Reader Perspectives: Prologues

In drafting my recent post on prologue usages, my husband and I got into a discussion about the different executions of this common element of story-telling. We discovered that he and I have had some very different experiences with the same prologues. As a service to other potential authors, and in light of our surprising disagreements, I asked my husband to take a look at some of the storytelling elements from popular novels and give me some feedback. This will be a new series on my blog that investigates reactions to various story-telling elements from a pure reader’s perspective.

For context, my husband will be my initial subject–he is an epic fantasy fan who was very invested in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series as well as the older Dragonlance novels, and as a result the first few of these will be mostly within his genre. Not everyone will agree with these opinions, but hopefully it will give some visibility into an aspect of what works and what doesn’t for some readers.

This week I’m looking at a comparison between the Rage of Dragons prologue and the Game of Thrones prologue.

Rage of Dragons

My husband’s response to the Rage of Dragons prologue genuinely surprised me. I wasn’t completely pulled in by that prologue, but he hated it–and I mean that he hated it to the point where he was intending to do a read through of the entire book to prep for a compare/contrast on his opinions versus mine on the book as a whole and instead he refused to finish the book. His problems boil down to three specific items that broke his interest and left him confused and frustrated.

  1. Multiple POVs. This is a point where I agree. If your prologue is long and complex enough to need four different POVs, then you either have a first chapter or a separate short story (depending on how closely tied the content is to the main plot of the book). My opinion was that the Rage of Dragons prologue is a separate short story, which, while a bit confusing, was… well… fine. My husband was just really annoyed.
  2. Confusing words and/or confusing word usage. This didn’t bother me because I’m pretty accustomed to reading things, not knowing what it means, and waiting to learn later. It infuriated my husband. We had a twenty minute conversation about whether “Ingonyama” is a military rank, a name for people with a specific magic ability, or a name for people who are used in specific magic rituals without having magic themselves. And a similar discussion about “the Chosen”, “the Gifted”, etc. Having read further, I think I know what those words mean…
  3. Naming schemes. This complaint started with the character names. Everyone (or at least everyone portrayed as important in the prologue) had a name that started with a T, even the guy who probably didn’t pronounce the T in his name. This is just a general frustration with fantasy books. Exotic names are great, names which follow naming schemes are great, but if every name starts with the same letter, you’re likely to have readers struggle to keep names straight. After pointing this out to me, though, my husband flipped to the map. I barely even glanced at the map on my read-through, but there it was. Just a big peninsula with a country-border arc on the land side (turning the entire country into a big oval). Mountains in weird places. Names like “the north”, “the south”, “the center”, “the Curse”, “the Northern Mountain Range”, “the Southern Fortress”, “the Central Mountains”, “the Southern Mountain Range”, “the Fist”, “the Roar”, and “Citadel City”. None of these names are inherently bad, but the combination of all of them really broke world-immersion for my husband. Suddenly, instead of feeling like he was reading a book with an overly complex prologue that left him unsure of a lot of world elements, he felt like the complex prologue was trying to make up for lazy world-building. Now, I don’t think Evan Winter is lazy and I think Rage of Dragons is a good book. But it’s worth keeping in mind that a little extra care makes a huge difference to a lot of readers. The inhabitants of the world likely call those various elements something, and it’s pretty rare for an entire culture to name a mountain range “The Northern Mountain Range.” One such name he could have gotten away with. Eight was pushing it way too far.

Game of Thrones

When we compare the Rage of Dragons prologue to the Game of Thrones prologue, there are some interesting differences. The Game of Thrones prologue is both shorter and, in some ways, slower than the Rage of Dragons prologue, but I’d argue it actually does a lot more work for the book and the series. Here’s a few of the elements that worked particularly well in the Game of Throne prologue.

  1. The events of Game of Thrones prologue are directly relevant to events of the first chapter of the book and to the larger world as a whole. This doesn’t mean the characters from the Game of Thrones prologue are relevant. By the end of the first chapter all three of them are dead. But the events of the prologue are the reason for the admittedly quite sedate activity in chapter one of the book. The prologue also gives the reader knowledge about a scenario that most of the characters have little to no direct experience with. As a result, when Jon Snow heads north to join the Night’s Watch, we the reader know that there are some dangers he may face that even the other characters in the book don’t believe in. We haven’t been told about those dangers, we’ve seen them. That gives an extra level of weight and importance to Jon’s commitment and adds tension that the book and series would otherwise be lacking. In contrast, the Rage of Dragons prologue may be relevant to the entire series as a whole, but it isn’t relevant to the immediate opening of the book. It doesn’t give context to every decision and discussion the characters have. That’s not a deal-breaker, but it does mean the Game of Thrones prologue has a little bit less work to do in justifying its place in the book than the Rage of Dragon’s prologue.
  2. Everything in the Game of Thrones prologue is simple, direct, and easy to understand. Three characters are riding through the woods. They are investigating a report of some dead bodies and are actively discussing their theories on that occurrence. There are no secondary plotlines going on in this scene. Nothing for the reader to focus on but the direct information, context, and atmosphere built by the actions and words of these three characters. As a result, it is very unlikely that any reader is going to be confused by the Game of Thrones prologue. They might not be immediately invested in it, but they aren’t going to be wondering what’s going on (at least, not more than the characters themselves are wondering that). This can be a bit of opinion (some people like more complex or more obscure openings), but there’s something to be said for a simple, clear opening that delivers specific information in context without dropping the info-dump bomb on the reader. As well, when we get to the portion of the Game of Thrones prologue which does have combat, the same simple, one-focus style is used. In that context, it suddenly serves to build tension, focus the reader on the specific POV character’s reactions, and keep the events clear and impactful. The larger, ongoing combat the permeates the Rage of Dragons prologue keeps the reader’s attention constantly split. Okay, we’re on a boat talking, but you said there’s a war going on? Wait, now we’re in the war…are we going to hear about the queen? And there’s how many things going on? And which of these characters have I met before? And what am I supposed to know about the context by now?
  3. Which brings me to the third point, and the one I think is probably the most important part of the Game of Thrones prologue. At no point during the events of the prologue does it feel like the characters are actively using information the reader does not have. This is a big, big deal in fantasy prologues and honestly a lot of fantasy writing in general. It’s the main reason why the most common main character in epic fantasy is some form of naïve “everyman” character who is being introduced to a new world for the first time. The Farmboy learning he’s the Chosen One. The modern realm-traveler stuck in a fantasy world. The guild apprentice on their first solo mission. The mundane child admitted to a school of magic. The examples are endless, and primarily it’s because one of the greatest challenges in fantasy writing is getting the right balance between telling the reader what an experienced character knows and not spending pages info-dumping the appropriate backstory. The Game of Thrones prologue is a masterclass in doing exactly this. We have three characters. One is fairly new to a particular organization and somewhat uncertain. Another has some experience and is a bit cocky. The third is a long-time veteran who is always looking for clues as to what is coming next. We never learn the specifics of that organization in the prologue, just that it is called “the Night’s Watch” and that these members are out looking for information. Their job is not to investigate dead bodies, but the veteran thinks they might learn something related to their actual goal by examining the bodies. The characters know plenty of other bits of information about the world, but they aren’t currently thinking about any of those pieces of information, so we don’t get told them. Every action the characters take is a logical reaction to the information we have already been given up to that point. In Rage of Dragons, however, our POV characters mention summoning dragons, being hunted by something called “the Cull”, and a dozen other very specific references that the characters obviously know much more about than the reader does. As a result, those references feel more like coy, author-hidden hints at things that will be cool later. We the reader are immediately distanced from the characters because the characters are hiding information from us when they shouldn’t know we’re there. It’s not the same as the GoT character not explaining the mission of the Night’s Watch, because none of the actions those characters take are direct results of information the reader doesn’t have.
  4. And finally, naming. A lot of complaints around names can come down to preference, and it’s certainly true that people from certain backgrounds will find the character names in Rage of Dragons more complicated and confusing than readers from other backgrounds. But regardless of that, the names in the Game of Thrones prologue are more varied. We don’t have Gerad and Grendo and Gavin, we have Gerad and Ser Waymar Royce and Will. It’s easier to keep track of people when the names aren’t similar. As well, beyond character names, very little is actually named in the prologue. We have the three characters, the organization they are a part of, and the general term “the Others” for the creatures which attack the characters. Anyone familiar with the series knows that “the Others” is not the name for the creatures which attack. It is, however, a simple phrase which readers can quickly identify as referring to something scary that the POV character doesn’t understand. When we are later given an actual name for those creatures, we have enough context from the descriptions and other discussions to know that the name refers to “the Others” from the prologue. None of the other names those characters know have any meaning in this context, and so they don’t come up. In Rage of Dragons we get names for everything from the mysterious inquisition-style enemy that’s hunting the queen’s people to the name of the queen’s old nanny from when she was a toddler. Some of those we know to ignore, but the very inclusion of those meaningless names speaks of an improper scope for the prologue. Especially when you turn the page to chapter one and realize that hundreds of years have passed and the events of the prologue are ancient history to the protagonist. Why did I get the prologue-queen’s nanny’s name, again?

In Summation

I’m comparing Rage of Dragons to Game of Thrones partially because they’re the books my husband picked up, but mostly because they’re both good books. They have a lot of positives and, like all books, they both have some negatives. The interesting element of this comparison, though, is how the craft differed between the opening of each novel. And, to be fair, George R.R. Martin was a well-established author when he released A Game of Thrones while Evan Winter was releasing Rage of Dragons as his debut novel. That might be the entire difference between the books, since they both have obvious potential. However, the next time someone says they don’t like prologues, it’s worth discussing what they dislike about the prologue. If they dislike prologues like the one from Rage of Dragons, I understand. There are a lot of debatable craft choices in that prologue. And I do mean “debatable,” not “obviously bad but I’m trying to be nice.” Preferences vary and some people love that prologue. But in a lot of ways it’s a harder prologue to love than one that focuses on a more directed scope with a more straightforward approach and gives the reader the same information as the characters.

Hand Selling Your Book

Most self-published authors will, at some point, find themselves in a position where they have to physically talk to a potential customer and sell them a copy of their book. This is pretty different for those who only publish e-books versus those who also publish print books, but the core skill is the same. You have to be able to describe your book in a compelling manner.

There are two main locations where you might find yourself directly trying to sell your book to consumers: Conferences and Book Signings. Obviously the latter only applies to people with physical books to sign, but the events are different enough that it’s worth discussing.

As a quick aside, yes, a lot of indie author sales come from e-books and the majority of those are “sold” via discussions online. Many of these skills are less applicable to internet discussion because they involve establishing a rapport with your potential customer. Still, learning how to describe your book can be valuable even for more distanced, online communications.


Let me share my anecdotal experience from my recent conference on October 1, 2021 as a example of how to sell your book in person.

I was seated between a 20 year veteran attendee of the conference who had been publishing for a few years and had connections with most conference coordinators (my table-mate) and a woman who was selling a YA portal fantasy with adult crossover that decorated her table with a bunch of pretty cool dragon miniatures. This positioning was great for me. People walking down the hall tended to stop at the dragon minis, discover that the book was YA with crossover potential, and about a third to half the time look around for other interesting things in the area. Or, they would stop at my table-mate’s book, chat with him about his publishing plans and how well he’d been doing at the conference, and then notice my book and ask about it. The pitches are what I want to evaluate, though.

The YA crossover author always opened the same way. “Do you like dragons?” At a science fiction/fantasy convention, that answer was about 90% yes. But then she moved on. “Great. My book is about a boy who must master the magic in his blood and learn to wield his magic sword.” I got that pitch wrong, especially because she had a decent stakes sentence in there and did mention dragons in it, but that’s close. It always led to a similar question. “So this is YA?” And just like that, she’s immediately trying to justify why it’s not only for teenagers. It didn’t help that her series was named “The Dragon’s Children” series or something similar, which hinted to a lot of people that her book starred children. To be clear, She did perfectly well at the conference, and I sat next to her for three days and walked away a bit interested in her book. When I have time to read (probably over the upcoming holidays) I’ll likely buy a copy. If you enjoy YA crossover or are interested in giving it a shot, she had several dedicated readers stop by, as well, and clearly writes a good book. Give it a shot here if it sounds like your thing: Red Dragon’s Keep.

