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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.

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Making a living with your writing is all about multiple streams of income. So if you write non-fiction, consider turning your book into a Workbook edition.

Watch the video below or here on YouTube.

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.

Click here for book formatting options

What size is the workbook edition?

I use 5×8 format for my normal books, and then 6×9 for my workbooks.

Click here for how to self-publish a print book

Check out my examples

Have you created workbook editions for your non-fiction books? If you have any comments or questions, please leave them below and join the conversation.

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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.

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

Show Notes

  • Examples of how the high production business model can work
  • 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.

Toby: Yes.

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..
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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.

Mary Karr in The Art of Memoir talks about this, referring to “carnal details.”

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.

4. Hurdles/Problems

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?
5. Voice

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.
6. Plot

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.

Good luck!

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.

His client Christian Picciolini’s memoir, WHITE AMERICAN YOUTH: My Descent into America's Most Violent Hate Movement—and How I Got Out was released by Hachette Books December 26, 2017.

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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.

Watch the video below or here on YouTube.

How To Deal With Self-Doubt As A Writer - YouTube

How does self-doubt feel?

“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.

And yet, I did it again and again and again.

Stone of Fire is the first in the 9-book ARKANE series, and I have also written 4 other novels alone, and co-written 5 more, as well as 9 non-fiction books.

Keep writing

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.

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If you're just getting started in self-publishing, there are some things that you need to know upfront in order to save yourself time, money and heartache along the way.

In this interview, I discuss the basics with Mark Dawson from Self-Publishing Formula.

In the intro, I discuss the first album produced entirely by AI as reported by Digital Trends. The article goes into how the artist, Taryn Southern, uses AI as a creative tool and also starts to question whether AIs can be trained with copyrighted material. The beginning of a new form of copyright discussion, for sure.

I talk about why it's so important to capture ideas in the moment, because time moves on and things change, based on the map shop around the corner from me closing recently. Walking past that shop almost every day inspired Map of Shadows, so it's sad to see it go. [You can see a picture of it here Instagram.com/jfpennauthor]

Plus, join me and Mark for a free webinar on How to get your first 10 book reviews – or your next 10 if you need some help with the basics! Plus, live Q&A on self-publishing and book marketing. Mon 12 March at 4pm US Eastern. Click here to register for the webinar.

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

Mark Dawson is an international bestselling thriller author. He's sold over a million books and makes a seven-figure income from his writing. He also teaches authors how to self-publish and market successfully through his summit and podcast at selfpublishingformula.com.

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

Show Notes

  • What authors can do to build sales and improve their careers
  • Fundamental author business practices to have in place
  • Pros and cons of exclusivity with Amazon
  • Rejuvenating sales on older books

You can find Mark Dawson at SelfPublishingFormula.com and on Twitter @SelfPubForm

Transcript of Interview with Mark Dawson

Joanna: Hi everyone, I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com and today, I'm here with Mark Dawson. Hi, Mark.

Mark: Hi Joanna, how are you?

Joanna: I'm good. So just a little introduction in case people don't know Mark.

Mark Dawson is an international bestselling thriller author. He's sold over a million books and makes a seven-figure income from his writing. He also teaches authors how to self-publish and market successfully through his summit and podcast at selfpublishingformula.com.

Today, we're talking about the top five things that authors should know about self-publishing. Because Mark, both of us get emails every day, don't we, from people just starting out?

Mark: We do, and also from people who've been going for a little bit time and it's not quite working for them and they want to look into what they should be doing differently to improve their sales, build their careers.

Joanna: Absolutely. Okay, so I've got five questions. The first one is about discoverability. Amazon is the biggest bookstore in the world so we'll just base our discussion around that to start with.

How should an author ensure that their books can reach the right kind of readers? What are the fundamentals they have to have in place?

Mark: Let's assume that the book is a good book to start with. So we'll take that as read. I don't teach craft, I teach marketing. So I'm going to start with the moment that someone has written The End on their manuscript and they're ready to go.

From that stage, you need to know when to take off your creative hat and put on your business hat. That is a shift not every author is comfortable doing, but it is a mindset that needs to be developed in order to maximize the chances of selling your book.

Even the word selling can be a little bit off-putting for some people, but the way I would look at it is, you've got your book that you've worked on for months or years. Now you're trying to get it into the hands of as many readers as possible and there are some things that you'll need to do next. Some marketing and promotional things that you'll need to do. Otherwise, the odds are against that book ever doing very much for you or other people. So you need to start with that mindset, so you're ready to actually get that book into the hands of people who'll love it.

Joanna: That's definitely an issue. Many people keep that writer hat on and forget that when we're talking about self-publishing successfully, they need to put on a publisher hat.

So let's talk about some of the basics.

If people are looking at publishing in a specific category, should the cover match? What should they be thinking in terms of keywords?

Mark: It's so difficult to get the covers right, so I work with a professional. My designer used to do covers for people like Steven King and John Le Carré and he approaches it in a very professional fashion.

I write thrillers, so when we re-jacketed all of my books a couple of years ago, the first thing he did was to look through the bestseller lists on Amazon.

All this information is very, very easy to get hold of. It's just a question of browsing across your genre, the category where other books like yours are appearing. Then you can start to look at the kinds of tropes that are common on those covers.

So for mine, I write thrillers like Lee Child. You might have a landscape with a single figure walking off into the distance. It's a bit of a cliché but there's a reason why cliches are cliches. They're shorthand for a way to tell potential readers what your book is going to be like.

When I started out, I thought I knew best for the covers, I wanted to have this amazing cover that'll look line nothing else available. It took me a while to realize why my book wasn't selling. It's because no one knew what the book was about.

So you do need to do your research and then find someone who can put a cover together that meets all of those criteria.

For great book cover design and formatting, check out Reedsy

[From Joanna: For great cover design, formatting and more, I recommend Reedsy.]

As you're uploading the book, there are other ways that you can increase the book's visibility when it launches.

