Guy's Blog

Guy frequently keeps this blog updated with thoughts, challenges, interviews and more!

Tag: writing tips

I just uninstalled the Facebook app off my phone.

Shock! Horror! How could  I do such a thing?

Well, yesterday I gave a class to some students on a professional writing course at the University of Suffolk here in Ipswich. The topic was time management, and my advice boiled down to the following key points:

  1. Distinguish between ‘urgent' and ‘important'. Most things that come in appear urgent but are not important. Many things that are important (like writing the next book) do not feel urgent. Prioritise the important over the urgent.
  2. Create assets. Assets are anything that add value to your life. Value in this case is usually either money, or reputation, or both.  A book is an asset if it boosts your reputation, or makes money, or both. (My first book The Swordsman's Companion made me precisely no money between 2004 when it was published and 2013 when I self-published it. But it put me on the map as a swordsmanship instructor.) In the case of the students present their degree would be an asset, as would a blog they maintain, or work they do that can go in a portfolio to show clients. Facebook status updates? Not assets.
  3. Put first things first. Try to get some work done on an asset before checking email or anything else. Your inbox is everyone else's agenda. Your assets are your agenda.

On Monday morning this week I followed my own advice to perfection. I got up and did my meditation, had breakfast with the kids and walked them to school, then came home and produced the final videos for my Footwork course (which is now complete, with students enrolled and everything), and edited some videos for my Medieval Dagger course (which is also now complete). After about two and a half hours of full-on creative and productive work, my computer was tied up rendering video, so I took a break. I did some breathing training, took a shower and got properly dressed… And checked my emails for the first time that day. My creative intention had not had a chance to get derailed.

Back in 2006, in the days just after publishing The Duellist's Companion and right before my wedding, the server that hosted the school website and my emails broke. Five years of emails, my entire inbox, everything, gone in an instant. At a rather busy time in a self-employed person's life. But you know what? I can't think of a single bad thing that happened because of it. Not one. Everyone who mattered (such as my future wife) had other ways to get hold of me. Every important email got sent again by the person who hadn't gotten a reply yet. The wedding went off without a hitch (she showed up and said “I do”. Everything else is a blur). There are two takeaways from this. 1. Backups are important for your important work, but probably not so much for your emails. 2. Very few emails are truly important.

Whenever I talk like this, people jump up and down about how critical their rapid email responses are to keeping their jobs. My answer is in the form of a book: Deep Work by Cal Newport. To sum up, firstly, your job probably doesn't genuinely value your rapid response, they just expect it. Most knowledge workers don't put “I respond fast to email” on their CVs. You can train your co-workers off treating email like instant messaging. Sure, I'm in an unusual position, but Cal is not- he's a Computer Science professor, with all the admin crap that goes with that, so read his book and take his word for it. But you might find my contact page instructive in setting expectations. I'll save you clicking and quote:

Hi! You can email me, which I prefer, or find me online on FacebookLinkedInGoodreads, and Twitter, or if you like, try this spiffy form. Whichever you choose, please bear in mind that I don’t have a secretary, but I do have family, students, books to write and a school to run. This means that I think I’m doing pretty well if I answer your email within three working days, and any social media message within seven. After that time has expired, and there is still no response, try emailing again!

Then, when I reply to someone's email in two days, their expectations are exceeded and we're all happy.

Secondly, do you really want a job in which your primary value is not doing deep creative work, but simply reacting to emails? Really?

Getting and staying out of a reactive mindset is critically important to getting serious work done. Reactivity is not creative. Sure, creative work is often done in reaction to something; protest art, for instance, but the process of creating that art is not reactive, and a wise artist doesn't let anyone see their work until the first draft is done.

This goes to one of the most important ideas for living a worthwhile life: expanding your circle of control. Mr Money Moustache (one of my favourite bloggers) has written an excellent article on this here, but let me summarise it for you. You should spend your attention only on the things you can directly affect. By doing so, you become better able to affect the things you care about. Moaning about politics is a classic beginner's mistake. Writing to your congressman or MP, voting, organising or taking part in protests, standing for office, are all much more effective responses. If you're not planning on doing any of those things, then you shouldn't burn any mental effort on thinking about it. And moaning about the weather? Come on. The weather doesn't care. Either wear the appropriate clothing, or choose to do something else. By paying attention to the things you can affect, you become much more effective and your circle of control grows. Expending effort worrying about things you cannot affect takes away from those things that you can, and you become less effective, and your circle of control will shrink.

What has all this to do with Facebook? Well, 99% of the stuff in my Facebook feed I skip over. Of the 1% I react to, 99% is not stuff that I can directly affect. This is incredibly inefficient. But this morning I found I had checked my email and my Facebook feed before doing my breathing practice or working on an asset. And yet I had just the day before spent an hour being an ‘expert' and preaching to these students about putting first things first.

The thing is, Facebook is staffed by hundreds of people who are way cleverer than me, and whose paychecks depend entirely on making the site sticky. They need our eyeballs on those ads or they are out of a job. They are naturally very, very good at getting and keeping our attention. The only way to win is not to play. Getting off the scroll-scroll-click dopamine drip is very likely to enable me to increase the value I put into the world. Of course I will keep my Facebook profile and pages- they are a useful aspect of my business and personal life, great for organising parties, keeping up with far-flung friends, and all of that. But by increasing the barrier to entry (taking it off the phone), I will only be able to get on Facebook on my work machine, which means after I've done some useful work (because, you know, self-discipline and all that. Lack discipline? Use an app such as Freedom that prevents you getting onto the internet altogether, or blocks certain sites until a time you set).

This is the great thing about teaching. You teach that which you most need to learn, and by being forced to set a good example to your students (because who wants to be a hypocrite?) you get better at the things you care about.

Right, that's 1300 words of creative writing done. What next? Should I open up Scrivener and get to work on the next book? Or dash on over to Facebook and see who's been getting up to mischief?

Creating a card game to teach the basic theory and terminology of a medieval combat system was really hard. Audatia is done though: four glorious character decks and two expansion packs; piled up on my desk they really look like we created something.

When people hear about it, the most common reaction is “wow, that’s cool!” or words to that effect. The next most common reaction is some variation on “but I had that idea!” Sometimes that comes with the feeling “I’m so glad somebody is doing it”, but sometimes I get the impression that the person felt that by having the idea they had somehow staked out that creative territory and were annoyed that I was encroaching on it. An idea that they had done absolutely nothing to bring into being.