My table-mate had a similar approach. People stopped to check out his table and–in the rare occasion that he didn’t already know them–he had a pitch pre-prepared. “This is the book I’m encouraging people to start with. It’s two master mage, shape-shifting dragons running an interdimensional hotel. It’s the ultimate cross-genre book. A little bit of everything.” Now I don’t know about you, but when I hear “this book has a little bit of everything,” I immediately ask myself what it’s really about. A disjointed book held together by common setting has to be really good to work. That pitch worked on some of the people walking by, and some of the people already knew about him and were looking to buy his book. But a lot of others immediately asked about his other books. Those were collections of short stories, some independent of his trilogy but some about the same dragons going on vacation (“Sometimes the dragons take a vacation, and find other, well-known tropes but react very differently from what we’d expect. Master mage dragons don’t view a zombie apocalypse the same way, you know!”). Again, as with the author on the other side, he had a fan base and after talking with him for several days the book does, actually, sound interesting. Here’s the link if you’re interested: A Day at Georgie and Armand’s Place. But his pitch, similar to the YA crossover pitch, tried to include everyone.

This is a great starting point for talking about your book. I quickly learned to have a short verbal pitch that I could rattle off, along with a hook that could connect with my audience. For me: “I have a political epic fantasy about a king trying to bring peace after a civil war when his countrymen think he’s a traitor while a reluctant thief is manipulated into stirring up rebellion. Some early readers said it’s Game of Thrones-ish, but I insist I’m nowhere near that dark!” Almost always I was able to start a conversation about what the reader looks for in a book, even if they didn’t know that’s what they were telling me. “So you’re not going to build up an amazing character for me to love just so you can kill them off?” Ah. This reader wants to connect with their characters and ride the entire story with them. My kind of reader. And from that I can discuss the elements of the book that I think they’ll enjoy. I had one possible buyer who hesitated over my description of the book as “political epic fantasy.” He said he wasn’t sure he could handle more politics after the events of the recent election. I agreed, telling him that was understandable, and made no effort to convince him to buy even though he was obviously interested. Why? Because he wasn’t in the right mindset to enjoy the book and selling the book to someone who was going to be frustrated by it wasn’t going to help either of us. The authors on either side of me probably would have tried to push the sale. I’m happy that he was drawn to the book despite being unsure about the politics. He’ll be a reader or he won’t, but he definitely won’t be someone who read the book when he was unsure and disliked it because he wasn’t ready for it.

I ended up outselling my table-mate at this conference. Admittedly, I only outsold him by two books, and we both had a good weekend, so I don’t think his strategy wasn’t working. It clearly was. But mine, improvised off the activity I saw around me, worked just as well. I think we were all surprised by that.

Book Signings

A signing is a different world from a conference. At a book signing, you’re trying to get a group of people gathered, talking about your book to draw in other potential readers. If you can get some personal friends to show up and get that started, all the better. This worked for me. A few people I knew from work and/or writing groups showed up early in the signing, which resulted in a couple other people in the store stopping by to check out the event. At the end, I left 7 copies out of 20 the store ordered on their shelves (hint, if you live in the Colorado Springs area, the Barnes and Noble on Briargate still has a few copies of my signed book in store). But the way I manages that was actually not about bringing my friends in, though that helped.

After my initial crowd died down, the store manager stopped by and talked to me about successful and unsuccessful signings she’d seen in the past. The best author she’s ever had, she told me, is a mystery author who drives up from a nearby town to do signings there. He stands in the doorway, greets everyone, asks what they read, and directs them to his table if he thinks he can get them to give his latest book a shot. I don’t recall the exact number, but she told me he sells tons of books for them every signing. I think it was 70 or 80 books a signing.

I admit that I didn’t have that confidence. I got up, I stood by the door, and I greeted customers. But I didn’t try to strike up a conversation with them. I just offered them a free bookmark and if they paused and looked interested, I tried to catch their attention. Most of the bookmarks I handed out didn’t get me any additional attention. How many of those customers would have paid attention, maybe even bought a book, if I’d been more engaging? Probably more than a couple. But it’s hard standing in a store that you are not affiliated with and trying to convince their customers to care about you. If you piss those customers off, the store might not invite you back. But if you don’t sell enough books, the store also won’t invite you back. So where’s the balance?

Having been through it and comparing to my conference experience, here’s my advice. First, find the simple pitch that you can say while offering a handout. For my book, I should have said “Would you like a bookmark for my political epic fantasy novel?” And I definitely should have approached a couple people and said “Hey, I notice you’re buying (George R.R. Martin/Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson). Would you like to hear about my new epic fantasy novel?” But the manager was right. Sitting behind the table does nothing but scare people away. I sometimes just walked away (in visual range but far enough that I wasn’t lurking by the table) and watched people stop to take a look. Sometimes those were the same people who had specifically avoided coming near the table when I was nearby or sitting there.

So, how do you talk about your book at a signing? By engaging with other content they want to read as authentically as possible. This has a lot of similarities with conference discussions, but it is not the same. In a book store signing, you have to convince potential readers to look at your table at all, because they’ll tend to avoid a place where a person is waiting to talk to them. At a conference, the readers stop by the table because they want to talk to the authors. Know where you’re selling, and know what the consumers there are looking for. That’s the key to getting people to give your book a shot.

Self-Publishing Guide Part 4: Marketing Planning

One week until my book releases! Thanks to everyone keeping an eye on my blog. I’m very excited. Over the next couple weeks I’ll be trying to release a few additional posts to help build some additional visibility. Speaking of that…

We’ve finally reached the end of my personal self-publishing guide. Today we’re focusing on a thing that frustrates most self-published authors (including me): Marketing. This topic is a little different from the others in this guide for a few reasons. First, there is no “correct” way to do your marketing, because a strategy that worked for one person will rarely work for a second person, sometimes even in similar genres. Second, we’re going to start with a paradigm shift about your book as a whole, and discuss some things you may want to think about before you ever get to the actual selling your book stage. And third, I’m nowhere near as confident in my knowledge of the practical elements of this area as I am about the others in this guide. That said, I’ll tackle this as thoroughly as I can and hopefully be of use to others trying to build a career in self-publishing.

Since I got a little more long-winded than usual this time (and marketing is a complicated topic), I’m actually breaking this into two posts. Below is an overview of the things to do to prepare for your marketing journey. In a couple days I’ll be releasing an additional post in this guide, which will outline specific marketing resources and their pros and cons. I highly recommend taking a look at the content below and making a plan before moving on to the next one. Using good resources poorly will hurt you more than using the wrong resources. Why, you ask? Because good resources will get you in front of readers, and then those readers will think your book is bad. Bad resources will simply waste money and get you little to no visibility.

So, to start off, let’s look at some basic principles of good marketing. You need to have a good product (write a good book), have good packaging (buy a well-designed cover), and present the product in an interesting way to the right people (properly identify your genre and sell it well). Each of these is its own mini challenge, and we’ve covered some of them in the previous few posts. You may see some repeated messages (do not skimp on editing), but remember that in this post we’ll be talking about the effect of each of these on your marketing, as well as looking at some ways to utilize those earlier decisions in your presentation of the final product.

Before we go any further, please take note: your book is a product. It is not your personal baby or your journey to self-discovery or your dissertation on how the world should change. It can be any or all of those things in the writing and editing stage, but when you’re ready to sell it, your book is nothing more than an object that some people might want to purchase. If it doesn’t give a particular reader the experience they wanted, then it was not a good product for that reader. It will almost inevitably be a great product for a different reader. Your job, as a marketer of your book, is to get your book in front of the readers who will consider it a good product.

Where Do I Even Start?

The first step of marketing your book is determining who to market it to. Many successful marketers will tell you to determine your readers before starting your book, and to some extent you should, but as a discovery writer I tend to lean away from that sort of pre-determination. I sat down to write an epic fantasy novel. The fact that it became a character-heavy, slow-burn political epic fantasy with LGBT+ characters was just something that happened along the way. Despite that, when I started planning marketing, I needed to know that I had a character-heavy, slow-burn political fantasy to know how to sell the book. I’ll address the LGBT+ aspect in a moment.

The value of determining your readers is that it let’s you determine what they consider a good book. Every reader group will have a different definition of this, so it’s important to know who you’re targeting so you can see what other books they’ve enjoyed. This will determine what types of edits to make. An epic fantasy audience is far more likely to enjoy longer scenes with subtle character work and expansive descriptions. A more traditional high fantasy audience probably wants a faster pace, fewer descriptions or more minimalistic narration, and slightly less subtle plot. Whether or not a particular passage is an info-dump will largely be determined by your target readers, not your editor and definitely not the publishing world as a whole. Your readers’ favorite books are also a great source of cover art information to help you determine what elements work best as visuals for your packaging. There’s a few static things all readers like (books without copious typos and covers that look like the elements go together, for example), but a lot of things will vary by target audience. So know your audience before you start trying to sell the book (preferably before you edit the book).

Determining your readers is best done through beta readers. They are the ones who can tell you if the story fell flat for their expectations and what they wanted out of the read. You’ll probably start out with just a few close friends or family, or maybe even members of your writing group, as members of your beta team. It’s a great idea to find additional sources of feedback from places like Scribophile, paid readers from Fiverr, or maybe even twitter or discord groups. This can give you a much broader view of the work you’re creating so you know who to target it toward.

What genre am I, really?

Once you think you know your genre, it’s time to decide how to target your descriptions of the book. As I said, I started with “epic fantasy” and ended at “character-heavy, slow-burn political epic fantasy with LGBT+ characters.” That second level of specificity is something you need to convey in your marketing text without dropping the entire description every time you mention the book, and it’s important that you target the book at that subset as precisely as you can. Here’s why.

My book currently has a 3.5 star rating on Goodreads. The reason for that is that it was characterized in a way I didn’t expect in some of the early reviews. They referred to the book as a “queer political fantasy.” Many of these reviews were extremely complimentary and I love how many of them engaged critically with the book and discussed both positive and negative elements they encountered. I, personally, recommend the review by “Lexi” on Goodreads to anyone wavering on whether or not they’d like my book. I think they did an excellent job, highlighting reasons why someone might or might not enjoy the work. But I would never pitch my book as a “queer political fantasy” because, to me, that implies that I addressed serious issues related to LGBT+ relationships, lifestyles, or just in general focused the plot line around LGBT+ interactions. That’s not my book. My book is about a man who is technically considered a traitor trying to keep peace against a nobility that dislikes him for fighting against the previous emperor in a civil war. The fact that my main character is a gay man in an established relationship with another man is largely a sidenote to the plot (although I am genuinely humbled by people who point to my book as an example of positive LGBT+ representation). However, because of the label “queer political fantasy,” a number of readers came to my book expecting a heavy focus on the LGBT+ relationship, expecting a homo-normative world, or potentially just not really excited by slow-burn, character heavy political epic fantasy but still interested in what this book was doing. Predictably, my book did not connect well with those readers, and they left honest (and universally extremely polite) negative reviews. I appreciate those negative reviews for helping to clarify what my book isn’t and helping guide the right readers to the book, but let’s be honest. Sometimes it hurts to see the lower rating. And, of course, that’s not the only negative reviews I’ve gotten. No book is right for every reader.

But this brings me to a very important point about choosing your readers. At the end of the day, the readers define your genre more than you do. I wouldn’t define my book as queer political fantasy, but a lot of readers have, so I have to accept that label. A similar situation happened with Daniel Greene, a popular fantasy YouTuber. He released his debut novella back in March and was surprised that it was rated among the “dark horror” genre. Now, from what little I know of the book, it should be, but he didn’t think to categorize it that way. Nonetheless, his book is in that category because it’s the category that his readers use to tell others like them what to expect. This is actually a story that I’ve heard several times among self-published authors: they wrote a book, pitched it to their audience as one thing, and after release or in ARC reviews got feedback that it didn’t fit that thing but worked well as something else. So, be aware that the elements you include in your story may define it in ways you don’t intend. Have a gay protagonist? It’s LGBT+ regardless of your intentions. Have a mutilated baby in the first few pages? It’s dark horror (and why did you think that wasn’t, Daniel?). Have a book that centers around two characters starting a romantic relationship? You’ve written a romance, whether you intended to or not.

