will get the general gist, even if they don’t get the detail.

What do to:
Take a paragraph or two of your writing and highlight the nouns. Now read aloud, speaking the nouns with crisp emphasis.

Does this tell the story clearly? Is anything muddy?

Note that ends of sentences and paragraphs are powerful positions to “land” on. Do your paragraphs have a clear, resonant ending for the narrator to land on, or do they run out of steam?

Sometimes, clipping off a clause at the end to expose a more important word can make all the difference – like pruning a plant! Again, ring the changes so that your rhythms don’t get repetitive.

4. Breathing and ‘which’ clauses

Writing for audio typically has shorter sentences than writing for the eye. That’s not surprising, as it’s led by our limited lung capacities and the natural rhythm of breathing.

If you have an expansive and wordy writing voice, it can come as a surprise when narrators struggle to read your writing.

When I first started writing stage plays, I realised how breathless my writing was when actors with well-trained lungs ran out of steam at the ends of lines. My writing soon sharpened up.

What to do:
Read your writing aloud. I do this at every stage of writing – while drafting and editing, as well as when preparing a script for a narrator.

This soon reveals sentences that are too long and meandering to read aloud well. Look out in particular for “which” clauses that qualify nouns. “Which” clauses can get very unwieldy, and sentences with long qualifiers like this often read better when they’re cut in two.

5. Audiobooks are performance scripts

You may not have conceived your book as a script for performance, but once it’s in the hands of a narrator, that’s what it essentially becomes.

For some writers, this is a mindset shift, but it can be very helpful. It tightens your writing, makes editing decisions easier, and puts audience connection right at the top of your considerations.

What’s more, it gives you license to go to town on character voices, rhythm, pace, dialect, and other sound delights – elements you probably use anyway, but which truly come into their own with the spoken word.

What to do:
Conceive your next audiobook for performance from the start. Read it aloud while writing, to feel the rhythm and pace, and how the sentences rise and fall.

Think about the innate music of the language and whether it’s “actable”, giving good opportunities to the narrator. Check that it has plenty of variety in pace, mood, and voice for fiction.

With non-fiction, focus on great clarity and economy, and check that the viewpoint creates the right kind of audience connection for your genre and topic – authoritative, business-like, friendly? Spoken word makes more use of second person “you”, which may be relevant for your book.

BONUS TIP: What about Whispersync compatibility?

Whispersync is an Audible feature that synchronizes audiobooks with the Kindle ebook version. So when your audience switch platforms, it’s seamless and they don’t lose their place in the book.

For this to work, the audio book and Kindle versions need to be pretty well identical. Not all audiobooks are compatible with Whispersync, but with increasing convergence between book reading and listening, it’s likely publishers heavily into Amazon will want to make their new books Whispersync compatible, to help with cross-promotion.

What to do:
If you want your next book to be Whispersync-compatible, consider writing it with audio-first in mind, and ensure it works well for performance. The print and ebook can more easily be created from the audio script than the other way around.

With fiction, this should be relatively straightforward.

With non-fiction, it’ll depend on your genre and content. Images, graphs and tables are tricky, and lots of sub-headings and layout hierarchies don’t work well in audio format. Audio recordings are more time-consuming and costly to update, too.

If your book is image, table or link-heavy, you may decide not to bother with Whispersync, or you could provide a reader download for visuals, or information with a short shelf-life – a great way to connect to readers, too!

When you're writing, do you consider how your books will sound when narrated? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Jules Horne is an award-winning fiction writer and playwright. She teaches for the Open University and lives in the Borderlands – the part of Britain that inspired Game of Thrones.

For a manual of performance-ready tricks and techniques needed for audio-first writing, see Writing for Audiobook: Audio-first for Flow and Impact by Jules Horne, Book 3 in the Method Writing series.

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Our lives are becoming increasingly impacted by voice and audio technology, something I discuss frequently on The Creative Penn Podcast. Today, author and podcaster, Paul Sating shares why it's a good idea for authors to podcast, and how it can help with book sales.

It’s difficult to get published but finding a reader base for your books can be even more challenging.

Maybe you’ve leveraged every tactic known to ‘writerhood’; newsletters, blogs, paid ads, and various writer-centric websites aimed at readership.

Even writing nonfiction books isn’t a guaranteed path to market awareness of your brand. The challenge of finding readers, standing out from the crowd, becomes more difficult as the crowd swells.

But what can a writer do? After all, there are only so many avenues available to us. The good news is, publishing is a long road, but it is a road with numerous branches that can help us reach our goal of finding new readers.

One way to create a unique presence is by sharing your voice with the world by starting your own podcast. Now, before you say you couldn’t possibly podcast, allow me to tell you how it’s not as difficult as it may first appear and why you might want to consider getting into this medium.

Reasons to Podcast
  1. Anyone can do it (yes, even you).
  2. It can expand your author/book brand exponentially.
  3. It’s relatively cheap (especially compared to book covers and editors).

Joanna Penn with her podcasting microphone

It requires determination to publish and now I’m asking you to be as determined in believing you can podcast. Many people think it’s too technical, but if you have a computer, Internet connection, and a recording device, you can podcast.

Lack of experience can easily be overcome and don’t worry about the sound of your voice (no one enjoys hearing their own).

The podcast space is an open and friendly space. Plenty of experienced podcasters are more than willing to provide advice and audiences know most of us are hobbyists. They are patient and supportive.

You don’t need the sheen of a highly-produced Hollywood product for thousands of people to enjoy listening to your show. With drive and dedication, your sound and production will consistently improve, a feature of this medium that is uniquely positive.

Fans actually celebrate the improvement over time of the shows they love. It’s a truly empowering experience.

No one expects you to sound like a professional studio and the podcast market is looking for genuine personalities to connect with. Make that be you.

Still not convinced?

Consider the flooded book market, with millions of titles and thousands added every month.

Standing out from the crowd is becoming increasingly difficult. Starting your own podcast creates exposure for your books like no other writer activity.

[Note from Joanna: I talk about this kind of voice branding in my podcast episode about narrating your own audiobooks.]

How Podcasting Can Increase Your Brand Exposure

Leading to a larger fan base, many of whom will read your books.

1. Intimacy

Podcasts are a dynamic medium that allows you to connect with fans (as a creator and as a person) on a deep level. When you podcast, you know you’re speaking to hundreds or even thousands of people, but they know you’re speaking directly to them.

That connection can be incredibly strong. Many fans identify as “friends” of their favorite podcasters, even if they’ve never met them.

2. Accessibility

We’re busy people with busy lives. A considerable strength of audiobooks is that they’re mobile – friendly. People can listen wherever they are and whatever they’re doing.

Podcasts share that strength. People cannot stop to read your blog or your interview when they’re at the job or working out at the gym. But they can listen to your podcast while doing those things. You become ever-present in their daily lives and, over time, part of their routine—you can’t put a price on that.

Lastly, the explosion of reliable podcatchers (apps users listen to podcasts) allows for a permanent on-demand existence for your content.

3. Flexibility

A podcast platform gives you the ability to be responsive to fans by quickly publishing content that is relevant to them or the latest trends.

The very fluid nature of podcasting allows you to release episodes when they are timely and topical, dropping them into millions of devices around the world.

And you’re not ‘stuck’ in what you first create. The medium is structured for easy transitions between podcast categories (fiction, nonfiction, business, self-help, etc.).

What is your niche?

Even with an estimated 500,000 podcasts in the space, there is still room for you. Though those numbers sound intimidating, it pales in comparison to the number of book titles. The key is to identify a niche that works for you (your book publishing strategy/goals).

By identifying a niche market, you can carve out a following by leveraging social media and “Also Listens” (podcast equivalent to Amazon “Also Boughts”). The best part? You can do this organically (for free) over time.

How To Begin

And that brings me to my last point. Starting your own podcast can be done cheaply — you only need an Internet connection, computer, a DAW (digital audio workstation — more about this in a moment) and a mic (and you can always add equipment if you choose to take this more seriously in the future).

Mics aren’t scary and you don’t need to be a sound pro to find one that will suit your needs. In fact, great starter USB microphones (plugged directly into your computer’s USB drive) can be found for less than $100. A decent mic can last well over a decade (can you say the same for your book covers?).

[Note from Joanna: for more information on audio set-up for an author, check out this post from Dan Van Werkhoven, the ‘sound guy' for The Creative Penn Podcast.]

Great starter DAW software (like Audacity) is available for free. Though I upgraded to an Adobe product years ago, I know many successful podcasters who still use Audacity (or Garageband, the Apple equivalent).

The only other cost associated with podcasting (besides time) will be your hosting fees (which can range from free for to roughly $25/month, depending on your needs).

These costs are greatly outweighed by the exposure you’ll earn.

Don’t let fear of the unknown discourage you

There are plenty of resources available to help you get started. Many are free. YouTube is a wonderful place to find free educational resources for all skill levels. Just about any social media platform has a wealth of podcast communities with experienced podcasters were willing to help. You won’t be alone.

Audio is a growing marketplace. With our mobile lifestyle and content saturation, it’s important to not get left behind. For writers who want to obtain/maintain front-of-mind-awareness for readers, podcasting is the next natural step in this evolving marketplace.

If you’re looking to stand out, to grow and strengthen your relationship with your readers, build a unique brand presence, and have a consistent platform to cross-medium promote your books (for free), look no further.

You work hard on your books and they deserve to be in the hands of as many people as possible. Hosting your own podcast can not only be the most effective and cost-efficient way of marketing you and your books; it’s actually incredibly fun.

For many authors who podcast, it doesn’t even feel like marketing. Raising awareness, carving out a niche, building bridges to new readers, all while having fun?

What’s stopping you?

Have you thought about starting your own podcast? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Paul Sating has been podcasting for 9 years with over a million downloads and published his first 3 books in 2018. He writes horror, thrillers, and is currently working on an epic fantasy series.

Find his podcasts and books at paulsating.com. Connect on Twitter and Instagram at @paulsating.

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Artificial Intelligence will usher in a new era of what it means to work and create over the next generation, but does this mean that writers and creatives will be made obsolete? In this episode, Professor Marcus du Sautoy discusses the developments in AI creativity and why our stories could be the very thing that helps train AIs to be more human.

In the introduction, I talk about Chirp, the new audiobook promotion tool from BookBub; plus, my writing update and my latest self-narrated audiobook, The Dark Queen.

Plus, join me and Mark Dawson for a webinar on How to Get your First (or Next) 10 Book Reviews. Thurs 21 March 4pm US Eastern / 8pm UK. Click here to register for the live event or the replay.