You've mentioned metadata, that's certainly something that you can look at. So getting into the right categories, for example. You don't want to throw romance into the thriller category for obvious reasons or vice versa. So you need to make sure you get into these categories.

There are some strategies that you can use to actually increase the number of categories that you're in. It is as simple as emailing Amazon support and just asking to be placed in these categories. That increases the chances of people browsing the category list finding you in other categories.

Then you also need to look at things like search terms.

Imagine a customer looking for a new book to read. They go on to Amazon, to the search box at the top and type in e.g. espionage thriller.

Amazon lets you populate seven keywords when you self-publish and these should reflect the kinds of things that readers enter into that search bar.
So it could be ‘espionage thriller', it could be ‘action and adventure.' Those would be separate keyword phrases.

You can spend an awful lot of time on that kind of research, but you can go down the rabbit hole forever. It is worth spending some time, but not too much. Just do a little bit of research and trying to figure out what kinds of search terms your potential readers might be using.

Joanna: Yes, I think what we're encouraging people to do is self-publish and try and get these basics right. But both you and I have re-jacketed or re-covered our books. We've both changed categories, we've both changed keywords, we've both changed our sales descriptions.

The important point for people listening is to have a go and then as you learn more, you can change stuff.

That's one of the beauties being an indie, isn't it? I mean, we've both made mistakes.

Mark: No, no. Not me

Joanna: Never!

Mark: Of course. I have made plenty of mistakes. That's a really good point. Nothing is set in stone. You can make all kinds of mistakes but fear of making mistakes shouldn't be a reason to stop you from uploading your book and getting on to the market because nothing is unrecoverable.

You can always go back, change the blurbs, change the cover, you can change the actual text if you want to. You can change the price, nothing is set in stone. It's a very, very flexible platform that enables you to make changes on the fly if you want to.

Joanna: Absolutely. So, many new authors care most about having a print book and in fact, when you start writing a book, most people have a finished print product in mind.

You and I both make the most money from ebooks, but we also care about print and audio. We're not going to cover audio right now.

What are your recommendations around ebooks and print when authors are just starting out?

Mark: The breakdown of my income from ebook to print is about 95% to 5%, perhaps even more. So it's really weighted heavily in favor of ebooks. But I do want to have print as well. There are lots of reasons for that.

Vanity is one and so I've got a shelf full of my books in print, which I can sign if I want to, to giveaway, to re-use as competition prizes.

It's also a useful source of additional income. When I started using Amazon Marketing Services as another way to drive traffic, my print sales have gone up dramatically.

[You can find out more on Ads for Authors here.]

I make more when it comes to the ebooks, but print sales can also be lucrative. It's certainly something that you need to do. You mentioned audio there, which is definitely more advanced. But once you've got the book and you've finished it, it becomes a product you want to sell and that product has a number of ancillary intellectual property rights that we can exploit.

So print is one, audio is one, translation is another. Film and TV rights, that's another. You want to take the benefit of all that hard work and then sell it in as many ways as you can.

I hate to think that I'm leaving anything on the table, so I'm going to try and take that intellectual property and then sell it in as many different formats as I can.

Joanna: So just to be clear, our recommendation is to self-publish an ebook first, along with print-on-demand. We both use CreateSpace, Amazon's own print platform.

There are options and we should just also remind people that all these self-publishing platforms are free and that's amazing.

What costs money is the cover design and editing and preparation of the book and the marketing.

Mark: Probably the most important thing I want people to take away from this conversation is that if someone asks you for money to put your book together, be careful because you don't need to spend that.

There are companies out there that will charge thousands and thousands of dollars for effectively a box full of books. You just don't need to spend that.

It really annoys me when I see authors who have worked so hard, and invested so much time, being taken advantage of like that. It isn't necessary.

All the self-publishing platforms we recommend are free to self-publish and they take a percentage of the sale of the book. So they make money when you make money. You don't need to pay anything in order to get those books out there. So just caveat emptor on that one.

Joanna: If people don't want to do everything themselves and are going to use a company, then there's a watchdog service by the Alliance of Independent Authors. So go there first if you are thinking of paying a company to publish.

So there are a number of platforms for authors to publish on, for example, Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, Nook, and a whole load more.

When might an author consider exclusivity with Amazon and when might they consider going wide?

Mark: That's a really difficult question. In fact, it's almost an impossible question to answer because it's going to depend on the circumstances of the author and that will vary from person to person.

If I was starting out again myself, I would probably start with Amazon. I'd learn that platform first.

Just concentrate on mastering the basics of self-publishing and it would be easier to do that by concentrating on one thing at a time, because all the platforms are a little bit different.

The upload process on Apple, for example, is very different than the process that Amazon uses. So you want to concentrate on getting that one right first and Amazon is probably going to be your biggest market. It certainly is for me, although Apple is closing quite fast now.

But most people will start off on Amazon and that will be where they sell the most books.

Amazon locks you in exclusively for three months if you want to be in their program called KDP Select which will give you some promotional benefits. Once you're through that three-month period, have a look at whether you're hitting your goals. That could be sales. It could be money coming in.

Being exclusive with Amazon does slow you down in terms of building your email list quickly, so you might decide at some point that although you're making a bit of money, you want to accelerate the growth of your list because that will probably end up being the foundation of your business.

Down the line, if this is a long-term thing for you, that will be where you get most of your income from. It's certainly the case for me.

Joanna: I tend to say that if you have fewer than three books in a series or only individual books, then going exclusive is a good idea.

Both you and I have found that we sell more on the other platforms with a series or at least multiple books targeted at the same market. So my non-fiction is not so much a series, but people buy all of them as opposed to just one.

One of the biggest questions we both get is when a new author comes along and they upload their book to Amazon. They have no reviews, no readers, no budget, no email list, no social media platform. Often they have no author friends or community either. That was both of us a few years ago.

How do people get their book moving if they're in that situation?

