Cover Art Basics: How to Talk to an Artist

At the recent (fabulous) 20 Books to 50K Conference in Las Vegas last weekend, one of the speakers challenged the 450-odd authors there to think of something they could contribute to benefit their peers. It occurred to me that there is something, as an artist, that I am eminently qualified to speak about – cover design, and how to get the absolute best out of the artist you’re working with so you both end up happy with the finished product.

How not to commission

There are two things all freelance artists dread.

The first one is the “I want a cover that has sparkles and unicorns and bevelled typography and looks like [insert bestseller name here]. Can you do that for $50?” client. Don’t ever be that client. You will not get what you’re looking for, and your artist will be sad.

If you have $50 for a cover, you can expect a $50 cover. That’s the first thing to know: approach artists within your price range. It not worth anyone’s time: yours, or the artist’s. Find someone who probably works for the amount of money you have. Email them, give them a description of what you’re looking for (genre, examples of other covers, the pitch of your book) and ask them for an approximate quote. Most artists will happily reply with a quote, or an hourly rate and the expected number of hours your cover will take.

This leads on to the second thing artists talk about around campfires late at night: the client who has the money, but has no idea what they want or how to describe it. This is actually worse than the cheapskate, because the erstwhile freelancer can tell the cheapskate to get lost. If they have a paying and otherwise awesome client, their heart sinks as a conversation like this gets going:

Artist: “So, what kind of cover are you looking for?”

Client: “I don’t know. Something like… uhh… something with magic in it.”

Artist: “Okay. What kind of magic? Do you want characters? A dragon?”

Client: “I don’t know. It’s fantasy with a female MC. There’s demons and dragons later on in the series.”

Artist: “Dragons. Okay… I can work with dragons.” *creates thumbnail sketches* “Like this?”

Client: “Sure.”

Artist: “You sure you’ve approved this thumbnail sketch? The one with dragon?”

Client: “Sure.”

*Three weeks and 20 hours of painting later, artist returns with a cover.* “Here you go!”

Client: “Why is there a dragon there? I wanted a demon. I write urban fantasy with a demon hunter.”


While slightly exaggerated, this kind of exchange is more common than you’d think. There’s also variation of the same string of communication errors where an artist provides exactly what an author thinks they want, but they don’t get the result they were seeking. The author can’t fault the artist, because they delivered exactly what they asked for… but what they asked for just doesn’t work for some reason. They go away feeling disappointed, unsure of why their cover isn’t as great as their fellow’s, even though they both had the same designer.

Here’s why.

How to speak Artist

An artist is capable of delivering within the constraints of two things: their skill and ability to fulfill a creative vision, and the author’s ability to describe their own vision and their needs. So as with all things in Indie publishing, the initial responsibility to form that creative vision of your cover starts with you.

To start with, go to Amazon or Kobo or whatever and pull up books in your genre. Make note of the following things:

  • Even though the characters are interacting, the scene is very ‘still’.

    Are the cover images static or dynamic? These qualities describe movement. Romance covers tend to be static, with half-naked people in various states of artful passion or, conversely, very well-dressed Victorian ladies (for Regency). But static. The people are standing around, sitting or posing, like portraits. By comparison, Action, Thriller, and Urban Fantasy tend to have dynamic covers, with action poses or interactive scenes. So do children’s books. Why do you think that is?

  • Are the cover images desaturated or saturated? Saturation describes the intensity of color in an image. The more saturated an image, the brighter and cheerier it looks. Horror and Memoirs tend to have desaturated, subdued palettes. Urban fantasy and PNR often have highly saturated colors against dark backgrounds, sometimes almost garish. The more desaturated something is, the more ‘dark’ (in terms of emotion’) and the more serious it seems. Very high saturation can make images look psychedelic. Find some desaturated covers and some highly saturated covers within your genre and see how they seem to be selling. Does bright and cheerful work better?


  • Look at the way the covers use light. Light is the foundation of all art, and the skill of an artist can be measured in the way they use light to manipulate mood, emotion (yes, they are different – mood is the overall tone conveyed by setting, emotion is something you read in specific parts of an image, such as a facial expression or the placement of objects). The darker the content of the book, the less light there tends to be. What light there is will be seen in ‘slices’, such as flashlight beams or small focused sources (like the helmet above). BDSM Romance will have light used in focused, almost spotlight-like ways. In sweet, uplifting, or Christian Romance, you’re going to see a lot of sunlight, and diffuse, dreamy, yellow and blue light tones.