The same is true with writing. I hear a lot of “I wish I was a writer”, or, “I want to write books too”. I don’t really get it, to be honest. If you want to do something, do it. 99% of the obstacles preventing you are between your ears. If The Diving Bell and the Butterfly could be written by Jean Dominic Bauby just being able to blink one eye, letter by letter, or my wife’s friend Roopa Farooki can manage two jobs, four children and a commute and still be a successful novelist, really what’s your excuse? Everybody can find half an hour a day to blast out text if they really want to. If they really, really want to. Because it is hard.

And I think that’s the crux of it. Having the idea is easy, costs nothing, and feels good. Executing the idea is often brutally hard, a marathon of sprints, exhausting, frustrating, painful and at the end of it all it might still fail or flop.

I often get what I think are brilliant ideas that I know for a sure and certain fact I’m never going to execute. Here are three.

The Writer’s Briefcase

I had this idea while watching my kids in the Piazza del Campo in Siena. Michaela and I were tag-teaming; she had gone off for a wander leaving me supervising the little artists.

Piazza del Campo. Great place for ideas…
The writer's briefcase. Every writer should have one…

And I thought how handy it would be to have a consistent work set-up, that folded away into a briefcase. I was inspired by the idea behind the Roost laptop stand. The key points are:

  • Easy access: you can pull the laptop out, plonk it on your lap and work, or open the case on a table and have at least your laptop, mouse and notepad to hand. Or you can spend a couple of minutes doing the full set-up with the Roost and all.
  • Modular design: if you need to take research books, an ipad, or whatever else with you, you can attach additional modules, like MilTec only in nicer colours. Oh, alright. We'll do one in black if we must.

This could be produced quite easily: find a bag designer, raise funds on kickstarter, have cool names for different models (by writing space “the garrett”, “the studio”, “the atelier”; by author “the Dickens”, “the Austen”, “the Shakespeare”), have young chaps with beards and tight jeans rave about it, and you’re over 100k in minutes. Really, luggage is so in right now.

The Tripod standing desk

Continuing the theme of writing set-ups (as my regular readers know, I’m something of an ergonomics afficionado): one reason I don’t like working in cafes and other public places is the utter lack of standing desks with keyboard shelf at exactly the right height, monitor at exactly the right height, and so on. The problem of a stable, strong, and portable vertical support has been solved for decades: the photographer’s tripod.

So how about a light, collapsible two-level desk (keyboard and laptop) that fits on a standard tripod mount? You could even have a tripod pouch on the “atelier” above. The base level would be adjusted through the tripod itself; the monitor/laptop level would be adjustable through how it fits to the keyboard shelf.

A standing desk you can take anywhere? Huzzah!

Genius.

The Bladebell

This is one project that I took all the way from basic idea through first production run, but then it stalled. In short, it’s an Indian club with edge alignment and sword-handling capabilities. They are actually really good; I use mine all the time. I was really careful to get the mass and point of balance just right so they stress the hand like a longsword. You can do all your grip changes, blows, and everything except actual strikes and pair drills with them, as well as everything you would do with a standard Indian club. I even shot some video of how to use them:

 

I made a couple of prototypes, and got the excellent chaps at Purpleheart Armory to make a batch of 12 pairs, which were sold at WMAW in (I think) 2011. They all sold, but somehow Purpleheart and I never quite got round to marketing them properly so they never took off.

Rather than keep these to myself, I would rather that somebody takes them and runs with them. Go ahead, make millions, and give me a lift in your Ferrari one day.  I recently let the url “bladebell.com” lapse; if you want it, it’s yours.

Give away your best ideas.

Seriously. Give away all your best ideas. It’s quite safe. The chances of somebody else having the grit to execute your vision is vanishingly small. And if they do, all it means is that your own execution was inadequate. In these cases, I’ve no interest in becoming a bag designer, writing ergonomics company director, sports equipment manufacturer, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with being any of these things, they’re just not me.

And I think that’s where the idea versus execution problem really lies. It’s in our nature to have ideas. It’s also in our nature to flit from one to the other until something grips and won’t let go. All of the skills around execution can be learned or hired. The one thing that can't be learned or hired is the sheer stubbornness to see it through until your idea is made flesh. You just have to want it and give up whatever needs to be given up to make it happen.

So, if any of these bite you in the arse and won't let go, take them with my blessing and execute the sh*t out of them.

Medieval scribes had crap posture too! Image from: http://www.booktryst.com/2012/03/medieval-scribes-gripe-about-writing.html

One of the challenges of my new lifestyle is that I don’t have class three or four times a week to keep me to a fitness regime. Before I could make the switch in my head from swordsman-writer to writer-swordsman, I had to figure out how I was going to prevent myself from becoming a weak and overweight lush who was always drunk by lunchtime. Because that’s what writers are like, no?

*Guy ducks and runs away from the many, many, uber-fit sword-swinging writers he knows*

Well, maybe not all writers, but I certainly have the capacity for it.

You may have read about my morning routines for beating jet-lag. I have developed and adapted those for preventing a condition that I will christen “writer’s blimp”. The trick, the key insight, is that this is about developing the sort of habits that will lead to my desired result, rather than coming up with a prescriptive regime. This routine has four steps:

1. Meditation

When I wake up in the morning, I usually go straight into an awareness-of-breathing or mindfulness meditation (guided or otherwise). This lasts from 5-20 minutes, depending on all sorts of things, not least the time. Ideally, I wake up naturally an hour or so before my kids do, which does actually happen about once a week. But one of the greatest privileges of my self-employed (and parental) status is that I almost never have to set a morning alarm. So I don’t set an alarm to be up in time to meditate before breakfast, because if I don’t have time to do it before the kids go to school, it’s #1 on my todo list after the house has quieted down.

2. Breathing

Then I usually do three rounds of Wim Hof breathing; if I’m too late to meditate before the kids come in, then I do this anyway. In the second round, while my lungs are empty, I get up and do some squats and push-ups. Then after breathing in, I do some gentle stretches, push-ups, that sort of thing, guided by how my body feels. Or I might do some of my classic breathing exercises. You know, like the ones in this book.

