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The Impossibility of Finding a Place to Write in New York


Like many young people who believe themselves unfit for the demands of real life, I moved to New York after college to become a writer. A guy I sort of knew had a room opening up in his Ridgewood, Queens apartment for $700 per month. I didn’t know where Ridgewood was, and the rent seemed steep—I was coming from St. Louis, where I paid $550 to share, with friends, a two-story suburban house—but I was assured that $700 was a steal. I was also assured that Ridgewood was, if not exactly desirable, then certainly pre-desirable. The place to be, give or take five years. There were rumors that a sitcom set in Ridgewood was in the works at Fox.

The guy and I had met one summer in high school at what can only be described as “poetry camp,” a week of reading and writing verse with other allergy-prone introverts at a Lutheran college in Pennsylvania. I almost didn’t recognize him when he met my bus at Hudson Yards. He was no longer the scrawny, beak-nosed poet I remembered. His shoulders were twice as broad and his biceps were testing the sleeves of his t-shirt. I couldn’t comprehend the transformation. Had he been lifting Norton anthologies?

“Are you still writing poetry?” I asked, dragging one of my duffel bags down the street.

He shouldered my second duffel easily. “Hell no,” he said. “I sell ads for Yelp.”

I was in no position to judge. I had taken my $200,000 undergraduate degree and moved to one of the world’s most expensive cities on the basis of an internship that paid less than the minimum wage—a humiliating if commonplace rite of passage for artsy millennials of privilege.

Eventually I found the perfect place—a persistently-empty used bookstore in Bushwick that seemed to operate outside the bounds of capitalism.

The room was much smaller than I’d anticipated. I could extend my arms and touch the walls on either side. The window, which was jammed in place and wouldn’t shut, overlooked a construction site. The tiny men below appeared to be digging a giant hole. Needless to say, there was no room for a writing desk. A squat wicker end table sat by the apartment door, but my roommate was using it to display a glass skull and a tub of creatine.

With no space to write in the apartment, I began the arduous process of finding a suitable café. The kind of place I had in mind would ideally meet three requirements:

1) Walking distance. The goal is to put physical (and mental) distance between you and your apartment while remaining close enough to walk home for lunch.

2) Low rent. By “rent” I mean the drinks and pastries you are obliged to purchase in exchange for taking up space. Some establishments demand, reasonably, that you spend some money if you’re going to hang around, but some will let you live there for the cost of a drip coffee.

3) Ample space. Nothing makes pursuing your unique artistic vision more difficult than being squeezed between a bunch of people all pursuing their unique artistic visions.

There are other factors, to be sure, like the quality of the baked goods or, if you’re finnicky like me, the height of the chairs in relation to the height of the tables. (I like to tower over my laptop, as though my work is subservient to me, and not the other way around.) I auditioned a number of cafés near my apartment, but none satisfied my key requirements. Eventually I found the perfect place—a persistently-empty used bookstore in Bushwick that seemed to operate outside the bounds of capitalism—but the hours of operation were wildly inconsistent, requiring me to add a fourth requirement:

4) Consistent hours of operation.

When I did manage to time out my visits with the bookstore owner’s unpredictable sleep schedule, I worked on a novel. The protagonist was an old woman in a small Massachusetts town beset by coyotes. After six months of writing I showed the manuscript-in-progress to a friend. She winced and said, “A short story, maybe. But a novel?”

It wasn’t a novel. I could see that now. On the plus side, a few weeks after the internship ended I landed myself an office job making $33,500, which was more money than I could conceive of spending. But after taxes, rent, utilities, my MetroCard, and the coffees I was obliged to buy at the used bookstore, I was coming to see how it was possible.

My girlfriend, who was back in St. Louis finishing her degree, visited Ridgewood one weekend in December. She had the flu and soon I did, too, and for some reason we decided to watch The Pianist on my laptop. We huddled together on my twin bed, noses running as a cold wind blew through the crack in the window, watching as Poland was slowly overtaken by the Nazis.

“How do you get any work done here?” she asked.

The Polish army was moving in on Adrien Brody, who, in an effort to keep warm, had donned the heavy green coat of a German soldier.

“I don’t,” I said.

I wasn’t sure if by here she meant the apartment or New York in general. Even in Ridgewood, where the telltale signs of gentrification—small dogs, coworking spaces, people like me—were only just beginning to crop up, the economic and social pressures of the city made luxuries of time and space.

Rather than solve my problems for myself, I discovered, I could pass them off to my characters.

My novel wasn’t turning out to be a short story, either. I scrapped it and started work on a new project. The protagonist was a cash-strapped young woman who lived in Ridgewood in an apartment overlooking a giant hole. Rather than solve my problems for myself, I discovered, I could pass them off to my characters. My life seemed funnier, and somehow less pathetic, when refracted through a fictional entity. Still, I was losing valuable writing hours standing in the cold like Adrien Brody, waiting for the bookstore owner to wake up and open the shop. And I didn’t even have a heavy coat! The hole outside my bedroom window was growing larger by the day and had begun to take on metaphorical significance.

I dreamed of a quiet, private room to write in. After weeks of searching, I found one in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The landlord had chopped up a townhouse, slapping padlocks on the doors and renting out the rooms as individual “studio apartments.” The rent was $850, but I would have my privacy. When I showed up with the rent and the realtor’s fee—a realtor had posted the room on Craigslist, and for this, I owed her $425—I was informed that there was nothing to sign.

“I don’t do leases,” the landlord said.

“He doesn’t,” the realtor assured me.

My new apartment resembled a boarding house. It was like something out of Balzac. The other tenants were aspiring artists of one kind or another. There was a set designer, a photographer, and a musician. A line cook lived out of a closet downstairs. The shared bathroom and kitchen were ruthlessly policed by our live-in super. He was a paranoiac, and believed one of the tenants was trying to poison his food. He put padlocks on the cabinets and refrigerator.

The house was continually under construction. Ceiling plaster often fell on my head, and the entryway was regularly blocked by wood beams or spare appliances. There was a leak in my bedroom ceiling and a colony of flying ants lived in the walls. In place of air conditioning I placed my desk fan atop a stack of hardcover books. A friend suggested I sell the books and use the proceeds to buy a window unit, but this seemed like a betrayal—of what, I’m not sure.

But the space! The ceilings were high and there was plenty of room to pace back and forth. I bought a sturdy wooden desk and set it by the bay window, which faced the street and drew in plenty of light. I was still writing about the young woman in Ridgewood, but she was no longer my sole focus. I gave her a brother, a father, and a deceased mother. Each character had his or her own discrete but intersecting storyline. Alongside scenes set in New York, I was writing chapters set in St. Louis, Boston, Paris, and Zimbabwe. The plot now spanned sixty years. The struggle to find work and make rent in Ridgewood was still a part of the manuscript, but it was no longer the whole story. The novel grew in scope and dimension.

I’m not sure where this influx of ambition came from, but it might have had something to do with the high ceilings, the sturdy desk, the windows, and the privacy. The apartment was not luxurious by any stretch—each morning I dusted the dead ants off my laptop—but in my room, at least, there was space for my ideas to stretch out.

At some point I mistakenly ordered a package to my old address in Ridgewood. When I went to pick it up, I was shocked to see just how small my room had been. It had the same dimensions as a coffin. The hole outside my window was no longer a hole, but the parking lot for an AutoZone. I wondered what had happened to that sitcom.

Charles Bukowski has a poem where he roundly dismisses the idea that good writing can only occur under ideal conditions. “Baby,” the final stanza reads, “air and light and time and space / have nothing to do with it / and don’t create anything / except maybe a longer life to find / new excuses / for.” Well, sure. Air and light and time and space are useless on their own. But they don’t hurt—and since when was I taking life advice from Bukowski? I didn’t even like Bukowski.

After eighteen months in the boarding house, I had written a novel. I would not have started it without Ridgewood, but I would not have finished it, and it would not have become The Altruists, without the room in Brooklyn.

I told the paranoid super I was leaving. My girlfriend had moved to New York and we were going to move in together.

“You know, Drew,” he said, “sometimes in life you just got to move on. Is this a special lady?”

“She is,” I said.

“She doesn’t mess around on you?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“You sure?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

“I’m happy for you, Drew,” he said. “You’re going to be alright. And if she ever does you wrong, you can always come back here. We’ll have a room waiting for you.”

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub

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13 Tips for the Work-at-Home Author


Let’s face it: writing is mostly a solitary business. The picture we have of the writer alone in her room, deep in the writing process, is pretty accurate. Writing takes dedicated hours over a long period of time.

This means that many people who write for a living work at home. I’ve been self-employed for quite a long time, and sometimes I had a space to work that I rented, but mostly I’ve been lucky enough to have room in my home to set up an office.

This scheme is not without risks, however.

Early in my working at home days, it seemed almost impossible to get anything done. Eventually I gave up and took an office in the city.

But when I began book publishing in earnest in the 1990s, I took an extra bedroom in your home and converted into an office.

Over the years since I’ve worked from home both as a contract worker doing book design and production, as well as an entrepreneur, starting businesses and gathering a team online.

In the course of the thirty-plus years I’ve been doing this, I’ve learned lots of lessons about navigating work at home successfully.

Here are my top tips for authors and publishers who work at home:

13 Tips for the Work-at-Home Author

  1. Get dressed for work—It may seem like fun to spend the day in your pajamas, you’ll be much more productive by dressing for work to trigger yourself to take your home work seriously.
  2. Establish a routine—Routine is part of life when you work in any context, and routines can be used as powerful reinforcements in building successful habits.
  3. Treat your business like a business—Your mindset will communicate itself to others whether you intend it to or not. Act like you’re transacting serious business and people will take you at your word.
  4. Choose a dedicated work space—An absolute necessity for home workers. Having a space that’s optimized for your type of work, where everything you need is readily accessible will help make you so much more productive. Put some time (and some resources) into making your home office an inviting and efficient place to work.
    • Declutter—Keeping order, not surprisingly, helps with focus and concentration
    • Create a pleasing ambiance—Having your own space gives you an opportunity to create an environment that you’ll be happy to work in.
    • Less noise, more light—If you can find a spot that has either quiet or great natural light, take it. If it has both, guard your space jealously.
    • Get a good chair—When you consider your desk chair is your most-used piece of equipment, you’ll realize why it’s a good idea to invest in one that gives you great support. During the dot-com bust, we picked up several pricey Aeron chairs, and they really make a difference especially on those late night launches.

  5. Try to leave the house each day—Getting some air and a chance to walk around for a few minutes will keep your energy up for the long haul.
  6. Restrict your social media use—If this is a problem for you, try logging out of all your accounts during your work day, and/or turning off notifications on all your devices. On iOS devices, the “Do Not Disturb” setting is quite handy.
  7. Work at your most productive time of day—I’ve divided my day in half. Until noon, I work on creative projects and my own writing. After lunch, it’s promotions, product development, book design and all the rest of my work.
  8. Have a plan—Using a “to-do” app or a rolling list on a memo pad will help keep you on track with your own priorities which are all too easy to forget during the day.
  9. Stay connected—We’re lucky to have great collaboration tools like Zoom and Skype to maintain contact with colleagues, readers, marketing partners, and vendors.
  10. Take clear breaks—My day seems to work best when I break for lunch around 1:00, and look for a pick-me-up around 4:00. These become predictable parts of my day, and these routines make the rest of my day very productive.
  11. Make your phone into a voicemail system—Some time-management experts consider the telephone the number one distraction for people trying to do business. I give out a phone number that’s strictly a voicemail server, and restrict business to outgoing calls only. This allows me to schedule and predict calls, making the telephone much less disruptive.
  12. Hire an assistant—I know you’re not going to do this, yet I also know from long experience there’s nothing you can do that will multiply your own efforts as much as working with a daily assistant.
  13. Don’t let friends stop by—Establish business hours, and do your best to keep them. On the other hand, this is your business so if you feel like taking your honey out for a hike in the afternoon please do it!