  • What kinds of colors are used in the covers in your genre? Make a list of five or six (or two or three, if you write Horror. Hint: They’re Red, Dark Red, and Gray).
  • Make note of composition in your example covers. For example, in the Nicolas Sparks covers above, we have a series of very similar images that convey the very specific thing this author writes: emotional, love-focused, uplifting romance. We see that in the way the composition focuses on the people’s faces, closed eyes (a sign of trust), and their hands touching their lovers’ cheeks or necks. Note in all but one it is the man doing the clutching. That’s important – it tells us something about the expectations the readers have of the relationship dynamic between the characters. If you’re trying to indicate intense possession with body language, how would you go about that? What about ‘magic’?
  • Think about the emotion or ‘feeling’ you want to see in your book. If your book is dark, you can communicate this with low saturation, focused light sources, moody composition. If you’re writing contemporary women’s fiction, you probably want a lot of white, light breezy colors.
  • Speaking of colors: Colors by themselves communicate a lot of different emotions and can be used to express personality. Goths wear stark black and red for a reason. So do vampires, for similar reasons. Red, violet, gold, silver… they’re colors that communicate opulence, passion and royalty. Good colors to use if you’re writing vampire regency romance (I assume this exists).


When you talk to your cover artist, these are the kinds of things you will want to know. Your artist doesn’t know your audience – not unless they’re a specialist in a certain sort of cover, and even then. Someone like Tom Edwards, who is very well known in the space opera market, produces images he thinks will work as covers. You, as the author, are going to know whether or not your audience prefers battling dynamic spaceships with drop marines dropping from drop ships or majestic whale-like battlecruisers with no people or dynamism at all. Look up Dead Space and Battlestar Galactica, and make note of the similarities and differences. Same basic genre – space opera – but one is horror and one is drama. Note differences in saturation, dynamism, palette, light, and composition.

When you go to an artist, you can use these as frames of reference. Let’s redo our dragon conversation from earlier:

Artist: “So, what kind of cover are you looking for?”

Client: “My book is Urban Fantasy with a female main character who is a demon hunter, and I’m competing with the likes of [this cover] and [this cover]. I’m looking for art with a central character figure, really high contrast and saturation in black plus reds and oranges – ‘Hell’ colors, and some high contrast ‘flash’ somewhere in the piece to indicate that she can use magic.”

Artist: *spontaneously orgasms* “Why yes, I can do that for you. Let me draw up some thumbnail sketches…

That’s the basics of image composition. Next post, I’ll discuss where typography fits in, and how you can correctly identify your perfect font.

James’ 2017 Projects: Hound of Eden, Dark Fantasy and More

Hello, dear readers and fellow Illuminati!

Today, I got thinking about my accomplishments in 2016 and what I want to accomplish in 2017 in terms of books (and art). I’ve decided that I’m going to take on 5 and a half projects next year, which will exceed my 4.5-ish books of this year: Blood Hound, Stained Glass, Burn Artist, Fix Your Damn Book, a longish short story for a super-secret project in December, and probably about half of Cold Cell.

I’ve never been one of those authors who can just keep pumping out books, month after month, and make 8-10 releases a year. That kind of sweatshop method is becoming fairly common in Urban Fantasy, but the diagram below applies:

I really like the first two much more than the third.

I really like the first two much more than the third.

I’m not interested in the quick buck. 3-6 months between books is enough time for me to properly weave a good story, make cover art, edit (I do my own editing with the help of a very talented friend who spots the things I don’t) and package a quality book with minimal errors. That being said, I’m going to try and write five of the buggers next year – though they may not all be published in 2017.


1. Cold Cell & Wild Hunt

This is where the ‘half’ comes in. Due to family commitments and immigration procedures (I’m in the process of joining my lovely and extraordinary wife in the USA) and the complexity of the book itself, Cold Cell, the third Alexi Sokolsky book, is going to be partly finished this year for a hopeful February release. The Hound of Eden books take about 6 months to write – the plot is complex, with multiple antagonists, and there is a deceptively large cast of characters which expands with the third book.

