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More in 2024

For the last few years, I’ve been more productive than I had to be. Since 2018, my singular goal has been to publish a single new book wholly written by myself each year. This means that being in an anthology doesn’t count, as the entire project must be something I wrote. However, it also means that compilations of things I’ve written (like blog posts or short stories) can count as my annual release. There also isn’t a length requirement, which is why I count children’s picture books and cookbooks as meeting the intent of my goal. Having published not only a 10th Anniversary edition of The Fluxion Trilogy for the last few years (including audiobook versions of these books), but a new book as well, I decided it was time to refocus my efforts for the next few years before I have to put out a 10th Anniversary edition of Fourteener Father in 2028.

The plan for 2024 still has some remnants of the last few years, but I finally have some space to refocus and attend to things that have been languishing (like online marketing and product availability). I also have spent little time world-building the upcoming books I want to write, so this year will hopefully remedy some of that. Having two kids under 5 years old has taught me I now need to be explicit in my annual plans, which is why this year’s “resolution” post is arranged a little differently. I jotted down my plan per month instead of as general projects so that some months are inherently lighter than others and lend themselves to burnout prevention.

This year’s plan.

JANUARY: With the three separate 10th Anniversary editions of The Fluxion Trilogy complete, there’s still a bit of work I need to do to stitch everything back together for the 10th Anniversary release of the three-book collection. I already have the new cover mocked up, and it shouldn’t be too hard to get the paperback, hardcover, and eBook versions ready to go for the February 24th release. That I’ve already done most of the heavy lifting for this project makes me confident that January should be fairly relaxing.

FEBRUARY: While I could just slap all three audiobooks together and call it a day, the Appendix in The Fluxion Trilogy makes it a bit of a new book. I plan on recording this portion of the audiobook in February. I’ve also learned a lot in the last few years of producing audiobooks for Audible, so I plan to do some retroactive cleanup to make the three-book collection as professional as possible. Hopefully, I’ll have the audiobook version complete and released shortly after the 10th Anniversary goes live near the end of February.

MARCH: Since most of my books are on Amazon, I’ve been a little lacking in the marketing department. I plan to remedy this in March by submitting some A+ Content that will be displayed alongside my books. I already have some ideas on what this will look like, but I just need to make the time to create it and submit it. This shouldn’t take too much time (I hope), even for 10 books, so I expect March to be another light month.

APRIL: The first of two Camp NaNoWriMo events happens in April. I’m currently in talks with an illustrator for my next children’s picture book, Bountiful Bunnies. If these negotiations fall through, then I plan on using this month to create the draft of this book. I already have the words written (as minimal as they are), so much of my work will be developing the right look of the book’s illustrations. I have some styles already drafted up but need to sit down and work through the logistics of drawing over 1,000 rabbits for this book.

MAY: If you look closely at the picture above, you’ll notice that there’s some space at the bottom of the sticky note. That’s because I accidentally left May off my initial list. Part of my wider three-year plan between 10th Anniversary releases is to get into more local bookstores. While I’m in two local shops already, I’d like to expand to other locations. Increasing my local networking should help with this, and I already have a few businesses I’d like to partner with. Keep an eye out on my “Shop Local” page for additional stores that may show up as I spread my books across Colorado Springs.

JUNE: Similar to May, I plan to expand the distribution of my audiobooks beyond Audible. They’re already directly available from my online storefront in CD, USB, and digital mp3 formats, but I’d like to expand to other distributors so as many people can listen to my first trilogy as possible. I’m also going to try opening up another online storefront for my products (e.g., signed copies of my books) that’s not quite as isolated as the one I currently have. I’ll let you know where that is as soon as it’s ready.

JULY: Camp NaNoWriMo’s second event of the year takes place in July. While I won’t be writing a draft or editing a manuscript, I’ll be using the month to dive deeper into the world-building that I feel is lacking in an upcoming series that I plan to start in November. While the sticky note says this world-building will be for the adult fantasy “Exiles” series, I’ve lately had a lot of inspiration for a six-book middle-grade sci-fi series called “The Space Scout Handbook.” Hopefully, I’ll have settled on which series I’ll be working on for the next few years by the time July rolls around.

AUGUST: Having received a glowing review for Stop Screaming! from Readers’ Favorite, I plan on submitting more of my books for their reviews during August. I know not everything I’ve written is likely to get a 5-star review, but it doesn’t cost me anything to try. This lighter month will also allow me to wrap up what I need for this year’s release of Bountiful Bunnies. A children’s picture book is easier to pull together than a full novel, but it still takes some work.

SEPTEMBER: I plan to release my 11th book in the first few weeks of September. Bountiful Bunnies shares a similar plot to my short story, Be Fruitful… in that they both deal with exponentially increasing rabbits. I hope to visually convey the rapid increase in lagomorphs via this picture book. Having read quite a few books to my children, I found this mathematical topic to be sparsely covered and decided to increase awareness with this book.

OCTOBER: Being the spreadsheet nerd that I am, I’ve kept pretty good track of the sales of my books. However, my original spreadsheet for this job was clunky. I’ve since improved the spreadsheet, but the numbers don’t quite add up right. I’ll be checking my new spreadsheet against the actuals of my sales so that I can go forward into these coming years with a much better tool to provide metrics on my sales.

