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Commas are my personal nemesis. Those tiny little marks on a page can completely change the sense of a sentence, as per the fantastic book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss.
But how do we make the most of punctuation? Rachel Stout from New York Book Editors explains in today's article.
When it comes to grammar and the correct way to do things, I worry more about punctuation than anything else when writing.
Other rules — splitting infinitives, knowing the difference between further and farther or when to use the active voice versus passive — don’t weigh as heavily on my mind. I can just look those up quickly and move on, comfortable with what I’ve written.
But punctuation is not as easily referenced. In a grammar book or online, how do I describe my various clauses and intended meaning so that punctuation can correctly be assessed?
Most of my time is spent evaluating or editing manuscripts, so I can tell you that punctuation rules are some of the most commonly ignored rules in writing.
Either writers admit to me up front that they have no idea whether or not they’ve used way too many commas (answer: yes), improperly used quotation marks (answer: maybe, let me see) or used too few semicolons (answer: almost certainly no).
Understanding how and when to use common punctuation marks (meaning I’m not really interested in discussing interrobangs at the moment, or ever) will not only make you a more sophisticated and practiced writer, but it will give you the ultimate tool: knowing how and when to break those rules and use punctuation to imply feeling and tone in a way that mere word choice cannot.
Breaking punctuation rules is only effective if you’re breaking the rule on purpose.
Simply writing full steam ahead without the intention of, say ignoring commas and periods, results in a final paragraph of nonsense and jumbled words. Doing the same thing, but doing it purposefully has an entirely different outcome.
The words, the flow, the insinuation of pause and of inflection becomes apparent in this case, and instead of mumbo jumbo, the result is something more like Molly Bloom’s “yes I said yes I will Yes,” which closes out an entire punctuation-less chapter that is full of feeling, emotion, swirling thoughts and contradictions, ending on this note of pure bliss at the close of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
“yes I said yes I will Yes” is famous not because the words chosen are anything special, but because no matter whether you’re familiar with the rest of the story, that final paragraph stirs something inside of you when you read it.
The rush of feeling, of teetering on the edge of choice and love and passion and self-doubt is so familiar, so utterly human that it’s palpable without explanation. The careful non-use of punctuation causes the reader to go ever faster, flying through the words, which again themselves aren’t of utmost importance here.
It’s the flying, the racing, the rush of getting everything in because there are no periods or commas to indicate a stop or a pause, nothing to slow the reader down or to shift course. The words themselves are chosen purposefully to accompany the punctuation (or lack thereof), making its use the most important thing in the passage.
How to get there, though? We know that punctuation can change the literal meaning of a sentence. Too many serial comma debates have ended with someone laying down the trump card stating the irrefutable difference between “I love my parents, Beyoncé, and Benedict Cumberbatch” and “I love my parents, Beyoncé and Benedict Cumberbatch” to deny that.
However, as shown in the Molly Bloom requiem above and in countless other works of great fiction, the intentional use or non-use of punctuation can change the tone or feeling of a piece to great effect.
Cormac McCarthy, for example, has been quoted as saying, “I believe in periods, capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it,” and anyone who's read anything of McCarthy’s knows how much effect the starkness of the words and sparseness of punctuation adds to the depth and breadth of his work.
Where in Joyce’s chapter, the lack of punctuation results in a huge rush of intense emotion, McCarthy’s novels are quieter, though still deep in feeling. Neither author could have achieved that if they were writing without knowledge of the rules of punctuation. They were successful because they wrote in spite of them.
The first thing to note when using punctuation creatively is that there are still limitations. Not all punctuation marks can be played around with. You’ll have the best results with commas, periods, quotation marks and dashes.
Semicolons, however, don’t have the same elasticity. Colons and parentheses can be hugely effective when used intentionally, but my advice is to use them sparingly. They cause such an interruption in reading that the pause or aside should be worth it. The aside an em-dash indicates is usually not as drastic as it fits better within the flow of the sentence.
Let’s get the basics of each mark down so we can figure out how to manipulate them. When I say basics, I truly mean basics because of course pages can be written about each, but for our purposes, the basic rules will suffice.
First up, the one with the most rules, even at the basic level: the comma.
Comma Rules and Uses
Separating items in a series
Commas are used to separate items in a series of three or more nouns or two or more coordinate adjectives. Whether or not you decide to use the serial, or Oxford, comma before the final “and” or “or” in the list is up to you.
Example (Nouns): I went to the store and bought apples, bananas, bread and milk.
Example (Coordinate adjectives): The bright, shining sun was warm that day.
(Note: Adjectives are coordinate if you can change their order and the meaning remains the same. If you cannot, they are not coordinate and should not be separated by commas)
Surrounding nonessential appositives
An appositive is the word or phrase that describes or adds additional information about a noun in the sentence. Only nonessential appositives are surrounded by commas. An essential appositive is a word or phrase that if removed, changes the meaning of the sentence. Essential appositives are not offset with commas. If the appositive only adds to the sentence, but does not affect its meaning, then commas are used.
Example (Essential): Fleetwood Mac’s song Landslide has been covered by many other artists.
Here, “Landslide” is the appositive, but without it, the sentence would not have the same meaning, so we don’t use commas.
Example (Nonessential): The house where I grew up, a blue bungalow with red shutters, has been repainted.
Here, “a blue bungalow with red shutters” is the appositive and without it, the sentence would retain its meaning: “The house where I grew up has been repainted.” This is why the appositive is offset with commas.
Before a coordinating conjunction
There are many sub-rules here, but at the most basic level, when you are connecting two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction, you should use a comma. An independent clause is a portion of a sentence that could stand on its own and a coordinating conjunction is one of the following: and, nor, for, but, so, or, yet.
Example: I hate eating apples, but I love eating apple pie.
After an introductory phrase
Usually, an adverbial phrase, the part of the sentence that sets up or introduces its subject and verb is the introductory phrase. (Hint: I started the previous sentence with an introductory phrase offset by a comma!) Sometimes a comma is not used, especially if the introductory phrase is made up of three words or less. (Hint: I did not offset the introductory word in that sentence, and it is grammatically okay).
Example: After seeing the movie, we all went out for ice cream.
Breaking the Rules
James Joyce [Image: Public Domain]
So we know James Joyce doesn’t always love commas and Cormac McCarthy certainly isn’t a fan. Gertrude Stein didn’t use them much, either, and she did okay for herself.
The most effective thing a comma does in a sentence is to create a pause. It’s a visual breathing mark or break in a sentence that can either go unnoticed or stand out.
Adding a comma where one might not necessarily be required should be an intentional choice—a moment where you are asking the reader to stop, sit up and notice. Maybe you want to call attention to the first part of a sentence or you want to make them pause awkwardly to show awkwardness in a scene.
Maybe you want to not use commas at all in dialogue to indicate a lilted accent or rushed way or speaking, or a child who doesn’t yet have a grasp on his or her own cadence, but you’ll have correct comma usage throughout all narrative portions of the text.
The best hint here? Read your work aloud as it is written, and then read it aloud as you intend it to sound. Are they different? If so, add or subtract the commas—the pauses, the emphases—where desired.
Period Rules and Uses
Ending a declarative sentence: This one doesn’t need too much explaining (I hope!). A period goes at the end of a sentence to indicate, well, its end, unless the sentence is a question or exclamation.
That’s pretty much the only hard and fast rule to using a period, which makes it a much simpler mark than the comma we just barreled through, but there is sometimes confusion as to where a period should be placed in conjunction with other punctuation marks, so here’s a quick overview:
With quotation marks: In American English, the period always goes inside the closing quotation marks. In British English, the period goes outside. After an abbreviation: If you’ve ended a sentence with an abbreviation, like “etc.,” there is no need to add a second period. With parentheses: If the parenthetical statement is its own independent clause placed in between two other full sentences, then the full sentence, including its period, goes inside the parentheses. If the statement is included in the middle of or at the end of another independent clause, the period goes at the end of the non-parenthetical statement and thus, outside of the parentheses.
Example: I’m good at grammar. (At least I think I am.) A more accurate statement might be: I’m getting the hang of it.
Example: I’m a grammar pro (and I don’t give myself enough credit).
Breaking the Rules
Because the period is universally simple, it’s difficult to misuse! However, I like to think about the British term for a period when thinking about how best to use it to enhance my writing: the full stop.
Where a comma is a pause, a period is a full stop. Short, fragmented writing, where each phrase, independent clause or not, is separated by a period can indicate so many things. Depression, stilted thinking, disbelief, the inability to comprehend, shock—the list goes on.
Think about any moment in life where you’ve been so overcome by emotion or new information that it’s near impossible to form a complete thought. Using periods to end a sentence fragment, to bring it to a “full stop,” can indicate that numbness or that inability to process.
Of course, the opposite usage is the run-on sentence. Run-on sentences are tricky because so often they are written without intent, but used intentionally, they can indicate a different side of emotional overwhelm.
Instead of being at a loss for words, or indicating a full stop, run-on sentences indicate a racing mind, a fast-paced scene, or a glut of activity and conversation.
Here, our friend the comma comes back into play. Using a comma splice, which is to say using a comma instead of a period, should be done sparingly. If used intentionally and in the right tone, a comma splice can carry the tone of a passage.
See how clearly the image and voice of Holden Caufield becomes through this run-on sentence full of comma splices from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
You can just see the teenager pretending to be apathetic about lame (and probably phony) things like caring about personal history and family.