I have about 30,000 words of draft material at this stage. What I can say about Cold Cell is that Alexi goes to prison, and that his life – and the lives of the other characters – are going to be drastically changed by the end of the novel. Book 3 deepens the mythos of the Dermal Highway vampires (Feeders) as well.

Wild Hunt is the tentative working title for Book 4. Not telling anyone anything about that until Book 3 is out.


Finish Your Damn Book! – How to plan, write and complete your novels

The accompaniment to Fix Your Damn Book, this is the second of the FYBD Series (Fix, Finish, Format and Flaunt). There’s not really much more to say on that, save that it will embody the sum total of my wisdom on the subject of writing and completing novels. As with FYDB, I will be looking at the psychological issues and viewpoints that often interfere with writing and finishing a novel: the main ones being that people give up before they even try, and assume that they don’t have to study craft to make it.


3, 4 & 5: The Warsinger Chronicles (Books 1-3)

This is the project I am super excited about. You may have seen these super-fancy covers floating about here and there:


This is my dark fantasy series project. Set in the original world of Archemi, a setting originally conceived by me and an old D&D friend in Canada, Warsinger follows the interlinking stories of Suri, a traumatized skyknight who served in the world’s Great War and can no longer bear to fly, and Richter, a talented but brittle monastic ranger who struggles with the ghosts of his broken childhood. This unlikely pair team up with assorted others to head off the cataclysmic legacy of the Great War – the return of dragons, and the dragons’ desire to reclaim their old human slaves. To stop them, Suri and Richter are going to have to overcome their issues and recover the ancient technology that freed humankind from the dragons to begin with: The Warsingers. It’s a bit Escaflowne, a bit Azure Bonds, and a bit Dragonlance (but without the existential hopelessness).

The Warsinger Chronicles is a story and a world that’s been in development for quite a while now. I intend to write at least the first three books before publishing the first (to avoid the GRRM Effect), and then release them regularly every 2-3 months while working on Hound of Eden. This means they’re a while off yet, but the first book, Cruel Necessity, is already in production.

There are 6 full-length novels planned and one Suri-centric prequel novella, similar to Burn Artist. Most of the titles are Oliver Cromwell quotes, highlighting the English Civil War-ish feel of the series.

And that’s it for now. Secret short story project is in the works right now. You can preview the Advance Reading sample of Cold Cell here: Part One and Part Two.

Start and end your chapters with suspense

Start and end your chapters with suspense


Chapter One: The Boy Who LivedChapters – sometimes as small as a single scene, or as long as a third of a book – are an integral part of the novel format and an important tool in the hands of a writer. A chapter acts like a brief ‘fade’ to black, like the fade-out cuts you see on TV shows or movies. They trim long boring actions and ‘refocus the camera’ on the action that is really important to the story. The places where you divide your 50,000-200,000 word wall of text are crucial to driving suspense and tension and creating a great story.

The suspense is killing me!

Suspense has a very easy definition, and I advise you to burn the following words into your brain and/or skin if you like to write genre fiction: Suspense is created when the reader is left uncertain over the outcome of a character’s action.

Suspense is created when an author wields uncertainty like a psychological weapon against the reader. To best leverage uncertainty in your story, you have to have excellent control of time and tempo.

One of the masters of temporal sorcery is, sadly, Dan Brown. My personal opinion is that Dan Brown writes about as well as Donald Trump speaks (“I have words! I have the best words!”), but I will give the credit where credit is due. The DaVinci Code is a masterpiece of suspense, and that shows in its sales figures. But how did he do it?

Besides a generally exciting concept, he did it by controlling chapter length, and using chapter division and point-of-view switching to bring his story to boiling point and keep it there.

If you have a copy of that book, go back through it and find the chapter headings. You will notice that there are upwards of a hundred chapters in The DaVinci Code. A hundred and four chapters, if you count the epilogue and prologue. ONE HUNDRED AND FOUR.