Mark: You have to be prepared to experiment with lots of different promotional tactics. A really good one is to give your book away for free. Some people will be upset by that, but some people will understand the concept of the ‘loss leader.'

Like when you're in the supermarket and try a tiny chunk of cheese, and then end up buying the rest of the packet because you like it. The principle is the same.

But some authors are concerned. They say, “I've spent two years writing this book. How dare you tell me to give it away for free?” There are no right or wrong answers here, but I can say reasonably confidently that people who are stuck in that mindset are less likely to be successful than those who are prepared to experiment.

So taking that loss leading example from the supermarket, what we do is effectively offer readers our book. They don't know who we are, they've never read us before. We've got no reviews, there is no reason for them to spend two or three dollars on that book because who are we?

But if we say, “You can have it for free, just try it out and see if you enjoy it.” Provided your book is good and we'll assume that everyone listening to this has written a great book, then you can get the reader onto a mailing list in exchange for giving them that free book. Or they get it within Kindle Unlimited.

When you are ready with the next book, you have a pre-selected audience ready to buy the book and probably, more importantly, they are ready to leave early reviews which will then enable you to get promotions that require a certain threshold of reviews.

Having those reviews will also mean it's more likely that somebody who's never heard of you before, seeing those good reviews will think, “Well, those people enjoyed it. I think I will give this a chance rather than moving on to the next book.”

It's getting into that mindset of being prepared to speculate to accumulate. You've got your book, now you are going to leverage that for the benefit of your long term career.

Joanna: It's funny because I think one of the biggest issues with this type of approach is that there's this myth in the publishing industry that you write your first book, you give it to a publisher or you self-publish it, and that first book is going to make you a million and everything is going to be great.

If there is only that book, then you might do things differently but you and I are both coming from the perspective of that longer term career. Would that be right?

Mark: Yeah. I don't want to do anything else ever again. I'm very happy. I still give away hundreds of books every day. Maybe that means I'm seeding 10 sales a day that I might not have otherwise made, but I don't care about that because of those 100 readers, maybe 30 of them will read them, enjoy them and will then buy 24 other books that I've got.

So maybe I'm losing $20 or $30 on those giveaways but in the long term over the next year or two years, maybe I'm making 2 or 300 per reader. So when you look at it in that way, it makes a lot more sense to build on focus on the long-term rather than the short-term.

Joanna: For those people who don't know your story, how long ago was it when you were making zero? Back to the beginnings of your author career.

Mark: I was traditional publishing originally and did very well in advances, but the books didn't sell and I wasn't happy with how it all worked.

But when I got back into independent publishing, early 2012, I don't think I made anything. I think the first check I got from Amazon would have been six months later and around $10, nothing really to write home about.

But it was a lightbulb moment for me.

I had actually sold maybe five books that month and people seemed to enjoy them. It was slow for the first couple of years but when I started to work out how this all fits together, it's accelerated quite quickly.

Joanna: If people listening are making zero or $10 or $100 a month and they feel like they're putting in so much work, both of us have seen that curve where it bumps along the bottom for quite a long time before it starts ticking up. So I just want to encourage everyone with that.

Okay, let's tackle the person who's a little bit further on, the person listening who has already self-published. Maybe they have two or even five books or even more than that and yet they are still bumping along the bottom and not doing very well.

What would you suggest for someone who has some books but wants to rejuvenate those sales?

Mark: First of all, look at your books dispassionately.

Check the covers out. Maybe that means you should commission a designer to do an evaluation of your covers and compare them to the market. That could be a weakness you could work on.

Maybe you need to look at your blurbs, maybe you don't have enough reviews. If you haven't gotten enough reviews, start to build your email list and then build an advance team...

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With Apple Homepod now launched, and Amazon Echo (Alexa) and Google Home already taking the market by storm, voice technology is only going to grow. 

Authors are already reaping the benefits with increased sales of audiobooks, but what else do authors need to know about these exciting developments? 

In today's article, Katie Ernst from Select a Story gives an overview and talks about how you can even create stories for the platform.

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?

Nearly 35 million of them shipped in 2017, and it’s projected that in 2018 an additional 56.3 million smart speakers will be sold.

What speakers are selling the fastest?

Amazon is leading the pack, but as you can see, Google is making big gains. In fact, in the most recent data, Amazon dipped below 70% market share for the first time and Google is now approximately 25%.

Sure there’s huge growth, but only tech nerds have smart speakers, right?

On the contrary. By 2020, 75% of homes will have smart speakers, and the growth estimates to date have consistently underestimated smart speaker sales.

This isn’t even to mention voice assistant adoption on phones. Google Assistant alone is available on over 400 million devices, and according to a recent Pew Research poll, currently 46 percent of Americans use voice assistants.

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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Some people think I'm on social media all the time because my presence is there 24/7, but my secret weapon is automation and scheduling, as well as tools that enable me to use social media without spending all my time on it. 

Let's face it. We all have a love/hate relationship with social. We love it for the connection with friends, influencers, updates, recommendations and ability to market to readers.

We hate it for the all-pervasive, addictive need to check whether people have liked our pics, read our updates, clicked on our ads, or just to see whether there's anything new going on.

Thankfully there are tools we can use and habits we can build that reduce the amount of time we spend on social media – but you can still use it for marketing.

An additional benefit is that scheduling can help you reach readers all over the world in multiple time zones, tweeting or sharing while you're asleep but others are awake! This was how I established my author platform when I lived in Australia, but still managed to attract readers from the US and UK even though I was the other side of the world.


The first step is behavioural change, using batching to set aside a specific block of time to do a task once a week or once a month, instead of every day.

So instead of checking your accounts five times a day and finding things to Tweet or Facebook about, you can spend an hour each week scheduling and organizing content for your social accounts. Then, you can check in with the accounts perhaps once a day to respond to messages or to mentions from readers and fans.

Batching and scheduling your social media posts means your accounts will be continually active, but you won’t have to be.