These are just tips, of course. Since you’re the boss, you get to write your own rules for working at home. And since you’re the boss, you can declare a “day off” whenever you like.

I bet a lot of readers work at home. Do you have any tips for the rest of us? Let us know in the comments.


The post 13 Tips for the Work-at-Home Author appeared first on The Book Designer.

This story originally appeared on The Book Designer

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Useful Writing Resources to Help You Achieve Success

There are many resources dedicated to the art of writing and becoming a successful writer. And the number online is growing all the time. Here are some of the best:

  1. Writer’s Market

This is the best writing resource available, for a number of reasons. It gives hints, tips and practical advice on all aspects of being a writer, from starting your first work to what to do once you have been published. It lists paying markets where you can start earning money as a writer. It also breaks down the information into specific types of writing, such as:

* Children’s writing

* Poetry

* Blogging

* Short stories

And more.

In addition, it lists contests, calls for writers, and the latest information on literary agents. Twilight series author Stephenie Meyer got her to start from all she learned subscribing to Writer’s Market. Make the most of all the free information at the site and then decide if one or more of their subscriptions is right for you.

Also, check out their Paid Services section for chances to write in order to start getting your name recognized in the industry.

  1. Writer’s Digest

This is another packed website no writer can live without. It is packed with articles, writers’ challenges, contests, genre-specific advice, and editors’ blogs that can give you real insights on how to break into the world of publishing.

  1. Aerogramme Writers’ Studio

This site lists contests, writing opportunities and more – all free.

  1. Australian Writers’ Center

They offer many online (and live) courses designed to help with all aspects of writing. If you haven’t done much writing since you were in high school, or want to learn the tricks of the trade in reference to particular genres, this is a handy and affordable way to boost your skills.

  1. Bartleby

Bartleby is like a writer’s reference shelf all in one place, with digital versions of classics, grammar books and more. If you’re looking for quotations, inspiration, a dictionary, thesaurus and so on, this is the site for you.

  1. Diy MFA

The Do-It-Yourself Master of Fine Arts site tries to help you do just that – learn how to be a writer without having to go back to college. It is packed with ideas, hints, and tips. It also has a really fun “Writer Igniter” that gives you a random character, situation, prop and setting to help get your creative juices flowing ( Just use the situations given and start writing, or hit the “shuffle” button to get other prompts.

  1. Every Writer

This is a rather sprawling online magazine packed with writing hints and tips for every genre. It also has a useful list of writers’ organizations that can help propel your career forward:

  1. Quick and Dirty Tips – Grammar Girl

Hated grammar at school? Not to worry. Grammar Girl makes it a lot more accessible at this interesting site.  

  1. Scribendi

This is the site for all things related to editing and proof-reading. Use free resources, or explore their paid services to make sure your manuscript is the best can be.

  1. Writer’s Relief

For the past 23 years, this site has been helping authors get published. Check out free articles, listings and more, or use their affordable services.


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Thriller Book Contest

Everyone loves a great Thriller! Plot twists, heroic action, steamy romance and the end where the good guy wins and the bad guys lose. It’s as American as Apple Pie, Baseball and Mom, and Dad. But do you know the key elements to a great Thriller outside of all the hype?

1. A hero who’s both conventional and heroic.

Rather than having a “Superman” invulnerable sort legend, it’s all the more fulfilling to the perusers on the off chance that you utilize a customary individual who’s tossed into upsetting, at that point progressively nerve-racking circumstances, and must call the majority of his fearlessness, quality and inward assets to beat the chances, spare himself and other honest individuals, and annihilation malicious. Think Keanu Reeves character in Matrix or

2. An amiable, thoughtful protagonist

The perusers should most likely warm up to your principle character rapidly, to begin relating to her; else, they don’t generally mind the end result for her. So no chilly, narrow-minded, presumptuous characters for saints or heroines!

3. A commendable enemy for the protagonist

Your rival should be as shrewd, solid, creative and decided as your hero, yet additionally genuinely dreadful, improper and frightening.

4. An intriguing setting

Readers like to get some answers concerning places they haven’t been, regardless of whether it’s the shabby side of Chicago, glamorous Hollywood, rustic Kentucky, the mountains of Colorado, or the sounds of Louisiana — or progressively removed, extraordinary areas. What’s more, milk your setting for all it’s worth.

5. A story that fits the hero and bad habit version it

doesn’t, change your hero — or your storyline. You can generally utilize your present one in another novel.

6. An instigating incident

What happens to the fundamental character to set the story occasions in real life? Make it tense and compelling.

7. An extraordinary plot, with progressing strife and tension

You need a real issue question and a lot of interest. Furthermore, every scene should contain tension and conflict of some sort. On the off chance that it doesn’t, erase it.

8. Lots of suspense

Keep the perusers on the edge of their seats, turning the pages to discover what will happen next.

9. Multiple viewpoints

Narrating the story from different perspectives, including that of the scalawag, will include intrigue, intricacy, and anticipation to your novel. Be that as it may, don’t head-jump inside a scene! Hang tight for another scene or section to change viewpoints.

10. A tight, for the most part, quick paced composing style

Streamline your composition to improve stream and pacing. Experience and take out every single pointless word, sentences, and sections, and any tedious expressions, occasions or thoughts. Spine chillers are not the class to wax expressive.

All of those things are important but the most import is YOU the author to create it! That’s why we are running a Thriller Book Contest for the next five days. Get your Thriller book submitted and we will enter you into a drawing for a $25 Amazon Gift Card! Follow this link to submit your book to be counted toward the contest!

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Writing Tips: How To Authentically Write Diversity

Independent publishing has given voice to writers who might otherwise not find a place in the book marketplace. This has, in turn, increased the diversity we see in both authors who publish books, and in the characters and subjects represented. Bharat Krishnan explores how to write diverse characters authentically.

How To Authentically Write DiversityAs wuxia, African, and eastern-based fantasy become more popular subgenres in today’s market, writing diversity well has become an important tool for a writer to have in their repertoire.

Society is defined by boundaries.

Every single person on Earth has to live within those boundaries, and the ones that loom largest in our own lives are what seem diverse to us.

To that end, here are five tips for incorporating diversity authentically in your next book.

1. Be true to yourself

Find the boundaries within your own life and write about them with authority.

While writing my latest novel, it was important for me to explore my Hinduism. One way I did that was by naming a weapon wielded by one of the secondary characters after a famous character in the epic, the Mahabharata. Notice that even in my own story, this weapon is wielded by a secondary character and not the protagonist.

Minority communities are used to being underrepresented in works, and we still enjoy them quite a lot! The weapon, Ekalavya, is a bow used in a handful of scenes, and I suspect the majority of my readers will never pick up on the relevance of its name.

2. Highlight contrasts you see in how you view the world and its boundaries in your life

Mountain River Stream Waterfall Green ForestJust as in life, the setting of your story will determine the society that forms around it. In a desert setting like Oasis, whoever controls the supply of water controls the rules. Quite literally, you can’t survive without it.

Now, though, we’re at a period in history where the CEO of Nestlé said a few years ago that access to water isn’t a fundamental human right. Oasis takes that position to an extreme, and in doing so the society that emerges in the middle of a desert is one that invites contrasts.

More contrasts = more boundaries, and as we all know by now that leads to better diversity.

3. Dissect cultural events that speak to you

Chances are you have strong opinions on at least a handful of issues with cultural relevance. Think about how the unique circumstances of the people involved might have impacted the event, and also think about how the event is being covered in the press.

Bias can be found in everything, and once you identify biases you can see how authors hide them – often in plain sight. Just like bias is everywhere and nowhere, diversity is too and finding what motivates you personally can be an easy way to identify ways to make your writing more diverse.

Let’s say you think the UFC fighter Ronda Rousey is overrated, for instance. Once you unpack why Rousey gets more favorable press than other female fighters, you might be more cognizant of how bias can exclude underrepresented communities and how actively working to overcome that can lead to better, and more profitable, writing.

4. Understand conflict

ArcheryAt its core, all conflict stems from an inability for two or more people to get along.

More often than not, that inability is rooted in the fact that these people are different in some way. A good conflict makes a story irresistible, and so to understand conflict is to understand diversity.

Ask yourself some questions like, why would a deaf person not be a good archer? Is that something they could get around? Those types of questions will tell you if you have a compelling story or not. Reading about a deaf archer overcoming the odds to save a kingdom, for instance, would be a compelling read for me at least.

5. Know how to R.E.A.C.H.

Research – make sure you have an understanding of the type of character or community you want to explore (LGBT, disabled, a rural community when you personally live in a city, etc).

Empathize – improving your empathy, in general, will allow you to write more diverse characters because those characters will seem authentic if you can empathize with their underrepresented condition.

Acknowledge – recognize that you can’t know what this community feels and that that is okay. Have someone from that community read your work, or at least discuss it with them to gain their perspective.

Characterize – make sure your diverse character doesn’t just exist to serve the plot.

Humanize – know what you go through as a person in your everyday life and inject some of that daily routine into these characters wherever it makes sense. For example, if you’re writing an LGBT character, the love they feel for someone of the same gender is not different from the love you feel for the significant other in your life.

Diverse Group of PeopleAuthentic diversity speaks to targeted communities, and in doing so it succeeds in being everywhere and nowhere at once. It doesn’t matter how many black people you have in your story or if your main character is deaf or blind – what matters is that your unique voice shines through the course of your novel.

Just look at how a deaf, Asian warrior was handled in Netflix’s recent animated show, The Dragon Prince. Diverse writing is about more than just demographic data, and when you explore that your voice will come off stronger for it.

For a novel to succeed in the marketplace, it needs that unique voice, and if you aren’t talking about what makes you unique as a person then you’re not enunciating as clearly as possible and your voice will get lost in the crowd.

Have you explored diversity in your writing? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Bharat KrishnanBharat Krishnan is a philanthropic consultant in Columbus, Ohio. After ten years in Democratic politics, he wrote a memoir about his life on the road as a political campaign manager and just released a fantasy novel called Oasis. He refers to himself as a professional storyteller and amateur cook.

You can pick up Confessions of a Campaign Manager or Oasis here on Amazon. Feel free to send him a tweet.

This story originally appeared on The Creative Penn

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How I Began to Write

Gabriel García Márquez delivered the following speech at the Athenaeum of Caracas, in Venezuela, on May 3, 1970.

Gabriel García Márquez. Photo: Patrick Curry.