Why so many? Well, because Dan Brown decided to split his chapters on a per scene basis. In other words, rather than squish multiple scenes into a chapter, he basically just wrote a single scene and called it a chapter. Some of these ‘chapters’ are only a page long! He also often splits his point of view between scenes, head-hopping between his two heroes and the antagonists. In every instance, the author ends on a suspenseful note. The character in that scene is doing something and the actions they take do not have a certain outcome by the time that pagebreak occurs. The reader is basically compelled to turn to the next chapter.

Momentum is the cornerstone of a good thriller, and because people tend to think of novels in ‘chapters’, they will often read a story with the intent of finishing ‘one more chapter’ before they go to bed. But if the chapters are short and each one ends with suspense, they never put it down. It’s kind of like putting chicken salt on your mashed potatoes. The potatoes might be great or they might be bland, but the MSG – the chemical that excites your brain – keeps you eating past the point of fullness.

So that’s one technique you can use to divide your book – write shorter chapters. Write one page chapters, if you have to. This is very good for thriller and crime writers who need to cut between actions and overtly employ suspense to create the drama of the story.

The smoldering story

Quickstepping via chapters is one way to control time, but it’s not suitable for all stories. Romance and Fantasy novels tend to benefit from a more measured pace, otherwise, the reader starts to feel jerked around. Worldbuilding and character building tend to be fairly integral parts of the experience, and a one-page chapter just won’t fly.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t need suspense. As you write or revise, have a look at your provisional chapters. What is the last action taken by the characters? Is it resolved? One thing you sometimes see is a chapter ending on a pleasant note of finality. “And then he rolled over and went to sleep.” Well, so did your reader: Literally, because a lot of people read in bed.

Start and end a chapter with a note of uncertainty, and see how much faster the book moves. With my own urban fantasy novels, I find that my chapters run anywhere between 2000-5000 words, and include several scenes.

Your mastery of time must be a bit more subtle than renowned author Dan Brown when you include multiple scenes per chapter. One common problem I see in fantasy is ‘temporal padding’. These are things like walking from place to place, cooking, horse travel, car travel (without plot significance or dialogue), bathing, eating and chatter between characters that is not relevant to the story or that resolves within the course of the conversation. You know when you’re drafting and struggle to know what to do do with your characters? That’s a bit of a giveaway that you’re in spitting distance of one of these padded scenes.

When you reach a point where your merry band must move locations, start a new chapter. Crossing from one end of the room to the other is fine; the forest journey is pointless unless something integral to the story is going to happen there. If the characters plan at dawn and execute their plan at sundown, start a new chapter and skip. The unresolved plan is suspenseful.

Romance can utilize this with interpersonal interaction. End the chapter with someone leaving, committing to an action (but not doing it yet), arriving, realizing something wonderful or awful…but not quite revealing what that wonderful or awful thing is.

Other times to end a chapter and start a new one include:

  • Any point of view or character perspective shift.
  • The culmination of a crisis.
  • Temporal transition.
  • Fast-track experiences.
  • The space between preparation and execution.
  • The introduction of someone important the story.
  • Significant change of scene.
  • The start of a key series of events.

What are your other favorite ways to create suspense?

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Why you should use stereotypes in your writing

Before we knew how to talk about it, the gender gap was just a given.

Before we knew how to talk about it, the gender gap was just a given.

I used to work in security. One of the guys I worked with was this huge Russian bouncer guy: nearly seven feet of muscle-gut and bald head, tattoos on his hands, gold tooth. You know the guy I’m talking about, don’t you?

Without needing to say much at all, you probably have a mental image of this guy. He’s a stereotype. So are Harry Potter (abused child genius, complete with baggy hand-me-downs, messy hair, and broken glasses), Batman (rich handsome white guy), Katniss Everdeen, Anna Karenina, and King Solomon. Practically every character in modern (and pre-modern) storytelling conforms to the stereotype of what that ‘kind’ of person should be. One could even argue that character creation is in fact the art of creating stereotype: you are quite literally creating a person, with a personality, formed for the express purpose of acting a part within your story.

A stereotype is a thought that can be adopted about specific types of individuals or certain ways of doing things, whether or not that perception is accurate or founded in reality… and this is where stereotyping becomes an interesting tool in the hands of a writer.