Today's show is sponsored by IngramSpark, who I use to print and distribute my print-on-demand books to 39,000 retailers including independent bookstores, schools and universities, libraries and more. It's your content – do more with it through IngramSpark.com.

Marcus du Sautoy is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He's a prize-winning Professor of Mathematics, a fellow of New College, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He's also the author of several prize-winning books and his latest is, The Creativity Code: How AI is Learning to Write, Paint, and Think.

You can listen above or on iTunes or your favorite podcast app or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • Why creativity is at the heart of a mathematician’s work
  • How AI is moving from learning about games to creating art and music
  • Development of AI: Alpha Go beat Go champion Lee Sedol [BBC], Alpha Zero [Smithsonian]
  • How humans and AI switch back and forth from being creative to being critical or making corrections
  • What happens when AI becomes conscious?
  • Copyright implications when AI gets involved in creating art
  • On AI translations between languages

You can find Marcus du Sautoy at simonyi.ox.ac.uk and on Twitter @MarcusduSautoy. The Creativity Code is available now.

Transcript of Interview with Marcus du Sautoy

Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com, and today I'm here with Marcus du Sautoy. Hi, Marcus.

Marcus: Hello.

Joanna: Thanks for coming on the show. Just a little introduction.

Marcus is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, quite a mouthful. And he's also a prize-winning Professor of Mathematics, a fellow of New College, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He's the author of several prize-winning books and his latest is, ‘The Creativity Code: How AI is learning to write, paint, and think,' which is a super exciting topic.

Marcus, why is a maths professor writing a book about creativity? I know some people might find that difficult.

Marcus: I think usually the words maths and creativity don't go together if you're not a mathematician. But if you're a mathematician, actually, it's a very important part of our work.

I think it goes to the heart of the fact that we're making a lot of choices, actually, when we're creating our mathematics. We don't want to just create mathematics that's true because quite often that's boring. We're trying to choose mathematics which takes the people who attend our seminars, the people who read our papers, and our journals, on a kind of emotional journey.

We want to transform them, to change them, to make them go, ‘Oh. I didn't realize those two things were connected.' And so in charting out that kind of journey, it requires a lot of choice, aesthetics, and creativity because you're having to go to places which are new.

So, what is creativity?

I defined it in this new book as something which is new, but that's not just good enough because that could be very boring. So it's got to be surprising and it's got to have some sort of value. It's got to kind of be worthwhile in some way.

And I think that's what a mathematician is trying to do, create new kind of truths about numbers, geometries. But it's got to be surprising, it's got to kind of move you in some way. And if it's got value as well, then that really wins the biscuits.

Creativity is something which is very important to me as a mathematician, perhaps more than a scientist. Scientists have to be quite creative, but they're bound very often by the physical universe that we live in.

As a mathematician, I've got much more freedom to be imaginative in my world, create new worlds that perhaps aren't physical, and I think that's much closer to being an artist than a scientist.

Joanna: I love this emotional journey of mathematics. And your book does that really well. I'm not someone who reads mathematics books much, but this crosses the boundaries, which is fantastic.

So let's come to AI, because I really discovered AI in a big way when AlphaGo beat the Go world champion. And I read in your book that that moment was pivotal for you as well. So let's just revisit that.

Why was that such a big deal in 2016?

Marcus: It was a big deal, especially for me as a mathematician, because I've always used the game of Go as a good analogy for doing mathematics. I think a lot of people thought chess was quite a good analogy and a computer beats the world champion at chess in the mid-'90s.

But I think why Go is more closer to being a mathematician is that you're not quite sure why you make certain moves. It requires a little bit of intuition, pattern recognition, a bit of creativity.

And so for me, I'd always use that game as a kind of protective shield against the idea that AI could do mathematics. So I watched this game with a lot of angst and existential angst. But for me, the most significant thing was not just that this computer managed to beat a world champion at this very complex game.

There was a moment in game two where the computer made a move, it's move 37. And I talk about it in the book because I think this is a kind of a pivotal moment, when all the commentators went, “Whoa, it's made a mistake,” because it was doing something that you're taught as a Go player never to do, which is to play on a kind of particular line on this 19 by 19 grid.

But as the game evolved, we realized that it wasn't a mistake.

It was a deeply insightful move. It was incredibly creative because it was new, surprised us, and it had value because it, ultimately, won game two for the AI.

So I think for me, that was one of the most exciting things. It enabled us to see how to play the game in a completely new way. So it was being creative, but not only that, the way this thing had been programmed was significantly different. And I think this is why there's a real kind of phase change in AI.

It's like water going to steam boiling. Because the program hadn't been written by a human and the human knew what it was doing. The human had written the program so the program could learn, adapt, and change.

And so, ultimately, by the end of all the training it did, we actually didn't know how it was making its decisions, why it was making its decisions. And this new AI, which we call machine learning because it learns how to program itself. It's a bit like a child who's born and in the past, the child had nowhere to kind of learn on, but suddenly, we've got this new AI, a child, which can learn by interacting with its environment, change and become something more than its parents as it were.

Joanna: And then what happened after that AlphaGo beat the human with the next iteration, Alpha Zero?

Marcus: In some ways, AlphaGo had been given the rules of the game, and had been given human games to play on. So it learned from what we'd done as humans. And so you feel, “Okay, well, it's extending our intelligence and creativity.”

But then, DeepMind, who developed AlphaGo, developed something called AlphaZero, where they just gave the computer the 19 by 19 grid, the pixels, and a score, and it had to learn how to play the game, the rules of the game. And so this was a kind of tabula rasa learning.

It didn't know anything. By the end of its evolution, it was actually better than the AlphaGo that had beat Lee Sedol. So this is genuinely exciting because it didn't have to learn from things we'd already learned. It started from zero.

That's almost true creativity; something from nothing.

It's very interesting it was able to do that. I'm quite surprised that without any sort of guidance that it reached such a phenomenal level.

And actually, it even learned to play chess in an afternoon and beat all the computers that are programmed to chess, and also kind of a Chinese version of chess. So this is exciting and, perhaps, a little bit scary for some people.

Joanna: Some people will now be listening going, “Oh, yeah, but it's still like a game, it's still Go, it's still chess.”

Give us some examples of how AI is also creating in music and writing.

Marcus: Yes, I agree with you. It looks a nice closed environment, the game of Go, and it is. And I think that's why it was a good place to start.

But now, this AI, if it can learn, well, why not expose it to other things, not just games of Go, but the art that we love, the novels we like to write, the poetry, the music?

Music is an interesting one because it's also quite a self-contained environment. If you think about it, it's got notes on page, certain frequencies, that's why there's a lot of connection between maths and music. So AI learning on what we've composed in the past and extending it has been very successful.

Somehow, AI always starts with Bach as the composer. They try and make more Bach, and partly because Bach is very algorithmic in the way that he writes his music. And I think that's one thing I wanted to illustrate in the book, that artistic creativity isn't as mysterious as we think it is. That actually there's a lot of kind of structure, pattern, almost algorithm in the way that we do our creation or pieces of art.

The book is partly showing why, actually, we're responding to things in the artistic realm because they've got that hidden structure that we're trying to unpick. So if we can understand that, then maybe the AI can go and extend that into other realms.

We've now got examples, for example, a jazz improviser, trained on another jazz musician's riffs, the AI learned those riffs but then extended the sound world of this jazz musician. And what's interesting there is the jazz musician said, ‘Look, I recognize what this AI is producing. It's my world, but it's doing things I never thought were possible.'

I think this is an example of the exciting role that AI can play in a creative's life because it's as if that jazz musician was stuck in a corner of the room with just a small light on, didn't realize that they were sitting in a huge great big hall, and the AI has turned the lights on and showed, well, look at all these other places that you can go to with your sound world.

Music has been an exciting progress. The art world, where there are some curious things like a new Rembrandt was painted because the AI learned what Rembrandt had done in the past, his use of light, the sort of faces that he likes to paint, and by it taking that information was able to produce something which I think is pretty convincing as a Rembrandt-esque painting.

Joanna: It was sold at Sotheby's, right, as well?

Marcus: Yes. At Sotheby's…or think it was Christie's actually, it was the first AI piece of art. And I think this is, again, interesting because Rembrandt, we've already got fantastic Rembrandts, we don't need anything new there. So I think, what we want is AI to take us somewhere new and exciting, not to reproduce the old.

This piece of AI that was sold at Christie's I think it was, it was created, actually, by making art into a bit of a game because it was using something called a Generative Adversarial Network or a GAN, and this is taking two algorithms which kind of compete against each other.

One algorithm is creating art which it tries to make new and not derivative, but not too new that you just don't recognize it as a chaotic mess. The other algorithm then says, ‘No, I spot that, that's very Picasso-esque,' or, ‘No, you've now gone into a realm that's not art.' And the two competed against each other and created something which was kind of a new sort of art, and that's what went on sale at Christie's.

Joanna: And that's the bit I think, is just like writers. I don't know about maths, but I think there's this generative, as you say, which is the creative mind, which is, ‘I'm back in first draft, that's a first draft thing.'

And then the adversarial, which we would call critical voice or the editor is the bit that goes through and kind of says, ‘Oh, no, that's not so great or that needs fixing,' or whatever. So that, to me, almost sounds human-like.

Marcus: I agree with you. I have quite a few quotes from people in the book, the painters especially, and a poet, Paul Valery, who talks about the fact that you need two people in your mind, one being super creative and throwing out ideas, and the other one being critical and making choices about, ‘No, that's not good. That is good.'

And certainly I do that in mathematics, and very often I will do that in partnership with somebody else. So we have a lot of collaborations and I have partners across the world that I create my mathematics with.

Sometimes I'll be the good guy, suggesting loads of mad ideas and then my colleague in Germany, he's the one who shoots it down, or I have a colleague in Israel, he's the generative one and I'm the adversarial one in that context.

So I think that we do use this paradigm quite a lot. I think it's interesting that AI has latched onto it as a powerful way to make new things.

Joanna: What about writing then? Because I hear my audience saying, ‘Yes, but an AI hasn't written anything.'

Tell us about the poetry, automated insights, and what's going on with writing.

Marcus: Your writers will be encouraged to learn that I think of all the arts that I looked at in this book, that I think writing is still the furthest away from AI being able to achieve anything like humans can.

