A Fantasy Author's Adventures in Fiction & Life

Year: 2022 (Page 1 of 2)

Fantasy Author Feature: Nikky Lee

As as an Aussie YA Fantasy author on Twitter, it didn’t take me long to bump into fellow Aussie and SFF author Nikky Lee. In this interview, Nikky tells us what draws her to writing YA, what drives her characters, the real-world influences on her world-building, and what she hopes readers will gain from reading her work.

Tell us a bit about you. Where’s home and what’s your life like outside writing? 

Hi, I’m Nikky. While I was born and grew up in Perth, Western Australia on Whadjuk Noongar Country, I now reside in Auckland in Aotearoa New Zealand. I write all things speculative, from dark and epic fantasy through to dystopian futures, space opera and the occasional piece of horror. I also write a mix of short and long fiction. 

Outside of creative writing, I work in marketing as a communications and content specialist for a market research agency. So anything with words usually goes through me, whether it’s a report for proofing or blogs, case studies, website copy and so on. 

When I’m not writing, I’m an avid kayaker, swimmer and coffee lover.

What drew you to your genre/audience age?

I’ve always loved speculative fiction, I grew up with Narnia and Star Wars and those cemented my love of the genre. If it had magic or space battles I was there for it. As for writing short fiction, that development has been relatively recent. For the longest time, I struggled to write anything that wasn’t novel length. My ideas were too big and sprawling (and still often are). Then I stumbled upon a prompt for a submission that really sang to me and I thought I’d give it a go. From that I discovered short fiction is a fantastic way to experiment with style and tone and ever since then I’ve been hooked on writing short stories in addition to longer works.

What are some big themes your writing explores?

In my debut novel, The Rarkyn’s Familiar, the theme of what makes a monster a monster is very prevalent. Along with themes of friendship, found family and not judging by appearance or heresay. My shorter works have examined heaps of other themes, such as climate change and dealing with loss and grief (Dingo & Sister), corrupt people and gods in power (The Dead May Dance), and letting go of a loved one (Ram’s Revenge), to name a few. 

What drives your point of view characters? 

Cover of the Rarkyn's Familiar. A large winged, bird-like monster with a glowing red and glowing white eye flaps above a young woman carrying a sword and wearing a brown cloak.

Good question! I’ll limit this to the characters of The Rarkyn’s Familiar as it’s my best known work so far. For Lyss, she’s haunted by the murder of her father and wants nothing more than to bring those responsible to justice. She’s practical and full of grit and determination to get what she wants, but the trauma she’s experienced has really shaken her. She’s often afraid and is constantly fighting to not succumb to that fear. However, once she meets Skaar, her priorities quickly shift to survival. 

Skaar is the other main POV in the story, as a non-human character his worldview is different in many ways to the likes of Lyss and other human characters and yet surprisingly similar in other ways. Like Lyss, he has past traumas that haunt him. But after several years imprisoned at human hands, the tantalising hope of freedom is what drives him, along with the desire to survive.

How much do your point of view characters resemble or differ from you? 

Hmm, this is a tough one. There’s a lot of me in Lyss, and I’ve taken inspiration from some of my personal journeys, particularly my mental health journey, to tell Lyss’s story (more about that here). There might be a bit of trait admiration at play as well where I give my POV characters traits I admire—resilience and resolve being chief among them, as well as a willingness to strive for might seem like impossible goals. 

And there are probably resemblances that I’m not even aware of that only someone who knows me could spot. Stubbornness might be one 😉

Which real-world influences have contributed to your world building?) 

In the case of The Rarkyn’s Familiar, its world building was inspired by a lot of fantasy that’s come before: Robin Hobb, Tamora Pierce and Hayao Mizakai’s Princess Mononoke for their fantastical creatures and immense landscapes, as well as Kentaro Miura’s Berserk, which was my first foray into grimdark fantasy and inspired elements of the Empire’s corrupt nature. I’ve blogged about it in more detail here.

