Lately, I’ve been listening to The Creative Thinkers Toolkit by Prof Gerard Puccio. It’s a great course which is making me think about creativity in new ways.
One point I found particularly interesting was shared during the lecture Combining Opposites—Diverge, Then Converge.
Puccio calls out two different mindsets that lead to heightened creative thinking: divergent and convergent thinking. Here are the horribly simplified explanations of these ideas. Divergent thinking is basically the process of brainstorming without limiting yourself. Convergent thinking is the filtering process used to take ideas and pick the best ones.
What impacted me while listening was, these two thought processes are necessary for peak creative thinking but when used incorrectly they can actually stifle your creativity. If you filter out bad ideas while brainstorming, you are actively limiting your imagination.
So what’s the best way to generate highly creative ideas? Do what Hemmingway did. Whenever Hemmingway came up with a book title, he would list out hundreds of title ideas. He would then go through them and strike them off the list one by one until one or none were left. He may do this several times until he found the perfect title. He also did this with the last lines of his novels.
So it looks like quantity leads to quality. The more idea’s you generate, the more creative you’re forced to become, and the more you have to push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Do this often enough, and creative thought becomes more natural. Not only are you generating a better final idea, but you’re also getting better at generating ideas at all because of this listing process.
I recently finished the best beta reading experience of my career. It ran smoothly, my beta readers were thorough, turn around was quick, and on the whole results were as good as I could ever hope.
So today I’m paying it forward by sharing my approach to running a beta read so that you can have as positive an experience as I did.
What is a beta read?
For the uninitiated, a beta read is the process where a writer shares their manuscript with a reader or a group of readers who then provide feedback. This process comes before professional editing, or if you’re a self-publisher and on a budget, sometimes substitutes for professional editing entirely.
How many beta readers do I need?
Before you begin, you’ll need to gather a group of beta readers. You’retarget should be around 7 to 15 beta readers.
Since beta readers are rarely professional editors, they’ll often pick a theme such as grammar, character, or simply their enjoyment level and comment on that throughout. So it’s best to have a group of beta readers, and the more you have, the broader and more valuable your feedback will be.
Add to this that several beta readers who sign up to read for you likely won’t even start reading. They may have overbooked themselves or life otherwise got in the way, so you’ll want a cushion for those who inevitably don’t make it through.
Having a large group of beta readers ensures that enough will finish to offer comprehensive feedback. 7 to 15 seems to be the sweet spot, but I wouldn’t gather more than that because it can quickly become a logistical nightmare.
How do I find beta readers?
There are several tactics to gather a killer group of beta readers. It starts with an easy to use sign up form, incentives, and a pitch delivered to the right groups.
Create a beta reader reward
Start by figuring out what you can offer your beta readers in return for their help. They’re basically working for free, so it always helps to sweeten the deal. I’ve given away free books, stickers, bookmarks, and hand-made postcards.
Whatever you choose give away, make sure it’s something you’d like to receive and doesn’t break the bank. We’re not trying to get one time beta readers, we’re trying to build a dedicated group of long term fans.
Build a form using Google Docs
Now that you have your reward figured out, you’ll need an easy way for beta readers to sign up, and for you to keep track of them. Google Docs is perfect for this because it’s free, and sign-ups export to a spreadsheet.
Create a form using google docs and ask for all the info you’ll need. You’ll want to ask for names, emails, and addresses (so you can send them their rewards).
I always throw in a few questions to filter out beta readers I don’t want. For example, if my book is horror, I ask how much they enjoy horror and for them to list their favorite horro novels. If they don’t enjoy it, then their feedback likely wont be very good, so I don’t invite them along.
You’ll want to attract people who will be your target audience, so take some time to write a short blurb. This hook should attract readers to your story. You’ll also want to explain the process and time frames of your beta read.
You’ll use this pitch everywhere you reach to people, including on your signup form, so make sure it’s as clean as you can make it.
Invite readers to sign up
The internet is surprisingly full of people who want to help writers publish. You just need to know where to find them. When you reach out, use your pitch which should contain several links to your sign up form.
Here’s how I look for beta readers, in the order I search. I will work my way down this list until I’ve gathered enough readers to do a proper job.
Previous Beta Readers – If you’ve ever held a beta read before, then start by reaching out to those who already helped you. If you treated them right, they’ll often jump on the opportunity to beta read again.
Newsletter & Blog – If you have a newsletter, mailing list, or blog, send out a message asking for beta readers. Fans will often enthusiastically support you by beta reading.
Social media – Be sure to reach out to your social media following. If you’re on twitter, let the #writerscommunity know about it. There’s also a beta reading community on Reddit. If your piece is short, you can try /r/DestructiveReaders, which is great for short stories or single chapters but will also have a thread where you can ask about beta readers. I’ve also reached out to /r/scifiwriting and other subreddits. There are hundreds of other places to look, don’t be afraid to dig around.
Friends, family, and co-workers – If all those other options fail you, there’s always the old standby of people you know irl. Don’t be afraid to ask them, but also don’t be hurt if they’re the flakiest.
As you can see, there is a world of people out there waiting to become your beta readers. All you need to do is come up with a good pitch, and send them to your signup form.
How do I run a beta read?
Once you’ve gathered your team of beta readers, you’ll want to start the process right away. The longer you wait, the more likely people will drop off early.
The three things I find most important when it comes to running a beta read are communication, incentives, and tracking readers progress. The only tools you need to cover all of this is email and Google Docs.
Why Google Docs?
One of the most difficult challenges is in running a beta read is delivering and receiving your manuscript. Some readers use Word, others Scrivener, others Open Office, but all can use Google Docs for free. So there’s a very low barrier.
When you send files such as Word, etc, you’ll find yourself waiting for periods of time for the comments to come back. Then when they do arrive, you’ll either need to compile all the documents together, or go through each one by one. All of this is a headache and can sometimes be demotivating.
I’ve since stopped providing Word and Open Office docs to each reader and instead only provide a single Google Doc which all readers share. This way, all feedback is in the same document, beta readers can see and respond to each other’s feedback, and you know exactly how far through the document each reader is at a glace.
After you have your Google Doc ready for beta readers to comment on, you’ll want to be a communication guru. Write regular updates informing your beta readers of what’s going on in the process.