But there have been some examples. People might remember a story about a new ‘Harry Potter.' So again, this is machine learning because what the AI took was the seven volumes that J.K. Rowling has written, saw the sort of sentences she writes, the sort of connections she likes making, and then produced kind of the beginning of an eighth volume.

But actually, here's a warning about AI because I looked under the bonnet of this piece of AI, and actually ran it on some of my own books to see whether maybe I could put myself out of a job or get the AI to write my book for me. And what I understood was, there's still a lot of human creativity going on in an exercise like that.

So the algorithm offered me, at each point, 18 different choices of words which could follow the word you've just had. And I had to choose which of those that I would write.

And this is a warning because I think a lot of the news stories love to say, ‘AI has painted a new picture. AI has written a Harry Potter.' And it doesn't make a good news story if you say, ‘Human writes with the aid of a computer,' and so the human gets kind of put to the side and it's sort of celebrated as a piece of AI.

Actually, I heard Demis Hassabis, he said a nice thing, he was the creator of DeepMind and AlphaGo. He said it's like in the turn of the century when everybody was just putting .com at the end of their companies to hype their value.

At the moment we've just got everyone putting ‘Made with AI machine learning.' So be warned that not everything is always AI.

But that's not to say that there are roles that AI can play in creative writing. Poetry has been a very interesting place because it's quite a constrained environment. Sometimes you're almost putting rules on yourself to push you into new ways of thinking.

I think that's often why I quite enjoy writing poetry because I have to think of something that matches what I've just done if I'm trying to keep a particular rhythm going. So, there have been some interesting examples.

And I suppose they're more successful because poetry has always had a gnomic quality. You're never quite sure what on earth this means. And so I think AI can get away with a lot in this environment because it can write something which you can think, ‘Well, that sounds kind of weird,' and it could easily be sort of human going off on some weird kind of path.

So I referenced a little exercise that you can do, which is trying to spot whether something's written by a bot or not, and it's somebody who puts forward some different poems composed by humans which actually sound quite machine-like, and vice versa.
Some of your writers might have been involved in the November Writing Month.

Joanna: Yes, NaNoWriMo.

Marcus: NaNoWriMo, exactly. My mum has done a couple of NaNoWriMos. But somebody came up with a cunning idea. So this is to write a novel in a month, really disciplined, pump out the words, but this was a kind of variant on that idea, which is, ‘No, just write a piece of AI, write a bit of code that will make the novel for you.'

So you spend the month not writing but coming up with code that will do the writing for you. So there've been some very interesting examples of that. And most of them, again, are quite derivative. They're taking things like ‘Moby Dick' and running it through a Twitter filter.

But I thought one of the most interesting was won by somebody called thricedotted, that's her pseudonym. And she wrote something called, ‘The Seeker.' The AI takes wikiHow, which if anyone's gone on wikiHow, it's how to ask a girlfriend out on a date or how to bake bread.

The code has thought, ‘Well, I want to learn what it's like to be human. So I'm going to go through these pages of how to on wikiHow and learn what it is to be human.' And the algorithm generates responses to the wikiHow pages.

Now, for me, this is most interesting because I think this is where creativity and AI is going to be richest, which is when an AI becomes an entity in its own right, and it wants to try and communicate with us, and we want to try and understand its world.

Why do we write novels? We write novels because we want to get inside the mind of the other or to share our minds with others. I think it's trying to solve the whole problem of consciousness, that we can't know what it feels like to be you or what it feels like to be me.

Our novels are almost like an fMRI scanner, reading into the brain of the other. So I think this will become most interesting when AI becomes conscious. And then we will need to hear their stories in order to understand what it's like to be that machine.

Joanna: People are going, ‘When AI becomes conscious,' which you know, I wasn't going to get here so fast. But there are lots of people who worry about AI becoming conscious, obviously, Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, famous names, dystopian sci-fi writers.

You mentioned that story might be the answer to the evil AI. So maybe just talk about that a minute.

Marcus: Yes, because I think it has been a little bit too dystopian, and I'm hoping this book is actually a more positive take on AI and how AI can be a useful tool but perhaps go further.

If it does become conscious, then we're going to need it on our side. We're going to work together. And there was an exercise which…it took the idea of how to tell a story.

And actually, many of your writers might have watched ‘Bandersnatch' just recently, the ‘Black Mirror' on Netflix, where you get to make choices along the way about what the characters do. Of course, this is a very old idea, books I used to love as a kid, where, you know, ‘Turn to page 37 if you go through the left door or…'

What this research team did was to train AI on the way that humans tell stories. We tell stories which aren't too dystopian most of the time, or at least we tell stories about what it means to be human.

And then the AI, having trained on this, was let loose on a tree of possibilities of a story to tell. And what was encouraging was because it had learnt how humans tell stories, it chose a pathway that was more human-like, wasn't horrific choices which weren't emotionally involved. It took a pathway that humans responded to.

I think that if we can train the AI that's emerging, in a sense, to be empathetic by reading our stories, by understanding our art, and therefore, being sympathetic to producing something similar, then we might have an empathetic AI will not be one that will, hopefully, wipe us out.

I actually put the quote by Ian McEwan, whose response to 9/11..

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Independent publishing has given voice to writers who might otherwise not find a place in the book marketplace. This has, in turn, increased the diversity we see in both authors who publish books, and in the characters and subjects represented. Bharat Krishnan explores how to write diverse characters authentically.

As wuxia, African, and eastern-based fantasy become more popular subgenres in today’s market, writing diversity well has become an important tool for a writer to have in their repertoire.

Society is defined by boundaries.

Every single person on Earth has to live within those boundaries, and the ones that loom largest in our own lives are what seem diverse to us.

To that end, here are five tips for incorporating diversity authentically in your next book.

1. Be true to yourself

Find the boundaries within your own life and write about them with authority.

While writing my latest novel, it was important for me to explore my Hinduism. One way I did that was by naming a weapon wielded by one of the secondary characters after a famous character in the epic, the Mahabharata. Notice that even in my own story, this weapon is wielded by a secondary character and not the protagonist.

Minority communities are used to being underrepresented in works, and we still enjoy them quite a lot! The weapon, Ekalavya, is a bow used in a handful of scenes, and I suspect the majority of my readers will never pick up on the relevance of its name.

2. Highlight contrasts you see in how you view the world and its boundaries in your life

Just as in life, the setting of your story will determine the society that forms around it. In a desert setting like Oasis, whoever controls the supply of water controls the rules. Quite literally, you can’t survive without it.

Now, though, we’re at a period in history where the CEO of Nestlé said a few years ago that access to water isn’t a fundamental human right. Oasis takes that position to an extreme, and in doing so the society that emerges in the middle of a desert is one that invites contrasts.

More contrasts = more boundaries, and as we all know by now that leads to better diversity.

3. Dissect cultural events that speak to you

Chances are you have strong opinions on at least a handful of issues with cultural relevance. Think about how the unique circumstances of the people involved might have impacted the event, and also think about how the event is being covered in the press.

Bias can be found in everything, and once you identify biases you can see how authors hide them – often in plain sight. Just like bias is everywhere and nowhere, diversity is too and finding what motivates you personally can be an easy way to identify ways to make your writing more diverse.

Let’s say you think the UFC fighter Ronda Rousey is overrated, for instance. Once you unpack why Rousey gets more favorable press than other female fighters, you might be more cognizant of how bias can exclude underrepresented communities and how actively working to overcome that can lead to better, and more profitable, writing.

4. Understand conflict

At its core, all conflict stems from an inability for two or more people to get along.

More often than not, that inability is rooted in the fact that these people are different in some way. A good conflict makes a story irresistible, and so to understand conflict is to understand diversity.

Ask yourself some questions like, why would a deaf person not be a good archer? Is that something they could get around? Those types of questions will tell you if you have a compelling story or not. Reading about a deaf archer overcoming the odds to save a kingdom, for instance, would be a compelling read for me at least.

5. Know how to R.E.A.C.H.

Research – make sure you have an understanding of the type of character or community you want to explore (LGBT, disabled, a rural community when you personally live in a city, etc).

Empathize – improving your empathy, in general, will allow you to write more diverse characters because those characters will seem authentic if you can empathize with their underrepresented condition.

Acknowledge – recognize that you can’t know what this community feels and that that is okay. Have someone from that community read your work, or at least discuss it with them to gain their perspective.

Characterize – make sure your diverse character doesn’t just exist to serve the plot.

Humanize – know what you go through as a person in your everyday life and inject some of that daily routine into these characters wherever it makes sense. For example, if you’re writing an LGBT character, the love they feel for someone of the same gender is not different from the love you feel for the significant other in your life.

Authentic diversity speaks to targeted communities, and in doing so it succeeds in being everywhere and nowhere at once. It doesn’t matter how many black people you have in your story or if your main character is deaf or blind – what matters is that your unique voice shines through the course of your novel.

Just look at how a deaf, Asian warrior was handled in Netflix’s recent animated show, The Dragon Prince. Diverse writing is about more than just demographic data, and when you explore that your voice will come off stronger for it.

For a novel to succeed in the marketplace, it needs that unique voice, and if you aren’t talking about what makes you unique as a person then you’re not enunciating as clearly as possible and your voice will get lost in the crowd.

Have you explored diversity in your writing? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Bharat Krishnan is a philanthropic consultant in Columbus, Ohio. After ten years in Democratic politics, he wrote a memoir about his life on the road as a political campaign manager and just released a fantasy novel called Oasis. He refers to himself as a professional storyteller and amateur cook.

You can pick up Confessions of a Campaign Manager or Oasis here on Amazon. Feel free to send him a tweet.

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How do you write villains who are more than just moustache-twirling cut-outs? How do you write heroes with real flaws? In today's interview, Sacha Black gives tips on these writing issues and more.

In the intro, Streetlib launches African stores and an international store for indigenous languages [The New Publishing Standard], Draft2Digital now publishes to Google Play (beta), PublishDrive announces enhanced Amazon Ads; Reedsy announces Reedsy Discovery, a new way for indie books to be discovered through email marketing and curated lists.

Today's show is sponsored by PublishDrive, a global self-publishing platform distributing to 400+ stores and 240,000 libraries, with innovative marketing tools like integrated Amazon Ads. The writing process is hard enough, so the publishing and marketing process should be easier. PublishDrive helps authors write more, publish more, sell more and worry less. Go to www.PublishDrive.com to learn more.

Sacha Black is a best-selling YA Fantasy author and also writes non-fiction for writers, including 13 Steps to Evil and 10 Steps to Hero on creating characters. She's also a blogger, writing coach, and developmental editor.