Playing the part

Stereotypes are psychological shorthand. Humans weren’t really built to deal with communities spanning millions or billions of people. We have a hard limit on the number of faces we can recognize, which is one of the reasons that people from different countries often perceive foreigners as ‘looking all the same’. Because we have limitations on our processing power, the human brain looks for patterns. We do this with physical things, such as clouds, and also with social patterns. Conspiracy theories and stereotypes are born from the same need to make sense of the randomness we see around us.

This leads to an interesting phenomenon. Because humans are instinctive pattern seekers, and because most of us enjoy living in communities, we begin to internalize certain stereotypes based on the glimpses of pattern around us, internalize them, and practice them. This is particularly true in the arenas of life where presentation and appearance are important. There’s reasons we have mousy librarians, edgy tattoo artists, big tough firefighters, geeky scientists and nerdy I.T specialists. Stereotypes have evolved in the micro-cultures of libraries, tattoo parlors, fire houses, laboratories and cubicle farms, because the jobs favor certain types of personalities and physical builds. Once the pattern is noticed, it becomes self-reinforcing. The CEO of a big I.T corporation is interested in hiring people who look the part because they associate the stereotypical presentation with the qualities they require from an employee. Over time, the company’s software developers will naturally conform to the stereotypes established by that corporation. There are exceptions… but there are fewer exceptions in society than we’d like to admit.

What this means is that we tend to assume and embody certain stereotypes ourselves, and we do this to get to where we want to go. By doing this, it can seem like we are almost destined for a certain fate, and those who buck the trend (by appearing somehow stereotypical while aspiring to something else that others do not ‘type’ them for) invite conflict and resistance from the majority. This is particularly noticeable in, say, women who work in blue collar occupations. They have to fight twice as hard for twice as long to be taken seriously. Yet, in doing so, they often find themselves conforming to a ‘female cop’ or ‘female electrician’ stereotype to survive. Those who cannot do so often buckle under the twin pressures of the establishment and the alternative. It takes incredible personal energy to truly walk alone.

What this also means is that stereotypical presentation is often quite superficial. A person may walk the walk (or stroll the stroll, in the case of supermodels), but underneath that facade is still an entire person. And that unseen inner self… they may not conform to a stereotype at all.

What kinds of stereotypes do your perspective characters believe exist in the different social groups around them? What kind of stereotypes does your character use to get their way in society… and are they aware that they are doing this? Is it comfortable, or uncomfortable?

In either case, reversing their self-concept – either by making them conform, or making them realize that they can’t – is an excellent avenue for conflict.

Buying in

Self-enforcement of stereotypes can mix in with the person we really are.

Have you ever wondered why people, by and large, seem so shocked when priests are caught out abusing children, or why every conservative ‘family values’ politician caught in a truck stop bathroom with a rentboy is a ‘scandal’? That is the full power of stereotypes at work. They have assumed the role of kindly priest or straight-laced senator… because they are consciously or unconsciously aware of the power they have to manipulate others in that role while they do what they actually want to do. These people often go so far as to disassociate from their real inner selves, believing that their stereotypical role is ‘them’, and that the emotionally complex or neurotic self is ‘not them’. These sick people feel very strongly that their dark sexual or homicidal or sadistic impulses are from ‘somewhere else’ that is not ‘them’.

And now we know why The Devil was invented. Imagine the potential that this offers you as a writer.

If you struggle to create compelling, believable antagonists and villains, this is how you do it. Have a look at who your antagonist is, what they do. Why do they do that thing? And what is their self-stereotyping hiding from themselves?

Power games

Stereotypes are, by and large, a great thing for those in power, and dehumanizing and limiting for those subject to that power. This is why we have stereotypes of Philanthropic Wealthy White Men and Drug Addicted Homeless Bums, which is enforced externally (from the media and society) and internally (by the standards of the micro-culture). Reinforcement can be positive or negative, but it all leads to the same thing. Those in power tend to receive more favourable, empowering stereotypes than those who do not have power. Even when unfavourable, those in power tend to be able to get away with things that other groups cannot. The media invented the word ‘affluenza’ based on one such stereotype – the Misunderstood Rich Teenager.

