You will find resources to help you write, publish and market your book by Joanna Penn - New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, voted one of The Guardian UK Top 100 Creative Professionals 2013. Also voted one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers and one of the Top 10 Blogs for Self-Publishers.
In this article, Scott Allan outlines 8 fears that hold writers back and how to break through them.
“It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.” — Robert Benchley
When I finally got around to publishing my first book in 2015, I had spent years prior to that writing, rewriting, self-editing, and procrastinating on publishing before taking the plunge. Like most hopeful authors, my thoughts were drowning in the fears of becoming a real writer.
The uncertainty of what I was doing compounded with self-doubt and a host of negative beliefs about my talent held me back.
My dream of becoming a published author was at the mercy of the many fears holding back progressive action.
You might be in a similar situation and asking yourself:
“What if nobody likes my work?”
“What if my book doesn’t sell?”
“What if I start writing a book and don’t finish it?”
“Who am I to write a book anyway?”
When I sat down to write, I found myself frozen at the keyboard. Voices danced around in my head As it turns out, I had to battle the greatest enemy I‘ve ever encountered: Myself.
But as I realized through a process of self-discovery, if you are destined to write a book, breaking through your fears will make all your dreams come true.
Writing is not easy. But wouldn’t you rather write badly than not at all?
We have to write badly before we write well. Have you ever seen someone sit down at the piano and start playing like Beethoven in the first week? You have to put the time in.
People are not concerned with your creative talent as much as they want you, the author, to provide them with a unique learning experience. Take your readers on a journey and they will follow you.
Here are 8 Fears that hold writers back from getting their books published.
Fear #1. Comparing yourself to world-class authors. [I’ll never be good enough syndrome]
Have you ever caught yourself saying: “I’ll never be as good a writer as [famous author’s name here].”
Comparing yourself to JK Rowling, Stephen King or James Patterson is never a good place to start building your confidence as a writer.
[Note from Joanna: I call this ‘comparisonitis,' something many of us struggle with!]
Let’s put it this way: If you have never tried mountain climbing before, starting with Mount Everest would not be the place to begin.
First of all, we can only start where we are.
You won’t become a world-class author who has written multiple New York Times bestsellers if you begin comparing yourself to the people who are already there. You’ll never measure up in your own mind.
Within no time, you will become frustrated and impatient. When this happens, your future novel becomes a “someday” project. In other words, I’ll “get back to it someday” when I am feeling more confident.
When we compare ourselves to bestselling writers who have the success we want, it knocks our self-esteem and confidence right down the ladder. When we compare, we can always find fault in ourselves. I am not good enough. I’ll never reach that level. My writing sucks.
It doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to fail before you begin.
Everyone starts where they are. Let’s not forget that JK Rowling, although now a global success story, was once a single mother on welfare when she decided to write the first Harry Potter book.
As for Stephen King, he had no money for rent when Carrie was finally accepted. Before that, the book was only completed and published because Tabatha [King] rescued it from the garbage can after Stephen tossed it.
Lesson #1: Begin where you’re at. Give yourself permission to grow as a writer. Allow yourself to make mistakes. Learn as you write and remember that it is okay to write badly.
Only compare yourself to where you were a year ago. How far have you come?
Fear #2. “I never finish anything, so why should writing a book be any different.”
Yes, I know. Starting a book is hard. Finishing it is even more difficult. But if you start with a solid mindmap and spend a few hours on your outline, you’ll have a good-sized part of your book finished.
Writers who spend time preparing for what they are going to write have a much higher probability of finishing what they started.
Here is what you can do. Spend one hour creating a mind map of your book. This is essentially a brain dump of all the ideas for your book. You can do this mind map using sketch paper, in a notebook, or use digital mind mapping software such as XMind.
Next, identify the chapters of your book.
Write down the chapter titles on index cards or sticky notes. Then, identify the points you will talk about in each chapter. These are your subheadings.
If your fear is that you won’t finish your book, doing this exercise before you start to to write will set you up for publishing success.
Lesson #2: Finish what you start. Plan ahead and brainstorm all your book ideas. Turn this into an outline. With your book structure intact, you have a solid roadmap.
Fear #3. This type of book has been written before.
I write mostly nonfiction. To be more specific, self-help books. At the moment, there are approximately 138, 610 books in the self-help category.
Do you know what this means? There is a good chance that the book I am writing has hundreds [or thousands] of similar themes and competing titles. But there is one big difference: They haven’t been written by me.
So, even though I may write a book on how to overcome fear, I’m sure there are many other books that discuss the same topic.
I’m not worried. My book will be written in my way and told by me with my own examples and experience. Besides, lots of competition can be a good thing. It means it is popular, and you can challenge yourself to beat out the competition.
Scrolling through Amazon, you can see thousands of titles in every kind of niche and category. Take a look at the books in your niche and ask yourself, “How can I do better? What are the gaps I could fill in?”
Remember: You are a unique individual. This means your writing and voice are unique only to you.
Discover your voice through your writing and package your book with a killer cover, compelling book description, and a dynamic title.
Lesson #3: Write your book your way. You have a unique voice that will resonate with your readers. Discover what that voice is and use it to tap into your audience. Look for the gaps other books don’t cover and use that as your unique selling point.
Fear #4. I don’t have the time to write.
Let’s keep this one short. You can make the time. If you have an hour a day to watch Netflix, you have time. If you have thirty minutes to spend surfing the web, you have time.
It takes about one hour to write 1000 words if you average 30 words per minute. In 30 days, at 1000 words/day, you have your first draft ready.
No talent? That comes with practice and you’ll know what talent you have until you write, and, you can only develop that talent if you write.
So write it.
Lesson #4: Ignore your excuses. Focus for one hour a day for writing. If you can’t do one hour, target 30 minute writing sessions. 500 words a day is still progress.
No money to publish? I know what that’s like. When I was desperate and needed cash, I sold my stuff on eBay. My vintage comic collection, collectables, whatever I had went up for auction or sale.
Why? Because years later I didn’t want to look back and say, “Oh yeah, I never published because I had no money.”
You can publish your book for under $800 if you budget it right.
For example: Book cover: $40-250
Many authors when they start out use sites like Fiverr to contract for low budget covers. This doesn’t mean that the quality is bad. In fact, according to this article by Dave Chesson of Kindlepreneur.com, you can hire a good designer on Fiverr to make an amazing cover.
If you have more money to play with you can go higher and outsource to 99 Designs or 100covers.com.
Book editing: $250-700 [varies on book length]
The editing of your book is, next to the cover, your most important investment. The cost of editing depends on book length but on average expect to pay 1.5 to 3 cents per word.
Formatting: $100-250 [varies on images used/graphics]
Formatting costs depends on the type of book, book length, and use of graphics/pictures. If you are a DIY author you can check out the book formatting templates at BookDesigner.com
Now, can you afford to publish your book? When the will is strong enough, there is always a way.
For example, by cutting down on my coffee expenditures and junk food every week, I was able to save $500 within three months. That’s enough to afford self-publishing.
Lesson #5: Cut down on expenses.
You can afford to publish your book if you make changes in your spending habits. Budget ahead for your book costs and by the time you are finished your book, you will be able to afford the publishing costs.
Fear #6. I’m not an authority. Who will take me seriously?
I used to think that, in order to be taken seriously, you had to have a PhD. or be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But the fact is, most readers don’t care about this. They don’t want credentials.
Rather, they need a story to be entertained or a book that improves their lifestyle.
You make someone have a great day or give them the tools to forge a better life because of the material in your book and, that is the only authority you need. You will have done your job as an author.
Remember: Write what you know. Your knowledge, experience and unique insight is your expertise.
Did you make a million dollars from turning over homes last year? Have you created a system at work to improve productivity? Do you love animals and you can teach people how to expand the life of their pets?
There is an audience out there that wants the information, experience and guidance you have and are willing to invest in your book.
Lesson #6: Readers aren’t interested in your credentials or awards. Give them something worth reading that will change a life. If you can do that, you become the authority in your field.
Fear #7. I can’t handle criticism and I know critics will rip my writing apart.
As an author who is publishing work for the public to see, when you get a bad review, or someone mentions on social media that they didn’t like your book, it can crush your confidence. You feel like you have let down your fans and, worse than that, you disappointed yourself.
You will get criticism from people who read your work. Your editor will give feedback, your early beta readers will give you their two cents, and ultimately readers will chip in with their thoughts. But this is good. We can learn from this.
Get into the mindset that you want this constructive criticism on your writing. This makes it better and improves the quality. That means less negative reviews and more happy readers.
Lesson #7: Criticism will help you grow as a writer. Some critics will be negative. Other critics will give you constructive feedback. Focus on the latter and use it to improve your writing. Turn your critics into your greatest fans.
Fear #8. I heard that authors have to market their own books and I’m terrible at sales.
Yes, it is true that a writer is responsible for promoting their works to a specific audience. Regardless whether you are a self-published author or under contract through a traditional publisher, promoting and marketing your work is part of the business. But you don’t have to be a sales person pushing a product you don’t believe in.
Years ago I took a job in sales and I did horribly. I had the weakest sales record on the team. Why? I didn't like what I was selling. It wasn’t “MY THING” but someone else's’.
When it comes to marketing your own book, you will discover that selling your own books, although hard work, is fun.
Why? It’s yours. You believe in it. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have written the book in the first place. And, if you have some extra cash to spend on book promoting, there are lots of services out there that will do the promoting for you.
For example, BookBub is a great place to get your book listed if you can get accepted into their program. For a list of book promotion sites, check out this list on Reedsy.
Lesson #8: you don’t have to be a marketing guru to sell books.
You just have to know who to hire for the job and where your audience is hanging out.
The world is our stage and we are here to dance. The image of a writer locked up in a cabin isolated from the world is a fairy tale that we long for, but in reality, we are dancing on stage every day, practising our craft, making mistakes and learning how to laugh when things go wrong.
Embrace your fears and take action no matter what. You can Do It Scared and when you persevere through your personal obstacles, you will become the writer you have always dreamed of.
“When we become more loving and compassionate with ourselves and we begin to practice shame resilience, we can embrace our imperfections. It is in the process of embracing our imperfections that we find our truest gifts: courage, compassion, and connection.” — Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
What is holding you back from writing and publishing your book? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Scott Allan is a multiple bestselling author who has a passion for teaching, building life skills, and inspiring others to take charge of their lives. Scott’s mission is to give people the strategies needed to design the life they want through intentional choice.
Audiobooks are the fastest growing segment of publishing and although many authors choose Amazon's own ACX.com and Audible as primary channels, indie authors now have other options for self-publishing their audiobooks.
We started by trying to record an audiobook ourselves, but despite setting up sound-proofing, using a good quality microphone, pop-guard and recording software, the result was terrible.
Our second step was to look at professional narrators. We listened to hundreds of samples on Amazon’s ACX platform only to find that our chosen narrator was no longer available.
A couple of years later, as we published the latest book in a four book series, we decided to look at audiobooks again. Luckily, just as we had a commercial offer for the audio rights, we discovered Findaway Voices. We then had a tricky decision, since it would have been foolish to turn down the offer without being sure we could produce audiobooks ourselves.