Countless visits to the South Island of New Zealand has helped me dream up my mountain settings. As for the society and culture of the book, a couple of elective units in medieval and ancient history came in handy 🙂

For my other stories, Dingo & Sister was primarily inspired by a trip across the Nullarbor, an arid plain in Australia between Perth and Adelaide. Unbelievably hot (something like 47 degrees celsius outside) and red red sand. For other story settings, particularly those set near the coast, I’m lucky to have an abundance of water activity experiences to draw on (surfing, snorkelling, fishing, sailing and so on) from a childhood spent camping and holidaying all over the Australian coastline.

What do you gain from writing your books and what do you hope your readers will gain from them? 

First and foremost, I write to entertain. My stories are a form of escapism for me and, I hope, for my readers too. While my work can delve into some heavy topics and I’m conscious about how I portray certain topics, I’ll prioritise entertainment over social commentary (though that’s not to say you can’t have both!). However, if I can make my world and characters feel real in the mind of my reader and sweep them away into lands of magic and wonder after a hard day at work, I consider that a win. 

As for what I gain from writing, it’s mostly escapism, as I said earlier. But on occasion writing has helped me process something from the real world, be it a personal fear, an event, an issue I’m wrapping my head around, or a notion I’m simply coming to terms with. For example, Ram’s Revenge was a story that was partly me coming to terms with the fact that my grandmother wouldn’t be around for much longer. Of course, I usually don’t realise it at the time, only when I look back at it later. 

Where can we find your books?

You can find my books online wherever good books are sold. 

The Rarkyn’s Familiar store links.

Dingo & Sister store links.

Author Bio

Dark haired, blue eyed nikky, pale skinned headshot with a big smile.

Nikky Lee is an award-winning author who grew up as a barefoot 90s kid in Perth, Western Australia on Whadjuk Noongar Country. She now lives in Aotearoa New Zealand with a husband, a dog and a couch potato cat. In her free time, she writes speculative fiction, often burning the candle at both ends to explore fantastic worlds, mine asteroids and meet wizards. She’s had over two dozen stories published in magazines, anthologies and on the radio.

Her short fiction has been shortlisted six times in the Aurealis Awards with her novelette Dingo & Sister winning the Best Young Adult Short Story and the Best Fantasy Novella categories in 2020. In 2021, she received a Ditmar Award for Best New Talent. Her debut novel, The Rarkyn’s Familiar, was released in 2022 and is the first of an epic fantasy trilogy about a girl bonded to a monster.
You can connect with Nikky on: Facebook Instagaram Tik Tok Twitter

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Related Reading

You’ll find more talk of fantasy characters, setting and world-building inspirations in:

Nikky’s Interview Of Me.

My Interview of Debbie Iancu-Hadad.

Living With LongCovid -My Experience

I’ll preface this blog by saying I’m one of the lucky ones. I can still work. I can even work full time. And I am, (over multiple months), still getting better. Many aren’t so fortunate. Yet the difference between my long covid experience and many people I know who got covid but not long covid is also huge. In short, they got sick for a few days or a week and maybe skipped gynn for a fortnight. I spent eight days in bed, then aged around thirty years for nearly three months. Its not yet four months and I’m still not returned to my pre-covid state of health. So how did long covid change my body, mind and life?

It Was Hard to Tell At First

Four days before I tested positive to covid, I’d been recovering from a chest infection. Both illnesses put me in bed for eight days, but it was easier to breathe with covid. And the splitting headache and scratchy throat faded in just three days. It didn’t seem as bad as the chest infection. Lying in bed, I was capable of reading books and didn’t feel too bad. Then I tried getting up and was completely out of breath having walked around ten steps to the kitchen to get food. I remember leaning on the bench to catch my breath and not being able to consider why I was in the kitchen until I’d caught it.

Showering was tiring, especially drying myself, which also left me breathless. Finding the energy to climb out of bed and walk a few steps to the armchair at the end of my bed and sit up while eating dinner (with my feet up) felt like an achievement. My body ached and felt as heavy as lead. I concluded that I only felt ‘fine’ while sitting still and spent eight days lying or sitting still as much as possible.

Disclaimer: I don’t remember the first three weeks after testing positive very well. My brain fog was so bad, my lucidity so absent that I wandered about in a disorientated daze, acting out of habit and instinct, not consciously, nor properly thinking about almost anything.