First of all, forgive me for speaking to you seated, but the truth is that if I stand, I run the risk of collapsing with fear. Really. I always thought I was fated to spend the most terrible five minutes of my life on a plane, before twenty or thirty people, and not like this, before two hundred friends. Fortunately, what is happening to me right now allows me to begin to speak about my literature, since I was thinking that I began to be a writer in the same way I climbed up on this platform: I was coerced. I confess I did all I could not to attend this assembly: I tried to get sick, I attempted to catch pneumonia, I went to the barber, hoping he’d slit my throat, and, finally, it occurred to me to come here without a jacket and tie so they wouldn’t let me into a meeting as serious as this one, but I forgot I was in Venezuela, where you can go anywhere in shirtsleeves. The result: here I am, and I don’t know where to start. But I can tell you, for example, how I began to write.

It had never occurred to me that I could be a writer, but in my student days Eduardo Zalamea Borda, editor of the literary supplement of El Espectador, in Bogotá, published a note in which he said that the younger generation of writers had nothing to offer, that a new short-story writer, a new novelist, could not be seen anywhere. And he concluded by declaring that he was often reproached because his paper published only the very well-known names of old writers and nothing by the young, whereas the truth, he said, was that no young people were writing.

Then a feeling of solidarity with my generational companions arose in me, and I resolved to write a story simply to shut the mouth of Eduardo Zalamea Borda, who was my great friend or, at least, became my great friend later. I sat down, wrote the story, and sent it to El Espectador. I had my second shock the following Sunday when I opened the paper and
there was my full-page story with a note in which Eduardo Zalamea Borda acknowledged that he had been wrong, because obviously with “that story the genius of Colombian literature had emerged,” or something along those lines. 

This time I really did get sick, and I said to myself: “What a mess I’ve got myself into! What do I do now so Eduardo Zalamea Borda won’t look bad?” Keep on writing was the answer. I always had to face the problem of subjects: I was obliged to find the story before I could write it.

And this allows me to tell you something that I can verify now, after having published five books: the job of writer is perhaps the only one that becomes more difficult the more you do it. The ease with which I sat down one afternoon to write that story can’t be compared to the work it costs me now to write a page. As for my method of working, it’s fairly consistent with what I’m telling you now. I never know how much I’ll be able to write or what I’m going to write about. I hope I’ll think of something, and when I do come up with an idea that I consider good enough to write down, I begin to go over it in my mind and let it keep maturing. When it’s finished (and sometimes many years go by, as in the case of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I thought over for nineteen years)—I repeat, when it’s finished—then I sit down to write it, and that’s when the most difficult part begins, and the part that bores me most. Because the most delicious part of a story is thinking about it, rounding it out, turning it over and over, so that when the time comes to sit down and write it, it doesn’t interest you very much, or at least it doesn’t interest me very much, the idea that’s been turned over and over.

I’m going to tell you, for example, about the idea that has been turning over and over in my mind for several years, and I suspect I have it pretty rounded out by now. I’ll tell it to you because there’s no doubt that when I write it, I don’t know when, you’ll find it completely changed and be able to observe how it evolved. Imagine a very small village where there’s an old woman who has two children, a boy seventeen and a girl not yet fourteen. She’s serving her children breakfast with a very worried look on her face. Her children ask what’s wrong and she replies: “I don’t know, but I woke up thinking that something very serious is going to happen in this village.”

They laugh at her and say those are an old woman’s misgivings, just something that will pass. The boy goes out to play billiards, and as he’s about to shoot a very simple cannon, his opponent says: “I’ll bet you a peso you can’t make the shot.” Everybody laughs, he laughs, takes his shot, and doesn’t make it. He gives a peso to his opponent, who asks: “But what happened? It was a really simple cannon.” He says: “It was, but I’m worried about something my mother said this morning about something serious that’s going to happen in this village.” Everybody laughs at him, and the one who won the peso goes home, where he finds his mother and a cousin or a niece, or some female relative. Happy about his peso, he says: “I won this peso from Dámaso in the simplest way because he’s a fool.” “And why is he a fool?” He says: “Oh man, he couldn’t make a really simple cannon shot because he was worried about his mother waking up today with the idea that something very serious is going to happen in this village.”

Then his mother says: “Don’t make fun of old people’s misgivings, because sometimes they come true.” The relative hears this and goes out to buy meat. She says to the butcher: “Give me a pound of meat,” and just as he’s cutting it, she adds: “Better make it two, because people are saying that something serious is going to happen and it’s best to be prepared.” The butcher hands her the meat and, when another woman comes in to buy a pound of meat, he says: “Take two, because people are coming in and saying that something very serious is going to happen and they’re preparing for it, buying things.”

Then the old woman replies: “I have several children; look, better give me four pounds.” She takes her four pounds and, to make a long story short, I’ll say that in half an hour the butcher sells all his meat, slaughters another cow, sells all of that, and the rumor spreads. The moment arrives when everybody in the village is waiting for something to happen. Activities grind to a halt and, suddenly, at two in the afternoon, it’s as hot as it always is. Someone says: “Have you noticed how hot it is?” “But in this village it’s always hot.” So hot that it’s a village where all the musicians had instruments repaired with tar and always played in the shade, because if they played in the sun the instruments fell apart. “Still,” one person says, “it’s never been so hot at this time of day.” “Yes, but not as hot as it is now.” And, without warning, a little bird flies down into the deserted village, the deserted square, and the news spreads: “There’s a little bird in the square.” Everybody goes to the square and is frightened when they see the little bird.

“But, my friends, there have always been little birds that fly down.” “Yes, but never at this time of day.” It is a moment of such tension for the inhabitants of the village that they are all desperate to leave but lack the courage to go. “Well, I’m a real man,” one of them shouts, “and I’m leaving.” He gets his furniture, his children, his animals, puts them in a cart, and crosses the main street, where the poor villagers are watching him. Until the moment when they say: “If he has the courage to leave, well, we’re leaving too,” and begin literally to dismantle the village. They take away things, animals, everything. And one of the last to abandon the village says: “Let no misfortune fall on what remains of our house,” and then he burns his house and others burn other houses. They flee in a real and terrible panic, like an exodus in wartime, and among them is the woman who had the misgiving, crying out: “I said something very serious was going to happen, and you told me I was crazy.”

—Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman


Gabriel García Márquez was born in Colombia in 1927. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. He is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, including One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, The Autumn of the Patriarch, The General in His Labyrinth, and News of a Kidnapping. He died in 2014. Read his Art of Fiction interview.

Edith Grossman, the winner of a number of translating awards, most notably the 2006 PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal, is the distinguished translator of works by major Spanish-language authors, including Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Mayra Montero, and Alvaro Mutis, as well as Carlos Fuentes. Her translation of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote was published to great acclaim in 2003.

From I’m Not Here to Give a Speech, by Gabriel García Márquez. Copyright © 2010 by Gabriel García Márquez. Translation copyright © 2014 by Edith Grossman. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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Why I Wrote My Memoir

I’ve been telling stories about my Sicilian-American family and my career in musical theater all my life. In my delivery, I always attempted to embody the various characters I depicted—specific accents, vocal cadences, facial expression, and gesticulations. Well, I’m Sicilian for God’s sake; we use our hands to tell stories. Can we even talk without [...]

This story originally appeared on Self-Publishing Review

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Writing Heroes And Villains With Sacha Black

How do you write villains who are more than just moustache-twirling cut-outs? How do you write heroes with real flaws? In today's interview, Sacha Black gives tips on these writing issues and more.

writing heroes wideIn the intro, Streetlib launches African stores and an international store for indigenous languages [The New Publishing Standard], Draft2Digital now publishes to Google Play (beta), PublishDrive announces enhanced Amazon Ads; Reedsy announces Reedsy Discovery, a new way for indie books to be discovered through email marketing and curated lists.

publishdriveToday's show is sponsored by PublishDrive, a global self-publishing platform distributing to 400+ stores and 240,000 libraries, with innovative marketing tools like integrated Amazon Ads. The writing process is hard enough, so the publishing and marketing process should be easier. PublishDrive helps authors write more, publish more, sell more and worry less. Go to to learn more.

Sacha BlackSacha Black is a best-selling YA Fantasy author and also writes non-fiction for writers, including 13 Steps to Evil and 10 Steps to Hero on creating characters. She's also a blogger, writing coach, and developmental editor.

You can listen above or on iTunes or your favorite podcast app or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

writing evil charactersShow Notes

  • The journey from blogging to writing flash fiction to full-length novels
  • Why all stories need a good villain, even romances
  • How villains are part of the theme of a novel
  • How to write a hero who is not one-dimensional
  • On the benefits of creating workbooks to go with non-fiction

You can find Sacha Black at and on Twitter @sacha_black

Transcript of Interview with Sacha Black

Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from And today, I'm here with Sacha Black. Hi, Sacha.

Sacha: Hi, Joanna. Thank you so much for having me.

Joanna: It's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.

Sacha is a best-selling YA Fantasy author and also writes non-fiction for writers, including '13 Steps to Evil' and '10 Steps to Hero' on creating characters. She's also a blogger, writing coach, and developmental editor.

Sacha, tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and publishing.

Sacha: I think if I'd been slightly more self-aware, I probably would have started writing slightly younger. But I always read as a kid, I kind of had to change libraries because I literally devoured entire kids sections and sort of similarly I wrote stories as well.

But I also grew up knowing I had to get a proper job. So, instead of going to university and doing creative writing or whatever, I went and did psychology.

And after that, I ended up in a fast track management scheme. So kind of corporate hellmare as I like to call it. I became more and more stifled and I needed an outlet. So I created a pen name, which is where Sacha Black comes from and I started ranting on a blog. Literally, that's what I was doing.

The blogging community is so wonderful and I met lots of people and I discovered flash fiction. That led one thing to another and I dug out my old sort of notebooks and my first young adult fantasy book genuinely is a character that I created when I was nine years old.

Joanna: Cool.

Sacha: She's been with me for a very long time. And then I started writing up lessons that I learned because I'm basically senile, so I needed somewhere to put these sort of writing craft lectures that I'd learned and lessons. And a few of them, particularly on villains, well, they didn't go viral, but I saw an awful lot of traffic very quickly.

I did a bit of investigating, I looked on Amazon, I discovered there were very few books on villains. And so I figured there was a market there and that is basically history. It just sort of spiraled from there.

Joanna: That's really cool. We're going to come back to the blogging.

The development from flash fiction into a full YA novel, that's quite a leap, isn't it? Because for people who don't know flash fiction, it's 500 words, 1000 words. I know that's a leap that a lot of people want to make.

How did you make that leap from writing flash and writing non-fiction blog posts to full YA?

Sacha: It was less a leap, more a snail's crawl to writing the book. I did a very typical thing of somebody who is afraid to start writing. And for an entire year I plotted, I looked at visual things, I wrote notes, I changed my plot.

This was the year that I was pregnant and when my son was born, I knew I had to be the person that followed their dreams because that's the role model that I wanted to be then.

So I heard about NaNo and I just said a rude word and just went for it. I took the notes and decided that I had to start or I was never going to start. And the NaNo WriMo Challenge, for anybody that doesn't know, is 50,000 words in a month. And I figured it was as good of a challenge with accountability, sort of, you've got these public sort of forums and word counts. And I didn't look back.

Joanna: How many words did you do in that NaNo?

Sacha: Fifty-two thousand or 57,000. I threw the entire thing away.

Joanna: What did it give you then?

Sacha: The habit. It gave me the habit of writing. And that was all it took really. I drove my wife insane because she couldn't stand the tapping for the entire month. She's used to it now. But so after the month, I got the habit.

