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

‘Tis the Season… for Short Reads

old fashioned clockIt’s that time of year!

No, not just back-to-school. I’m talking about the upcoming holidays.

In the past week (third week of August 2017), I’ve seen a surprising increase in the sale of my Christmas-themed books.

In other words: holiday-related books can start selling now. It’s not too early (or too late) to write some good, useful books that focus on Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and New Year’s resolutions (diet and fitness).

Keep your readers in mind. They’re as rushed as you are during the hectic holiday season. So, they’re attracted to short how-to guides to holiday projects and celebrations.

As the saying goes, the best books for these readers are “one problem, one answer” books.

Some topics that come to mind are:

  • Where and when to see autumn foliage (and how to preserve the pretty leaves for Thanksgiving wreaths). A short book could talk about local sights, travel tips, regional hikes, or how to dress for the weather. (Those are just a few ideas.) Here’s one resource:
  • How to carve a pumpkin and light it from within. Maybe include recipes, how to dry & grow pumpkin seeds for next year, etc. (Get inspiration at Google Images for “how to carve a pumpkin design. Pick a theme and run with it!)
  • Make quick Halloween costumes with household items. (Again, pick a theme or a kind of supply, like old bedsheets — ghosts, togas, etc. — or thrift-shop item makeovers. <– Tip: Old prom gowns can make the best “princess dresses.”)
  • How to make pretty, fire-safe, luminary candle bags/displays. (In addition, maybe offer free downloads of patterns to cut themed designs?)
  • How to deep-fry a turkey… without an explosion. (Deep-frying can actually be healthier than the traditional roasted turkey.)
  • Thanksgiving on the barbecue. (The Weber blog has some interesting side dish ideas. Not sure which wine or dessert would go best with each, but these recipes are great starting points.)
  • Thanksgiving entrees for vegetarian and vegan guests. Or people on specialized diets, like the ketogenic diet, and any other new-and-trendy diets, this year.
  • Holiday lights (and holiday displays) on a budget. Or ideas for a particular holiday decorating theme, like Game of Thrones, Superheroes, etc. (Expand it into recipes, gift ideas (bought or homemade), and a themed Santa to deliver them to the party… your book and presentation could go viral with very little effort.)
  • Hanukkah traditions made simple (or embellished with rich history). (Many related sites are already updated for 2017.)
  • Decorate an educational, multi-cultural Christmas tree.
  • A list of all the holidays (even ancient ones) around December, and ways to celebrate them with your children. (Educational sites can be a gold mine. Here’s one: )
  • How to cope with the holidays when you celebrate something different… or none at all. (The answer is not “just stay at home.” The Richard Dawkins Foundation offers an atheist’s personal insights.)
  • How to have an all-day New Year’s celebration. (Start with a schedule of the days/times when 2018 begins, worldwide. Select a few and suggest activities & foods for your family & guests, changing the themes as the day/evening progresses.)

Of course, seasonal fiction — especially short reads — are a great idea.

(Earlier this year, I used Britt Malka’s Sandkorn plotting method to come up with over 30 seasonal book ideas in a single sitting. Right now, I’m using her Partridge Method for some short Christmas books.)

Keep nonfiction in mind as well. Establish yourself as an authority in one holiday niche — or expand your existing expertise to include holiday-related topics — and you might save someone’s Halloween. Or Thanksgiving. Or other holiday with an “oops” moment.

(I’m reminded of the movie, A Christmas Story, where the neighbor’s dogs almost ruined Ralphie’s family’s Christmas dinner.)

It’s not too early or too late to publish some holiday-related books. Think about trends and your personal interests, and you may uncover some great, seasonal “one problem, one answer” topics for successful Kindle books.

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

Pen Names, Privacy, and Polarization

We need to talk about pen names and privacy. That’s especially true if you’re writing nonfiction in some niches.

And, with some potential “fast books” opportunities based on recent headlines — from rectangular moon theories to “NASA is Hiring People to Protect Earth from Little Green Men” to 19th century books about Baron Trump — this is a very good time to talk about fanatics (the origin of the word “fan”) and your privacy.

It’s not just a nonfiction issue. Fiction authors can be taken too seriously, too. As a fan of Disney World’s Pandora, I’m reminded of people who became suicidal after seeing Avatar.

Anyone who achieves even moderate success is likely to attract some unwanted attention. If you write about “fringe” topics, you should probably plan for critics and trolls.

From my experience, fame is likely to reach you faster than an income that will finance privacy buffers such as staff or an entourage.

Plan ahead. I’ve spoken about this before, particularly the topic of pen names.

These are some basic precautions:

  • DisguiseUse a pen name. If you can’t think of one, click through some pen name generators until you see a name you like.
  • Build a firewall around everything related to that pen name. No exceptions.
  • Be sure your family (kids, parents, doting grandparents, ambivalent cousins, etc.) don’t share your pen name with anyone. If necessary, just don’t tell them your pen names. (Family & friends are your weakest privacy link. Remember that.)
  • For snailmail, use a post office box or another mailing address that is not your street address. (Best practices include an address that’s not in your hometown, either.)
  • Avoid posting your actual photos on your author profile at your Amazon Author Page, Facebook, Twitter, G+, etc.

Insulate yourself from the time you launch your first pen name, and you’ll also insulate your family and close friends from problems.

What the Trolls Say

From my experience, if you use a male pen name, you’re accused of being a predator, a deviant, ugly, or you’re involved in a cult, psyops, or mind control. You’re also making up for certain anatomical deficiencies.

If you use a female pen name, you’re a witch, you’re fat, you’re ugly, you’re a lesbian, and you’ll never find a husband. (I’m not saying that those are bad things. They’re just examples of what are thrown at me as accusations.)

