Links for Indie Authors – A Few Goodies from Feb 2018

IndieAuthorToolsLinks-Mar2018Want to start March with more focus and energy? Shaking off the winter doldrums?

Here are my latest favorite resources & tips.

And – just so you know – I’m so busy with other projects, I don’t follow many blogs or YouTube channels.

(Oh, I receive the email notification… I just don’t click very often. keeps my emails under control, and I can go for days – sometimes more than a week – without opening any of those collections.)

So, what I’m recommending here are the few articles, etc., that I consider worth your time, even if you’re super-busy.

Book Promotion: Do This, Not That – the Book Designer blog is usually useful. This article finally explained to me why some authors use Ingram Spark instead of (or in addition to) CreateSpace. In a way, it’s a clunky solution and has some clear drawbacks. But, as a solution to a specific problem – pre-sales of printed books – it may interest you.

Next topic… Pinterest.

For far too long, I’ve thought of Pinterest as just another time-sucking social media site. I haven’t used it.

Then, I did.


Yes, it does generate traffic and interest. If your audience is a match for Pinterest – 80% women, generally from the USA – consider making Pinterest part of your marketing strategy.

Note: I did not say “get on Pinterest and start pinning.” That may be a smart choice for you. Me…? At the moment, I’m too busy to add that to my to-do list.

Instead, I’m making sure all of my book-related blog posts are Pinterest friendly.

This means I’m including a 600 x 900 graphic – with text – that someone may decide to pin. And that can lead to more traffic.

(Like I said: So far, to my absolute amazement, it’s working. And not just in niches related to cooking, weddings, and party planning. In fact, Pinterest is driving traffic to my completely unlikely niches.)

Do you need a 600 (wide) x 900 (tall) template to work with? Click here for a GIF you can use. If you’re using Photoshop or other software that can read PSDs, click here for a layered template that may be useful. (Note: the fonts are Thirsty Rough, Museo, and Museo Slab… in case you’re interested.)

Here are my recommendations:

  1. Be sure your website is Pinterest friendly. For me, that means using a free WordPress plugin so it’s easy for visitors to pin my shiny new 600 x 900 graphics. I’m using Pinterest Pin It Button on Hover…
  2. Depending on your blog’s aesthetics, you may want to change how that 600 x 900 graphic appears on your website. (It’ll still show up, full sized, at Pinterest and in emails sent via Feedburner.) Here are some ideas (some are better than others, and – like everything else online – the rules can change in a blink): How to Create Super Stealthy Pinterest Images for Your Blog. Cruise her other articles and notice what she’s doing to help people share her posts, too.
  3. If you’re a graphics geek like me, invest in templates to make designing easier. Frankly, I’m using the 50 Instagram Stories Bundle, from Design Cuts. I bought it on a great sale, but even at $20 (price as I’m writing this), it can be such a time-saver, it’s worth it.
  4. Learn to combine fonts in interesting & attractive ways. I’m using cheatsheets I printed, online. You can search images for “font combinations,” “font combining,” or “font mixing” and see what looks good. Or, you can go to a Pinterest board like Font combining… and click through on anything that appeals to you.  Among the 10 or so I printed, one from Imgur has been the most useful. (Also, I still rely on free font sites like and Google Fonts.)

Speaking of fonts, my friend Milan told me about a great site for font addicts, and people willing to try beta-ish versions of new fonts: Future Fonts.

Other resources that have been helpful (in above-and-beyond ways) this month:

I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few resources, but this should be enough to keep you busy for an hour or two. And, really, I carefully chose these links. My goal was to provide time-savers, not shiny object distractions. (In other words: don’t get sucked into Pinterest… okay?)

And now it’s time to get back to the books!

Fixing Failed Fiction

True confession: Yes, I still have far too much failed fiction – novels, novellas, short stories, and half-baked plots – on my hard drive.

And yes, I even published some of it, and instantly regretted it. The reviews were ugly, when anyone even bought one of those books.

It’s been embarrassing. Frustrating. The kind of thing that wakes me up at 3 AM, and I stare at the ceiling, convinced that my successful books were just flukes.

(Hey, at 3 in the morning, anything can seem like high drama, and I can awfulize with the best of them.)

So, yeah. I’m not sure I’m the queen Fix failed fictionof failed fiction, but I’d certainly rate highly on the runners-up list.

Then, last month, when Bonnie (Lynn) Johnston offered me an opportunity to beta test her new Manuscript Magic course, I dropped everything and rushed to try it.

I’ve always liked her advice, and own lots & lots of her reports & courses.

So… let me tell you about Manuscript Magic.

It’s not often I can give a course (or a book, or anything, really) an unqualified rave review, but that course deserves it.

Yes, it’s $197. If you have fiction ideas, plots, half-baked books, or published books that failed… the course is worth at least twice that.

(Seriously, I expected her to charge at least $350 – $400 for this course. It’s that comprehensive, original, and brilliant. No matter what is wrong with your story, she has at least two or three different ways to fix each area where it falters.)

It’s like a university course. The kind that would take at least a semester, and possibly a full year.

But, you get to work through it at your own pace. Lots of videos. Lots of PDFs. Lots of useful information.