I’ve Aged Thirty Years

But I have a job and need an income. And I’d never experienced anything that took such a physical toll on my less than forty-year-old body before. A chest infection in 2019 took around three months to fully recover from, but I didn’t realise covid had hit me harder until I returned to work. The short walk from my car to my classroom had me puffing like a steam strain. Manually opening four blinds in the classroom had the same effect, with loud groaning from the physical strain of opening each blind. Sitting in my teacher chair as much as possible, and minimising time on my feet was clearly key to making it through the work day and the work week.

I teach small groups of children sitting on the floor. So every time I got up was around a thirty or forty second procedure of careful leg positioning, using my hands to support myself and load groaning. Getting up off the floor was hard. I’d aged. Still, I taught Reading and Writing. Then it was lunch time. And I was so tired I was ready to go home and sleep. But there was still three hours of teaching left. And a one-hour staff meeting after that.

By Thursday, I had to cut explicit teaching short in the third or forth hour of teaching, because my brain suddenly melted out of my ears. I was modelling short division. Its a multi step process, but suddenly I didn’t know which step I was on. Or the step I’d just modelled. Or the step that came next. My brain just shut down and I didn’t know what I was doing. This remained the case for the forth hour of teaching onwards on a Thursday, and Friday for several weeks.

My body wasn’t what it was. My mind wasn’t what it was. I felt like I’d suddenly aged thirty years mentally and physically.

My Long Covid Body (weeks 1-3)

During that first week back at school, I slowly realised that my body was remaining heavy. My movements were always slow, and awkward and my limbs just didn’t move properly. Explicit teaching and anything that required any physical strain at all, like getting up after sitting on the floor, unstacking the dishwasher or walking twenty steps continued to make me very short of breath. By 4pm my body would start to shut down. If there wasn’t a staff meeting, I’d leave my classroom messy, not look at what materials tomorrow’s learning required, drop everything and go home to bed.

By the end of my second week back at work I was managing to start some of the paperwork I had to get done after teaching hours. On days there was no after-school meeting. My body was still shutting down by 5pm and I was still spending each night lying in bed for a few hours, before dragging myself out of bed for a shower and dinner around 8pm-9pm.

My third week back at work I somehow worked till 6pm for two nights to finish that after hour’s paperwork. And went straight to bed every other night. I was very proud of myself for getting the paperwork done, and in hindsight not properly conscious of my poor physical state.

Long Covid Brain Fog (weeks 1-3)

I mentioned above that my physical movements were awkward and clumsy. My brain was mentally the same. I was delighted to discover that as an experienced teacher, I had an autopilot for not just the dozen or so most common things we do on a daily basis in teaching, but more like the thirty most common things. I could run my classroom moderately well on auto-pilot. Thank God for that! Because my brain fog was so severe that if I had to run that classroom fully conscious of every decision I made as a teacher every moment of every lesson: I wouldn’t have made it through the first hour of my teaching day, let alone the next four.

Things I was not mentally capable of included: problem-solving, critical thinking, decision-making (unless I could default to prior experience via mental autopilot), focusing on more than one thing at a time, and thinking beyond that one thing I was doing. Mentally, I was barely fit to teach. But the thing I struggled more with is that I simply couldn’t write. Making sense in social media messages and posts was the limit of my writing ability. Forget blogs like this one, forget author newsletters or short stories. As for my second novel, for which I’d sat on feedback from critical readers and been waiting for work to calm down for three months so I could edit it? Now way Hose! Fiction writing was cancelled until further notice.

Staying Positive

I’m very glad I had that severe chest infection back in 2019. I’d done the whole, ‘But I’ve been sick for a week, why am I not getting any better? When will I get better? What if I never fully recover?’ thing back then. I knew that my chest was week, and if a chest infection could set my body back for three months: covid would knock me out for at least that long. So I celebrated my body aches ceasing. I celebrated being out of my isolating sick bed, out of bedroom confinement, being able to talk to housemates and my students face to face and enjoying social company again.

Oh, My Body is Still Fucked

By the end of my second week back at work I’d gone an entire month without exercise. As someone who normally runs 4km four nights a week, and prefers two to three-hour long walks on weekends: that was an eternity. Spring weather was improving, and there are some lovely sunny tracks in nearby mountains that I was only halfway through exploring. I’d managed to drag myself up the stairs to the summit at the end of my eight days in bed with covid, so surely I was ready to go for a decent length weekend walk again? NO. I. Was. Not.