And if you use a pen name that’s not gender-specific (Blake, Chris, Dana, etc.), you’ll double the range of verbal attacks.

Another way to increase how many people are furious with you is to write a book related to celebrity conspiracy theories. Apparently, some people take those theories very personally, pro and con. (If you’re going to write about those topics at all, niche research is important. Choose celebrities whose fans actually buy and read books.)

Far too many people with time on their hands (and a phone or keyboard within reach) are venting their frustrations in unhealthy ways, or otherwise obsessing.

(I’m reminded of that Canadian mayor’s bathroom wall photos. Like that’s not creepy, right…? But, hey, you might get a book or two out of weird obsessions of famous-ish people. That is the kind of book that’s sold well for me, in the past.)

Worse, being a troll can be profitable. People build five- and six-figure incomes using YouTube and other ad-supported platforms to rant about the actors, musicians, and — yes — authors they choose to demonize.

Those attacks can be vicious and deeply personal.

It’s why celebrity like Leslie Jones and Ed Sheeran close their Twitter accounts. Others — like Adele — respond directly to the accusers.

Have I scared you enough, yet? My intent is not to terrify you out of writing books, even polarizing, controversial ones. (Controversy does sell.)

Instead, set up privacy protection from the start. Think of it as a precaution, like using the lock on your front door or a password that isn’t “123456.”

Privacy and Your Author Profile

Use a pen name. You could start with a generic surname, and add initials for the first and possibly middle names. That makes it easier to find a matching domain name. To keep an even lower profile, consider a gender-neutral name.

(In addition to my articles & advice about pen names, see Dave Chesson’s article & resources at How to Choose a Pen Name.)

If you create an author website, consider hosting it separately from your other (real name) accounts, and anything that could be traced back to your real name.

When you’re starting (and on a limited budget), is a good option. So is Blogger, etc. Just make sure you’re using a unique account/email when you set up that pen name’s website.

Inexpensive hosting services like Namecheap and HostGator offer small-scale hosting accounts, sometimes for less than $1/month (look for sales & coupons).

If you’re building an author platform and plan to make public appearances, use an old photo, or one that’s not a full-face picture. Or, hire an artist to create a very stylized sketch or portrait of you.

If you hire artists at Fiverr or similar site, be sure they don’t post your real photo and their artwork, side-by-side, as an example of their work.

Why take such precautions? If fans or critics can recognize you in the produce department at the grocery store… trust me, they will want to start a lengthy conversation. Usually, it’s when you have frozen food in your grocery cart and need to rush home before the kids arrive home from school.

If you’re not going to make public appearances and need an author photo, I recommend combining photos of at least three celebrities at MorphThing — or hire someone at Fiverr (etc.) to do the same kind of work. Be sure the photo is cleaned-up so it’s not an obvious morph.

Use a separate email for that pen name. Do not use an email forwarding service (to your usual email account) and then reply/send emails from your main, personal email account.

Instead of a formal mailing list, consider using a free service like — with a unique email account, when you register — and consider add-ons like FeedFlare.

(Planning to email your new subscribers a pre-planned set of sequential emails, or instant, sign-up freebies? Feedburner can show you a list of your sign-ups. That step can mean a little more work for you, but Feedburner’s advantages can make this worthwhile.)

Social Media and Trolls

At the moment, I’m too busy to deal with daily social media maintenance. I’m not ready to hire a PA (or VA), either.

(Personally, if I’m going to hire an assistant to monitor my emails and social media comments, I want to interview that person, in real life, face-to-face.  And, I want them to live near enough for regular meetings, not just via my phone or monitor.)

If you’re using a Facebook Fan Page for your pen name, and you want to avoid spam comments and troll comments, here’s a tip: At your fan page, go to Settings > Page Moderation. Then, add the top 10 (or 20) common English words to the list, plus the usual NSFW words.

Spammers and trolls (and their FB friends) will still see the comments they leave, and you’ll see them (in light gray), but no one else will see them, unless you approve those comments.

I recommend deleting spam/troll comments at least once a week. That’s especially true if those comments spawn others and it starts to look like a free-for-all scene.

On many other social platforms, you can select privacy/comment settings that meet your needs.

Blocking rarely works. In fact, it can make things worse. They just change usernames and return. And tell all their angry little friends to comment, as well.

Real-Life Privacy

woman in grocery store aisleAre you making public appearances? If so, the most fervent fans and zealous opponents may (later) recognize you when you’re shopping. Or at the county fair. Or whatever. That’s true even if you wear heavy makeup for appearances, but your daily routines rarely involve makeup.

(Also, the fans who recognized you on a bad-hair day, when you’re wearing no makeup, and are recovering from a bad sunburn after a day the beach or on the ski slopes…? Yes. Those are the fans who will plead for a selfie with you. For the entire Interwebs to see. Just say no… politely, of course. I am not kidding. Learn from my mistakes.)

If you’re not making public appearances, but someone recognizes you anyway (overzealous fans may spot your voice/accent from podcasts & radio shows), consider denying everything.

The best response if you’re uneasy…? Blink and ask, “Who?” Or, say “Yeah, I get that a lot, but I’m not [pen name],” or “No, sorry, I guess I should be flattered.”

Do not take out your driver’s license or passport to prove that your name is not Nancy Jane Author. (If they see your real ID, they’ll see your real name. Sooner or later, they may connect the dots.)

If this is a steady problem (or your fans/critics are persistent), I suppose you could get a convincing fake ID to prove your point. (Even my most rabid fans haven’t pushed me to that extreme.)

Start Now

I don’t want to scare you so much, you don’t write books. Instead, I’m hoping you’ll plan ahead for success and the visibility that comes with it.

Set up your privacy firewalls as soon as you create the pen name.  Once your real name is linked to your pen name, anywhere online, it’s too late.

Illustrations courtesy of