Scheduling Tools MeetEdgar

The Creative Penn's MeetEdgar queue. You can see the different categories used for the different types of posts.

MeetEdgar is the best tool around for scheduling content that you want to share more than once. If you have a series of blog posts on writing your latest book, or on book research, MeetEdgar is the perfect tool to share those posts and it is my #1 tool for sharing evergreen content.

Yes, it is a premium service, but if you want to focus on content marketing as I do, it frees up a lot of time and enables you to get traffic to your backlist content.

It works like this:

  • You add the posts you want to share into your MeetEdgar library
  • You choose how often you want Edgar to pick a post from that library to share
  • You can also divide the posts into specific categories (blog posts, inspirational, questions, tips etc.) and you can create unique categories that fit you if you want to
  • You tell Edgar how often you want to post each day (you choose specific times) and also which library categories you want him to pick from. For example, every Tuesday at 2pm a post goes out from your blog posts category. Wednesdays at 7am, you share from your tips category. It’s all customizable and changeable at any time.
  • You can set Edgar up to share as many or as few times per day as you want
  • The tool can be linked to your Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook accounts
  • You decide where posts are shared. If you want them to go to all accounts or just one or two

I'm an affiliate of MeetEdgar as it is a fantastic tool that I use myself and highly recommend.

Buffer App

The Creative Penn's Buffer queue

When you have content that you only want to share once, Buffer App is a great tool. You can combine using this app with MeetEdgar – you don’t have to choose one or the other.

I use Buffer for one-time content, and Edgar for recurring, evergreen content.

Buffer is free to use with certain limited features. The free version will allow you to post up to 10 posts in advance (called your Queue). If you use the paid version, your queue has unlimited size and you can schedule as many posts as you like.

As mentioned in the intro, the idea is that you can batch the task of grabbing information and articles from the web and sharing them on social media. When you see a cool article or link that you want to share, you simply add that link and a headline to your Buffer App queue.

The article will go out according to the schedule that you’ve chosen ahead of time. You can choose to have several posts go out each day, or just one. It will link to your Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts, just like MeetEdgar.

(At the time of this writing, you need to use the paid option for Buffer to schedule your Instagram posts or you can use Hootsuite which has similar functionality.)

It works like this:

  • Link the app to your social media accounts
  • Set up your BufferApp schedule for the number of times per day you’d like to share posts
  • BufferApp will even suggest times of day that work based on your geographic location
  • When you see an article or post online that you’d like to share, copy the link address from the browser
  • Paste this link into the “What do you want to share?” box in BufferApp
  • Very often, the original post will have images assigned to it, so you can choose to share one of those with the link and headline (remember that images catch the eye more than just plain text)
Feedly and Buffer App

Another great tool to be familiar with is Feedly.com. Often we have a list of favorite websites or sites that our useful to our target audience in our head, or better yet, bookmarked in a web browser.

A better way to collect all the sites you often post about is to use Feedly. Feedly is an RSS and blog reader which shows you only the sites you’re interested in, so that you can scan quickly and decide which individual articles to post. This saves you the time of going from site to site each day looking for posts to share.

It works like this:

  • Sign up at Feedly.com (it’s free)
  • Once you’re signed up you’ll be shown a search box
  • Add the website address of a site you regularly share articles from
  • When Feedly finds the site click Follow
  • Feedly will ask you to place this site in a category – it will suggest some names but you can custom create your own
  • On the left side of the page you will see your list of sites under their category name
  • Click on a site name and you’ll see a list of recent posts
  • Click on the article name and you’ll be taken to that post
  • You can then share or use one of the other tools mentioned here to schedule the post
Scheduling in Facebook

Facebook's popup scheduling tool

You may not be aware that Facebook allows you to schedule posts in advance. This is a great feature that, once again, helps us to batch the task of filling our Facebook queue, so we don’t have to take time every day to post.

It works like this:

  • When you’re on your Author page, create a post just as if you were going to share it immediately
  • Then, instead of clicking on the ‘Publish’ button, click on the arrow to the right of that
  • You’ll see 3 options: Schedule, Back date, and Save as Draft
  • Choose Schedule
  • A box will pop up where you can choose the date and time you want the post to go live
  • You can do this for as many posts as you like, which ensures your Facebook page always has something fresh on it

For organizing your Twitter feed and coping with the firehose amount of information on Twitter, you can’t beat TweetDeck. Best of all, it’s free to use.

It works like this:

  • TweetDeck is based on organizing the information that’s important to you in columns.
  • You get to choose what content your columns hold and how many you have
  • Once you’ve created an account using your Twitter log in credentials, you can begin setting up TweetDeck in a way that works for you.
  • You’ll probably have one column dedicated to your own profile, so that you can see the tweets you’ve sent. I also have columns for the lists I have created with people I want to pay attention to.
  • Then you can have columns dedicated to certain keywords or hashtags. These will only show you tweets related to those words, particularly useful if you attend an event and want to see what's going on
  • You might have one column that only shows when your twitter handle is mentioned by someone else (called ‘Mentions’)
  • To add new columns, click on the + on the left side of the page
  • You’ll see a pop-up box that will allow you to choose what type of column you want to create
Working with an Assistant on Social Media

So far we’ve focused on the tools you can use to organize and schedule social media posts. If you work with an assistant, they can help you with scheduling which frees even more time.

For example, I use Feedly to capture and organize articles I think my audience of writers and authors would be interested in. I then save the links for the articles I want to share into Evernote with one click from the Feedly app on my iPhone.

Here's an example of the posts I've shared with my VA via Evernote. She'll schedule these in Buffer

I share that Evernote folder with my assistant and she loads those article into Buffer. This way, my Buffer queue is always full, but the amount of work I have to do to curate the information is at a minimum.

My assistant also helps by adding my posts and articles from The Creative Penn to Meet Edgar. She goes into Edgar at the beginning of each month and adds all the posts and articles from my site from the previous month to the Edgar library. These are then automatically shared by Edgar, based on the schedule I’ve set up.