It was an itch I had to keep scratching, I had to keep creating. And the non-fiction blogs just weren't enough anymore. I wanted to do both.

So I wrote another entire draft, which I also binned. And after that, I changed my process and I decided that I was going to get feedback after every single chapter so that I didn't make plot mistakes going through.

I intensively studied the craft, and that draft, that third draft did go to a publication. So I think in total, I wrote 270,000 words of my first book, which ended up at about 64 or something.

Joanna: Well, that's interesting. There are a few things there.

My first NaNo, which is how I got started, I did like around 20,000 words. And around 5000 of that made it into the book. But also, I think it's interesting because a lot of us feel like the third novel is where you start to kind of understand things. So you just did it all in. You did it all in one, which is hilarious.

And the other thing you're saying there, my husband also says like when there's the tap, tap, tapping sound, he's like, ‘Oh, that's the sound of my wife.' Which is quite funny.

But okay, let's get into the books and give some people some tips. And I do think your psychology stuff obviously comes into the books. So let's talk about villains.

Why do all stories need a good villain even if we're writing a happy, happy rainbows, unicorns, romance?

Sacha: I think it's universally accepted that stories are about change. Whether it's your hero that's changing through a character arc or if it's the world, kind of dystopian novel, that's crumbling, the story is about change.

But another word for change is conflict. And I may get a bit science-y here. But I think that Darwin was absolutely correct in that it is about survival of the fittest, and that applies to our characters as well.

So you only really change when you are pushed to your absolute limits. That is when you're out of your comfort zone and you have to basically adapt or die, as Darwin would say.

And your villain, in whatever guise that may be, is generally the source of that conflict. Obviously, you have different types of villains, whether it be an antagonist or in a conflict or whatever, in a literary novel.

But, broadly speaking, your villain is the source of that conflict. They put obstacles in the way of your hero, and they force your hero to make do or die decisions. And that is why you need a villain. So it doesn't matter which genre you're in, the thing that they all have in common is that the villains are the source of conflict.

Joanna: And if we don't have conflict, it's just happy people in happy land, which I think James Scott Bell said that, and it always makes me laugh, it's like, that's not a story, that's just boring.

Sacha: Nobody cares. Where's the freak, where's the drama?

Joanna: When is the conflict? Which is exactly right. So how do then we construct a good villain with depth that is not cliché, but it's also good enough?

I was reading some of my diaries and I found a thing about one of the Bond films. It was, why was this not a good Bond film? I can't remember which one it was. And it was like the villain wasn't good enough, I wasn't scared. There wasn't enough of a threat. In a good Bond film, there has to be a big threat.

How do we construct a good villain with depth?

Sacha: I think the key to a good villain is a villain who is both credible and believable. And there's a few different things and sort of tactics and plot devices that you can use in order to create that credibility and believability.

The most obvious one that I think everybody would know is for your villain, as well as your hero, to have a very, very solid motive. Everybody, I don't care who you are, even if you are a serial killer, has a reason why they do things. It is Psychology 101, it's human nature.

Even in horror films like ‘Nightmare on Elm Street,' Freddy Krueger even has a reason why he wants revenge. He was locked in a burning building. So that's number one.

Number two would be morals and values. So having a moral or a value, even when you're a villain, gives them a valid reason. It justifies their behavior, it justifies their why. I always think that is sort of the second stage of having a motive.

The third one that I would say is for your villain to have something in their past, whether it be a wound or a scar, or something emotionally wounding or emotion, that has created an emotional scar in their psychology that is driving their behavior because that's connected into the motive. I've lost count.

Possibly number four would be there's that really cheesy phrase, ‘Even villains have mummies' but it's actually really true. And I think if you give your villain a redeeming quality, or alternatively, if you don't sort of want to give them a redeeming quality, you can give them something to love, that humanizes them and that that sort of humanity makes them more relatable and that's how you get them to connect with the reader.

A couple of examples, even Voldemort, Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter had his pet snake, Nagini. So, even your ‘everybody must die' type villains have that sort of humanity in them.

Joanna: And it's really interesting, what you brought to mind when you said, ‘Even villains have mummies,' you brought to mind ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin', which would be classed as a literary novel.

It's about a kid who kills people at his school, but it's his mother, you feel empathetic towards him where he's really the villain and it's her story, but it's one of those complicated things. You have to be able to make your villain empathetic in some way.

Another question, do any villains really believe they are the baddies?

Sacha: Oh, no, absolutely not. And that's the reason for having values is that having a value gives them this unfaltering logic to sort of their crazy, I call it, that reason, that big campaign, the thing that they're trying to destroy or whatever.

Having a value in their mind will justify their actions. And there's a great example of that President Snow from ‘The Hunger Games.' He has this rule that he tells Katniss that, ‘I only ever kill for a purpose.'

That's a value and that justifies his behavior. He believes what he's doing. He kills, yes, but he only kills for a reason. And that automatically makes you, as a reader, invest in what they're saying.

Joanna: I just started writing another novel this morning as we talk, which is kind of hilarious, and my baddies want to take our land back. And it's interesting because borders are this area where everyone thinks they're in the right. ‘Whose land is it anyway?' type of question.

This type of thing always comes up for me, who is the villain in these type of stories? And then this kind of plays into the idea of theme.

How do we construct a good villain that also plays into the theme of the story or how do we even strengthen theme with villains?

Sacha: I can't think of the word, but it's a distraction sometimes thinking about hero, villain, and theme. I think all characters play into theme. And I think it seems this weird concept that loads of writers panic about and worry about.

Not everybody knows what their theme is when you first start writing. Some people don't know until the final draft.

But if you have a character arc, and if you have change, I can guarantee you, you have a theme buried in there somewhere. So I personally like to think about theme in terms of a psychological theory.

So there's somebody called Gestalt…I forget the year, 1950 something or other. And it's a psychological theory that basically says, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Now, I liken that to a novel and similarly to a spider's web.

I think all novels are spider's webs and I call it something called the web of connectivity. Each thread in a spider's web is its own unique thread. But when you step back and you look at the whole of the threads, it's more than just a series of threads. It's an entire web, or in our case, an entire novel.

And that stands for things like plots, plot twists, characters, subplots, and so on and so forth. So how does that connect to the villain? If you want to strengthen your theme, I put all of my characters on a continuum.

So if you have the full embodiment of your theme, that is your hero. If you want the full embodiment of the antithesis, the opposite of your theme, that is your villain. But to strengthen that, you should look at every single character and how they reflect the theme.

So leading on with the Katniss and ‘The Hunger Games' example, Katniss embodies the theme of sacrifice. President Spow embodies the theme of sacrificing everybody else for his own good. And that plays out by him obviously sacrificing tributes, these kids who have to go and fight each other, and so on, so forth.

The other characters like Peeta and Rue are all variations on sacrifice. Even Haymitch, who's sort of this antihero mentor character, he is sort of the reluctant sacrificer. But he does, he comes around in the end and he gives medicine and things to Katniss during the games.

So as well as looking at the villain as embodying and all of his actions being the anti-side to your theme, look at the other characters too and how you can reflect theme in their actions and what question are they answering about the theme? How can they embody different variations, different points on the continuum?

Joanna: It's a really good point and I'm a bit more of a writing into the dark type of person. My ‘Map Walker' series, the theme is borders and maps and where the lines are between us as people and all that.

But it's interesting when you say that and I think maybe we naturally as we're readers, we construct these things. So, if people who're listening going, ‘Wow, that's quite reductionist,' well, you can do it either way. You can kind of reverse-engineer later or you can work through a workbook like yours, which we're going to come back to in a minute.

Let's talk about heroes because I actually find villains super easy. I really enjoy writing my bad people and I just don't struggle at all to find empathy with my villains.

But I do struggle with my heroes. I feel that I struggle much more with that and they're almost me, generally they are almost me, my main characters. And so maybe that's why it's a problem.

How do we construct a hero who is not just cardboard cutouts?

Sacha: So I talk about something called the hero lens, which is essentially the concept that everything your reader experiences should be funneled through your hero. They shouldn't come into contact with anything that isn't relevant to what your hero is directly experiencing.

And that is categorized for me into four different things; actions, thoughts, feelings, dialogue. The rest of the story, obviously describing things is really important. You need to locate your reader, you need to put them in time and space. But so what? Your reader doesn't really care. All that does is create a picture in their head.

If you want to make your reader care, your reader wants to know what does your hero feel, what do they think about the fact that it's called ‘On the Train' and the train's in disrepair or whatever? That's a terrible example. But you know what I mean.

When you share that inner psyche and that inner viewpoint with the reader, that's what makes your hero relatable and that's what helps your reader to connect with your hero. So let me ask you a question. This is a bit random and I always use this question. I've said this so many times, but is turquoise more blue or more green?

Joanna: Blue. Absolutely. I took off my turquoise jumper.

Sacha: Okay. But I guarantee that half of the people listening to this would have said green. And that's what makes your hero unique.

It's not motives or traits. Everybody has a motive. Everybody has a trait.

What's unique about your hero and what makes your reader fall in love with your hero is their particular perspective, your hero's rose-tinted glasses. How does your hero's thoughts, feelings, and actions impact how they view their surroundings?

I draw that down to saying, if you want to imbue that in your story, think about how your hero's viewpoints affect your sentences at sentence level. If your hero is angry you have to use shorter, sharper words. If your hero is depressed, make your sentences longer, like flow them more melancholy. So that's one thing.

Second thing, layer conflict, really important. To me, there's kind of three different types of conflict. Inner conflict, which is your great example of this, Ned Stark. I don't if you're a ‘Game of Thrones' fan. I love ‘Game of Thrones.'

Joanna: Of course. No spoilers.

Sacha: No. Ned Stark is completely out of context, a character. And George Martin does this quite a lot with his characters, he pits their values against each other and makes them butt against each other and have to make really difficult decisions.

A difficult decision very early on for Ned Stark is he values loyalty, but he also is very intelligent and has a lot of foresight. His decision is, he's been asked to go and help the king, if he goes and helps the king, he's pretty sure he's probably not going to come back.

And that creates this inner conflict. Does he go and help the king, which he should because he's his friend and wants to? But if he does, he kind of knows it might be his end. So that creates inner conflict.

Second layer of conflict is sort of your micro-conflict, characters fighting against each other, hero-villain, blah, blah, blah.

And then your third layer of conflict is macro. So society, world, war. And you can lay these levels of conflict. And that helps to create barriers and problems for your hero to fight against.

And the very last point is the bravery myth. I think lots of writers think that the way you get your readers to connect is to make your hero brave. Well, I would beg to differ. Not everybody can be brave.

So it just takes a bit of balls, can I say that, guts. But it's the hero who sacrifices something that really shines. And usually the sacrifice has to be something that's important. The more important the sacrifice, the more valuable and the more engaged your readers become, especially, typically, it's something about themselves that they have to give up or sacrifice. So, those are probably the three things that I would say are most beneficial for your hero.

Joanna: Bringing up ‘Game of Thrones,' and as we speak, the final series is not yet out, which is like oh, my goodness. But I read the first couple of books, and then I went off the books.

But the TV series is masterful in conflict. And also I think, as you're saying with heroes and villains, half the time, you don't know who is a hero and who is a villain. And that's clever. That's super, super clever. And all these different layers of conflict also.