NOVEMBER: Whether I decide to pursue “Exiles” or “The Space Scout Handbook,” this year’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) will see me drafting out the first book in this series. Exiles will likely be a trilogy, which means the work I did in July will help me through the next three years of NaNoWriMo events. The Space Scout Handbook, however, is planned to be a six-book series, thus locking me into a schedule that could be twice as long as I initially planned. Either way, I look forward to finally starting a new series of books after a few years of one-shots and short story collections.

DECEMBER: The one book I know I want to write soon is none other than Rift. This fantasy book follows two points of view (POVs) and is split in half so that one POV is right side up and the other is upside down. I already have these two characters, the setting, and the rough plot figured out, but I need to dive deeper into the world-building. The more I can build my story Bibles for these books, the better prepared I’ll be to draft them correctly when the time comes.


This certainly looks like a lot of work for this year. However, it’s missing a few huge things that took up my time in previous years (like full 10th Anniversary and audiobook releases). One such goal is monthly blog posts about self-publishing here on my website. I’ve covered most of what I wanted to in the ~7 years of monthly posts and now I have nothing else to add that I hadn’t already said before. I’ll still post my annual January plans and December check-in for actual results, but the in-between months will remain quiet. Be sure to sign up for my Newsletter for monthly updates on the plan I detailed above—because I won’t be posting about it here until I’ve completed it in December.

Celebrating 2023

I saw a lot of milestones in 2023. Not only did I publish my 10th book this year, but it also won a major award. This was my 10th year as a Municipal Liaison (ML) for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and my 14th year of participating. I also finished my first trilogy of 10th-anniversary editions, along with audiobook versions of these books. This was also the year I joined the Colorado Author’s League which has helped me connect with other writers in my state. Not all the plans I made at the beginning of the year came to fruition, but the beauty of having multiple projects in various stages of planning is that I can pick what I want to work on next. So, while plans change, here is what I actually did this year…


The Third Degree (10th Anniversary and Audiobook versions)

By now, putting together a new version with character sketches (by Robin Childs) and a handy appendix isn’t that hard to pull off. Additionally, recording the audiobook version (available on Audible and iTunes, as well as a 6-CD set, USB drive, or digital mp3 files) is a lot easier now that I’ve been through the process twice. The 10th Anniversary edition of The Third Degree reminded me why I like it the most of the three books in the Fluxion Trilogy. Part of me is also glad that I’m done with this huge 3-year undertaking. It’s a lot of work to put out these things, so I’m glad that I only have a little more to do for the 10th Anniversary edition (and audiobook version) of the full Fluxion Trilogy omnibus. Be sure to pick up this definitive edition early next year.

Stop Screaming! A Beginner’s Guide to Homemade Ice Cream

This passion project of mine that I wrote in July 2021 finally came out on the first day of summer this year. I was a little skeptical that anyone would want such a niche book like this, but it has actually been my best-selling release since I started self-publishing. As my 10th book, Stop Screaming is quite a milestone. In mid-November, I learned it won the 2023 Best Indie Book Award (BIBA) for the Non-Fiction: Ice Cream Crafting category. This award feels like it legitimizes and validates my writing in a way that my previous awards and anthology acceptances haven’t. It’s currently submitted to a few other contests—some of which I won’t know the results of until late next year.

Be Fruitful…

Originally published in the Welcome to the Alpacalypse anthology, “Be Fruitful…” is a fun short story about the end of the world caused by exponentially reproducing rabbits. The events of this book take place between Thanksgiving 2022 and Easter 2023. Therefore, this Easter, I released the eBook version of this individual short story from that anthology (and also from the Ascent of the Writer collection). I think it’s one of my better short stories, so if you get a chance, make sure to pick it up.

Courier to the Stars

When I have a project like Courier to the Stars, I feel like it’s “cheating” to write it during NaNoWriMo. As a sci-fi adaptation of Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff: Courier to the Czar, this book is an almost word-for-word reimagining of the adventure novel as a race across the galaxy. Much in the way Pride and Prejudice and Zombies made minor tweaks to the story it was based on, Courier to the Stars makes substitutions that result in converting this hidden gem into something I hope gets people interested in the original.

One Year to Live

While my original plan for my November NaNoWriMo project was to start on my next trilogy, I felt I needed more time to do worldbuilding before diving into this new fantasy setting. As a result, I took a novel I planned on doing in a few years and decided it was ready enough to write this year. One Year to Live (which will get a new title once I revise it) is a deeply personal book about a lot of heavy subjects like suicide, loneliness, and toxic masculinity. It’s not quite ready for beta readers, and probably won’t be for a few years, but I felt like I got a lot of things off my chest while writing it, and I hope that one day you all will be able to read it.