It’s not necessary, or even practical, to have an assistant do ALL your social media posts for you. But getting help with 80% of your shares takes a large part of the work off your plate if you have some budget for this type of content marketing.

You might want to continue to post personal things – images from research you’re doing or posts from conferences – yourself.

And in fact, doing the occasional post yourself is a great way to add variety to the things you’re sharing. It will add personality and depth to your social media shares. If you check my Twitter stream @thecreativepenn, it can be quite easy to see what is scheduled content and when I am personally replying to things or sharing personal pictures.

Social Media and Book Marketing

An example of an image used to promote the recent release of The Healthy Writer

We discussed Meet Edgar, above, and here’s another great way that tool can support you.

When you’ve got a new book coming out, you’ll likely want to have regular posts and mentions about it, especially in the first few days or weeks after publication.

You can create images and promotional posts, and then schedule those using Meet Edgar. I use www.Canva.com for my image sizing as they have templates for all the social media sites.

In this way, while you’re focused on the myriad other details involved in a book launch, you’ll know the word is still getting out there in a regular drip feed that you’ve set up in advance.


For your Twitter and Instagram posts, it’s important to remember to use relevant hashtags.

A hashtag, if you’re not familiar, is a keyword relevant to your post that is also used as a search term. So if someone on Twitter or Instagram is looking for information on writing or indie publishing, they can type those words into the search box and Twitter will show them posts that have used those hashtags (#writing #amwriting #indieauthors #publishing).

In this way, new followers can find your posts when they’re looking for information on a specific subject.

There are a few ways to find the hashtags that will work best for you and your subject:

  • Do a search yourself for terms you think others might use. For example, if you write and post on social media about science fiction, search for terms related to that (#sciencefiction #space #spaceopera etc.) to see what other authors are using.
  • Use a tool like SproutSocial.com or Hashtagify.me to do searches for hashtags and learn about their popularity, relevance and also related hashtags you might not have thought of.
  • Follow others in your genre or industry and watch the hashtags they use.

(Note: With the January 2018 changes to the Facebook algorithms, Pages (i.e., the page for your business) are going to be downplayed even further, meaning your business page is going to have less reach moving forward. This makes hashtags less important on Facebook than on Twitter and Instagram.)


As the social media space becomes even more crowded and we all feel inundated with information, images become even more important to your social media posts.

You might be familiar with this branded image I use on all posts and pages at The Creative Penn

Most bloggers know this, thankfully, and will feature images with their posts. When you share those posts, be sure to use one of the images on offer. (For example, when you use Buffer to schedule a post, it will show you which images are available to share and you can choose one or more.)

When you are creating your own blog posts, it is important to have an image that goes along with the post when it’s shared by others. You can use Canva to create these sharing images.

If you set up a template in Canva, branded with your site colours, you can use the same template each time, just swapping out the title text and the eye-catching image within the sharing image. I use BigStockPhoto to buy images for my social media sharing, but there are many options available, like iStockPhoto and Shutterstock.

Interesting images catch readers’ eyes as they scroll through their social media feed. Make sure your sharing images are eye-catching and have fun with visual ways you can get eyeballs on your posts.

Do you use any of these tools to support your social media strategy? Are there others you recommend? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

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How do we stand out in a world where everyone can write a book or upload a photo or start a YouTube channel or podcast? How can we share our stories in an authentic manner and still make a living?

In today's show, I discuss the Youpreneur business model with Chris Ducker, where building a business around your personal brand is key. It's certainly how I have built The Creative Penn, so I hope it helps you too!

In the intro, I mention Google's blog post about the next billion internet users changing the internet in three key ways: a mobile-only mindset, an instinct for ubiquitous computing, and a demand for localized content. 

Plus, my personal update on How to Write Non-Fiction. I'd love to shape the book around what you need to know – so please complete this short survey by 10 March 2018 and be in win signed books! Click here for the survey.

Plus, join me and Mark Dawson for a free webinar on How to get your first 10 book reviews – or your next 10 if you need some help with the basics! Plus, live Q&A on self-publishing and book marketing. Mon 12 March at 4pm US Eastern. Click here to register for the webinar.

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.

Chris Ducker is the bestselling author of Virtual Freedom, and the Founder of Youpreneur.com, a mastermind community for entrepreneurs. He's also an international professional speaker and podcaster. His latest book is Rise of the Youpreneur: The Definitive Guide to Becoming the Go-To Leader in your Industry and Building A Future-Proof Business.

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

Show Notes

  • What exactly is a Youpreneur?
  • Recommendations for introverts who are building their personal brand
  • Thinking long-term as an entrepreneur
  • How to identify the community we want to serve
  • Changes in Chris' writing process since ‘Virtual Freedom', including dictation
  • Turning a non-fiction book into multiple streams of income
  • The ongoing importance of live events
  • Previous episode with Chris Ducker on outsourcing – which directly led to me working with wonderful VAs
  • Why Chris chose to independently publish the book, and the different kinds of decisions he made around the publishing process

You can find Chris Ducker at ChrisDucker.com and on Twitter @ChrisDucker. You can find all the links to the book and more content at: RiseOfTheYoupreneur.com

Transcript of Interview with Chris Ducker

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

Chris: Hey, Joanna, nice to see you.

Joanna: Oh, great to see you as well. Just a little introduction.

Chris is the bestselling author of “Virtual Freedom”, and the Founder of youpreneur.com, a mastermind community for entrepreneurs. He's also an international professional speaker and podcaster. And his latest book, which I've got right here, and is amazing, is “Rise of the Youpreneur: The Definitive Guide to Becoming the Go-To Leader in your Industry and Building A Future-Proof Business.” Great subtitle there.

Chris: Thank you. You make me sound so brilliant with that intro. I hope I don't let you down now.

Joanna: Oh, no. I know you're brilliant. Let's just get straight into it with the definition, because the word youpreneur is one of those words that people are like, “Yeah, what the hell?”