So, if you’re at the point where you have books (or book ideas) and you’re not sure why you’re not finishing the book (or why it got snarky reviews), get this course.

In my opinion, it’s worth eating ramen or pb&j sandwiches for a month, if that’s the only way you can afford it.

I’m not kidding.

Take a look at the course.

And, if you want to see a free sample of one lesson, watch this. It’s a 9-minute explanation of what exposition is, and how to use it (and not use it).

In addition to that, I’ve stumbled onto a few other things that are kind of amazing… for me, anyway.

Horwitz kick-started my editing binge

I mentioned this before: Stuart Horwitz’s Finish Your Book in Three Drafts. (Go read my articlescroll down to “Editing Discoveries” – before buying that or his other book, Blueprint Your Best-Seller.)

His book still seems to be amazingly weird, but his advice was what I needed to hear.

I made some great progress, fixing things that were broken in my books. But then, I stalled. (This was before I took Bonnie’s course.)

Meshing character arcs and story arcs

One thing that continually slows my plotting is trying to mesh character arcs and story arcs. Even before taking Bonnie’s course (the one I talked about, above), I knew that something wasn’t clicking in my brain, in that area of plotting.

Then, Chris Fox posted a related video. It was a huge ah-HA! moment for me. Here it is:

(All of his YouTube videos are very good. I don’t always agree with him, but since his book income – and productivity – are light years ahead of mine, pay close attention to everything he says.)

Anyway, after watching that video, I scrambled to find (and print) Dan Harmon’s advice. You’ll find it here: Story Structure 101.

(That’s the first in a series of how-to articles in a multi-part series. And yes, his language can be NSFW. Combined with how Chris Fox explained this… well, I finally have a clear understanding of how stories can work.)

I strongly recommend it.

With this information, I can see a clear path to relaunching older, failed books, and getting stalled books back on track.

Relaunching = Revisiting categories & keywords

In other news… Dave Chesson’s KDP Rocket software has been updated with some very sweet bells & whistles.

See, I’m working my way through Chris Fox’s Write to Market (again), after getting into his Relaunch Your Novel book. I realized I needed to review his Write to Market research tips, to be sure I was current about book categories and keywords.

So, I turned on my copy of KDP Rocket and – initially – thought my favorite book genre as an absolute no-go. The competition numbers (confirmed with KDSpy) were insane.

That’s when Dave’s updates to KDP Rocket made a world of difference. I found three sub-sub-genres that would work for my books. I can compete for those keywords, and in those sub-categories.

And, since I’m rewriting those books anyway, tweaking them to become exact matches for those sub-sub-genres… well, I can’t quite say “easy-peasy.” However, between Bonnie’s course and Dan Harmon’s plot circles, this actually looks like fun.

(If you know how much I hate rewriting anything, you’ll understand: that’s major.)

So, those are my best, most current tips for fixing failed fiction. I hope they’re helpful.

If you have any questions or suggestions, I hope you’ll leave a comment. I’m always interested in your thoughts on these topics.

Newspaper Resources for Nonfiction Research

Using Newspapers for Book ResearchIf you’re writing books related to current news headlines or pop trends, newspapers can be a great resource.

The problem is: Finding the right articles in the right papers.

Basically, if you’re using current-ish newspaper articles for your research, is pretty powerful. But, their annual membership is around $200.


That’s a lot, unless you’re often knee-deep in newspaper research. If that’s your career – and how you spend far too much time, most weeks – the $200 could be worth it. (Or, you can watch for special deals and coupons. During a past special, in February 2018, you could get a year for $30.)

For me… I’m not sure it’s worth it. I’m still thinking about this.

For one thing, I’m writing less nonfiction now.

And, though much of my work focuses on historical fiction, including real people in my stories has always seemed too “cutesy” for me.


If something significant happened the (historical) year my story takes place in, I’ll certainly want to know about – and possibly include – cool historical trivia that might affect my story’s world. For that, I start with The People’s Chronology.

If you write anything historical, that book is invaluable. At the moment, you can snag a used copy for under $2.

If you’re thinking about buying that book, get a copy now. In the past, when I’ve recommended hard-to-find books, the prices soared after I talked about them, here. Sometimes, those prices never came down again.

How I use that book: I start with the year or era I’m interested in. Then, I find something topical in The People’s Chronology. After that, I research it in old newspapers for supporting information.

In addition to, here are two more (of many):

Also, is great for researching people. As the site name suggests, it’s for people researching their ancestry.

But – for your books and stories – if you don’t have a person’s name (or the person was in the news, often), I’m not sure it’s practical to manually search their resources. It can be feast or famine, and sometimes – when it’s in the “feast” category – the vast number of newspaper articles can be overwhelming.

Meanwhile, if you’re working with recent, old, vintage, or antique newspapers, and you’re not sure about copyright, keep international laws and public domain guidelines in mind. (The Legal Genealogist had something to say about this, too.)

I’m dashing back to my books now, but wanted to share these resources because I rely on them to enrich so many of my books – fiction and nonfiction.

If you have questions, leave a comment. I’m always happy when I can help others succeed as writers, authors, and indie publishers.