This regular communication is necessary to help motivate readers to come back to your story after a few days away. Remember that they have lives, and sometimes your writing isn’t the most important thing they’re dealing with, so gentle reminders go a long way.
But even more effective that this are small incentives, in our case, badges.
The best way to motivate people is to gamify the beta reading process by offering achievement badges. This is just like when you win a badge in a video game. Here’s an example of my bages in action.
You’ll be amazed how well these badges work. All you need to do is come up with a list of achievements beta readers can unlock that you can easily track. Let them know about the badges and give them a timeframe.
When I announced my badges, beta readers immediately started reading and commenting on my story. Afterward, several let me know how it made the process more fun for them.
One of the problems with sending out a giant word doc is you’re in the dark for the whole process. It sucks to sit and wait blindly without knowing if people are even reading.
With the Google Docs, this isn’t an issue at all. And with the Google Form, you can add more ways of manually tracking how far through the process each beta reader is. This helps with sending rewards, keeping track of who’s lagging behind, etc. Good tracking keeps things running smoothly.
When the beta reading process is over, don’t leave your beta readers in the dark. Be sure to follow up with thank you gifts, and reach out to them periodically to let them know the status of your story now that they are done with it.
Chances are, your beta readers are pretty invested in your work at this point, and they’ll appreciate knowing everything that’s happening.
So that’s my process reduced to a single blog post. If you want more detailed info, I have great news! I’m writing a book on beta reading called Running a Perfect Beta Read: The Indie Author’s Guide to Harnessing Incentives, Technology, and Communication for an Out of This World Beta Reading Experience.Sign up for my Perfect Beta Read newsletter to be notified when it’s released.
I’ve been talking about making this series for about two months now, and I finally got around to making the first episode. Welcoming to Behind The Novel, the series where I’ll share my novel writing process every step of the way.
Originally I was going to just jump into showing you the writing process, but after a little consideration, I thought it best to start with the most prominent tool I use: Scrivener.
So this first episode is a brief introduction to Scrivener. You’ll learn why I like it, what benefits it provides, as well as be reminded that masterpieces are written using everything from Microsoft Word to typewriters to pen and paper.
So if you can’t afford Scrivener, never fear. In this case you’ll be in good company. I don’t think Dante used Scrivener either when he wrote The Devine Comedy.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the video. There are more on the way.
You’ve come up with the perfect idea for a novel. Now it’s time to sit down and write. You open your word processor, type in your working title and name (can’t start without that), go to page one and…. freeze. What now? Do I just write? Where do I start? How do I know where I’m going? I’m using Word, do other writers use Word? And…. and… and…
Who knows, maybe when you started your first novel it was a breeze. You just started typing and it felt right. But if you’re anything like many new writers out there, you might not be aware of the many ways novels get written. And even if you do know, you probably don’t know what works best for you until you discover them and give each a shot.
Over the last fifteen years, I’ve given several writing methodologies a shot. My process is ever evolving as I try to find the balance of several aspects, which we’re about to dive into.
In this blog post we’ll answer the following questions
How can I plan my novel without getting too bogged down in the details?
How can I plan it and still maintain the freedom of free-writing?
How can I create a basic elevator pitch before I’ve even started writing?
How can I plot my novel and ensure my characters have a compelling arc?
How do I make sure each scene feels complete?
What word processor should I use to organize all of this?
This is a medium-depth overview. I’ll expand on each point in future blog posts, but for now this’ll be a great jumping off point if you’re wanting a crash corse in novel-writing.
Last note before we get started: this is my method, and my method is constantly changing as I hone it to suite my needs. Your method may turn out quite different from this. Use this as a jumping off point, and then change it to match your style.
Planning your novel
Gasp! I said ‘plan’. If you’re among those who fear or despise this word, worry not! Read on and you’ll find a most satisfactory compromise. You see, I used to hate planning as much as anyone, I still don’t love it. But I’ve discovered a hybrid method that will work for even the most hardened hater.
Planning vs. Pantsing
For those of you who said, “huh?” to the paragraph above, let’s touch on case of plan v pants for a second.
Planning refers to preparation before writing, often in the form of an outline, sometimes in the form of lore or backstory, etc. You might also see it called plotting or outlining.
Pantsing refers to “writing from the seat of your pants”. It’s also called discovery writing — but really, who uses two words when they could use one. In essence, it’s writing without preparation H… I mean a preparation stage (stupid autocorrect ).
I’m not going to spend too much time exploring planning vs pantsing since it’s already been discussed ad nauseam on every writers blog on the planet. And, frankly, it doesn’t interest me. If you want more a more in-depth study on the subject, google it.
What is interesting to me is why, after years of being a staunch pantser, I’ve become something of a hybrid. So let’s talk about that.
The early years, or writing without a plan
The first three novels I wrote were 100% done without preparation — 2 unpublished, the other is Discovering Aberration which you can get for free in the doobly doo below. It felt great. When others talked about planning, I scoffed. I couldn’t understand how anyone could cage themselves with an outline.
Then came revisions… I found my plots meandered. It lingered on some plot threads long past there due, lacked proper foreshadowing, and the pacing was all over the place. In the end I was forced to do several major rewrites. I mean major. It was a bummer and added at least six months to the writing process.
Attempting to outline
Eventually I attempted a full outline for another project, The Gin Thief, but as I wrote the mid to late sections, everything felt like a guess. It’s hard to account for character reactions before your characters are even written.
When it came to drafting, I found I deviated far from my plan and all that work planning seemed wasted. Furthermore, I felt confined by my own preparation. Turns out, plot ideas may sound great in the outline phase but in practice feel forced. There’s too many unaccounted for variables early on.
So I abandoned the hardline planning approach, and today follow a hybrid method that’s working extremely well for me.
The hybrid approach to planning
Today I’m somewhere in the middle. I plan just enough to give me direction, but not enough to box me in. Let’s dive in to what this process looks like.
Acts in bullet point form
First, I break down my novel into three simple lists of arcs organized by Act. Three’s just a number, you can do five or seven or whatever the hell you want. The three act structure is common and it’s what I find myself gravitating to recently, but Shakespeare wrote in five acts and he’s pretty good.