What does a youpreneur mean anyway? What is one?

Chris: It's a made-up word, isn't it? It's like Google, but maybe not as, you know, ridiculous-sounding.

A youpreneur is fundamentally somebody who is building a business based around them, their experience, their personality, what they can provide in terms of value, and the people that they want to serve. That's ultimately what a youpreneur is.

And it all came about because I'm a serial entrepreneur, and I'm very much a brick and mortar guy up until probably seven or eight years ago when I started using the internet for things other than just watching silly cat videos and email.

I've started several businesses, many of which I still run and operate myself. And one thing I have come to discover over, and over, and over again, is that people do business with me way before they ever do business with my companies. And it's that P2P or that people-to-people relationship-building mentality that I've been harping on about now for about four or five years.

I'm a big believer that if you do put yourself out there, that you do build a bit of a personal brand, whether you're building a business based around you and what you do, or something a bit bigger and a little bit more corporate, a little bit more on a larger scale, it doesn't matter, the personal brand element will create opportunities for you.

And really “Rise of the Youpreneur” came about because of the people that I started to work with based off my own personal brand, and these are the people like authors, and YouTubers and bloggers, and podcasters, and coaches, and speakers, and all those people that are really building the business based around themselves. So that's what a youpreneur is. And they're the favorite type of people for me to work with now, I love it.

Joanna: It's called “Rise of the Youpreneur.” Do you think there is a cultural shift in what people want to do? Even with the way millennials are compared to you and I who are Gen X, I think, both of us, but we're both millennials at heart.

Is that a cultural shift, do you think?

Chris: I don't know whether it's a shift, per se. I think what's happening is the millennials are growing into the personal brand environment anyway with social media being as important as it is.

When you go for a job, your employers are going to check out your social media profiles now. Five, six, 10 years ago, they never did anything like that. So, your personal brand is being built from the day you send your first tweet or post your first snap, to speak a millennial language.

I think that also the real shift is actually in people that are slightly older, they realize that actually this is the way that business is going, this is the way that particularly opportunities are going to come their way, using Facebook, utilizing Instagram, and all those different types of things, coming up with your own online courses, being in front of people on stage, writing books to claim your niche as an expert, and all these things.

So, I think honestly that the shift is more so for the oldies rather than the newbies. And it's a shift that I started making like I said, seven or eight years ago, and it's opened up so many doors for me, that I just wanted to kind of encapsulate it all into this one volume.

I do believe that in terms of the rise up part of it, “Rise of the Youpreneur,” I think that really the book is written for the slightly older generation that may be thus feel, oh, holy moly, after 15 years or 10 years even in a career, in a position with all this experience under my belt, I can actually do something different. I can do it for myself.

I can do it for the perfect client that I want to work with, and I can ultimately to a certain degree, future-proof myself from a career perspective due to the fact that I'm not relying on a big corporate name, big corporate clients, and all the rest of it.

And actually, you become somewhat resilient. Not necessarily Teflon, but resilient to a certain degree to things like referendum changes, and bad political figures getting involved, and all these other sort of types of things, which do affect the economy.

I think that if you build a rabid audience and community around you as the expert, they become in love with you for what you do for them, and it just opens up so many doors.

Joanna: I know my audience, many of whom are introverts. I spoke at your Youpreneur Conference, and because I mentioned this, the difference between our personalities.

I want to know your perspective on introvert authors who don't want to be kind of out there in terms of personal branding. And again, you mentioned the older demographic in our 40s, it's difficult for some people to change their behavior and start putting things out there into the world because we've been brought up to not do that.

What are your recommendations for introverts and people who are worried in terms of building that personal brand?

Chris: I will say that at the Youpreneur Summit as you brought it up. There were a couple of times throughout the course of that event where I did leave the conference area, went up to a quiet staff room that we had, where we had a big sofa and everything, and I laid down, got into the fetal position and rocked myself back and forth a couple of times, had my own little introvert moment out there.

But I think ultimately, if you're really that introverted, then a personal brand business model is not really going to be for you. I think that the very thought of building a personal brand means that you've got to put yourself out there a little bit. You don't necessarily have to put your entire neck on the chopping block, but I think that you've got to be seen to be building influence.

From an author perspective, you can hide behind your words, and your pages and your beautifully-designed book covers if you want, but if you really…I truly believe this. If you really want to build a great community of people that are gonna buy everything you make and market, that are going to come to you as their favorite in whatever industry you're in, and that's really what a youpreneur needs to do, they need to become somebody's favorite, right? At the very end of the day.

And if you want to do all those things, you're going to limit yourself if you don't want to be in the limelight a little bit.

Book signings are a great opportunity to meet your readers in person.

I'm a big believer in building relationships with handshakes and hugs, I truly believe that. And you can't do that if you're a super introvert and you just want to sell your book on Amazon and not go anywhere near human beings. It's a scary thought for some people. But if that's the case, then I guess it's probably not the best business model for you.

Joanna: I'll throw this back to you then, because I kind of disagree.

Chris: Go ahead, throw away.

Joanna: Handshakes and hugs make me go, “Whoa,” and I know people are listening and going, “Waah.”

You mentioned book signings. You did a great book signing at one of your events where people were already there to love you. But for most authors, book signings are awful and nobody turns up. So book signings are not one of those things.

You've been podcasting for years, you've built a community, you've built relationships all over the world. Even though you've been living in the Philippines, and you're in the Philippines right now, although you're moving back to Britain, but you don't have to be physically there, do you?

What about things like podcasting, social media, ways where you can be physically distant, but you can still share authentically?

What are your tips for sharing authentically online, and still curating your life?

Chris: That's a really good question, because I have been over here this whole time. Obviously I travel, and I speak, and I do all that stuff, but at the end of the day, it's hard because I'm literally on the other side of the world. Time zone differences are a nightmare.

And believe me, I've had many very late nights when I've had to be available for calls with people say in L.A. at 9 a.m., it's like 1:00 in the morning here.