Stereotype content refers to the attributes that people think characterize a group. These attributes – positive or negative – tend to be what we first think when we hear someone is from a particular group, and this is one way that a group will establish and maintain power over other groups. Many people don’t see the harm in certain racial stereotypes – the Smart Asian Kid stereotype, for example (Cho Chang, anyone?). The reason this is actually a pretty awful racist trope is that the stereotype does nothing to empower the people it claims to represent while also rendering invisible those who do not conform to the stereotype (what about the Chinese artists, Indian adventurers, Thai philanthropists, the American-Korean winemakers..?). In addition, the ‘Smart Asian Kid’ trope furthers the myth of other less positive stereotypes that disempower Asian communities as whole – mostly ones about immigration, a lack of masculinity (in men) and victimization (in women). And what the hell does ‘Asian’ mean, anyway?

Remember the outrage over images of Syrian refugees charging their cell phones? The stereotype of the refugee does not match the reality (that most Syrians able to flee their country were middle or upper class, in terms of income), and so many people cannot believe they are ‘refugees’. By obliterating complexity and nuance, stereotypes are used to disempower and silence entire swathes of the population. Those in power also have a tendency to ‘lock in’ stereotypes and refuse to change their assumptions about other people based on any range of superficial qualities. The ridiculous arguments used to enforce anti-transgender ‘bathroom laws’ are a case in point. Stereotypes are used to explain social events… or explain them away.

The saddest thing about this is that stereotyping often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Socially marginalized people are angry people, and economically disenfranchised people still have to find ways to pay the rent and put food on the table. They are often compelled to resort to the path of least resistance.

What does this have to do with you as a writer, you may ask? Two things:

  1. Whose story are you telling? Really? And why are you telling it?
  2. How do your characters wield power within the story? Are they aware of their power, or the lack of it? Those who have less power are usually sensitive to their lack of agency; those who have power are often quite unaware, considering themselves ‘normal’ and everyone else ‘other’.

Making characters memorable

As I pointed out early on, many memorable and beloved characters are actually stereotypes – or, more accurately, they are typical for their genre, which is itself stereotypical. We know what kinds of characters to expect in spy novels, mysteries, romances and fantasy*.

12647471_1238796879464621_2371822391322355730_nHowever, just because one feature of a character can be categorized as being typical does not make the entire character a stereotype, and this is where you, the writer, have the ability to manipulate your reader’s expectations. And as well you should.

If you dig under and around and through the stereotypes that are relevant to you and your work, you will never have a boring bit-character ever again.

By being aware of your own favorite stereotypes and by doing your research to dig underneath the stereotype you hold of any particular group, you can teach yourself and your readers something new about people through what you write – or you can reinforce existing perceptions.

Remember my huge Russian bouncer friend from the first paragraph? He was a shift manager, and also the best ‘talker’ on the weekend nightshift team. I watched him talk down big men, small men, women of all sizes and levels of intoxication in the same calm, well-mannered, witty way. He was a very softly spoken, very intelligent man who enjoyed classical Russian literature and told a lot of interesting stories… including the ones about the tattoos on his hands.


* Interestingly, science fiction is one of the few genres where it is more difficult to predict the social stereotype of a character in any given novel or film. This has a lot to do with the progressive avant-garde nature of the genre… and is one of many reasons why the ‘Sad Puppies’ are indeed sad, small little people for trying to rig the Hugos.

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Master List of Software for Writers and Editors

With NaNoWriMo on the horizon, many bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young things are planning to write their books – as well as wondering how they’re going to write them.

So, what is the best software to write a novel on? What writing software do published authors use? I’ve seen these questions asked by many of my peers over the years. In my own opinion, there is no One Magic Program To Rule Them All. Individual preference is the biggest factor when it comes to drafting, refining, formatting and publishing a book. George R.R Martin famously uses the ancient DOS program WordStar. Other writers, like Stephen King, often draft parts of their novels by hand.

You probably don’t have a DOS machine from the 80’s, but fortunately, there are heaps of software programs for writers. The following is a list of my favorite writing software and software programs that come recommended by my writer mates from around the web.


My opinion is that good old fashioned pen and paper is hard to beat for notes, sketching, and ideas. However, there’s definitely contenders for those who don’t like handwriting.