Even if you don't like fantasy, you can watch ‘Game of Thrones' and understand this idea of conflict on every page, it's just incredible.

Let's talk about some of your publishing because I'm very interested. Obviously I have workbooks from my books, you have these workbook edditions for your hero and your villain books.

Why did you want to do workbooks? Is it worth it for multiple streams of income? Any tips for other people on workbooks?

Sacha: Okay, so completely honest, why should I do them? Because you do. No, okay, that was one of the reasons.

The other reason is because I do actually use them. K.M. Weiland has some workbooks too and I used hers. And I actually really enjoyed them. I found them more useful sometimes than the textbook.

So it was a combination of seeing the value that you'd promoted of having them.

And lastly, because it makes good business sense. Now, I actually went and checked what my sales were yesterday because I knew this question was coming.

I have digital workbooks. I have e-books, I have paperbacks, and I also have box sets. So I digitally box-setted the pair and I will pay for backup, it's just slotted into production schedules.

Each one of those is earning me between 6% and 10% on top of every textbook sales. So every 1 in 10 will also buy a workbook or instead they'll buy the box set.

Now that might not seem like very much, but when you have 6 or 12 or 20 of these workbooks, all of these little 6%, all of these 10%, suddenly you are making a lot of money.

And the other thing is that it takes the pressure off having to have one book that is this golden egg that earns you all the money.

It's a much easier business strategy to have lots and lots of different products. So that was one of the main reasons for doing it.

In terms of tips, there are lots of different ways you can make up a workbook. I generally do summaries of my core textbook chapters that give enough information that they're comprehensive without giving all of the information from the textbook for obvious reasons.

And when I am writing the textbook, I actually note down questions at the same time, which is silly, because essentially, I'm writing two books at once.

But it also means that when I finish the textbook, it only takes me a day to mock up the workbook. So I would say that that is probably the first thing, write the questions as you go, because the question should hopefully come to mind.

Vellum for formatting, it is hard to get Vellum to leave your spaces. So if you can't get Vellum, then pay somebody to format it because obviously, workbooks, you do need space for people to write their answers.

And, do digital versions because I was skeptical of doing them at first because I thought, well, everybody will want a workbook so they can write the answers in it.

But actually, that's not the case. I am earning just as much, if not more, from my digital workbooks than I am from the paperbacks. How I use my own workbooks from other authors in that I don't write in them. I preserve them so that I can use them again and again.

So having a digital version is essentially the same. Instead of having a paperback, you reuse the same e-book. So, do digital versions definitely.

Joanna: Oh, well, see, I haven't done digital versions of my workbooks.

Sacha: You're missing out.

Joanna: Because as you say, why wouldn't you just get the book? I include all the questions in the main book. So if people want to kind of write them in their journals or whatever, they can do that. But it's interesting.

I have been using an iPad a lot more. I'm using an app called iAnnotate on PDFs. So I wonder that's another way, isn't it? You could basically open up the workbook on more of a tablet and kind of fill it in and a lot of people have stylists now, I guess. So, good tip. Good tip there. That's fantastic.

Oh, and what size are you doing? Six by nine?

Sacha: Yes, I think so. Yeah. Slightly bigger so they have more space to write.

Joanna: Exactly. I also wanted to ask you, because you have two non-fiction books and the workbook editions, obviously, you have two novels, you've got a blog, so you're not newbie, you're not just starting out, you know what you're doing but you're not someone who's super famous for making seven figures a year. Which let's face it, I'm not either.

Any thoughts for people who were where you are? Which is, you know what you're doing but you feel perhaps that you have somewhere to go at the moment.

Sacha: Absolutely. I am not writing full time. I definitely have somewhere to go. And I love this question because it made me stop and reflect.

Technically, I've only been published for 17 months. I haven't even been published for two years. So when I thought about that, I was like, ‘Wow, it's been a long 17 months'. I can't believe how much I've done. Every day I moan that I haven't done enough.

What are the lessons that I've learned? First of all, everybody's situation is different. I have never come across two authors who have got to full time by doing it the same way. So the first one is to find your own way, find your own method.

Second lesson I've learned is to get your finances in order. I think it's Elizabeth Gilbert who says, ‘You don't want your love for creating to have to pay your bills.' And in giving you that pressure. So, clear off debt, make sure you have a nest egg, that would be number two.

Number three would be to negotiate a slow reduction. I've been listening to ‘The 4-Hour Workweek' audiobook and something clicked recently in that lots of people think that their employers aren't very flexible but actually, have you are asked? Have you have you actually asked?

Because I bet you they are more flexible than you think they are. So asking and negotiating for flexible working and reducing your hours slowly I think is really positive.

That said, I'm a complete hypocrite because everything that I've reduced up until now is play money, it was just sort of saving money that I would have saved and instead I took the time to write.

Recently, I've taken on a lot of freelance work. I've got a lot more projects going and I cannot do the hours that I'm doing in my day job if I want to take this seriously. I stalled and I couldn't reduce my hours anymore.

Anyway, I've done it but sometimes you have to be brave and take the risk, otherwise, you're going to stay in the same place and I do not want to stay in the same place.

Network, it's invaluable. And don't be afraid to ask. I have met so many authors who are just so kind and so willing to help. And I was so afraid to talk to anybody at that first London Book Fair and everybody's lovely, and the opportunities that come out of networking are ample. So I would say definitely, network.

In terms of marketing, pay to play, unfortunately. And as much as I find it difficult and grueling to do slow burn ads, I try to do a mixture of daily AMS ads, a few sprinkled with a few CPM ads, as well as trying to do some spike marketing as well. And I think that gives me quite a good mix and is building kind of both my readership and my sales slowly, and I'm happy with that because it makes it stable.

Oh, last one, Jack Canfield, who I read because of you, thank you. Oh, my gosh, it was amazing. I have signed a contract to myself with a leaving date that I publicly tell people a lot because it makes me get accountable for it. And I keep it in my wallet. And I think every single time I go to buy a coffee I see that note and it reminds me to keep fighting every day.

Joanna: That's fantastic. And that book is ‘The Success Principles' by Jack Canfield, which I listened to, or read over 10 years ago when I was looking at leaving. And I also had the bit of paper in my wallet which said, ‘I am creative, I am an author,' a long time before I was creative or an author. So these things work. And also I went to four days a week, that's what I did.

Also, the dialing down and we downsized and sold everything. And so all of this stuff is exactly right. And I'm glad you got a date.

Joanna: Let's circle back to blogging because, of course, you mentioned a whole load of marketing stuff then, but you didn't mention blogging. I'm starting a new blog, a new podcast. So I'm still a massive believer in content marketing.

But you also helped me with Instagram, which you also didn't mention.

Any thoughts on blogging or Instagram and/or Instagram for marketing or brand building?

Sacha: My blog is very much for my non-fiction audience. I haven't quite worked out how to do the blogging thing for my fantasy stuff. But actually, that's what I'm using Instagram for.

My blog has garnered me basically all of my subscribers for my non-fiction. It's how I created an audience. And I feel terrible but I kind of did it by accident. Of all of the things I've done, that was the least intentional.

But it's a great way because non-fiction is about solving problems and I blogged my lessons which were essentially solving fiction writing problems. And I shared them on Pinterest and different social media channels and that's how I gained a non-fiction audience.

On Instagram, I started for a really shallow reason. I'm really visual and the book pictures are so pretty and I really liked them. And I wanted book pictures of my books to look like that. Yeah, so that's how it started.

I find Instagram amazing because one of the biggest problems for fiction writers is visibility. But Instagram has this ginormous bookstagram community. And they're all whale readers, they're all reading like 100 books a year. Who can read 100 books a year? These people do.

And this visibility problem is a problem because you don't know how to find them. But on Instagram, all you have to do is go in and search by hashtag, #YAFantasy or whatever.

And all of a sudden there's 400,000 people who are fantasy readers and they're all engaged. And Instagram has all of these quirky ways of being able to interact with people and your stories. You can ask questions, you can play some music, you can insert polls.

I found that readers are really, really engaged. I get responses, I get answers, and I have genuinely sold books because of Instagram because people find the pictures, they find your stories, and I guess a bit like your podcast, people start to get to know your voice, then they get to know your style on your stories, and they buy into you. So yeah, I love Instagram.

Joanna: You definitely helped me get into it and I love it too now. And it's funny because I feel like it's a much more personal channel. I feel like you get to share some personal things. And I'm @JFPennAuthor. Who are you on Instagram?

Sacha: I'm @SachaBlackAuthor, but Sacha with a C rather than two Ss.

Joanna: I'll put these links in the show notes and Sacha took some lovely pictures of my books, which I put on my channel and your channel as well, right? So very, very cool. Okay, so we are out of time. Where can people find you and everything you do online?

Sacha: My website is So that was Sacha with a C. All my books are on all of the stores. I'm a wide author and Facebook and Instagram are both @SachaBlackAuthor. So.

Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Sacha. That was great.

Sacha: Thank you for having me.

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Creativity: 3 Ways To Cultivate Discipline In Your Writing Life

Finding the time and discipline to write is a challenge for many authors. Nathan Wade shares three easy ways to make the most of your writing time each day.

Creativity 3 Ways To Cultivate Discipline In Your Writing LifeDoes creativity strike when you’re messing around and having fun?

Does being laid-back and disorganized spark the most creative masterpieces?

Many people believe that creativity is a product of the scattered brain. Some experts even argue that there’s research to support this theory.

While the archetype of the mad genius is a common one, the truth is that the most successful creatives are actually extremely disciplined when it comes to their work.

Unlocking creativity isn’t about sitting back, goofing off, and waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s about meticulously curating the right conditions to foster creativity.

[Note from Joanna: For more about how to make the most of your creative time, check out Productivity for Authors.]

The Myth of the Sloppy Creative Genius

Even if you aren’t familiar with his theory of relativity, you’ve probably heard of Einstein. Albert Einstein was one of the most innovative thinkers in history. The disheveled scientist is the poster boy of the messy genius archetype.

Daily rituals how artists workEinstein’s desk was famously photographed on the day he died. The picture reveals a chaotic landscape of papers and books.

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign of?”

But behind Einstein’s messy desk was a regimented mind. In Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, author Mason Currey records the daily schedules of the world’s most creative people. In his book, Currey refutes the belief that Einstein had a hectic or disorganized life.

Einstein’s schedule was actually regimented around his work. As a rule, Einstein worked at home after dinner to finish up anything he didn’t complete at his office.

And his shaggy bed head served a practical purpose: he kept his hair long to avoid barber visits.

Einstein was disciplined, and he’s not the only one. People like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos didn’t succeed by fooling around until they struck gold; they each worked within the confines of a routine that helped them to be creative.

The Need for Order

Creatives, freelancers, and entrepreneurs all share a unique problem: lack of order.

Most creatives don’t have a traditional job with scheduled work hours. They don’t have bosses or coworkers to hold them accountable. They don’t need to be anywhere at any specific time. Some don’t even have concrete deadlines for their work.

The consequence is that creatives need to foster self-discipline. This is much easier said than done, especially for absent-minded types.

Without discipline, creatives may find themselves doing nothing all day.

war of artThe hardest part of any task is getting started. Steven Pressfield writes in his acclaimed book The War of Art, “It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.”