Findaway Voices were starting a collaboration with Draft2Digital. Although new to audiobook production, they were part of Findaway.com who had a good reputation in the audiobook world, and produce AudioEngine and PlayAway, the preloaded audio players.
They were offering wide distribution, including to Amazon/Audible (and now to Kobo and GooglePlay) and have a managed audiobook production process.
After various calculations and checks, we decided to produce the books ourselves and contacted Findaway Voices to propose a project for four audiobooks.
Step 2. Calculate how much audiobook production costs
Hiring a professional narrator or studio is the simplest way to a quality audiobook, but it requires significant investment. Production costs are normally calculated upon a rate per finished hour (PFH) basis and we used Findaway Voices’ calculator for this.
We estimated our costs for producing all four audiobooks in one go by dividing the total word count per book by 9,000 to get a rough number of hours for each audiobook, and then applied various PFH rates to get a range of costs.
Step 3. Calculate how much each audiobook is worth
We calculated estimates of profit per sale using Audible pricing. Audible initially sets the audiobook retail price according to the audiobook’s play length (until told of a lower price). Books loaded to Audible through Findaway Voices are non-exclusive, so receive 25% of the retail sale price, minus 20% commission for Findaway Voices.
Findaway Voices also distribute to channels with different models (Audible (25%), subscription (30%-40%) and ‘a la carte’ (40%-50%)) so rates are not standard for all sales. However, this calculation gave us some rough figures to work with.
Step 4. Calculate how many sales are needed to cover the production cost
We wanted to calculate the number of sales to break even and cover production costs, and how long this would take.
Number of sales to breakeven = production cost / estimate of royalty per sale
Estimating how long it would take to make that many sales was difficult without any figures to go on. We decided to use the number of ebook sales per month and to assume a percentage of these could be audiobook sales.
Recent reports from the USA suggest 1 in 5 adults now read audiobooks, so this gives a good figure to use.
1. Estimate number of audiobook sales per month = average monthly ebook sales / 5
2. Estimate number of months to breakeven = Number of sales to breakeven / Estimate number of audiobook sales per month
By checking these with a range of production costs (different PFHs), monthly ebook sales, and proportions of audiobook sales, we came up with a range of costs, payback periods and potential income. Having balanced this against our offer, we decided to go ahead.
Step 5. Get a recommended narrator
Audiobooks come in several forms, including:
author’s readings and more.
We asked Findaway Voices for a single voice narration and had to decide what type of voice we wanted so we could tell them and they could recommend a shortlist of narrators.
Our brief was for a male narrator to match the narrators’ voice in the books. We described the main voice as relaxed BBC Received Pronunciation (RP) and also described the voices of four other characters in the books as we hoped to receive recommendations for narrators who did characterizations.
They quickly recommended several excellent narrators at different rates. Having a curated list was fantastic and far easier than spending weeks listening to hundreds of samples as we’d done previously.
We also checked some of the narrators’ earlier audiobooks to see what categories they were in, and what sort of following they had.
After providing sample scripts from the books and hearing the results, we decided on the talented and award-winning Tim Campbell, an American actor, opera singer, and narrator of over 260 books who does many great accents.
We could have asked for auditions from other narrators, or for a different set of recommendations but were sure we’d found our man, provided he was interested. Luckily he was and a recording of the start of the first book was made so we could agree the approach.
Findaway Voices then sent the contracts, which included delivery times. Since we had four books and wanted Tim to narrate them all we agreed a schedule that worked for everyone. And we were off.
Step 6. Quality check the books
After we gave the go-ahead Tim produced the audiobooks very quickly. As with every other format of the book, we did a proofread (or proof-listen) using high-quality noise cancellation headphones to check the recordings (since the majority of audiobook listeners would be listening on headphones).
We listened more than once, both with and without the book text. If we spotted anything, we noted what and where (including the timestamp so we could find it again), and evaluated them:
Was there background noise/hiss/click etc? If we listened again did it still occur? If not then we didn’t ask for a change.
If there was a minor change to the text, did it matter? If it made no difference to the sense, we didn’t ask for a change.
Were the names said correctly? (If you have unusual names or particular pronunciations provide details beforehand.)
Were there any odd pronunciations? Were they right for the accent and did they cause a problem?
Was any text missed? Did it matter?
If the narrator was using voice characterization, was it the right character’s voice for that speech? If not and it mattered we asked for a change.
As a final check, we opened and listened to all the audio files in turn to check the volume level was consistent.
We were lucky in having top quality recordings with only a few minor adjustments to each book. These were listed in the portal with a timestamp in the notes section for each audio file. Our narrator picked them up and loaded updated audio files within hours. We then listened again and approved each book. We were invoiced a book at a time shortly afterwards.
When reviewing the audio against the text there has to be a close match for inclusion in the WhisperSync programme on Amazon. (WhisperSync is an Amazon/Audible link between the ebook and audio and is only available if they are very closely aligned as it allows them to be synchronized and swapped between.) All of our books on Amazon/Audible were approved for WhisperSync. This also means anyone with the Amazon ebook can get the audiobook at a reduced price.
Before they were distributed, Findaway Voices experts also checked the quality of the audio files to ensure they complied with the channels’ standards.
Step 6. Set up the book metadata, payment details and distribution options
While they were being recorded, we set up the books’ metadata. There are different ISBNs for library and retail editions (which Findaway Voices will help with if you don’t have your own).
Other data includes:
source copyright notice
audiobook copyright notice, and
other formats’ ISBNS (ebook / print for retail and library).
We also provided a cover at 2400x2400px as a png file. The metadata and cover were entered on the online portal and could be amended later (though Findaway Voices recommend telling your representative if you make changes after the books are distributed).
We also set up a payments profile for receiving royalties.
This included filling in an online tax questionnaire (allowing the equivalent of a W8-BEN USA tax form to be completed, which, if eligible, prevents 30% withholding tax being taken from all royalty payments).
Before the books are distributed, there is a one-off set-up fee of $49. Though if you load through Draft2Digital this does not apply.
We then agreed the distribution channels we wanted, and set our recommended price for library and retail, and agreed a timetable for distribution. Some channels can take a few weeks to list the books, so we took this into account.
We already had a programme of promotions in place for the ebooks and tried to match the audiobook releases with this. We were fortunate in having two BookBub promotions during this time.
We got some codes for free download copies for the books distributed to Amazon/Audible about 2-3 weeks after they went live and used these for giveaways, for bloggers and for promotions to help raise some reviews.
We offered some codes to Tim after learning that narrators rarely get offered any. We also provided followers with details of where the books could be downloaded for free if chosen as their first book by new subscriber.
Step 7. Receive the money
The different distribution channels have different turn-around times for paying royalties and pay at different rates. We receive two different reports from Findaway Voices: one is total number of sales, the other is a revenue report.
How did it go?
Findaway Voices found us a fantastic narrator and we can’t recommend Tim highly enough. His readings have been described as “awesome” with some listeners telling us they have fallen in love with his narration. This is easy to understand as we don’t think we can hear the books in any other voice now.
Working with Joanna and Kelly at Findaway Voices was a real pleasure. And we couldn’t be more pleased with the process or be happier that they found us a real star. We thoroughly recommend working with them and can’t wait to get started on our next project together as soon as the next book is ready.
Are you considering having your books created in audiobook format? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Julia How runs The Witcherley Book Company and publishes her partner Wilkie Martin’s unhuman series of humorous cosy mystery fantasy books. She has no plans to write any of her own fiction. As well as Wilkie’s books she publishes some non-fiction – a range of puzzle books compiled by Rex Witcherley that were initially designed for her mum and now include large print, extra-large print and pocket/travel editions.
You can find Findaway Voices at www.FindawayVoices.com, or through your Draft2Digital portal if you distribute through them.
The creative experience is a roller-coaster – and we all experience the highs and lows of the journey over time. You are not alone, wherever you are on the path, even though it might feel like it sometimes.
In today's show, I talk to Steven Pressfield about The Artist's Journey.
I give an update on my writing fun with Valley of Dry Bones – and how I found an awesome story link between New Orleans and Louisiana voodoo, the Spanish Inquisition and West Africa. Fun times! Plus, my dark fantasy novel, Map of Shadows, is included in a limited-time bundle along with some other amazing books. If you'd like to binge read this summer, check out: www.storybundle.com/fantasy
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.
Steven Pressfield is the author of non-fiction works including The War of Art and Turning Pro, and novels around the classical wars of ancient Greece and modern warfare like Gates of Fire.
Joanna: Hi everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com and today I'm back with Steven Pressfield. Hi Steve.
Steven: Hi Joanna. It's great to be with you today.
Joanna: Thank you so much. And just a little introduction for anyone who doesn't know Steve.
Steve is the author of non-fiction works including “The War of Art” and “Turning Pro,” which everyone should read, and novels around the classical wars of ancient Greece and modern warfare like “Gates of Fire.” And his latest book is “The Artist's Journey: The Wake of the Hero's Journey and the Lifelong Pursuit of Meaning,” which is just fantastic.
Steve, I've read all your non-fiction books, I'm such a fan. And this one feels like the most spiritual of the books.
Why now in this time when it feels like most non-fiction is all about productivity hacking and yet you've gone deep.
Steven: You sent me that question ahead of time, Joanna. I wanted to ask you what exactly is productivity hacking?
Joanna: If you tweak, if you time this, and if you eat this, and if you do this you'll get an extra 1% brain power.
Steven: Oh, I see.
Joanna: It's all about the things you can do to make yourself better and quicker. So it's all about quick stuff.
Whereas, what I got a sense with your book, that it's much deeper. So why now? Why this deeper book?
Steven: I'm a believer in following the news, as we'll talk about in this interview, which is something unconscious that prompts you from within. I'm definitely a believer in writing from the inside out.
In other words, what is coming up from your own heart, or coming up from that source in you rather than trying to suss out the market-place. You know, trying to look for, “What could I sell? What could I get over?”
Which is why I hate that whole hacking mentality, which to me is not really writing. It's not really being a writer, it's something else.
My whole way of looking at writing is that it's a lifetime pursuit. Whether you're making money or not. As Elizabeth Gilbert said, that promise that she made to herself when she started writing, that she said to her writing “I will never ask you to support me, I will support you.”
That's a real lifetime commitment of a real writer.
So I don't know, this book just sort of came out of me. I actually wrote it a couple of years ago and it's been kind of sitting around. I re-energized it, or re-tweaked it. But it is spiritual, it is really about that writing from the inside out.
Joanna: I've picked some quotes from the book that touched me. The first one is, and you just mentioned here, “The artist's work evolves over her lifetime. Her subject remains the same.” And that's fascinating to me.
What do you mean by subject and how does that relate to an author's voice? What stays the same and what develops?
Steven: That's a great question. Like I said to you before, I don't know if I can answer it.
But if you think about the works of, say, Phillip Roth, if you could put all of his books up together or the albums of Bruce Springsteen, or the albums of Joni Mitchell, and you looked at them all together.
Let's say just start with Phillip Roth. He definitely has a subject. It runs through all the books. He might define it a little differently than I would. But I would say it was like “What it means to be a male Jew in America in the 20th and 21st century. How does that fit in?”