Research Tools and the Expanding Nature of Nonfiction Research

waking up and writing, earlyOn my side of the keyboard, this is a busy research-and-write week. So, even though I haven’t had breakfast yet, I’m flying through another quick post.

(Btw, feedback about Facebook – and the number of people who prefer to hear from me via blog posts – has been surprising. Well, maybe. I kinda-sorta knew that a lot of friends were phasing out Facebook. The feedback confirmed it, big time.)

KDP Rocket or KDSpy?

First up: People are asking me whether they should buy KDSpy or KDP Rocket first.

It’s a coin flip, and if you haven’t written and published at least one to three books, I’d say: buy neither. You can manually research nearly everything those tools do.

(Yes, it will take you time. Yes, it will be tedious. It’s also what most of us did before this software was available. And, unless you can throw money around with wild abandon, you’ll do better to invest in editing, proofreading, or a good book cover. Once you have actual book income, you can dedicate some of it to time-saving tools.)

But anyway… I rely on both KDSpy and KDP Rocket. Both save me so many hours of market research, I can’t imagine being so productive without them.

But, I also understand a limited budget, even after your books start selling.

A lot of writing (and self-employment, in general) can have a feast-or-famine swing, at times. That’s especially true if some of your income is from seasonal books, or you’re paid by traditional publishers just twice a year. (That’s typical in trad publishing.)

So, my answer to the question is: It depends on what you spend the most time on.

If I’m looking for a new or better category for my existing (or planned) books, and I want a better understanding of the easiest markets, KDP Rocket wins, hands down. The new features in the software (updates are always included free, for all of Dave Chesson’s customers) are breathtakingly good.

See… I’d been holding onto old blog posts, planning to use them for some short, topic-specific books in one niche. But, that niche looked crazy-daunting saturated. There was no way I’d waste my time on related books.

Then the new features in KDP Rocket showed me an Amazon category where books (on the same topic as my old blog posts) are selling well, even in short reads, and I can compete, easily.

So, yeah… pretty cool. KDP Rocket just sprinted to the front of the pack, as my go-to tool for Amazon category research, as well as competition research.

But, in categories where I already have books – or, especially in fiction, where my category choices can be limited (sometimes) – KD Spy shows me the current market, the page count, the pricing, the keywords, and more, all in one go. It’s a great, fast trends-checker.

So, if you can only afford one tool at the moment, understand the differences between them. Especially when you’re a new indie author, only invest in what you really need.

Keyword Research

Speaking of keywords, here are a few free tools (and tricks) I absolutely love.

For keywords, I rely on Scientific Seller. Sign up for the free account for the best results.

I’m also dazzled by Answer the Public. It’s insanely good and it replaces several research tools/software I’d been using. Export the CSV file for future reference, and print the individual pages if you’re a visual learner.

And then there’s the manual approach, which – sometimes – can’t be avoided. Or shouldn’t be. (KDSpy will tell you the major keywords, automatically.)

Basically, you’ll identify the best-selling books that target your exact sub-genre or niche, and are selling to your exact target audience.

You’ll cut-and-paste their Amazon book blurbs into a word (or phrase) frequency counter. Here’s a free one: Word Frequency Counter.

Then, if you’re like me,  you’ll look for what I call “duh!” words and phrases. They’re usually obvious ones I’d omitted.

You’ll also look for outliers – odd phrases that may or may not make sense to you – and consider why they’re being used. (It may just be bad copywriting.)

Compare the results with book titles & subtitles that are selling well. Decide if you should incorporate those words & phrases into your book titles, subtitles, descriptions, or advertising.

Easy-peasy, but time consuming. And it could be one of those make-or-break points in your indie publishing career.

Crazy, Expanding Nonfiction Research

This week (and probably next), I’m blasting through a couple of trending, pop culture books.

They’re the fast, trend-grabbing books I explain in my book, How to Write Fast Books…, which is now available through Kindle Unlimited. Ahem.

The book I’m researching now (or should be, but I’m writing this instead) has a lot of related, “everyone knows” material. But, as a fanatical, thorough researcher, I started double-checking a bunch of those “everyone knows” facts.

I figured most of it would be confirmed with one or two clicks, right…?

Wrong. (I’m sitting here, doing flashing-light hands and making the “bwwaaahhh” buzzer sound with my voice. Because, even at my keyboard, I feel like I’m still talking to you, the same as I would in real life.)

That’s why the two hours’ research I’d planned for those facts, have now expanded into two frustrating days.

Because those “facts” were fiction. And I have to rule out every possible, obscure resource, before I debunk those “everyone knows” items in my book/s.

So, I learned to allow about 10x as much research time for topics where fact-checking might be a rabbit hole.

But… the cool part of this story is: my readers will have new information they can be utterly snotty about, as they talk with friends and preen as authorities.

Because my books help people do that. And that’s one of the big reasons many of my fans buy (or at least read) every book I publish.

So anyway…

I just flew through a bunch of points that I think are important. And, since I haven’t had breakfast yet, and this is a rush-rush article, I hope you’ll overlook the typos. Or, if I’ve said anything utterly appalling, post a comment (or reply, if you’re reading this in email) to tell me about it.