I've eaten my fair share of dirt over the years to get to this point. But I think that things like podcasts, where if you don't want to be in front of the camera, that's fine, you're just talking through a microphone and you can get your point across and share your wisdom and create a value for your audience that way.

Social media, even webinars, you don't have to go on camera to put on a great free webinar and help people that way as well.

I think in terms of tips, it really comes down to just being as much of your authentic self as you can be, understand that online people can smell the BS from a mile away nowadays, there's just been too many idiots out there doing too much stupid stuff.

We know, we can see it, we can smell it. Don't lie, don't create untruths, and do all those silly things, like rent a Ferrari for $4 grand for the day, take lots of photos outside some big house that you have no idea who lives there and sort of try and claim that that's you.

Just be super authentic, throw as much of you and your personality into it, as you feel comfortable doing so, and amazing things will happen. And like I said, it's about becoming somebody's favorite.

It's about becoming somebody's favorite podcaster or somebody's favorite crime author, or somebody's favorite YouTuber, or somebody's favorite Facebook celebrity or whatever.

I think it really comes down to throwing as much of you in there as you're comfortable doing so, and doing it consistently as well. The consistency factor is a big one.

Joanna: Consistency. I'll tackle that now, because that long-term thinking is so key. Both you and I have been podcasting for years, we've been putting stuff online for years, out there doing things for years.

And I think in the author niche particularly, people think that they write their first book and they become a millionaire, and everything is sorted.

What are some of your thoughts on the long-term thinking, and the positive mindset for that long-term? What's kept you going?

Chris: What keeps me going are the stories that I get back from my community and the people that follow my work. It's the quick tweets that come back after doing a public master class at the beginning of the year where people are saying, “I think you've just literally doubled my income this coming year from spending an hour with you online. Thank you.”

It's hearing from a guy who unfortunately lost his wife three years after giving birth to their daughter to cancer, and then being able to read my first book, “Virtual Freedom,” and realize that he actually doesn't have to carry on doing the 15-hour days, he's built a virtual team, and now he can drop his daughter off at school every day, and pick her up, and spend time with her in the evening, and all that sort of stuff.

What keeps me going is genuinely leaving as deep and as warm mark on everybody that I come into contact with, whether it be from a business perspective or a personal perspective.

When I'm done, and I'm finished, and I've gone, when people talk about me and they talk about legacy or they talk about what I've left behind, I just want people to say that, “He was a really nice guy and he genuinely left a mark on my life.” That's what I want.

I don't need lots of money or anything like that. I just need people to believe that I somehow created a better something for them in their lives.

Joanna: I like that. I think the idea of service to a community, and that comes through very much in the book.

At your conference, there were a lot of man hugs and man tears going on. It was lovely, it was very emotional.

Chris: There were many man tears, and myself included.

I have spoken in front of tens of thousands of people in my career all around the world I have never choked up on stage before. And I've talked about losing my mom in my early 20s, I've talked about lots of other relatively emotional stuff on stage through telling stories, and again, I've never choked up on stage.

But it was something about that event, that crowd, that venue, that city, that moment that just got to me there as I was wrapping up the event, and I choked up. I didn't have tears streaming down my face or anything, but I choked up and had to hold it together a little bit for a split second there.

It just goes to show you that when you're doing good stuff for the right type of people, that should happen, that actually should happen. We don't want it to happen too often because it could get a tad embarrassing, but it should happen because it means that you care.

Joanna: I think that's a really good point. It's very hard because many writers want to write a book from an inner sense of needing to express something. So when you write, the focus is in your own head.

And then often authors try and work out their target market or the community that they want to serve after they've written the book.

Chris: Right.

Joanna: Which then becomes difficult because you might have written a book and you don't really understand who the target market is now, talking about serving community, and you have a lot in the book about finding customers.

Talk about how you found the community, or how did you identify the community, that you wanted to serve so much?

Chris: Well, that was the whole thing. This is another reason why I love the idea of the youpreneur business model, because you can fundamentally pursue your varying interests as an entrepreneur yourself.

When you're building a community of people around you, just by providing great value, providing great content by answering the right questions that you can answer, and through your experience, your wisdom, whatever you want to call it, you can genuinely help somebody.

By doing that for a number of years, it's gotten me to the point where I can now write this book because it's pure experience. And I'm writing the book for the people that I've probably attracted to me and my work only in the last three years.

Because I know these are the people I want to work with for the rest of my career, I now am writing the book for everybody that finds me in the next decade as well. I love that. I love the fact that I've been able to get to the point where I can write this very book right now in my career when I've got still got so much impact I know that I can make on the people that I come into contact with.

I wouldn't have been able to write this book five-six years ago. Because as you clearly pointed out, a lot of it comes down to experience and serving and customer service and all that stuff, and I just think it's very, very important to understand.

As you've pointed out, it's tough to write a book and then try and go and create the business around it, it should be the other way around.

Everything that we talk about in the book, and I talk about in the book the youpreneur ecosystem, where you have all these different streams of income all feeding into that one group so to speak; live events, online earnings, info products, speaking, coaching, mastermind, high-end masterminds, books. All these things that you can do as that youpreneur business owner, that you can't make that up.

Your customers will ultimately tell you what that business of you becomes over time and that's exactly what's happened. Everything that's in the book, I'm just sharing what works because I know it works because it's worked for me and it's worked for hundreds and hundreds of my clients as well.

Joanna: You wrote “Virtual Freedom” as well, which is about outsourcing, and you have still an outsourcing company, right, in the Philippines. As an author, you've written from your experience afterward, and “Virtual Freedom” was the same.

But I'm interested in your shift. You just said then, “The people I want to serve for the rest of my career,” and I think when we're in the moment with the latest book that is how we feel, right? Because you probably felt that way then. Explain how that feels.

Did you feel that when you wrote “Virtual Freedom?” And how has Chris the author changed?