Below is an example. It’s the three acts of my novel Grim Curio, which I’ve nearly completed writing. Spoilers below, but it wont ruin the book even if you know the vague details.
James and Simon save a village from a strange, alien disease which came from another reality. It doesn’t go well.
Nat joins nihilist cult.
Scientists experiment with the nature of reality.
James and Simon struggle to return home. When they arrive their home is drastically changed.
Scientists open a hole in reality.
Cult attacks scientists.
Revolution has broken out. Simon is caught up in it.
Reality is torn, leaking. James tries to fix it.
All hell breaks loose.
Notice how simple it all is. Just the major beats of the story in a loose arrangement. Best of all, before I’ve even written my novel I can give an elevator pitch. It’s not as refined as it will be later in the process, but having these bullet points gives you ammunition when anyone asks you, “so what’s your book about?”
Here’s an elevator pitch built from the bullet point list above: “Grim Curio is about these guys who save a village from an otherworldly disease and get punished for it. When they return home, everything has changed. Reality is torn, and a revolution is on. And that’s not mentioning the nihilist cult in the middle of it all.”
Fleshing out characters
Now we know the basic arc of our novel. You have a lot of options at this point. If you were a hardcore planner, you might start a flowchart of every scene. If you’re a lore geek, you might start nailing down all of the back story. If you’re a pantser at heart, you might just start writing.
As for me, I’m obsessed with character. I believe characters are why we read books. Everything else is just sugar on top, plot included. So my next step is spending some time getting to know them.
A characters beginning and end
First thing I like to do for all major characters is determine their starting and ending state of mind. This doesn’t need to be overly complicated. Could be, “Jill starts out bad, becomes good,” or “Sam hates dogs, learns dogs are man’s best friend”. That kind of thing.
And then there are characters who don’t change, static characters. There’s nothing wrong with a static character, but you should know before hand if your character is going to be unchanging, and why.
In the case of Simon, from Grim Curio, he starts as a man who believes he understands the world but has little affect on it, and ends as a man who realizes he knows nothing but the masses follow him regardless.
As for James, he’s more static. There are changes, but its much more subtle and internal. James is a man who always needs to be working, being stagnant leads him into depression. He begins believing in himself but even as his successes are marred with terrible consequences. Because of this, he stops believing in himself, continues trying anyway, and finally gets things right.
Creating character arc through sign posts
We now have our major characters beginning and ending state of mind. Time to fill in the rest with sign posts. These are plot points you can aim towards while you’re writing your scenes. If you know that Jaclyn is an asshole who becomes a saint, then each of these sign posts are the moments where small amounts of change occur. By the end of the novel, all of these small moments of change will build up to a big revelation.
If you want more information on this, I recommend reading Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland and watching these two Brandon Sanderson lectures. These resources changed my outlook on crafting character, and I consider them required reading/viewing.
Do I really need to do all this work before I start writing?
HELL NO! You don’t need to do anything you don’t feel like. Jack Kerouac famously wrote On The Road in a single drugged out session, and that’s considered a masterpiece. So go do that if you feel like it. Doesn’t matter how you write it as long as it gets written.
There are zero rules to writing other than you need to put words on paper — or e ink. Don’t let anyone push you around with their rules. Your weird unheard of method may result in a best seller or critical darling. I don’t know, and neither does anybody else.
I don’t even always stick to my own rules. They are there to service me, not the other way around. So I deviate when I feel like it. But I’ve found having these methods in mind greatly helps me, even when I don’t follow them.
Post continues below.
The drafting process
If you’re following along, you’ll have bullet pointed your major arcs, you’ll have created you’re major characters with beginnings and endings in mind, and you’ll have some scenes you can aim towards via character sign posts. Now it’s time to actually write.
If you’re brave, you can start by writing scene one all the way through and then move on to scene two. This is the most straight forward approach. But I’ve found simply drafting an entire scene from scratch is fraught with flaws. It takes too long, has too many uncertainties, requires too much mental gymnastics as I attempt to account for later scenes, and is prone to unexpected bouts of writers block.
But I made a brilliant discovery. Write descriptions of scenes before writing the scenes themselves. I’m pretty sure I didn’t come up with this. It’s been a long time since I read Write. Publish. Repeat. by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant, but as I recall they have a similar method.
Before we talk about that, let’s take a look at our most potent weapon, the word processor
Sorry. This bit sort of comes out of nowhere, but I want to make sure I include it because it’s such a fundamental part of my process these days. Let’s talk about Scrivener for a sec.
Scrivener is a word processor that’s built with novel-writing in mind. You can organize things by act, scene, character, tag, and so much more. Drag and drop whole chapters at a time. It’s well worth the $45, and is by far my tool of choice.
Above is an older version of Scrivener (I need to upgrade to version 3). What you see is Grim Curio broken up by act, and each act broken up by chapter, and each chapter broken up by scene. This is how I write, and I find it invaluable. You’ll see why next.
Creating scene descriptions
Let’s say today is the first day of drafting for my new project. I have my characters in mind with some sign posts to aim for. What I do now is create a new scene file, but rather than start writing a fully fleshed out scene, I write a very short description of the scene I’ll eventually write. My goal is a rough idea of the scene in a couple of paragraphs.
Here’s a contrived example:
James enters the village, and immediately is struck by their strange customs. Everyone is gathered around a great dead tree that’s scorched black. The people are coated in mud and dirt, and as they work they toss more dirt on their skin. Their homes are burrows in the ground.
As James approaches, they notice him and send someone to intercept/question him. He makes some basic mistakes, but recovers a little. They lead him to talk to the village elders, but their conversation is interrupted by screams.
I’m not trying to write well here. I’m just getting a basic idea of how the scene will progress. When that’s done, I create the next scene file and do it again. I’ll do this as far as I possibly can before it feels like I’m forcing it. Usually this is a few chapters worth of scene descriptions.
As I read through the descriptions, using Scrivener I can rearrange them easily if needed. Later I’ll come back, go back to scene 1, and start fleshing it out.
Writing the scene
From here, it’s pretty straight forward. Go through your description and expand. Don’t worry about writing perfect prose. Just get the scene done and feeling pretty good. Then move on to the next scene description and expand that. Do this over and over until you reach the end of your written scene descriptions.