I had to take the start of the walk slowly because the uphill slope was hard work. But my legs were craving every step. My respiratory system craved being pushed to work even a third as hard as my pulmonary system seemed to have to work just keeping me on my feet. And by the time I’d reached a high point in the mountains, overlooking gum trees and boulders and paddocks below and beyond, I felt great! Exercise is SO important for my mental and emotional wellbeing. Its something I have always found incredibly freeing, and being physically fit and strong has always helped me to feel empowered and capable as a person.

That’s why I was able to walk far enough that I had stabbing pains in my left shoulder. Pain perhaps akin to heart attack pain. I slowed right down. I dawdled for forty-five minutes longer than I should have walked at all, because I had to get back to my car. Monday at work was ok. Tuesday was meetings all day. By Wednesday my lower back was inflamed and sensitive to the touch. Standing was painful and uncomfortable. Sitting was worse. I couldn’t lie down without taking painkillers.

A really flattering selfie 😉 of the first time I managed the 15min walk to a favourite local park of mine. Naturally, the first thing I did having made it was lie down. I had to sit and rest several times during that walk.

Physical or Mental Health?

By Friday of my third week back at school I was off work, in bed and on prescription painkillers (I saw my doctor a few times around then). It took three days in bed for the inflammation to go down and to downgrade from prescription to non-prescription pain killers. I was taking those non-prescription painkillers for a week and a half. It seemed that the physical exercise I longed for and craved was more than my covid weakened heart and body was capable of. But I was now at a critical juncture.

I mentioned above that physical exercise is freeing, and being physically capable helps me feel capable and contended full stop. It’s what regulates my usually highly energetic body and helps me sleep at night. If I was going to recover from covid, get back into a normal sleep cycle and rest properly, I HAD to get back into exercise. My physical health needs were at war with my physical health needs.

And that wasn’t the only battle. By this stage I’d been sick for four weeks. I’m a very resilient person. I’m also quick to smile, quick to laugh, likely to see beauty in things and normally an excitable and enthusiastic person whose mind operates at an average speed of a hundred miles an hour. When I’m sick, I’m none of those things. My mind was slow, dull and at partial, extremely limited operation. And I felt FLAT. So emotionally flat. I wasn’t sad or depressed. But smiling and laughing took so much energy. I just didn’t have the energy to be emotional —good or bad. Happiness was beyond me —until I got my energy back.

Past Experience Helped

I’d been there before. During that 2019 chest infection (in New Zealand, where no friends or family could visit, cheer or help me in person) I’d realised that the only thing standing between me and depression was exercise and my beloved great outdoors. I’d dragged myself out of bed for a half hour walk through a reserve of beautiful ferns and tropical rainforest, through which bright sunlight beamed and beside which a creek flowed. For those precious, hard earned, fleeting moments each day I was happy. Exercise and the great outdoors gave me a reason to wake up each morning (or to wake up and not cry because I had another day of being severely ill and alone to endure.)

So with Long Covid, the solution was obvious: push my body. Find out exactly how much exercise I could do without giving myself a heart attack, how often and do it!

The Physical Battle (weeks 3-7)

It may not surprise you that by week four of long covid I was not ready for physical exercise. In hindsight, I wasn’t really ready for a 20 minute walk two or three times a week (on work nights). I was gasping for air and hit by chest pains after 500m. I was also physically tired and walking hunched, being overtaken by an old guy who was hooked up to oxygen tubes -I shit you not! That’s when I conceded that ‘exercise’ was too lofty an ambition. That all I could aspire to was getting out of bloody buildings, for a breath of fresh air and a moment to feel the breeze on my face and assure myself that the in-accesible world of the outdoors still existed and would wait until however long it took for me to inhabit it again.

So I did a painfully short, 750m walk down the round, round the field then back home three times in week four. My chest and back pain gradually receded. The next week (week 5) I extended my walk to 1.6km and a little garden beyond the field. That went well for two days, so I went further along the track near the garden, walking slowly 2.6km. Then temptation struck again, and on Sunday I walked the full 4km loop to cross a river I hadn’t reached on foot for two months. I felt fantastic! This was actual physical exercise! And it was clearing my brain fog, and energising me! For an hour or two afterwards, I actually felt like myself again!