So, when you’re planning your marketing copy, consider what elements you want to highlight as central to readers and what elements you won’t be able to escape. From that you can start deciding how to pitch the book to readers. And that pitch is critical.

Finding the Right Pitch

The primary marketing text for your book is the description on the back of your book. This has several different names depending on the circle you’re talking to. I’ve heard it called the book blurb (or back cover blurb), the synopsis (a real synopsis for a literary agent is a VERY different thing), or even the book catchline (also a different thing). I think the proper term is back cover blurb (from my connections in the publishing industry) so feel free to call it whatever you want, but that’s what I’m calling it here.

One of the most common mistakes that debut self-published authors make in preparing their books for release is not creating the back cover blurb well. I have no statistics to back that up, but this is a hill I will die on. A massive number of self-published novels have back cover blurbs that say things like “[Novel Name] is a thrilling new mystery featuring [plot element 1] and [plot element 2]!” Traditionally published novels don’t have back cover blurbs that read like this because all that says is that the author of the blurb (likely the author of the book) thinks the book is good. The point of a back cover blurb is to tease the feel of the book, not explain the idea behind it. Read the blurbs of some traditionally published novels to see what I mean. There may be lines that say things like the above quote, but those are always attributed to a different person that the author, often a well-known review site or another author. These lines aren’t actually part of the blurb but are actually cover quotes, often also called “blurbs” by traditional publishing in what sometimes feels like an intentional attempt to be confusing. But they are never written by the author. The blurb on the back of your book is basically the same as the blurb you’d write for a query letter. Here’s a few tips:

  1. The back cover blurb is almost always in third person, present tense. This is true even when the book is in first person and/or past tense. There are a few examples of blurbs in different tenses that work, but they are mostly gimmicks that work once or blurbs that work for a specific type of book but not in general
  2. The blurb follows an established formula: introduce character along with some hints of inner conflict—>introduce central conflict of the book—>hint at difficult choice character will have to make. If you have multiple important characters, introduce them in the order that makes sense for the flow of the blurb and then make sure your conflict and choice paragraphs address both characters. If you have more than two important characters, find a way to cut it down to two. Maybe three characters can work, but that’s pushing it.
  3. Make sure your blurb has a mini-plot arc of its own to tell. That arc has a beginning in the character description, a turning point in the central conflict introduction, and a cliff-hanger resolution in the choice paragraph. If those elements don’t flow from one to the other like a story, then you’re blurb is either confusing (and probably focusing too much on small details) or boring (and probably glossing over things too much).

Keep in mind that editing is just as crucial here as it is in the rest of your book. If you have clunky sentences or confusing wording in your blurb, most people won’t even give the book a shot.

A Final Warning

A last thing to remember. A lot of sources will recommend that you start building a following on social media, a blog, or on some other platform before you ever reach the point of discussing a book release. Be careful how you do this. I’m going to use Daniel Greene again as my example here, because I was really excited for is book until I learned what it was about.

Daniel Greene has built a reputation as a YouTube book reviewer, fantasy commentator, and all around SF/F buff. I came pretty late to his channel, but some of his favorite series are also some of my favorites. So when I heard that he was writing a book, I assumed that it would be in the genre that he built his reputation around. Admittedly his world is fantasy, but as discussed above, it’s also horror. And not just horror, but semi-modern fantasy horror surrounding detectives investigating a murder. Nothing could be further from the books I came to his channel to hear about (and still be in the fantasy genre, at least). His “marketing” tricked me into assuming his book was something it wasn’t, and I was very disappointed and may never even attempt to read his work (not because of some personal offense, but because I just can’t handle horror stories).

A similar story is true of both the iWriterly channel and Jenna Moreci’s YouTube channel to lesser extents. They were both more clear about what type of books they were creating, but their YouTube content has nothing to do with their book topics. Someone who came to their channel for writing advice would have no reason to think their books would appeal to them and vice versa.

To be clear, none of these authors have done anything wrong, per se. I picked three relatively popular YouTubers who had released books precisely because they are examples that it can work to build an audience from unrelated content. But it’s worth considering if that’s the audience you really want.

That wasn’t the audience I wanted, so my solution was this blog. Half personal experiences with publishing that even non-authors might find interesting and half fiction bits taken from world-building for my novels.

Find the middle ground that you enjoy and believe in and stick with it.

Self-Publishing Guide Part Three: Final Packaging

Welcome back to my self-publishing guide, driven by my personal frustration with finding useful resources when planning my own self-publishing journey. Today I’m going to examine topic number 3 of my guide: Finalizing Your Book for Release. This is a topic that is going to cover several smaller elements that are often brushed off in other self-publishing resources. “Once your editing and cover design is done, you’ll need to get the interior formatted, file for copyright, and upload the files for distribution.” Awesome. How does all that work? How do I get my book in the hands of readers and how do I make sure the interior looks appropriate? Do I need a copyright?

I’m going to break down these elements here, discussing tools I’ve found useful in this process, costs to expect, and what elements of each are important. This one got a little long, so use the headings to find the piece you need to know about.


By far the single most important piece of this step is the interior formatting, but that doesn’t mean it has to be difficult. As well, the complexity of your formatting will vary depending on what formats you are releasing your book in, so let’s start there. Are you releasing a print book? A hard cover? Just an e-book? You’ve probably thought about this before (at least, I hope you thought about it when considering cover options), but this is the first place where your decisions will be different based on what formats you want to release.

If you’re releasing a print book and an e-book, the formatting for those two formats is pretty different. I did this formatting myself and it’s entirely doable, but there are also a number of other options for getting formatting done. Here’s a few of the options:

  1. Some distribution options allow you to use their system to auto-format your interior content. I know that Smashwords, does this and I am pretty sure that Amazon has a system for this as well. Check with your distributor to see if this is an option, to take this step off your hands entirely. Many of these are free for using the distribution system.
  2. Some software exists that will do formatting for you, allowing you some pre-set choices to customize your book without any real effort on your part. The most obvious of these is Vellum, but it’s Mac specific.
  3. Some more complex software exists that will let you do complete customization of your formatting if you learn the way the tool works. The most popular of these is Adobe InDesign. While this is a tool that can be learned relatively quickly and there are some pretty good tutorials on YouTube, this is the option that risks you being able to really screw up your book if you aren’t careful.
  4. You can hire a professional formatter to lay out the interior of your book. This is relatively inexpensive, running somewhere between $100 to $300 depending on the vendor. Also, some cover artists will include interior formatting as an add-on to their cover design services. In the instance of formatting as an addon to cover design services, it’s somewhat common to get a discount on the formatting cost for pairing the service with covers.

Personally, I feel like there are too many options to get your own interior formatting done to justify hiring a separate formatter just for interior design. If you’re getting a good deal by pairing it with your cover design then go for it. It can be a bit of a process, so if it’s cheap to take the process out of your hands, go for it. If, however, you are looking for it as a separate service, check out the softwares and auto-formatters before you look at vendors. The best reason to hire a professional formatter is that you need some customized formatting but you can’t learn to do it yourself in the more complex formatting softwares that exist. Mostly, this means you’re picky about what your interior looks like or you have a lot of pictures in your book. If you choose to do this work yourself, it is entirely doable, but the tools available to you will vary by what computer system you use.

If you’re using a Macintosh, you have an awesome tool available to you: Vellum. I tested this one despite using PCs myself and it’s a great tool. You can play around with all the formatting you might want before you pay for the software, resulting in the best trial of a piece of software I’ve ever seen. When you’re ready to create the final files to upload to your distributor, it’s a one-time fee of $250. That cost allows you to format as many books as you want without any additional fees. I love any software that has a one-time cost instead of a subscription system. As well, Vellum is particularly good at simple, well-crafted formatting that makes both print and e-books look great. The two downsides are very situational, but can be pretty frustrating if they affect you. First, you can’t use Vellum on a PC. While you can rent time on a Macintosh server through services like Mac-in-Cloud, that adds to the cost and adds back in the requirement to manage time carefully when doing your own formatting. Second, Vellum doesn’t work great for picture-heavy books, like illustrated chapter books or picture books.

If you’re using a PC there are fewer softwares that will just do this for you. I’ve heard rumors of a few that are in production, but nothing that is solid enough I’m willing to mention it here. I’ll be keeping an eye on this and will update the blog if I find something on par with Vellum for the PC. On PC, the best software is actually Adobe InDesign. While it can have a bit of a steep learning curve, the YouTube tutorials make it easy to get basic formatting done for print books. Translating that print formatting into e-books can be challenging, but again, YouTube has tutorials. My personal favorites for YouTube tutorials are here for print and here for e-book. The most frustrating elements of this software are the subscription model, which means the longer it takes you to learn the software the more it costs, and the risk that the flexibility available will let you screw up your formatting. Always check proofs before finalizing anything with using InDesign.

Copyright and Other Registrations

Do you need to copyright your work? Yes and no. Your work is automatically copyrighted when you wrote it, so technically filing for copyright is redundant. That said, when you file for copyright, it makes a legal record of the work as belonging to you. That can matter if you ever need to defend the ownership of the work. So how likely is that to happen? Honestly, pretty unlikely. Most authors never have to think about defending their work from plagiarism. But it does happen, and if you do a Google search, you’ll find dozens of instances, including a slew of reports related to an early review distribution site where some people were apparently registering, taking the work from the review site, and publishing it on Amazon as their own. The author can contest that and should win, but it’s messy, especially if they hadn’t yet filed for copyright. Personally, I just created the book in the appropriate distribution sites and didn’t release it, so anyone trying to do that would find the book already exists there. My book hasn’t been pirated, but I couldn’t tell you if that’s related to my copyright, my pre-creation of placeholder versions, he security of the particular review site I chose to use, or just because no one knows who I am and so hasn’t bothered to pirate my book. You are probably in the same boat as me. You can take a dozen precautions, you’ll almost certainly never see any issues, and you’ll never be able to know if that’s because you were careful or because no one cared.

All of that said, I do recommend you copyright your work. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and if you do get hit by thieves you’ll kick yourself for not having the legal documentation. So, if you want to do so, here’s the process.

First off, you don’t want to copyright your work until after you’ve done 98% of all edits and adjustments you will make. This is because you need the file you copyrighted to match the file you released. If you rewrote five pages of chapter 7 after filing for copyright, then chapter 7 isn’t covered by that copyright filing. The exact threshold is somewhat vague, but in general, copyright as late as possible, but before you send the book out for ARC review readers. And if you don’t know what that means, don’t panic. I’ll discuss ARC reviews when I get to marketing, because they’re really a pre-release marketing tool. Typically proofreading is minor enough that you can do that after filing for copyright without risking issues, but copy editing is too much editing to do after filing.

Once you’re sure the book is ready to file, you go to the web site of the United States Copyright Office (or if you’re outside the US, you find your local office for registering creative works). Once there, you create an account and click the buttons to file for copyright of a literary work (even if you’re writing trashy romance—they aren’t judging the literary quality, they’re categorizing what item you own). The forms are pretty self-explanatory, but you will have to upload a copy of your work, so make sure you have a digital copy. You can also send in a physical copy, but I recommend just sending the PDF from your formatting. This costs $65 (I was quoted $55 about 6 months ago, so I think this recently went up). The catch is that you do have to include the contact information of the owner, which is stored in their database. You may want a separate entity like a single-member LLC to own the work if you’re concerned about personal privacy. Other than that, it’s a very simple process. There exist companies that will do this for you, but they charge an extra fee for doing the work and it’s very simple, so I would tend to do it myself rather than hiring a legal services company to do it. Save the $50 or so.