Focuswriter (all platforms, including Linux)

Focuswriter is my personal favorite digital drafting tool. I do my first drafts by hand, and ‘type in’ with this program. It is an easy-to-use, reliable and attractive program which offers a full-screen/distraction-free writing environment. You can easily customize font, background, formatting and text area width, as well as set word count or duration goals. It’s also free, or you can donate to the program author.

Download FocusWriter here:

WriteRoom (Mac) and Byword (Mac)

These are Mac-specific ‘distraction-free’ writing tools. WriteRoom is very similar to FocusWriter. It is fairly basic full-screen/distraction-free writing software that allows for quicker and more focused drafting. Byword is a bit more fancy and supports Markdown. It features Mac keyboard shortcuts, word counters with live updates, and syncing across devices. I’m a PC boy, so I’ve never used them. I’ve heard they’re good.

Download WriteRoom here:

Download Byword here:

Write or Die

Most programs rely on your innate sense of self-discipline to be effective. Write or Die bribes, punishes or rewards you to write. It offers a ‘punishment’ mode that will play horrible sounds and images, a ‘stimulus’ mode to woo you into writing for longer, and a ‘kamikaze’ mode that will actually start unwriting your words if you take a break or stop. Pretty intense, but a lot of NaNos swear by it.

Write or Die is a bit like a steampunk writer’s tomato timer, except that instead of getting a neutral ring every 20 minutes, you get kittens and purring as your reward, or alarms and spiders as punishment. As writing programs go, this one looks and feels a bit like a slot machine. As I said, some people love it. If you find discipline to be a problem and also enjoy a bit of competition, it might be right up your alley. You can try it for free, but the full version costs $20 USD.

Download Write or Die here:


WikidpadWikidPad is a free desktop wiki program that lets you build indexes of ‘pages’ that interlink. It is my absolute favorite program for building series bibles and reference documents for worldbuilding. It’s free, small, fast, and very easy to set up, though there is a bit of a learning curve to figure out how to properly link pages and make the most out of WikidPad’s features. I adore it, because it wholesale gratifies my inner nerd.

Download WikidPad here:

Compiling, revising, and structuring


Scrivener is THE writer’s software, in many ways. It is honestly suitable for any stage of the writing process, but I find that it excels at sorting out messy first drafts. This is the program to get your book into shape.
Scrivener has so many features that it is hard to list them all. A corkboard with index cards, individual chapters, dual windows (so you can look at an old draft and revise a new draft in another panel), chapter management, editing tools, story generation tools, formatting and draft compiling, backup and draft management… this baby has everything. Because of this, it also has quite a learning curve – but if you want to run with the pros, Scrivener is probably your best bet.

Scrivener only costs $40 USD, and there is often a discount on this for NaNoWriMo winners every year. There’s a 30-day free trial period and lots of testimonials from published authors who wrote their books (in whole or in part) in Scrivener.

If you’re on the fence about Scrivener, my advice is to go for it. It’s better and cheaper than Office, and you can use it for more than just novel writing. I use it for essays, research compilation, freelance work… the lot. If you want a free alternative, LibreOffice or OpenOffice are your best bets.

Buy Scrivener here: Scrivener for Windows (Amazon Affiliate link) or Mac (also an affiliate link).

LibreOffice Writer

LibreOffice (and OpenOffice) are both very similar programs. They work somewhat like older Windows XP-style versions of Microsoft Office, before Microsoft got carried away with ribbon navigation and fancy-schmancy XML. It’s free, comprehensive, and doesn’t have many bells and whistles. Its files are also highly compatible with Microsoft Office programs. Given that Microsoft Office is standard in the publishing industry, it’s good to have some assurance that your manuscript will look the same on the Penguin Acquisitions Editor’s screen as it does on yours.

Download LibreOffice here:

Save the Cat! Story Structure Software

The late Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat!’ series is to screenwriting what Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ is for novelists: an absolute treasure trove of information, hacks and advice on how to write a screenplay or movie script. Much of the advice in Save the Cat! is also applicable to authors writing books, especially if you’re just starting out and wondering how to write a novel.

The company that Blake started now publishes writing software based on Save the Cat!, which retails for $99.95 on their website. I have never tried it, but if you’re a fan of the books and want to pump out commercial novels or screenplays, it could be everything you ever wanted.