Quotation Mark Rules and Uses
To show dialogue: The placement of punctuation inside and outside of quotation marks and whether or not to use single or double quotes vacillates between British and American English as well as between scholars in each school, so I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty here. What you do need to know, is that the most common use of quotation marks in fiction is to indicate dialogue, or someone speaking.
They are not used to indicate a thought, even when a narrator is recalling the idea of what someone said. They are used when recalling the exact words that someone said.
Example (recalling an idea): John remembered that Susie had told him to put his pants on when he left the house.
Example (recalling exact words): John remembered Susie’s words so clearly. “If you forget to put your pants on, the neighbors will be angry!” He’d better put them on, he thought to himself.
Note: I threw in a bonus non-quoted thought in that last one!
To show a new person speaking: The rulebooks will tell you that when a new speaker speaks, whether in a conversation between two people or with a narrative paragraph being broken into by a speaker, a new paragraph is necessary. With each new paragraph and each line of dialogue, you must indent.
Breaking the Rules
The most forgiven rules in creative fiction and memoir are those that accompany dialogue, and thus, quotation marks. However, and I’ll keep repeating myself here, it must be done with intention.
It’s very clear when an author is not aware of the rules of where to place punctuation within or outside of quotation marks (though remember, it varies between British and American), or if they are not clear on how to indicate dialogue at all. Usually, these writers are inconsistent with how they indicate or punctuate dialogue.
Consistency is what matters with quotation marks and dialogue. Do you want everything in one line, no quotation marks at all, ala Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes? Take a look at how colloquial, familiar, and conversational this feels:
Dad is out looking for a job again and sometimes he comes home with the smell of whiskey, singing all the songs he can about suffering Ireland. Ma gets angry and says Ireland can kiss her arse. He says that’s nice language to be using in front of the children and she says never mind the language, food on the table is what she wants, not suffering Ireland.
On top of the conversational tone and the speed with which you begin to race through the sentence, the perspective here is limited, a little rough around the edges. That’s because at this moment, the narrator is a small child and thus, takes in everything about the world in a particular way.
Using or not using quotes, indenting, breaking paragraphs and all the other rules surrounding dialogue affect style as much as tone.
How do you want the words to look on the page? Many paragraph breaks can achieve the same stilted or at-a-loss feeling as fragmented sentences separated by periods can. The same read aloud test can be used here.
Em-Dashes, Colons, and Parentheses Rules
I’m lumping all of these together because they all achieve a similar goal in creative writing: to indicate an aside, amplify a portion of a sentence or thought, or to offer an alternative point of view.
If you don’t know which to use, my rule of thumb is to always go em-dash, though as I said at the start of this post, you’ve got to be careful not to go overboard.
Using a colon: Unless you’re formatting a list, the only time to use a colon is after an already complete thought. What comes after the colon usually amplifies or expands upon the first portion, but doesn’t indicate much of a pause.
Example: Sarah has two favorite foods: pizza and ice cream.
Using parentheses: Em-dashes have eclipsed parentheses when used to separate explanatory or qualifying remarks from the rest of the sentence. Using either is correct, but only parentheses can be used to offset a complete sentence or thought, usually as an aside.
Using em-dashes: Aside from replacing parentheses when used within a complete sentence, the em-dash can also set off appositives like commas, indicate a switch in focus, or bring focus to a list connected to a clause.
Example (replacing parentheses): Mary always said she was an expert in fencing—she’s really not.
Example (setting off appositives): All three of my dogs—Fluffy, Bumper and Duke—have different personalities.
Example (switch in focus): And now I will tell you my greatest secret—actually, no, I’ve changed my mind.
Example (bring focus to a list): Sunscreen, towel, book—everything is packed for the beach!
Breaking the Rules
Here’s where you can have the most fun, in my opinion.
As long as you don’t overuse them, it’s very difficult to misuse a colon, parentheses or em-dash.
Do you want your narrator interjecting his or her own thoughts all the time in a distinctive voice or take on life? Em-dash, em-dash, em-dash!
Do you want to formally and distinctively expand upon a thought, or make that expansion seem like an awaited reveal or an extremely important detail? Use a colon!
Are we getting a whispered aside, an alternative viewpoint, or something special that only the reader gets to know and not others in the story? Do you want to tell a story within a story? Parentheses can achieve that for you!
I often see these three punctuation marks as the playful ones, the marks that can really bring a liveliness to your writing and showcase the voice of a particular character or narrator. Use them sparingly, yes, but play around and see how adding a few em-dashes into your narrative might bring out a new side to your story that even you were unaware was there.
Thanks for going on this whirlwind Punctuation 101 with me. I know it can be exhausting to get down, but once you’ve got the basics firm in your toolbox, you can begin to play with them, alter them to your whim and intentionally manipulate punctuation to change the tone or impact your writing has.
Do you have a favorite punctuation mark? Do you have a favorite author who flagrantly bucks the rules? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Rachel Stout is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. Formerly a literary agent with Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, Rachel currently offers editorial feedback for writers of fiction and memoir and coaches authors to provide them with tools for pitching their work to literary agents in Query Mastery, an online course run..
Today I'm talking about “show, don't tell,” one of the most common adages thrown around in the writing community, and one of the most confusing. I'm going to try and cut through the noise and keep this simple.
You can also use sensory detail to describe the scene.
The coffee overflowing and staining the table could be a metaphor for the state of their marriage. The smell of spilt coffee brings it alive.
If you just say, “Jane was angry,” then the reader then has to put all the detail in herself. Whereas it's your job as the writer to put the detail in and to essentially manipulate the reader's mind so that they understand what you're saying.
Writing is telepathy. You have to show the reader what's really happening by describing the scene and they will then mirror it in their mind, experiencing what the character feels. In that way, they will understand the emotion rather than being told what the emotion is.
Respect the reader
Most readers read a lot of books, so they know what's going on. They are intelligent and they're humans and they behave in certain ways like we all do. You don't have to overwrite things. You can use subtle subtext that the reader will recognize as showing an emotion.
I think that's a really good way to think about it. How can you communicate to the reader what's going on without using the one word that states how the character feels?
The second issue is reporting something that happened. Either the character is on the phone, they're sending a text message, or there's a letter.
Sometimes that can be a good device to use for different story reasons, but other times, it's just lazy.
For example, Fred sends an email.
Hi Auntie Maggie, I went to the funfair with Jane today. It was awesome.
Now, you're telling what happened, but what you need to do is show that scene.
Instead of reporting that Fred went to the funfair, write a scene at the funfair which brings it alive.
We're going to get a lot more sensory detail, a sense of the experience, instead of a very short description stating the fact that they went to the funfair.
When should you tell, not show?
Of course, there are times when you will tell and not show because otherwise, your book would go on forever. You do need to move the story forward in other ways.
I will often intercut scenes in my books. Instead of telling everything about the transitions, I'll just move on to the next scene. A bit like in a movie. You don't have to show everything all the time, you just move things to a different location or change things up and the reader will jump with you. Readers are very sophisticated.
So those are the two main ways that new writers particularly tell, not show.
Death is an inevitable part of life. We spend a lot of time trying to forget that fact but as writers, our job is to face the difficult things and write about them anyway.
We can heal ourselves by writing, and we can also help others. In today's interview, Dr Karen Wyatt, hospice physician and end of life specialist, discusses death, dying, and grief.
In the introduction, I discuss the Audible Romance Subscription payout, the new Audible.com Author pages that use your Amazon Central Profile to pull from [here's mine], and the New York Times new audiobook bestseller list. Audio is not going away!
Plus, predictions on 2018 – 2038 from Peter Diamandis, whose companies span asteroid mining and human longevity, including 5G streaming internet for global mobile users by 2020, and self-driving cars as mainstream by 2026 – both will mean a LOT more consumers. We are only just starting this digital transformation!
My personal update about walking last week on the Amalfi Coast in Italy – pics here on Instagram, although it did rain a lot! I talk about the need for fallow periods, writing about places you haven't been, gathering ideas and emotional reaction to place, as well as creating a life you don't want to escape from. Plus, I recommend Seth Godin's new podcast, Akimbo.
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.
Dr Karen Wyatt is a hospice physician and bestselling author of books about death, loss and grief. She's also the host of the End of Life University podcast, and an inspirational speaker who teaches how to live a life that really matters by embracing our mortality.
Joanna: Hi, everyone, I'm Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com. And today I'm here with Dr. Karen Wyatt. Hi, Karen.
Karen: Hi, Joanna, thanks for having me.
Joanna: Oh, it's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.
Karen is a hospice physician and bestselling author of books about death, loss and grief. She's also the host of the “End of Life University” podcast, and an inspirational speaker who teaches how to live a life that really matters by embracing our mortality.
I have something to show you, Karen, and the viewers on the video, because I wanted to do this because this is what I have on my desk next to me all the time. This is a sugar skull for those on the audio.
I have a sugar skull covered in butterflies right next to my writing desk, because I absolutely believe in thinking about death and mortality all the time. But enough about my skull.
Tell us a bit more about you, Karen, and why and how you chose this path for your career in writing?
Karen: Well, like so many writers that you've interviewed, I had a passion for storytelling and writing as just a young child. But I took the long route to becoming a writer and I decided to become a doctor.