On a similar note, this is a good place to discuss ISBN numbers. These are a separate thing from copyrights, but the copyright office will ask for one. The ISBN is just a unique number that identifies your book. You need one per type of book you are releasing—i.e., one for print, one for audiobook, and one for e-book, but Kindle e-book and Nook e-book can use the same one. Some people have run into issues using the same ISBN for Nook and Kindle e-books, but it appears to be a mistake in how they were filing through various distributors. You can use the same ISBN. ISBN numbers cost about $100 each, or you can buy a block of ten for $300. Sometimes there are sales on blocks of numbers, but not always, so it might be worth keeping an eye out in earlier stages to find a good deal. ISBN numbers never expire, so buying a block is worth the discount either way if you can afford it. ISBN numbers are another place where you are required to list your personal information as an item of public record. So, again, if you’re concerned about privacy, creating an LLC might be the way to go. There’s a lot more involved in that than just filing, though, so look into it before doing so. Unfortunately, I decided not to, so I don’t have a lot of great advice on that.

Some people will tell you to just use the free ISBN that Amazon will offer you. If you’re only publishing an e-book you can do this and there isn’t a penalty, but it does limit what you can do with that book. You can’t use that Amazon-provided ISBN no Barnes & Noble Press, for example. It belongs to Amazon. If you want everything to be Amazon exclusive (and there are reasons to do so), then this is a perfectly reasonable option. Just know what you’re giving up to do so.


Finally, let’s talk about distribution for your book. Basically, this is just about deciding how readers are going to find your book. There are two major categories for distribution: Print distribution and E-book distribution.

E-book Distribution

The vast majority of self-published e-book sales are purchased on Amazon. I don’t know the exact number, but it’s something like 90% of all e-book sales. That said, there are other distributors. Barnes and Noble has its own self-publishing platforms and Amazon doesn’t make your book available there (or, probably more likely, Barnes and Noble doesn’t choose to pay Amazon to carry their books). Kobo is a popular platform in Canada and Amazon doesn’t distribute through Kobo. Many libraries can’t list your book as an e-book if it’s only distributed through Amazon. But only Amazon has Kindle Unlimited, which is a service which lets people pay monthly for as many books as they can read. Kindle Unlimited is a great way to get people to give your book a shot, since it costs subscribers nothing to take a peek inside.

One of the other very popular methods of listing e-books is through a distribution conglomerate. Two of the most popular ones are Smashwords and Draft2Digital. These are services where for a small fee (often charged as a percentage of your royalties rather than an up front cost) they will send your book to various other distribution channels. As a result, you can use one location to distribute to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and libraries. Awesome! But, there are some drawbacks there as well, primarily that Amazon won’t let you earn the 70% royalties they advertise when you’re selling through a conglomerate. So, do you use a distribution conglomerate or Amazon or some combination thereof?

When I was first investigating self-publishing, someone told me the best path was to list on Amazon and Barnes and Noble personally, then use a distribution conglomerate for the rest of the platforms. That is no longer the case. I don’t know if the person in question was right at the time—it was several years ago now—but this is not true right now. The reason for this is that Amazon does not allow you to run a discount promotion on your book if you aren’t listing exclusively through them. As a result, if you want to use a conglomerate, you should list there exclusively, because you can run a discount through that service which will apply to Amazon. But if you listed separately on Amazon, then your Amazon book doesn’t get the discount.

But I just said that you don’t earn 70% royalties on books sold on Amazon that are distributed through a conglomerate, didn’t I? This is true, but you are getting 35% royalties and that 35% isn’t reduced for delivery costs. Most people don’t realize that the 70% royalties on Amazon aren’t really 70%. Instead, Amazon charges a distribution cost which it deducts from your 70% royalties. Now, for most e-books that distribution cost is around fifteen to thirty cents, so that my $5.99 e-book makes me $4.10 instead of $4.25. But if your e-book is much cheaper than mine, that distribution cost can be more significant. It’s worth noting at this point that Amazon doesn’t allow 70% royalties on books listed at less than $2.99 (unless it’s a temporary promotion), so if you are listing your book at $0.99 you won’t be paying for distribution.

All of this is going to be a matter of personal preference, but here’s the best, simplest way to think about the options for e-book distribution:

  • If you want to be available at multiple different vendors, expect to have significant sales in foreign countries, or expect significant visibility from libraries, use an e-book conglomerate.
  • If you plan to rely heavily on Amazon because you expect primarily US based sales, or if you are doing rapid release strategies (I.e., releasing 3-5 books over the course of a single year at regular intervals to build hype) and therefore need to rely heavily on Kindle Unlimited, or you are a genre that traditionally does very well on Kindle Unlimited (most YA and a lot of romance), then go Amazon exclusive.
  • Only do a hybrid release where you are manually uploading to Amazon and Barnes and Noble separately from an e-book conglomerate if you do not intend to ever do a price promotion (which would probably be poor marketing techniques, but it depends somewhat on your release plans).

Print Distribution

Print distribution is much simpler than e-book distribution. There are only a couple of common vendors that do print on demand options, and the most common ones are Amazon and Ingram Spark. The print quality for these two options is actually pretty similar, although at one point Amazon had a reputation for being a bit lower. That doesn’t seem to be the case now, but the reputation still lingers and has come repercussions.

At a base level, Amazon is much easier to use for creating books that Ingram Spark. The Amazon system is streamlined and user friendly, and it has plenty of info boxes and helpful features to make the process easy. The Ingram Spark system is complex in part because it’s the same system they use for smaller publishing houses which use them, many of which need the more complex system to record all the data they use to identify and categorize their books.

Still, the most significant of the differences between Ingram Spark and Amazon print copies is the ability to get your book placed on some bookstore shelves. Larger chains like Barnes and Noble won’t tend to carry books printed by Amazon regardless of quality. That might be a competitor thing, but they cite quality in most discussions about it. If you have a local indie bookstore you want to place your book in, I’d talk to them in person and see if they have a restriction. It may be harder for them to order books when printed through Amazon since Ingram Spark is a more well-established distributor of print books to physical stores. Another major reason for Amazon being refused by many retailers is that Amazon won’t let you discount your book for other vendors where Ingram Spark does. Most retail locations require you give them a discount of approximately 50% on the list price so they make a profit on selling the book.

Another difference is the cost to you for copies you might want to distribute. Amazon has slightly cheaper author copies than Ingram Spark, and in some cases is quicker at printing and shipping them to you. As an example, my book costs $6.76 to print on Ingram Spark and $6.03 to print on Amazon. That difference actually has a pretty significant effect on profit, especially if you want to give a discount for any reason.

As a quick guide, if you want physical copies to give to friends, sell at conferences, and let people order physical books online, Amazon may be the best option. If, however, you want to have a chance of seeing your books on bookstore shelves, you probably need to use Ingram Spark.

Publishing Services

The one thing I haven’t mentioned in this list is publishing companies that offer to create your book and distribute it for you. Many of them often offer marketing services as well. Some examples of these are Bookbaby or Lulu. I’ll briefly address those services here, but I am a poor resource for that, so if you’re interested I recommend finding reviews on those types of services and looking for others who have used them to discuss.

The concept behind companies like Bookbaby or Lulu is that they offer a collection of services (often cover design, editing, formatting, printing, and distribution all in one, as well as marketing in some cases) and charge the author for those services. Typically you can buy the entire package or just a subset of the services offered. The marketing for these services typically says things like “All the benefits of traditional publishing and the control of self-publishing!” Sounds great, right? But the thing to keep in mind is that these companies aren’t similar to publishers. They don’t make money by selling your books, they make money by selling services to you. This point was driven home to me best by a demonstration I saw at a conference. The presenter opened a web site for one of these conglomerates, selected “create book”, told the system that he had a cover already made, had formatted his own files, and needed no services from the company, and the cost to publish an e-book on Amazon was $200 despite them selling him none of their services. Uploading those files to Amazon yourself is free.

Self-Publishing Guide Part Two: Covers

Welcome back to my self-publishing guide, driven by my personal frustration with finding useful resources when planning my own self-publishing journey. Today I’m going to examine topic number 2 of my guide: Cover Design.

Let’s start with a quick overview of the process, and then I’ll take an in-depth view into some of the important things to know about cover design. I’ll also include some specific resources at the end. Spoiler: One of those resources is the Alliance of Independent Authors!

How does cover design work?

The basics of cover design go something like this. First, you have a book mostly written and decide you’re going to self-publish. Then you google “book cover designer” and get several hundred results with prices ranging from $200 to $2,000 and maybe beyond (or occasionally less). You have no idea what you’re doing, so you send a bunch of questions to a few designers you like. Make sure to ask details of their process at this stage so you know what to expect. This includes number of revisions and what you’re allowed to do with the final images if that information is not clearly conveyed on their web site. Eventually, you pick someone in a price range you like with covers that you think look decent and you hope things work out. That designer probably books three months to a year out, depending on how popular they are.

Did you read my editing post a couple weeks ago? Noticing a trend in timing? Don’t ever expect to book custom services less than three months out unless you’re paying for a rush job. It’s extremely rare to find someone with good experience with an opening right when you contact them.

When time comes for your design, you have a design meeting. You and your designer will discuss your vision for the cover and typically some details that help the designer get a feel for the genre, themes, and tone of your book. The process from there will vary depending on your designer’s process. Mine sketched an initial concept on a video call with me right there. It was some seriously impressive work, even though it was understandably rough. Others will take some time to create a couple mock-ups and get your feedback. You can provide some feedback here, but once a concept is agreed on you typically can’t change the broad strokes of the cover idea. Then the designer sets to work. Throughout the process, make sure you give specific, thorough feedback on adjustments with as much detail as possible (and images when able) to help your designer create what you want. The more information they have, the better product they will create for you. Also remember that you are the customer in this transaction, so asking for a change isn’t an inconvenience. It’s literally what you’re paying them for.

A good designer will give you regular updates on a schedule you know ahead of time. My designer took about five weeks and gave me three updates in that time. He also did the text layout on the cover (i.e., the title and author text and the back cover copy). Make sure you know if your designer will do the text layout for you. This is an important step that you need the right software to do well or you’ll ruin your beautiful cover. When this is done, you’ll receive final files ready to include in your final packaging.

Now, everyone knows that covers are important to a book’s success, but what that actually means can be a bit vague. In my experience, most newer authors (and some experienced self-published authors) make one of several mistakes when planning their cover design.

  1. They don’t understand what the cover is really for.
  2. They bring ideas that are either too specific or trying to convey too many things.
  3. They don’t understand the different styles of covers and what they do.

Let’s take a look at these mistakes and how we, as authors, can be better prepared for our cover design.

What is the cover for?

A lot of authors have very romantic ideas of what their cover is and how it might look, but at the end of the day, this element is a very practical thing. The book cover is marketing imagery. It is not there to add context or details to the story. It’s not intended to give readers visuals on certain moments or characters. And it’s definitely not there to make the author geek out about how cool it is to see a scene or character or setting from their book drawn out. This may seem somewhat counterintuitive, since for many of us our favorite covers feature dramatic moments from the story. But take a moment, pull out one of those favorite covers with a scene from the novel, and compare it to the actual description of the moment in the text. I bet it’s very different. There’s a few reasons for this.

First, the cover isn’t for your readers. It’s created to entice other people–people who haven’t read your book–to give the story a try. To those people, the inaccuracy of that scene is meaningless. They don’t know if that’s what happened or not. All they know is if the scene gives them the type of feeling that makes them want to open the book.

Second, the cover must convey your genre and some approximate themes or feel of your book. Can you name a single scene from your book that accurately gives an impression of genre, theme, and feel of your book? Few books actually have that scene, and for those that do, the scene in question generally falls into the too complicated category that we’ll discuss in the next section.