I Got Carried Away

I did the 4km river loop twice more that week, after work. Naturally, I got chest pains and had to take painkillers and not walk at all for the last two work days of week six. Ok, ok, fine then body! I’ll limit myself to half an hour’s exercise three work nights a week and only one longer walk on the weekend! (A concession that in hindsight was still too much.)

But how to remove the temptation of walking too far? I turned to a short loop with no longer options, a mostly flat route, without the stairs that had given me grief in the mountains. And for three weeks I only walked locally, only short distances. And conceded that up to four weeks after having covid was too soon to realistically expect to return to exercise and that the best I could do now was stretch my legs, get fresh air and enjoy the sun and wind of my face and watch the birds chitter and dart through the bushes as I walked past.

The Turning Point (week 8)

From weeks three to six, it was hard to tell if I was getting physically or mentally better, or if some symptoms subsided while exercise attempts flared others. And work got busy or I got tired at times and missed one of my half-hour walks, so it was hard to gauge if I was getting physically fitter or stronger. Until school holidays. I spent around three days lying in bed. Then for the next week, week 8 since I’d returned to work, I’d go for a 1-2 hr walk in the evening, after spending the day lying on the couch.

Those long walks and resting before and after them were the turning point. After the first two-hour walk my head was clear and I felt energised for the next four hours. I upgraded from social media posts to writing newsletters, editing blogs and by the Wednesday: writing a full chapter-length bonus scene for my debut YA Fantasy novel. By Wednesday, the brain fog and fatigue didn’t return the day after I exercised. It seemed that going for a second walk within twenty four hours of the first kept both at bay. I would get tired. And I still had to sit comfortably resting for much of the day, but my body and brain ceased reaching a point where they shut down and I had to go straight to bed each evening. I began fiddling about on social media and authorly jobs until 10pm (as opposed to 7pm in recent work weeks).

I was Back!

The proof came when on the Friday, after three months of being too sick to be mentally capable, I returned to editing my second YA Fantasy book. During week nine since having covid, I smashed through eleven chapters of edits. By Friday of week nine (mid October), I went for my first run since June. Like my first mountain walk after having covid, it was probably fuelled almost entirely by restless energy, exercise cravings and a massive endorphin hit. My second attempt to run the same 4km loop around the river in week 12 saw me jogging slower than walking for the last half, and my blood sugar so low I had desperate sugar cravings and was jittery and giddy by the time I got home.

The Way Forwards (3.5 months after catching covid)

I’m still not the 36 year-old I was before having covid. Interestingly, with my returned mental energy and the return of my ADHD tendencies, I’m more distractible and require higher levels of stimulation than I used to. Week 11 was my second back at work this term. I had to be careful not to mentally wander from meetings, and have accepted that 2-4km walks three times a week after work and a 1-2 hour walk on the weekend is the most exercise I can do, after the rigours of a work day/ week. Running is off the cards after work until January (summer holidays).

While my brain fog appears completely annihilated by week 8’s exercise, I can still get physically and mentally tired and require more rest from the same workload than before I got covid. I often wake with an aching chest on a Saturday morning, after a busy week, especially if I sleep poorly. Perhaps every second Saturday I mainly lie in bed doing nothing in anyway mentally taxing, to let my body and brain recover from a busy working week. And while a busy term four often requires me to work on student reports till 6-7pm (having started work at 8am), I’m tending to lie in bed after that (and after my walk 😉).

But I’ve been working till 7pm at times with only tiredness, not mental or physical shut downs or strong fatigue determining my work hours. 76 year-old me has pissed off to the future where it belongs, and I’m back to 36 year old me, with twenty something-year-old mental energy, still fighting for my full exercise, strength and physical capacity. (I hope to be running 4km four nights a week again in January, six months after I got covid. Hopefully carrying the shopping for a 5min walk home will no longer require a lie down to rest and recover either).