Every book, from “Portnoy's Complaint,” “Goodbye, Columbus” all the way up to “The Dying Animal” and his last few books, were on that subject.
He changed the way he attacked that subject. In “Portnoy's Complaint,” he did the zany, crazy almost stand-up comic thing. And by the end of his life he was doing very, very serious, totally scholarly examinations of the same subject.
And if you look at the albums of Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan or something like that, they're basically on the same subject, they just sort of attack it from a different dimension.
My theory on this is that the artist doesn't really have a choice here if they're following their muse. It's not like Phillip Roth could have said, “I'm going to write about feminists or whatever.” It wasn't really burning in his guts to get it out. So I think our subject sort of chooses us in a way.
And I think that “The Artist's Journey,” the title of the book, is really about that odyssey that we go through. That internal odyssey that we go to after we've committed to being a writer.
After we've committed, we've had that turning pro moment, that come to Jesus moment when we sort of stop messing around and wasting our life. And from that point on, we kind of dedicate ourselves to finding our voice and that sort of thing. And also finding our subject.
And so I think at that point, whether we start asking ourselves or not, or whether it just evolves, the question, what foremost question in our mind is, “What is my subject? What was I put on this earth to write about?”
And I think when you see somebody like Phillip Roth or Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, you can say of them, they found their subject. They really hit it and they were on it right from the start.
Joanna: What's your subject then?
Steven: Good question, Joanna.
Joanna: You have war and conflict in so many of your books. Whether it's external conflict, with the Israel war, you've got your ancient wars, you've got the war of art.
Is war your subject?
Steven: I think it is. But not so much in the sense of soldiers fighting on a battlefield as it is for me the internal war of the artist against his or her own self sabotage and his or her own fear.
I was at the gym the other day and a friend of mine said to me, “Life is a battle”. And he was just talking about the gym but I think it is a battle.
I can certainly see that many other people live their lives in different ways. A mother might feel that life is about bringing forth new life and nurturing new life. Or someone also might say life is about love and etc., etc. Many ways you can look at it.
But for me it is a battle. When I get up every morning, I feel that dragon in there in my head, and I know that if I don't slay it that day, I'm not going to be very happy that night.
It's too bad we couldn't have Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain here right now to talk about that subject. But I think you're right, that is my subject.
And whether I'm writing about writing or ancient warfare or whatever, it does seem to be about conflict and the inner battle against one's own fear and hesitation and all those temptations to be less than you can be. Give less than you can give.
Joanna: You write both fiction and non-fiction. Whenever I read your stuff, I struggle because you have this idea of a shadow career. I write books for authors, you write books for authors, and not that I would put myself next to you.
Steven: I don't put myself next to you, Joanna. It's an honor to be here with you.
Joanna: Oh, you're so sweet. But whenever I write a non-fiction book, I feel like in a way I'm helping my audience and I'm trying to share some of my experience and what I go through.
But when I write fiction, I feel like it's in some ways selfish, but it's more respecting of the muse.
How does your subject go through both your fiction and your non-fiction and how do you balance those two?
Steven: That's a really great question. And as I was reading it when you sent it to me I thought, “I don't know how I'm going to answer that.”
Certainly I wrote fiction for a long time before I wrote “The War of Art.” That was, I don't know what, my seventh or eighth book or something like that, which was the first non-fiction book I'd done.
And that I only did because I just wanted to get it off my chest. Because people kept asking me those questions and I thought, “Let me just write a book, and then I can put the book in their hands.”
And then after that I thought, “Well, you know, I've got to follow it up, there's more to it than that.” And so it's just sort of evolved on its own.
But I do think I go to a different place in fiction. I'm sure you do too, in my head. I don't know if it's a different muse. But it's a different something.
I would say non-fiction is almost like writing an op-ed piece, or writing an essay where you're really not creating characters, you're not creating a world. You're not inventing a narrative. You're speaking in your own voice, sort of as if someone says to you, “Joanna, I'm stuck on this thing. Please help me. What should I do?”
And so you answer out of your own Joanna knowledge. I don't know if it really is a muse. I guess it is, because it all comes from there. But you're sort of answering, I think, out of your real experiences in this real world.
Whereas for me, fiction, you're digging deep into areas you don't even know where it's coming from. I feel like that about my fiction, that I don't know where the characters are coming from, I don't know what's going to come out of their mouths.
And so that's a sort of deeper surrender to that sort of improv-ish, what's gonna happen next when you open the box.
Joanna: I feel the same way. I almost feel like it's a different mindset. And that's why I like using two different names because I feel like by scheduling my J.F. Penn time I could almost go into that.
Let's just talk about going deeper. You say “The artist is being driven from a far deeper and more primal source than the conscious intellect.”
How do we tap into the “primal source?” How do we go down a level when we're so concerned with daily stuff going on?
Steven: That's another great question. Of course everybody does it in a different way. It's like, how do you dream or how do you have an intuition?
I live in Los Angeles. And they did a story in the L.A. Times a few years ago about where they asked screen writers where they worked; in an office or whatever. And they asked five of them.
Three of them said they worked in their cars. And one of them said he or she worked in a car while it was moving. In other words, everybody gets at it in a different way.
To me, it sort of starts with the idea for whatever the book is. That's really the muse speaking to you, I think. I'm always on the look out for a new idea.
And I'm always asking myself, “What's percolating under there?” And I also find a lot of times an idea will come to me, say in January. And I'll make a note in my head, and I'll completely dismiss it. I'll forget it completely.
And then three months later I'll go, “Whatever happened to that idea I had back in January?” And I'll look at it and I'll go, “You know, that's a pretty good idea.” And then I'll start focusing on it.
So let's say you have an idea to do something about Queen Boudicca of early Britannia. Then I think, you begin to surrender to that. You start researching it, and you begin to surrender to that idea. And I think you start outlining it, or blocking it in, in the broadest strokes. And I think that a mystical sort of process happens there. Tell me if the same thing happens with you, Joanna.
As you start to work on something, a gravitational field begins to form around you. And it begins to attract stuff. Ideas. You're in the shower and you'll think, “Ooh, what if Queen Boudicca fell into a pit of snakes when she was three weeks old?” Whatever.
And you go, “Where does that come from?” And pretty soon, you've opened a pipeline to that part of you that's trying to tell that story.
And then it's a process, I think, of getting out of its way and letting it come through. I know that's kind of airy fairy and mystical, but that's certainly the process for me.
And that's why I say, the way I write, I'm not a writer for hire. It's not like somebody calls me and says, “Can you do something about…” I'm a spec writer. I write what comes out of me and just bet on myself that I can sell it.
So I do follow the muse, and I am looking for that. It's the old analogy of it's a radio station, the signal's coming in, and you're trying to tune the dial to hit that radio station and pick up that signal.
Joanna: And you have some rituals, don't you?
Steven: Superstitions, yeah.
Joanna: To call down the muse. Now we've got through knowledge that your rituals won't work for everyone, they won't just automatically mean that muse will arrive.
What do you do to start that process, when you get to your desk or wherever you work?
Steven: Right here, right where I am. Let me answer that by recommending a book to your listeners. If they haven't heard of this book yet, it's by Twyla Tharp, “The Creative Habit.”
Twyla Tharp is a famous choreographer. When she calls the book “The Creative Habit” and her thing is about habit, about the power of habit, which is like ritual.
She talks about how every morning she gets up at the exact same time, 5:30 she's down outside her building in New York City hailing a cab going to the gym. She works out for two hours at the gym, then she comes back to her studio, and then she works for the day.
And I think that it doesn't matter so much what your ritual is, but I do think it helps to have a ritual. What I sort of liken it to is, let's say you have yoga practice, just your own self. And you were fortunate enough that you built a little yoga studio out at your cottage in Devonshire, or whatever it is.
At a certain hour of the day, you would get on your yoga stuff, and you would walk out to the thing and you would make sure that it was clean and well-lighted. And you'd open the door, you'd do a little bow before. You might even say a little prayer to the gods of yoga, or whatever it is that you're trying, and you've set an intention for yourself.
And when you enter that space, you consider that you are entering a sacred space. And then you would begin your yoga. And your practice would be intending to connect with…not just doing the physical part but to connect to a spiritual connection of yourself. And I think that's sort of what writers do or actors do or choreographers do.
And so my ritual's pretty simple. I'm like Twyla Tharp. I go to the gym. I come home, I answer my email, stuff like that, and then I just sit down and just plunge right into it. And when I start making mistakes from fatigue, typos, then I stop. And I don't try any harder.
Let me ask you, Joanna, what's your ritual?
Joanna: I wear noise cancelling headphones and I play rain and thunderstorms. I've been playing the same album for like ten years now.
Steven: Really, no kidding? Why do you do that? What's the point?
Joanna: Well, like you say, it cuts out bad noise, like other noises. And the repetition; it's like you say, the repetition of a sound or something puts you in a place where your brain goes, “Ah. Now I'm doing this. Now I'm writing.”
Because the whole point of it, I think, what you do and what I do, is a turning inside. It's an interior thing.
One of the things I say in “The Artist's Journey” is that I used to write at a desk that faced a wall. And people would say to me, “Why don't you turn the desk around and you can look outside, see the scenery.” But I said, “I don't want to see the scenery, because I'm in here.” Just like you with your noise-cancelling headphones.
Joanna: I do a lot of travelling for book research. I love traveling. We were in Madrid last week and it was just amazing. We were in Toledo, old Jewish place, and it was amazing. And people were like, “Oh, you must write so much when you're traveling.” and I'm like, “I can't.” I can't write while I'm traveling. I have to be back in my routine. In my kind of boring repetitive space.
Joanna: Do you find the same thing?
Steven: Exactly. Every now and then I can write on the road, but it's pretty rare. And when I can, I sort of bring my own little version of my own space to that thing.
I have my little Canon here that I use to fire inspiration into myself. So I take my Canon with me, and I set it up.
But one other thing I do I do want to say, as far as rituals and stuff like that, which is very important for me, is one of my earliest mentors, Paul Rink, gave me a copy of “The Invocation of the Muse” from T.E. Lawrence's translation of “The Odyssey.”
The very start, where Homer says, “Oh, divine poesy. Goddess daughter of Zeus…” etc., etc. And I say that prayer every morning out loud. And so I really am invoking the muse and saying, “Help me. I need help.” And, “Here I am, I'm reporting to duty” that kind of thing.
Joanna: Do you think the muse is a feminine force?
Steven: Yes. Without a doubt. I don't know why I'd say that. There were nine muses, they were nine sisters. The daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, which means “memory.” And so, I guess I agree with them, I think it seems to be a feminine thing to inspire.
Joanna: Another thing that I really loved. “The artist is not expressing himself, he is discovering himself.” And you talk about the daimon, not demon, the daimon, the genius having an aspect of the monstrous, which I really love. Because as part of my writing, I've discovered things that are quite dark and disturbing within myself that sometimes makes me want to self-censor and not put those things in the world.
Steven: Oh, yeah.
Joanna: How do we discover that daimon, that genius? And what if we find stuff that doesn't really fit?