Now that we have a series of drafted scenes, I go through several passthroughs to improve them.
Phases of rewriting
I tend to go through my scenes at least four times. Each time, I focus on a different element of storytelling.
First passthrough I focus on character. I make sure motivations feel legit, make sure dialog feels real, and generally just try to keep each character inline with their personalities.
Second passthrough I focus on descriptions. The best narration engages the senses, so I try to mimic what I consider the best. That means making sure every scene not only has a look, but a feel, a sound, a scent. If a character touches a wall, I want a line about the texture. If they enter a kitchen, I want a line about the scent.
Third passthrough I focus on prose. That’s the words themselves. I like books with good word economy, meaning never using two words where one will do. This doesn’t necessarily mean using big words all the time, but I also don’t shy away from big words if they feel right.
Forth passthrough I just refine and cut. If there’s anything extra that doesn’t service the characters or the plot, I cut it. Even if it’s really good on its own. Doesn’t matter. Cut mercilessly. After all this work, you’re gonna have paragraphs that you labored over that don’t fit right. Don’t be sentimental. Cut the shit out of them.
Bear in mind that four passthroughs is on the low end for me. That’s a straight forward scene without too many complications. The first and last chapters of Grim Curio both had at least 10-15 passthroughs, as well as some all out rewrites. Keep massaging it til it feels right.
Continue this cycle over an over again for about a year, and you’ll have a damn fine novel. When you’ve written up to the end of your scene descriptions, start writing descriptions again and write towards your sign posts. Then expand and refine. And again and again.
That’s it. That’s my process. If you want me to get more granular on any topic, let me know and I’ll make time to do so. If you like this post and want more like it, then please share through your favorite social network. If you want to support my work, buy a novel using a link to the right, or sign up for my mailing list in the doobly doo above. Until next time, I’ll see you around.
Every week or two, my mom would buy me a new Goosebumps book. I loved them so much I’d sleep with them under my pillow. When I woke up, all my tossing and turning would destroy them, creasing the cover and crumpling pages.
You could say Goosebumps had a profound affect on me. The series planted the seed that would blossom into my current obsession with writing. But if I were to pick up Say Cheese and Dietoday, I doubt it would have the same effect.
Fight Club and the $100 plate of nachos
The make-out years
I was a nerdy kid. All the way to freshman year, all I did was hang out with church friends, play video games, read books, and walk to the local Blockbuster to rent movies. I didn’t know how to talk to girls. I had little rebellions, but nothing substantial.
Sophomore year, everything changed. I made friends with the rebellious kids, started going out more, discovered girls were a thing and they were soft and fun to kiss. I even came up with a bold move — at a party, I’d sit next to a cute girl, lean in, and just go for it. And it worked! Let the sloppy make-out session begin. I became a smug little shit.
The book that changed everything
During this time, I heard whispers about this book everyone said was “badass and messed up”. It passed from rebel to rebel, and eventually worked its way into my hands. The book, Fight Club. I didn’t just read it. I cut it up into a line and inhaled it. Then again and again…
Fight Club inspired a strong, prolonged drive in me to push against my boundaries in all directions. It’s nihilistic glee spoke to me, empowered me to break away from everything that held me down. I took part in a series of escalating acts of destruction, mayhem, experimentation. Tyler Durden was my hero.
First, I skipped school to go to the river or hang out on the train tracks. Then I ran away from home. I stole backpacks full of groceries and alcohol. I played around with mushrooms, dextroamphetamine, nearly got arrested while on mescaline. One night my friends and I wanted nachos, so we stole enough chips, salsa, meat, and condiments to make a plate of the most over indigent nachos we could muster. It was cemented in infamy as the $100 Nachos.
I’m not bragging about it or suggesting you do what I did. The reason why I share is to illustrate the profound impact Chuck’s book had on me. It, along with Punk Rock and my growing dissatisfaction with Mormonism literally shaped a period of my life in drastic ways.
All About Timing
This begs the question: why did Fight Club affect me so much? What about it impacted me more than all those other books I read before? Of all the books I can remember reading in that period of my life, from The Hobbit to Catcher in the Rye, I don’t think any inspired a discernible change in me til this one.
Turns out, I have an answer. As I get older and go back to reread books I loved from previous periods in my life, some I have a greater appreciation for, while others I’m left wondering what it is about it that made me love it in the first place. It all comes down to timing.
Books can mean incredibly different things based on so many factors outside of the text itself. From the culture around you, to your own mindset that morphs year to year, the book you pick up today will be very different from that same book seven years from now.
Sure, it can be argued that Fight Club is targeted to young men at the exact age I was. But that’s missing the point. Reading Kurt Vonnegut now vs. reading it him in high school brings up a different response in me. I image the same will be true when I pick up Robert Luis Stephenson, Hermann Hesse, Cormac McCarthy, or Patrick Rothfuss again.
So maybe greatness is all about timing.
Fight Club fifteen years later
I recently re-read Fight Club. I went into it concerned that it wouldn’t live up to my memory, but something happened. I read it with two mindsets. I was transported via nostalgia right back to that feeling I had when I was a kid reading it for the first time. Meanwhile, I read it with older eyes. I was more distanced from the characters, the anti-consumerist message, the unique rhythm of Palahniuk’s prose. Of course it felt different, I’m different now. But it was still fun, still gleefully anarchistic, and I enjoyed it.
Reading it for the first time at age 32, would it have changed my life? Doubtful. It would certainly entertain me, and I would still find Tyler Durden to be enduring as all hell. But it wouldn’t change the way I think.
What does that mean? Was it once a great novel, and now it’s just good? Does a novel need to change the way you think to be considered great? Of course not. Not all great books will change you. But only a great book can.
So that makes it official. I declare Fight Club to be a masterpiece. Because in the end, I guess it did change me a second time. It taught me that greatness is just as much about the reader as it is the book. Not just that, but the specific stage in the reader’s life when they pick it up.
While writing Grim Curio is still in full swing (but nearing its end), I’ve been thinking about future projects a lot lately. I have two other novels in the works, The Gin Thief episodes and an untitled novel I’m co-writing with my wife, Tana.