Blog Posts

This is the seventh year that I’ve been writing regular blog posts about my experiences as an indie, self-published author. I’m not sure how many more topics I have left to discuss, so I plan to put this blog on a hiatus starting in February of next year. In the meantime, be sure to catch up on what I wrote this year:

With two young kids at home, I’m taking some time this holiday season to refocus on what I want to do with this hobby of mine. Winning a major award is encouraging, but it’s hard to juggle work, family, and writing when there are only so many hours in the day. Check back here in January to see what these plans look like.

Getting Past Originality

There’s usually a point in a writer’s career when they have an amazing idea and flesh it out—only to find that it’s been done before. Now, I’m not talking about a word-for-word “they stole my idea before I even wrote it” kind of plagiarism here. I’m talking about the raw concept being similar enough as to draw easy comparisons. These are the ideas that authors tell their friends about and receive the feedback, “Oh, it’s like [FILL IN THE BLANK].” This devastates inexperienced writers. However, those who have been writing for a while welcome the comparison. Why?

Contextual originality.

If you gave two writers the same prompt (like for an anthology), they’d likely come up with two completely different ways of handling it. Similarly, even if someone already wrote your idea, that doesn’t mean they wrote it how you’d write it. We all have different inspirations and worldviews that make what we write contextually original. It’s been said that all stories have already been written. If you accept this, then you can free yourself from the burden of being “original.” There’s likely no way you’ll be completely original. Yes, truly original works stand out—but how easy is it to get someone to read something that original?

When querying agents or talking to potential customers, it’s beneficial to make comparisons between your manuscript and existing works. This is known as a “comp title” and it can help instantly give someone an idea of what your story is about. With shorter attention spans, it’s helpful to describe your book as (for example) a “sci-fi Arthurian Legend retelling” so that people quickly understand its premise. Many authors will mix two or three different comp titles together to obtain that lofty “original” designator—but even just one comp title is enough.

Adapt and remix.

About a decade ago, there was a huge craze for fairy tale retellings. Working with known stories, these authors adapted fairy tales in the public domain and remixed them for modern audiences. Most of these books were romantic, but Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles stood out for its sci-fi take on fantasy. By using known stories, much of the heavy lifting of character development, setting, and plot can be lifted wholesale from the source material. The “Quirk Classics” series mixed traditional romances with monsters (such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). These “monster romances” lifted a large majority, word-for-word, from the original stories they were based on. Similarly, the “William Shakespeare’s Pop Culture” books head in the opposite direction by adapting modern movies in Shakespeare’s style.

Earlier this year, I endeavored to adapt Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff into a sci-fi version of the Russian adventure novel. Courier to the Stars used the format of the Quirk Classics by replicating most of the original text unchanged. However, it was not easy to adapt to sci-fi as one would think. I couldn’t just do a find-and-replace on the source document, as the sci-fi additions would change depending on the context surrounding them. There were still places where I could make original additions to fit the story I wanted to tell while not deviating from the one Jules Verne already wrote. Was this book original? Probably not, but I know Jules Verne didn’t write about intergalactic wormholes, hover-bikes, or plasma swords while he was alive. I tried to remedy that. Genre shifting is a perfectly acceptable way to adapt stories that already exist.

“Isn’t this plagiarism?”

When adapting and remixing existing stories, you must be careful to not stray too far into plagiarism. There are fair use rules that allow the Quirk Classics (and Courier to the Stars) to change just enough to not be plagiarism. It also helps that the stories being adapted are already in the public domain. While it’s easier to use a comp title with a more recent book, you don’t want to go too far in replicating the book that inspired you, lest your work be labeled as “derivative.” Yes, I realize this goes against my advice to ignore originality, but you have to at least put your own fingerprints on what you create.

Ultimately, think about the stories you love to read. Don’t you wish you had more stories like that? Being original is a lofty aspiration, but satiating the need to read more of something we love is much more fulfilling. After all, there wouldn’t be a ton of fanfiction out there if this wasn’t the case. If you’re being hung up on finding the most original idea, perhaps you need to take a step back and find inspiration in something that already exists.


What’s a story you wish you had more of?
Have you read an adaptation you really liked?
What’s the most obscure public domain work you’ve ever read?

Systems Simplify

How long does it take you to write 100 words? I’m sure most of us have never sat down and figured this out, even if we’ve done it many times. Still, if I asked you to write 100 words in 100 minutes, you’d likely say you can easily do that. 10 minutes? Probably more of a challenge, but not impossible. 1 minute? Unlikely—unless you really work at achieving it. As with most things in our lives, we develop an innate understanding of how long something takes the more we do it. We feel frustrated if it takes too long but accomplished if we can do it faster than normal.

The routine becomes subconscious.

A tenet of writerly advice is usually “develop a daily writing habit.” Why is this? First, it’s practicing something that then becomes easier with each iteration. Whether it’s a set number of minutes or words each day, the more times you practice this routine, the better you’ll get at judging how much you can write or how long it takes to crank out those words. Just like I know how long it takes to do other chores around the house, I know I can probably spend a solid hour to write 1,000 words. The trick is finding an uninterrupted hour to write.