Steven: I think the only answer is to kill yourself, I think. No, I don't really know the answer to that.
But let's go back to the concept of the daimon. Because if your listeners haven't heard of this, it's an interesting thing. Greeks daimon, D-A-I-M-O-N, was for the ancient Greeks a kind of an inherent spirit that we were born with. And the Romans had the same concept, and their word for it was genius.
I'm definitely a believer that we're born as fully-formed individuals. We're not a blank slate. And we've got a destiny, and we have a calling.
I got this from a book called “The Soul's Code” by James Hillman, another book I highly recommend. And he likens it to an acorn, daimon's kind of like an acorn. Even as infants, we've got this destiny inside us just like an acorn contains the entire oak tree already.
I used to work in advertising, as I say in the book. And I would quit, write a novel, it would fail or wouldn't be published. I'd come crawling back to advertising, work again, save money, quit again, etc. etc. I did that three different times.
And every time I would do that, get ready to quit..
Characters are not real people – but readers have to experience the slice of life you portray in your book as if they are. So how can you bring your characters alive?
In this article, Damon Suede outlines how to use character action and strong language to lift your characters off the page.
One of the odd myths of fiction is that characters are just like people, only imaginary… as if Darcy and your mailman differed only in their fame, wealth, and relative eligibility. That’s nonsense, of course.
Characters share some characteristics with people but only enough to help them fulfil their function: to extract satisfying emotion from an audience.
One of the most obvious differences is that characters have to earn belief, while actual people get the benefit of the doubt. If we can see them and talk to them, then we assume they exist.
Characters have to convince an audience to believe. Characters don’t feel. Characters aren’t born. Characters don’t actually disobey their creators, although at times it feels like they do. The feelings are real. The characters are not.
Bringing your fictional characters to life
Characters come to life in stories because:
they’re always pursuing their version of happiness
taking action for good or ill; and
dealing with the fallout in full view of the audience.
Because of the way our brains process language, readers experience those actions just as they would observed actions in their lives, from real people. Because we evolved as pattern-hungry primates, we see a problem, devise a solution and close the cognitive gap. Yay, neuroscience!
Millions of people love Lizzie Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, but can you actually tell me the color of her “fine eyes”?
What do we know about Ebeneezer Scrooge’s actual business beyond his parsimony?
Lady Macbeth doesn’t even get a name, and she’s one of the most famous women in world literature.
None of that is relevant.
What matters is not how characters seem, but what they do.
Audience imagination extrapolates from their actions and fills the significant gaps.
The characters aren’t real, but the emotions are. Our brains grasp that a story is artificial, but the feelings slip past our defences because that’s how we’re wired.
We bond with them, relate to them, empathize with them…or not.
Shoddy characterizations leave us inert and annoyed.
Adjectives vs. Adverbs
When an author tells us that a heroine is brilliant or clumsy or bowlegged, that she runs quickly, always, or late, we have to swallow their opinions whole, without any means of verification.
Adjectives and adverbs demand belief from readers, even if it isn’t earned. For this reason modifiers are the least and last option for character development.
If we see a noun like duke or merman or assassin, our education and imagination have to extrapolate character based on generic assumptions. Readers who know the word can infer resonance. Nouns can only suggest interpretations which we weigh against other tangible evidence.
But the second we watch a character purloin or shun or inveigle, we know who they are and why it matters because actions speak louder than words.
The real power of any characterization comes from actions, the verbs which reveal what characters make and take and break and fake.
Edmond Dantès avenges.
Katniss Everdeen hunts.
Auntie Mame embraces.
Characters are their actions, which means their characterization starts with verbs. Verbs show where modifiers tell and nouns can only suggest.
Verbs will always provide the thrust of a scene or a story with the other parts of speech adding garnish and spice as needed.
Characters are not faces but forces
Arcs of transformation are caused by high-stakes choices.
So when you’re spinning that yarn, the smartest thing you’d best dig deep into that verbal landscape to unleash the real power of your people.
Verbs make everything happen. Time spent shaping and honing your verbs will have the greatest impact.
Young writers can get seduced by the juicy tangibility of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, because they are visible, but without verbs they remain paralyzed and inert.
Energy is what makes matter matter. An author has to direct the flow of energy through the story via the characters and their actions. What audiences remember about the journey is the flow of emotions, not the trivia along the way.
In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, saying “Gollum” doesn’t actually bring that character to life or make him memorable. Tolkien uses modifiers like “old,” “hungry,” “mad,” “lean,” “miserable,” “small,” or “pitiable.”
For nouns he gives us “creature,” “villain,” “thing,” and “agony.”
But it’s in the verbs expressing Gollum’s actions Tolkien really gives it to us with both barrels: “slink,” “curse,” “thieve,” “cheat,” “sneak,” “strangle,” “hiss,” “murder,” “shriek.”
Suddenly we know who he is because he shows us, without needing to tell us.
The nouns and adjectives just set up an inert picture; those verbs steer Gollum through the story and shape the story thereby.
When in doubt look to the actions: what your characters make, take, break, and fake to achieve happiness. Once you know what they’re doing, and why it matters the story will write itself. Therein hangs every tale.
Modifiers are inherently passive and parasitic and nouns literally cannot do or make anything on their own.
Verbs are the fire in the wire, the spark in the dark that keeps everything burning. When in doubt, always look to your characters’ verbs and your story will blossom under your hands.
“All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
EXERCISE: Strong language
How would you describe one of your characters using different parts of speech?
Don’t be afraid to incorporate language that also evokes the world and vibe of their story, context, and genre.
Choose a character from one of your projects, either planned or published and list 5 modifiers intrinsic to them.
Upgrade those modifiers to 5 nouns that convey the descriptive content of those modifiers as concrete people or items.
Upgrade those nouns to 5 verbs that activate the solid clarity of those nouns as dynamic expressions of the character’s behavior during the course of the story. What does this language capture? What does it miss?
Add another 5-10 supplemental verbs that seem especially appropriate and evocative for the character and their scenes.
Push your vocabulary as far as possible, absorbing new terms and tone-appropriate slang to capture the character clearly. Try to capture the fascinating energy that originally drew you to the character.
Damon Suede has earned his crust as a model, a messenger, a promoter, a programmer, a sculptor, a singer, a stripper, a bookkeeper, a bartender, a techie, a teacher, a director… but writing has ever been his bread and butter. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen almost three decades and just released his first craft book: Verbalize, a practical guide to characterization and story craft. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him on Twitter, Facebook, or at DamonSuede.com.
When you're writing a book, you will reach a point where you can't stand the manuscript anymore. You need expert help to turn it into a quality book, especially when you're starting out.
Professional editors can help transform your book, and I continue to use them with my books as I think personal feedback is the best way to learn. In today's interview, I talk to Natasa Lekic from New York Book Editors about her tips for editing and how you can find the right editor for your book.
Today's show is sponsored by Draft2Digital, where you can get free ebook formatting, free distribution to multiple stores, and a host of other benefits. Get your free Author Marketing Guide at www.draft2digital.com/penn
Natasa Lekic is the Founder of New York Book Editors, which matches writers with experienced, vetted, professional editors. She previously worked in publishing and also co-founded an animated story platform for kids.
Joanna: Hi everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com. And today, I'm here with Natasa Lekic. Hi, Natasa.
Natasa: Hi Joanna, so happy to be here.
Joanna: It's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.
Natasa is the Founder of New York Book Editors, which matches writers with experienced, vetted, professional editors. She previously worked in publishing and also co-founded an animated story platform for kids.
Natasa, start by telling us a little bit about you, and how you got into publishing and then editing.
Natasa: I started really the way almost everyone starts, as an intern at Europa Editions which publishes literary fiction, a lot of translation as well. And then I went to Atlas & Co as an editorial assistant, and slowly worked my way up to managing editor there, we published literary nonfiction there.
It was really during that time that I developed a true appreciation for what editors actually do, which is often behind the scenes. Unless you work in publishing you don't really get to see that.
Joanna: Did you study English at university?
Natasa: I did. English and Econ.
Joanna: Fantastic, there we go. A little bit of a business background as well. Which I think really shows. You mention there an appreciation for what editors actually do.
Give us a little insight into what editors do.
Natasa: A common misconception is that they fix your grammar. Copy editors do that, so that's a completely different role.
But editors actually work on your story development, character development, pacing, clarity, flow, really from the big picture, but also the way the prose actually reads. That's what editors help with.
Joanna: And in terms of the job of the editor as a traditional publisher because there are commissioning editors, aren't they, who might look at what to buy? And then other editors work with authors.
Is the job just sitting with manuscripts every day?
Natasa: It sounds great, doesn't it? With a comfy couch in your office and that's all you do all day.
It's actually very, very different. Most of the workday is spent in meetings because the editor is really the author's biggest advocate in-house. They're there for production meetings, marketing meetings, they're meeting with agents for pitches.
And a lot of the editing and reading manuscripts is done in the evening and on weekends. Editors are really a committed bunch of people, doing their real work during other people's off time.
Joanna: I do get that sense. But things have changed haven't they? And we're going to come to how editors work with indies, but it used to be that all the editors, I guess, worked in-house and everything.
How has the industry changed for editors in terms of freelance work, and the combinations of what they do now?
Natasa: Given the big merger that happened between Penguin and Random House, there were quite a few layoffs. And on top of that the editors who remained in-house…and I mentioned that they work at night and on weekends, this is in addition to that, they had more on their plate.
A lot of them, it came to a point where you couldn't even give the manuscript the attention that it needed, just because they had so many books that they had to go through.
This isn't true across the board, but I think a lot of editors ended up seeing freelancing as a viable option, and a way to really focus on what they love about editing, which is working with authors and working on the story. And that's the impact of self-publishing becoming so viable.
Joanna: Obviously there's the big five and four or whatever it is now.
But lots of publishers are also using freelance editors as well, aren't they?
Joanna: It's quite common to use freelancers in the industry.
Natasa: That's true too. And that's part of the issue, I think, of the fact that their in-house people are so overwhelmed. And so they also reach out to freelancers when needed.
Joanna: It's quite a busy time.
I found an interview with you in “Business Insider” which is very cool, and you mentioned that self-publishing is the feature, and that's part of why you started your business. Tell me about that.
When did you have this realization about self-publishing, and how did that impact you?
Natasa: I look at a lot of things from an economic perspective, and at Atlas & Co I built the ebook arm, so I started the ebook production. And just given the breakdown of numbers, the margins that authors make self-publishing versus publishing traditionally.
And really having an insight into how much marketing and publicity most authors actually get when they go in-house, which as you know is not that much.
Just given those factors, it was pretty clear that self-publishing was going to become a force in the industry. That's when I decided to leave and really devote myself to that area.
Joanna: Why do you think so many people don't think the same way as you? Is it because most editors, most people in the literary space don't have a joint honors with economics or whatever?
Natasa: I think it's so hard when you spend, not your life, but a lot of time in the industry, you sort of drink the Kool-Aid.
And on the other side, I understand their concern that, it's true that a lot of self-published work hasn't had a lot of thought or care put into it.
And so that's where their doomsday perspective comes from, no, it just doesn't work, look at what's being published. But there are a lot of wonderful books that are being self-published.