Chris: I have to be honest. I'm going to be honest. I don't think I felt that way with “Virtual Freedom,” I definitely did not feel that way.

I felt like I wrote a darn good book. And the 800-plus five-star reviews on Amazon will back that up. We still sell hundreds of copies each month. Clearly, the book is a great book and it's helped thousands and thousands of people.

But I wrote that book because I'd been blogging and podcasting on the subject of virtual business, and building virtual teams, and working with virtual assistants, and really utilizing VAs to run, support, and grow your business. I had been doing it myself for years and years.

I wrote the book based on my own experiences and the experience of the people that I'd worked with as a service provider within that industry. And I wrote the book because honestly I was kind of done, Joanna, like, I was done writing about it on my blog, I was done talking about it on podcasts. I don't know how many podcast interviews I did in the space of four years, maybe 300 on the subject.

Joanna: You were on this show and it was a great..

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One of the most effective techniques in fiction writing is to build up tension, and then to break it with comedic elements, regulating the pace for the reader, even as you ratchet up to the next scene.

This works particularly well in darker books, TV and movies where things can get a little grim. I've recently been watching Netflix's dark sci-fi series, Altered Carbon, which offsets its violence with a smart-talking historic AI called Poe who runs The Raven hotel. The moments of comedy break the tension, even though you know another violent episode is coming

In today's article, Jonathan Vars, outlines how you can use elements of comic relief in your writing.

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”
–William Shakespeare, Hamlet

As our friend Shakespeare tells us, comic relief characters have been around for hundreds of years. There comes a time in every story when we need a comedian, a quick wit, “a fellow of infinite jest.”

As important as these characters are, they tend to be written in a grievously one-dimensional fashion. It can be easy to typecast a comic relief character as simply a tool that grabs some quick laughs. Those who choose this route miss out on a richly vibrant and complex character.

Here are a few of the ways one can use a comic relief character effectively:

Comic Relief as an Ease of Tension

The name says it all: this character is a relief, a soother, a diminisher of anxiety. It is a cardinal sin when writing to emotionally exhaust your audience. As important as suspense and tight story tension are, you need to give your audience a breather every now and then.

A comic relief character can provide a moment of humor to help lighten a particularly heavy scene.

Some points to keep in mind:

  • Your character doesn’t have to be a clown to be a comic. A quick wit is always better than a pie in the face
  • Don’t saturate your character with one liners. Keep them multidimensional. No one cracks jokes constantly
  • Humorous observations can pivot the mood of a situation. If a scene is growing overly dark, a humorous quip from your comic relief can shed a little light and provide balance

A great example of comic relief as an ease of tension comes in the form of Dory from Pixar’s Finding Nemo. Many of the central themes of Finding Nemo, such as loss, trust, and letting go, can be very weighty from an emotional perspective.

The inclusion of Dory as a comic relief character provides the perfect amount of lightheartedness to what might otherwise be a very sobering story.

Note that Dory not only provides laughs, but thoughtful insight at times. This is the mark of a fully developed comic relief character.

Comic Relief as Information Dump

In fast moving stories, readers can wind up feeling lost and confused in the fictional world that is being presented. If no clarity is provided, there is a danger that readers will disengage from your story.

Having a character who is just as bewildered as the audience can be a fun and engaging way to slip helpful information to the reader without resorting to “telling”.

Some tips to keep in mind:

  • Try to brainstorm some potential questions your reader would have, then put them in the mouth of your comic relief character
  • Remember to keep it light; take advantage of the natural comedy that arrives from misunderstandings
  • Don’t keep your comic relief perpetually “in the dark”, allow them to be the ones to offer helpful information from time to time

A classic example of a comic relief character as an information dump comes in the form of Riley Poole from National Treasure. Riley’s science-driven and somewhat geeky personality leave him frequently “out of the loop” in a story that is largely driven by history.

Riley’s comical questions and confusions allow helpful information to be passed to the viewer, while simultaneously entertaining. Note also that Riley provides information himself at certain key moments. This helps flesh out his character in a realistic and engaging way.

Comic Relief as a Red Herring

Finally, comic relief characters provide an excellent opportunity to pull a twist on the audience. As readers, we tend to have the subconscious tendency to “label” characters.

Over time, we have come to recognize common character archetypes in fiction: the mentor, the villain, the love interest, etc. Once we assign characters their “place”, we don’t often suspect that they will break character by displaying traits that are in contrast to their archetype.

This “mental categorizing” tendency provides an excellent opportunity to contrive creative plot twists through your comic relief character. After all, we don’t often suspect the character who has been cracking jokes since page one to turn out to be the “golf club killer”.

Humor lowers awareness
; it provides a “safe zone”, creating a unique opportunity to pull an unexpected plot twist.

Some pointers to be aware of:

  • Don’t villainize your comic relief character solely for the sake of a plot twist. Make sure it adds to the story
  • Foreshadow in some way, even if it’s subtle, that there may be another side to your comic relief character
  • Provide believable motivation for why your comic relief character would choose to “lead a double life”

As a point of reference, consider the villainous Jim Moriarty from BBC’s Sherlock. The scene in which Jim is introduced is a purely lighthearted and humorous one. The character seems to exist solely to provide a humorous interaction between the quirky detective and the irritated Molly Hooper.

Even after Moriarty’s true nature is revealed, pieces of his comic nature can still be seen from time to time, creating a deviously unsettling experience for the viewer.

Always remember that your comic relief character is, among other things, a person

With this in mind, make every effort to create your character as complex and multidimensional as a real human being. Let your audience get to know your character as a reliever, an informant, or even a villain.

Remember: if the only purpose of your character is to gain laughs, you shortchange not only your story, but your audience.

Have you used comic relief characters in any of the ways mentioned? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Jonathan Vars is a Christian fiction writer from New England, and founder of the writing website voltampsreactive.com. His latest novel “Like Melvin” is currently available on Amazon and Google Books. In addition to writing, Jonathan enjoys running, painting, and trying not to freeze to death in the winter.

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