So all those years during my medical training and practice, I really wasn't able to write. I would have 30 minutes here and there, and I have notebooks full of projects I tried to start because I had this constant flood of ideas in my head, always thinking of a new story.
I could write a play about this. I can write a screenplay. Like, what about this? I always saw the stories, but I had no time to write them. So it took all these years of a long medical career.
During that time I started working in hospice, taking care of dying patients, which really changed my life. I got there because I was trying to cope with my own grief after my father committed suicide. So hospice really became a refuge for me where I could just focus on death and dying and bring my grief.
I learned these amazing lessons from working there. And I always knew I have to write about this, but still I was in medicine. I still had a long career to go through.
About eight years ago, I met a woman who is a psychic at a party who just came up to me knowing nothing about me. And she said, “You have an unfulfilled passion within you. I can read it right now. And if you don't start paying attention to that, you'll get sick.”
Instantly I knew it's time. I have to start writing. That happened on a Friday, and on Monday, I resigned from my job and I started writing. I took it seriously. It's been an eight-year journey. Since then I've been trying to write my stories that are in my head.
Joanna: I think it's really interesting you say about that, whether it is somebody externally who says, “You must do this or you will get sick.” Or the evidence of so many people I know who are writers who start to write because they did get sick.
It's like you got there first. But I know so many people and in fact, I did. I was spiritually sick and I was probably 20 pounds heavier than I now, when I was so miserable in my job.
If we have an unfulfilled desire, we can get sick.
Now circling back then to you mentioned the lessons you learned in the hospice. I imagine one of them is that you must do the thing that's unfulfilled before you die.
Karen: Very true.
Joanna: So what were some of the other lessons that you really feel? And, of course, you've written a book about lessons from the dying.
Give us a couple of the things that really stand out.
Karen: One of the things that I saw from all the patients to sitting at their bedsides, I saw how important relationships are. How many of them had regrets that they didn't reach out more to the people they loved. How many needed to practice forgiveness in order to be at peace.
It made me realize I don't want to go there. I'm going to work on my relationships now.
And also the idea of being in the present moment, which I had always heard about. I hear so many people talking about the power of now, be in the present moment. But I witnessed it with dying patients.
I'd sit with a man while he was watching the sunset, and he took in every color and every cloud, and he watched the entire sunset until it completely faded away.
And the reason is because he didn't know if he would ever see another sunset. And it became clear to me, like, wow, I've never enjoyed a single sunset I've seen to the extent that he has.
It made it clear to me that when we're aware that we could die at any time, we can really go to the depths and really mine every one of our experiences for everything that's there, and really make the most of it. I saw the power of being aware of death and mortality.
Joanna: I totally agree on that present moment emphasis, and I do catch myself, particularly because Jonathan and I work in the same office. And he'll be saying something and I'll be like, “Just stop it. I'm concentrating on my thing.”
And then I'll be like, “No, stop and pay attention to what he's talking about.”
But then that we have to balance living in the present moment with doing our writing work, which often means we're living in the past or imagining something else.
How do we balance doing our writing work, the work of our soul with that living in the present moment?
Karen: I like to think of it as separating my soul from my mind, in a way, and that if I'm writing in the present moment, I'm being in the present moment, even if what I'm thinking about and processing is something from the past.
I'm being right here, right now doing what it meant to do and what my soul is supposed to be doing by writing.
I think of it always as both ways. I'm in the present even though I'm processing the past or planning for the future, I'm aware of everything happening around me right now.
Joanna: Now, that makes sense. Thank you for that.
Circling back on death in general and hopefully, the people who are still listening into this topic. I'm imagining everyone else has gone away, but so many people struggle to talk about death and to think about death.
I particularly notice with my parents, how different they are. My mum has organized everything. Everything is all paid for, all the paperwork's done and my dad just will not even talk about it.
The denial of death is, is huge in some people, right?
As writers, how do we tackle this difficult subject, either in memoir or in fiction? How do we bring ourselves to the page to even face that fear?
Karen: I think we do have to do our own inner work first, and look at our own fear of death and our own thoughts and emotions when we contemplate our death. And then also look at our own history with death.
Do we have unresolved grief over a loss we've had in the past? Has that entrenched our fear of death even more, so that we kind of open ourselves up to the subject of death.
For me, the moment I started studying death by working with dying patients, instantly my fear went away and I was instantly able to just sit with it and realize, “Oh, this is just part of life.”
Why had I shut off that part of myself for so many years and not addressed it or thought of it. And it was actually, a huge relief once I was able to just bring death into my awareness every day.
I think if writers would like to write about death, they need to spend a little time journaling first and doing their own inner work to prepare for it.
Joanna: It seems like we see a lot of deaths even on screen and in books, but we may not have seen it in real life. And often, the death we see on screen and I'm thinking of “Game of Thrones,” for example, which is very violent and there's a lot of death and dying.
But it's not, as you say, on an emotional level. It's done as entertainment.
There's so many things I want to ask you about, but let's stick with the writing.
What do people get wrong with things like writing about death, with writing crime novels, with writing entertainment, that you see as is incorrect?
Karen: I don't necessarily see it as being wrong, but I think many writers objectify death. They project death outside of themselves, as if it's something that happens to other people but not to them. That allows the reader to do the same thing.
The reader can read all kinds of crime novels and thrillers and watch violent movies and play video games, and never think about their own death because they're only seeing the death of the other, of someone else outside of them.
That's also because of the emotions around death are not being addressed in that way. I think what writers need to do, again, is explore their own thoughts and feelings about death and even their own experiences, if they're carrying their own pain of some sort of grief that's really valuable and trying to write about it with a character.
And then remember, death is the most common experience of every human on earth. Every single one of our characters in some way should have some thoughts or feelings about death.
If we remember to incorporate it in the back stories of our characters we can ask what has this person's experience been? What are they grieving? How are they accepting and coping with death and how does that affect their behavior?
That's the one thing I'd love to see more authors address it. Just like you did in “Desecration” with Jamie Brooke when her daughter was dying. I just thought that made Jamie such a rich and authentic character because she was genuinely grieving.
We got to see her doing her detective work and we had all the thrilling aspects of the crime thriller, but there was genuine emotion when Polly died. I hope I'm not spoiling the book. I'm sorry.
Joanna: No, I think that that's fair enough. I was going to bring that up because I am a happily child-free woman, and yet I wrote about the death of a child in that book, that has not happened to me.
My experience of grief as I was writing it, I've never actually, other than that book, cried when I was writing a scene and it did affect me, because I was empathizing with someone who was going through that. Even though I haven't been through that myself.
Which implies that we can imagine this even if we haven't been through it. Would that be right?
Karen: Yes, absolutely. Because we've all been through loss and we all go through they call them the “little deaths.”
The Buddhists refer to that the little deaths of life, and each one of us has probably had a relationship breakup, or a betrayal in life, or something else, or losing a pet that we loved that died.
So each one of us has had losses throughout life and had that experience of grieving when something you loved that was just here with you is now gone. I think we can apply all of that.
You clearly did because you wrote in a very authentic voice about Jamie's grief. So to me it sounds like you did draw from that well within of a level of grief you had experienced.
Joanna: Part of it also is I feel like I have been thinking about death all my life. I was going to ask you about this because like you mentioned as a child wanting to write.
I remember thinking about death as a child and my mom getting upset about this and I'm like, “It's nothing to do with you, mom.” I had a very happy childhood. I just think I've always been aware of that.
Some people have said, you know, “You're an old soul or something like this.”
Do you believe that there is a different awareness or belief? Have you seen evidence that different people have different awareness of death that perhaps they have, even as children? And if you're a parent of a child who seems a bit morbid, that maybe you shouldn't worry?
Karen: Absolutely. I see it all the time and those of us who ended up doing hospice work, many of us talk about, “Oh, I've always felt comfortable with death.” Or, “I've always been interested in death.”
We ended up doing that work because it's fulfilling to us and meaningful, and we're not afraid to be there with someone who's dying.
Don't be afraid at all because the people who are comfortable with death and aware of it, they end up really benefiting from that overall in life because if you can cope with death, you can cope with other things that happen in life. It really helps you have equanimity.
Joanna: I have actually thought about getting involved in hospice work. Some people wanna be wedding celebrants. I'm interested in death culture and end of life stuff, which is why you and I connected when I came on your podcast. I find it endlessly interesting.
Let's get more into the emotional side because there's obviously upset, there's perhaps wanting to self-harm or the destructive side. I also think about grief and death, especially it seems of parents, is guilt and anger.
Guilt and anger seem to be difficult emotions. And yet I suspect that that's just very common.
What do you think about guilt and anger when it comes to dealing with grief?
Karen: I think on the one hand, they can come from these unresolved issues in a relationship that never got addressed, and we can feel guilty after the death of a loved one, because there was something we should've said or we wish we had done.
That was huge for me after my dad took his own life because first I'm a doctor and I treated depression yet I somehow couldn't see this coming with my dad and couldn't help him.
It was a terrible, the guilt that I felt over his death. And then anger. It's one of those stages in the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, “Five Stages of Acceptance,” that we just go through anger because it feels wrong, and it feels like this should not have happened to me.
But part of that comes again from our lack of awareness on a day to day basis that death is normal, and death happens to everyone at some point. The fact that we're so offended and upset when it happens is part of just our denial of it all along, that we weren't accepting all along.