I think the better advice for developing the habit is to understand the system around what you’re trying to do. Having a daily writing habit is great, but it’s better if you know how to get into that successful “writing mode.” Maybe it’s a cup of coffee in the morning or some instrumental music piped into your sound-canceling headphones. Is it having a reward for your daily writing spurring you onward? Part of the routine of a successful habit is knowing what helps (or hinders) you accomplishing that habit. Don’t feel bad if the stars don’t align every day. Sometimes, we need to take a break to avoid burnout. Just don’t be so beholden to your system that you avoid the habit. Flexibility is key.

I became a writer back in 2007 if I’m going off my first published work. My systems continued to make it happen.

What’s nice about systems is that they can stack and scale. Once you’re aware of what works for you, then you can start planning out your work, not only for one book but for a whole series. For example, I know I can usually get a workable first draft done within the 30 days of National Novel Writing Month every year. The time I take to edit this manuscript depends on the amount and type of edits, but it’s usually 50% longer than the first draft took. I have been using Camp NaNoWriMo events more frequently to motivate myself to edit since the community aspect helps with my discipline. I really enjoy the formatting and cover creation process, so it rarely takes more than a week to finish. Even recording and producing an audiobook multiple times has given me a sense of how long each step of that process takes.

Practice makes perfect…planning.

After 13 years of self-publishing, my systems have become so ingrained in my life that I can confidently release at least one book a year. Knowing what each step takes helps break the daunting task of self-publishing down into more manageable chunks. Even if the diagram above was my best guess at when I’d be in the writing (W), editing (E), querying (Q), and publishing (P) systems, I allowed myself to move projects around. Like, if I got to the end of a trilogy and realized the first two books needed to change from first person to third person, I allowed my systems to shift to other projects. Still, some of my newer systems take some getting used to (it takes a lot longer to burn audio CDs for audiobook distribution than I ever give myself time for). Additionally, when you’re working with other people for editing or cover art, be sure to keep their systems in mind as well, so a deadline doesn’t sneak up on you.

By sticking to something, you’ll likely see improvement over time. When I started writing novels in 2010, I thought those who could write over 100,000 words in a month were insane—until my systems allowed me to do so in 2015. Ultimately, you may try a lot of different systems to simplify your writing process and might not find the right fit yet. Don’t let others tell you how to write. It’s definitely a personal journey that you should enjoy on some level. Be mindful of your writing style—whether you prefer a strict daily routine like Stephen King or a longer world-building process like George R. R. Martin. The goal is to get words on the page. Embrace the systems that simplify that process.


Do you know how fast you write?
What needs to happen to get in “writer mode”?
How flexible are your systems for sudden changes?

Write what you like

There are tons of pithy sayings writers usually hear when they’re starting out. “Kill your darlings.” “Show, don’t tell.” “Write what you know.” Most who are starting out don’t really know what these idiomatic pieces of advice actually mean. Even experienced writers have trouble cracking the code on some of these sayings. Ultimately, you can’t really distill sound advice down to a 3-word phrase. Sometimes, it’s better to rephrase this advice. For instance, when I tell people to write what they know, what I’m really saying is to “write what you like.”

Passion makes it easy.

“If you could speak on something for an hour without prepared notes, what would it be?” is an icebreaker question that uncovers your interests and hobbies. It also answers my “write what you like” motto. Have you ever picked up an interest that suddenly sucked an entire weekend away as you dove down the rabbit holes that uncovered the depth of this hobby? Did you spend every waking moment for a few weeks learning everything you could about this topic? Just like how I hate the “What do you do for a living” icebreaker question, I think we should replace it with “What are you passionate about?” If there’s something that you are passionate about, then chances are you “know” that topic—and could therefore write extensively on it.


I hope you’re fortunate enough to have a few different interests other than writing. When I look at the books I’ve published, the four non-fiction books I created all come from hobbies of mine. Climbing all the Colorado 14ers with my dad gave me the experience to write my memoir, Fourteener Father. My love of many movies spawned the blog that turned into the Cinema Connections book. Having kids and an appreciation for woodworking gave me the idea for This is Not a Drill. Making homemade ice cream with my wife and discovering how easy it was led me to Stop Screaming. I could easily talk for an hour or more on any of these topics, which is why I ended up writing books for all of them. Compared to my fiction writing, these books were a lot more fun to put together.

This is just an example of how passionate I am about homemade ice cream.

“But,” I hear you cry, “I don’t want to write non-fiction! I want to write fiction!” Well, you’re in luck. Each character that you write is intrinsically an author self-insert. Their hobbies can be your hobbies, which makes their experience in these things easier to write if you have experience in these things. Multi-dimensional characters are more interesting and realistic than one-dimensional ones. Interests add dimension to characters, and you can spread them out across a cast of characters to hide your self-inserts. For example, two of the characters in Buried Colony enjoy classic movies, just from two different points of view. Similarly, in “Soul Photographer,” the lead character is a professional photographer obsessed with analog film. While I have experience with photography, I still had to learn more about analog photography to make the character realistic.

Mind the gap(s)

While I didn’t have to do much research for my non-fiction books, I still had to ensure that I was correct about the things I was writing. This is the problem with the “write what you know” phrase—it does not leave room for the parts of something you do not know yet. Research can be intimidating, but if it’s something you have fun learning about, it doesn’t seem as daunting. Furthermore, to write about things you don’t know, find someone who has knowledge in that area—who is passionate about it. Just like you can talk for hours about the topics you love, I assure you that others love to discuss their passions just as much. Hopefully, their passion will rub off on you and you can then take on the mantle of research to create the story you want to write.