And, oh yes, I hope you have great fun (and success) with your writing & publishing. Being an indie can be the best career choice!

Paul vs. The Publishing Gurus – Review

This is another quick review, in lieu of a Facebook post about it… since Facebook is being difficult when I review anything and add a link.

Also, I’m rushing through this, because this report is brand new, and the information could make a big difference in how you market your next book.

I’m recommending Paul Coleman’s latest report, Paul vs. The Publishing Gurus. It covers the most important tips and trends for book marketing. If you want a more successful 2018, I recommend getting a copy of it.

The report price is currently $19.97, and it’s 20 pages long. It covers a wide range of book marketing topics, from the importance of the first two pages of your book, to storytelling as marketing, to the freshest (and most compelling) book cover designs to… well, lots more.

For me, this report is valuable because it sums up some powerful marketing information in a no-fluff, no-nonsense style.

Also, I think a lot of the value is in the links (generally to free resources, though I’ve only visited a few so far) which expand the concepts Paul shares in the report.

Just one of them provided an “ah-HA!” realization that – for me – made this report worth owning, reading, and putting to use.

If you haven’t actually written a book, or you’re too busy to pursue writing & publishing right now, you don’t need this report yet.

Like nearly everything I recommend, the only way this report is valuable is if you actually use it.

This is delivered as a PDF, and there is no upsell. Everything is in the report.

Link: Paul vs. The Publishing Gurus

(As usual, that’s not an affiliate link. I review products to help others find good resources, period & full stop. I don’t earn a cent if someone buys what I recommend.)

Free Lesson – Writing Powerhouse Scenes

In the very near future, I’ll link to Bonnie (Lynn) Johnston’s new editing course. I had a chance to preview it, and I’m so very impressed!

It’s like a full-semester college course and one of the best writing debug tools I’ve ever seen.

In the first lesson of that course, I immediately saw why far too many of my novels and novellas failed… if I even completed the first drafts.

The answer was so simple, I’m still amazed I didn’t see it. Apparently, I needed to take this course and, y’know, actually follow the steps in it.

So that’s exactly what I’m doing, instead of just breezing through the course thinking, “I’m pretty sure I did that step that during the outline process.” (Evidently, I didn’t.)

The rest of the lessons in the fiction editing course – around 50 lessons, I think – cover nearly every problem a story could have, and how to fix each of them.

Meanwhile, she’s is giving away a free, sample lesson from one of her earlier, shorter courses, Write Powerhouse Scenes. (I tried to link to this at Facebook, and they refused the link, even though I don’t use affiliate links. It’s one of many reasons I’m not posting so often at Facebook, and I’ll probably share more reviews & links, here.)

MB-Sample Lesson From How to Write Powerhouse Scenes: How to Write a Great Scene Opening – 2018-01-24 20:31:56

I liked that course, too. It’s not in the same league as her fiction editing course, but it’s very good. Take a look at the free lesson and see if it’s information you need.

Short-Short Reads, Too

Hagrid2017 was quite a year. I’ve been in hyper-focus for months, and haven’t updated this site. To quote Hagrid, Sorry about that.

But seriously, there are so many other authors, forums, blogs, and groups sharing such good information, much of what I say is kind of redundant.

(Well, that’s how it feels when I see the truly wonderful information others share. I’m in awe of their work and generosity.)

Mostly, the past six months have been about revisiting marketing ideas, and realizing I need to build a broader foundation for my most successful pen names.

That’s been a lot of work (and I’m still putting the finishing touches on one site, with another in the wings), but important.

For one thing, it’s forced me to look at my numbers and weed out the “fun, but not profitable” pen names. They’re hobbies, and I needed to recognize that, so I schedule my week appropriately.

That said… almost any hobby has enough of a following that you can make it your sole income source and do well. It’s just a matter of finding your 1,000 True Fans, and maximizing that base.

I know: that’s easier said than done. Hence, my weeding-out of the less-exciting, less-profitable pen names.

Using free tools like Book Report, my financial realities are clearer. I can see what needs to be improved and what’s best as a spare-time interest. I look at the fun. I look at the profits. And I’m doing my best to understand how to budget my resources, including those pesky, limited hours during the day. (Sleep…? Who needs sleep…? LOL)

For me, this also involved taking a look at my fans and what prompts them to talk about my books.

  • Among some of my readers, it’s a great freebie. Freebies come naturally to me. I’m still kind of a hippie, and want to give everything away. I could probably do that every day of the week.
  • Other audiences respond better to a related, curated site, especially when the news is kind of viral. That’s where I tap into my innately geeky nature. I love research.
  • Still others just want a fresh, new book that’s kind of “more of the same,” but also freshly energized with a new angle… or something. That involves actual work, but – of course – it’s part of being an indie author. When I publish a new (or “new & improved!”) book, enthusiastic fans & readers tell their friends.

So, I’m making sure it’s easy for my readers to find whatever-it-is they’re most enthusiastic about. Often, that involves a website I promote via a Facebook group or mailing list.