3. Engage with strength

I usually then do a couple of clean-and-presses on each arm with a 16kg kettlebell, some squats with a 16kg kettlebell cleaned in each hand, followed by a couple of double overhead presses with the 16kg bells, followed by some clean and presses with a 24kg kettlebell. Maybe some Turkish Get-Ups if I’m feeling energetic. This takes about 5 minutes, and engages just about every muscle in the body. If there’s time and I feel like it, I go for longer and do more.

4. Cold Shock

Shower next; for a long time I used to have a hot shower, then finish cold. Then I went to cold-hot-cold, again for several months, maybe a year or more; I didn't really track it. Now I treat hot water as a delicious luxury for when I really feel like it, and so usually shower on full cold only. It is very invigorating.

I put together a video of this routine for you.

5. Paying attention to food

I always sit down for breakfast with the kids, but I don’t usually eat anything. If I’m hungry, I’ll eat some protein and fat (such as half a tin of sardines and a tomato); I try to avoid any starches or fast carbs first thing. (But oh! Peanut butter and banana on toast with brown sugar sprinkled on! Pancakes with bacon and maple syrup! Nutella with anything! I do miss them all, so they are weekend-only fare.) I almost always have a cup of coffee, and sometimes make it “bulletproof”: a chunk of organic butter, a dash of MCT oil, and whizz it with a hand-blender. It doesn’t taste very nice, if I’m honest (if you take milk in your coffee you’d probably like it more), but it does seem to delay the need to eat lunch, and it may help a bit with mental sharpness. I'm considering changing the pattern to eating in the morning, but last-calorie-in by 6pm, to give me the necessary metabolic cleansing time. Dr Rhonda Patrick suggests 14 hours as a useful minimum in this handy podcast. Dig into that if you want the details (and yes, she's a proper scientist). I have noticed that having an earlier eating window makes jet-lag recovery much faster.

When I settle down to work, it often means doing my 20 minutes or so of meditation, and sometimes some exercise (breathing exercises, kettlebells, that sort of thing) first. My feeling is that I need to maintain a solid baseline of fitness, strength, and agility, so that my body doesn’t deteriorate, and I can still do all the things I want to do (like beat the crap out of people with a sword practice swordsmanship to a high level).

Then I start writing. If I’m working on the first draft of a new book (as I am right now), then I hit my word count, and either keep going, or stop and do something else (edit a different book; do some marketing; write a blog post; empty my inbox). I don’t usually even open my inbox before hitting my word count. I also almost always have my phone on silent*, and check it when I’ve done what I need to do. This period of maximum productivity lasts for about one to four hours from about 08.30.

Ergonomics are really important; this is why I only usually work at home in my carefully set-up study.

[Update: losing this study was one of the worst things about leaving Finland; but I'm nicely ensconced in my new office at the Waterfront Studios, at the University of Suffolk. Kelly Starrett has an interesting take on the problems of sitting to much in his book Deskbound]

I’m done working by lunch, which is always very short on fast carbs of any kind, but long on vegetables. The kids get home from school between 12.30 and 2.30, depending on the day, and I try to avoid being buried in my laptop when they’re here. Of course, these days they often don’t want their old man messing up their very important games, so I might do some work or reading in the afternoons, but it’s not guaranteed.

By 6pm, right when I would have normally been starting a class, I’m free! To cook dinner for the kids, for example, have a glass of wine with my wife, for another example. The day usually ends with my wife and I watching something on TV before bed, and it’s usually sufficiently easy watching that I can get of the sofa and do twenty minutes or so of stretching while we watch it. Assuming I’ve been careful with starch and sugar all day, then I’ll usually eat whatever I want in the evening.  [I think I need to do a proper blog post on diet and weight control. Hmmm. Ok, done.]

So, in a day when I don’t set aside any real time for training, I’ve meditated, done some breathing exercises, done probably 20-50 push-ups, 10-20 pull-ups (there's a pull-up bar in my office; every time I go get a cup of tea, go to the loo, or am procrastinating, I'll do a couple), 5 minutes of kettlebells, and 20-30 minutes of stretching, and watched what I ate. Any part of this can be expanded without having to create a new habit. In other words, if I feel that my flexibility is suffering, I can extend my evening stretches, and add more range of motion stuff in the morning, without having to suddenly find time to stretch. The time is already assigned. If  I think I’m getting weaker, I can add a minute or two to the kettlebell part. For example, I went to the physiotherapist yesterday because my always-dodgy spine started acting up; I've now got some totally specific corrective exercises to do regularly throughout the day… no problem; they are slotted in in place of the pull-ups. If you are interested in the specific exercises I use to keep my arms from going into tendonitis spasm, see my free course on arm maintenance, and my free course on looking after your legs.

I am blessed with a metabolism that puts on weight very easily if I don’t watch what  I eat, a spine that produces agonising spasms if I don’t exercise it regularly, and pathetic little wrists that will swell up with tendonitis if I neglect my forearm maintenance for even a few days. This means that I am obliged to keep reasonably fit, or it all goes to hell very fast. It also means that I have had to learn how to do so, or I break. In this case, inherent weakness really has been a virtue.

So, that’s what I’m doing to remain a martial artist while becoming a full-time writer. What do you do?

*Here is a list of the things I might be doing that a phone-call might interrupt. In no particular order: writing something you might want to read one day if I ever get round to finishing it what with all these interruptions; editing video; training; breathing exercises; meditating; eating; playing with my kids; sleeping; bathroom stuff; thinking; writing up my notes; lying on the sofa doing nothing; watching a movie; sharpening a pencil; doing woodwork; cooking; talking to my wife; planning stuff; and that's me just getting started on this list. So, really, why would I want to answer the phone? The chances of it being either really time-critical, or something I really want to hear, are pretty small. Most of my phone calls are scheduled in advance by email, so I know not to be doing something else when the phone rings. Wife, kids, parents, siblings and very close friends get a pass. Everyone else? make an appointment 🙂

Hello.

Do you find yourself explaining the same thing over and over to various friends and colleagues? Wouldn’t it be easier to just explain it once, and then send the explanation to anyone who needs it?

In my case, I tend to explain all sorts of things regarding swords, as teaching swordsmanship has been my job for the last 15 years. But lately, more and more people have wanted to talk to me about writing books. This makes sense, given that I have written half a dozen of them, plus hundreds of articles and blog posts, and these days about half my income comes from the books I’ve had published in the traditional way, or published myself. When I found myself explaining the process I use to write and publish books for the hundredth time, I thought that perhaps it was time to follow my own advice and write the process down so anyone who wants to can use it.