*Week 15 Addendum

Chronic pain has been back all week. The only potential ‘over doing it’ thing I did was a one hour shopping trip on a Friday night, meaning one hour less rest after a busy working week. I’m not even sure that’s why I’ve just woken from 13 hours sleep on a Thursday night, and am off work today having worked only two days this week. Clearly my covid recovery is not linear, and will have ups and downs and periods where my body demands extra rest just to function normally again. My hard fought for fitness remains, but it seems that those later work hours are more than my body can keep up with and that pacing myself at work remains crucial.

A Final Note

A final note: I still teach and shop wearing a mask. I feel uncomfortable being in the same room as three or more people if I’m unmasked. The prospect of having to go through all of this again (let alone having a worse second experience of covid) is unthinkable. My mental health is better off not thinking about it, masking up and avoiding crowds as much as possible.

Thanks for sharing my covid journey with me! If you haven’t had covid yet, I hope yours is MUCH milder and you recover far more swiftly than I did!

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Related Reading

If you suspect you or someone you know may have long covid, here’s some information and general advice on managing symptoms from the not-for-profit HelpGuide.

Personal posts are something I’m publishing occasionally when I think I have something significant to say. The other post I’ve written that ticks this box is my experience of Identifying as Nonbinary.

World Building: Power & Conflict

When I develop ideas for a new fantasy series, I think first of the overall conflict, the positions the point of view characters occupy in their world, what forms of power they wield, and what role they can play in the story’s epic conflict. (Yes, I very approach this from an epic fantasy perspective, so you may need to adapt how you apply these ideas). In discussing power and conflict in world building, I’ll walk you through my thought process of identifying multiple forms of power and influence various characters, traditions, international bodies and more your world may contain and help you start thinking how these may impact on your story’s conflict.

Power and Tradition

Approaching world building as a history major, I’m very much aware of the contribution tradition can make to the status quo. So how much weight do societies in your world give tradition? Does it determine whose head of households? Or people’s seniority based on birth, or skills they utilise in the home and or village? Does tradition govern gender expectations? Are attitudes towards people of different skills, social classes, nationalities or religious beliefs determined by tradition? And what are the social and political consequences for anyone who defies traditions?

Specific Traditions

Is government based on traditions of patriarchal or matriarchal dynasties? Does your world include regional governors or nobility who inherit their positions due to traditions of feudalism/ monarchy/ imperial rule?

Do traditions protect or prohibit slavery, serfdom or indentured servants? Does it preserve a hierarchy of increasing privilege for a few elites, or equal rights and or opportunity? Are rights equal and opportunity available to everyone, or just people of certain skills, abilities or political, religious or magical status?

Is there a tradition of Elders or Town Councillors gaining status via their life experience, and local or cultural knowledge? Does tradition determine who teaches the young in the village/ family about their people’s ways?

How does tradition impact on foreign relations? Does it promote fair trade and treating foreigners as equals, or is it imperialist, viewing foreigners as inferiors or worse as subhuman?

In what ways do traditions in your world benefit or disadvantage each member of society? eg. who has the road of least resistance to career choices and positions of power, the path of least resistance to personal and social content, and how has tradition shaped either path?


If tradition, whether by social class, gender, religion, foreign conquest or other disempowers any one group, do they organise? Do they gather and form a resistance? To whom or which interests do such groups appeal? What resources, knowledge and experience do they gather? How much power do they have? Whom do they wish to improve life for, and what forms of persuasion and or power do they wield as they seek it? How does tension between resistance groups, people who are neither resistance nor in power, and people in power play out?

Two long-necked, wide-winged birds locked in aerial combat above the sea.

Power Through Religion

What’s the power balance between religion and the state? Do priests advise the ruler/ government? Does organised religion have its own rival agenda to politicians? Or do you have a theocratic government?

Are gods a real, physical presence in your world? How does their presence increase or decrease the power of their ranking and ordinary followers?


Whether a region of your world is small (eg. a city-state), or whether its intergalactic, is there a republic? And if so, is there radical democracy like ancient Rome, where any ordinary citizen can be elected to a council which passes laws, determines policy, declares war etc? Are their gender, religious, social status, ethnic, national, magical or other limitations on who can be elected to a democratic body which governs people?

Is there a tendency for a certain social class (perhaps a wealthy or well resourced one) to dominate the elected governing body? What tensions does this cause within the government? What tensions does it cause among the governed? Eg, do government policies tend to favour people of a certain rank, or who inhabit certain regions, and neglect others? Is it all about exploiting the regions, the outer territories/ outskirts of the empire for the good of the imperial capital/ centre/ planet?