You can listen above or on iTunes or your favorite podcast app or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • The journey from blogging to writing flash fiction to full-length novels
  • Why all stories need a good villain, even romances
  • How villains are part of the theme of a novel
  • How to write a hero who is not one-dimensional
  • On the benefits of creating workbooks to go with non-fiction

You can find Sacha Black at SachaBlack.co.uk and on Twitter @sacha_black

Transcript of Interview with Sacha Black

Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com. And today, I'm here with Sacha Black. Hi, Sacha.

Sacha: Hi, Joanna. Thank you so much for having me.

Joanna: It's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.

Sacha is a best-selling YA Fantasy author and also writes non-fiction for writers, including '13 Steps to Evil' and '10 Steps to Hero' on creating characters. She's also a blogger, writing coach, and developmental editor.

Sacha, tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and publishing.

Sacha: I think if I'd been slightly more self-aware, I probably would have started writing slightly younger. But I always read as a kid, I kind of had to change libraries because I literally devoured entire kids sections and sort of similarly I wrote stories as well.

But I also grew up knowing I had to get a proper job. So, instead of going to university and doing creative writing or whatever, I went and did psychology.

And after that, I ended up in a fast track management scheme. So kind of corporate hellmare as I like to call it. I became more and more stifled and I needed an outlet. So I created a pen name, which is where Sacha Black comes from and I started ranting on a blog. Literally, that's what I was doing.

The blogging community is so wonderful and I met lots of people and I discovered flash fiction. That led one thing to another and I dug out my old sort of notebooks and my first young adult fantasy book genuinely is a character that I created when I was nine years old.

Joanna: Cool.

Sacha: She's been with me for a very long time. And then I started writing up lessons that I learned because I'm basically senile, so I needed somewhere to put these sort of writing craft lectures that I'd learned and lessons. And a few of them, particularly on villains, well, they didn't go viral, but I saw an awful lot of traffic very quickly.

I did a bit of investigating, I looked on Amazon, I discovered there were very few books on villains. And so I figured there was a market there and that is basically history. It just sort of spiraled from there.

Joanna: That's really cool. We're going to come back to the blogging.

The development from flash fiction into a full YA novel, that's quite a leap, isn't it? Because for people who don't know flash fiction, it's 500 words, 1000 words. I know that's a leap that a lot of people want to make.

How did you make that leap from writing flash and writing non-fiction blog posts to full YA?

Sacha: It was less a leap, more a snail's crawl to writing the book. I did a very typical thing of somebody who is afraid to start writing. And for an entire year I plotted, I looked at visual things, I wrote notes, I changed my plot.

This was the year that I was pregnant and when my son was born, I knew I had to be the person that followed their dreams because that's the role model that I wanted to be then.

So I heard about NaNo and I just said a rude word and just went for it. I took the notes and decided that I had to start or I was never going to start. And the NaNo WriMo Challenge, for anybody that doesn't know, is 50,000 words in a month. And I figured it was as good of a challenge with accountability, sort of, you've got these public sort of forums and word counts. And I didn't look back.

Joanna: How many words did you do in that NaNo?

Sacha: Fifty-two thousand or 57,000. I threw the entire thing away.

Joanna: What did it give you then?

Sacha: The habit. It gave me the habit of writing. And that was all it took really. I drove my wife insane because she couldn't stand the tapping for the entire month. She's used to it now. But so after the month, I got the habit.

It was an itch I had to keep scratching, I had to keep creating. And the non-fiction blogs just weren't enough anymore. I wanted to do both.

So I wrote another entire draft, which I also binned. And after that, I changed my process and I decided that I was going to get feedback after every single chapter so that I didn't make plot mistakes going through.

I intensively studied the craft, and that draft, that third draft did go to a publication. So I think in total, I wrote 270,000 words of my first book, which ended up at about 64 or something.

Joanna: Well, that's interesting. There are a few things there.

My first NaNo, which is how I got started, I did like around 20,000 words. And around 5000 of that made it into the book. But also, I think it's interesting because a lot of us feel like the third novel is where you start to kind of understand things. So you just did it all in. You did it all in one, which is hilarious.

And the other thing you're saying there, my husband also says like when there's the tap, tap, tapping sound, he's like, ‘Oh, that's the sound of my wife.' Which is quite funny.

But okay, let's get into the books and give some people some tips. And I do think your psychology stuff obviously comes into the books. So let's talk about villains.

Why do all stories need a good villain even if we're writing a happy, happy rainbows, unicorns, romance?

Sacha: I think it's universally accepted that stories are about change. Whether it's your hero that's changing through a character arc or if it's the world, kind of dystopian novel, that's crumbling, the story is about change.

But another word for change is conflict. And I may get a bit science-y here. But I think that Darwin was absolutely correct in that it is about survival of the fittest, and that applies to our characters as well.

So you only really change when you are pushed to your absolute limits. That is when you're out of your comfort zone and you have to basically adapt or die, as Darwin would say.

And your villain, in whatever guise that may be, is generally the source of that conflict. Obviously, you have different types of villains, whether it be an antagonist or in a conflict or whatever, in a literary novel.

But, broadly speaking, your villain is the source of that conflict. They put obstacles in the way of your hero, and they force your hero to make do or die decisions. And that is why you need a villain. So it doesn't matter which genre you're in, the thing that they all have in common is that the villains are the source of conflict.

Joanna: And if we don't have conflict, it's just happy people in happy land, which I think James Scott Bell said that, and it always makes me laugh, it's like, that's not a story, that's just boring.

Sacha: Nobody cares. Where's the freak, where's the drama?

Joanna: When is the conflict? Which is exactly right. So how do then we construct a good villain with depth that is not cliché, but it's also good enough?

I was reading some of my diaries and I found a thing about one of the Bond films. It was, why was this not a good Bond film? I can't remember which one it was. And it was like the villain wasn't good enough, I wasn't scared. There wasn't enough of a threat. In a good Bond film, there has to be a big threat.

How do we construct a good villain with depth?

Sacha: I think the key to a good villain is a villain who is both credible and believable. And there's a few different things and sort of tactics and plot devices that you can use in order to create that credibility and believability.

The most obvious one that I think everybody would know is for your villain, as well as your hero, to have a very, very solid motive. Everybody, I don't care who you are, even if you are a serial killer, has a reason why they do things. It is Psychology 101, it's human nature.

Even in horror films like ‘Nightmare on Elm Street,' Freddy Krueger even has a reason why he wants revenge. He was locked in a burning building. So that's number one.

Number two would be morals and values. So having a moral or a value, even when you're a villain, gives them a valid reason. It justifies their behavior, it justifies their why. I always think that is sort of the second stage of having a motive.

The third one that I would say is for your villain to have something in their past, whether it be a wound or a scar, or something emotionally wounding or emotion, that has created an emotional scar in their psychology that is driving their behavior because that's connected into the motive. I've lost count.

Possibly number four would be there's that really cheesy phrase, ‘Even villains have mummies' but it's actually really true. And I think if you give your villain a redeeming quality, or alternatively, if you don't sort of want to give them a redeeming quality, you can give them something to love, that humanizes them and that that sort of humanity makes them more relatable and that's how you get them to connect with the reader.

A couple of examples, even Voldemort, Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter had his pet snake, Nagini. So, even your ‘everybody must die' type villains have that sort of humanity in them.

Joanna: And it's really interesting, what you brought to mind when you said, ‘Even villains have mummies,' you brought to mind ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin', which would be classed as a literary novel.

It's about a kid who kills people at his school, but it's his mother, you feel empathetic towards him where he's really the villain and it's her story, but it's one of those complicated things. You have to be able to make your villain empathetic in some way.

Another question, do any villains really believe they are the baddies?

Sacha: Oh, no, absolutely not. And that's the reason for having values is that having a value gives them this unfaltering logic to sort of their crazy, I call it, that reason, that big campaign, the thing that they're trying to destroy or whatever.

Having a value in their mind will justify their actions. And there's a great example of that President Snow from ‘The Hunger Games.' He has this rule that he tells Katniss that, ‘I only ever kill for a purpose.'

That's a value and that justifies his behavior. He believes what he's doing. He kills, yes, but he only kills for a reason. And that automatically makes you, as a reader, invest in what they're saying.

Joanna: I just started writing another novel this morning as we talk, which is kind of hilarious, and my baddies want to take our land back. And it's interesting because borders are this area where everyone thinks they're in the right. ‘Whose land is it anyway?' type of question.

This type of thing always comes up for me, who is the villain in these type of stories? And then this kind of plays into the idea of theme.

How do we construct a good villain that also plays into the theme of the story or how do we even strengthen theme with villains?

Sacha: I can't think of the word, but it's a distraction sometimes thinking about hero, villain, and theme. I think all characters play into theme. And I think it seems this weird concept that loads of writers panic about and worry about.

Not everybody knows what their theme is when you first start writing. Some people don't know until the final draft.

But if you have a character arc, and if you have change, I can guarantee you, you have a theme buried in there somewhere. So I personally like to think about theme in terms of a psychological theory.

So there's somebody called Gestalt…I forget the year, 1950 something or other. And it's a psychological theory that basically says, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Now, I liken that to a novel and similarly to a spider's web.

I think all novels are spider's webs and I call it something called the web of connectivity. Each thread in a spider's web is its own unique thread. But when you step back and you look at the whole of the threads, it's more than just a series of threads. It's an entire web, or in our case, an entire novel.

And that stands for things like plots, plot twists, characters, subplots, and so on and so forth. So how does that connect to the villain? If you want to strengthen your theme, I put all of my characters on a continuum.

So if you have the full embodiment of your theme, that is your hero. If you want the full embodiment of the antithesis, the opposite of your theme, that is your villain. But to strengthen that, you should look at every single character and how they reflect the theme.

So leading on with the Katniss and ‘The Hunger Games' example, Katniss embodies the theme of sacrifice. President Spow embodies the theme of sacrificing everybody else for his own good. And that plays out by him obviously sacrificing tributes, these kids who have to go and fight each other, and so on, so forth.

The other characters like Peeta and Rue are all variations on sacrifice. Even Haymitch, who's sort of this antihero mentor character, he is sort of the reluctant sacrificer. But he does, he comes around in the end and he gives medicine and things to Katniss during the games.

So as well as looking at the villain as embodying and all of his actions being the anti-side to your theme, look at the other characters too and how you can reflect theme in their actions and what question are they answering about the theme? How can they embody different variations, different points on the continuum?