A History Lesson

Back in 1999 a friend of mine suggested I should write a book about how to fight with swords. I had been teaching swordsmanship for about five years by that point, in a club I helped to found in Edinburgh in 1994. This friend was quite persuasive, so I set to, in my spare time from my cabinet-making job. A year later I had left woodwork to start The School of European Swordsmanship, (in Helsinki, Finland), which kept me busy in the evenings and weekends, but left much of every day free to write. It took me another two years to get the first draft ready. What with publisher’s delays and endless edits, the book, The Swordsman’s Companion, did not see the light of day until June 2004.

The day I sent off the final final draft I sat down to write the next book, which became The Duellist’s Companion. That only took two years, including the madly slow publishing process; so about 18 months of writing time.

My last book, every bit as difficult, and much more advanced than either of these two, was written in under three months of actual writing time, spread over the course of a year.

What changed?

I learned how to do it.

The process

Never, ever, try to write a book. It’s too big. Write a word, or a line, or a paragraph, or maybe even a chapter. You can start with a question, the more specific the better. “How do you use a sword” is too general. “How do you hold a medieval longsword” is much better. So, break up the topic into lots of very specific questions. “How do you defend yourself from a thrust to the belly from a low guard on the right?” is good. “How do you defend against thrusts” is less good, unless you already have three or four related and very specific questions answered, and you can summarise them.

One question = one episode/article/paragraph/chapter.

A little question can be answered in 200-3000 words. Just about right for a blog post, or a facebook update, something like that. A big question can be answered in 3-10 thousand words. Perfect for a short ebook.

5-10 big questions on the same topic can be edited together into a book.

Now what about fiction?

Well, I’ve never published a novel, so I’m no expert on this, but I have several friends who have. And some of them have written books about it. Storyteller Tools by M. Harold Page is a very useful book, and so is Jump Start Your Novel, by Mark Teppo. I recommend them both highly. There is no reason why this process would not work for fiction too, though it doesn’t solve the issues of creating engaging characters or thrilling plot. The thing you sit down to write is a scene; many scenes, properly ordered, make a novel. For fiction writers reading this, I’m sure you can draw the necessary parallels.

Step 1: to plan, or not to plan, that is the question!

This is very much down to your personality and experience. If you have an enormous question that can be broken down into 6-12 big questions, then right now you could get a piece of paper and a pen, and organise the questions into your table of contents. The trick to ordering them is to keep in mind the prerequisite knowledge for each answer. I can’t explain to you how to hold a sword if you don’t know what a sword is. For every question, it is usually best to assume that your reader knows absolutely nothing. It’s been my experience that most students coming to me can’t even stand or walk properly. (Really. Most people have problems with their gait.) So I start with how to stand. It’s never wrong to go too basic; it is much better that readers skip over stuff they know (or think they know) to get to the “good stuff”, than it is for readers to be baffled or frustrated because they don’t have the background you imagined, and so can’t follow your thread.

Let’s take my book The Medieval Longsword as an example. The enormous question I’m trying to answer is: “how do you fight with a medieval longsword?”

The table of contents doesn’t look like a list of questions, but here it is, with the questions added.

Introduction to the Mastering the Art of Arms Collection: “how does this book fit into the other books in the series?”

Foreword by Christian Cameron: “does anybody famous and cool who knows about swords think this book is good?”

Introduction: “how does Guy know what he’s talking about?”

Chapter One: Tools of the Trade: “what equipment do I need?”

Chapter Two: General Principles: “what are the fundamental ideas behind how swordfights actually work?”

Chapter  Three: Footwork: Stepping and Turning: “how do I move?”

Chapter Four: One Strike, One Defence: “what is the basic attack, and the basic defence against it?”

Chapter Five: More Strikes, More Defences “what other attacks and defences should I know to start with?”

Chapter Six: More Strikes, and More Guards “what are the less common attacks, and the other guard positions?”

Chapter Seven: Counter Remedies,  Their Counters, and Improving

the Guards: “how do the fighters continue after the first attack and defence?”

Chapter Eight: Counters to the Break,  The Sword in One Hand

and Exploiting Mistakes: “what other cool techniques are there?”

Chapter Nine: Binds, Malice and Deceit: “what tactics are best?”

Chapter Ten: Preparing for Freeplay: “I want to fight my friends without killing them. How do I prepare for that?”

Chapter Eleven: Freeplay! “and how do I actually do it?”

Chapter Twelve: A Final Summary:  The System by Numbers: “how do I remember all this stuff?”

Appendix A – Warming: Up “how do I warm up?”

Appendix B – Glossary: “what do all those funny Italian words mean?”

Acknowledgements: “who helped in the writing of the book?”

Indiegogo Campaign Contributors: “who bought the book before it was even published (bless them)?”

Bibliography: “what other books were needed to write this one?”

Knowing all those questions in advance, it was quite easy for me to plan the book out, and then just write each chapter as it came. I didn’t write them in order though, I answered the question I wanted to answer each day.

Writing a series is a bit different. In The Swordsman’s Quick Guide for example, the questions are far less naturally connected: “what are the fundamental aspects to mastering any skill?” (The Seven Principles of Mastery); “how do I choose a sword?” (Choosing a Sword); “how do I train myself up to freeplay standard?” (Preparing for Freeplay); “what is the ethical dimension of swordsmanship?” (Ethics); “how should I teach a basic class?” (How to Teach a Basic Class (forthcoming)). As I add to the list, I may end up with a coherent book, or I may not. It doesn’t actually matter. But at this stage there is no point in sitting down to plan the whole series, because I don’t have one enormous question I’m trying to answer, just a series of smaller ones.

Step 2: define the questions as closely as possible, and answer them

This is what you will write today. “How do you set up a table-top role-playing game for 3-8 players?” is a good question. “How do I cut lap dovetails for a drawer front?” is a good question. You can write your answer straight out, if that’s natural. Or talk into your phone, and type up the answer, if that’s easier. Or call a student or friend, somebody who has asked the question, and explain it over skype, recording the call. Then type that up.