My biggest breakthrough in the “new & improved” category: Reading Finish Your Book In Three Drafts, by Stuart Horwitz. It showed me how to edit my own books in the least time, with the most dramatic results.

Yes, Finish Your Book… is a very weird book. Don’t even think about trying to understand it as a Kindle book… get it in print, or see if your public library can loan you a copy.

Even then, I’m not sure what he was thinking about when Horwitz illustrated it. The free videos that go with it… they make even less sense.

To really wrap my brain around what he was saying, I needed to read parts of his incredibly boring book, Blueprint Your Bestseller.

You can read that in Kindle, but it’s probably cheaper to get a used print copy at Amazon, or – again – ask your public library if they have it (or can get it for you).

So, why do I recommend those books?

Because after muttering to myself (for days, maybe a couple of weeks) about how bizarre and worthless they were… something clicked.

I tried his approach and it worked.

I then modified it to fit how I work, and it still worked well.

So, I’m now a firm believer in red-pen editing, but with a twist.

Then there’s the second big breakthrough as I’m revising almost all of my old books (the ones from the popular/lucrative pen names, anyway):


After years in publishing, most of my books look fine when I submit them to CreateSpace. If the digital (online) proof looks good… that’s good enough. Seeing the printed proof only delays how soon my readers can get their hands (literally) on my books.

But recently, I produced an illustrated book. The photos in it had to show some very subtle details, so I ordered a proof copy.

Most of the photos were fine. Whew!

I was ready to hit the “approve” button so people could buy it.

But then, I took a second look. That’s when my stomach sank and my eyes grew wide.

The book that had looked “pretty good” as a digital proof… it wasn’t as good as I’d thought.

What shook me up was browsing the book, and seeing a few layout issues. They really detracted from the the flow of the book.

But that wasn’t all.

On paper, in my hands, the reading experience was very different from how it looked on my computer monitor. For example, the chapter headings looked odd. Kind of misplaced, in a way. (It’s difficult to articulate this. A lot of it is aesthetic, and how I think my books should look.)

Even worse (or better, in the long run), as I skimmed the book, I realized my chapter organization could be a lot better. (This gets back to Horwitz’s Finish Your Book… concepts.)

I’m still editing that book, but it’s at least 150% better than it had been.

The bonus is: this book is likely to sell well in print, in specialized bookstores. So, it’s in my interest to be sure the visual impression and browsing experience is at its very best.

But, after this, I’m likely to review each and every one of my nonfiction books as a printed, proof copy, before publishing.

Printing it at my desk and editing homegrown “galleys,” I was missing too many things I could radically improve.

Would I do that for fiction…? Probably not. Most of my fiction fans buy Kindle editions, and – using my own Kindle readers (one old-school Kindle reader from years ago, and also a shiny new Kindle Fire 8HD) I can see what the reader experience will be.

That’s good enough, at this point in my career.


In general, I’ve been drawing inspiration – and making career improvements – based on advice from many people. Some of the best advice has been free. That includes:

  • David Lee Martin‘s blog & reports. (His posts can be tremendously inspiring. Don’t let the religious slant put you off. I think his core concepts translate into any spiritual or New Age context… because they’re true.)
  • Alex Foster’s Writing a Book a Week and all of his writing-related books. They’re short and, as I’m writing this, all of them are free. (But even at 99-cents, I think they’re a steal. Some of his advice is a little dated, but the core information is superb.)
  • Despite my usual lack of enthusiasm for many of Rob Howard’s past products, one of his recent blog posts is brilliant and worth reading: Issue #4: Building Systems. (I have hope that he’s turning out better products now, but – until I have more confidence – my recommendation is limited to that article.)
  • The Facebook group, 20BooksTo50k. Read everything in the sticky post document, and follow the links.
  • The 20Books… Las Vegas conference. It’s on YouTube, and the recording quality is so-so, but some of the information… wow. I’m particularly intrigued by Kat Lind’s “fat outlining” concept video.

  • I was also dazzled by her first book on the topic (not free), but not so charmed by the second one. (The second one had some good points, but not enough to recommend it, even for a voracious data enthusiast like me.)

I can see real value in her approach, but I’m still trying to understand how it fits with the traditional, “story beats” method of outlining.

(Despite that, seeing the quality of writing in the example in her first “fat outlining” book… wow. I want to include this in my work.)


Meanwhile, I’m seeing lots of reports, courses, and forums talking about the trend towards shorter books.

This works best for “one problem, one solution” nonfiction.

It’s also ideal for fiction written for the lunch-break reader who just wants a quick escape to romance or adventure. They don’t expect Great Literature, but they do want a good, engaging story.

I’ve taken those insights to heart, and realized that some of my longer, stalled novels might be better in parts. I don’t mean serials with cliffhangers. I mean complete, short books that can stand alone, but don’t have to.

Basically, if you’re working with a three-act (Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b, Act 3) story, each of them could be a complete book.

Here’s a template I created, to break my stalled books into three-book series: A generic, boilerplate, short-short fiction template. (PDF)

So, those are some of the high (and low) points of the past few months. I hope your writing & publishing careers are going very well, and that 2018 is your best so far!