Joanna: It's a really good point and I'm a bit more of a writing into the dark type of person. My ‘Map Walker' series, the theme is borders and maps and where the lines are between us as people and all that.

But it's interesting when you say that and I think maybe we naturally as we're readers, we construct these things. So, if people who're listening going, ‘Wow, that's quite reductionist,' well, you can do it either way. You can kind of reverse-engineer later or you can work through a workbook like yours, which we're going to come back to in a minute.

Let's talk about heroes because I actually find villains super easy. I really enjoy writing my bad people and I just don't struggle at all to find empathy with my villains.

But I do struggle with my heroes. I feel that I struggle much more with that and they're almost me, generally they are almost me, my main characters. And so maybe that's why it's a problem.

How do we construct a hero who is not just cardboard cutouts?

Sacha: So I talk about something called the hero lens, which is essentially the concept that everything your reader experiences should be funneled through your hero. They shouldn't come into contact with anything that isn't relevant to what your hero is directly experiencing.

And that is categorized for me into four different things; actions, thoughts, feelings, dialogue. The rest of the story, obviously describing things is really important. You need to locate your reader, you need to put them in time and space. But so what? Your reader doesn't really care. All that does is create a picture in their head.

If you want to make your reader care, your reader wants to know what does your hero feel, what do they think about the fact that it's called ‘On the Train' and the train's in disrepair or whatever? That's a terrible example. But you know what I mean.

When you share that inner psyche and that inner viewpoint with the reader, that's what makes your hero relatable and that's what helps your reader to connect with your hero. So let me ask you a question. This is a bit random and I always use this question. I've said this so many times, but is turquoise more blue or more green?

Joanna: Blue. Absolutely. I took off my turquoise jumper.

Sacha: Okay. But I guarantee that half of the people listening to this would have said green. And that's what makes your hero unique.

It's not motives or traits. Everybody has a motive. Everybody has a trait.

What's unique about your hero and what makes your reader fall in love with your hero is their particular perspective, your hero's rose-tinted glasses. How does your hero's thoughts, feelings, and actions impact how they view their surroundings?

I draw that down to saying, if you want to imbue that in your story, think about how your hero's viewpoints affect your sentences at sentence level. If your hero is angry you have to use shorter, sharper words. If your hero is depressed, make your sentences longer, like flow them more melancholy. So that's one thing.

Second thing, layer conflict, really important. To me, there's kind of three different types of conflict. Inner conflict, which is your great example of this, Ned Stark. I don't if you're a ‘Game of Thrones' fan. I love ‘Game of Thrones.'

Joanna: Of course. No spoilers.

Sacha: No. Ned Stark is completely out of context, a character. And George Martin does this quite a lot with his characters, he pits their values against each other and makes them butt against each other and have to make really difficult decisions.

A difficult decision very early on for Ned Stark is he values loyalty, but he also is very intelligent and has a lot of foresight. His decision is, he's been asked to go and help the king, if he goes and helps the king, he's pretty sure he's probably not going to come back.

And that creates this inner conflict. Does he go and help the king, which he should because he's his friend and wants to? But if he does, he kind of knows it might be his end. So that creates inner conflict.

Second layer of conflict is sort of your micro-conflict, characters fighting against each other, hero-villain, blah, blah, blah.

And then your third layer of conflict is macro. So society, world, war. And you can lay these levels of conflict. And that helps to create barriers and problems for your hero to fight against.

And the very last point is the bravery myth. I think lots of writers think that the way you get your readers to connect is to make your hero brave. Well, I would beg to differ. Not everybody can be brave.

So it just takes a bit of balls, can I say that, guts. But it's the hero who sacrifices something that really shines. And usually the sacrifice has to be something that's important. The more important the sacrifice, the more valuable and the more engaged your readers become, especially, typically, it's something about themselves that they have to give up or sacrifice. So, those are probably the three things that I would say are most beneficial for your hero.

Joanna: Bringing up ‘Game of Thrones,' and as we speak, the final series is not yet out, which is like oh, my goodness. But I read the first couple of books, and then I went off the books.

But the TV series is masterful in conflict. And also I think, as you're saying with heroes and villains, half the time, you don't know who is a hero and who is a villain. And that's clever. That's super, super clever. And all these different layers of conflict also.

Even if you don't like fantasy, you can watch ‘Game of Thrones' and understand this idea of conflict on every page, it's just incredible.

Let's talk about some of your publishing because I'm very interested. Obviously I have workbooks from my books, you have these workbook edditions for your hero and your villain books.

Why did you want to do workbooks? Is it worth it for multiple streams of income? Any tips for other people on workbooks?

Sacha: Okay, so completely honest, why should I do them? Because you do. No, okay, that was one of the reasons.

The other reason is because I do actually use them. K.M. Weiland has some workbooks too and I used hers. And I actually really enjoyed them. I found them more useful sometimes than the textbook.

So it was a combination of seeing the value that you'd promoted of having them.

And lastly, because it makes good business sense. Now, I actually went and checked what my..

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Finding the time and discipline to write is a challenge for many authors. Nathan Wade shares three easy ways to make the most of your writing time each day.

Does creativity strike when you’re messing around and having fun?

Does being laid-back and disorganized spark the most creative masterpieces?

Many people believe that creativity is a product of the scattered brain. Some experts even argue that there’s research to support this theory.

While the archetype of the mad genius is a common one, the truth is that the most successful creatives are actually extremely disciplined when it comes to their work.

Unlocking creativity isn’t about sitting back, goofing off, and waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s about meticulously curating the right conditions to foster creativity.

[Note from Joanna: For more about how to make the most of your creative time, check out Productivity for Authors.]

The Myth of the Sloppy Creative Genius

Even if you aren’t familiar with his theory of relativity, you’ve probably heard of Einstein. Albert Einstein was one of the most innovative thinkers in history. The disheveled scientist is the poster boy of the messy genius archetype.

Einstein’s desk was famously photographed on the day he died. The picture reveals a chaotic landscape of papers and books.

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign of?”

But behind Einstein’s messy desk was a regimented mind. In Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, author Mason Currey records the daily schedules of the world’s most creative people. In his book, Currey refutes the belief that Einstein had a hectic or disorganized life.

Einstein’s schedule was actually regimented around his work. As a rule, Einstein worked at home after dinner to finish up anything he didn’t complete at his office.

And his shaggy bed head served a practical purpose: he kept his hair long to avoid barber visits.

Einstein was disciplined, and he’s not the only one. People like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos didn’t succeed by fooling around until they struck gold; they each worked within the confines of a routine that helped them to be creative.

The Need for Order

Creatives, freelancers, and entrepreneurs all share a unique problem: lack of order.

Most creatives don’t have a traditional job with scheduled work hours. They don’t have bosses or coworkers to hold them accountable. They don’t need to be anywhere at any specific time. Some don’t even have concrete deadlines for their work.

The consequence is that creatives need to foster self-discipline. This is much easier said than done, especially for absent-minded types.

Without discipline, creatives may find themselves doing nothing all day.

The hardest part of any task is getting started. Steven Pressfield writes in his acclaimed book The War of Art, “It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.”

Here’s how you can find inspiration, be more innovative, and unleash the power of your creativity.

1. Make a schedule and stick to it.
If you’re a struggling creative, chances are you don’t have a schedule. Or maybe you do have one, but you don’t follow it. In order to maximize your creativity, you need to have a schedule. More importantly, you need to stick to it.

Many creatives make the mistake of over-correcting here. They create a minute-to-minute blueprint for their day. This can result in fatigue and emotional exhaustion. Instead of taking this unrealistic approach, simply map out the flow you’d like your day to have.

Maybe you want to exercise, work, eat lunch, do some more work, and call it a day. Once you understand what your ideal day looks like, nail down your schedule by attaching times to each activity and follow that plan the best you can. And absolutely do not forget to sleep.

Planning is easy, but executing a plan (especially a daily plan) requires a good bit of willpower. If you want to work from 9AM to 1PM, you need to work for those four hours. Plan in some breaks if you feel that you need them, but remember to work consistently.

2. Separate your workspace from your living space.
Another problem that gets in the way of creatives is their environment.

Where do you work right now?

Many creatives lack designated workspaces and that’s a big reason why so many of them struggle. It’s hard to shift gears between work and play when you work from home.

If you work from home, you need to create a separate work area. This way you can shift into work mode more easily. Ideally, you should use a separate room as an office—but even setting up a work area in the corner of a room can do the trick. Do not place your office in the middle of your living room.

It’s critical that you don’t use this space for anything else. That means no browsing social sites at your desk. By creating a space that you deem solely a workspace, you’ll be able to get into the zone faster and get your creative juices flowing.

3. Set a dress code for yourself.
It’s not only where you work, but what you work in.

It’s a cliché that freelancers work in their pajamas. If you want to be creative and productive, you might want to toss that advice in the trash. What you wear has a direct effect on how you perform.

Donning a hoodie and sweats every day encourages you to be a little lazier.

Create a dress code for yourself during your work hours. You don’t need to wear a penguin suit or ball gown, but you should choose clothes that encourage professionalism. That may mean a crisp button-up shirt and slacks or a pencil skirt and blouse.

Find what works for you. Just don’t get too comfortable. Remember: you’re at work.

Cultivate A Habit of Discipline Today

For most creatives, developing discipline is the largest obstacle in their way. Using a work checklist can also help to stay on the right track.

Sure, you can search high and low for a new source of inspiration—but why not tap into the potential that’s already inside you?

If you’ve exhausted yourself sitting in front of a blank screen or canvas, give these techniques a try. You might be surprised at what you can achieve with a little order.

How disciplined are you about getting your writing done? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Nathan Wade is the Managing Editor at WealthFit. He's previously worked as an attorney in entrepreneurial law and venture capital.

[Messy desk image courtesy Ferenc Horvath and Unsplash.]

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Your book cover design is an essential part of your book marketing strategy. Today author and graphic designer AD Starrling discusses how to make the most of the cover design you've worked so hard to get right.

Cover attracts, copy sells.

I can’t recall where exactly I first read this eye-opening line but I now live by this motto as both a writer and a designer.

When it comes to selling books, there is no doubt that an eye-catching cover that fits your main genre and targets your ideal reader is an important element to get right.

There are dozens of articles out there by some very big names in our industry about how changing covers changed their sales figures and in some cases, their entire careers.

Our very own Joanna Penn has written a couple of features here and here, and there is this sobering example by H.M. Ward which I always quote as an example of very effective redesign and rebranding.

I also strongly recommend checking out this podcast interview with Stuart Bache on book covers.