I think it's just a matter of drinking the Kool-Aid, and being part of the industry, that you don't want to see certain things.
Joanna: It's funny. I honestly think there is an aspect of entrepreneurial stuff in there, the employee mindset versus the entrepreneur mindset. I will say to people, most editors are paid a salary. If they work for a big publishing house they're paid a salary and that salary is not dependent on how well a single book performs.
Natasa: Exactly yes.
Joanna: So they don't have any skin in the actual game really.
Natasa: That's true. Most places it's not true in the long term because people who are reviewing your list, if your books consistently don't do well some questions will be raised and your job will probably be in jeopardy. So there is some of that.
But sure, they definitely get their salary regardless, for a while at least, and depending on how understanding their boss is.
Joanna: New York Book Editors, you now have a whole load of amazing freelancers, who've worked with some of the biggest names in the industry. People like Stephen King and Jojo Moyes, who are the top of their game in terms of traditional publishing.
So the editors you now work with, do you have to almost educate them around independent authors, or do you find that attitudes are beginning to change?
Natasa: All our editors are recommended to us by our colleagues, by our editors, so there might be some selection bias there.
But usually what happens is an editor will still be in-house and will work with us on occasional projects. So they want to basically get their feet wet. They want to see what is it actually like to work with an indie author before they make the leap because it's a big thing to leave your job.
And I have to say that in every single one of those cases, the editor has ended up leaving and freelancing full time. So that's just a testament to how great it is to work with independent authors. And I'll tell you a secret.
Joanna: It won't be secret for very long.
Natasa: Often it's more of a joy for an editor to work with an indie author than it is to work with a superstar traditional bestselling author. You can understand why.
Joanna: I've read some books, like Dan Brown is a classic one. I'm like seriously, can someone edit the guy. I imagine like when you're super famous, you're like, “Yeah, whatever I don't need to listen to you.” Whereas I'm still like, “Please, give me more. Help.”
Natasa: Exactly. That's exactly right, you've got it. It's that openness and receptivity to the edits that really make it a joy for the editor to work with the author. And on the other side if it's always a battle, one change and then the other, it's not going to be fun.
Joanna: Now before we get into our detailed questions I have for you, I do want to tackle what is a very common question that new authors always ask which is, what if I send a manuscript to an editor and they steal my manuscript?
Whatever you think that means but do you hear that and what do you say to that?
Natasa: I hear it less and less these days. I say, don't worry.
Joanna: So do I.
Natasa: Just to reassure people from the perspective of the law, you automatically have a copyright. It's on your computer, the date is stamped, you own the copyright, you don't have to do anything extra to have it.
And I know there's fear around this, but actually, in reality, just doesn't happen. And so I don't know quite where the fear comes from. Editors work on so many manuscripts and they don't steal it.
Joanna: I agree. I wanted to tackle that up front because I know that some people have that on their mind and now we've tackled that we can just move on. I think it has to do with vulnerability and we'll come back to vulnerability in a minute.
Let's start with a really common question. Most authors would love to find that perfect editor. They would just love to find someone who works well with their genre, who works well with their personality.
And amazingly, NY Book Editors, you specialize in matching authors and editors. So you actually do this kind of matching which means that you've been looking at this.
I want to know if people out there are listening and they want to find an editor who matches without going through your service how can we find the best editors for us? And how do we work out that matching?
Natasa: I'll start with some of the basics, and then go into the more nuanced aspects of it. And the first thing which I think is the most critical, but I've had some pushback on this because I'm particularly strict about experience, is experience.
We advocate for editors who have had at least four years of in-house editing experience at a major publisher. And that number sounds like it comes out of thin air. Why not around five?
But at four years there's a certain hierarchy in the publishing world. You start off as an editorial assistant, assistant editor, associate editor, and then editor. And at four years, regardless of title, because titles vary between houses, you've had a chance to acquire a manuscript probably, but you've certainly edited books on your own.
Editing is really an apprenticeship career; it takes so much time working under other editors initially just looking at what they do then co-editing underneath them, really taking the time to puzzle through developmental issues to understand how to come up with solutions that are true to the novel.
Which is really hard to do without putting your ego into it. Really understanding what the author is doing with the story, and how you can suggest a solution that makes sense within their world, and what they're attempting. That takes time.
In the early days we worked with more junior editors, we even worked with bestselling authors, we worked with creative writing professors, we tried it all. And the edits are really different when you work with someone who has had that experience. You'll find people who haven't had it tend to focus on the micro issues.
So things like, in this scene show don't tell, which is important definitely, but it takes time to develop the big picture awareness, and the ability to guide someone in those aspects.
Our second editor ever at New York Book Editors was Andrea Walker who's now the Executive Editor at Penguin Random House. She was the one who came up with that magic mark of four years. So credit where it's due, and it's worked for us ever since.
So experience definitely. I would say if you don't listen to anything else that I'm about to say just that, and you should be okay.
The other thing you mentioned but it's worth just highlighting is genre. Making sure that the editor has worked in your genre, and also that they enjoy working in it, that's a big one.
And then the more nuanced things are, really think about how developed you are as a writer. Are you early on in your craft? Are you a first timer? Have you worked on your craft for a while, or is it further on?
Editors defer based on their preference. Some editors really will only work with authors who are more developed, and others love it when they're matched with a first timer. So it's important to be open about your writing history with the editor that you're interviewing.
The other thing is every manuscript is unique, and if you think about aspects of your work that are unique, but really integral to the story such as maybe there's graphic violence, or maybe in a Sci-Fi you use really heavy scientific concepts.
You will certainly find an editor who loves whatever aspect it is, but I think by being open about it, you're more likely to find that match rather than having the editor midway be surprised and say, “Wait, wait, wow, wow, wow, where did this come from?” And then not be on board with it, not understand it as a vehicle for what you're trying to do. So that's another thing, just think about those unique elements and talk to the editor about them.
The other thing is really the dynamic is important. As you mentioned this is a relationship, and you want to have, before you hire them, at least a phone call, an in person, honest to goodness live phone call where you figure out what the communication is like. Is this someone that you want to talk to about your work, which is often a very personal thing?
And get a sample edit, or a trial edit, some kind of brief look at what the editor would actually do with your pages to see if you agree with it. It will immediately be obvious. If it's the right editor you'll think, “Yeah, this is it. Man, I can't believe what they did to my first few pages, this is awesome, I can't wait for that to continue.”
Joanna: It's really good to hear and I like that enthusiasm, and I think that's the way it should be, that we're making things better together.
I do want to circle back on that vulnerability because I had an email from an author the other day who said she was feeling disheartened. She'd had an edit back and she felt that she now had this huge mountain to climb, and she felt like there was so much that she had to maybe change to improve her book.
I think she felt a bit, not attacked, but she felt they were being a bit mean. This wasn't one of your editors. But I read through the lines from this email and I emailed her back and I said, “Look do you want to pay for a pat on the back that says, oh, you're amazing there's nothing to improve.”
Obviously not. I don't, if I pay someone I expect them to help make my work better.
Where is the balance? How can authors, especially newer authors, accept the vulnerability of sending the work of their heart to this person who then will come back with things that might be quite significant?
Natasa: I can sympathize because I just went through that myself. I got an edit in December, and I'm still working through the edits.
I think setting up expectations is important; just knowing that it will be a challenge when you see it, it does feel like you've suddenly got this mountain to climb.
The editor is supposed to show you a trail up that mountain. Because the truth is you always had a mountain you just didn't realize it, and the editor is pointing it out, but they're also saying, “Hey, look, I see a route.”
Focusing on the fact that at least you have these guideposts, and you know where to go where with it is very encouraging. And edit is really similar to being in a graduate level class, but it's just you sitting in the auditorium with the professor. It's going to be really intimidating and challenging. And the only subject is your work and your words, and you're both focused on it.
So yeah, it's hard but it's also the fastest way I know to progress as an author. And those two things usually go hand in hand. When things are hard, it also pushes you further than you ever expected you could go.
Joanna: I think you're right, and I think that graduate level education, I think that is why it's an investment. I think that there are lots of people who just use beta readers these days, and I'm like that's fair enough if you're just checking basic things.
But if you want an educational process where you become a better writer, that to me is what a professional edit is about. It's almost like taking your writing to another level, whatever genre you are. That doesn't mean it has to be literary writing. It's about story and everything. I definitely agree with you.
How can an author get the manuscript in a proper state before sending it to an editor? What should they do before submission so that there aren't basic things to fix?
Natasa: I'm so happy you asked this. I am so happy. This is a common issue.
It's hard to get into specifics just because every manuscript is so unique. There's an urge when you've been with your manuscript alone for so long to want to pass it on to someone else, and get help as soon as possible. But I would say resist that urge.
The best thing that they can really do is work on their manuscript on their own, for as long as they feel like they can make improvements.
Until it really makes you want to puke, you just don't want to have anything to do with that work anymore. And that's the point at which, okay, find an editor.
But really, even I go so far as to say when you've done as much as you can for your manuscript, put it away. Put it in a drawer for maybe even two months or more if you can stand it. And then come back to it with fresh eyes, you'll pick up on things that..
This is the Creative Funding Show, a podcast for authors, YouTubers, and podcasters who want to fund the work they love without selling out.
Thomas: Welcome back to the Creative Funding Show. I'm Thomas Umstattd Jr., and with me today is Joanna Penn, who's an award-winning novelist, a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers under the pen name J.F. Penn, and she also writes nonfiction for authors. She's an award-winning creative, entrepreneur, podcaster, and YouTuber. Her site, thecreativepenn.com, was voted one of the Top 100 sites for writers by Writer's Digest. Joanna Penn, welcome to the show.
Joanna: Thanks for having me, Thomas. It's great to be here and talk to you again.
Thomas: I love having you on the “Creative Funding Show” because of the different ways that we talk about for creatives to fund their art. You have done almost all of them. I think the only thing you haven't gotten into yet is merchandise. I don't think people can buy Joana Penn merch.
Joanna: Actually, no. That's not true. I now have merch.
Thomas: There you go.
Joanna: I do have a mug and a bag that you can get on Society6. And I got into that because I had someone on my podcast who talked about merchandising [Merchandising for Authors with Melissa Addey] and I was like, “Okay. So I need to do only print-on-demand because I like the digital scalability. I don't want to do stuff I have to put in boxes.”
Society6 is good quality, sort of print-on-demand merch. I've made about six dollars in total out of mugs.
Thomas: So that's what the six is for? It's for the six hours that you make on their website?
Joanna: Basically. But, yes. I do pretty much everything else.
Thomas: Very cool. Well, that's exciting. And so you really do check all of the boxes.
I want to get started with your story in how you got into this because you did not emerge from the chrysalis as a creator who was doing everything and doing it well.
Where did you get started writing?
Joanna: I did theology at university and then I went into management consultancy, which is one of those random things you do in Britain, and ended up working at implementing financial systems into large corporates for about 13 years after college.
It really was one of those jobs that is golden handcuffs. They paid really well but my life was completely pointless, and I just spent my time in accounts payable departments being hated by people because I was replacing them. “I know. Let's outsource everything to this IT system.” And here's this woman who's going to put you out of a job.