Step 3: send your answer out to test readers

Only the people who do not already know the answer, the people who would actually need your book, can tell you whether it solves their problem. So you need to find these people (I’m assuming you have some kind of social network, or at least one actual person has asked you this question), and ask them to read it for you, and let you know honestly what they think.

I’ve been writing for a long, long time, and still I get all sorts of negative feedback from my test readers. Positive comments are nice, but negative comments have a much greater capacity to improve the work, so that’s what you need from your readers. Beg them to be merciless.

Apply as much or as little of the feedback to your draft as you like, then sit on it while you go to step four:

Step 4: rinse and repeat

Find and answer at least two more really specific questions, following steps one and two. You now have three or more short pieces, of about 3-10 thousand words each. Go back and re-read the first one, in the light of the other two; you’ll probably find a few more corrections or additions to make.

Step 5: give readers a way to contact you

This is absolutely critical. Your readers must have a way to get in touch, because you absolutely depend on them for critical feedback. You exist to solve their problems; you have to know whether you are doing that well or not. Give them as many ways as possible; email, website, facebook, twitter, phone, snail mail address; every medium that you are willing to be contacted on. Then let them contact you in the way that suits them best. Put this information at the beginning and end of each article.

On the advice of a friend, I got myself a Facebook account in 2010. Within three weeks, somebody in America had got in touch to ask me whether it would be ok to use The Duellist’s Companion as the curriculum for his rapier school; of course he’d insist every student bought a copy. Would that be ok?

Hell yes! By offering a low-barrier-to-entry, unintimidating means of getting in touch, I made it easy for this chap to ask the question. I would have been perfectly happy with email. I prefer it. But it’s not about what I prefer, now is it?

Step 6: cover design

If you have the budget for it, by all means get somebody with artistic flair to make you a cover for each of your pieces. If the questions are closely related, you can go with a series cover, like my The Swordsman’s Quick Guide, but if they are not, use separate covers. You can pay anything from about 30 euros up to over a thousand per cover. At this stage though it’s perfectly ok to just do it yourself. It doesn’t have to be great. Because we are not nearly done. When your complete book is ready, then I would highly recommend hiring a professional cover designer if you can possibly afford it. But for now, it’s not such a big deal.

Step 7: (optional) publish the articles

At this stage you have a few articles, which will either be stand-alone parts of a series, or chapters of the book. You can greatly expand your circle of test-readers by publishing them. It’s probably best to publish them in two-week cycles, rather than all at once. Because while you’re beavering away writing articles 4-6, you can be publishing 1-3 one at a time, and giving the impression of massive productivity. Go you!

Beg for feedback, reviews, any kind of reader response. To get this, make sure your readers have a means to get in touch.

Your sales at this stage are not the point. It’s ok if they are tiny. You sold five booklets at 99 cents each to people you didn’t know this month? Excellent!

You know that an article is ready to publish if you can honestly say to yourself that you are doing the readers a favour by publishing it. That’s the barrier. Will reading this improve their lives at a level commensurate with the price I’m charging?

Before you publish, make certain that at least one test reader is a competent copy-editor. The sort of person who notices  the double space I just put in between “notices” and “the” in this sentence. If you have no friends with this very specific skill, then hire somebody. I recommend Becca Judd, who edited Swordfighting for me, and Advanced Longsword.

Step 8: compile and edit the book

The book of your dreams does not exist. I sat down to write THE BOOK in 1999, and I failed miserably. There are a million other books, all at least as much worth reading. But I did manage to write A GOOD BOOK. And that’s plenty good enough.

You can produce a simple compilation volume (which you should probably do anyway), or you can edit the articles together into a complete new book (with a bunch of extra material, I would suggest; perhaps no more than 60% previously published stuff). There is nothing stopping you from writing extra material for your completed book as you go along, choosing for early publication only the parts that lend themselves easily to being answered as a separate article. Let’s say you have 6-10 articles that together make most of a book. By putting them in order, you can see what’s missing; an introduction to the book as a whole, sure, and usually some kind of conclusion section, but you may also realise that there are logical gaps in your narrative. So fill them.

This process is much easier if you are using a decent word processing program, like Scrivener, which allows to re-order your individual chunks (scenes, questions etc.), and to visualise really clearly how everything fits together.

Further questions:

1. How long should my book be? There is no rule about how long a book must be. I have paid good money for short books and not regretted it. The Dip, by Seth Godin, is a good example. And I’ve failed to finish many thicker books because I got bored half way through. So length is a poor guide to quality. As a basic rule, anything under about 3000 words is probably too short to charge for. Anything over about 40,000 words is definitely a proper book. Swordfighting is about 95,000 words; Advanced Longsword is only about 40,000, but has a lot of photos.

2. When should I produce a compilation volume? How many articles do I need first?

You should produce a compilation volume when the maths tells you to. When you can offer a 30% or better discount on the compilation over buying the parts separately, go.

For example, episodes of The Swordsman’s Quick Guide are 3.99 sold separately. 4×3.99= 15.96. I sell episodes 1-4 together for 9.99; a saving of over 35%. And it does sell. If you’re selling them at 99cents and the compilation for 4.99, then you’d want at least 7 articles: 7x.99= 6.93 6.93/4.99= 1.39

Only six articles would give you a discount of 19%:  5.94/4.99= 1.19.

3. How do I price my work? Regarding pricing, the best approach is to aim for the top price bracket common in your field. Very short romance? .99 cents is probably as much as you can charge; how to write a book? 4.99 seems reasonable 🙂 You need to ask yourself the question “why the hell would anyone want to read this book?” and answer that in your marketing material (for advice on marketing your book, Joanna Penn’s How to Market a Book is superb); then ask “what is this book worth to the reader?” Nobody cares how much you sweated and bled over it in the long dark watches of the night. They only care about what it’s worth to them. And if they don’t know you, then it’s probably not much. Examine your own browsing and buying behaviour; it’s amazing how many books you’re interested in that you don’t buy!

And Finally

Lots of people seem to want to be writers. Damned if I understand why. Far fewer seem to actually want to write, which makes more sense. Writing is hard work, bad for your health (especially if you sit down to do it), and exhausting. To be a writer, just write stuff. To write a book, write lots of stuff on the same theme and edit it together. It is actually pretty simple. But simple and easy are not the same thing, so here are a couple of further thoughts to lower the barriers a bit.

Discipline is Freedom. This is key. The ability to push past discomfort in pursuit of a long-term goal is the fundamental skill that underpins all success.