She’s not much into social networking or blogging, but she’s a voracious reader and you can follow her on Goodreads. Last year she read well over 100 books and this year she’s already on track to surpass that.
I’ve been asking her for a while, “When are you going to write your own novel?” and she shrugs.
She’s the reader, I’m the writer. But I knew there was a story inside her if I could just coax it out. So during an hour long drive, I grilled her. I started with the broad questions. “If you were to write your novel,” I asked, “What genre would it be?”
She was skeptical of my motives, but after a little coaxing she opened up. “My favorite books are mash-ups of Science Fiction with a Fantasy element,” she said. Turns out, she likes the Sci-fi aesthetic, and magic systems from novels like the Mistborntrilogy. Sounds good to me.
“I really like the plot of Treasure Island,” she said. One of my favorite novels. Scored a big point with that one. “I’m interested in a science fiction retelling of Treasure Island with magic and a heist.”
I was taken aback. “That sounds amazing. I’d totally read that. In fact, I’d totally write that.”
We tossed ideas back and forth, getting more and more specific along the way. And what we came up with was this.
It’s a mess. But it’s also a jumping off point.
Let’s say you’re interested in writing your own novel, but don’t know where to start. What can you take away from this?
Find someone to bounce ideas off of
As it turns out, Tana has more interesting ideas than I do. Go figure. She’s read everything under the sun. She’d throw me an idea, and I’d build on it and throw it back. Pretty soon we had the seed of what could be a promising story.
It’s important to remember that there really isn’t such a thing as a bad idea in this stage. It’s ok to say, “That’s been done before,” or “I’d rather see something like…” But don’t shoot the other person’s ideas down. They are doing you a service, and if you want their continued support, be encouraging.
Start broad, then go more and more narrow
You’ll notice that in the beginning there wasn’t a specific idea. But as we explored settings and themes and plot structure, we began to get more and more specific.
Of course this isn’t the only way to go. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever attempted to create a novel this way. But it seems to have worked well.
Alternative ways to begin a novel include: start with a character, start with the plot, find an idea you want to explore, find an aesthetic, or just find a book you want to emulate. It really doesn’t matter where the spark of the idea comes from. Just find a something you love and run with it.
What you brainstorm here will likely not be your final product. What sounds amazing in the idea generation phase may be terrible once executed. There’s no way to know until you do it.
Embrace change. Pivot once you realize something isn’t working. Don’t hold yourself to your early ideas, because in the end it doesn’t matter how you started, only how you finish.
Realize that this is just the first step
The work is only just beginning. An idea isn’t worth the paper it’s written on unless you follow through with it. Writing a novel is a lot of sustained hard work. Be prepared to follow through for months and months in the trenches, taking fire and shooting back until… you’re novel is written I guess. Not a great analogy, but I’m keeping it.
Recently I took the plunge into playing Dungeons and Dragons for the first time since high school. What’s more, I decided to DM. DM, short for Dungeon Master, is the player who creates and dictates the Dungeons & Dragons (DnD) game to the other players, known as PC’s (or Player Characters). It takes a lot of work upfront, but it’s fun, rewarding, and well worth the time investment.
Now that I’ve gone through the learning process, I want to simplify becoming a DM for other hopeful game masters. So here is a resource just for you that will provide you with everything you need to get started. How to find inspiration, where to get free and legal resources, fun ways to learn the rules, and cool stuff to buy.
If you have any questions or would like to suggest an addition, feel free to let me know in the comments. Till then, best of luck in your DMing journey.
Before you DM for the first time, it’ll be worth your while to watch some people do it well. There are a ton of live streams out there, so there’s inspiration aplenty, but what follows worked for me.
This is a great one-shot to watch. A one shot is an adventure that lasts a single play session, rather than one that’s ongoing. D&Diesel is short, so you can get a quick taste, but also hugely fun. Pay attention to the players reactions to the narration by DM Matt Mercer. I try to emulate his use of voices, but I’m not very good. Even so, I think the effort adds to the atmosphere, so even if you can’t voice act, give it a shot.
I love Dan Harmon, but he seems to inspire love and annoyance from different people. If you’re squarely in the Harmon camp, as I am, then you’ll love Harmonquest whether you’re interested in DMing or not. Spencer Crittenden is the DM here, and he does a fantastic job. Bear in mind that this show edits out all of the slower moments, so it’s not representative of the entire play experience, but it’s hella fun and worth a watch. You can watch it on YouTube or Vrv.co. Either way, you’ll have to pay. Sorry bout it.
You can’t talk about live streamed DnD without mentioning Critical Role, which basically started the whole craze. It’s a great show to watch, but each episode is around 3+ hours in length. I sometimes watch while I code or do yoga. Pay attention to how Matt Mercer goes along with his players ideas. He has a very “yes and” attitude, which I’m trying to get better at. “Yes and” is an improve idea where when someone else (one of your players) suggests an idea, you go with it and build on it, rather than shooting it down.
Learn how to DM
Before you dive in to running your campaign, you’ll need to know the basic rules. Start by watching the many great videos on YouTube that delve into the core rules of D&D. You’ll still need a Players Handbook at some point, there’s no getting around that, but watching the videos is an entertaining way of absorbing all the basic knowledge you’ll need to get started. Here are some I particularly enjoyed.
How to Play Dungeons and Dragons
This animated guide is a great intro into the rules. Much more fun than reading through the Players Handbook. If you’re not sure yet if you want to invest in the books, this is a great place to start. However, you will need a copy to play for reference. You’ll want to watch all of the intro videos, and probably videos on classes of your PC’s, before starting.
GM Tips w/ Matt Mercer
This is my third mention of Matt Mercer, and that’s not a mistake. He’s not only a great voice actor and DM, he’s also great at bestowing his knowledge in quick and easy to understand and utilize chucks. I enjoy the brevity of these videos. It allows me to pick up a lot of skills and ideas without needing to wade through a 30 minute video, which seems to be the norm in the DnD YouTube world. Watch the playlist below, cherrypick whichever feel most relevant to your current issues, and you’ll receive lots great advice without a major time commitment.
Your First Adventure, Running the Game
Speaking of 30 min videos, author, game writer, and DM Matthew Coville is the more in-depth and long-winded type, but his information is clear, full of context, and usually entertaining to watch.