Here’s how you can find inspiration, be more innovative, and unleash the power of your creativity.

1. Make a schedule and stick to it.
If you’re a struggling creative, chances are you don’t have a schedule. Or maybe you do have one, but you don’t follow it. In order to maximize your creativity, you need to have a schedule. More importantly, you need to stick to it.

Many creatives make the mistake of over-correcting here. They create a minute-to-minute blueprint for their day. This can result in fatigue and emotional exhaustion. Instead of taking this unrealistic approach, simply map out the flow you’d like your day to have.

Maybe you want to exercise, work, eat lunch, do some more work, and call it a day. Once you understand what your ideal day looks like, nail down your schedule by attaching times to each activity and follow that plan the best you can. And absolutely do not forget to sleep.

Planning is easy, but executing a plan (especially a daily plan) requires a good bit of willpower. If you want to work from 9AM to 1PM, you need to work for those four hours. Plan in some breaks if you feel that you need them, but remember to work consistently.

2. Separate your workspace from your living space.
Another problem that gets in the way of creatives is their environment.

messy deskWhere do you work right now?

Many creatives lack designated workspaces and that’s a big reason why so many of them struggle. It’s hard to shift gears between work and play when you work from home.

If you work from home, you need to create a separate work area. This way you can shift into work mode more easily. Ideally, you should use a separate room as an office—but even setting up a work area in the corner of a room can do the trick. Do not place your office in the middle of your living room.

It’s critical that you don’t use this space for anything else. That means no browsing social sites at your desk. By creating a space that you deem solely a workspace, you’ll be able to get into the zone faster and get your creative juices flowing.

3. Set a dress code for yourself.
It’s not only where you work, but what you work in.

It’s a cliché that freelancers work in their pajamas. If you want to be creative and productive, you might want to toss that advice in the trash. What you wear has a direct effect on how you perform.

Donning a hoodie and sweats every day encourages you to be a little lazier.

Create a dress code for yourself during your work hours. You don’t need to wear a penguin suit or ball gown, but you should choose clothes that encourage professionalism. That may mean a crisp button-up shirt and slacks or a pencil skirt and blouse.

Find what works for you. Just don’t get too comfortable. Remember: you’re at work.

Cultivate A Habit of Discipline Today

For most creatives, developing discipline is the largest obstacle in their way. Using a work checklist can also help to stay on the right track.

Sure, you can search high and low for a new source of inspiration—but why not tap into the potential that’s already inside you?

If you’ve exhausted yourself sitting in front of a blank screen or canvas, give these techniques a try. You might be surprised at what you can achieve with a little order.

How disciplined are you about getting your writing done? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Nathan WadeNathan Wade is the Managing Editor at WealthFit. He's previously worked as an attorney in entrepreneurial law and venture capital.

[Messy desk image courtesy Ferenc Horvath and Unsplash.]

This story originally appeared on The Creative Penn

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Creativity, Symbolism And Writing With The Tarot With Caroline Donahue

Symbolism can add depth to our writing, turning characters into real people, and developing nuance in scenes. In today's podcast interview, Caroline Donahue explains how to use Tarot cards to delve into symbolism and give your unconscious mind some fuel for creativity.

Writing With The TarotIn the introduction, I talk about the ghostwriting + plagiarism scandal sweeping the romance community #copypastecris, referring to Courtney Milan's original article and what to do about it, plus Kris Rusch's in-depth analysis. I explain the difference between ghostwriting and co-writing, as well as why ghostwriting is a normal practice in publishing [Reedsy examples], but plagiarism is most definitely not acceptable.

Productivity for AuthorsToday's show is sponsored by my Productivity for Authors mini-course with lessons on saying no and setting boundaries, finding time to write, making the most of your writing time, co-writing, working with author assistants, dictation, tools I use personally, and thoughts on health and mindset. Find all my courses at:

Caroline DonahueCaroline Donahue is an American author and writing coach living in Berlin, Germany. She's also the host of The Secret Library podcast. Her new book is Story Arcana: Tarot for Writers.

You can listen above or on iTunes or your favorite podcast app or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • Common misconceptions about tarot
  • Ways of using the tarot to think about character motivation and inner landscape
  • story arcanaCrossover between Jungian psychology and the tarot
  • The three types of archetypal journeys a book, its author and its characters go through
  • Doing tarot readings with authors to discover what may not be working in a book
  • Why you don’t need to know what the cards mean before working with them
  • Why your subconscious matters when working with tarot
  • On interviewing authors and noticing what they have in common
  • On the changes a new city and continent have had on Caroline’s writing

You can find Caroline Donahue at and on Twitter @carodonahue

Transcript of Interview with Caroline Donahue

Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from and today I'm here with Caroline Donahue. Hi, Caroline.

Caroline: Hi. It's so nice to be here.

Joanna: Oh, it's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.

Caroline is an American author and writing coach living in Berlin, Germany. She's also the host of ‘The Secret Library' podcast which is fantastic and I've been on it, so go listen to that.

Caroline: You've been on it twice.

Joanna: It's amazing. Today we are talking about her latest book ‘Story Arcana: Using Tarot for Writing' which is super cool and something I have definitely done over my creative lifetime.

Caroline, start by telling us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.

Caroline: I think it's one of those things where it's difficult to say when it started because it was kind of always there. I have these memories of being a little kid and taking stacks of paper and folding them in half and stapling them and making books, like, at a compulsive pitch.

Then the problem was is that I may have been an early compulsive bookbinder as much as anything else, at which what my mother pointed out, ‘You might actually want to write in them before you make another one.'

But I was the kid who was hiding under the piano in the corner of the classroom and reading and I pulled my first all-nighter I think when I was in third grade, third or fourth grade, reading ‘Bridge to Terabithia.'

It started very early the obsession with books and my mother used to say that I ate books, which I think is fairly accurate. I'd rather give up food than books probably.

And so with this intensity about books, there was always an interest in writing. And I was fortunate in that my family was not the kind of family that said, ‘Oh, that's a terrible idea. You'll starve to death and die,' or the things that people say, and I got to go to some creative writing camps. There were some writing classes early on in school and I was really supported in that enjoyment.

Now, the funny thing is, I didn't end up getting a degree in creative writing at school. I studied art history and then I ended up studying psychology which has actually been a better degree for writing in some ways because just getting into the way people work and the way that they think has continued to engage me.

I find that actually being into books is the best possible way to handle this because every book can be different. You can write fiction and nonfiction. Writing has been a way for me to stay engaged with many different interests, and yet appear to have a cohesive career.

Joanna: I love that.

Caroline: That's why it's really worked in the long term.

Joanna: I totally get that and I think that works really well. I feel the same way. We can do our research however we like. I have a second degree in psychology and also art history come into a lot of my books as well so obviously you and I have a lot in common. We always talk about this.

Caroline: Totally.

Joanna: Let's get into the tarot. I blame Hollywood, I blame the media for making it sort of only gypsy fortunetellers or satanic rituals use tarot cards.

Tell us a bit more about what tarot is and some of the misconceptions that might be out there.

Caroline: One of my favorite sort of debunking statements about the whole kind of, ‘Is it a satanic tool?' is a friend of mine, Susannah Conway always says, ‘Well, they're just bits of cardboard with pictures on them.' That's what they are.

There are a lot of tools out there that are used for communication and exploration and I think people thought the telephone was kind of a satanic tool early on because it allowed people to communicate over long distances in ways they wouldn't normally be able to do.

So I think the tool itself is actually quite neutral and I think that it depends on how you use it. Some people use it and claim to use it to be able to predict the future and that's not how I'm working with it and I don't think I've actually ever studied with anyone who claims to be able to predict the future.

It's more that, from my background where I studied, expressive arts therapy and psychology is the relationship that the unconscious mind has to imagery, and the mind abhors a vacuum. So if you present a brain with a picture that looks like there's something going on in the picture and then you try to say to yourself, ‘Okay, well what's going on here?'

Your mind will start to fill in the gaps. It just happens naturally. We are storytelling, meaning-making beings. It's how we've made sense out of our lives as long as people have existed.

The tarot is a system that's been around for hundreds of years. It was originally started as…there are mixed kind of thoughts on it, but the greater consensus is that it was started as a card game and that some fortunetellers kind of co-opted the card game and then started to use it for fortunetelling.

It wasn't even intended as a fortunetelling tool from the beginning but because it's had this long association, a lot of people get nervous and freaked out about that, and there are some relatively scary pictures on it.

People get scared of the devil card or they get scared of the tower, they get scared of death. They're not light topics but life isn't light either if we look at it below the surface. It's not like life is puppies and kittens and flowers everywhere and we never have to deal with anything dark.

In many ways I feel like the tarot is a more honest representation of our experience as people because it does include dark imagery, and good books include dark stuff. They're not just sort of, ‘La, la, la, everything is beautiful. The end.' We might want to write one of those sometimes because it'd be kind of a relief but I don't.

Joanna: Neither do I.

Caroline: No, you definitely do not. And most of the people that I know who read books don't want to read those either.

Joanna: I agree with you. I think there's something on that deeper level. You just reminded me there of ‘James Bond: Live and Let Die' I think ‘The Hangman' and the voodoo stuff coming out from the grave and it's been associated with stuff like that, but actually, as you say, I love that, just pictures on pieces of cardboard. That's fantastic. I love it.

Caroline: Bless you Susannah for that one, but it's true. They're neutral. They're an inanimate object. There's no power inside of them that's going to change or control your life. It's a way for you to trick your unconscious to giving you information that's not readily available.

Joanna: No, it's almost like a writing prompt when we're talking about writers.

Caroline: Exactly.

Joanna: So the symbolism of tarots.

Pick a card, any card, and talk about how the symbolism of a card might help us access that unconscious mind.

Caroline: The one that I've focused on, because there are 72 cards in the deck and I have only focused on the first 22 in this book because I feel like they're a set.

The major arcana is traditionally looked at as a set, and for those who don't know much about the tarot there's the major arcana and there's the minor arcana, and the majors in all decks they have big pictures on them and they have big names and they are big types like ‘The Hermit' or ‘The Fool' or ‘The Magician.'

Anyone who's Googled tarot sees that yellow picture from the Rider-Waite with the guy with his arms outstretched and the symbols around him. That's sort of a standard image. So that's the major arcana and they represent major turns in the road, big changes, and the minors are more everyday incidents.

And then within that, there are the court cards, which are people. And so I'm planning to write about those later in terms of plot and the court cards I think are more about character development so I'm going to play with those later.

I don't know if anyone has this issue. I have this issue sometimes when I'm writing a character, it feels a bit forced or it feels like I'm kind of the characters mouthing what I want them to say or they feel a bit like a puppet and there has to be some kind of unconscious motivation going on.

Maybe that the character isn't even aware of because we do things all the time not realizing why we're really doing them and you want your characters to feel more like real people.

So sometimes asking a question like, ‘Well, what are they hiding here? What are they maybe hiding from themselves?' And then pulling a card and seeing what comes out, then you can start to turn it into a puzzle.

Say you have a character who's a really, really friendly, helpful, kindhearted character and then you pull a card and the card underneath it's hiding from them it's something like ‘The Hierophant' hiding underneath, and ‘The Hierophant' is about institutions of thought. It's also about the sort of institutionalized religion, organized thinking society and that sort of thing.