So, now that you’ve got a great book cover, what can you do with it besides putting it out there in the world when you launch your book? It turns out you can do a lot, especially to market it. So let’s break this down into three phases:

  1. Prelaunch
  2. Launch
  3. Branding
1. Prelaunch

Buzz building is a crucial element of most bestselling authors’ marketing strategy when it comes to their new releases. Getting your existing readers excited about your upcoming book and attracting new readers to your writing world is a great way to ensure you get good sale figures when you launch, especially if you’re doing preorders.

I would particularly emphasize targeting your existing readers. Remember the Rule of 7 in Marketing 101. Even your fans may have to “see” your book several times before they click the preorder or buy button.

Here are several ways you can use your book cover to build buzz about your upcoming release before your book goes live. You should start thinking about this 1 to 3 months before your book launch.

A. Cover reveal

A cover reveal is an easy, simple, and effective way to build buzz about your upcoming release. From exclusive cover reveals with preorder links to your mailing list and fan groups, to posts on your social media platforms which you can boost, to paid cover reveal book tours. All of these are easy ways to get your book out there to existing fans and potential new readers.

Many authors do giveaways with their cover reveals to engage their existing readers and attract new ones.

There are two ways you can use your book cover for cover reveals. Just use the cover itself or create attractive graphics that include your cover. In terms of cover reveal book tours, romance and YA fantasy are the two genres that can do well with that particular form of buzz building.

This is the cover reveal graphic I’m using for my upcoming release. Here, I used elements of the book cover for the background, a 3D render of the book, and a tagline with a clear call-to-action.

And here’s an amazing cover reveal post where the author uses their actual book cover to full effect (note this is not my design).

B. Profile picture

Another simple way to make your upcoming release highly visible is to change your author profile image on your various social media platforms, your Amazon author page, and even your Bookbub page.

Here are a couple of recent guides which will help you get the dimensions right: Sprout Social Social Media Image Size Guide and Hubspot Ultimate Guide Social Media Image Dimensions.

Social media platforms often change their image dimension requirements so make sure to revisit them at least once or twice a year to ensure you’re using up to date sizing guides.

C. Website

Always try and keep your website up to date by displaying your upcoming release prominently on your Home page. Your cover or an attractive graphic with a tagline and preorder links is an easy way to make sure your readers know what’s coming next, especially if you’re driving traffic to your website with advertising.

Consider adding your book cover with its preorder links to your mailing list sign-up page.

Here’s a website Home page graphic I made for Melissa J. Crispin when we redesigned the cover of her fantasy novella The Crimson Curse.

D. Banners

Adding your book cover to your social media and newsletter banners is another easy way to boost visibility. Many authors regularly change their banners to not only showcase their upcoming releases but also when they’re doing sales on one of their titles.

Here’s the Twitter banner I made for Melissa J. Crispin.

E. Ads and teasers

Using your book cover in ads is a brilliant way to boost preorders and increase visibility.

You can either use the book cover itself, elements of it, or images that are evocative of the story in your ad graphics.

Here are two Facebook ads I designed for S.E. Wright when we did her boxset cover.

Here’s a teaser template I created for Melissa J. Crispin, which she then used to add content to use in her social media posts.

2. Launch

Launching your book is a crazy whirlwind of newsletters, social media posts, advertising, and watching sales and reviews come in for your new baby. If you’ve put in the hard work for your prelaunch, it helps make the launch period that much easier.

Your existing and potential new readers have already seen your upcoming book cover several times in the form of the above buzz-building tactics. Now’s the time to dial things up and get them to click buy if they haven’t already pre-ordered your book.

A. Website and social media banners

Once your book is live, updating your website Home page and your social media banners with new launch graphics is a must. Nothing says “There’s naff all to see here folks” than going to an author’s website or social media page on launch day and seeing the proverbial tumbleweed roll across the screen.

You have a web presence. Use it to the max when it comes to your book launch. Remember the Rule of 7.

B. Boosted posts

Boosted posts targeted at your existing readers is a clever way to get sales on launch day. Sure, you would have sent a newsletter out too, but not everyone will open it on launch day and a boosted post doesn’t hurt visibility.

The book cover itself or a pretty graphic featuring the book and your buy links works well for this.

C. Ads

This is where most bestselling authors concentrate their marketing money. Most authors with a backlist that generates good read through and ROI have ads running in the background for their first in series, a boxset, or their reader magnet for mailing list sign-up anyway, but launch day is when the big guns come out.

Since you have no control over your Amazon ads graphics, ensuring the book cover itself is eye-catching from the get-go with a title or author name readable at thumbnail level is the best chance you can give your book in terms of those few precious seconds you have to catch a reader’s eye on a busy Amazon page.

For Facebook, Bookbub, or Twitter ads, the world is your oyster. Here, you can experiment with all sorts of graphics, images, and elements of your book cover.

The advice for Facebook ads is usually that simple images work better than graphics featuring book covers. But I have seen lots of great Facebook ads featuring book covers that work really well when you consider their social proof.

At right is a Bookbub ad I did for S.E. Wright for her boxset.

Here are some fantastic examples (note these are not my designs) of how you can use a book cover and its elements to create brilliant ads.

3. Branding

The other function your book cover has is to convey your author brand or series brand to readers. It’s advisable to revisit your author branding regularly (I would recommend at least once a year) to make sure you keep things fresh and on target for your genre and the kind of readers you are trying to attract.

A. Website and social media

Here are some great examples of authors who are constantly updating their websites and social media banners to reflect their latest release and branding (again, not my own designs).

When I designed the covers for my upcoming urban fantasy series Legion, I decided to give my website and my newsletter a makeover to reflect my new series branding.

B. Swag

Another brilliant and fun way to use your book cover for branding and marketing is by incorporating them in your business card, author event banners, and all your fan swag. So bookmarks, postcards, posters, mugs, T-shirts, tote bags, fridge magnets, popsockets, etc.

The sky is truly the limit when it comes to swag. And you can even monetize these designs by having your own author store on Zazzle or Society 6, or your own website.

[Note from Joanna: for more information and ideas about merchandising that ties into your books and author brand, listen to this episode of The Creative Penn podcast.]

Here are some great examples: Elise Kova, JA Huss, and Marie Force.

One thing to ensure before you sell physical products though is that you have the correct licenses with regards to the images used.

So now that we’ve talked about the various ways you can use your book cover or elements of it for marketing, what about the tools at your disposal to create these eye-catching graphics?

Here are the three I would recommend right now:

  1. Photoshop
  2. Canva
  3. Book Brush

When it comes to design, every designer swears by Photoshop. It can look like the tool of the devil at first but I would recommend starting with Adobe’s own tutorials if you’re new to the software.

If you don’t fancy paying for Photoshop, then I recommend Canva as a great platform for creating stunning graphics.

The other platform to consider is Book Brush. The new kid on the block, Book Brush promises to help you “create professional ads and social media images for your books”.

Before I started my design business, Canva was my go-to tool for all my graphic needs. Photoshop is now my personal tool of choice because it’s so versatile. If you’re not a designer, then I would recommend trying both Canva and Book Brush’s free plans before committing to a paid plan with either of them.

One advantage Canva still retains over Book Brush is that you can do more than just ads and social media images on there. Canva offers a plethora of design features including business cards, book covers, flyers, and posters among many others.

The good thing about both Canva and Book Brush is that they are constantly innovating and adding to their platforms so you will be sure to get a solid product that will only gain in value over time whichever one you choose to go with.

Your last option when it comes to ads and social images is to outsource this completely. There are a few book cover designers who also offer social media kits and ads packages, including my previous book cover designers, the amazing Deranged Doctor Design. And of course, my own design business 17 Studio Book Design.

[Note from Joanna: You can also find more book cover designers here.]

I hope you’ve found this article helpful and will go forth with a better idea of how you can effectively use your book cover in all your marketing endeavors.

Have you used your book covers in your marketing and advertising graphics? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

17 Studio Book Design is the brainchild of bestselling fantasy and thriller author AD Starrling. Having done all her marketing designs since 2016, AD launched 17..

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Symbolism can add depth to our writing, turning characters into real people, and developing nuance in scenes. In today's podcast interview, Caroline Donahue explains how to use Tarot cards to delve into symbolism and give your unconscious mind some fuel for creativity.

In the introduction, I talk about the ghostwriting + plagiarism scandal sweeping the romance community #copypastecris, referring to Courtney Milan's original article and what to do about it, plus Kris Rusch's in-depth analysis. I explain the difference between ghostwriting and co-writing, as well as why ghostwriting is a normal practice in publishing [Reedsy examples], but plagiarism is most definitely not acceptable.

Today's show is sponsored by my Productivity for Authors mini-course with lessons on saying no and setting boundaries, finding time to write, making the most of your writing time, co-writing, working with author assistants, dictation, tools I use personally, and thoughts on health and mindset. Find all my courses at: www.TheCreativePenn.com/learn

Caroline Donahue is an American author and writing coach living in Berlin, Germany. She's also the host of The Secret Library podcast. Her new book is Story Arcana: Tarot for Writers.

You can listen above or on iTunes or your favorite podcast app or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • Common misconceptions about tarot
  • Ways of using the tarot to think about character motivation and inner landscape
  • Crossover between Jungian psychology and the tarot
  • The three types of archetypal journeys a book, its author and its characters go through
  • Doing tarot readings with authors to discover what may not be working in a book
  • Why you don’t need to know what the cards mean before working with them
  • Why your subconscious matters when working with tarot
  • On interviewing authors and noticing what they have in common
  • On the changes a new city and continent have had on Caroline’s writing

You can find Caroline Donahue at CarolineDonahue.com and on Twitter @carodonahue

Transcript of Interview with Caroline Donahue

Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com and today I'm here with Caroline Donahue. Hi, Caroline.

Caroline: Hi. It's so nice to be here.

Joanna: Oh, it's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.

Caroline is an American author and writing coach living in Berlin, Germany. She's also the host of ‘The Secret Library' podcast which is fantastic and I've been on it, so go listen to that.

Caroline: You've been on it twice.

Joanna: It's amazing. Today we are talking about her latest book ‘Story Arcana: Using Tarot for Writing' which is super cool and something I have definitely done over my creative lifetime.

Caroline, start by telling us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.

Caroline: I think it's one of those things where it's difficult to say when it started because it was kind of always there. I have these memories of being a little kid and taking stacks of paper and folding them in half and stapling them and making books, like, at a compulsive pitch.