Someday my parents will die and I need to be prepared for that. I need to know that everyone around me eventually will die.
Joanna: And in terms of writing as a form of healing, is that something you've seen work for people?
Karen: It absolutely worked for me. Because that's the thing that was my solace and my savior after my dad's suicide was journaling a lot and sometimes writing poems, writing letters to him, writing stories about things that had happened between us.
It was really a way to put my grief on the page, but I could go back and reread it, and it helped me process. And at a time when it was very difficult to find people I could talk to about it.
Writing was a great alternative. I wrote, I discussed my grief with my journal basically.
Joanna: My grief was a broken relationship when my first husband left me. It was a shock, like your dad. I was like, “What? How did that happen? I didn't see that coming.”
It's interesting reading my journals from that time. I wanted to self-harm. I was angry. I went through those stages of grief. And then I read it back and I don't recognize the woman who wrote that.
Is it the same with the grief in death process; you look back at those and do you recognize yourself?
Karen: Definitely for me, I look back and see, wow, I can see where I was and what a deep hole I was in at that time, and just how much transformation has taken place.
That it gives me great peace and a lot of acceptance about my dad's death in the first place, because I realized I wouldn't be writing right now, I wouldn't have written the book I've written, I wouldn't have gone to hospice work.
Not that I'm saying that justifies my dad's death, but I can accept that it happened now and it has a place in my life. I'm not angry that it happened or that I'm trying to eliminate it from my life history. I embrace it and include it in my life story because it was something important that made a difference to me.
Joanna: That's a message of hope for anyone listening who is still in the depths of it is that if you can work it through, there is a point where you start to emerge.
Karen: Yes. I always think about the process of writing a book, when you're in the middle build and things just don't always make sense and it's confusing and you're not sure where you're headed with this story, and it feels like things are falling apart and you're losing the thread.
But when you keep remembering there will be an ending and I am going to come up with the ending, and I am going to put these pieces together and it will happen. That's how I look at it.
Sometimes we're lost in the middle section. As long as we keep our hope and know we will find a way for these pieces to come together and the loose ends to be tied up eventually.
Joanna: I wanted to ask you as a medical doctor, you've dealt with physical bodies. This is one of the things that I was really interested in exploring in “Desecration.”
My theory being that the physical body at death is no longer us. However, people believe in a religious sense, doesn't really matter. But given the number of people you've seen go through the death transition as such.
Did you see that evidence that the physical body was no longer the person?
Karen: Absolutely, and it was never more clear. I was with my mom when she died five years ago and the transition was amazing and that suddenly when she stopped breathing and I almost felt as if her spirit was leaving her body, and what was left on the bed was a carcass, and it didn't look like my mom.
It didn't feel like my mom. It was not her. I could feel her in some ways bigger than that outside of that body.
But the body, as you said, it was just a body like just like the clothes we take off at the end of the day laying there. So you're exactly right. For me, at least, that was the experience I had.
Joanna: That gives me hope. I don't believe in an afterlife.
I don't think it matters what you believe, but that we're not left in that physical body is the important thing.
Karen: Yes, exactly. I think that's the mentality behind the whole green burial movement, is that we need to stop trying to preserve the physical body and embalming it and using vaults and caskets to try to keep the body from decomposing.
Allow the body to go back to nature. It's part of nature and let it be that and let the normal process happen. That happens for every other living thing on the planet.
I was reading my journals from 2006 – 2008 recently, the period I wrote and published my first book. It was incredible how fast I expected everything to happen.
I had written down positive thoughts about getting on Oprah, quitting my job, selling 100,000 copies on launch.
And all this as an unknown author with no website, no email list, no social media, no platform … not to mention no publisher as I was indie even back then.
But as Tony Robbins says, “It's easy to over-estimate what we can achieve in a year, but underestimate what we can achieve in 10 years.”
When I look back at the Joanna Penn I was back then, I had no idea that I would be where I am today, ten years later, with 27 books written, running a multi-six-figure business, a New York Times and USA Today bestseller.
So take heart from today's article from Phil Hurst today, because we all started with nothing and we all progress one step at a time, one day at a time, one sentence at a time.
It is not easy to have patience, especially in our modern world. As with the rest of life, there is often a compulsion to push forward and get as much done as possible as quickly as possible.
It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the choices available on the web.
It can be easy to feel like you're missing the bus, especially when you see social media posts from friends and peers celebrating their latest success.
The urge to simply finish your word count and churn out hundreds of stories, scripts or novels has never been greater.
So why suggest that writers need more patience? Surely the opposite is true, that you should be writing more and getting as much out to publishers, agents and competitions as quickly as possible?
For writers, however, patience isn't just a virtue: it's also a skill you'll need to develop. If you take your time you'll find that being a patient writer brings a number of advantages over being one who rushes.
Patient writers finish more, write to a better standard, work sensibly and are – in the long run – more productive.
The Patient Writer Finishes The Story
What are you working on at the moment?
Is it the same thing you were working on last week?
Why did you move away from last week's work?
The abundance of opportunities around makes it extremely difficult to concentrate on one thing at a time. Going on Facebook can alert you to a competition. A friend can text you about an anthology they are putting together. A publisher who you think would be a perfect fit tweets that it is finally accepting open submissions.
However, if you are impatient and start working on the next thing before you finish your first, you risk having a pile of nearly finished work.
It should be obvious that you need to actually finish a project before you start on the next one, but it's a sin that writers will always be guilty of. Not that you should be angry with yourself if you have done this in the past – I think everyone has had their head turned like this.
If you are dependent on the income from your books, flip-flopping between projects can end up having a significant impact on your financial situation. Half-finished books can't be sold.
There is a lot of competition out there, and by not finishing your current story you risk losing customers and fans.
Patient writers, on the other hand, stay focused on what they are working on. They ignore other potential projects – or more likely file them away for later consideration – knowing that finishing one project is worth much more than starting twenty.
Then, no matter how long it's taken them, the patient writer has one finished story, while the rushing writer has nothing but good starts and promising ideas.
The Patient Writer Creates Quality Work
Have you ever written a text message at speed? I can always tell when someone has written a text quickly, as it very rarely makes sense. The message is lost in a jumble of incorrect auto-corrects, random pronouns and letters popping up in the middle of sentences for no reason.
I usually have to reply with “what?” which prompts them to write the message again… and taking up more time.
Writing anything while rushing does not lead to high quality. Every time you write something, take the time to go back and look over it again. You'll catch things that you don't like and things that you would like to change.
Too many writers rush through to draft one and then, utilising that well-earned rush of adrenaline, immediately send it out to interested people without fully checking what they have sent.
If you're an independent writer and publisher, rushing a novel through to completion creates additional risks. Taking your time will improve the final product that you put out. You'll catch more of the misspellings, the typos and the formatting errors. How many times have you seen an advertisement or a newspaper with the wrong spelling, or wrong version of “your”?
Although with e-publishing you can always go back and fix those errors, by that time your fans will have already downloaded the first version.
Early reviews are really important if your book is going to build up a following and you don't want three stars instead of five because of grammatical errors.
I get that it's exhausting to keep looking back and forth at your work. That you want to draw a line under something and move on to the next.
But by taking your time and giving yourself a chance to look over everything at least once, you'll end up with a much better story at the end of it. You'll find that a side effect of this patient approach is that when you send that double-checked story away for the wider world to look at, you'll have more confidence in it.
The Patient Writer Sets Realistic Deadlines
Trying to get something finished just in time for a competition might force you to get words down on paper, but it won't increase your chances of winning.
Although sometimes it's helpful to have your hat in the ring, most competitions nowadays do not want hastily written first drafts or scraped together stories. They want something that is polished and shows your skills as a writer – they want to see both the actual story and refined, well-crafted technical aspects.
The last minute rush won't let you do that. So instead of looking at the next deadline, look to a realistic one. Take your time.
Most competitions are repeated every 12 months. So do you really need to stay up until 4 in the morning finishing the final chapter? What's stopping you waiting until next year and sending the judges something really strong to think about? By not being reactive you will have the time to seek feedback on an entry before you submit it.
This doesn't just apply to competitions on the internet, it also applies to people who might ask you for contributions to anthologies, or to help them co-write a book.
Remember, you are under no obligation to provide something for every opportunity that comes up. Far better to take your time and have a couple of pieces of high quality work than half dozen middling ones. The patient writer has fewer rejection letters and a better chance of winning.
Of course, some writers will have agents or other external people setting deadlines for them. The craft here is slightly different. You need to talk to them, let them understand your constraints and your capacity before they suggest a deadline for you.
Rather than accepting an unrealistic deadline, ask them to be patient so that you can craft a really strong final product for them. After all, that's what they want, surely?
The Patient Writer Is More Productive
Being patient is not the same thing as being lazy. I want to stress that.
I write about increasing productivity, so I wouldn't want to recommend a technique that stops you from writing!
Being patient is all about making sure that you are creating a few strong stories (rather than lots of weak ones) at a timescale that doesn't break you. Break any impulse for laziness by planning out your time before a submission carefully. When do you want to reach this milestone, when do you want to finish this chapter?
Being a patient writer is about taking some of the stress out of the process for new writers. It's about concentrating on one project, rather than dozens.
J.F.Penn doing research in the stacks of the London Library
Take time to really get to know your characters. Learn the plot inside out. Visit the locations you talk about, or spend some time researching them properly.