Third, most books that have any sort of scene on the cover like to include the major characters. Does you book have an Avengers: Assemble moment? If so, honestly, maybe consider if it comes off as too cliché. It might be fine, but it probably doesn’t also include an enticing representation of genre, theme, and feel. There’s other reasons why our favorite scene-specific book covers are often inaccurate the the moment in the book, but it boils down to one thing.

Good book covers are complicated endeavors trying to sell the book in a dozen tiny ways, and that job is typically not done well by any given scene within any given book.

What book covers are good at is getting attention. They need the right color contrasts to catch the eyes of appropriate readers. Dark fantasy shouldn’t have bright yellows and golds and romances shouldn’t be all muted greys and browns. At least, not without a major contrasting theme to draw the eye. Whether or not your cover has characters on the front also depends on your genre and the focus of your book. Is it a character-driven political fantasy? Give us an image of characters with obvious tension (but probably not any weapons in hand). A fun-filled sword and sorcery? Cue the lightning bolts and fantasy creatures. Steamy romance? Someone better be half-naked on the front.

The point of all of this is to create an image that you can share as widely as possible which makes the right readers excited to pick up your book. No one wants a reader looking for political fantasy writing a review of the steamy, contemporary romance novel. Maybe they’ll like it, but that’s not who you wrote it for.

Bringing the right ideas to the discussion.

Now that you know the point of the cover, let’s discuss what cover ideas are useful in selecting your cover. This is important both for choosing your designer and for your first discussion with your artist. In your initial google search for cover designers, you probably noticed a trend. Most books had one, maybe two, characters on the front with some sort of dramatic scene behind them. If they didn’t have a character on the front, they no doubt had one central image with a secondary image behind that contrasted the first image. The reason for this is that design is all about drawing the eyes to the right places. Many authors come into the process wanting some complex scene but that defeats the purpose of the cover. It makes every part of the image important, so the browser can’t focus on what the cover is saying.

In the last section I said that your cover needed to convey three things to be effective. First, the genre. Second, the theme. And third, the feel (or tone). There’s a hierarchy to these three things, and honestly, my list is out of order.

The most important thing for your cover to show is your genre, and I don’t mean “fantasy.” My political epic fantasy has a very different cover from Patricia Brigg’s newest contemporary shapeshifter fantasy for very good reason. Her cover needs to convey a fast-paced actiony genre while mine should look like a methodical, and possibly dangerous, dance of manipulation.

After the specific genre, your cover needs to convey tone of the book. Using my own as an example again (viewable on my books page here if you want to check it out), the lighting streaming from the windows contrasted with the shadowy figure on the side gives a sense of danger approaching. As well, the presence of the sword without it being directly active adds to that tone. There’s no open conflict on that cover, which fits the pacing of my book, but there’s definitely tension in the image. I’m quite happy with my cover, but that’s as much because it’s a good representation of what the reader can expect as because of the quality of the art.

Lastly, theme or a hint of the theme or plot is common in cover art. For mine, a reader would realize that the shadowy figure is my secondary protagonist, Niamsha, while the main figure on the throne is my primary protagonist, Arkaen. Those facts aren’t critical to my cover being strong, but it adds a little hint extra, juxtaposing the two primary characters before you even open the book and giving the reader a sense of what is to come. This element is less important enough that it can easily be omitted without harming the quality of the cover. And that is why covers so often feature scenes not present in the actual book, or present only with significant alterations. The cover isn’t trying to give you a visual prologue, it’s trying to tell you what type of book this is.

What cover style is right for you?

By now, some people are confused by what I mean when I say “style” of cover. Aren’t I talking about themes, or whether or not to include characters, or how to convey genre? No, although some of those decisions will affect this one. I’m talking about a fully illustrated cover versus a photo-conglomerate cover. My cover was fully illustrated, it’s beautiful, it fits my book perfectly, and I paid a pretty penny for that thing. You can get cheaper fully illustrated covers, but I loved this designer and I have to say, he didn’t disappoint. I already have 25-ish reviews and the book doesn’t come out for just over a month yet. That’s not my advertising at work. That’s the cover.

But for some books, a cover like mine would be a terrible idea. A great example is Jenna Moreci’s The Savior’s Champion. It’s basically The Bachelorette meets Gladiator where the competition winner gets to marry a magic goddess–with some fun plot twists, of course. The feel of that book is more modern than mine in a lot of ways (despite it still being a low-technology setting), and as a result, a photo-conglomerate cover was perfect for her work. The covers of that series rely heavily on symbols with the scenes more as background shots when they’re present at all, and they look amazing.

She does not pay anywhere near as much as I did for my cover. Like, probably half of what I did and she got exactly what she needed. But my book wouldn’t have thrived on that style of cover design.

And this is what I mean by style of your cover. This is something only you can decide, and unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of tips. The best I can do is drop you some cover resources and suggest you consider which artist is making covers that might be next to yours on a bookstore’s shelves.

  • The Creative Penn. I mentioned this site for editing resources. She also has a great listing of book cover designers.
  • The Alliance of Independent Authors. I told you you’ll hear a lot about them in this sequence. They’re the resource I wish I’d checked out before making a bunch of decisions. I might have still used my designer (I mean, that cover…), but this is a great place to check for discounts and find reliable vendors.
  • The resources page of my cover artist, Jeff Brown. I hate to be that person that raves about someone then doesn’t recommend him, but he charges $2k. You probably don’t have that cash. I didn’t have that cash until a family member saw his work and donated the money to help me get the best. But Jeff understands that his prices might be out of your range and maintains a listing of other cover designers that he considers good alternatives if you like his style. But if you do have that cash and you want an illustrated cover, Jeff is amazing.
  • Reedsy. I haven’t used their cover design but they do operate a marketplace of cover artists just like their marketplace of editors.
  • Artstation. This is another place that I have heard about and have no direct experience with. A lot of people found great artists here. Daniel Greene, for example, found his cover artist here (Felix Ortiz, I think?). I have heard of other artists through other connections. It’s a good hub to check out.

Let me leave you with one final piece of information: A rough guide to cover pricing.

Photo-conglomerate CoverFully Illustrated Cover
Premade CoverRanges from $75-ish to $300-ish, depending on coverRanges from $250-ish to $500-ish depending on cover
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Self-Publishing Guide Part One: Editing

It’s official! My debut epic fantasy novel, Wake of the Phoenix, releases in eight weeks! This blog will have an eight week build-up even featuring in depth information I learned while tackling self-publishing interspersed with a series of fiction blogs from the four POV characters of my novel.

Several months ago I released a post comparing self-publication to traditional publication and looking at the challenges inherent in each path. While the discussion was a little tongue in cheek at times, it also captured some of the unexpected stresses I encountered after choosing self-publishing for my own path. Having now been through the majority of the process, I want to take a little time to evaluate those experiences and share some gained wisdom. I know everyone does this, but none of the YouTuber “My Self-Pub Path” videos did me any good while researching the process. As a result, I’m looking into four primary categories of self-publishing in detail over the next two months: Editing, Cover Design, Final Packaging, and Marketing.

Where to Start

One of the great challenges of producing a quality book through self-publishing is ensuring your editing is of high enough quality to keep readers entertained. There are several aspects of this struggle. First, knowing what editing you even need. Second, knowing how much to pay for editing (and having the money to pay it). Third, finding the right editors for your project. Fourth, scheduling edits at the right time in the process with enough leeway for unexpected turns. And fifth, knowing when your editing is done. There are other, smaller issues that I’ll also address in this discussion, but these are the major ones. And let’s be honest… I’ll no doubt miss some things, as well. No one’s perfect.

So to get this started, let’s define the types of editing. In order of when they should be completed, the types are Developmental Editing, Line Editing, Copy Editing, and Proofreading. For those who know these definitions a bit, yes, proofreading is a bit different, but I want to emphasize the importance so I’m including it.

A development edit is one that looks at big picture pieces. This is the time when you’ll change character arcs, re-imagine how your plot goes, make changes to the fabric of your world, magic systems, or political standings, and remove (or add) entire POVs. You should not spend any time at this stage evaluating if a particular word is used correctly, if you could improve your minute descriptions, or if your comma placement is right. Any—and often all—of those details may change by the time you’re done with your developmental edits. Almost every book will need developmental edits, but not every book will need to be edited by a professional developmental editor. The decision on whether or not to hire an editor for this rests heavily on how thorough and diverse your critique partners and beta readers are.

Line editing is the next type of editing and that covers looking at the structure of your sentences, the clarity of your writing, and your word usage. It will also include small amounts of rewriting—a paragraph that is confusing might get rewritten, but if it’s a couple pages you’re back in developmental editing territory. This stage is sometimes (honestly, in self-publishing, often) combined with copy editing, which looks at internal consistency of details and technical grammar. However, these are different edit types and you should ensure that any editor claiming to do both at once is actually doing both. This is best handled with a sample edit, which most reputable editors won’t have any issues providing. All books should go through these edits using a professional editor well-tailored to your book. No exclusions. Trust me, you’ll be shocked by what they find.

The final type of edit, proofreading, is technically not an edit pass so much as a polishing sweep. This sweep focuses exclusively on typos and missed punctuation and is unique in that it can be done after typesetting so the proofreader can also catch oddities created by the formatting. All the other edit types should be completed before you start finalizing covers or formatting. The proofread is another area of uncertainty somewhat like the developmental edit. Every book needs a proofreading pass (or five), but there are a number of ways to do this without hiring a formal proofreader. That said, if you can afford a formal proofreader, it’s better to spend the money. I opted not to hire a proofreader and use volunteers from my network and I have been very, very frustrated with constantly catching typos that got missed as I prepare the manuscript for release. Nothing frustrates readers like a novel riddled with typos, and this is the stage that fixes that.

Planning Your Editing

In my personal research, the definitions above were the end of the discussion about how to select your edit types. But that doesn’t tell me anything about who to hire. So, in an attempt to create the resource I wish I’d had, let’s look at ways how you decide if you need a developmental edit.

Most authors don’t know if their plot arc sags or their characters fall a bit flat. They rely on critique partners and beta readers to tell them if their writing has issues, but finding good critique partners and beta readers can be challenging. So here’s a flowchart to help you decide if you need more developmental edits.

If you’re having trouble finding independent readers, you can try a few options. Reddit has a beta reader subreddit. Several book reviewer YouTubers have discord channels that help you connect with similar readers and you can find beta readers there (I use Jenna Moreci and Merphy Napier). Local writer’s groups are typically big on supporting critique partner swaps. Twitter has been known to help people network within the writing community. NaNoWriMo forums can be a great place to find like-minded writers. And if you can’t find anything else, I always recommend Scribophile. It’s where I started getting good feedback on my work that helped me focus on the type of writing I wanted to create.

When considering line editing and copy editing, remember that every book should have these done, preferably by an independent, professional editor. Line editing can maybe be handled by a robust critique partner group and an editing software like Prowritingaid but that’s riskier and if you’re going that route I highly encourage you to use an editor that does line edits and copy edits together. I do not recommend Grammarly—Prowritingaid is much better for fiction writers. I’ve already addressed proofreading. You need to do it, if you can afford to pay for it then do, but it can be done yourself.

The Cost

The next step in planning is deciding how much you can spend on editing. If you need a developmental editor, be prepared to save some money. For line editing, copy editing, and proofreading, keep in mind that skimping on those costs can really bite you later. That said, prices are very, very confusing in this field. A quick search will tell you that editing prices run between 1 cent per word for the low end of copy editing rates to 8 cents per word for the high end of developmental editing. Personally, for my 130k word novel, I paid $2500 for a combined line edit and copy edit (2 cents per word). However, I know indie authors who swear that’s insanely high and insist that edit should have cost only $800. So, it matters where you find your editor and what you’re looking for. Here’s a few resources to help you out.