Then the problem was is that I may have been an early compulsive bookbinder as much as anything else, at which what my mother pointed out, ‘You might actually want to write in them before you make another one.'

But I was the kid who was hiding under the piano in the corner of the classroom and reading and I pulled my first all-nighter I think when I was in third grade, third or fourth grade, reading ‘Bridge to Terabithia.'

It started very early the obsession with books and my mother used to say that I ate books, which I think is fairly accurate. I'd rather give up food than books probably.

And so with this intensity about books, there was always an interest in writing. And I was fortunate in that my family was not the kind of family that said, ‘Oh, that's a terrible idea. You'll starve to death and die,' or the things that people say, and I got to go to some creative writing camps. There were some writing classes early on in school and I was really supported in that enjoyment.

Now, the funny thing is, I didn't end up getting a degree in creative writing at school. I studied art history and then I ended up studying psychology which has actually been a better degree for writing in some ways because just getting into the way people work and the way that they think has continued to engage me.

I find that actually being into books is the best possible way to handle this because every book can be different. You can write fiction and nonfiction. Writing has been a way for me to stay engaged with many different interests, and yet appear to have a cohesive career.

Joanna: I love that.

Caroline: That's why it's really worked in the long term.

Joanna: I totally get that and I think that works really well. I feel the same way. We can do our research however we like. I have a second degree in psychology and also art history come into a lot of my books as well so obviously you and I have a lot in common. We always talk about this.

Caroline: Totally.

Joanna: Let's get into the tarot. I blame Hollywood, I blame the media for making it sort of only gypsy fortunetellers or satanic rituals use tarot cards.

Tell us a bit more about what tarot is and some of the misconceptions that might be out there.

Caroline: One of my favorite sort of debunking statements about the whole kind of, ‘Is it a satanic tool?' is a friend of mine, Susannah Conway always says, ‘Well, they're just bits of cardboard with pictures on them.' That's what they are.

There are a lot of tools out there that are used for communication and exploration and I think people thought the telephone was kind of a satanic tool early on because it allowed people to communicate over long distances in ways they wouldn't normally be able to do.

So I think the tool itself is actually quite neutral and I think that it depends on how you use it. Some people use it and claim to use it to be able to predict the future and that's not how I'm working with it and I don't think I've actually ever studied with anyone who claims to be able to predict the future.

It's more that, from my background where I studied, expressive arts therapy and psychology is the relationship that the unconscious mind has to imagery, and the mind abhors a vacuum. So if you present a brain with a picture that looks like there's something going on in the picture and then you try to say to yourself, ‘Okay, well what's going on here?'

Your mind will start to fill in the gaps. It just happens naturally. We are storytelling, meaning-making beings. It's how we've made sense out of our lives as long as people have existed.

The tarot is a system that's been around for hundreds of years. It was originally started as…there are mixed kind of thoughts on it, but the greater consensus is that it was started as a card game and that some fortunetellers kind of co-opted the card game and then started to use it for fortunetelling.

It wasn't even intended as a fortunetelling tool from the beginning but because it's had this long association, a lot of people get nervous and freaked out about that, and there are some relatively scary pictures on it.

People get scared of the devil card or they get scared of the tower, they get scared of death. They're not light topics but life isn't light either if we look at it below the surface. It's not like life is puppies and kittens and flowers everywhere and we never have to deal with anything dark.

In many ways I feel like the tarot is a more honest representation of our experience as people because it does include dark imagery, and good books include dark stuff. They're not just sort of, ‘La, la, la, everything is beautiful. The end.' We might want to write one of those sometimes because it'd be kind of a relief but I don't.

Joanna: Neither do I.

Caroline: No, you definitely do not. And most of the people that I know who read books don't want to read those either.

Joanna: I agree with you. I think there's something on that deeper level. You just reminded me there of ‘James Bond: Live and Let Die' I think ‘The Hangman' and the voodoo stuff coming out from the grave and it's been associated with stuff like that, but actually, as you say, I love that, just pictures on pieces of cardboard. That's fantastic. I love it.

Caroline: Bless you Susannah for that one, but it's true. They're neutral. They're an inanimate object. There's no power inside of them that's going to change or control your life. It's a way for you to trick your unconscious to giving you information that's not readily available.

Joanna: No, it's almost like a writing prompt when we're talking about writers.

Caroline: Exactly.

Joanna: So the symbolism of tarots.

Pick a card, any card, and talk about how the symbolism of a card might help us access that unconscious mind.

Caroline: The one that I've focused on, because there are 72 cards in the deck and I have only focused on the first 22 in this book because I feel like they're a set.

The major arcana is traditionally looked at as a set, and for those who don't know much about the tarot there's the major arcana and there's the minor arcana, and the majors in all decks they have big pictures on them and they have big names and they are big types like ‘The Hermit' or ‘The Fool' or ‘The Magician.'

Anyone who's Googled tarot sees that yellow picture from the Rider-Waite with the guy with his arms outstretched and the symbols around him. That's sort of a standard image. So that's the major arcana and they represent major turns in the road, big changes, and the minors are more everyday incidents.

And then within that, there are the court cards, which are people. And so I'm planning to write about those later in terms of plot and the court cards I think are more about character development so I'm going to play with those later.

I don't know if anyone has this issue. I have this issue sometimes when I'm writing a character, it feels a bit forced or it feels like I'm kind of the characters mouthing what I want them to say or they feel a bit like a puppet and there has to be some kind of unconscious motivation going on.

Maybe that the character isn't even aware of because we do things all the time not realizing why we're really doing them and you want your characters to feel more like real people.

So sometimes asking a question like, ‘Well, what are they hiding here? What are they maybe hiding from themselves?' And then pulling a card and seeing what comes out, then you can start to turn it into a puzzle.

Say you have a character who's a really, really friendly, helpful, kindhearted character and then you pull a card and the card underneath it's hiding from them it's something like ‘The Hierophant' hiding underneath, and ‘The Hierophant' is about institutions of thought. It's also about the sort of institutionalized religion, organized thinking society and that sort of thing.

You might have a character who appears to be extremely helpful but if you look at their underneath agenda, they're really trying to push a system. They might be trying to convert somebody. They might be trying to put them in a box or have them make sense.

It's a way to make the dynamic just a little more sophisticated, and often it doesn't take that much to make a scene just a little bit more interesting or dialogue just a little bit more realistic.

Because if you have a scene that's like, ‘Hi, John, I've just been to the store. They were out of milk.' And he says, ‘Well damn, I'm really sad that they were out of milk.' That's not going to be that interesting, but if what's really happening is it's a man and woman and he thinks she hasn't really been to the store. He thinks she's been sneaking out to see her lover.

If you find that underneath. If you pull ‘The Lovers' and see maybe somebody thinks there's something else going on then the thing about the milk can be pretty dynamic.

Joanna: I love that and it's really interesting. I told you this earlier, but at several points in my life's journey, I've pulled ‘The Moon' and ‘The Hermit' and amazingly ‘The Moon' especially has come up for me again and again.

I haven't done my own spread that often in my life but at major points where I just don't know what I'm doing with my life, I pulled ‘The Moon'.

In case anyone is interested, what do you think that says about me?

Caroline: I think ‘The Moon' is about intuition.

The moon comes out at night and it's illumination that happens at night and it's also on many decks. I think you said you had a Rider-Waite, but if you look at a Rider-Waite moon, you'll see this crazy lobster crawling out of the water. There's a lot of weird stuff going on in ‘The Moon.'

There's a wolf howling and there's usually this lobster coming out. I think that ‘The Moon' to me represents looking at the unconscious and seeing what comes up from the depths if you really pay attention to that. So if you're working with ‘The Moon' it's not all going to be out in the open.

It's not like ‘The Sun,' another card, where everything will be really obvious, upfront, everything's good. It's easy. But ‘The Moon' is you have to wait until it gets dark out, you have to wait until some light comes out and then the stuff is going to start coming out of the depths and then you'll be able to see what's really going on.

To me it's about patience, it's not being afraid to find inspiration in the darker portion of your exploration and it's also about trusting your intuition and trusting yourself and not expecting it to be all out in the front with a blaring sign like, ‘Here it is.' It takes a bit more patience to work with ‘The Moon.'

Joanna: I love that and I think it's been quite comforting for me to have ‘The Moon' and also ‘The Hermit' which just represents the writer's life.

Caroline: Totally. It's like, ‘Don't hang out with people. Just go write. Go write. Just go do it, basically.'

Joanna: Exactly.

Let's talk about archetypes because again, we both studied psychology. I've written about Carl Jung. I know you're also really interested in Jungian psychology.

How are the archetypes represented between Jungian psychology and the tarot?

Caroline: I think that there are several layers going on. It's easy to talk about with the major arcane, which again is the focus of the book for this stage, because it not only talks about types that you see like ‘The Empress' is a mother figure, a very maternal figure. You see that in every society.

‘The Emperor' is a paternal figure that's a male energy that's really in charge and can handle everything, and then those are the sorts of archetypal images that you see in every society one way or another.

But the other layer of it is that from the beginning of the major arcana with ‘The Fool' all the way to ‘The World' at the end there is a journey that is happening, and the archetype of a journey is something that's present in most societies.

You see it in ‘The Odyssey'. You see it in cave paintings, you see people going out to hunt trying to solve something and then coming back, and all of these stages of what can happen in the journey are present in the major arcana.

You have the little guy at the beginning of ‘The Fool' who's got a backpack on, he sets out. You get to ‘The Magician' he's got a sense of, okay, I'm feeling a sense of mastery and he goes through all of these stages leading to the cards that scare people and that everybody wants to throw back in the deck whenever they pull them like ‘The Tower' which is everything falls apart, and ‘The Devil' which everybody thinks just means the worst possible thing happening. I don't, but we can talk about that if you want.

And then also, ‘Death' which is sort of an ending things that have to be. And that can be a literal death or it can be a metaphorical death where a relationship dies, something in a storyline dies, something happens.

‘Death' is pretty much primal an archetype as you can get. And then it comes out the other side with things like ‘The Sun' and ‘The Moon' and ‘The Star' which is a bit of hope and moving forward into a sort of reckoning with ‘Judgement' and then you get to ‘The World' which is sort of like, ‘Okay, now we've come full circle, literally like a globe. We've come full circle.' And then you start over.

One thing that I focus on in the book that I think is important is that there are three levels that go through this major arcana journey which is an archetypal journey.

You have your characters in the book will go through their own journey, figure things out, learn things, maybe not learn some other things and they will reach a point at the end.