Once the manuscript is finished, patient writers will also save time in the long run. Patient writers have fewer revisions to make and more time to work on their next project.
It can be demoralizing and time-consuming to search through an entire completed work to change a few typos that you know you would have caught with just one more read earlier.
Financially, it makes sense to be patient and get your book right first time. Reprints and re-releases are additional costs that can (mostly) be avoided, if you take your time in the first place.
Remember, all we need is just a little patience…
It can sometimes feel counter-intuitive to work this way, and I know that some of you won't want to become patient writers. It's against our nature to put all our eggs in one basket. But I would really encourage you to try this, even if it's only for a year.
Remember the four key points from this post:
Take the time to finish your next story completely.
Look over the story, take your time, refine it.
Set yourself deadlines you can actually meet.
Plan this new abundance of time well, so that you can make the most of it.
How do you balance the drive to be productive with the necessity for publishing quality books? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Phil Hurst runs a blog dedicated to helping writers be more productive at www.writewithphil.com. His aim is to give new writers the tools that they need to make the most of whatever time they have.
Phil has a master's in Creative Writing from Queens University Belfast. As well the blog, he has writes novel and scripts and has had plays performed in London and Birmingham. His first novel, The Unjudged, is due out in 2018.
How To Turn Your Non-Fiction Book Into A Workbook - YouTube
What should be in the Workbook edition?
There are two options:
Use exactly the same text and just add in lines or space for the reader to write their answers to your questions
Modify the material so you focus more on the questions, leaving the bulk of the text in the original book
How do you add the lines?
This is a print-only product. I work with a professional formatter and just use Track Changes on the Word doc to indicate where to add the lines. But you could do this yourself if you use formatting templates or Vellum.
Building a career from writing books requires sustainable creative practices as well as looking after your business and your health. In today's show, I talk to the wise and lovely Toby Neal and I come away refreshed, so I hope it helps you wherever you are on your author journey.
In the introduction, I expand on the latest developments in voice technology:
Chinese AI Baidu announces that their Deep Voice AI can now clone a voice based on a few seconds of audio. [The Next Web] I speculate that this could combine with something like Amazon Polly to enable authors to narrate their books via AI.
By 2020, 30% of search will be voice-conducted using audio-centric technology [The Next Web]
In the US, more people listen to podcasts than use Twitter regularly. Advertising revenue is moving to audio. Publishers report declining ebook sales even as audiobook sales rise. [Wired]
YouTube live streams will soon have automatic captions using live automatic speech recognition (LASR) which is approaching industry standards for error rates and latency [The Verge]
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.
Toby Neal is an award-winning, USA Today best-selling author of mysteries, thrillers, and romance with over 30 titles. She's also a mental health therapist, a career that has informed the depth and complexity of the characters in her stories.
Taking care of author health while producing a lot of work
Book marketing tips and how Toby uses her team to help with that
‘Retailer proofing' an author business and selling direct
You can find Toby Neal at TobyNeal.net and on Twitter @tobywneal
Transcript of Interview with Toby Neal
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com. And today I'm here with Toby Neal. Hi, Toby.
Toby: Hi, Joanna. I love to see your smiling face.
Joanna: It is a smiley show today for sure. Just a little introduction.
Toby is an award-winning “USA Today” best-selling author of mysteries, thrillers, and romance with over 30 titles out. She's also a mental health therapist, a career that has informed the depth and complexity of the characters in her stories. And we did a previous podcast all about characters and place and that was just really fascinating.
But today we're talking about the tips and strategies of high production, high earning indie authors. So basically those authors earning over six figures, some multi-six figures, some seven figures. This is a fascinating topic.
Explain the high production business model? How does it work practically for indies?
Toby: Well, I can't speak for everyone but I know for me, the goal of every book is to have a live purchase link for the next book in the back. So this is what makes it high production is that you're on a three-month publishing schedule, you're on a deadline with every book.
Last year did 10 books, 10 books, 6 of them were co-authored, I ventured into that territory and did a really fun…it was a blast to write, I have to say. Pandemic romance series with my friend Emily Kimelman, and we did six books in the series.
I will say we were inspired by your podcast and the trending that you were talking about of co-authoring. And we both thought we could increase our production speed by working together, which actually…it turns out to be a little bit not the case.
So I am diverging, but it does have to do with it. If you're thinking of co-authoring as a way to increase your production speed, don't count on it right away because that first couple of months working out the bugs of how to do it with each other and still create a quality product was by far as much work as writing my own books or more.
Joanna: And you have to split the money, that's important.
Toby: And then we split the money, right. And in our case, we went in a completely new genre which wasn't probably the smartest business choice.
So again, kind of focusing back on our topic, if you're going to produce a lot of books, they should be in a high selling genre in a series. So that's kind of a given that I always assume people know but there are so many great tools out for you to help find a niche to exploit, if you will, if you're looking for a business way to write, like K-lytics. Those reports have been very good. Have you had him on the show?
Joanna: I haven't but I promote K-lytics.
Toby: I think that they're terrific. Who knew cowboy romance was a thing?
So if you're looking for like how to make money writing books, there's so much great information out there now that there wasn't when I got started or you got started. We were all just sort of fumbling in the dark, but what I did discover was that I was a prolific writer.
Once I got going, I was generally turning out, on a bad year, four books a year, that was a bad year. And I write in mystery police procedural which is a little bit slower genre compared to some. Like I know romance writers who are regularly turning out a book a month, and the speed for a high production romance writer is breakneck.
Joanna: Indeed. Well, just before you go on that. There are a few ideas around series which is you write, say, three books before you publish, or you write three and have another two ready and so you can go bang, bang, bang.
Because it's all very well saying you should write a series, which I agree with, but you can't put one book out and expect anything to happen.
How many books in a series before things start to get traction, do you think? Or is it literally you can start with book one but you have to have one, two, three ready to go?
Toby: This harks back to this last year's co-authoring experiment. We wrote four of the books completely before we began releasing, and then we released them once a month, thinking we would really get momentum. It actually turns out that I think that's too fast if you're not established in a genre.
So if you're beginning, every three months' time frame is a really good way to do it, if you're not confident you can build up your backlist to have that many… You should definitely hold on to your books until you have three.
I have two main selling series, the crime series with 12 books, which is complete at this point, and I have a Kindle Worlds with that and all of that.
And then I'm doing a spin-off series with a side character that's a little bit more action adventurey, that's called the “Paradise Crime Series.” Even though I had totally set the stage for that second series to just pick up where the other one left off, you always lose readers who are loyal to a certain character, for whatever reason.
You cannot count on bringing them into your next series. I think that that's the critical point for many readers. And as a reader myself, I'm like, “Well, I love Patricia Cornwell but I don't like her Lucy series. But you know, we are how we are, right?
I'll say five books is actually the new standard to really give something a chance, and that's tricky because if you're going down a road that's not gonna go anywhere, you've already put a lot of resources and time into it and so that's tough.
Joanna: I agree. And in fact, I'd go so far to say six books because box sets are so often three books.
Joanna: My editor is also a writer, Jen Blood, she has a pentalogy, a five book series. And it's a nightmare because of course, five books in a box set is very hard because you can't really price it, and you can't put three and one and two in another. So I would say like three, give it a chance, or six.
I'm at nine with the ARKANE Series. I know I'm diverging but I have so many things to ask you.
The spin-off series is interesting. I'm at nine with my ARKANE Series and I want to do the United States of ARKANE. So I want to do like US of A and I need to do at least three books in that kind of spin-off series with a different character.
And I'm thinking the same thing. But is it that we want to do that because we need a second entry point? I'm really thinking about that. If people don't want to start a book one from the original series but we want them to start again, so are you expecting people to find your new series and then maybe go back and read the old one, or are you expecting to carry on?
Why did you do it? Why did you stop at 12 because you could just keep writing the same one?
Toby: Oh, gosh, again the things you learn in this business. I painted myself into a corner in the 12 book series by having my character's age and I had a five-year gap in there where I wanted the Kindle Worlds to have room to play without the major plot thread.
So I made a big five-year gap in the in the canon books, they call them the canon books. And all of a sudden, I was like, “Oh, my gosh they're having a kid.” I wanted certain things to happen.
And then the juice was just no longer there and unless I was going to have a major tragedy. I could totally keep it going if I kill X, and I told my readers and they were like, we won't ever read you again if you do that.
You can't betray your readers. You have to give them what they're there for. And so in a way, what I think I could do is go back in time and write out of that gap that I made.
But I felt like I learned something from that and I was going to now have my new series as always present. There's no time passing, it's just continuously happening in now. And I've avoided some of the potholes I accidentally came upon in terms of like time passage and things like that.
Joanna: I think the same.
Toby: And I also had a certain character arc, I think I talked about that in our other talk.
I had certain issues and character arc that I wanted to explore with that character and I completed that arc, and I had a perfect ending, I can't mess it up, even for money.
Joanna: I know what you mean and it's hard to balance the creative drive as well to do something different with serving the readers.
The high production, high earning model is also that high earning asks what does make some money.
I want to also circle back on quality because you mentioned quality and I know it's one of the biggest issues that people have with the idea of a high production model. Some people will say, “How can a book written in a month or even three months be quality?”
How are you balancing that? How are you seeing that amongst your high production friends?