Buy Save the Cat! here:

Snowflake Pro

Another reasonably pricey bit of software, Snowflake Pro is based on Randy Ingermanson’s ‘Snowflake Method’ of novel planning and writing. It is probably most suited to die-hard plotters – not so much for pantsing.

Buy Snowflake Pro here:


There’s not really any good comprehensive editing software out there, I’m afraid. The grammar checkers in Word and LibreOffice are about the best you’re going to find for copy editing.

I tried Grammarly and was not impressed. It is barely better than Microsoft’s grammar tool in Word. One program that does deserve a mention is the Hemmingway App ( Hemingway is an automated grammar checker which looks for a few specific problems: run-on sentences, passive voice, complex or obscure words, and adverbs.

However, Hemingway has some serious limitations. It cannot recognize rhetorical devices, for example. It will mark up good sentences that sound beautiful to the ear as being ‘too complex’, and it will falsely identify passive voice. It will point out every adverb you use, but it can’t recognize ‘weak’ words like ‘might’, ‘could’ and ‘should’. For example, the sentences below are from some terrible roleplaying I saw, but they pass Hemingway’s ‘tests’:

Hemingway app: grammar checker and writing tool

Hemingway has no ability to distinguish good writing from poor writing.

If you recognize the limitations of this app and use it carefully, Hemingway can be useful at the copy editing stage of writing. It’s possibly even more useful for non-fiction, where short sentences and clarity are both desirable.Fix Your Damn book! How to quickly and easily edit anything you write.

I hope this helps you navigate the world of writing software, and if you know of any other good programs, email me and I can add them to the list. If you found this post useful, please share it around.

Also, if you happen to be writing a novel, stay tuned for Fix Your Damn Book! A  guide on self-editing for authors which I hope to release for Christmas 2015. Fix Your Damn Book! is a quick and dirty guide to all parts of the editing process, from getting in the right psychological frame of mind to assessing your work, through to the management of beta-readers and how to get the best out of your own author voice. To keep up to date with production and sign up as a beta-reader, join the mailing list by clicking here.

Writing with courage and fear

Fear is not something often talked about in conjunction with writing. But after receiving (yet another) partial manuscript request from an agent today, fear is very much at the forefront of my mind.

When I was starting out writing, I was always hysterically happy about partial or full requests. Someone likes my work! Lots of requests mean it’s a matter of time before representation, right?

That’s what everyone around me said (and still says), but in my heart, I don’t believe it’s true.

I’ve had about 50 rejections on this manuscript, and about half of those have been based on partial or full manuscript rejections. Agents are only human, and they make requests and scrutinize manuscripts with their own kind of jaded cynicism.

If you kick a dog in a cage enough times, the dog will cease being vicious and simply become apathetic and afraid, a state of affairs known as ‘learned helplessness’. Learned helplessness is caused by a combination of pain and the inability to escape that pain… and unpublished writers are, quite literally, powerless in their dealings with agents and publishers. We can’t set deadlines without being thought of as rude. ‘Wannabe’ writers are regularly mocked by industry professionals on social media, sometimes deservedly, other times not. You can’t call, you can’t make any demand. You submit and wait anywhere between two weeks and two years for confirmation that your work is worthy – or more often that it ‘doesn’t grab me enough for me to work with it’. It is painful. You can’t tell them why they’re wrong. That’s ‘unprofessional’. It is a system purposely created to disempower. I now expect punishment, so whenever an agent emails me back, I don’t get excited: I cringe.

This isn’t leading into some kind of pro-self publishing talk, either. Self-publishing is just as fearsome. It is the ultimate gambit. Your book can be the most amazing thing ever written, but you are tossing your glass of champagne into a sea of piss. Maybe it’s 1/4th champagne, but no one can tell unless you point to the patch where your book is and scream ‘look!’. I have decided to self-publish this first manuscript, and while I am excited, I am fearful.

Being looked at is frightening. Not being looked at is frightening. This paradox is one of many that we contend with as authors.

I remember reading a variation of this quote in a Harry Potter book when I was in my late teens. It’s the only thing that ever really stuck with me – the notion that courage is persisting through fear, not the absence of fear. I grew up thinking that brave people were fearless, but they’re not. They are afraid and do it anyway.

I think all writers have to be pretty brave, by that standard.

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