  1. Reedsy—I used Reedsy and I was happy with my editor, although I do think the rate ended up being a bit high for the work she did. She herself said my line edits were very light because my writing was strong. That said, she wasn’t on the high end of Reedsy quotes. Don’t expect to get an editor from Reedsy that charges much less than I paid, and they may charge more. It’s a great network of professionals that can really help you get a selection of options, but it won’t be on the low end.
  2. I’ve heard very good things about Kimberly Cannon, although I haven’t personally used her. She’s on the lower end (0.6 cents per word) of copy editing and I’ve read some books she edited that had high editing quality. That said, I can’t tell you if those well-edited books were due to her work or not, only that the author of those books recommends her.
  3. The Editorial Freelancers Association has a listing of editors and you can post there requesting editors. When getting bids like this, make sure everyone is willing to give you a sample edit. That will (hopefully) protect you from scammers claiming to be editors who don’t really have the credentials or skill needed for the job.
  4. The Creative Penn is a web site with a ton of useful information on various aspects of self publishing. Her resource on finding editors is listed here. As with the above listing, I encourage you to ensure the editors you consider are willing to do a reasonably sized sample edit before committing to one.
  5. The Alliance of Independent Authors. I wish I’d found this organization before I booked my editor. They have a community you can talk to when you have questions and offer discounts on some editing services. Most of their editing is on the lower end of pricing anyway. This is another great resource and I highly recommend them for a variety of reasons. They’ll come up several times in my self-publishing discussions.

The Editing Process

Now you’re ready to schedule your edit. First, look at your timeline. If you’re doing a professional developmental editor, you’ll want at least six months from the start date to complete that process and maybe longer, depending on the length of the novel. You’ll be booking that edit at least three months out, maybe longer depending on the editor’s backlog. If you’re starting at line and copy editing, that typically take one to two months and gets booked three or four months out. Proofreading you want to book at least three months in advance as well, and just as a reminder, all other edits need to be done before you get to that stage.

Once you have your timing decided, pick the right people. This starts with sample edits. You can also ask for other books they’ve edited and look at the quality of those (either from online samples or, if they’re in your genre, support your fellow authors and give the book a shot). As much as possible, I encourage using developmental, copy, and line editors who tend to work within your genre or similar genres. An editor who usually works on contemporary romance is going to be less valuable on a grimdark fantasy than one who usually works on urban fantasy. This isn’t the case for proofreading, since proofreading shouldn’t be subjective to genre at all, and is less true for copy editing. But it is something to consider. Also, make sure that the types of edits they’re suggesting fit your vision. One of the reasons I chose my editor is because I inquired about a developmental edit and she read my sample, was intrigued by my sample, and encouraged me to go for a line and copy editing instead of developmental because she thought the development was strong. Look for someone who’ll give you that type of honest opinion on your work.

And finally but most importantly, remember that the book is yours. If the editor you’re considering is telling you to make major changes to voice or book content that don’t fit what you want, find someone else. I promise you, there is someone else. If five different editors all tell you to make the same changes, maybe consider why they’re saying that, but never change your book to please one person. All editing is subjective.

The Final Challenge

I said above that one of the challenges of editing for self-publishing is knowing when the editing is done. I don’t have any tips for that one. Barely four days ago I was debating with my entire support team (my husband, my parents, and my discord communities) over whether or not to write, edit, and proofread an extra thousand word epilogue to add to my book in response to my ARC reviews because several felt that the ending was a bit rushed. I talked it over with everyone, got mixed responses (split about half and half), and finally re-read the ending. It ends where I wanted it to, and leaves the right feel at the end, at least for me. As a result, I’m not changing it. Part of that is because I like the end, but most of it is because I realized that those ARC readers aren’t getting what I am, so if I tried to “fix” their frustration with a new ending, they wouldn’t feel what I did there, either.

You may get your edits back and love them and never be concerned. Or you may hate everything the editor said and argue with yourself over every decision. But if you worry that this round of edits is maybe not enough for the next stage, or maybe you need another change before release, or whatever insecurities nag at you, consider this: I almost restructured my entire ending to include a new last scene on a whim eight weeks before my release day because I, like all authors, struggle to know when the editing is done. Sometimes you just have to let it go.

Nailing the Second Round

A few days ago I watched the first couple episodes of Leverage: Redemption on Amazon Prime. For context, I am a die hard fan of original Leverage. Yes, it eventually got kind of repetitive and a little silly (“It’s a very distinctive haircut.”), but the show holds a special place in my heart. As a result, when I saw the reboot-sequel and that it included Hardison, Parker, Elliott, and Sophie I never considered what quality the show would be. Yay! My show is coming back! Of course that’s a good thing. But I failed to recall one far too common factor of entertainment these days.

Some creators don’t know why their original concept worked.

This is a bit of a broad claim, but I’d argue the exceptions that immediately come to everyone’s mind on hearing this are exactly that: Exceptions. We remember them because a good sequel/reboot/remake is so rare that the positive ones stick with us.

To be clear, it’s not that Leverage: Redemption is bad, per se. It’s… fine. There is decent chemistry, the situation makes sense, and I appreciate that they’re trying to address the shifts in the world that make the original feel out of touch these days. It even has some genuinely funny lines and call backs. I enjoyed watching the first couple episodes, for the most part. It just doesn’t have the spark that made the first one brilliant.

Middle Book Syndrome

Middle book syndrome is an extension of the sagging middle problem that many authors struggle with. The beginning of the story is sharp and carefully crafted. The end is poignant, thought-provoking, and fulfilling. And some stuff happens in the middle.

The difference is that middle book syndrome is more likely to get past a publisher (or in the case of my TV show, a producer) than sagging middles. Sagging middles are obvious (to an outside observer). There is an ongoing story and it just suddenly stops progressing for a while in one way or another, and then suddenly everything pops back into motion and the end sequence begins. Middle book syndrome will kill your fan base faster than a bad first book, because you can always recover from one bad start. Probably not in that series, but you can write another one that’s good. Middle book syndrome tells your reader that any good book you write has a chance of being a fluke and they should be prepared for every book to lose what makes the series special, even if you’re 5 books in and it hasn’t happened yet.

Let’s Provide… Context

To look more closely at this phenomenon, I’m going to compare and contrast Leverage: Redemption with The Incredibles II. There will be a few early spoilers for the new Leverage, but I don’t think anything particularly ground-breaking. Same for Incredibles II.


Original Leverage was exceptional because it took five fundamentally damaged individuals–each with a specific skill at which they exceled–and turned them into a found-family team trying to do things none of them would have considered doing on their own. It told us the concept was revolutionary and we had no choice but to accept it. All the characters did. And on top of that, the diverse character base gave us internal conflict while building respect and trust for each other. While the pitch for the story was “a group of thieves use their skills to stop entitled rich people from hurting others,” the complex chemistry of the group and their natural growth as a team is what made the show great.

Leverage: Redemption starts several years after the original ended. Sophie and Nate retired, Parker, Hardison, and Elliott, kept going, somehow Nate died, and the team came back together. As a quick spoiler to make things easier to discuss, very early in the show Hardison bows out of the new crew to manage the massive human rights network he built, so he is an influence but not a member of the long-term cast.

Many people might be upset that the show teased bringing the crew back together and then killed Nate and sent Hardison off on his own mission, but that’s not what bothered me. The problem is most evident to me when the new crew is discussing a job and Elliott quotes a proverb in Klingon. I believe the show when it tells me that Elliott learned Klingon on a dare from Hardison. They had that sort of relationship. But all that moment does for the current story is remind me that Elliott, Hardison, and Parker are a static trio. Their arcs are over.

Of course this is a difficult dilemma for any reboot or sequel. The characters ended in a good place, so they have a choice between regressing the progress, which would piss off fans, or ignoring the originals, which would alienate fans, or include them as secondary characters. Redemption tries to have its cake and eat it too by regressing Sophie with Nate’s death and including Parker and Elliott as if their arcs aren’t over. All this does is pit the original crew against the new additions, making the new characters feel weak and disconnected. The new show isn’t about five fundamentally damaged characters trying to make the world better, it’s about Parker and Elliot training some new thieves while trying to support Sophie through her grief.

The Incredibles

The Incredibles II handles this challenge in a much better way. They pick up exactly where the original ended and they actually do something similar to Leverage: Redemption. The only “change” Incredibles II makes tot he original lore is to clarify that, after the Incredible family stops The Underminer at the end of the first movie, the public is still prone to blaming super heroes for their problems. Consider how much of a change that really is. The original movie displayed them charging to the rescue as a triumphant end to the story arc, but it never addressed the public opinion at all. Pixar didn’t necessarily change anything.

In that fight, Violet revealed her identity to the boy she liked and a lot of the city was damaged, so what happened? The government tried to clean up the mess, leaving the Incredible family living in a motel with no jobs and wiping the memories of Violet’s potential boyfriend. A perfect position for the opening to a sequel because Pixar understood what worked in their movie.

To compare this status with Leverage, the original ending presented Parker, Hardison, and Elliott as carrying on just as if Sophie and Nate hadn’t retired. They could have done the same thing Pixar did with Incredibles II. Sure, the crew tried to keep it up, but their dynamic was substantially changed and other problems arose. Instead, Redemption told us that everything went great. Elliott started a chain of food trucks used for all sorts of missions, Parker and Hardison were great, Hardison started a human rights empire, and they all started managing Leverage teams around the world. What story is there to even tell?

If, instead, Elliott and Parker had been less successful and felt insecure as Hardison built his empire–maybe even made a mistake that indirectly led to Nate’s death–we get the chance of conflict. They could still be close friends and all the development still holds, but then Elliott and Parker need something by going back to active jobs, Sophie needs them because Nate is gone, and the new guys are the same. Instead of Sophie needing a distraction while Parker and Elliott train two new screw-ups, we two newbies and three people each facing an existential crisis. They’re on equal footing and that gives the show the potential for greatness.

Follow Through

Of course no set up is more important that the follow through, but I would argue that both shows have decent follow-up. I said I enjoyed Leverage: Redemption, after all. The funny one-liners are still funny and the bad guys are still bad and it’s enjoyable watching them get taken down. But the set up forces the follow up to work differently.

The best twist Pixar could have imagined for Incredibles II was the decision for the backer to choose Elastigirl over Mr. Incredible, but it also fits with the story they needed to tell. Instead of another “Mr. Incredible punches things until his wife comes to save him,” we get the twin character arcs of stay-at-home-mom Elastigirl reclaiming who she was while punch-the-problem Mr. Incredible learns to be incredible at solving problems he can’t punch. That was pure gold as only Pixar can make. The main plot was… fine, but it wasn’t a movie that relied on a stellar central plot. The Incredibles I and II worked because of the complex character work that Pixar does so well.

The creators of Leverage: Redemption clearly thought the original worked because of the feel-good vibes of watching entitled jerks getting taken down a notch amid a storm of witty one-liners. But Leverage was just as much about the complex characters as The Incredibles. The result is that all of the new Leverage episodes feel like Parker and Elliott trying to patch up the mistakes of these crappy new characters. The third act breakdown is never because Parker ran off on her own or Elliott forgot to mention that assassin that hates him.

The Takeaways

So what does all this mean to someone looking for writing advice? I’m examining these shows because I think they demonstrate an important element of story-telling. We’ve all heard the claim that every book in a series has to be able to stand on its own, and this is why. If your sequel leans too hard on the previous book, it is likely to end up with middle book syndrome, feeling like the “and then some stuff happened” sagging middle of your series instead of a compelling entry in the story line.

So what can you do to avoid this (besides “know what made the book good”)? I recommend writing a short, catchy pitch for each book as if you were selling each as a stand alone. If your pitch sounds like a complete story, you’re probably okay. Just make sure the book matches the pitch. But if your pitch sounds like “Book 1 except this changed and also they have to do this now,” you might be in trouble. And if you are still unsure, here’s the short pitches for the movies I’ve discussed here:

Show NamePitch
The Incredibles IA family of super heroes struggles to adapt to life without the freedom to use their powers and learns the importance of family
Leverage (original)A team of loner thieves comes together to stop corrupt people from taking advantage of others and becomes a found family
The Incredibles IIA family of super heroes tries to convince society to allow heroes to fight crime while trying to protect their family’s internal relationships
Leverage: RedemptionA group of close friends who used to steal things from corrupt people for the greater good reunite and decide to do it again, but due to some changes recruit some new members and a lot of things have changed in the world since the last time

One of these things is not like the others….