For my first adventure, I literally the exact campaign from his video below, and it went better than I could have hoped. From there I branched off into my own homebrewed campaign, which I highly recommend. If you want to see the process of creating a campaign in action, learn about the various features of an adventure, and get all of the materials for free, then this is a great place to start. I’ve also posted links to some of the materials below.
Things You Need Before You Play
There are a lot of things you’ll need eventually if you plan on playing regularly. However, you don’t need everything all at once. In fact, if you’re strapped for cash, there’s enough free material out there for you to get started with nothing more than a set of dice.
Below is a collection of everything I think you need before you dive into your first game. Skip the books, skip the plastic minis, right now you just want to dip your toe in and figure out if this whole DM thing is for you. After your first session, you can begin getting all that other stuff.
D&D has a lot of rules, and you’ll need to reference them from time to time. Lucky for us, Wizards of the Coast has a free starter rule book for new DM’s. So get the rules here.
Another helpful tool is the app Complete Reference 5e. I believe this app is on both Android and iPhone. I own an Android and it works well for looking up things quickly mid-play. You’ll have a hard time learning how to play if you only use this app, but you’ll save a lot of time referencing things when you download the Complete Reference 5e.
The Players Handbook is about $40, and learning how to build characters from scratch takes a lot of time. Instead, start with Wizards pre-made characters to take some of the load off your shoulders. I think there are 16 characters for your players to choose from. If you have a Players Handbook, make sure you’re players read through their class descriptions before your first game, otherwise have them look them up online. Get premade character sheets here.
Miniatures are one of the best things about DnD, in my opinion. They’re so damn cool, and add an extra dynamic to the game. However, like everything else in D&D, they’re expensive when you’re starting out. And even more expense when you dive in. Instead of dropping some serious coin on a bunch of figures, download and print them from Printable Heroes. There you’ll find high quality, printable minis that work just as well as actual figurines for a fraction of the cost. Find printable minis here.
After you’ve run your first adventure and decided it’s something you want to keep doing, there are several more things you’ll want, and some other resources you’ll want to dive into.
All the books – At this point, it’s time to start investing in the books. Buy them in this order:
The Players Handbook
The Dungeon Masters Guide
The Monster Manual
Any campaign of your choice
I included a campaign book there even though I’ve been playing with homebrew content. While I don’t run my games out of one of these pre-made adventures, before reading this I was spending too much time creating content that didn’t really matter. After, I read through one which greatly aided me in knowing how much content of what sort I needed to prepare.
The Home Brewery
Once you start writing your own adventures, you’ll want them to look pretty. Enter The Home Brewery which does an excellent job of making your home brew content feel legit.
You can buy battlemats which have grids and stuff on them, and they look great. I didn’t want to spend the extra money, so I found a whiteboard I had lying around and I use that to draw the environments on. It’s quick and liberating to layout something with ease.
Dungeons & Dragons Lore
These lore videos delve into the various aspects of a lot of D&D’s most iconic creatures, gods, realms, etc. I went through the entire series in a week. It’s a shame there’s not more, but what there is is really great. Lore adds depth to your campaign, and throwing in some little details here or there will make your world feel more real.
Fantasy Name Generators
Coming up with the ton of fantasy names you’ll need is a chore. Use Fantasy Name Generators to come up with names for Cities, Taverns, Wizards, Elves, Pirates, Rivers, Monsters, etc. Really they have just about everything in a very simple to use setup. Generate fantasy names here.
Who The Fuck is my DnD Character
If you’re players are having a hard time coming up with character ideas, this is a fantastic resource. I ran a one shot adventure featuring only characters inspired by this tool, and it was a lot of fun. Get character ideas here.
Fantasy World/Dungeon Generators
These procedurally generated worlds and dungeons work really well. Create a detailed world or encounter with very little effort. Not as customizable as I’d like, but great for what it is. Build worlds or dungeons here.
Short Run Posters
Now that you have a world map, you’ll want to print it out and start drawing all over it, creating countries, expanding on the features of different zones, laying out area’s of interest, etc. I printed my map through Short Run Posters, and it turned out great.
I love being able to show my players where they are in the world, and let the map inform some of their choices. I only layout the areas around my players though, and only draw in cities their characters would already know about, adding more as they discover places. Print your map here.
Finally, once you’ve dived in deep, it’s inevitable that the miniature craze will hit you. Enter Hero Forge, a fantastic 3d printing service where you can design custom characters. They run about $30 a piece, so they aren’t cheap, but they’re great for adding a bit of ownership to the PC’s minis. Trust me, if one of your players buys one, they all will. Check out hero forge here.
There you have it, a collection of all the things I found useful on my journey to becoming a decent DM. I still have a lot to learn, and there is so much more you can do beyond this. I’m thinking about releasing some of my homebrew content for you to play too very soon. Keep an eye out :).
Writing a novel is a massive undertaking. Even a short one will consume hundreds, if not thousands of hours of your life. So it’s no surprise that so many people look for effective novel-writing strategies. What follows is the first post in my series on novel-writing. Through this series we’ll explore my current novel-writing process from conception to wherever the future takes us.
Writers write because they are inspired, don’t they? In film, writers struggle for that perfect idea, for that flash of inspiration. They struggle over a blank page, cursed with genius yet a lack of inspiration for they’re next novel. If we take movies at their word, no writer would ever write until they discovered the perfect, world shattering idea.
Lucky for us, writing doesn’t actually work that way. Good ideas are important, but they aren’t the crux that every novel depends on. Moreover, while inspiration may simply strike some people, most of us have to fashion habits that will coax ideas out of the back of our minds on a regular basis.
So how important is the inspiration behind your next (or first) novel? How do you create habits that ensure ideas come freely and with relative ease? Read on to dispel some common myths, learn a bit about the nature of inspiration, and build the habits that nurture ideas, generating them on a near daily basis.
The Prefect Concept
Do I need the perfect idea before I start writing?
You’re about to devote months, perhaps years to writing your masterpiece but it all starts with an idea. One bud of a thought can fuel countless hours of your life as you tackle the thankless task of sitting in a room, alone, writing. So you should wait to begin until you have the best idea ever, right?