Constraints Liberate. This is a catchphrase of the Dark Angels (the organisers of the writing course I went on in September). It is very hard to “just write a book on any topic, long as you like”. It is much easier to write a book of between 40,000 and 50,000 words on how best to create a card game based on swordsmanship (for example). The more specific the task, the easier it is to accomplish. So impose some specific constraints on yourself. 2000 words on how to tie a cravat, by 5pm Friday. No problem. When I was at school we had a discussion in class about this. My English teacher Mr. Thornberry, set us a challenge. On the first week, we could write anything we liked. On the second, he set us a specific task. We then read the essays out loud, and it was obvious that the second set were much better than the first.

Break it up even smaller. A book is too big to hold in your head at once. A chapter might be too big too. So write smaller. A paragraph describing the problem in clearer terms might naturally grow into the chapter you were thinking of.

Make it personal. If you try to write to the world, guaranteed not everyone will like it, want it or even understand it. Instead, try writing an email. We can all do that.

“Dear Jeremy,

Ok, if I understand your question correctly, you want to know which end of the sword to hold. While opinion may differ somewhat among my colleagues, those of them that actually win fights all agree that you should hold the blunt end; we call it the “handle”. (continue for another few paragraphs)

yours,

Guy

Then strip off the “Dear Jeremy” and “yours, Guy”, edit it a bit, and you have a chapter.

It can liberate your creative juices to simply have a specific person in mind for your work.

If I’d known how much work the first book would be before I wrote it, it would probably have never been written. If I’d known how it would change my life, I’d have written it even if it was ten times as hard to do.

And if I’d had this method? I’d have written it in a quarter of the time.

I have created a pdf of this article, which you can download free. This is an experiment with the “pay what you want” model; I'll be very interested to see how many people download it, and how many choose to pay for it. I have been thinking about moving all my ebooks to “pay what you want”, but I have to be sure I won't starve doing it!

 

 

 

I've been a tad busy of late (not that that is anything unusual). But the last couple of weeks have been especially interesting.

First up, PC Gamer magazine have published an article based on an interview I gave to the journalist Rick Lane; it's all about trying to make games that involve sword fights more realistic. You can read the article here.

I was also interviewed by Joanna Penn, of The Creative Penn. Joanna is a thriller writer, but more importantly from my perspective she also writes really useful books about how to make a living as an author. She is pretty damn successful at it, and her podcast is listened to by many thousands of people. You might wonder how I got onto her show; well, I followed her own instructions from How to Market a Book regarding making contact with people you admire in your field, and within a few months she had seen this blog, and invited me onto her show. Her stuff works! You can find my episode here, as podcast, video, and  transcription. I was very nervous! This was only my second ever podcast interview (the first being for Chivalry Today earlier this year), but I hope it went ok. What do you think?

Regarding books: I am late getting episode four of The Swordsman's Quick Guide out; this is due to my being not 100% satisfied with it, and not sure how to improve it. I think I've got a handle on that now, so with any luck it should be out this week… or next… In the meantime, here's a preview of the cover; once again by the most excellent Eleonora Rebecchi.

Cover for part 4 of The Swordsman's Quick Guide
Cover for part 4 of The Swordsman's Quick Guide

We had the photo shoot for my next Longsword training manual last week; I have been going through the images this morning to pick the ones that will go into the final product. It looks like this book will have about 250 images in it, so there is much to do! Jari Juslin is the photographer (the same chap who did The Medieval Longsword and The Medieval Dagger; this time he was ably assisted by Petteri Kihlberg, who provided a ton of high-quality equipment; lights like you wouldn't believe:

It's dark in here! Petteri checking the light, with Noora. Jari in charge…
Noora, Jari, Petteri, Satu, preparing the shoot.

This book is on schedule for release before Christmas this year. And as I was going through them, I found this one that I had to share:

Zoë is well known in our school for her ability to target the more vulnerable spots…

I've said it before and I'll say it again; if you can't kick them in the nuts, it ain't a martial art!

One of my favourite internet distractions is seeing how other writers (proper writers. Professional writers. Oh wait, that's me too!) set up their work space. The fallacy, of course, is the underlying idea that if I just use the same tools, I’ll get the same results. This is not so. It is well to remember that for most of recorded history, writers used feathers and bits of skin. So George R.R. Martin’s famous use of WordStar 4.0, or Iain Broome's minimal approach, or whatever, are clearly helpful but not necessary for good writing. Nice to have, sure, but not having the latest kit (or the oldest, depending on your preferences) is no excuse. There are lots of writers who seem to manage with just a laptop in a coffee shop, but I just don't find that conducive to good work myself. I like my books around me, and a very quiet environment. So what do I use?
My writing set-up is fantastic. Really, I’ve put a lot of time and effort into it, much of which should probably have gone on actually writing. The set-up is subordinate to the process, of course, so here’s the process first:
I either write directly in Scrivener (recommended to me by Neal Stephenson, whose name be praised ‘cos this program works!), or more commonly, I write up notes (after class, for instance) in a hard-back notebook, with a proper ink pen, and usually on a writing slope that I cobbled together when editing Veni Vadi Vici. Then I take a photo of the notes with my smartphone (Samsung Galaxy s2, bought in September 2012, a few months after the s3 came out, so really cheap for what it can do), which uploads the pics directly to Dropbox (which is a totally life-saving service. Automatic backing up and syncing across devices; literally everything I'm working on, and all my most commonly-used reference sources are stored there). So when I get home to my study (oh bliss, I have an actual study. A room for reading and writing only. Luxury times ten) my notes are there on the computer (a mid-2010 21.5” iMac). I can then write stuff up, with Scrivener on the right, and the notes on the left of the screen.
This is all made MUCH easier by being able to touch-type, which I learned thanks to a gentle teasing from M. Harold Page. This was so incredibly frustrating that I had to cobble together a standing desk (another of Neal's tips) so I could squirm from foot to foot while forcing my rebellious fingers to find the right keys. I literally disassembled and nailed together an IKEA bookshelf, and stood it on a couple of filing cabinets: yes, I really should make a prettier one; but dammit, I have books to write! During this process of learning to type, before I had much time invested in Qwerty, I switched to the Dvorak keyboard layout, and here’s why:

DvorakKeyboard
See the pattern of wear? Almost all on the home row, with some on the top row, and a little on the bottom? Proof if ever you needed it that Dvorak is way more efficient. (I was passing the study door one evening and noticed the light hit the keyboard, pulled out the phone at snapped a shot. Damn, having a decent camera in my pocket changes things.) I actually hacked up a Dvorak layout keyboard from a second Apple keyboard, because every now and then I need to see the keys, still. Especially for passwords and such. I hanker after but cannot yet justify one of these ergonomic beauties (in the Qwerty/Dvorak configuration, of course!).
I made the normal desk back in 2008, as a way of delaying writing The Medieval Longsword; these days the iMac sits on it, for times when I don’t feel like standing, or need the bigger screen. My wife also uses the iMac, and doesn’t care to work standing up, so there it is.

desk

Now that my books are actually bringing in real income, I spent some of it on a Macbook Air, 13 inches of rocket ship. It’s fab. I can put it anywhere, such as here on the standing desk,

standingdesk

and I usually use a separate keyboard, not least for ergonomic reasons. I can support the laptop at a convenient height (this desk was made for the iMac, hence the dictionary under the laptop to bring the screen up), leaving my hands where they should be. I also stand on a pilates mat (one of my wife's), which helps a lot with lower back pain, and leg fatigue. The mat brought me up enough that I took the leftover solander box from my Extraordinary Edition of I.33 and used it to bring up the keyboard to exactly the right height. (If you're into ergonomics, you might enjoy this book on the perils of sitting: Kelly Starrett's Deskbound.)

You may note that R2D2 and Yoda are both there, one for scolding, the other for sage advice, whenever I slack off or get stuck.

Yoda and R2

Note also the humidifier (the upside-down bottle on the left); it makes a big difference to long-term comfort when working, because Finnish houses are properly insulated and heated, and thus dry out during the winter. The baseball on a stick is a Blue Snowball mike for doing voiceovers on videos.
I was given a Roost stand for my birthday last year, by my friend Tina, which allows me to do this funky trick:

The Roost
This is great for writing when on the move, or in the kitchen. The kitchen has a great view, and the best light, and sometimes a change of environment can unstick the stuck. The ergonomic benefits are huge, and really capitalise on my hard-won ability to not look at my hands when I type.
I also use my writing slave (no, not a typist, I wish!); this is a specialised bookshelf, with a slope for the current tome, and canted shelves so you can read the spines from next to it (so you don’t have to move out of position to find the right book).
The iPad 2 (from 2011) was a birthday present from my parents, and is really, really useful. It acts as a second screen when writing, especially for a primary source that I’m referring to, but most importantly, during the dreaded editing process, I export a pdf of the current draft from Scrivener, and edit it on the iPad making notes and corrections in PDF Expert using a stylus, which I can then apply to the draft. It is an efficient way to minimise the number of printed drafts I need to do. If I’m going to write much on it, I use the Origami keyboard case and stand.

ipadandorigami

I have the iPad safely ensconced in a bulky military-grade case, from Griffin; I drop stuff way too much to risk shattering that delicate screen. When travelling, I will take the Air if I intend to do real work, or just the iPad for emails and so on. On the rare occasions I do write properly on it, I use Simplenote for syncing with Scrivener (there is no Scrivener app for the iPad; not yet at least), but more usually PlainText for writing and automatically syncing with Dropbox. We have come a long way from feathers and bits of skin; but at times when I feel like going old-school, I have a proper dip pen and an antique writing slope (bought for 25 quid on Ebay!), and a pen holder and nibs, which I use with Winsor brand (naturally!) Indian ink. And of course, I would dearly love to write with a quill on parchment. It's just better. One day…

Writing slope
Regarding layout; for writing that I am giving away free, I do it myself in Pages. For writing that I am selling, I pay my excellent designer, Bek Pickard of Zebedee Design. I trust the difference is obvious!

So, add this all together, and I think you’ll agree it’s a pretty sweet set-up, involving no less than three custom-made bits of furniture, two computers, two separate keyboards, and a tablet. The critical components are: for workflow: Pen and ink, Scrivener, Dropbox, PDF Expert, and my camera phone; for ergonomics: my standing desk, and the overall adjustability that comes from having movable screens and a separate keyboard.

Overall, I have a name for it: NO F*CKING EXCUSES.

So, what's your ideal set-up, and why?

About a year ago I stoutly declared to a novelist friend that I was not a writer, really, because I made so little of my income from my books. That is no longer true; they are right now bringing in about a third to a half of my actual income after expenses. I made this radical change by establishing a method for generating income from book sales. I recently gave a talk about it, titled “Writing for a Niche Market”, at Arkadia Bookshop. At the beginning of my talks I usually invite the audience to interject with questions at any point, so we ended up discussing all sorts of things (like the excellence of Scrivener, how it’s sleazy to advertise your stuff in the comments on someone else’s blog, and many other topics). But it struck me that the core content might make a good blog post, not least as I used Keynote, for the first time, to create spiffy slides to illustrate my points.

The point of the talk was to show how it is possible to make a significant contribution to your income by writing, even when your core readership is tiny. I started by identifying my niche in the context of non-fiction as a whole:

Writing for a niche market.002

Martial arts books account for about 0.04% of the total non-fiction titles. Let’s compare that to some other genres: Vampires, Paranormal Romance, and Vampires with Paranormal Romance.

Writing for a niche market.003

There are nearly 50,000 books with vampires in them; nearly 30,000 paranormal romance titles. And 7.633 titles with both. So if you like reading about falling in love with vampires, and could read two such books every week, then you have 70 years of reading material already out there for you!

So martial arts are a teeny-tiny fraction of the book market. But it gets worse. I don’t write about all martial arts; I specialise in Medieval and Renaissance Italian Swordsmanship:

Writing for a niche market.006

Which is such a nichey little niche that this Venn diagram is not to scale; it just illustrates the point.

Writing for a niche market.004

But here’s the kicker: the market is very small, which means that there is very little competition for it. Yes, folks, if you’re after books about how to swing longswords in a medieval Italian manner, there are very, very few books out there. And given that each one can take years to write, the appetite of the happy few who are interested is hard to sate. They can read them faster than we can write them. That is not true of an author trying to break into the vampire romance market.