Fan art representing the character Rubeus Hagrid from the Harry Potter saga, made with charcoal and watercolours by Mademoiselle Ortie aka Elodie Tihange

Can You See What You’re Writing?

I’m continuing to find clarity in my writing process. Earlier this week, it came from Lynn Johnston’s The W-Plot, which showed me that my meticulously outlined scene-by-scene book was destined to fail… and how to fix it.

As I see it, it’s like any theme park thrill ride. If you don’t start the real action at a really dramatic, oh-my-goodness point, your story won’t have the momentum you need when you reach the soggy, energy-sucking middle.

But, I had to step back to see what was broken. I had to partially dismantle my plot to see where it lacked energy. It worked. Now, I’m making great progress.

Floor planYesterday, I was working on a scene and realized I couldn’t visualize it. Not with the crisp clarity I needed, to give the scene an authentic feeling.

I stopped and sketched the hallway where it took place. And, the more I sketched, the clearer the scene was, in my mind’s eye.

This morning, I’m making sure I have all of my story’s main locations visualized.

This means maps and floor plans. A few are easy to sketch. Others… not so easy. To save time (and so I have complete, realistic settings), I’m using some online resources.

Free maps and floor plans

If you’re writing scenes that are set indoors, in a house, can provide almost any modern home design you might need. 30,000+ floor plans. Just enter the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, floors, and garage bays, and you’ll see several designs that may suit your story.

(To save the floor plans and print them, right-click on the graphic and save to your hard drive. Then print that file. They actually look pretty good.)

Other options include (40k floor plans), and — for those who want something entirely unique — (too time-consuming for me).

Need a floor plan for another kind of building? offers several ready made designs for locations such as restaurants and offices. has sample plans for various kinds of buildings, rooms, and even parks. I needed a school floor plan, and they had a perfect sample, ready to download as a PDF.

(I found even more using Google Image Search, with the phrase “school floor plan samples.” It’s another way to find floor plans, etc., quickly.)

For real-life city maps, Google Maps is my first choice. However, you might also like OpenStreetMap (requires registration, free) and similar real-life map sites and apps.

If you’re using real-life hiking locations — or want to use one as inspiration for your story set in a wilderness (or very rural site) — free topographical maps may be the answer.

Or just search online using terms like “free map ________.” You may need to be specific.

I did not expect to find a free map of pubs in the British Isles that allow stopovers (campers planning to spend the night at or near the pub). If that suits your needs, or you’ve just thought of a cool story (romance? mystery?) that would take place at various pub locations, here’s the link: Pub Stopovers Map.

If you’d like to be inspired by others’ fictional maps, be sure to see Urban Geofiction. Lots of maps by many different people, for a wide range of purposes. From vague, hand-drawn sketches to finicky AutoCAD-style designs, I think you’ll be impressed by the collection at that site.

If you’re planning to draw your own fictional town, be sure to read How to Design a Town Map. That site offers many other free resources, as well, including a How to draw a map article, with tips for artists, and some free maps designed for gaming.

Those links are the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure you can find even more wonderful resources, if you search for them.

Paid maps and floor plans

If time is more important than saving money, gaming resources can be the answer. You’ll find maps of fictional locations, and many include very specific details about those sites’ histories, locales, interiors, etc.

My first choice is You’ll find era-specific plans, location-specific plans, genre-specific plans, as well as collections of plans (and maps, of course).

All of them are designed for printing. (My free, online resources rarely provide hi-res maps and floor plans. However, in most cases, I just need the general idea of the layout, and even a 72 dpi copy can be good enough.)

At DriveThruRPG, the smallest drawings might fit on a regular sheet of printer paper. Others require lots of sheets of paper (to tile as table-size or poster-size maps and floor plans) and provide an amazing amount of detail.

Prices are usually $15 or less. I usually plan to spend about $5. Also, you’ll find many maps and floor plans listed as free or “pay what you want.”

So far, that site has been a valuable time-saver, not just for maps and floor plans, but for other kinds of fiction fodder, as well.

Be sure to remember that most of my recommendations are from sites with copyrighted images. So, though they’re great references for writing, you probably can’t use them in your book without permission.

However, if all you need is a better understanding of a scene location, these online maps and floor plans can be very useful.

I hope that’s helpful. Now, I’m going back to my book.

Illustration courtesy of

WILR – The W Plot

It’s time for another WILR (What I Learned Reading) post.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to write my current book.

Okay, it’s actually a rewrite, but the original book was such a mess, this is almost like writing it from scratch. Again.

But, for the past couple of weeks, I’ve felt like I was spinning my wheels. I knew I was light years better at plotting & characters, but something still wasn’t clicking.

I was afraid (understatement) that the middle of this book would stall, like so many others had. My gut feeling said I wasn’t really ready to overhaul this book.

W PlotAnd then I heard from Lynn Johnston. I’ve bought (and really liked) her past courses. What works for her will usually work for me, too.

Lynn’s new course is about writing with a W plot.

I hesitated. Did I really need yet another course, book — or even another article — about plotting?

I already knew about the W template for plotting. (I thought I did, anyway.) Also, between Martell’s books and James Scott Bell’s Super Structure, I figured I had 90% of what I needed.