No. In my experience, aspiring writers place too much importance on the idea behind their story. They seem to believe that if they think and think and think, they’ll come up with the perfect concept, and a book will eventually form. They will often say, “I’ve been working on a story for years.” But when it comes down to it, no words have been written.
What’s the issue with placing too much emphasis on the idea?
Some people will build their ideas for years. They may even change from one concept to another, developing ideas so thoroughly that they may as well have written their novel to completion. People I know and love have developed tons of ideas but have nothing to show for it. What they don’t realize is that an idea is only a fraction of the work involved when writing.
In reality there’s no need to labor over an idea until it’s perfect. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Everyone has them. Even a really solid idea is worthless without the right amount of ass in chair time.
Let’s consider Tim. Tim spent years developing his idea, and it’s damn near perfect. If you could see the visions inside his head, you’d be brought to tears for it brilliance. When Tim finally sat down to write, an awful thing happened. The words didn’t sound right. They felt amateurish and sloppy.
The trouble is, Tim knows what good writing is. He’s read it over and over again. But Tim never practiced the actual craft of writing. He’s read great novels, read amazing books on story structure and character arcs. He knows when writing is good or bad, but he hasn’t spent enough time practicing the craft, so his perfect idea in theory is now a mess in execution.
Had Tim settled on a half-formed idea, wrote it out, and admitted it was bad, he would have had hundreds of hours of experience writing. Maybe his first effort will never get published, but by the time he gets to his second or third novel, his writing will be leaps and bounds better, the ideas will come easier, and his ability to communicate through text will mature.
In other words, don’t put too much emphasis on the idea of your book, especially your first book. Find something that interests you and start writing. The more you do this, the easier the entire process will become.
Fostering Habits to Encourage Constant Inspiration
Now that I’ve spent roughly 1000 words downplaying the spark that incites your novel, I’m going to admit that ideas are kind of important after all. Before you sit down to a blank screen and flashing cursor, you’ll want to start somewhere. So where does the inspiration come from?
Idea’s can come from anywhere, you just need to condition yourself to generate them. I’m a firm believer that anyone can be a good writer, talent be damned. Sure, in every walk of life there are some people who are inherently talented, but there are far more people who simply worked really hard to get what they want. Everything about the writing process will come easier if you put the hours in. That includes finding inspiration.
The three B’s
I once had a professor tell me that inspiration comes from the three B’s: bathroom, bedroom, and bus. What he meant was, there are certain points of the day where you’re doing nothing, and it’s these moments where you’ll find yourself inspired. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it’s likely while you’re commuting, falling asleep, or doing your bathroom business.
But if you’re a writer, you probably need more than that. You’ll want to create habits that insure you have constant moments to think, explore ideas, and hopefully be inspired.
Make time for contemplation
All of my best ideas come in times of quiet contemplation, which for most people doesn’t just happen. You need to create the times to think, which can unfortunately be quickly overrun by the busy world, much like a gym membership. This in turn forces you to be ever vigilant in protecting you thinking time, deliberately setting aside regular time for it.
Most people only reserve this kind of thinking time for the three B’s — and bathroom has now become the place of the smartphone so maybe the B’s are down to two. To be in a state of constant inspiration, or to at least aspire to that state, you need to consciously develop a habit of turning off distractions (including other people) and just think.
For me, habits are easiest to maintain when they easily fit into my schedule. Let’s be honest here, creating new habits is hard, especially with my busy schedule filled with family, work, writing, reading, Muay Thai, video games, Harmonquest, Rick and Morty, and anime. You likely have things you’re passionate about too, so tailor your novel meditation schedule to work best with everything else you’ve got going on.
Driving – At least a few days per week I spend my 40 minute commute to work listening to this playlist and just thinking. No audiobooks, no podcasts, no damn commercials. Just me and my thoughts for 40 minutes straight. It’s amazing how much will come out of these driving sessions once you make a habit of it.
If you have the privilege of a long commute, this is a viable option for you. It’s time you wont get back anyway, might as well invest is as a thinker rather than a passive talk radio listener. But if you don’t commute, find time where you’re doing constant, mindless things, and inject your mind into the equation. Walking, running, shopping, and for some people maybe while working.
Bed – About twice per week I’ll go to bed an hour early. I know that I can rarely actually fall asleep before 10:30pm, so I go to bed with the goal of mulling over current project. Since I’m already in the middle of writing Grim Curio (sign up for my newsletter so you don’t miss it’s release) I’ll spend that time thinking on character motivations and arcs, plot points, and themes.
When one of the ideas feel particularly good, I’ll find a way of putting it to paper. Later I’ll work it into my book summary so when I get to the applicable point in the novel, I’ll remember exactly what I was thinking.
I feel like this is an easy option for most people. Do what you have to so you’re in a thinking mindset, lay down, close your eyes, and just think.
Writing – To be honest, a lot of great ideas and sparks of inspiration come in the moment during the writing process. Sometimes it relates to the current scene, but just as often what I’m writing will spark an idea for a future scene. These ideas can disappear quickly, so make a note of it right away.
These ideas tend to be on the details and continuity level for me, so their different from what I think of in the previous strategies. Because of this, I would not rely on this time to be your only time to think on your book. At the same time, don’t underestimate the value of simply writing, even if you have no direction at all. Ideas will come to you as you work through all the threads in your mind. So, even when nothing else is working, sit down and write.
With their powers combined
Don’t rely on just one of these times to contemplate your novel. Try a combination or come up with a few of your own. Best results come when taken together.
The personal risks of living in constant pursuit of inspiration
I’m not normal. You probably figured this out already. I’m pretty aloof, I forget a lot of important things, and I have a hard time maintaining relationships with many people outside my family — even inside my family if I’m being honest. For a normal person, this might sound lonely, but for me, it’s what I crave.
This personality flaw, as some might call it, is likely a result of my own pursuit crafting the perfect piece of fiction. I spend so much time thinking about my writing — and other creative projects — that when it comes time for the real world, often I’m a step behind.
For me, that’s ok. I enjoy being alone and spending time simply thinking on things. This is where my inspiration comes from. So be warned, transitioning into a life in constant pursuit of inspiration may come at a cost. Or you might already be an outcast, nerd, or other form of standoffish enthusiast. My people!