Toby: I think everybody has a system worked out by now. So people who are in it to this level have a team, they have a team of copy editor, editor, proofreaders, they have fact checkers, they have assistants.
I don't know about you, but I have a village of people working, and I love that. I love that I get to stimulate the economy and all these home businesses, all these different kinds of folks working for the most part, in a developing, fascinating new subculture of work that's happening. So there's that, you don't skimp on those things.
If you're starting out, there's a lot you can do with groups and sharing and cross-sharing, all of that. I think in our other talk, I explained how I use experts for authenticity in a fast-moving way. So I literally will sit down with the expert I picked, for instance, I'm writing a new romance called Somewhere in Wine Country, which is where I'm living right now, wine country, I know nothing about winemaking, wine growing, wine anything, it's a whole new area.
Joanna: I have wine. It is late here, it's like your morning, it's my evening.
Toby: I've got wine and I've got a green drink.
It turns out my niece is a wine educator who works for a major winery. She's gonna be my expert on this book. We sit down. I have an intensive interview with her for about two hours taking copious notes. Then I sit down and I hammer out the book.
I put some knowledge in there, who knows if it's completely right, I'm just going. Then she gets the manuscript and she goes through it for fact-checking. I know I was talking about the quality of the soil. And she said something about that but I have no idea, so I'm just it needed more calcium and blah, blah, blah.
She's going to fix the details of the book by doing that. We also have a back and forth on email, if I'm truly stuck.
A big question occurred to me, it's a setup romance where the guy has purchased the auction thing from the impoverished young heiress. And they're stuck in the house together and I'm like, wait a minute, the fields are completely fallow, the vines are just sitting there for months. What am I gonna get this couple doing like besides the obvious? And so I write to her, what do people do in the winter when the vines are resting?
So anyway, I know I'm off topic, but this way of using an expert where you're really starting. You've got your interview, you've got them reading the book, you've got the corrections for that, very little time in research considering what you could spend if I was traveling around here, wine tasting every weekend, doing “research.”
Joanna: That's what I do, I do the research because that's the bit I enjoy.
Toby: Of course, I love it too but it's like it's a time waster, you could spend six months doing that. And in this production model, you're cutting all the time that you possibly can because you're on these deadlines.
And there really is an incredible advantage to having your book come out and having that live pre-sale link in the back to all the people you pre-sold the book to before, and you're basically training them, read by, read by, read by, and you're gonna have your fix every three months or so.
All the other stuff, the marketing and all of that is important and necessary. And I think anybody who's doing well, maybe I'm going out on a limb to say this, but anybody who's doing well in this market, and it's a tough market, is advertising, and that is as well as all these other things we're talking about. But that's a dark beast for me.
Joanna: We'll come back to that too, but I also just wanted one specific question on word count.
A mystery thriller is normally longer than romance, isn't it? So what sort of word count are we talking about?
Toby: Mine are between 70,000 and 80,000 words so they're not super long.
Joanna: Those are full length.
Toby: I don't think I can do a good one in less than three months. I just absolutely don't think I can because of the nature of the story. I think I could write romance faster if I only did that because it's sort of a flow and it's got a well-established trope in terms of boy meets girl, blah, blah, blah, and then you go back and forth.
And you can adlib a lot more. In mystery, you have twists, you have unexpected things, you have red herrings, it's just more complex. And then if you want to challenge yourself and you write from different points of view and things like that, which I continue to like to do.
See, that's the thing, we're creative people creating an art form and making a business out of it and it's going to burn you out if you don't have some liberty to make it wonderful and enriching for yourself.
Joanna: So wonderful and enriching and we're making money and we're creating things. But the concern, as I covered in “The Healthy Writer”, and you have it right there, which is so cool.
Toby: I bought this as soon as it came out because health is so at the forefront of my mind. And it has been an issue for me and many of the other writers I know who are writing at this level, putting out this number of titles.
Your health is going to be impacted by this if you're not making some modifications for the demand of sitting in the chair this long and using your hands like this.
Joanna: Tell us about your experience with the health issues and some of the things you've had to change because of this model.
Toby: Well, first of all, I love your book, I think everybody should get it. Everybody who is a serious writer and is in it for the long term should read it or have it for reference.
I think this talk started because I heard you were going to do this, and I was like, “Joanna, I'm so excited about all the healthy things I'm doing to keep writing at the level I'm writing and do you need any more help?” And you're like, “I have a bajillion ideas from the people so, no, thank you.”
I can't say enough good things about it because many of the things I would have told you, you did, you have them all in here and you're with a doctor and everything so it's great.
For me, I think the injuries fall into sort of two categories, one is back pain from sitting, overweight because again inactive, headaches and eye problems, carpal tunnel. I got carpal tunnel early on as I was racing down this highway by doing NaNoWriMo on a laptop, highly not recommend it.
And then once you have it, you always have it and you just have to manage it.
I don't know how it's going to sound, maybe you can edit this out, but I think of myself as like an athlete. This way of making a living is like running an ultra-marathon. You're not in a sprint, you're in a long race because I have a great, big, awesome goal of reading 100 books.
I'm gonna write 100 books and I also want to live to be 100. How am I going to live to be 100 and write 100 books sitting at my desk with curvature in my spine and little clawed hand.
Two things that I've done is yoga. I have a daily yoga practice, I do like 10 sun salutations every morning when I first get up to just sort of limber everything up.
Then the other major, major accommodation I have made is I have got into voice dictation for all my new composing. I'm a plotter. I kind of think that everybody writing mystery needs to be a plotter because it's plot-heavy. And also police procedural, there's always certain scenes you have to have, the morgue scene, the team scene at the police station, there are things that every book has.
I do outlines by hand, everything is handwritten, and I think I tap into a different creative side of my brain for inventing and conceiving.
Every writer who's writing a ton of books has a different method, so this is just my method. I transfer that to Scrivener. I've been very happy with that until this last book when it wouldn't let my book out and I couldn't compile, it was horrendous. But I transfer to Scrivener or Word in an outline form, and then I do every day, I walk and dictate.
So I'm getting that movement, I'm keeping my weight managed, I'm keeping all those things that you talk about in your book that you've had to do.
Joanna: And I'm not even a high production writer.
Toby: Oh, you are, too. You do this show, you do so much for writers. You're having the same pace, I can imagine.
But all that moving around is something we have to do. And the process, I don't use Dragon, I don't use that. I just use my voice to text feature on my iPhone, and it's pretty gobbledygook at times, it's hilarious. But it's into a Google Doc, then I just copy that into my outline and massage the words.
What I've noticed is that my productivity, whether I'm typing or whether I'm dictating, is still about the same. I think it's my creative brain is just like only capable of generating so much material. I'm turning out 4 or 5 books a year and I'm only getting in 2,500 or less fresh words a day.
You shared about batching, and I absolutely love that concept, but for me, slow and steady wins the race. It's a very regulated routine, my exercise, my certain kind of diet. So I mentioned green drink. I stay away from carbs, like I'm an athlete.
I'm taking care of my brain and my body so I can do this work. That's how I think of it and everything is about optimizing that. So I'm on an anti-inflammatory diet when I drink a lot of vegetables, protein. Anything that slugs me out or makes me foggy mentally has to go.
I've had to switch from coffee to tea because coffee just made me spike and tea was more…I got a little caffeine. I'm always studying how to optimize my own performance as far as coming to the page.
Joanna: I love the idea of the optimizing the performance and it's interesting, you do two and a half thousand words a day because you do hear my friend, Lindsay Buroker does like 10,000 a day.
Toby: Unbelievable. It's amazing.
Joanna: And she hikes like a crazy person and she has dogs and so she looks after her body too. But it's really interesting that you have to do this.
I'm wondering about the burnout of ideas. I wanted to write something different, move to dark fantasy because I was like, “You know what, I'm a little bit burned out with action adventure. Like what else is there?”
That burnout can happen on the creative level as well as the physical level. Romance, for example, there are very set tropes that you have to hit otherwise those readers will go nuts.
Do any of your pals in that area get burned out on that creative side or is it really just the physical..
Memoir is much more than just writing down an aspect of your life story.
In fact, if you do that, it's unlikely that anyone will read it. Because people want a character they can empathize with and a narrative arc that follows a transformation, as well as immersive setting and emotion that help them live within the story.
All aspects of writing fiction.
In today's article, Michael Mohr explains some tips for using fiction techniques in your memoir.
I am a writer as well as a book editor — and former literary agent’s assistant — and, when I got the chance to edit former neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini’s memoir, White American Youth, I jumped at the chance. [Note, Christian is now a prominent anti-hate campaigner.]
It took us one year to complete his book and, when he was done, he self-published. It sold 15,000 copies, then an agent picked him up. The agent sold the book to Hachette, who re-released the book. Here are some key points about writing memoir.
Memoir should be written very much like a novel.
New writers often assume that, because memoir is autobiographical, it should be “told” to readers, in the fashion of the autobiographies of the 1950s and 60s. This is not true.
Instead, memoir needs to be like a novel: There should be a “plot,” character ARC (the lead character [the author in this case] should start out one way and end another), voice, tension, scene, showing versus telling, etc.
There should be some exposition, strong setting, rising action, a climactic moment (or moments), and resolution.
All of this, of course, must be grounded, for memoir, in true life experience.