Maybe my current ennui — my “gut feeling” — was actually nerves. Plain ol’ cold feet.

But what if it wasn’t? (I spent a lot of time talking to myself about Lynn’s course. It wasn’t just the $27, but the time it would take to watch her videos and then use her worksheets. As Mur Lafferty has reminded me, I should be writing.)

Then, I decided to go for it. I bought Lynn’s course.

Best. Decision. Ever. (Okay, more likely “best decision this month,” but — a year from now — I might decide it’s a “best ever,” after all.)

In Lynn’s first video, I saw my problem. It was kind of massive, and would have sabotaged this book. Again. * facepalm *

Seriously, I can make anything complex. And then I analyze all the little complexities, and fine-tune them so each is a work of art… and totally miss the Big Picture.

Yes, the current book had a fine, workable plot, but the initial trigger — the event that was about to change everything in my heroine’s life — it wasn’t powerful enough. Not even close.

It didn’t have enough momentum to carry the story to its conclusion.

Oh, I had all the scenes figured out. My heroine (and her romantic interest) had plenty of things to do. Things that could be complete scenes. Things with some opposition, to give the plot a little energy. (Emphasis on “little,” now that I reflect on this.)

It just wasn’t a compelling story.

Lynn’s explanation of the W plot showed me exactly where the weakest link was.

(She also showed me that most people — including me — don’t get how the W plot actually works. And how great it is for novellas and short stories, as well as full-length books.)

Wow. Through Lynn’s eyes, I saw the W plot in an entirely different light. A useful one. An important one.

Before I went to bed last night, I’d brainstormed a full, handwritten page of story notes for this rewrite. Mostly, they’re backstory, but they also super-charge the current plot.

This morning, I wrote another full page of notes. Those notes are about the Big Bad and his minions (yes, it’s that kind of story) plus his strengths as well as his Achilles heel.

Next, I reworked the opening scene of my book, plus some key points in the climax. Now, both are far more compelling.

So, I’m writing again and feel really good about this book.

Yes, I still need to finish watching Lynn’s videos, but even this tweak has added tremendous power to this story.

What I learned is: Sometimes, I need to step back and get out of my own way. I need to take a look at the Big Picture, and simplify the plotting process. (I’m sure that applies to other areas of my writing, as well.)

Thanks to Lynn’s course, my story premise is more powerful and I’m not looking for excuses to avoid writing.

In fact, I’ve written this post, stream-of-consciousness. This course has helped me so much, I wanted you to know about it, right away. (Pardon any typos. I rushed through this.)

Mostly, I hope this conveys the importance of Lynn’s The W-Plot, if — like me — you tend to make things more complicated than they need to be.

And now, I’ll go back to my book. And feel good about it.

Illustration courtesy of

WILR – The A-Z Characters course

Here’s another “WILR” (What I Learned Reading…”) review. And, as usual, I’m going to include a bunch of resource links, as well.

This is about creating characters, and the course is The A-Z to Creating Believable Characters. (I like it. A lot.)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve realized that I’m kind of terrible when it comes to crafting characters.

Sure, for walk-on characters that may not even have a name, the charts at 350 Character Traits can be useful.

But, ask me to craft a character that’s truly authentic…? Err. Umm. It’s been a struggle.

Oh, I own some great books about characters. I should read these (and then use them) more often.

On My Bookshelf

45 Master Characters is a good, all-purpose reference for pre-constructed characters. They’re based on classic and mythic archetypes. (Athena is subtitled: The Father’s Daughter and the Backstabber. It fits.) Everything is explained, nicely. This book is especially good for “red shirts.”

One reason you’ll rarely see inexpensive used copies of this book at Amazon, is because anyone who owns this book is likely to hold onto it, forever.

Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches is a title that embarrasses me to write. (I’m like that. LOL)

I had to buy a copy because I’m utterly worthless when it comes to staring evil in the face… and turning it into a character I’ll have to live with (in my head) for any length of time.

I’m so uncomfortable making a character evil, I either make them “too nice” to seem like genuine villains, or I refuse to think about them much, and write them as two-dimensional stereotypes. Either way, they’re boring and not-very-credible.

This book not only describes each kind of villain (or monster), it also explains what motivates most in that category, how to write them, and a lot more.

I have no idea why this book is available, used, for under $2 (as I’m writing this), because I think it’s a great book.

Writer’s Guide to Character Traits is strictly for people who want to delve into the clinical, psychological aspects of good guys, bad guys, and everyone in-between. If you’re going to have to be “in the mind” of your character and don’t know exactly how to write him (or her), convincingly, this book might be helpful.

(I rarely use it, but keep it on my bookshelf anyway. At some point, I expect that I’ll be glad I did. Meanwhile, I default to Angela Ackerman’s Negative Trait Thesaurus. I own all of her thesauruses — or is that thesauri? — as printed books, and keep them within arm’s reach of my keyboard.)

Less often, I refer to What Every Body is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People. If you’re writing mysteries or thrillers, and your protagonist needs to evaluate people, visually, this book provides good insights. Personally, I’ve learned a lot from the photos in it, and tend to flip through the book when I need a quick, revealing gesture, movement, or pose.