You might have a character who appears to be extremely helpful but if you look at their underneath agenda, they're really trying to push a system. They might be trying to convert somebody. They might be trying to put them in a box or have them make sense.

It's a way to make the dynamic just a little more sophisticated, and often it doesn't take that much to make a scene just a little bit more interesting or dialogue just a little bit more realistic.

Because if you have a scene that's like, ‘Hi, John, I've just been to the store. They were out of milk.' And he says, ‘Well damn, I'm really sad that they were out of milk.' That's not going to be that interesting, but if what's really happening is it's a man and woman and he thinks she hasn't really been to the store. He thinks she's been sneaking out to see her lover.

If you find that underneath. If you pull ‘The Lovers' and see maybe somebody thinks there's something else going on then the thing about the milk can be pretty dynamic.

Joanna: I love that and it's really interesting. I told you this earlier, but at several points in my life's journey, I've pulled ‘The Moon' and ‘The Hermit' and amazingly ‘The Moon' especially has come up for me again and again.

I haven't done my own spread that often in my life but at major points where I just don't know what I'm doing with my life, I pulled ‘The Moon'.

In case anyone is interested, what do you think that says about me?

Caroline: I think ‘The Moon' is about intuition.

The moon comes out at night and it's illumination that happens at night and it's also on many decks. I think you said you had a Rider-Waite, but if you look at a Rider-Waite moon, you'll see this crazy lobster crawling out of the water. There's a lot of weird stuff going on in ‘The Moon.'

There's a wolf howling and there's usually this lobster coming out. I think that ‘The Moon' to me represents looking at the unconscious and seeing what comes up from the depths if you really pay attention to that. So if you're working with ‘The Moon' it's not all going to be out in the open.

It's not like ‘The Sun,' another card, where everything will be really obvious, upfront, everything's good. It's easy. But ‘The Moon' is you have to wait until it gets dark out, you have to wait until some light comes out and then the stuff is going to start coming out of the depths and then you'll be able to see what's really going on.

To me it's about patience, it's not being afraid to find inspiration in the darker portion of your exploration and it's also about trusting your intuition and trusting yourself and not expecting it to be all out in the front with a blaring sign like, ‘Here it is.' It takes a bit more patience to work with ‘The Moon.'

Joanna: I love that and I think it's been quite comforting for me to have ‘The Moon' and also ‘The Hermit' which just represents the writer's life.

Caroline: Totally. It's like, ‘Don't hang out with people. Just go write. Go write. Just go do it, basically.'

Joanna: Exactly.

Let's talk about archetypes because again, we both studied psychology. I've written about Carl Jung. I know you're also really interested in Jungian psychology.

How are the archetypes represented between Jungian psychology and the tarot?

Caroline: I think that there are several layers going on. It's easy to talk about with the major arcane, which again is the focus of the book for this stage, because it not only talks about types that you see like ‘The Empress' is a mother figure, a very maternal figure. You see that in every society.

‘The Emperor' is a paternal figure that's a male energy that's really in charge and can handle everything, and then those are the sorts of archetypal images that you see in every society one way or another.

But the other layer of it is that from the beginning of the major arcana with ‘The Fool' all the way to ‘The World' at the end there is a journey that is happening, and the archetype of a journey is something that's present in most societies.

You see it in ‘The Odyssey'. You see it in cave paintings, you see people going out to hunt trying to solve something and then coming back, and all of these stages of what can happen in the journey are present in the major arcana.

You have the little guy at the beginning of ‘The Fool' who's got a backpack on, he sets out. You get to ‘The Magician' he's got a sense of, okay, I'm feeling a sense of mastery and he goes through all of these stages leading to the cards that scare people and that everybody wants to throw back in the deck whenever they pull them like ‘The Tower' which is everything falls apart, and ‘The Devil' which everybody thinks just means the worst possible thing happening. I don't, but we can talk about that if you want.

And then also, ‘Death' which is sort of an ending things that have to be. And that can be a literal death or it can be a metaphorical death where a relationship dies, something in a storyline dies, something happens.

‘Death' is pretty much primal an archetype as you can get. And then it comes out the other side with things like ‘The Sun' and ‘The Moon' and ‘The Star' which is a bit of hope and moving forward into a sort of reckoning with ‘Judgement' and then you get to ‘The World' which is sort of like, ‘Okay, now we've come full circle, literally like a globe. We've come full circle.' And then you start over.

One thing that I focus on in the book that I think is important is that there are three levels that go through this major arcana journey which is an archetypal journey.

You have your characters in the book will go through their own journey, figure things out, learn things, maybe not learn some other things and they will reach a point at the end.

The book itself will go through its own evolution. Points where the book is working, when the book is not working, when you want to throw the book in the garbage, feeling like this was a stupid idea, ‘I shouldn't have written this book,' and then, ‘Oh, wait, I've figured it out.'

You get through the ‘The Tower' part where the book is terrible and then you have some hope and then you get to the end and you get to ‘The World' and there's your book.

But it's also for the writer because anybody who writes knows that part of the reason that what you want to write is that we want to be transformed by the process as well.

If it was we were exactly the same as we were at the beginning every time we write a book I mean that would get pretty boring for me. So those three layers are happening and you can follow those archetypes through the journey of the major arcana in the tarot.

Joanna: Wow. It's so interesting, and this is the truth about writing, isn't it? You can go all these different layers and levels and like you say, it can be our journey as writers, it can be the journey of the characters. It's just fascinating.

There's so much in your book. It really is jam-packed amazing stuff, but I'm interested because of course you also do readings for other people. You do readings for other writers.

Caroline: I do.

Joanna: If people want to do their own reading with your book, how would they do that or how do you do it for other people?

Caroline: The way I started was basically that, like you, I was getting the same cards all the time for myself.

I would go through phases, and it does change, I would use a different deck. I would change. Nope, you're still getting whatever it was. You're still getting ‘The Hangman' right now. You're in limbo, too bad for you.

And so I said, ‘Well, there's cards I'm just never drawing so I want to learn.' So I decided I was going to do a 100 readings one summer and I just told anybody I'm doing it by donation. I really just want to build more of a relationship with these other cards that I never pull.

And then I ended up doing one of those readings for someone who was working on a book and they said, ‘I don't really need a reading for me. I feel okay about me.' But I'm really stuck on this book.

So we looked at what was not working with the book, where was the stuck point with the book and then you start to ask questions and pull a card and then look at the card and like we discussed earlier your subconscious will start to fill in answers.

You can ask questions and it's best if they are who, what, when, where, why kind of questions. ‘Why' is really good. ‘How' is pretty good. ‘What's missing' is good. You don't want to say, ‘Is this book good? Yes or no?' That's really not going to work very well with the tarot. They have to be a little bit more like prompts where you would want to do some journaling after you do it.

But I do put a couple of spreads that are examples of ones I've created especially for writers in the book. One is which is like working with dialogue. So if somebody is having a conversation you can pull a card for each character and then you can pull another card underneath each character to say what are you really trying to talk about here.

No one ever talks about what they actually talking about in a book or they shouldn't because otherwise, you get things like, ‘Oh, George, we must run forth before the explosion happens because it will kill us all and this is not expository dialogue at all.' You don't want that.

There has to be something going on underneath. Picking something for your surface level and then picking for something underneath is really helpful.

Another thing that's helpful is if you get into this situation. I don't know if anyone else has this happened. It happens to me all the time where my character is in location A, I need to get them to location B and they don't seem to want to go to location B. It just feels unnatural or it's like, ‘Oh, I've got to get them there but it feels really far.'

I used to live in Maine for a while at one point and one thing that they like to say is like, ‘Oh, you can't get there from here, because the roads are constructed in such a way that it's very difficult to get to a place that looks very close by.'

So I had a spread in my head that I called the ‘You can't get there from here.' You pick a card for where the character is now, you pick a card for where they're trying to go and then you pick another one for in between and then start saying, ‘Oh, the people in there are…'

You don't have to know what the tarot means. I would hate people listening to feel like they have to go buy a bunch of tarot books and study it and learn it. It's not like learning a foreign language where you can't interact with it if you don't know what the words actually mean.

Because they're pictures, you can look at the picture and it's more important that you decide what that picture looks like to you. So if you see something like the five of ones and there's a bunch of people trying to poke each other with long sticks and you say, ‘Oh look it's like they're in a fight it's not going well.'

Maybe if she got in a fight with somebody then she'd want to leave and then she could go to this other location.

It's more important that your unconscious kicks in when you're looking at the cards so that your associations and your understanding of your story is what allows it to mean more and to give you some aha moments.

Joanna: I love that. I love the idea of the two levels of the dialogue and then what's actually going on underneath. That's a really good tip. I love that. I'm going to try that. It's fantastic.

Caroline: Yes, it's fun.

Joanna: Let's talk about the decks because you're in art history and I love visual images. I've looked at a lot of this stuff and the interesting thing is there's not one tarot deck that everybody uses. So there might be one card called ‘The Moon' and such but if you buy a Native American deck versus the Rider-Waite as we've mentioned is the kind of maybe the best known.

We've also got the Thoth deck in our house which my husband likes and I know you've got other ones.

Tell us about the deck or decks you prefer and also does it matter? And why the image is so different?

Caroline: First of all, I will say it does not matter what deck you get as long as you like it. If you respond to the imagery and the imagery feels really exciting or rewarding or it connects to the kind of thing you're trying to work on then I think it's completely fine.

There's no one deck to rule them all. I don't think that exists, especially now when there are new decks coming out all the time.

The Rider-Waite-Smith is sort of become one syntax. So there are a lot of decks that will take the illustration that Pamela Smith originally did and I think that was the first deck to have illustrations not just for the major arcana but for the minor arcana.

In many decks, before that, it used to just look like playing cards where you'd have symbols that were the number of symbols for that. There would be five ones in a picture and that was it. There would be no scene. So she's the one who came up with all of the scenes and the scenes have fairly consistent things that happen.

You'll see a lot of decks that have different styles of art and it's fun if you're a big nerd like me where you're like, ‘Oh, oh that's so clever how they placed that a little differently than this.'

But there's always going to be a lobster with ‘The Moon' in the Rider-Waite-Smith convention. The Toth is a completely different sort of syntax. It's like that one is a different language. So if you're really into that, that is its own kind of system if that makes sense to you.

So for somebody who's looking to build a relationship with the tarot, it's kind of interesting to pay attention to which one that is. You don't have to get an actual Rider-Waite-Smith deck if you don't respond to the imagery. Some people love it. Some people are just like, ‘Well, I'm not into it.'

But there are so many out there that there's a deck for you somewhere. There are so many. And a really good place to start is there is a site called, I never know how to pronounce it, and you can look up tarot decks and name for most decks that have been published with the exception of some independents that are on Kickstarter and so on and not yet indexed, but they will have pictures of most of the deck.

I think that one thing to guard against when you're buying a deck is that sometimes you'll see a picture of a deck and there's a picture on the cover of the box and then you may see one or two others and think you're really into it and those three are the ones that you love and then the rest of the deck leaves you flat.

It's like when the single on the album is amazing and then the rest of the album you're not into it. That can happen with tarot.

So the more you can see as many cards in the deck as possible before purchasing or even better if you can go to a shop and see them then that will help. Often if you buy things off Etsy or an independent site or Little Red Tarot in Europe is a great source.