I got to a point where I was just miserable and miserable in my working life, even though I was being paid well, and I had a house, and a mortgage, and all that, a husband and everything.
I've always journaled, and I got to this point where I was like, “I have to do something more with my life. What do I want to do?” I couldn't work that out so I decided to start researching, “How to change your career.”
And then I thought, “Well, I'm reading a lot of self-help,” listening to a lot of audio tapes, or I think there were CDs at that point, the early days, 2005, of digital media. I thought, “Well, I could write a book on how to change your career.” And I ended up writing that book.
It was called something else but I wrote that first nonfiction book, Career Change. In the process of writing it, I learned about writing, learned about the internet, learned about how to start doing sales of books, and speaking, and all of that. And then ended up getting into fiction, left my job in 2011 to do it full-time, and 2015, got my husband out of his job.
So, basically, at this point as we talk, I've been writing professionally, as in writing full publication for about 12 years and have been full-time for 7 years. I'm quite far down the journey now, but I still absolutely remember being miserable in my job, just thinking, “What am I doing with my life?' and not knowing what was coming.
This was before the Kindle, before podcasting, before any of this. It really was pretty was hopeless back then.
Thomas: Yeah. We were scratching books on stone tablets.
Thomas: What was it like writing in early days into your evolution? Because you've been independent the whole time, right? You never went with a traditional publisher, right?
Joanna. Exactly right. And the main reason, I think, is because I am a businesswoman.
I was working in business. I was working in accounting departments. I'm not an accountant, but I was amongst the money side of business. I was also earning a good wage and when I looked at the possibilities for leaving my day job to become a writer, it was actually impossible at that point.
I could not see how I could make a six-figure income as a writer just writing books.
You would have to hit some kind of lottery, or the other thing I learned is that you could do it by being a speaker. So that was actually what I did first.
Speaking in Berlin
I went to the Professional Speakers Association, I learned how to speak professionally, and started charging for my speaking.
And all the speakers that were in that community, and I was in Australia at that point, they all learned from the Americans, so it was a very American-dominated niche, the speaker's niche, and I learned brilliantly, I think because British people are quite different.
I learned that I needed to start charging early. And this is something that's very important. And why I think it's great that you're talking about this on your show.
Being an author, it's not just about making money from book sales. So I started making my first money as a speaker and I had a book to sell but I think I sent one query letter and then didn't hear back. And was just like, “Okay. That's random. Why can't I just print it myself and sell it myself?”
I went ahead with that. So it was very much a business decision and still is. It's still is a business decision. So that's how I got started.
Thomas: And that's really smart because in fiction, especially traditional fiction, there's not a lot of middle-class. You have people who are making basically no money and then you have people who are making millions of dollars. Right?
J.K. Rowling, wealthier than the Queen supposedly, right? Because she sold a million “Harry Potter” books. But there's not a lot of middle-class.
Whereas in speaking and writing business books, there's more of a middle-class.
It's easier to get started and actually bring in some income. And it's less of a lottery. It's less of a big, statistical anomaly.
Joanna: I think the difference is as well though, is your mindset around intellectual property rights. So, the issue with speaking is that you are paid for your time, and therefore it is exactly like a day job.
I realized this very early on that creating intellectual property rights, and a book is intellectual property rights, you can then license that over and over again.
So while you will get spike income from speaking, with a book maybe each copy sells a lot less than one speaking gig, but you can sell that potentially for the rest of your life and 70 years after you die.
There are a group of authors called ‘the midlist,' and I would be one of those. I have 27 books right now, 18 of which are fiction, and I make a multi-six-figure income. I make six figures from my book sales. That is a kind of midlist type living for a writer.
There are quite a few writers in that area, but as you say, many, many, many authors. And in fact, painters, illustrators, name an artist, most artists are not making a lot of money or even a living wage from their art.
I think the difference is this attitude of business and also understanding intellectual property rights and being paid for licensing your assets as opposed to being paid for your time.
Thomas: That's right because, in a sense, it's kind of like you're going through the whole arc or civilization.
So at the beginning, we were hunters/gatherers, right? We had hunts and you'd find a woolly mammoth and everyone would eat for a month, but then you would have nothing after that. And that's kind of like what speaking is.
Whereas writing and creating intellectual property is more like farming, where you get this slow consistent source of food that's not nearly as exciting, but it's ultimately what's going to sustain a civilization in the long run.
Joanna: That's exactly right. I'm an independent author but I pay professionals, cover designers, editors. I do a professional job of independent publishing. I don't do it all myself, which is why I don't like the phrase self-publishing.
But with traditional publishing, generally, you will get an advance, so you'll get a spike income that will come in and that will be split into payments depending on when you signed the contract, when you hand in the manuscript, when they publish it.
And then if you get royalties, they would be maybe every six months and who knows for how long, depending on if you earn out. So you might get more money, you might hit that lottery. You might get big payments and that it might disappear because they're on to the next author.
With publishing as an indie, what's happened is my income, as you say, is quite boring, but it's stepped up pretty much every month. So since I first put my first book on Kindle back in 2008, 2009, my income has stepped up pretty much every month consistently.
I've never had a breakout book, I'm not famous, but I'm making a good living as a writer and with all the other things we'll talk about.
But just with the books alone, it's a case of that consistent drip, drip, drip for multiple streams of income every month. And that is exciting in that it funds my life.
Thomas: Having food on the table is exciting.
Joanna: Exactly. But it's not like, oh sexy seven-figure deal. It's not sexy money but it's like living money, which to me is pretty sexy.
Thomas: That's right. And that is ultimately what's more sustainable.
Joanna: When you don't know when that money is coming in, how can you do a cash flow forecast? How can you say, “Yes, I know I can pay my mortgage next month,” when you don't know when that money comes in.
What I love about what you're doing here, talking about Patreon, talking about recurring revenue, actually, self-publishing or independent publishing is like a salary.
I get an amount of money every month that is pretty predictable and I know what it's gonna be 60 days in advance so I can do a cash flow forecast. And that, to me is you have to have that to make a living.
Thomas: It's so important. Now, I know some of you listening, as soon as you heard the phrase cash flow forecast, you tuned out, you're like, “Oh, that's business stuff. I just want to do art.”
I think that that dichotomy is really unhealthy because what enables you to do art and to have that emotional room to really create your best work is not having to need to worry about money so much, right? If you're like panicked or like, “Oh, this has to be a hit to cover all my debts that are accruing,” that amount of pressure, actually, I think constraints your creativity in some ways.
It's not about art and business being at war with each other, it's about them being on a team together.
If you're crafting your life in the right way and thinking about your art as a business of creating art, I think it really should go hand in hand like what you're doing.
Joanna: I do hope that the listeners to the Creative Funding Show, and I know this will go out on the other show as well, but this is about the money side. To me, business is one of the most creative things that we do.
Most of what we see in the world is created by people doing business. And that to me is exciting.
At the moment, I work with about 13 different contractors. Not only do I pay my husband's tax and my tax with our company, we're also paying money to a whole load of freelancers. We've got our own self-sustaining little industry.
The money comes in and the money goes out, and that's the way cash flow should work. It comes in, it goes out, you're building your assets, you're living, you're loving your life.
Entrepreneurs turn ideas in their head into value in the world, whether that's value for someone else or value for them. And that's what we do as writers or as any kind of artists.
You're turning what's in your heads into value in the world. And like if that's not entrepreneurial or business I don't know what is.
Thomas: And that's really exciting because you're making the world a better place. You're making the people who read your writings happy and entertained, and that's a good thing. You're providing for yourself, which is a good thing, and you're creating jobs, which is a good thing, and you're doing it in a sustainable way. That's what I love so much about business.
The media portrays businesses like it's the evil, exploitative people. No. These are people who are making the world a better place because no one's going to give you their money unless you're able to convince them that you're making their life better in some way to be worth giving you their money.
That's the difference between being a thief and being a business person.
Joanna: I think it's much better to be putting money back into the system. As you earn more, you will pay more tax and I'm like, “Yay. Let's pay more tax and fund all the things we want.” I'm very happy with the situation I'm in, and I think it's very important to talk about money.
One of the issues with creatives and money is, as you say, there is this kind of dichotomy. People think that if they're making money, they've ‘sold out'. I was talking to a musician and he was like, “Well, selling out is what you want to do. You want to have a sold-out concert.
But I think it's very important to say, I write the books I want to write. I've never compromised on that. So I very much do the things that I care about.
If I wanted to just do stuff for money, I would have stayed in the day job.
But I love what I write, I really just really enjoy what I do. And also I love the lifestyle I have.
Joanna Penn in Shetland
One of the things, when I left my day job, is I said to myself, “What is my ideal life?” And my ideal life was writing, reading, and traveling. And that's what I do. It's pretty much what I do. And helping other people as well. I help a lot of people.
Thomas: There you go. It's a good gig if you can get it.
Now, I want to talk a little bit about how you've crafted that life because your money isn't just coming from royalties. It's not like you're waiting, and your only money comes from that Amazon payment.
Why is it important for authors and for creators to have multiple sources of income?
Joanna: For me, everything stems to 2008. I'm sure listeners can remember the global financial crisis.
I went to work, as many of us did. It was around March, I think, 2008 and we walked in. And I was on the floor, one of these awful open-plan offices with about 400 other IT consultants, and our manager walks in with a stack of paper, and basically, we're all called in one by one into an office.
We're given a bit of paper which says, “Three weeks' notice, bye bye.” And we're all contractors, so they weren't even obliged to pay us anything. And so, we were all let go.
Many of us left at one time so finding other work was clearly going to be an issue. And I realized on that day, because I was the major wage earner in my family…I was like, “Holy crap. This one company has just told me to go away and I've essentially lost my only source of income.”
I declared on that day that I would never do that again. And that was part of how I got into this.
And this is very interesting because you'll find a lot of entrepreneurs these days who were made by the global financial crisis. Either they were laid off, like I was, or their life pivoted around that moment.
For me, this is why I publish wide, which means I don't just publish on Amazon. So, at the moment, I'm selling books on all the big platforms, iBooks, Kobo, as well as Amazon, Nook. I'm selling in all the bookstores, libraries.
I've sold books in 86 countries, so even just with books, I'm doing a lot of streams of income. But then I also, as you say, I have speaking, which is much less of a income stream now, but I have affiliate income, which means as I blog and podcast, I point to other people's products that I absolutely love, and I would get commission on the sale.
If you are struggling to get words onto the blank page, don't just sit there. Fill your creative well.
In this article, Ann Harrison-Barnes suggests ways in which you can find inspiration in your environment, whatever your creative challenges.
As a Christian fiction author and a professional writer who is blind, I often search for ways to find inspiration for my fiction.
I have to admit that sometimes I have a bad case of writer’s block, like other writers.
How do I throw writer’s block out the window? Here are five ways I find inspiration, even without being able to see the world around me.
(1) Inspiration through music
Although many people talk about finding a writing playlist, music for me is more than pure entertainment or background noise.
If you’re in the middle of a scene and you can’t come up with just the right element to keep your story moving forward, here’s a tip that might help you focus on your work.