The book itself will go through its own evolution. Points where the book is working, when the book is not working, when you want to throw the book in the garbage, feeling like this was a stupid idea, ‘I shouldn't have written this book,' and then, ‘Oh, wait, I've figured it out.'

You get through the ‘The Tower' part where the book is terrible and then you have some hope and then you get to the end and you get to ‘The World' and there's your book.

But it's also for the writer because anybody who writes knows that part of the reason that what you want to write is that we want to be transformed by the process as well.

If it was we were exactly the same as we were at the beginning every time we write a book I mean that would get pretty boring for me. So those three layers are happening and you can follow those archetypes through the journey of the major arcana in the tarot.

Joanna: Wow. It's so interesting, and this is the truth about writing, isn't it? You can go all these different layers and levels and like you say, it can be our journey as writers, it can be the journey of the characters. It's just fascinating.

There's so much in your book. It really is jam-packed amazing stuff, but I'm interested because of course you also do readings for other people. You do readings for other writers.

Caroline: I do.

Joanna: If people want to do their own reading with your book, how would they do that or how do you do it for other people?

Caroline: The way I started was basically that, like you, I was getting the same cards all the time for myself.

I would go through phases, and it does change, I would use a different deck. I would change. Nope, you're still getting whatever it was. You're still getting ‘The Hangman' right now. You're in limbo, too bad for you.

And so I said, ‘Well, there's cards I'm just never drawing so I want to learn.' So I decided I was going to do a 100 readings one summer and I just told anybody I'm doing it by donation. I really just want to build more of a relationship with these other cards that I never pull.

And then I ended up doing one of those readings for someone who was working on a book and they said, ‘I don't really need a reading for me. I feel okay about me.' But I'm really stuck on this book.

So we looked at what was not working with the book, where was the stuck point with the book and then you start to ask questions and pull a card and then look at the card and like we discussed earlier your subconscious will start to fill in answers.

You can ask questions and it's best if they are who, what, when, where, why kind of questions. ‘Why' is really good. ‘How' is pretty good. ‘What's missing' is good. You don't want to say, ‘Is this book good? Yes or no?' That's really not going to work very well with the tarot. They have to be a little bit more like prompts where you would want to do some journaling after you do it.

But I do put a couple of spreads that are examples of ones I've created especially for writers in the book. One is which is like working with dialogue. So if somebody is having a conversation you can pull a card for each character and then you can pull another card underneath each character to say what are you really trying to talk about here.

No one ever talks about what they actually talking about in a book or they shouldn't because otherwise, you get things like, ‘Oh, George, we must run forth before the explosion happens because it will kill us all and this is not expository dialogue at all.' You don't want that.

There has to be something going on underneath. Picking something for your surface level and then picking for something underneath..

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Audiobooks are the fastest growing segment in publishing. Most authors license their audio rights and work with professional narrators to produce their books, so why might you consider narrating your own audiobook?

I have now narrated my own non-fiction, Business for Authors: How to be an Author Entrepreneur, and also fiction, A Thousand Fiendish Angels, three short stories inspired by Dante's Inferno.

Here's why I am doubling down on narration in 2019 and why you might consider narration for your own books.

(1) You love audio

I presume you're reading (or listening to) this because you love listening to audio. Yes, it's a growth segment in terms of income, but if you don't love a medium, you will not master it.

When people ask about writing a book but say they do not read, I tune them out, because they will likely never be successful as an author. Why would they be? They don't spend time devouring books. The same applies to audio. Don't even think about narrating audio unless you love it.

I listen to podcasts and audiobooks every day — when I am walking to spin or yoga or the shops, when I'm cleaning or cooking, or just relaxing and need to close my eyes. When I want to learn something new, or challenge myself, or sink into another world.

Thinking back, I listened to tapes when I was young. I remember Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and The Prisoner of Zenda in particular. I listened to those over and over again and found more at the library in those plastic cases that used to get so grubby (remember those!). Years later, I listened to self-help tapes and later still, downloadable audio MP3s before they become podcasts and digital audiobooks.

Humans have always escaped into stories told around the fire and lives have been changed, for both good and bad, through the power of the spoken word.

Audio is a powerful medium. You have to love it if you want to master it.

(2) The power of voice to build connection in a crowded market

Joanna Penn recording Business for Authors in a professional studio sound booth

There are a lot of books in the world, and more are published every day. With the advent of AI tools that will generate more text or mass translate existing works, there will only be more content for people to consume.

So, how do you stand out and build a sustainable author business for the long-term?

I've been podcasting for 10 years now, and although I've written 28 books, more people tell me that I have helped them through the podcast than through my writing. I listen to lots of podcasts too, and you feel as if you know the speaker. If people have your voice in their head, it's an intimate experience.

There is so much more than words in a voice.

The interesting thing with audiobooks, in particular, is that a ‘reader' must connect with the voice of the author in the story, but also the voice of the narrator who brings the book alive. Finding a voice to speak your words can be a challenge, especially one that fits your budget! But when you narrate your own work, your voice is consistent. It cannot be a bad match because it's the same voice.

An author who also narrates is memorable. 

I became a fan of thriller author, Scott Sigler, over 10 years ago when I listened to him narrate Infected and the subsequent books in his sci-fi/horror series. I've bought a number of his books since and still have his voice in my head on some of the climactic scenes. I'm not a rabid fan of all his work but I have spread the word about his books for 10+ years because he stood out with his audio readings.

[Listen to my podcast episode here with Scott Sigler on moving from self-publishing to traditional deals as well as podcasting and audiobooks.]

Voice builds connection and in an increasingly crowded market, we all need connection with readers to sustain a creative career.

(3) Improve your writing skill and characterization

Reading your work aloud can dramatically improve your writing craft.

With non-fiction, you are forced to read aloud sentences that might be full of jargon, or difficult to read or make sense of. You will end up editing for content, structure and flow.

With fiction, every character needs a ‘voice,' so you have to think hard about who they are, taking them off the written page and into spoken dialogue. I've ended up rewriting dialogue as I read it aloud because the character developed in such a way that I now know they wouldn't speak like that.

[Independent authors have control of later editions, and updating a previously published book is not difficult with print-on-demand and ebooks. More on publishing here.]

You will become a better storyteller because you are performing your story, thinking about your listener far more than you do when you're writing the book.

Regardless of genre, it's another line edit and you often pick up things you missed while ‘reading' in your mind, or even that a proofreader missed.

You will also notice repeated sounds rather than repeated words, which I have also been editing out. For example, consider the words: peak, Monique, speak. They have different meanings and different spellings but the same sounds. If repeated in a sentence or two, they produce the same feeling as a repeated word which is much more common in our writing, but most of us edit out in the drafting process.

(4) Create another intellectual property asset (and another stream of income) that you control

Your book is not one book. Your manuscript is an intellectual property asset that you can turn into multiple products and multiple streams of income.

Independent authors have mastered ebooks and print-on-demand over the last 10 years. We can publish on almost every global platform these days and produce editions as diverse as mass market paperback, hardback, and large print.

As independent authors, we like to control our assets, publishing them to new platforms when they become available, expanding our streams of income into the global market. At least, this is what I love to do!

Authors now have the option to create audiobooks across the global market through ACX, Findaway Voices, and Author's Republic. You can even sell direct from your website or through an app like Authors Direct (from Findaway).

You can choose your price and sell to libraries, and as more opportunities arise, you can jump in and explore them — if you control the rights.

Many authors accept audiobook deals because they don't want to, or can't afford to, produce the books themselves. Of course, there are stories of incredible audiobook opportunities and even six-figure+ deals and that would be something I'd jump on if it came along!

But for many, the deals are not so exciting and some authors sign contracts they regret later. Many also start with royalty split deals which can be a fantastic way to get into audio without outlaying too much cost. I certainly did royalty share deals at the beginning before I had the money to invest to pay upfront and keep all the rights.

But what if you could spend your time rather than your money and narrate your book yourself — and control the timing?

(5) Self-development and increased self-confidence in performing your creative work

At the time of writing this, I have still never read my fiction in public. I've spoken professionally all over the world, but I have never read so much of a line of my novels.

I have been afraid of it for so long because it means so much. My fiction is my heart and by putting it out there, I make myself vulnerable. So I have turned down many opportunities to read or speak as my fiction self, J.F.Penn.

But no more.

The process of learning to narrate my fiction has given me confidence because audiobook narration is essentially a performance.

It's an adaptation of the words on a flat page and my voice brings them alive.

(6) Development of another skill and extending your body of work

Through the process of voice coaching and learning about narration, I am discovering a whole world of sound that I didn't know about before. I'm learning more about my body and my voice as an instrument, about how to care for something I have always taken for granted.

As a learning junkie, this is so much fun!

I also appreciate extending my body of work into the audio sphere. I don't like relying on one way of making money, because change happens fast and if you rely on one company, or one product, or one form on income, you may find yourself running out of money someday.

I intend to be writing and creating for at least the next 50 years, and developing audio as part of my body of work is an exciting possibility.

You can buy audiobooks direct from authors with the Authors Direct app

I once visited the attic storeroom of a well-known voice talent who has narrated books for 40+ years. The shelves were full of tapes and CDs representing a huge body of work that was far more significant than the films and TV shows she is more well-known for. I'm just starting out but what will my attic shelves look like when I am in my later years?

(7) Marketing within a genre

I have only narrated my own books right now, but I can see a point where I would narrate other books that related to my brand. Audio listeners become a fan of the narrator, not just the author, and will follow them from book to book.

If I narrated other books in the same genre, then that may lead more readers to my work. It's certainly a way off yet, as it takes a lot of time and energy to narrate and edit, as well as a budget for mastering. But it's on my longer-term plan.

Audio is also a significant chunk of my non-fiction book sales these days, so why not fiction?

Part of the reason is marketing. Even though I have far more fiction audiobooks than I have non-fiction, I have a non-fiction form of audio marketing through The Creative Penn Podcast.

I'm currently working on a new site and new podcast that will relate to my fiction, so I am developing a marketing platform for that other side of my creative self.

In conclusion, I am thrilled to have my stories in the world in another format and I'll be doing more audio from now on. I'll still work with other narrators for some books, but I'll also be recording my own.

What do you think about authors narrating their own audiobooks? Please do leave any thoughts, questions, or your experience in the comments. 

Ready for the next step?

I'll be doing another article about my tips on how to narrate and tech tips in the future, but here are some resources that will help right now if you want to get going:

Want to try some books read by the author? Check these out:
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