Fiction is Folks (published in 1983) is kind of fun if you like old-school approaches to writing, or if you’re writing something with a strong “literature” style. I read this book for entertainment, because the author (Robert Newton Peck, perhaps best known for A Day No Pigs Would Die) really gets YA characters, and he also throws in some juicy writing advice.

For example:

One word can save a sentence.

The sentence you just read, obviously, has not been saved at all. It is boring and dies a horrible death at the hands of this writer. It’s dull. But let’s give it another go.

One word can gussy up a sentence.

Sometimes, all a sentence needs to brighten it is just one little buzz word. That one unexpected blast is the pothole in fiction’s road. An awkward word to hopscotch a reader’s eye. And thus, tickle a fancy.

A buzz word is matter out of place. It doesn’t belong there. Yet, without it, the entire sentence is about as exciting as opening night at the You-Scrub-It Car Wash.

(After that, he goes on to explain how to come up with buzz words that will make your sentences interesting, and hold your readers’ interest.)

While you can still find a used copy of this book for under $20, I recommend it. If you’re planning a writing career, it’ll come in handy at some point.

And Now, WILR…

At first glance, “The A-Z…” report about characters may look good but not great.

Don’t be deceived. Take a second look. It might change your mind, and — if you’re like me — be a very worthy use of your time.

A-Z Characters(Also, I’m saying “report” because I think I bought it for $7, when it was just a 20-something page report. Now, it’s around $10 and includes a video and audio that I haven’t seen. They may give even more important, extra depths to the course.)

It’s true: Initially, I wasn’t impressed by this report. The letters-of-the-alphabet approach seemed like a gimmick. Also, I’ve read much of this before, in other courses and reports.

I kept reading it, anyway. (Okay, being honest: I just skimmed it.)

Then… I’m not sure how much was that quirky letters-of-the-alphabet thing, or his actual information, but — suddenly — I saw what I’d been overlooking in my characters (and character interviews).

That was a major discovery.

Very simply, I didn’t take them deep enough.

Sure, I knew my character’s name. The name even felt like the character.

I’m a bit of a synesthete. (So is Cassandra, a character in The Librarians TV series. I watch it on Hulu.)

If I name a character “Greg,” he has medium-brown hair, his gaze is clear and intense when he actually looks at you, and he probably has slightly flat feet. He also likes mac & cheese for lunch, and whistles when he works.

Yes, for me, that’s a “Greg.” (It’s not all people named Greg. It’s just what my “Greg” would be, in my story… at this very moment. Next week, he might be tall, blond, and gorgeous, with a smile that’d take your breath away.)

Most often, I choose names that will seem “right” (familiar) to my target audience. (For that, I select the decade-or-so when they were born, and choose a moderately popular name from that era. For the US — which is home to about 50% of my readers — I use Top 5 Names…)

Sometimes, I know the meaning of the person’s name. (I use Behind the Name for the name’s roots, though Meaning-of-Names can be better for actual meanings.)

And, I track all of my characters’ names using a worksheet I designed.

But a dimensional character my readers will care about…? Something just didn’t click with how I think… until I read The A-Z report.

A Rose By Any Other Name…? No, A Name Can Be A Door

Suddenly, reading just one part of this report, some essential mental lights turned on. At that moment, I realized: The character’s name can be a key to understanding far more about her (or him).

That tip in that report — one of many useful ideas — asked why her parents named her that.

  • What did it mean about her parents?
  • Who was she named after?
  • If it was an ancestor, what was that person like?
  • Did my character’s parents hope she’d have similar qualities, and how did that affect her upbringing?

In other words, the name led me to a better understanding of where my character came from, her family’s traditions (good or bad), their values, and how her parents’ expectations (and hopes) may have affected her.

For me, it was kind of a door to realizing, “Ah-HA! This is how to craft characters!”

Will I do that with every character’s name…? Maybe, but probably not.

And, that’s just one of several useful ideas in this report — yes, it contains one idea for every letter of the alphabet — that made a significant difference to how I’m writing and editing my books.

If characters aren’t your strong suit, and that kind of tip intrigues you, this course might be a big time-saver when you’re writing future books. (If you’re disappointed by it, he offers a 30-day money back guarantee.)

The A-Z to Creating Believable Characters* may not be pure gold from start to finish, but — for the price (under $10) — it was a worthwhile purchase for me. All I needed was one good spark to get me un-stuck with my characters This report delivered much more than that.

So, if you’re struggling with characters and the usual advice isn’t working, I recommend this course. It’s not just what Barry McDonald says in it, but how he presents it. For me, that’s where the magic is: Something in how he explained the character crafting process… it made more sense to me than all the previous resources I’d used, put together. (And made the latter more useful, as well.)

[As usual: If you’re not actually working on a book, do not collect yet another “ooh, shiny!” object. Place your posterior in the chair and write! <– Advice I need to follow more, myself. LOL]

*If you’re new to my reviews, the only affiliate links at this site are my Amazon links. In other words, I don’t earn a cent if you buy this course… or any other course I recommend. The only reason I write these reviews is to be helpful to other writers.