Turn on your favorite radio station or your writing playlist. Personally, I use instrumental music, because music with lyrics can be a distraction.
Let the music resonate through your entire body and let your mind wander where the music takes you.
What ideas come to mind as you listen?
After the song or piece of music is over, pick up your mobile device, notepad and pen, or open a blank document in your word processor of choice, and jot down the tidbits that come to you. You may not be able to use them at the moment, but keep them for later use.
Even though you are a writer, do you also play a musical instrument? If you already have an instrument that you play, I have a suggestion for you. Why not sit down at your instrument, or pick it up and play whatever is in your heart.
As you improvise, let your instrument speak to you. I don’t know how to describe it, but when I play my Tibetan singing bowls or my Karimba, I just open my mind and let my thoughts flow.
Making your own music is just as powerful and inspirational, if not more so, than listening to recorded music, or attending a live concert.
(2) The music of your environment
This is how I turn the sounds of the world around me into fodder for inspiration. While you’re out for a walk, running errands, or just taking care of business, take a moment to truly listen to your environment.
If you’re driving to a specific destination, focus all your senses on the road and the traffic around you.
If you have a smart phone, tablet, or digital voice recorder, take down your thoughts for later use. You can also do this while sitting on your porch, after a long day at work, or running around with your family.
(3) Read, read, and read!
I know authors and marketing professionals have discussed this topic on webinars and podcasts, but I want to add my encouragement to all writers, from novices to full-time authors, and anywhere in between.
You don’t have to rely on print or eBooks only, you can also get audiobooks to listen to as you work. For me, I love to crochet while I listen to audiobooks. I read a lot of books in my genre, but I also read other books, to find that little nugget of inspiration, when I am suffering from writers' block.
I also read a couple of magazines in Braille, for information and inspiration. I’ve heard it said that you can’t be a great writer without being an avid reader first.
(4) Find other sources of inspiration
Although I stress the importance of reading to become a better writer, there are other sources of entertainment and information you can use for inspiration.
Many people mention that they become inspired by movies. Although I can agree with that to a certain extent, you don’t have to limit yourself to this medium only. Personally, I’ve found inspiration through my favorite classic TV shows.
TV shows and movies aren’t the only sources of inspiration I’ve found. If you can find an app or a website that has links to free audio recordings, such as classic radio shows.
I strongly urge you to take advantage of these inspirational sources, because something that a character says or a description of a scene can lead to an idea that you can’t let go of.
Listening to podcasts is another great source of information and inspiration. Since my husband gave me his iPad, I have found some wonderful writing podcasts that are informative and inspiring.
I must put in a plug for The Creative Penn podcast, because I found some valuable nuggets of information that I can use for my own writing business. No matter what your favorite podcasts are, I’m sure you can find some tidbits of inspiration that get your creative juices flowing.
(5) Engage with like-minded people
Here’s a tip that I think all writers can use in their writing process. Find a writers group, or a critique partner or group to help you fine-tune your writing before you get published. The more you can tweak your writing, the more likely others will read it.
Sometimes writers can inspire each other, so connecting through email or social media is a good way to “talk shop” with people who are walking the same writing road as you are.
You and your writing friends can encourage each other on your career path, and your mentors can hold you accountable for a project you are working on, so you can get it finished and into the hands of readers.
Although there are hundreds, possibly thousands of ways to find inspiration, these are a few of the methods that personally work for me. I hope that you can find one or more of these little tips helpful in your own writing.
How do you find inspiration for your creative work? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Ann Harrison-Barnes is the author of two books, A Journey of Faith, A Stepping Stones Mystery, and Stories Outside the Box. She has also been published in several anthologies.
Aside from her work as a Christian fiction author, Ann is a professional writer and she also crochets bookmarks and book covers to promote her books. To learn more about Ann and her work, visit her website, AnnWritesInspiration.com.
Many of us wish we had more time to write, but few of us are willing to redesign our entire lives in order to make time for writing. In today's interview, David Kadavy talks about how he changed his mindset, processes, and even his country, in order to pursue a life of writing.
Just a brief intro today as I have been in Spain on a yoga retreat – gotta be a Healthy Writer!
I wish everyone a Happy Independence Day for the week ahead and challenge you to consider whether you really are independent.
I tell my story of being laid off during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, and how I swore then that I would never be dependent on one company for my income again. I now make a living from multiple streams of income – and if more authors did that, there would be less of an issue with some of the dominant platforms making changing that impact the livelihoods of writers. How can you expand your streams of income so as not to be dependent on one company?
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
You can find David Kadavy at kadavy.net and on Twitter @kadavy
Transcript of Interview with David Kadavy
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com and today, I'm here with David Kadavy. Hi, David.
David: Hello, Joanna. Thank you so much for having me. I'm very excited to be here.
Joanna: It's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.
David is a creative entrepreneur, a best-selling author, and podcaster. His books include “Design for Hackers,” and “The Heart to Start,” “Win the Inner War,” and “Let Your Art Shine.” And he also has several mini books for creators which we will talk about.
David, start by telling us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.
David: Sure. I assume that this is a little different than it is for a lot of you listeners in that I never wanted to be a writer.
In fact, as I was a kid, I hated writing. I thought it was the most boring thing that anybody could possibly do. I actually vividly remember reading something from Stephen King where he was saying, “Oh, when I was a child, I was on fire to write.” I said to my brother, “That's ridiculous. Who likes to write? It's the most boring thing anybody could possibly do.”
And he said, “Well, the way that you feel about drawing, that's how he feels about writing.”
And so that was my thing. I was really into drawing. I was really into art. I studied graphic design in college. I went and worked in Silicon Valley as a web designer.
Somewhere along the line there, I started writing voluntarily on a blog and then somewhere along the line there, I wrote a blog post. It was popular. I had not just one but two book deal offers in my inbox from that blog post.
For some reason, I decided, “Okay, yeah. I'll do this. I'll write a book.” And I think some people in my life were maybe a little worried that I would get like a writer's block or something like that and I thought, “Well, I've done creative work before. I've certainly been blocked doing that. If I get writer's block, that's no problem. I can get through that.”
So I went ahead and wrote that first book, “Design for Hackers” is the first one and it did well but it was a process that I didn't want to repeat because I made myself very miserable writing that book. I did get blocked but I didn't have any idea how to handle it.
The only way I knew how to handle it was to simply lock myself in my apartment for 6 months and cut out my entire social life and just spend 12 hours a day banging my head against the wall to get 15 minutes of flow and then get up and do it the next day. It was the worst winter in Chicago history and it was a really miserable experience.
So as I came out of that experience of writing that book, oddly though, I still felt like I definitely am going to want to do this again. I'm one of these people who I think like a lot of your listeners really feels the need to create.
I don't feel right if I'm not putting something out there and it turned out that writing was this new medium, for me, new medium that I knew I was going to want to do it again but I couldn't do it that way.
So that's where I started to get more interested in the emotional aspects of making your creative work happen and the creative productivity aspects of it. So that's how I ended up kinda doing the things that I'm doing these days.
Joanna: You said you started with blogging. I think blogging is almost a deceptive way in, especially for people who might be more confident with websites and graphics stuff. Because it's almost like you're not writing and especially, there's no rules like there is in creating a big book, like an important book.
And you've recently put a blog post up about 24 things you learned about publishing, in publishing 3 books in 6 months. And you talk a lot about this like you don't have to write this big, important book.
Can you talk a bit about how your publishing life has changed as well from that and why things are so different now?
Why are things not miserable?
David: Right. So the amount of time between my first book and my second book was six years. The amount of time between my second book and my fourth book and I'm using the word book a little loosely because we can get into how short some of those books are, that was six months.
I really had a huge shift in my approach to the idea of publishing and what is a book. I think one of my big catalysts for that was I had a conversation with Seth Godin on my podcast a little more than a year ago and he really drove home the point that if you're going to be publishing a book, you're going to be head of marketing for your book.
So you need to learn how to do that and to do that, you just keep on cranking out books and you always have something new that you can learn. That was really a revelation for me especially because I got so lucky with my first book.
I wrote a blog post and a book deal falls in my lap and then on top of it, people actually wanted to read that book. So there was a little bit of not only assuming that I could go ahead and do the same thing and expect the same results when in fact, I was quite fortunate the first time around.
But then there was also how do I follow up this success? My first book was top 20 on all of Amazon on launch day. It did very well for a book in its category. It did pretty well for any book as a standard for any book.
But then, I just got so scared about putting that second book out there. So I think that conversation with Seth really helped me change my mindset as far as getting books out there and trying to enjoy the process as well.
It's like seeing it as a journey that each book that you put out, you have something new that you learn and the things that you learn doing this book make that next book so much better. So that's the way I'm thinking about it more now.
Joanna: You're relaxing into it a bit and not taking it seriously but not taking it so seriously that it becomes this massive, insurmountable thing.
“The Heart to Start” talks a lot about facing up to this mental programming and fear that…you talk a lot about fears and anxieties and I know that resonates with a lot of my audience because mindset is something that we all struggle with.
What were the other programming issues that you tackled in terms of mind programming and how did you change some of that?
David: First of all, I'm surprised kind of to hear that your listeners can relate to that because it seems like your listeners are such accomplished authors and they have so many books coming out that they're past this thing but for me, it's a continual struggle.
It's especially something that I struggled with very early on. And as far as like mental programming or deprogramming that mental programming, I think for me, the biggest thing was just recognizing that you can make whatever you want, because when I was a kid, I wasn't surrounded by people who were authors or who were entrepreneurs.
If I read a book or I played a video game or watched a movie, it never dawned on me like, “Oh, real people just like my neighbor or my parents made these things. I could make something like that.” So simply just understanding that it was a possibility to make things I think was the biggest thing for me.
It's happened very slowly and accidentally just kind of doing one little thing after another before I start to realize, “Oh, like whatever fantasies I might have in my head about something that I could do, I could actually go ahead and do that.”
It's still scary so how can I kind of find a little handholds to get the leverage to pull myself out of whatever it is that is holding me back from doing those things? And that's a lot of what I explored in “The Heart to Start”, which is a book really all about how there is this advice of just get started.
Which I think is really fantastic advice except for it's very difficult to follow. Whenever somebody told me that, I was always left wondering, “Well, all right. What do I start with? How do I start? And what about all these terrible things that could happen?”
And so that book was my exploration of how to actually start in a way that is effective not only for other people and not only for my 25-year-old self but also for my present self. Because I often find myself getting caught up in the same mental or emotional traps all the time and I remember like, “Oh, remember I wrote this thing about how to handle this and one, I should be consistent with this stuff that I wrote.”
So it's kind of using cognitive dissonance to my own advantage but it's also I'd formalize these things so actually, I have a handbook for myself to follow to move forward and create the work that I want to create.
Joanna: That's so funny because I have exactly the same thing with “The Successful Author Mindset” which I read my own chapters and I'm like, “Yeah, listen to yourself. You should recognize this is part of the process.”
It happens every time and you have to go through that part like it is a cycle and reflecting on what Seth said or what people like Steven Pressfield say, this creative process, it has these stages and it's not like you can skip any of those stages. One of those stages is fear and anxiety and it seems to happen wherever you are on the journey unless perhaps, you're a sociopath.