I think sometimes the writer’s block that comes with the blank page results from not “liking” what you’re about to write. You might feel intimidated that you’ll get some details wrong. While I usually tell people to just write and fix it in the edits, perhaps this is the one case where you should stop and dive into research before you continue. The other reason might be that you’re writing to chase a trend you’re not interested in. If you’re writing commercial fiction, it helps when you like the topic. After all, fans of these trends might get the sense that you’re not one of them if you don’t “like” it yourself. On the flip side, if you write what you like, and others like it as well, you have a built-in audience who will enjoy your book. In the end, I think writing should be fun—and what better way to have fun than to write what you like.


What about you? What’s something you could talk for hours about?
What is a hobby you have that your characters could also share?
What is something you want to learn more about?

The Psychology of Selling Books

Of the many hats that self-published authors wear, salesperson can sometimes be the most intimidating. Obviously, we try to craft titles and blurbs that pique a reader’s interest as well as pay for professional-looking covers that grab potential readers’ attention. We’d like to think that just having a great cover and story idea will automatically generate sales for us, but selling books is more complicated than that. There’s a psychology that goes into selling books, especially in person.

What is your writing worth?

As a self-published author, what do you think your writing is worth? In the noise of an over-saturated literary market, sometimes the price of a book can swing a potential buyer from hesitant to willing. If it’s priced too cheap, then the customer will think the quality is lacking and isn’t worth their time. If it’s too expensive, a customer will think it’s not worth their money. A lot of readers won’t give unknown authors a chance unless the price is right. This might sound like a suggestion to give away your book for free (which can sometimes work to gain reviews), but it’s more about offering multiple formats of your book. After all, in the print-on-demand space, it can be just as easy to publish a hardcover book as a paperback. Even an eBook can be a straightforward process of converting the original text into an eBook format.

Each of your book’s formats comes with a cost to produce which will likely dictate the price at which you can sell it. Similarly, if you use services like ACX to distribute the audiobook version, it’s likely that you won’t be able to set that price. However, if someone comes across your book and sees that they can buy it at different price points, maybe one of those prices is the amount they’re willing to spend on it. From my experience, this isn’t necessarily the reader who can’t afford a $10 paperback but would buy a $0.99 eBook of the same story. Instead, it’s someone who sees that the hardcover version is $30—which is too much for them—but who ends up buying the “more affordable” paperback version for $20. Sometimes, they’ll even pay a little more for a special edition (if you have it) since it would provide more value to them for only a few dollars more.

Invested readers

The common saying for authors who don’t sell a lot of books is to keep writing the next one. Readers are always looking for the next series they can sink their teeth into. While having only one book to sell might be easier because either a customer wants that book or doesn’t, showing that a book is part of a series—bonus points for a completed series—can lead to someone buying the first book in that series just to give it a chance. They might not want to drop the money to get the whole series, but if they like the first book, they’ll probably come back for the rest later. Be sure to have these subsequent books easily available to buy online for these readers! They want to invest in your world, so give them a reason to keep investing.

Additionally, many people like to get the best deal available. If you have a series, providing a bundle discount can help push people into getting the whole thing at once. This might be a buy-one-get-one-free promo or a sliding cost scale for the more books they pick up. Alternatively, if the books in your series are short enough, you can print them in a single volume. I’ve found with my Fluxion Trilogy that people will give the first book a try, but the pricing of the book that contains the whole trilogy is enticing enough for them to pay the extra money. After all, each individual book is $15, but the collection (with a handy appendix) is priced at $45—which is $10 cheaper than the hardcover. The appendix is the added value that they’re getting for “free” by purchasing the collection even if it’s the same price as buying all three books separately.

Make it “real”

One reason I enjoy selling books in person is how I can make a book “real” to a customer. Online, books are limited to a small thumbnail in a long list of other potential purchases. And while having a table at a convention is a great way to display books in a way to attract customers, sometimes the endless booths of books can create the same effect as browsing online. Oddly enough, if I can get a potential customer to pick up a book (usually via its eye-catching cover), they’re more likely to buy it than if they were just walking past. Sure, even if handing a random book from my table to a passerby goes against every introvert bone in my body, I have seen evidence that holding a book and being able to flip through it transitions it from just something someone sees into it being a real object they can interact with. From there, it’s a short gap to jump to get them to purchase the book.

This is my booth setup for most conventions.

Ultimately, self-published authors have a lot of tricks at their disposal to get into a customer’s psyche. We control a lot of the facets of our books—including prices—that you can tweak as needed to increase sales. The key is knowing your customer well enough to get it into their head that they need to purchase your book.


What’s the ideal price you’d pay for a book?
How much would you pay for a book from an author you didn’t know?
Have you ever justified buying a cheaper version of a book?