1. Like novels, memoir must use details
Richly described detail is important for any book, fiction or memoir. Placing the reader THERE. Use of the 5 senses. The 5 W’s: Who, what, when, where, why. Every chapter—every scene—should have these 5 Ws answered and each chapter and scene should contain enough rich detail to make readers feel as if they are actually in the experience alongside the author/narrator.
Detail, for memoir, as in fiction, is your shining light. If you can make people identify, relate, empathize, by using carnal details, making them feel it, smell it, see it, hear it, taste it…then you’ve solved a significant piece of the puzzle. They’ll think, Yes, I, too, have had that experience. I’ve been in those shoes.
Example: Don’t just say: “I walked down the hallway.”
Say: “I started down the hallway. It was hardwood flooring, old, uneven, and it creaked as my boots landed softly on each step, like a slowly drifting ship. Every time my boot landed, I felt my heart thudding in my ears.” The first example is vague and general. The second—using detail—is specific and vivid. This one makes us feel as if we’re actually there with the narrator.
2. Scene is just as important in memoir as it is in novels
In other words: Don’t summarize or “tell” or explain to readers about what happened in the past…show it. Go through your summary sections describing what happened and replace most of them with action scenes that demonstrate to readers what actually happened.
It’s ironic but, consider the dictum: Actions speak louder than 1,000 words. Yes, these are still “words.” But by showing us, via scenes using action, readers can experience the character/narrator for themselves, making their own decision about their moral goodness or lack thereof. (Usually it’s more gray area and complex, of course.)
This is far superior to summary where the author robs the reader of coming to their own conclusion because they are barred from seeing what actually happened. Another reason scene is key is that it is more entertaining and thus you’re less likely to lose readers’ attention.
Summary: “I was angry about what James said. He shouldn’t have said that. I wanted to punch the guy.”
Scene: “I walked up to James’s door. Knocked. I felt my throat tightening. My right hand was balled into a fist. My pulse raced. I heard boots clomping from the other side of the door. He unlocked it. I heard a train whistle blow somewhere behind me in the distance. The door opened. Before I could even think I swung my arm. My fist connected with James’s face. He yelled, backed up. I stepped up over the door jam, shoved him back, entered the house.”
Again, see how much more visceral and real the scene-version seems compared to the vague and general summary?
Clearly with memoir you can’t make things up like you can in fiction. This must be real. These things must have truly happened. But hopefully you’ve got some juicy scenes in mind if you’re writing a book about your life.
3. ARC is king
As the author, in memoir you’re describing your past life. Or, more aptly, a section of your life. Remember: Memoir is not a whole autobiography going from birth to your current day. It describes a segment of your past: The teen years or two years in your mid-twenties when you traveled around the world, etc.
The narrator, even in memoir — maybe especially in memoir — like in a novel must transform, must change. They start out one way, end up another. And we see that transformation slowly over the course of the book.
The main character should have learned something by the end. Become different in some fundamental way.
I would advise new memoirists to sketch out how the “I” in their story changes over the course of the book, before even beginning the writing. Find your key ARC points for the protagonist/narrator, where they discover revelations along the way.
Like fiction, readers, for memoir, need to see the narrator struggle. There’s something the narrator wants. They set out to get it. As they maneuver, they are prevented in various ways from getting that thing.
There should be an external thing and a deeper internal yearning/longing/need/desire that is driving them through the story.
What pushes the character to keep going?
What will happen, internally and externally, if they don’t get that thing?
What do they fundamentally want?
For Christian: He wanted love and acceptance and respect and could only find it in the racist white power movement. This over time led him to change, to go from an innocent kid to a hardened racist.
The movement was great for him, at first, until he started encountering various problems associated with it: Violence; law enforcement; estrangement from his family; fear of retribution; self-loathing; etc. Eventually, he fled the movement.
But this left more hurdles and change to come. Now he had to truly face his demons. That was a new mountain to climb.
Hurdles for your “I” narrator in memoir might be: A young African American male trying to rise above racist police brutality. A kid growing up in Syria wanting to flee in order to survive. A young woman hoping to extricate herself from incest. A gay couple who love each other in 1950s Utah. An alcoholic trying to get sober. Etc.
The list could go on ad infinitum.
What are the hurdles in your true life story?
What are you trying to surmount?
What is the deeper drive/motivation pushing your “I” narrator?
Under the external thing, what did you truly want?
Every novel and memoir requires strong voice. There is debate on this but, in my view, there is no real way to “teach” voice. Either you have it or you don’t.
But certainly you can cultivate it.
How? In the same way that you gain confidence with anything in life.
Write every day or as often as you can.
When you write, practice mimicking other writers’ voices.
Read as often as you can to take in other writers’ voices.
Gain life experience so that you feel like a personal expert.
Do this for long enough and your own natural voice will begin to seep out onto the page.
Yes, memoir needs, for lack of a better word: plot. This seems counterintuitive since the word “plot” brings to mind “made up.” With memoir, clearly, you must be telling the truth. (Memoir is, to a degree, also about “emotional truth” since memory is a faulty, confusing thing, and since most of us can’t realistically recall exactly what happened 10, 15, 25 years ago. But do your best. Stick to what you remember. Check with others who were there. Be self-critical about your memory.)
However, within that truth, you must have enough of a real life “story” to write a memoir. I agree that anyone can essentially write a memoir about anything if written well enough. Nabokov's Speak, Memory comes to mind.
But, for most of us non-geniuses, we will have to rely on a good story. If you’ve lived a life you feel is worth telling to a large audience…then you have nothing to fear: Presumably, that “plot” is inherently present.
What I mean when I say plot is: Things need to happen. A leads to B which leads to C. We’re moving. One chapter leads to the next. This happens which forces that to happen. You actually did things, experienced movement in your life. Or something dramatic happened to you.
7. Character development
In memoir, as in fiction, we need strong, 3-D, fully-developed characters who feel authentic to readers. So, the people you populate in your memoir: Make sure they come off as real characters.
Read how-to books about this such as David Corbett’s The Art of Character. Corbett breaks it down, saying that characters have five basic experiences:
The character needs something
She’s having difficulty getting it
She exhibits a contradiction
Something unexpected happens
There’s a secret
This is whittled down to its most basic, stripped component. But you get the drift.
Most of these come easy to memoir writers because this happens in real life all the time. Again, I’m not suggesting that you change anything to fit this model if it didn’t happen…when writing memoir. But be aware that readers [unconsciously] look for this.
So if your life story — the years you’re focusing on — happen to genuinely include this…well…you’re ahead of the curve. Since humans are flawed and make unexpected decisions all the time…it isn’t that hard to find this material in one’s own life.
8. Make readers care about your narrator. (About you, the author.)
No doubt your memoir is important to you. It’s your past. Your life. If it wasn’t important I’d be worried.
But. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to feel relevant or important to the average reader. Just about everyone has “a story.” You need to not only have a story that feels like it has legs on its own — Christian having been one of America’s first neo-Nazi skinheads counts here — but also you need to have the ability to write that story well. (Which means you’ll need help from other people.)
I think memoir writers have more pressure than novelists. It’s more restricted than fiction, of course, because it’s not made up. There are guidelines one must follow. Boundaries one must stay within when it comes to content. (Otherwise you’ll end up like James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, who got slammed by Oprah for lying in his memoir.)
Write your story. Self-edit. Hand it off to some trusted readers. Get feedback. Revise. Self-edit again. Repeat.
Getting those fresh, objective, non-emotionally attached eyes on your MS can really help. No author gets their book off the ground alone.
9. Plot out your story before you start writing
After a while you may abandon the outline but, more than fiction, I think this is helpful for memoir. The reason I say this is because most of us have a tendency to want to write…fiction. To bend the truth. But if you do that in memoir you’ll end up way off the mark.
So, start by jotting down notes of the time you want to cover. Then carve an outline from that material of what happened, what you feel you want/need to include, people involved, actions that occurred, etc. This can really help you frame the story in your mind.
Once you’ve got that down, read some How-to memoir books. (Again, Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir is a great start.) Read some memoirs. Get acquainted with the genre. And then, when this is all sitting in your head, pregnant, begging to spill out…sit down at your desk and, as Hemingway said: “Bleed onto the page.”
Get out there and write your memoir.
Have you considered writing a memoir? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Michael Mohr is a Bay Area writer, former literary agent’s assistant and freelance book editor. His fiction has been published in: Adelaide Literary Magazine; Bethlehem Writers’ Roundtable; Fiction Magazines; Tincture; Flash: The International Short Short Story Magazine; and more. His blog pieces have been included in Writers’ Digest, Writer Unboxed and MASH. His writing/editing website and weekly blog is www.michaelmohrwriter.com.
In this video, I'm talking about self-doubt because we all suffer from it. Some days are worse than others, and I've been going through a bad patch recently, so I wanted to share from my heart today in the hope that it helps you too.
“My writing is terrible. I'm terrible. No one will ever want to read what I put out in the world. I'm going to get bad reviews. No one's ever going to buy my stuff. I'm wasting my time. What's the point?”
All these feelings – a sense of worthlessness, worry, even anxiety – it all comes together into fear of putting our words out there. And this self-doubt can sometimes cripple you.
I want to talk about it today because the truth is that we all suffer self-doubt. Here's a quote from poet Charles Bukowski:
Bad writers tend to have self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt.