David: Yeah. And if you are, then hey, go for it.
Joanna: But seriously, every time I talk about fear and anxiety and self-doubt on the show, it's what people go, “Oh my goodness. I feel that.” And that point when you look at your book and go, “Oh, this is terrible.”
It's interesting, again, this iterative process because you spent time in Silicon Valley doing web design. No web designer or Silicon Valley programmer will sit down and create a perfect thing straight off.
Joanna: Do you think that the lessons of online can transfer into the book world in that way?
David: Absolutely. I think this is a great advantage that I've had is that I've gone through that creative struggle, and you're right. You don't sit down and make an interface for a web app in one go. You try especially early on. You try.
You're wondering, “Why is this so hard?” But then eventually, you realize there are starting to emerge in things like UX design, there is different methodologies or processes that you can follow that will pull out those little pieces that you need to put together into something cohesive and make that creative work happen.
I think that is definitely an advantage because in design, it's a little more tangible. You have a sketch on a paper and eventually, you're going to turn it into maybe a mockup and then eventually, it's going to be code.
It's not even going to be static code, it's going to be dynamic code. The application is going to be drawing all the stuff.
But when you're writing, you're writing and you write a couple of words and you're like, “Oh, this is awful.” And it's on the screen. It's in like nice, clean typography as if it's in a book or something and you're thinking, “How is it ever going to look like this thing in a book?”
They look so similar. I feel like it's more difficult to internally understand that there really is a process that needs to happen underneath all of this that is invisible. That you need to actually look inside and explore what's going on with you emotionally and what sort of questions you have in your brain and collect those things and let them incubate.
And then put them together into something that is cohesive and makes sense and is a book that people will open the pages and they're like, “Oh, this is a book and I'm reading it and it's comfortable and I enjoy it.” So to get to that process is definitely not straightforward.
Joanna: I think you've hit the nail on the head there about the fact is with writing, what you put on the screen is what does look like the book whereas when you're programming and I have some programming experience, it doesn't look like it.
Or on a blog, you go to the HTML and it's not the same. That's a really good point and I think when editing, I print out. When I edit, I edit by hand. And so it looks different to what I saw on the screen but hopefully, some people listening will find that helpful.
I wanted to ask you, at the beginning of “Heart to Start,” you say that you “Redesigned your life to make writing your top priority and ended up quadrupling your writing outputs.”
Now everyone listening now wants that, me included. Can you give us some tips?
How did you redesign your life to make writing your top priority? That's a big statement.
David: A couple of years ago, I was on a retreat in Mexico and I was spending a lot of time with some friends of mine and we take a whole week and we really explore what's going on in our life, what are we doing now, what do we want to do in the future.
It took me a while to like come to terms with this thing. I really want to double down on writing. I want to explore things that are interesting to me and share what I learn along the way and oh no, this is gonna be difficult.
Part of making that happen was I moved to Columbia. I think like a designer in a way that if you're a designer and you have a problem that you're trying to solve or an objective that you're trying to meet such as you want to double down on writing, you want to make it as a writer, well then, you've gotta move things around in a way that's going to help meet that objective.
And so one way to do that or a principle that's very common in design is the idea of constraint. So constraints that are behavior-shaping constraints. So moving to Columbia is one behavior-shaping constraint because it makes me less likely to say, “Oh yeah, I'm just gonna go to New York for the weekend,” or, “Oh, I will totally accept this unpaid speaking gig,” or something like that.
Looking for those constraints in all parts of my life. So one of those is having a morning routine which is a great constraint because first of all, morning is the best time to get any sort of thing done. I think about the airport of O'Hare where I used to live in Chicago is notorious.
It's a notorious airport because it has a ton of delays but it only has a ton of delays if you fly out sometime after 10 a.m. So if it's 6 a.m. or 8 a.m, all of the chaos that causes delays, all that stuff hasn't had a chance to get in the way.
The same thing is true of your life depending on your lifestyle. If you have children, it might be a little bit different. But you get up in the morning, things haven't gotten a chance to get in the way so let's do the most important thing. So really making a habit out of writing which was something I was totally against before.
I used to be one of these people who was just like, “Oh, whenever I'm inspired, I'll do it. I don't want to force writing. It's not going to be as good if I do that.”
I really questioned that belief and started making a habit and most importantly, a small habit because I think when I had tried before, I would make a habit of say, I'm gonna write 1000 words a day. What happens when you say that you're gonna write 1000 words a day when you're not a super-experienced writer. What happens is you write 1000 words and then the next day, you write 1000 words, and then the next day, you oversleep your alarm or your oatmeal gets mushy or something.
You make some excuse about why you can't do your habit on this day. And so I just try to be easy on myself like let's just string it together.
Like this morning was a morning where I wasn't really able to get in a huge two-hour writing session that I typically do now but I took 15 minutes and I got quite a bit of writing done in that amount of time.
And so making a habit of it and then as far as word output, actually making a shipping habit as well where I was shipping a 500-word post on medium every single day for quite a while and a lot of them were really bad but something happens.
After a little while, you do it enough and suddenly, one day, you wake up and like, you can see a 500-word post in your brain. You can see the whole thing and you can write it and it ends up being good and it ends up getting noticed and it ends up getting picked up by publications and stuff.
That was really a surprise to me that if I force myself to write and it's much easier to force yourself to write when you have that habit because it becomes harder to not do your habit than it becomes to do your habit then things start to happen. I did measure my word output from one year to the next and it was 4X and things were happening with my writing too.
So that's when things were getting picked up and I was starting to get my second book out and stuff. And so those things really, really help.
Finding those constraints that will make it easy for you to do the thing that you want to do and hard for you to do the things that are going to prevent you from doing that thing.
Joanna: You do have a tips list on your website so we'll do a call to action at the end for that which is fantastic. I want to come back to the Columbia thing because there's people going, “What? What? He moved to Columbia?” Like, “What the hell?”
David: Not a city, not the university in New York, the country, Columbia.
Joanna: Why Columbia? And any sort of lessons learned about moving to quite a different culture?
David: I told you a little earlier about how when I wrote my first book, it was the worst winter in Chicago history. So after that happens, I decided I wanted to treat myself. And so the next winter, I said, “All right. I'm going to go somewhere warm.”
I went to Buenos Aires for a couple of weeks. And then I was like that worked out well. So the next year, the next natural destination was Columbia just because, I don't know, I had heard about it. This place called Medellin and how it's the city of the eternal spring and everything. And so I went and that was five years ago and I came back like every six months, and two years ago I moved here full-time.
It turned out to be a really great place to do creative work and be a writer. I noticed, and this is something your listeners can try, is if they have done an extended trip somewhere or they've done work somewhere else or in some sort of environment is like look at the work that you did while you were there.
That was something that I noticed. I was rereading an article of mine that I had written while I was spending a couple of months in Columbia and I was like, “This is some of my best work. Why is that? Oh, because I'm just happier in this place.”
I never did spend another winter in Chicago. The last winter I spent there was 2010. And so now I've been in Columbia for two years.
Writing is a kind of telepathy. You write words on a page and at a different place and time, another human will read it and they will understand your mind at that moment. You aren't there but they read your thoughts.
That's how you can change people's lives with your words.
But only if you share your truth, your story and your heart. In today's article, Alysia Seymour shares her tips for writing a story that connects with readers.
Most writing tips are focused on practical steps to take to outline your story, complete a draft, get proper edits and formatting done before sending it to be published.
These are amazing tips for those of us who are just starting out in writing and need some guidance.
But what if you want to know more about writing a fictional story that connects to readers? Or, how to inspire readers with your storytelling?
Before all the practical steps, you want to know how to emotionally connect to your readers that leaves them feeling strong emotions throughout your story. That’s what keeps them reading.
If you haven’t yet read Story Genius by Lisa Cron then I suggest you get a copy. She explains beautifully how to tap into that emotional connection.
[From Joanna: Lisa was on The Creative Penn podcast talking about Story Genius. You can listen here.]
To get started today with telling an emotionally moving or inspirational story, I’ve discovered through my own writing process that a few things are key, and I want to share them with you.
I wasn’t someone who was “called” to be a writer, but I discovered it out of my love for books and fictional stories. After I completed my first novel, I realized how healing writing was for me.
Which brings me to the first key step in writing an emotionally impactful story.
(1) Write a story that is healing for YOU
Find a moment from your own life that brings up difficult or painful emotions. If you don’t want to revisit painful memories, then choose a moment that left you a changed person, for better or worse.
Just find that moment — maybe you have several — and use them as the premise for the internal and emotional journey your character will go on in the story.
Of course, you want to change them up. Use your imagination to shift some of the events and people around to make it a fictional story and not a memoir of your life. If you can heal through writing your fictional story, it will be inevitable that your readers will find healing in it as well.
(2) Be vulnerable
I know it can feel scary to tap into that vulnerable state. It often can make us feel anxious or uncertain about how to move forward. We’re afraid of being seen and judged for who we really are, or what we really think.
But, when we can write our characters and story from a vulnerable state, healing our own wounds as we do, then our story shifts into something more than words on a page.
It becomes a magical tale of the victim becoming the hero, revealing flaws—not as something to be ashamed of, but as beautiful scars of all that’s been overcome and to be worn with pride.
And through the courage or revealing your own scars within your storytelling, you allow the reader to get in closer to you, which is what you want.
(Remember, you don’t have to be literal in writing these moments of your life. People don’t even need to know they are personal. But it will show in your writing that you are deeply connected to the story.)
(3) Don’t underestimate your own power
It’s easy as writers, especially when we’re first getting started, to doubt our skills and knowledge of the practice. We can feel timid and unsure about our writing and start saying “Who am I to do this?”.
Coming from this place only creates limitation. You must remember the power you carry within you. You have the power to heal yourself and others with your writing. You have the power to teach yourself what you don’t yet know about writing. You have the power to write a truly inspiring and impactful story that will change lives.
Believe in yourself and your power. If you can do even this one step, it will change how you write. If you can come from a place of empowerment rather then doubt, you can write a story that will touch lives.
Those are the 3 key steps to writing a story that will connect with readers and leave them feeling emotionally moved at the end of the story. These steps are simple, but not always easy.
So be patient with yourself as you test them out. Tapping into vulnerability when you haven’t visited those spaces in a while (if ever) can be challenging and you may even feel blocked by fear, unable to reach that state.
Just keep working on it and rewriting the moments from your own life into your fictional story to heal yourself. This alone will help you open up and be vulnerable with your writing, one step at a time.
The writing journey isn’t meant to be perfect. In fact, I believe that it’s far more meaningful the more imperfect it is. Because it’s in those imperfect moments within the story—the ones that sprawl onto the page unconsciously—that leave you . . . and therefore your readers, in awe.
Have you practised being vulnerable in your writing in order to forge a deeper connection with readers? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Alysia Seymour is a fiction author and Story Guide. She is a self-published author of The Raven Dreams, with another novel currently in the works. She created a one-on-one transformational journey through rewriting your life story into a fictional short story to heal, grow, and create life your way. You can start the journey today.