The “Black Box” Approach to Editing

A piece of editing advice often given to writers is “Kill your darlings.” The feedback we receive from readers is important to identify these sections that don’t work. Even if we think it’s the greatest bit of prose we’ve ever written, these “darlings” have to go. If you’re lucky, these portions of your story added nothing to the overarching plot and can be easy to write around. However, what happens when the darlings you just killed leave tremendous gaps in your story?

Chances are, you’ve probably written the entire story before you gave it to someone to critique (at least, that’s how you should do it). You’ve likely spent a bit of time figuring out the logic of the plot, ensuring that actions result in your intended consequences. But if a key event in your plot isn’t landing correctly and you need to cut it, how do you stitch together what you have? How do you make it so you don’t have to start from scratch and rebuild the plot from the ground up?

Most scenes have inputs and outputs.

Quite a few fields have the concept of a “Black Box.” Programming. Business. Engineering. Mathematics. The Black Box is something that we know what goes into it and what comes out of it, but not necessarily what’s in it. However, by using these entrance and exit criteria, we can often deduce what’s happening in the mysterious middle of the Black Box. The beauty is that sometimes these Black Boxes can have multiple solutions as long as it transforms the inputs into the correct outputs.

A well-written scene is like a Black Box. There should be some inciting incident that pushes the characters into the scene. Next, the action of the scene should transform the characters so they’re different upon leaving it. String enough of these Black Box scenes together, and you have a full plot. If a scene doesn’t significantly change the plot if it’s removed, then it’s easy to cut and patch the connecting scenes on either side together. When you need to replace a Black Box scene, then things can be more challenging—but not impossible.

What is the expected outcome?

After receiving some significant criticism of my book, Buried Colony, I knew one of my “darling” scenes had to go. This scene had a lot of plots that hinged on its outcome, so I was initially depressed that I’d need to rewrite the whole book. I took some time to cool down before tackling this problem and realized that I just needed to rework the scene to remove the objectionable material. I also had to dial back one of my characters, which changed the inputs to the scene but not to the entire book. Ultimately, this scene had a particular outcome I was trying to achieve. Giving myself enough time to pivot to other projects allowed me to arrive at the eventual solution for this Black Box hole in my manuscript. It had some slight ripple effects throughout the plot that required me to tweak a few other scenes as well. The most important takeaway was that I didn’t have to rewrite everything.

Now, there are limits to this Black Box approach. If there are a lot of significant changes early in the plot or a character has to be altered drastically, you might need to consider doing a full rewrite. After all, being able to reproduce the intended outputs of a scene exactly can be difficult—if not impossible. These outputs are ultimately the inputs to the next scene, which leads to the next scene, and so on. If they’re a bit off, be sure to check your continuity to ensure a seamless scene transplant has taken place. This is sometimes how writers end up with characters who act “out of character.” Not carrying the effects of the modified scene through the rest of the story can cause this issue.

Using Black Boxes for planning.

Extending the concept of Black Boxes past the editing phase can also be useful for story planning. Often, I’ll have a great idea for a scene that’s not connected to anything else in the story. By asking myself three simple questions, I’ve been able to connect these scenes to the larger plot.

  • What needs to happen to arrive at this scene?
  • What does this scene need to accomplish?
  • How does this scene lead to the next scene?

You might iterate on this approach as you build the bridge between your new scene and the existing parts of the plot. As long as the inputs and outputs of these scenes make logical sense, it should prevent any potential plot holes that might arise from working in this new scene. Alternatively, you can also use this technique to battle writer’s block. If you’re stuck, just think about the next immediate thing that needs to happen, then just build upon that scene into the next one. When you reframe scenes as Black Boxes that fit together like puzzle pieces, it can be much easier to plan, prod, and polish your story into a finished product.


What scenes in your writing have been easy to cut? Difficult to cut?
What different actions can your characters take to arrive at the same result?
If you get writer’s block, are you looking too far ahead in your plot?

Using real places in your writing

Google Maps in action.

The setting is a key foundation of any story. Without it, your characters are engaging with a plot in an amorphous location. Sometimes, ignoring the setting can lead to dialogue-heavy writing (or “talking head” syndrome). A simple way to ground your story in reality is to use actual places in your writing.

I’ve talked about how traveling to these locations helps add the needed realism to stories based on the real world. However, I also understand that not everyone has the time and money to go to a specific spot in a big city that they don’t live in. It’s certainly easy to use locations close to where you live, but not every story you write will likely be set in an easily accessible spot. Thoroughly researching these places you haven’t been to with Google Maps and travel guides is a simple way to overcome this limitation.

Convey the sensation of “being there”

Ideally, though, visiting the location you want to use in your story helps add details that you just can’t get through internet research. For example, how long does it take to walk to this location (or use other transit options) and will your character be worn out by the time they get there? What does it smell like? Is it stuffy and humid? What common sounds would you hear while you’re there?

Of course, some genres—like fantasy—can’t directly use real-world locations. If a location isn’t 100% necessary to the characters or plot, then merely use an analog from what you know and where you’ve been. Sometimes, the feel of the location is more important and you can use your memories of a similar place you’ve been to and pull the needed senses into your writing. Case in point, the hotel used in Stephen King’s The Shining wasn’t directly the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. Still, the real-world location was a foundation for King to establish the feel of a haunted hotel.