The Solitary Art of Making Writer Friends

Aspiring authors face an age old paradox: Everyone knows that writing can only be done in quiet, dark corners hidden from others until it is absolutely perfect. And yet, every publishing professional knows that the best authors know all the right people. Connections are what get you noticed and prove that your writing is worthy. This leaves many a new author (and no few experienced authors) wondering: How does one make these connections, and what do you even do with them once you have them?

Well, there’s a lot of misunderstandings around writer networking. Let’s take a look at some common misconceptions, as well as some ways to build your writer network.

The Falsehoods

  1. Some of you read my opening sentence and thought “That’s not how I write!” Yeah, I know. Actually, many writers do their best work in coffee shops, IHOPs or Village Inns, or in regular group writing sessions with fellow writers. From my very unscientific personal experience, I’d estimate about half of all writers do their best work in more social settings. Even those who need quiet, dedicated writing spaces often listen to music or have relatively upbeat, cheery desks where they plot the demise of all their most beloved characters. Despite this, the stereotype of the lonely, tortured writer who crafts masterpieces in hidden genius persists. Probably because the drama is more interesting. I grab a couple hours a week in my bedroom with a notebook and a classic rock station and make up stories–Hardly Sylvia Plath level drama going on there.
  2. Publishing doesn’t require as much clique-chasing as it sometimes sounds. Yes, some amount of your success as a writer does come from the help and support of other people. However, I’ve heard people say everything from “You’ll never get an agent if you don’t go to conferences and mingle/network” to “The only way to be successful as a self-published author is if you spend years building your audience before you release any books.” Neither of these statements are entirely accurate. After all, if you spend five years building an audience of fellow writers by releasing carefully researched commentary on the current state of the publishing business and then self-publish your middle grade novel about a unicorn foal getting lost in someone’s back yard, how much of your pre-built network is in your target audience?
  3. Finding a group of like-minded writers is actually pretty tough. This is surprising to some people, but it makes sense when you think about it. Writers are like any type of person. You’ll like some of them and you’ll be driven to avoid others for any number of reasons. As a result, a lot of writers find themselves in writing groups that don’t support their needs and leave them feeling more insecure about their work.

Some Truths

  1. You do need to find a network. I know it’s hard, and I know many of us are pretty self-conscious about sharing our work. But until you’ve shared with others, received honest feedback and considered it as objectively as you can, and really evaluated how your work reads to others you’re doomed to plateau.
  2. The writing community is pretty close-knit (considering its size), and acting poorly will tend to bite you later. Despite many rumors to the contrary, there isn’t a real agent blacklist shared throughout the community so that one mistake with one agent will ensure you never work in the industry, but… getting a reputation for entitled, rude, or other poor behavior is pretty easy. Good news, so is getting a reputation for being a positive influence. So long as you actually do something.

Best Practices

There is no way to give all the advice needed to lead every writer to a strong network of other writers and beta readers to polish their work. That said, there are a few strategies that have worked for others you may want to try. Here’s some of my favorite places to find new members of my writer network.

  1. Scribophile–This was one of the first places I started to gain confidence in my writing. While I don’t use Scribophile much any longer, I keep it in my back pocket as a resource if I ever need to get a fresh perspective. The trick to Scribophile is to walk in prepared for some people to be jerks. There are always jerks. But there’s also a lot of people really trying to help others on that web site and that’s a great place to start.
  2. Twitter–I know, I know. I didn’t believe it either. But my best community right now came from answering a tweet asking if anyone wanted to share beta read drafts to help prep for a query contest. Since Twitter can be a bit of a mine field, this can also be a bit of a struggle but if you use it right (by which I mean, respond to tweets with actual replies and don’t just spend all your time plugging your own comments trying to get followers) you can get some real value here.
  3. Reddit–I came to Reddit after having a pretty solid group already and there are some notable issues (mainly that there’s about five questions that show up on my feed every couple weeks despite having just been asked a couple weeks before), but I can definitely see the potential here. There’s a fantasy subreddit, a writing subreddit, a beta readers subreddit. Whatever portion of the process you’re in, you can probably find some support here. I haven’t walked away with any specific people in my network that I didn’t know beforehand, but that’s more a matter of me than anything about the platform.
  4. Real Life Groups–This is the one everyone knows about, at least in theory. Just find a group of writers holding meetings in your area and join them. No problem, right? Well, there’s a dozen issues with that, starting with “not every area has a writer’s group” and ranging all the way to “not every in-person writer’s group is any good.” However, this is another place to start if you can, and there can be a lot of valuable connections to be made in these settings.
  5. Discord Servers–I consider this one of the most under-rated ways of networking in the writing community. When I attended a writing conference in April, I approached two different presenters giving speeches about gaining visibility as an author and I asked about Discord servers as a means of building networks. Both of them dismissed the idea as ineffective in terms of building a network, all while also touting the importance of genuine interaction and meaningful connections. But that is exactly what Discord servers are good at. You can’t pop into a discord server, post a random comment saying “buy my book”, and expect anyone to care. So if you’re building a genuine network of feedback and possibly extending into people who buy your books, discord is a great way to build those connections. Personally, I’m a fan of finding a YouTuber who makes videos about books in my genre or other books I like to read and joining their server. The people there are likely to have things in common with me. Other options include finding groups through the Nanowrimo forums and creating/joining discord servers, or even finding public discord servers about writing or your book genre. My Twitter group transitioned to Discord and now most of our new members never knew us on Twitter.

This list is far from exhaustive. After all, in my point about discord I mentioned yet another potential resource: Nanowrimo! But I hope it gives people a starting point for where to begin creating the resources needed to grow your stories into something you can be genuinely proud of… in between all the crippling insecurity that so many of us face the instant someone says anything vaguely uncertain about our books.

Seriously, I just saw a Reddit thread where someone said “I have a bunch of readers who love my book, but one person just said they thought it was under-developed. How do writers handle negative feedback?” It sounds silly, but I had a similar experience. I was feeling unsure, I recruited independent beta readers, and the first positive comments I got back I thought “crap, the new beta readers are lying to me…” Wherever you find your group, trust the good comments as much as the bad ones, and if there aren’t any good comments, keep looking. You haven’t found your network yet.

The Life of the Magic

By now, most fantasy writers have heard someone tell them about the importance of unique world building. Think of your world like its own character, the advice typically starts. Make it dynamic and have the world engage with the story in its own way. But what about the magic of that world? Is that just a wart on your world-character’s face? I’d argue that, for most fantasy, the magic system is more of a character than the world itself. Magic systems tend to have quirks and limitations, and most have some form of choosing who is better or worse at using them than others.

The thing that sets magic systems apart from other pieces of story creation is that we have tools for world building, for character creation, and for fleshing out characters. We even have tools for structuring and planning a plot (and some of us choose to use those tools to evaluate and edit rather than pre-plan). But we almost never talk about magic systems in this same way. Magic systems are often treated as either a mystical, unexplained pseudo-science that stands in for technology or as a flavor text that serves more as window dressing than a central piece of the story. And yet every fantasy author can pick out the magic system that captivates them years after they’ve finished reading the books. So what makes those systems so unique?

The is a question that many authors have tried to answer, and typically the answers come down the the author in question describing what their readers seems to like about their own magic systems. These answers range from Sanderson’s “A magic system is only as interesting as its limitations” response to several people who point to the sense of wonder in magic systems that create an entirely different world (think Harry Potter) and all sorts of other responses. This was a question I had rarely considered, accepting Brandon Sanderson’s commentary at face value, until I attended a workshop on magic systems at Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference in April.

That workshop was taught by C.R. Rowanson, who is a magic system enthusiast and the author of Restrictions May Apply: Building Limits for Your Magic System, a workbook dedicated to helping fantasy authors create limitations for their magic systems. In his talk, he provided two sliding scales of magic system attributes that combine into four essential types of magic with varying levels of each element. The two scales are hard magic vs. soft magic (one many of us are familiar with) and rational magic vs. irrational magic. C.R. Rowanson has a great explanation of these elements and I highly recommend anyone interested in this look up his upcoming nonfiction book on magic systems. A rough definition of his terms is that hard vs. soft magic refers to how much the audience understands about the magic while rational vs. irrational refers to how much internal logic the magic system employs (i.e., do the individual elements seem to be based on each other).

I’m going to talk about this topic in a slightly different context than C.R. Rowanson does. He focuses on explaining the characteristics which cause a magic system to have certain effects with a goal of helping writers build better magic systems. I want to talk about choosing the effect you want your magic system to have and evaluating how those effects change the type of story you’re telling.

Impact of the Magic

First, let’s talk about the impact of magic on your world and your story. There’s a lot of ways people use magic. Above I listed three: a substitute for technology in a low-tech society, a pure window dressing that rarely effects the plotline, and as a way to add fantastical elements in an effort to create a sense of wonder for the reader. Other authors use magic as a central plot element, often focusing on one or more characters learning how to master their magic in one way or another. Let’s list out a few uses of magic and discuss the effects we’re trying to create with each.

  • Magic is a tool for solving problems. This often fits into my definition of “magic as science.” Typically there are extremely strict rules to the magic system, typically the reader knows those rules, and most of the time those rules relate to each other. A lot of the thrill of these magic systems is the reader guessing how the system might be used within its strict rules to solve a problem which does not, at first, appear vulnerable to that magic. I describe these as “magic as science” because in many of these stories the magic might as well be electromagnetism. The lay-person doesn’t understand how electromagnetism works, but the rules are strict and we use it on a daily basis to create the society we understand today.
  • Magic is a source of problems. This one can go two ways. For option one, we go the same route as above (magic as science) but someone is using said “science” in an evil way or the “machine” has broken and is endangering the world. The danger comes from the characters needing to work against rules they’ve been taught to follow. Option two is actually my favorite for problem-magics: wild magic that no one fully understands. This one needs to be vague to the reader but have enough clear elements that the resolution feels believable. Unlike option one, the threat comes from the character’s needing to figure out what the problem even is, turning the story into a bit of a mystery.
  • Magic is a set piece, adding flavor to the story. This one almost has to be vague. If there is clearly defined magic in your world, then your readers are going to suggest ways to solve problems using that magic and if the characters don’t try they are going to look stupid. The primary exception is if you have a well-defined but very, very weak magic system and never put the characters in a place where that magic can be useful. If all the characters can do is conjure a cup of clean drinking water once per minute and they are never without fresh drinking water then the magic is a set piece. A kind of boring set piece, in my mind, but different readers enjoy different things. With a vague system, though, you can drop interesting bits into the world that never directly change the direction of the plot but build a certain feel for the world… Although now I’m wondering what interesting societal differences there would be in a world that is essentially mundane but never has to worry about clean drinking water. For every rule there’s an exception, after all.
  • Magic is a creator of societal hierarchies. This one is actually rather popular. It’s not that my world has a strict caste system based on arbitrary characteristics, it’s just that the people magic tends to choose are elevated to higher status. My conflict is all about how this lower-caste person is found to have magic and my society has to re-evaluate itself! While the setup here does feel a little cheap to me, it’s also pretty realistic (at least to one way of considering the potential outcomes of magic existing). Most of these stories are “this could be you” stories, which gives us two main types. Wish fulfillment stories where the magic is presented as cool and exciting, or warning stories where the magic caste is found to be terribly corrupt and the magic itself is often addictive or prone to leading people astray.
  • Magic is so prevalent as to create a completely different world. I’m defining this one a bit overly-specifically because any of the other options can have magic that is so pervasive as to completely change the world from what we know. The point with this item on the list, though, is to look at stories where the entire point of using magic is to change the world substantially from what we know. Most historical fantasy falls into this category because a lot of the stories do less looking at magic’s effects on other elements and a lot more looking at how magic would change a specific historical event or time period. The thrill of this magic system is seeing how similar things might be with fantastical elements mixed in while delighting in the changes. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, for example, have flying contraptions that people use for war because, with dragons, why wouldn’t that be a thing? But a lot of the rest of the world is still very similar. That dichotomy is interesting to fans of these types of magic systems. It’s particularly interesting that both historical fantasy books and many high-magic epic fantasy books fit into the same category here. With high-magic epics we’re seeing a completely re-imagined concept of what a magic world might be, where with historical fiction we’re seeing the result of one minor change. But in both the magic functions to create a sense of fascination with the magic while often not relying directly on the magic as a problem solver or creator.