Those places will have pictures of lots of the cards so you can make sure that this is really something you're responding to.

I had a giant card catalog file filled with decks before we left the U.S. in the fall. I had to cut it down. Hilariously, it was culling to down to, like, 50 decks. It was not culling down to two. So there was somewhere I was like, ‘This is cool.' I gave them to friends who are interested, but I still have probably 40 or 50 decks.

Joanna: What did you write the book on for example or did you just kind of use them all?

Caroline: I tended to use groups because I didn't want to be writing from just one deck because I felt like I would be really leaning on that card's imagery and I wanted someone reading the book to be able to use the deck that they loved and not be kind of wedded to it.

I played with using imagery from cards in the book but then I was like, ‘No, I don't want to have a particular deck that people feel they have to respond to.' And I have different decks.

If you go on Pinterest, it is a great place to find tarot spreads. If you search for a question that you have and say tarot spread then they will appear. There's one that's called a deck interview which is kind of fun.

So when you get a deck you can interview your deck which is really fun, because if you go down the rabbit hole like I did if you're into you will end up just get a cabinet. Just get a cabinet and you're going to have all your decks in there and it's going to be fine.

But there are different decks that have very different imagery. I have one that's called the Bohemian Gothic that's hilarious and it's like old-fashioned, crazy, Dracula kind of stuff. I'm not going to use that to write a romance scene necessarily.

Or if you're writing a romance novel you may not want that deck. But if you're writing an adventure suspense plot you're not going to use the cat tarot of which there are many.

I think that you can have different decks that work for different situations and one of the things in this deck interview spread is you can say what are your strengths, what are your weaknesses…you pull cards for this and then it says what should we work on together.

You could look at maybe this deck is really into dialogue or maybe this deck is really into character development or it's really into crime novels and maybe you have another deck that's really, really into romance novels. And maybe you have another one that's really into literary fiction.

It's tough to say. But I like the idea that they all have their own personalities and they're really into different kinds of subjects just like we are. And that the art will activate different parts of your brain that will work well for that. That's all that really matters is that you like it.

Joanna: When I was reading your stuff I was like, ‘Oh, you know, I should look at some other decks.' and I fell, like, into the rabbit hole as you said.

Caroline: Oh, boy.

Joanna: Oh yeah, and I was like, ‘Okay, I'm backing away now because it's…'

Caroline: Yeah, you gotta back away.

Joanna: It's so cool but it's also very intimidating. So I'm back to my Rider-Waite, but it is definitely beautiful as well.

I think this is really important like to stress that this writing prompts can so often be written. Writing prompts are written, whereas this is almost a writing prompt from something visual and I'm a visual writer.

I'm often looking at visual stuff to prompt my writing. So if people listening are in that phase then that really works.

Caroline: Definitely. I think it's helpful to have different kinds of prompts. You can even just say I feel like writing something, pull a card and see…like, okay well, look at this picture and say, ‘Okay, what would a circumstance be surrounding this scene?' And just start writing that and see what happens.

Joanna: I want to ask about your podcast, ‘The Secret Library' podcast, which is amazing and you interview some seriously famous writers, a lot of literary fiction, a lot of kind of prize winners and really interesting guests.

I definitely urge people to check out ‘The Secret Library' podcast.

Because you have interviewed so many super successful authors, are there any commonalities that you see in those writers that you've kind of learned over the years.

Caroline: I think so. I've thought about this a lot but one of the things I've noticed is that just in speaking to them there isn't this point where you're a prize winner or you've won an award for your book or something and then writing suddenly becomes this really easy process where there are no doubts or fears or concerns or you never get stuck.

What I've learned from talking to them is that they're not superhuman. It's kind of like when you get to the age when your parents were when you were a certain age and frustrated with them and you thought you're an adult, you're supposed to understand everything and then you get to this age you're like, ‘Oh, no, they had no idea what was going on.'

It feels a little bit like that, which is not to say these writers don't know what's going on, it's just that I think that for many years I thought when I was trying to write books that when I got really stuck and didn't know what to do that that was an indication of my lack of skill or that it was an indication that I didn't know what I was doing.

In talking to so many authors who hit that point and yet worked through it and continue that that point of feeling like I don't know what I'm doing right now is not an indication of failure, it's just part of the process.

And I think author after author after author that I talk to has had that experience and even the ones who are really big and have hit it really big have often written like four or five books that they tried to sell and nothing was happening, there was nothing keeping them going.

I think of Donal Ryan who is a fiction writer and he just tried and tried and tried and tried and tried and he said, ‘The only reason I kept going was because my wife just said, ‘You know what? It's good and you should keep going.”

And as soon as he published he was shortlisted for a prize but it took years and he could've given up at any moment if there hadn't been somebody saying, ‘No, this is worth it, what you're doing.'

I think that seems to be a consistent theme is that there was some force that convinced them that how terrible it can feel at certain points was not an indication that they shouldn't be writing or that writing wasn't for them.

Joanna: That's interesting you picked that one because you're also writing a novel right now, aren't you?

Caroline: I am.

Joanna: Do you think that's the thing that you personally are taking in or what else are you taking in into your writing process from what you've learned?

Caroline: It's probably the one that's with me today because today I have a library that I go to. I'm a member of a library here in Berlin which I love and it is like my zone and I was running a little bit late this morning.

It's a very popular library. You have to be a member but I got there and there were no desks and it completely threw me off my game and I wrote nothing this morning. So I think having heard this from all these writers I'm like, ‘Oh, good. This is not an indicator that the book is not going to get finished. It's just a hiccup in the routine and I have to just go back tomorrow and it will be fine.'

But the one that is the most consistent and not even today and not even when I was really hardcore working on the book. I was always present with that and always with clients, but I think the other thing too is that there are points when you have to let go of control of the book in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable.

I can think of several people, one in particular, the most dramatic by far, was Patricia Park who was working on a book called, ‘Re Jane' and it was a Korean retelling of ‘Jane Eyre'. She was working in her uncle's shop in New York in one of the boroughs and she hit this point where it's like, ‘Oh, this book is not working. I can't believe it.'

She got a Fullbright to go to South America and kind of spend a lot of time researching the Korean community in South America which is quite large in Argentina. And she got into there and she was really in it and she was starting to develop something and then she realized that the character she was developing was actually a B character in her original book that she had decided was not working.

Not everybody is probably going to get a Fullbright and go to South America and research and realize it's still the same book, but she thought she had a whole new book and it was still the same book.

I think the other one that really stands out is that I have had every single person who has mentioned the length of time it has taken them to write a book has been irritated at how long it took and none of them have said, ‘God, I really wish it had taken a little bit longer. If this book could've taken me another six months, that would've been great, but no it just happened so fast.'

Nobody ever says that. It's always like there's something about it that was inefficient or difficult but also that they gained insight that they needed to have through the process of it being inefficient and difficult and that they were grateful for the insight but they just wish it hadn't taken quite so long.

Joanna: That is super interesting. So I also want to ask you about Berlin because you mentioned the library there and you've been there a few months now, I guess. Six months?

Caroline: We've been here for four.

Joanna: What has Berlin done for you in terms of your life? And what has it changed up about your life? And how does changing place help you change your state as well?

Caroline: Oh, definitely. We had been thinking about this for a few years. We lived in Los Angeles for many years. I was there for 12. My husband was there for 20, and we were at a point where it was time to break up with Los Angeles.

And part of that is how expensive that city has gotten. I want to be writing, I don't want to be sitting in the car which is what you have to do a lot there. There were just a lot of things that we just felt like it wasn't suiting what we wanted.

So we got rid of 80% of our stuff. We moved here. We went from an 1800 square foot, 3-bedroom place with 2 bathrooms to a 440 square foot apartment with one bathroom in which we have three cats and a dog. It's a very, very interesting dynamic.

This is a temporary flat. We will be in something larger before long, but I think we just wanted to cut away all of the distractions and all of the things that were keeping us from doing creative work.

My husband is an artist. He is an illustrator, animator, designer and then I'm writing and I just felt it just takes forever to get anywhere in LA. There was just a lot and it with just all of those things were taking away from the writing.

And also a majority of the book I'm writing right now is set in Berlin. So it turns out it's quite difficult to write a book that's set in Berlin when you're in Los Angeles because they're not very similar.

I think some of it is being in the location of the place that I'm writing about is a huge support and I think that just the European sensibility was one that we have always been interested in and supported.

We just couldn't do the 10 days off a year anymore in America. You have to make a $150,000 to $200,000 to even consider having significant savings that like just to pay for your life and all of those things were like that's just not sustainable, and it's not sustainable doing creative work unless you want to work 80 hours a week when you put your creative work and your day job together.

We just wanted to pull the plug on all of that, which has been wonderful, and to be somewhere where the prevailing value system is not that people should be ground into dust by their work lives.

I'm feeling extremely liberated by that. I'm feeling very grateful to be here. I'm very grateful not to have to have a car anymore.

Joanna: It's a big thing, isn't it?

Caroline: Oh, it's amazing.

Joanna: You can just walk places.

Caroline: We have bikes, you know. We bike or take the…

Joanna: The tube?

Caroline: The public transit which is here and functional.

But the other thing about that that's really good for a writer is I sit on the train on the way to the library, every day that I go to the library and I see a new character. I see someone, I get to watch them and see what they're doing, what are they're wearing, how are they fidgeting. That can go straight in the book.

If I'm sitting in a car on a freeway in LA, I don't get that interaction. I don't get to hear their voice if they're talking to their kid or if they're talking to their friend. All of those details go right in a city like Berlin or London is the same.

There are many cities that have good public transit and everybody is out on it. New York is the same. We were not built for New York. You really have to want that one.

Being here and being able to be a part of that. And the other thing too is as an American things are different here. They look different. The sidewalks look different, and I love that. So I enjoy gobbling all of that detail up.

Joanna: I lived New Zealand and Australia. I was away 11 years and I'm a European. I feel like that and I missed so many things about Europe. So I'm really excited about your book when it eventually makes it out there, your Berlin book.

And also you've got another podcast coming, haven't you? If people are interested.

Caroline: I do. I have a really good friend who is also an American and she took the leap from Boulder, Colorado. She and her family felt like they need a change, she and her husband and her son, and there's been a tech boom in Dublin and she's worked in that field for ages.

So they went to Dublin and they've been there for two years now. we decided based on so many conversations that we would have with people that are like, ‘Oh, that's amazing that you've moved. I couldn't ever do that. That's really amazing what you've done.'

We've both been project managers so we're like, ‘Well, it's just a series of practical steps that you can follow. If you know what they are, it's really not that bad. So we wanted to do a series of episodes of just short kind of actionable, this is how we've done these things. And that the ‘GTFO' podcast that will be coming…

Joanna: What does that stand for?

Caroline: It stands for ‘Get the feck out.' We're going with the Irish ‘feck' rather than the other.

Joanna: Fantastic.

Caroline: So that we don't get kicked off of iTunes.

Joanna: That is a good idea and this is a clean show and that word is clean.

Caroline: Yes, I know.

Joanna: That's fantastic. Where can people find you and everything you do online?

Caroline: They can find me at and then they can find the show at and there are links to everything. I'm on Instagram and Twitter and everything but all of those are on both of those sites.

Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Caroline. That was great.

Caroline: Thank you so much. It was such a treat talking to you, as always.

This story originally appeared on The Creative Penn