You can’t fool the locals

Outside the location I referenced.

There are times when—no matter how hard you try, and how much research you do—you can’t get a real-world setting right. It might be disappointing to visit a location you reference in your writing only to find that you got it completely wrong. Ideally, most people won’t care. If it’s some obscure, hole-in-the-wall place in a big city that’s not exactly right, only locals would know the difference between what you describe and what reality is.


For example, I referenced a coffee shop (Dollop Coffee) in my short story, “The Last Immortal” that was not how I described it. I had been to Chicago before, so I knew the feel I was going for and the general area where the main character lived. However, I finally got the chance to visit this small coffee shop years later. I found out that the pictures included in the Google Maps description were all wrong. The information I used to set my scene wasn’t correct to start with. I could have used a Starbucks, which has a pretty consistent layout everywhere, but I wanted that small, out-of-the-way shop to get the feel I wanted. Will anyone know I wrote this coffee shop wrong? Not likely, nor will they care I did.

Not how I imagined it.

One thing that sometimes annoys me about books set in places I’m familiar with (especially as a local) is how many things they get wrong. If you’re getting an 85% feel for your location, it’s probably good enough for people who haven’t been there. Alternatively, part of your research (aside from visiting yourself) can be to interview someone who does (or has) lived at the location you want to use. After all, if the goal of your story is to immerse someone in the setting, then you’d better be sure you’re getting it right.


Have you ever noticed an error in a story’s location?
How would you describe the place where you live?
What stories set in real places stuck with you?

The Basics of Making Your Own Cover

The biggest lie that has ever been told about books is that you cannot judge them by their cover. This is the first and sometimes only interaction people will have with your book, so you need to be sure that it looks professional. I have seen a lot of self-published covers over the years that leave much to be desired—my own books included. Online cover creators are an easy way to slap something on the book you’ve written, but the design limitations of these tools actually do more harm than spending the money to hire someone to make your cover. All this being said, there are some easy ways you can make your own cover as long as you avoid a few common mistakes.

Fonts Matter.

At a minimum, there should be two boxes of text on your cover: your name and the title of the book. You’d be surprised to see some covers that don’t match the font for these two pieces of information. Rule of thumb is to use only a single font for your front cover. You might get away with another smaller font if you’re fortunate enough to have an author blurb on the front (making sure it’s from an author in your genre), but any more than two fonts make it look messy. The back cover can have a different font for the synopsis, but keep it to a similar font that you’re using for the text inside the book.

It’s important to note that certain genres almost have font requirements so that people know what genre your book is at a glance. For instance, a lot of fantasy has elegant, serif fonts whereas science fiction recently seems to be on a thin sans-serif kick. Thrillers always have bold impactful fonts and romances lean heavily on script-type fonts. Looking at some pre-made covers (which are fine to pay for and use if you’re stuck) can give you some ideas on what fonts to use. Ultimately, the font you use should be clear and readable against the background of the cover. Just be careful that it’s a font you can freely use—some have rights tied to them that might require you to purchase the font from its creator.

Keep it Simple.

While there is nothing wrong with using stock photos for your cover (unless you don’t pay for them, in which case we have a problem), it takes a certain amount of Photoshop skill to integrate these pictures into a coherent cover image. If your readers can tell you’re using stock photos, then there’s a chance they have already identified your book as low quality and won’t even give it a chance. There’s nothing wrong with paying for art that you can use for your cover and just putting your name and title over the top of it. Just make sure it’s at least in the right genre. For example, I remember reading a coming-of-age high school romance that centered around soccer players, but the cover made it look like it was a manga. The story was pretty good, but the cover was misleading (fortunately, a second edition of this book fixed that issue).

Again, understanding where your text will go and how it will stand out from this background is key. Don’t clutter your cover with too many characters and other things if you really want it to pop. I’m definitely a fan of minimalism, which can make creating your own cover even simpler than you think. The fact that there are often other editions of famous books released with simple, minimalist covers shows that even well-known books can get away with this look. If they can do it, maybe you can too. Heck, there’s even a modern trend of just random blobs of color being the art for the cover. Here are some questions to help guide your design choices; should you choose the minimalist look: Can you distill your book down into simple geometric shapes or is there a solitary item that could explain your entire book? Simple is key to being understood at a glance.

The cover for my next book. Yes, it’s PowerPoint.

Use the tools you have.

One reason I used cover creators when I was starting out was that I didn’t know what tools I had to make covers. Photoshop is expensive, and even its free alternative GIMP can be overwhelming to learn. I also didn’t quite understand how to make a cover to the right size specifications that Amazon needed to print it without cutting off important information. Today, I’ve learned enough GIMP to get by and Amazon has great tools for identifying the measurements for books of different sizes and lengths. I have also found Canva to be an excellent resource as a much better (albeit limited) “cover creator” than the ones that came before.