So here is my main point: it can be a huge advantage to specialise in a small niche. Because my readership is very clearly defined, I can write books that would leave most of the world cold, but will light my particular readership on fire.

With so few of them around though, it is necessary to be able to make contact with as many of them as possible. The internet is the key factor here: thanks to its good offices, us weirdo Italian-historical-swordsmanship aficionados can find each other, and, together, make a market. Here are the key parts of the process:

Writing for a niche market.008

Free content, such as blog posts, youtube clips, and articles, gathers interest, and weeds out readers who are not interested. In a perfect world, you acquire the email addresses of everyone who likes your stuff, either through them subscribing to your blog or your channel, or through asking them for it in return for otherwise free but unavailable material (I very recently figured out how to do this on my website Selz account). You also make sure that every book that they buy connects them to the others; with links, or references. Most readers want more books, and if they like the one they just read, they want more by that author. Which is why it’s a really good idea to write more than one book! And when the next one comes out, you have a means to let the people who are most likely to want to know about it (your current readership), know.

So, we have a book, and a potential readership of *gasp* maybe a couple of thousand people, spread out worldwide. How can a writer make any kind of a living writing books that will sell so few copies? J.K.Rowling is not impressed. Neither is Stephen King. But hell, I don’t need to sell a million copies, if I can make a reasonable sum on each copy sold. Enter the self-publishing machine.

Let’s start with crowdfunding. I’ve written about it elsewhere, but here’s a thought:

Writing for a niche market.010

See that figure on the right? 13,510€? That is from about 400 sales. Now, it’s not all income:

Writing for a niche market.011

After Indiegogo’s cut, and Paypal fees, and the Wiktenauer donation, and paying for layout, and printing and shipping all those books, I am left with 38% of the money (so, about 5,133€; not bad, but not actually great for the hundreds of hours the book has taken to write and edit); but that was from only about 400 sales, and I have a new book on the market. Something that, if all goes well, will be bringing in royalties for decades. Oddly enough, since I republished the The Swordsman’s Companion in 2013, it has been bringing in a significant chunk of cash every month; and this new longsword book does not seem to have cannibalised any of its sales; in fact, it seems to be driving more sales. Huzzah!

There are more things to consider, of course. Print versus ebooks, for example.

Writing for a niche market.013

In the wider world, ebooks account for 61% of all book sales, but only 30 % of actual earnings. This is because they have to be priced so low. In the modern world though, there is no need to choose; it is so cheap to produce both that it is simply bad business to ignore the preferences of even a minority of readers. You want it on your kobo, your kindle, your actual bookshelf? You got it.

Writing for a niche market.017

For me, in terms of revenue, it breaks down like this:

Writing for a niche market.014

I only print through one supplier these days, Lightning Source, and you can buy my books at any bookshop, online or bricks and mortar (though you’ll have to order them if your local bookshop doesn’t stock them).

There are exclusive deals around, such as Amazon’s author tools (publishing exclusively on Kindle for a higher royalty, and their CreateSpace which allows you to create books that only they will sell), but I wouldn’t touch them with a stick, for this simple reason: it is very risky business to have only one outlet for the books. It leaves you very vulnerable to changes of any kind (such as Amazon policy changes). You can get my self-published books wherever books are sold, and in any format you want. If any one of those channels gets blocked (eg Barnes and Noble decide that they think swords are too dangerous and ban all sword books), I’ll take a hit, but not a fatal one. Sure, if Amazon goes belly up, I’ll take a bigger hit, but only until other print book delivery systems take up the slack.

This is why I love Lightning Source: they distribute everywhere, and they have the best rates in the market. Compare production costs for paperbacks and hardbacks:

Writing for a niche market.015

This means that when I sell a paperback for 25€, which is a fair price for the content (and there is so little competition in the form of other books on the subject that people are happy to pay it), I am actually making about 20€ if it’s direct sales, and about half that if it’s wholesale. (You set the wholesale discount where you want it; I give 40%, which is about standard. Many publishers give 50%). And if Lightning Source go under, I have all the files, and more importantly, the rights, to find another print on demand service.

So, I can make a significant contribution to my income from very small sales, by making a decent amount of money on every sale. Let’s put some figures on that: here’s the data from Lightning Source, for paperbacks sold in US dollars (so, not UK, Germany, or elsewhere, and not Kindle sales or similar), of The Swordsman’s Companion, and The Duellist’s Companion.

MTD is Month to Date, YTD is Year to Date.

UsdLSTSC

So you can see that by selling 582 copies of the Swordsman’s Companion, this year (January to September), I have made 6,367 dollars. That’s my top-selling book this year, in my best market. But it’s not my only book, or the only market. And so, while I’m not out buying Ferraris just yet, I will be getting the last bits of my armour done. And I can justify the time it takes to write the next book!

Further reading: these three books were all very helpful to me in taking the work I’d done and figuring out how to get paid for it:

Writing for a niche market.018

And (affiliate!) links to each:

APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur-How to Publish a Book

How To Market A Book

Write. Publish. Repeat. (The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success)

I am not a novelist. I have no ambitions to become one. But I do write and publish books, and have many friends who write fiction for a living. Most of the self-publishing advisory books I have read have been strong on marketing, strong on how-to-publish, but skip the actual how-to-write-a-book side of things.
My own writing career began with The Swordsman’s Companion, which owes much of its readableness and coherence to one man: my old friend and fellow swordsman M Harold Page.

MHaroldPage

He was then in the tech-writing business, and took my first draft of incoherent drivel, ripped it to shreds, and showed me how to write instructions properly. He went so far as to create and send me a template to work from. Now that’s a friend. He is also the man responsible for making me learn to touch-type.

He is now a published novelist, making a living from his writing. His stuff is great (get Marshal Versus the Assassins for a very enjoyable medieval adventure romp), but I am even more excited by his latest effort: Storyteller Tools.

SToolsCover

In it he leverages his years of experience writing technical manuals to come up with a clear and concise set of outlining and story-crafting techniques that will make it as easy as possible for you to get your long-buried novel out of your head and into readers’ hands.
Even if you don’t intend to write a novel any time soon, if you have read and liked any of my how-to books, buy this one too; I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. I’ll go a step further: buy it, read it, and if you don’t think it’s worth the money, let me know and I’ll send you any one of my ebooks you like for free, to make up for it.
What are you waiting for? Get it from amazon.com or amazon.co.uk.

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