Regional Power

Are some territories in your world wealthier? Are some militarily strongly or technologically better equiped? How do differences like these influence the balance of power across continents? Is there an empire or colonial power who dominates wherever they travel? Do some rulers greet each other as equals, and are some client rulers to more powerful rulers?
Are some countries dominating trade and or control of natural resources? Are there countries with failed governments who cannot control their borders, and are being exploited by other powerful countries, or criminal organisations?

How do differences in power between cities, or countries, foster international co-operation (and between who and excluding who)? And between which countries do power imbalances generate tension and lead to war (hot, open war or cold by proxy or guerrilla warfare)? And should war beckon, which geographical entities will ally with whom, against whom?

International Bodies


Was there a time when multiple nations had cause to unite with a goal of protecting human rights across nations/ countries/ continents/ galaxies? Is there an international body representing people of all countries —a U.N. equivalent? What kinds of decisions is it authorised to make? Does it have a police force? An army? A judiciary? Is it symbolic and paying lip service to international values, is it hindered by powerful countries or other entities, or is it the greatest power in your world? What powers does it have -if any- over individual countries, and what tensions and conflicts of interest can this result in?


Do religions have international organisational structure? Is there a hierarchy and any one place considered to be that religion’s capital? Is there a single person who heads any one religion? What influence do religious organisations wield internationally in your world? Who funds them? How well resourced are they? Do they come into conflict with, are they endangered by or a threat to any particular country or group within it?


Is there an international magical or technological body that governs magic and or technology? How it is organised and where is it based globally/ galactically? On what terms is it with each nation? Are their nations who fear and reject magic or technology, and who refuse to have anything to do with such an organisation? Can its members be hired out, to work for countries or groups within them? Whether that’s legal or not, does it still happen?

Organised Crime

Is organised crime limited to cities, and countries or do some crime groups organise, resource and expand to the point they become international organisations? Are they in conflict with particular countries or authorities? Eg. a country’s government, an international body, or a particular religion?

Power Through Magic

Is a person’s magical ability what determines their status, legal and other privileges in life? Do you have an institution which trains people in magic? Is it controlled by politicians or religious authorities? Or is it autonomous?

Are powerful magic wielders pawns of the state, privileged state employees, or did they rise up and seize power for themselves? Or can everyone wield magic of some sort? Do the government and police have magic wielders among them, and is it an aid, and or cause/tool of warfare and conflict?

Power Through Technology

Do you have an empire with chariots, bronze suits of armour and iron weapons fighting naked soldiers armed with weapons of wood and bone? Bronze armour combating catapults, long bows and iron armour? Or higher tech vs. low tech? Does technology give a particular kingdom or empire the advantage and lead to attempts at a mass expansion and conquest or colonisation? Does space age tech lead one particular nation or group to dominate space colonisation in any region of any galaxy?

Power To Influence Through Advising Decision Makers

Having written a main character whose a ruler, I’m very aware of the importance of these side characters and their influence on events in Umarinaris, my fantasy world. So does anyone in certain positions have the respect of their people and or leaders? Do magicians advise rulers in how to combat magic? Do physicians or healers advise how to combat plague? Is there a person in each household versed in basic first aid, and homemade cures consulted for medical support? And in any of these situations of advising and influence, do any of these people exploit their position or distort advice they give to pursue their personal interests?


If your world has slavery or servitude, how much power does your legal system grant masters over slaves? Can they beat them? Kill them? Is the latter a crime? Is the penalty for killing a slave merely a fine (as it often was in the ancient world)? Are slaves well treated and considered part of the family, or are they mistreated and likely to seize the first sign of family weakness to escape, or rebel?

Same question for servants -are they treated with respect, decency and loyal to the family they serve? Or do they serve with resentment, fear or anger? How does this impact tension or conflict in your fantasy world?


Who educates the young? Are the children of wealthy people privately educated by scholars? Are schools open to all children, or —if you have a more Bronze Age civilisation— is literacy only required for people working for the government, and do only the children of the ruling class go to school? As I suggested in the Tradition section above, is it stories by Elders or certain members of the family who teach most children how to behave and the ways of their people?