Now, this list makes no attempt to be comprehensive. The goal is to look at a few categories of magic usage and discuss the effects the writer is trying to create. Every piece of magic we include in our work needs to have a purpose, but like our characters and our plot elements, that purpose can vary. No one would ever say that you can’t have side characters that simply flesh out the world without adding to the plot. We often recommend that authors add insignificant details about their world to give depth to the society. And yet we treat magic, with all its complexities and quirks, as nothing more than a tool for our manipulation.

Treat your world like a character? Sure, if it fits. A dynamic world with complex effects is great. But your magic should live, and it should breathe life into the things it touches.


All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Devel…opment in the Details

World building is a complex process, and everyone has their thoughts on how to do it best. I’m not going to give a list of Do This and Don’t Do That, because no single piece of advice will ever be universal. Don’t dump all your world information in long paragraphs of explanation? Tolkien would like to direct you to The Silmarillion. Don’t use flashbacks? Try out Red Sister and Lies of Locke Lamora. Neither are quite up my alley, but I understand their use of flashbacks is exquisite. And all three of those books have readers who hate their world building for the exact reasons that others love the world building. Because reading taste is subjective.

What I want to talk about is something I think is a little more universal than any specific strategy. Something that almost all methods have in common. A unifying theory of world building, if you will. Details.

Conventional Wisdom Says…

Most people have heard some version of where I’m starting. If you go to a writer’s conference, or ask questions of any experienced writer or publishing professional, you’ll tend to hear the same thing. Give the reader just enough world building to understand the immediate action of the scene. Apply small details like smell, taste, touch along with your sight, but don’t go overboard. Fantasy writers get this particularly hard, because they have a reputation for info-dumping. The character wouldn’t stop and examine the scent of the stable before shoveling manure, so why are you pausing to describe it?

Yeah, your character probably wouldn’t do that. But as writers, we aren’t creating reality. We’re creating a false narrative that always focuses on things our characters wouldn’t notice in order to emphasize the important parts of the story. Think about how this plays out if we apply the “would the character do this” logic to another situation. If I watch an adult man and his younger sister, neither of them would refer to each other as sister or brother except in specific cases, like introducing themselves to a stranger. So if I write a first person narrative where a man and his sister interact with only people they know, does that mean I’m never allowed to tell my reader they are siblings? That’s illogical. Some level of contrived narration is necessary, and everyone knows that. So why can’t we have a stable hand walk into a stable and pause to grimace at the scent of unshoveled manure before he gets to work?

And the right answer? Maybe you should. Just not every time.

Details Done Right

Many years ago now, I used to be an obsessive player of World of Warcraft. Eventually I stopped playing (for a number of reasons, but primarily because I disliked a particular expansion’s changes), but when I did I tried out the then-new MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic. I never got too invested in that one. After a while, I heard about Rift which was supposedly really good at keeping engagement, so I tried it. Fun game, but not something that really drew me in like WoW. I also tried the Monster Hunter MMO—not my style—and the Lord of the Rings MMO—felt really old. Eventually I found myself completely without an MMO for years. I missed it and I told my husband that I wanted to play WoW with him again, even though many of the things I’d enjoyed were no longer present.

And I loved returning to WoW.

I didn’t have the time to commit that I had in the past, so I never became a top end player. But it was like going home, and that made me wonder why. One day, as I was sitting in the city of Stormwind waiting for something in game, I noticed that the two children who had been chasing each other on a loop around the city since the game’s released had reversed roles. Originally, the boy stole a toy from the girl and was running around taunting her with it. Now, the girl had taken a toy of the boy’s and was taunting him. There is no quest, or event, or achievement, or anything else involving these children. They are the purest form of flavor text, and that explained to me why WoW stole my heart and four other games failed. The details.

As you’re playing through early versions of WoW, you’re walking down the road and you see a dire wolf. That wolf might charge out of the grass to the side and attack you, but it also might chase down a rabbit to kill and eat. It depends on who is closer and what “threats” the wolf perceives. It’s all programming, of course, but there were no wolves chasing rabbits in SWTOR, Rift, Monster Hunter, or LOTRO. There were no patrols of opposing faction guards traveling the roads of Arathi Highlands and sometimes getting into fights with each other instead of the player characters. The wolves, guards, and monsters in those other MMOs were only there to chase you.

This is the difference between a book where the stable hand stops to grimace at the stench of un-mucked stalls before getting to work (once, not every time) and a book where you don’t even see the stable hand unless he happens to be central to the plot in one way or another. The momentary distraction of real life makes the bigger, world-changing or story-altering or character-defining moments feel real. When everything plays into the central narrative, nothing feels authentic.

Just the Right Amount

This is, of course, not an invitation to infodump the history of your world in the opening to your novel. To retain my video game analogy, I’ve played through every race opening in WoW at least three or four times (some a dozen or more) and I can’t tell you anything about the content of the opening cinematics for any of the races. I don’t remember any of it. But I remember those kids running around Stormwind and the toy vendor who sometimes has a white kitten for sale. I remember Anduin Wrynn as a 10 year old moping in the palace wondering where his father was. And hundreds if not thousands of players remember the struggle to locate Mankrik’s wife, who wasn’t where he said she was. It’s the small things that people remember.

So, when you’re building a new world—especially a secondary world fantasy, which needs so much more explanation than one set in contemporary worlds—how do you manage to insert these details without dropping the novel equivalent of a WoW opening cinematic? Well, there’s a few methods that often work.

  1. Start with a small moment. This sounds pretty antithetical to most current advice on how to start your book (that you should start the book with conflict), but it’s actually not contradicting that advice. “Conflict” doesn’t have to mean “something big and dramatic” and it turns out that for most readers a small conflict is easier to attach to in a strange world than a big one. So instead of starting with someone dodging a fireball, start with your character being turned away from a shop because it’s closing time while the character argues that if they can’t buy the extra blanket they came for their sister might become deathly ill from the cold wraiths that stalk the city. Now you have a small moment that grounds the reader in a simple need (to help their family stay warm), have signaled that there is magic in this world (cold wraiths), and have a conflict on page one. Does it matter if the sister or the blanket ever come up again? Probably not, if you handle it properly.
  2. Find reasons for the character to connect events to larger world building elements. You have to be a little careful with this one so you don’t fall into the trap of everything existing just to serve the plot, but done right this is the best way to include backstory and world building. Consider the difference between these options: your character is trying to decide whether or not to take a magical sword and suddenly remembers that magical swords are the only way anyone in the world gets magic and he needs magic to defeat the villain. OR Your character is trying to decide whether or not to take a magical sword and suddenly remembers that if he gets the magic from a magical sword he might be stuck with it forever because magic swords always turn people into wizards and he worries about how he’s going to live the rest of his life as a wizard. The last one doesn’t tell you he needs magic to defeat the villain, but we probably suspected he needed magic anyway. What it does do is give you an element of worldbuilding. Every person with magic in the entire world has touched a magic sword, and as a result gave up any other dreams that magic might interfere with in order to have that magic. What might their motives have been? This world feels more real now because the magic power up is a thing that could happen to anyone, with uncertain consequences.
  3. Introduce new characters through context with existing characters, but give them interests outside the main plot. And more to the point, don’t drop a bunch of characters at once. If you have a group of seven people, take the example of Lord of the Rings and introduce them slowly, through the book. There, we first met Gandalf and Frodo (and Bilbo, of course, but he wasn’t a major character in Fellowship). After that, the important people inserted themselves in memorable ways throughout the story, such that no one forget the main characters. Merry and Pippin are the mischievous hobbits who tend to get Frodo into trouble. Sam is the loyal friend, Gandalf is the exotic visitor Frodo remembers from his childhood. And at no point do these other characters feel like they had nothing going on outside of the main story. Sam has the girl at the inn, Merry and Pippn are literally in the middle of something when they get dragged into the story. Gandalf straight up vanishes for months on his own business. If your characters come in because of a connection with or forced interaction with existing characters but recognize other elements of their lives that still matter, you create deeper characters. And deeper characters imply a deeper world.
  4. Remember what things are new to your character, and what your character would notice/think. This is a common mistake that writers make at all levels of experience. My character is terribly poor. He doesn’t even have a home, just sleeps on the street. And he writes a quick note to his friend and slips it under the door as he runs off to get dinner at a local tavern. Wait, what? He can’t find a place to live, but he can afford paper, pen, ink, and to buy food from a medieval restaurant-equivalent? These tiny details can be extremely hard to remember, but they can also make or break the immersion level of your story. If I don’t understand the social and economic aspects of society, how will I ever understand the character’s personal struggles within that society? Most fantasy authors have been cautioned a dozen or more times against info-dumping this information, but you don’t need to. All you have to do is have the character notice how exotic the taste of the tavern food is while others turn their noses up at the plain, unappetizing meal. And give me a reason he has the money this time, but there are a dozen or more reasons for that.

Beware the Conlang

This should really be a point on the list above and the broader concept here is relatively simple. If you create a new language (a “constructed language” or conlang) and then write long explanations in it, your reader won’t have any idea what you’re saying. I doubt anyone really needs that information told to them. But there’s a more complex issue at work here, so I’m going to temporarily misuse the term “conlang” and broaden the definition into “any term either created for a fictional story or significantly re-purposed from its usual meaning to suit the needs of the story.” This expanded definition allows me to more easily discuss a problem I often see in fantasy and science fiction writing. I once saw a description of a novel that went something like this (conlang terminology, names, and some events changed primarily because I don’t remember any specifics, just the effect):

In the Mor’can Galaxy, Flerbendurdin Ajaor Kinlishious faces the deadly Hyncrix as the Flerbendurdin Council Flerbenmental for aid from the Junocipetrish. When Flerbenguard Jocsiaron…

Dude, I have no idea what this says. I guess maybe there’s a war? Or is it insurgents? Is Flerbendurdin a noun or an adjective? At the point where I had to stop mid description to try and identify what parts of a sentence the various new terms formed, the author killed any chance of me looking at the book. Your pitch is supposed to entice the reader with understandable character and conflict hooks. It is not designed to explain the world-building.

This is an extreme example, but it’s a problem fantasy authors always run the risk of facing. This is because every fantasy story has something that falls into my expanded definition of conlang. “Seeing” is a normal term that many fantasy writers use to mean “see the future,” but its most common usage actually means “perceive with the eyes.” Every fantasy author has to find ways to introduce new language without confusing the reader. Too often, in trying not to infodump, we make mistakes in this space in and give way too many details without anywhere near enough context.

For all my flippant disregard, I understand the problem this author faced. I once attempted to pitch a novel that featured zero human characters and the main character was of a serpentine race somewhat reminiscent of half-dragons from D&D. The thing is, their lore was that they believed themselves to be descended from real dragons, but in actuality dragons were pure myths and these creatures had a completely different historical lineage that mattered to the story a lot. But how do you pitch that book? You have to say the main character is a “half-dragon” because anything else either ignores the character not being human or adds a bunch of conlang/world building details that the editor doesn’t care about. As an author, I railed against the idea of mislabeling my character, but failing to find another solution, I called my main character a half dragon and his main enemy an elf. The editor replied “Everyone loves dragons and elves, but why do I care about yours?”

How Do You Use Details Well?

I like to think about the moments that worked for me in WoW. The children in Stormwind. They added flavor, depth, and complexity to the world, but if I was describing the game I’d never mention them. Details work best as seasoning, like salt in King Lear. It sounds like a minor thing and you’d rarely bother to mention it in a description. But what would your story be like without any?


All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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For some original fiction, check out these posts:
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