Even famous writers suffer from self-doubt
Joanna Penn with Lee Child at Thrillerfest
One year, I went to ThrillerFest in New York, which is the conference run by International Thriller Writers. Some of the biggest names in the world speak there.
I went to one panel with authors like Lee Child, he writes the Jack Reacher books, and Sandra Brown, who's one of the biggest romantic suspense authors, Clive Cussler, who writes action/adventure. Huge names in the thriller industry.
R.L. Stine was there; he's one of the most famous children's writers, in fact, the most prolific children's author in the world. He writes the Goosebumps series. These authors have been writing books for years.
A writer in the audience stood up and said, “My manuscript is terrible. I feel like I just need to give up.”
And all of the writers on that panel went down the line, and they all said, “I still feel that way”.
Self-doubt is just part of the creative process
Now, whether that is encouraging or discouraging depends on your perspective. I was really encouraged because that means that self-doubt is just part of the creative process.
It doesn't go away. It sits there. It's part of the process. So we need to learn to live with that and go forward.
Finish your manuscript, publish your book, and get your words out into the world anyway.
Self-doubt is just part of the job of being a writer.
How things have moved on since my first novel
I was thinking back to when my first novel went out into the world in 2011. It was originally titled Pentecost and I later re-edited it and re-published it as Stone of Fire.
I recorded a video on how it felt to put your first book in the world. You can watch the video below or here on YouTube.
How It Feels To Have Your Book Out There In The World - YouTube
Things have definitely moved on in terms of how professional my videos are but more importantly, I talk about how I canceled my launch drinks because I was so full of crippling self-doubt.
Putting my words out into the world left me in a crying heap on the floor. I just couldn't face it. I couldn't deal with it.
I still feel the self-doubt, but it's not crippling anymore, it's just something that I acknowledge. I let it sit with me, and put my work out anyway because there's a part of us inside, as writers, where if we don't write, we're going to cripple ourselves in other ways.
We're going to be unhappy. We're going to feel blocked.
You need to get your words out into the world.
You need to break through that self-doubt because your words are important.
We need to hear your voice. You don't know whose life you could change with your story, or your non-fiction book, or the words, the wisdom you have.
As an introvert, the thought of the videos I share going out into the world and people seeing them is difficult enough. But we embrace it anyway as part of the process.
And that's how we write, and create, put our words in the world, and change peoples' lives.
For more on this subject, check out The Successful Author Mindset. The first chapter is on self-doubt because it's such a common problem with authors. The book is available in e-book, print, and audiobook formats.
Everyone’s heard of Siri and Cortana, but Amazon Alexa and Google’s Assistant are game changers. In the future, just about everything in a person’s home, car, and work will be controlled by voice. Sound futuristic? Not at all. This is happening now.
Are these smart speaker things honestly a big deal?
I get it. Voice is having a moment. But what does this mean for authors? And what about Siri? You haven’t mentioned her at all.
The reason Amazon Alexa and Google Home are game changers is that Amazon and Google have opened their platforms for independent development. Think: independent publishing, but through a voice assistant. Siri and Cortana do not allow for this, which is why, frankly, they’re being left in the technological dust.
As a concrete example: I recently co-founded the publishing company Select a Story. Select a Story produces interactive audiobooks written by authors for Amazon Alexa and coming soon to Google Assistant. Think: Choose Your Own Adventure audiobooks you can talk to. Pretty cool right?
The user hears a scene and then at the end of it they’re given two options. Let’s say, “Do you: fight the dragon or run away.” The user then says either “fight the dragon” or “run away” and the scene that corresponds to their choice plays next.
This is repeated until they get to an ending of the story. At that point, they can start over to see what happens when they make different choices. Many players will go through three or four full story paths in one sitting.
Creating interactive stories is only one of infinite possibilities for authors developing for a voice assistant. Authors could produce prequels to their books exclusively for Alexa or Google Assistant. They could provide additional content. They could create a game or a quiz about their books.
Moreover, while Select a Story hires voice actors to professionally narrate all of its content to create a rich experience for the user, authors wouldn’t have to. Alexa and Google Assistant can read text in their own voice making the cost to produce a voice application much lower.
That sounds neat and all, but, umm, how do I make money off of it?
I’m so glad you asked. This would be a lot of work if there were no monetization options.
First, Amazon has instituted developer reward payments for voice apps that are high performing. Think: the way KU pays out, but for developers. However, if you thought Amazon was opaque with its KU payment formula, just wait until you dive into the waters of developer reward payments.
Last year, the highest compensated developer was paid about $100,000 by Amazon, but no one has any idea what goes into their reward payment calculation (other than to surmise it’s some combination of number of users and engagement).
Second, Amazon recently announced that developers will be able to create a subscription service. So for Select a Story, as an example, right now we only have one interactive story available: Cinder/Charming. In Cinder/Charming you can play as either Cinderella or Prince Charming and go on multiple adventures as either character.
In the coming months we are working with writers to release dozens of additional stories. Thus, we could make two or three of them free and then charge the user a fee for stories beyond the free stories or we could provide some other incentive for subscribing, such as having a larger number of options within each story for subscribers.
Third, Amazon currently does not allow for advertising in its voice apps, but it is likely coming eventually.
Finally, voice apps provide a vehicle to essentially advertise your traditional writing. For instance, with Select a Story when the player gets to the end of a story they will be prompted, “If you liked this interactive audiobook by Author X, you will love their novel Such-and-Such. Say yes to buy it now.” This is obviously huge.
You spoke a lot about Amazon. What about Google?
Google currently doesn’t have many (any?) monetization options, but Google has been behind Amazon every step of the way, so it is likely that similar monetization options will be coming soon for Google.
Is there a lot of competition?
No. Now is the time to get into this space. In the U.S. there are currently 25,000 voice applications for Amazon Alexa and about 500 for Google Home. But only about 15% of them are games. The rest are apps that control your smart home or music apps or news apps, etc.
So let’s say that for Amazon Alexa there are 3,750 games. But wait, it gets better. Sixty-two percent of Alexa voice apps (they call them “skills” if you want to be in the know) have zero ratings in the skill store.
As you can see, only 22% have two or more ratings. Why is this? This space is so new, most developers are just tinkering around. They have no writing or creative background. They make a simple voice app that has a short quiz or that plays fart sounds and they never even think about promoting it or monetizing it. Thus, the constellation of real competition is maybe one hundred voice apps, being generous.
Can you imagine starting out in self-publishing and you only had one hundred books to compete against? It’s unreal.
There’s not a lot of data on the average time spent using these voice apps, but I recently attended the Alexa Conference. The best Alexa developers from around the world attended, and many shared their personal stats. Most developers consider an average engagement of two-three minutes to be impressive.
Since Select a Story’s release one month ago, our average length of engagement has been approximately 15-20 minutes, with many users playing for more than an hour in a single sitting. This is nearly unheard of.
Why is our engagement so high? I am convinced it’s because there are so few creatives developing voice apps. I have a writing/publishing background, not a coding background. I know how to write and edit compelling narratives.
Just as knowing how to bind books doesn’t mean you’re the best person to write one, knowing how to code doesn’t mean you should write the content for voice apps—especially one with narrative elements.
Has anyone had success doing this yet?
As I mentioned, this is all very new. Amazon only announced monetization options less than six months ago. Even so, there are a few voice apps that stand out, but I’ll focus on one. The Magic Door is an interactive story on Amazon Alexa developed by a husband and wife team. The husband has done the coding and the wife has written the story.
As far as I can tell from their bios, neither has any writing background. Even so, there is such a hunger for this type of content that The Magic Door has attracted more than a million users. Imagine a million users playing your interactive story and being presented with a buy option of your novel at the end.
When I played The Magic Door for the first time, my reaction was, “this is cool, but if creatives were behind it, it could be so much more.” And that’s what Select a Story has set out to do. We publish interactive stories written by authors, not web developers. If you’re interested in writing for us, please reach out. If we publish your work, we pay you.
Or you could always produce a voice app yourself.
I’d like to create a voice app, but I don’t know how to code. Do I need to?
There are more and more programs popping up that allow you to make Alexa skills without coding. Storyline is one such program and they keep adding additional functionality to their product all the time.
Although, I’m not going to kid you. If you don’t know how to code, right now, creating a quality voice app will be difficult. My husband and I co-founded Select a Story precisely because I have the creative background and he’s a software developer.
You could also look into teaming up with an independent developer to help you create your voice app and either pay them outright or propose a split of your profits the way that many voice actors do for audiobooks.
Because this is such a new area, there aren’t established channels to find such a person, but if you , I’d be happy to put you in contact with people I know working in the space.
As you can see, there are a number of hurdles to overcome if you want to create a voice application. Coding knowledge is a huge plus. It’s brand new, so there aren’t established channels to find developers or voice actors. Moreover, how do you promote these skills? Someone jumping in will have to figure it out all on their own, but I guarantee you.
The ones who do will be reaping huge rewards. Getting in on voice this early feels like a cross between getting in on the beginning of the internet and the beginning of the self-publishing wave. My company, Select a Story, is going all in on voice, and in a few years, I guarantee you will see exactly why we did.
Katie Ernst is the Co-Founder and CEO of Select a Story, a publisher of interactive audio, print, and e-books. Select a Story’s first interactive novel, Cinder/Charming, is available now on Amazon Alexa.
To start, say “Alexa, Open Select a Story.” Coming soon to Google Home.
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