Don’t put too much pressure on your ideas
The idea generating phase never ends, so try not to stress about it. The more you allow yourself to think on things, the easier it becomes. Remember, it takes years to become good at anything. Don’t expect the first manuscript you write to be your masterpiece. You could be one of the lucky one’s who writes a classic on their first go, and to you I say fuck off.
It takes most people years to become great at manipulating a thousand ideas into a novel, so just make time for thinking and writing and let everything else go. There’s too much stress in the world already. Don’t make the creative process into a stressful one. Enjoy the struggle, take pride in your mistakes, at least you’re creating something out of nothing! Later on, those early mistakes will be obvious and you’ll find all new weaknesses to strengthen. So it goes.
When your expectations are too high, nothing feels good enough. Accept that not all of your ideas will be perfect. Some may feel average at best but will create a compelling story in execution. Others may feel great and in execution you’ll realize that they weren’t all you thought they were. It’s all ok. Pivot. Come up with new ideas. Think and think on it, massage it, and eventually something good will come.
Recognize that the initial idea will likely get left in the dust
When I wrote Discovering Aberration, my initial idea was inspired by a dream of a mysterious island with some hidden technology submerged under a lake protected by a dragon. The island and the ancient technology made it to the final draft. All the rest got written out. In the end I wrote a story involving gang wars, evil archeologists, a lost civilization, and characters driven to madness. Idea’s change, and that’s ok. Let them take on their own life, coax them along, adjusting when you need to.
Ideas and inspiration don’t strike anyone not actively looking for it. The right mindset, discipline, and practice will cause ideas to flow. If you aspire to being a great writer, then the best advice I can give you is to write and never stop. I hope you found this first post in my novel-writing series useful. If you did, I would very much appreciate it if you would be kind enough to share. I’ll see you next time.
Behind the scenes of favorite books can be a complicated place, especially when you’re talking about editors. There are so many stages of editing, so many kinds of editors as well as generous readers who give up their time to offer their opinion on works in progress. So if you’re among the many readers who doesn’t know the difference between a Developmental Editor, Proofreader and Beta Reader, this post is for you.
We’re going to break down editors into three categories, Editors, Beta Readers, and Alpha Readers. Editors are your professional brand of book doctors who get paid the big bucks to gut manuscripts before their published. They come in many varieties, and we’ll address the nuances below. Then there’s Beta Readers who are more or less hobby editors who volunteer their time to read manuscripts before they reach Editors and offer their advice. Finally, there are Alpha Readers who come early in the process often in the form of critique groups, writing workshops, etc.
For a more detailed overview on these publishing heroes, read on.
Editors are professional readers, critiquer’s and proofreader’s. They are paid to offer their expert advice to an author in order to make the authors work more marketable (also better).
There are many kinds of editors including: acquisition editors, copy editors, line editors, content editors, and more. Rather than rewriting what’s already been written hundreds of times online, I’ve founds another source to do that work for me. Below is a quote from a blog post from The Helpful Writer. They do a great job of calling out the differences without diving too deep. You can read their complete, original post here.
Most of you already know, or at least heard of, the AE. Generally, they are the ones picking up the books for a publisher, and the go-to for the author while prepping a book for publication.
Used by big publishing houses, and often ghost writers. You can find a few freelancing DEs. They are best with non-fiction writing, but can be hired by fiction writers. Their primary function is to ensure a book moves in a forward motion, watching plot and characterization. Think writing coach.
The very big publishing houses have Content Editors, the one overlooking all the plot, characterization, voice, and setting.
The copy editor specializes in grammar, punctualization, fact-checking, spelling, and formatting. The Copy Editor is used most often in journalism publications, but utilized by some smaller publishers.
Also known as a Copy/Content Editor, often employed by the small – medium publishers, and self-published authors. They do it all – grammar, fact-checking, spelling, formatting, plot, sentences, characterization, setting, punctualization, and voice. They go through every inch of an MS, word by word, line by line.
Many get a proofreader and an editor confused. A proofreader is the one who goes over your MS after an editor. They look for the glaring mistakes missed, generally in punctuation, spelling, and formatting. They look for the glaring mistakes that may have been missed during edits.
Hey guys, I’m back! Let’s talk about beta readers. Beta readers are the salt of the earth readers who want to be a part of the process. And they’re awesome. They volunteer their time to read early access, unkempt, unpublished manuscripts. They then share their thoughts with the author in the form of notes and/or interviews. If all goes well, a better book is birthed kicking and screaming into this cruel world.
The beta reading process for me is a structured, chapter by chapter read through. My beta readers are given chapter deadlines and are asked to answer a series of questions to send back to me. Occasionally we may have one on one conversations where they share their deepest, darkest secrets… ahem, thoughts on my novel. It’s the semi casual version of Editing!
Want to become a Beta Reader? Send me a message through my contact form, and let me know. I’ll add ask you a few questions and potentially add you to the list.
To boil it down, Alpha Readers are to Beta Readers what Beta Readers are to Editors. Hows that for a flashback to the SAT’s? To clarify: Editors are a professional grade arsenal of long-range weapons. They get paid to read at a professional level. Beta readers are avid readers willing to share their thoughts. They’re your infantry.
Alpha readers, on the other hand, have access to some or all of the early versions of chapters, they may read it in order or random bits and pieces, and they are not beholden to schedules or deadlines. They come earlier in the process than Beta Readers, often before much of the book is even written. They are your spies.
For me, Alpha Readers help determine aspects of the novel while I am writing it. They share input during the drafting process.You can include in this group writing partners or workshops. Lately I’ve been using /r/DestructiveReaders for my alpha reading process (learn about how I used this community to improve my writing skills). Some readers there are professional writers, other amateurs, still others just readers wanting to share their input.
If you want to be notified when chapters are available for alpha reading, reach out to me through my contact form and let me know. I’ll email you whenever a new chapter is available to alpha read.
So there you have it. In short, all forms of editors are great but each serves a very different purpose. If you’re a reader who wants to get involved, find what works best for you and offer your services to an up and coming writers. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled. If you’re an up and coming writer, keep an eye out for these kinds of readers and learn how to utilize them. It’ll be highly worth your time.