A surprising tool I had access to was Microsoft PowerPoint. After making a small registry change in Windows that allowed me to save PowerPoint files as print-quality JPG images, I was able to use this program to make covers for my books. I actually find PowerPoint to be much easier to manipulate than Photoshop or GIMP. After all, these programs work on the concept of “layers” so PowerPoint’s ability to easily group, align, and adjust elements of the cover design keeps me coming back. In the end, all Amazon cares about is that the file is the right size and in the right format, so use whatever tool you have to make that happen.


In today’s online marketplace, having a cover that can instantly grab attention in a thumbnail size is important. The aesthetics of a cover can be instantly attractive or instantly off-putting—even in small sizes. If you have trouble understanding what bad covers look like or if you need help identifying issues with covers, be sure to check out Lousy Book Covers and Cover Critics. Money is sometimes tight and you can create the cover for your book, but there’s also no shame in letting someone more professional do it for you if you can find the budget for it.


What’s the worst cover you’ve ever seen?
What instantly attracts you to a book cover?
Can you tell if someone used a pre-made cover?

The Stages of Handling Criticism

Nobody’s perfect. As writers, all of us are on journeys to improve our writing. The best way to do so is to have our current writing criticized. Knowing what works and what doesn’t is best achieved through the lens of other people—your readers. While we can’t please everyone with our writing, we can at least try to take relevant and constructive criticism to make more readers happy. Ultimately, there are two stages of criticism: before you release a book and after you publish this book. Knowing how to handle both is key to improving your writing.

Use beta reading criticism to make changes.

I’ve written about the four things I like my beta readers to provide for my drafts, but I’ll admit that it stings a little when a trusted source comes back and gives some harsh criticism of my story. Your first reaction might be to get mad. “These beta readers don’t understand what I’m trying to do!” you may tell yourself. Receiving criticism can be an emotional moment, so it’s important to take a step back and assess the feedback. Don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that the beta reader didn’t provide a good critique because they didn’t love everything about your draft. The point of a beta reader is to open your eyes to the blind spots in your manuscript that need improvement. If you’re feeling attacked by a beta reader critique, you must give yourself time to calm down before reviewing their notes and diving into edits. In fact, their notes might indicate what kind of editor you’ll need for the next polishing step (i.e., structural vs. line edits).

Many writing circles use the phrase “kill your darlings” to point out areas of a manuscript that don’t work for readers. As writers, there are scenes we absolutely love but distract from the story. If these scenes aren’t working for other readers, then you may have to face the fact that it’s a “darling” you’ll have to kill in revision. For example, there were portions of my memoir, Fourteener Father, that I felt were an important part of my life story, but my beta readers revealed were probably better for a session with a therapist. Similarly, I delayed publishing Buried Colony because of feedback I received on some Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs). I gave myself the extra time to kill these darlings, which made both books better. However, you should know that ARCs are a last chance to catch these things before letting the world have your story.


The 5 elements of a Review.

As someone who reviews books, movies, and video games, I don’t like everything I review. Sure, there are some rare stories I deem to be the cream of the crop, but there are also stories that don’t work for me. And that’s fine. People can like what they like and not like what they don’t like. The saying, “You can’t please everyone” is never more prevalent than in the reviews section. While we always hope readers will give our work four or five stars, there inevitably comes the handful of one or two-star reviews. This criticism can be harder to deal with because the book is already out in the world in its final form—there’s no time to change it.

Fortunately, there are a handful of low-star reviews you can outright ignore. The internet is a nasty place, and if you’ve attracted a troll who derives pleasure in knocking your review score down a few points for no other reason than to watch you suffer, then there’s not much you can do about it than to let the work stand for itself. The same thing goes for people who give low marks because they couldn’t finish reading it or it’s not a genre they normally read. Again, you can’t please everyone. And while it’s hard to just completely ignore all reviews (good or bad), some negative reviews might be done with a modicum of constructive criticism you can use to improve your writing.

Don’t respond to negative reviews.

One of the cringiest series of e-mails I have ever received was in response to a critical review I wrote of a book someone had written. It just didn’t work for me, but they felt obligated to send me several e-mails about how many other people liked it. They even came out of nowhere years later to gloat that the book I didn’t like was being adapted for film or television. Like, so? The fact I lived rent-free in this writer’s head for so long, maybe pushed him to make it into a better screenplay—which means my criticism worked even if they didn’t handle it that well. Ultimately, you are the writer, and you can ignore whatever feedback you receive. Even with beta reader feedback, you can give a “noted, ignored” as your response. Just know that if you are interacting with negative reviews in a space where other readers can see them, they often see your responses in poor taste.

Ironically enough, I don’t even consider reviews when I pick up a new book to read or a movie to watch. If the concept intrigues me, I’ll go through with it. Many readers will buy your book by the title and cover alone (or if it’s on sale), so don’t get hung up on 1-star reviews that most people won’t read, anyway. Heck, if you’re selling directly to people at a convention, there are no online reviews there either. I figure, once I’ve sold a copy of a book, the opinion of the reader is out of my hands.


How did you handle the first critical feedback of your work?
Are you finding beta readers you trust for their opinion, or do you need new critique partners?
Do you use reviews to determine if you’ll try a new book?

Writer Rant

Watch the entire “Writer Rant” series by Benjamin M. Weilert:

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