Privately or publicly, who are your educators? Scholars? Governesses? Priests/ priestesses? Do they have political or religious teachings, or do they encourage the children they educate to decide for themselves which side they think is ‘right’ in societal, political, racial, religious or familial disputes?


Whether your main character is a servant or works for national government, do they have allies? Is it a single person of the same status and power? An organisation? Individuals of different rank and power within the same government/ kingdom/ organisation? Do alliances threaten or force power structures in your world to adapt? Whether that be a middle class allying with people of higher political or religious rank to campaign for more rights, or international alliances ganging up on another country or forcing an international body to make concessions, or even going to war with it. And do allies continuously support, or splinter off and become enemies where conflicts reach a point when point when their goals and or needs differ or conflict?

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Further Reading/ Viewing

Just in case I haven’t given you enough food for thought, here’s some more world-building blogs.

World Building Geography considers how geography may influence everything from general and defensive architecture, to water supply, heating, farming and how geography may connect to religious beliefs, sacred spaces and magic.

World Building Humanoid Life offers suggestions on how physical things like clothing, food, work, pastimes, family life, legal status and opportunities may differ among social classes and offers food for thought on sexual and gender diversity.

Six Sources of Conflict for Your World gives you more ideas on what people in your world may be fighting about.

Editing a Novel: Scene & Line Edit Tips

Before delving into specific novel editing tips, I’ll state clearly for anyone who stumbled across this blog in search of a fiction editing start point, DON’T start here. This blog assumes all of your characters are fully developed (including your antagonist, whether its a person or an internal or external force). So if there’s any chance they’re not, I suggest reading my Character Development Checklists. If your characters and overall story structure are good to go, its time to check your writing is clear and engaging in each scene and line. Read on for a list of the main scene and line edit tips I’ve given fellow writers feedback on, as their critical reader.

Novel Scene Level Edit Tips

Orient the reader first

Yes, adjectives, similes, imagery, metaphors etc can enrich your setting and help your writing pull a reader into a scene. But before you throw lots of scenic details at the reader, give them a chance to get orientated. Show them who is where, show a bit of that character via what that person is doing, then drip feed in some scenic details. Be wary of obscuring your main character and the role they’re playing in the opening scene by bombarding the reader with too much scenic detail.

Count Your Cast

On the same note, don’t have your office worker greet every co-worker by name as they enter the office. (And if you have a party in the first few chapters, limit who your main character interacts with to significant characters only, not half the guest list). Naming, let alone describing too many characters before they start playing an active role in the story can jumble people together in the reader’s head. If the reader doesn’t have a clear sense of who’s who, it can be extremely difficult to follow what’s happening in the opening scene (or what the book is about when successive chapters are overcrowded with named characters).

Try to give the reader time with the first point of view character you introduce, and bring other cast members on set gradually, preferably as each does something typical of themself and or contributes to the plot. That will make your characters easier to remember, and your main story easier to follow.

And literally keep a count of how many characters you name. In epic fantasy in particular, with multiple pov characters who have family, friends etc, its easy to create a named cast in the hundreds, even though Susan the maid’s only role is to open the curtains in scene three. Don’t name Susan. Just call her ‘the maid.’ If you’ve got minor characters who don’t appear often but do perform necessary on-screen roles, refer to them by role, or relationship to a more important character. Eg. ‘Barry’s cousin.’

Description and Action or Pacy Scenes

If you’re writing an action scene, or a tense or otherwise fast pace —drop the scenic details. Omit them entirely. In first or close third-person narration, the pov character is unlikely to note the type of metal, decorative style and likely national origins of the sword slashing at their face —they’re too busy trying not to get their head split open. And writing that way isn’t just about plausibly narrating a character’s view point. Detailed scenic descriptions can obscure rapid events or key conversations the reader is trying to follow.

Action Scenes

They happen fast. So write short sentences. Think powerful verbs, not adverbs. Narrate action at the speed it unfolds. And remember: your character doesn’t have time to notice much. So don’t wax poetic.

Point of View Consistency

Is every sentence in that character’s pov chapter really from their point of view? Or is Tim noticing things about Geoff that only Geoff would notice (or even know)? Or did we open the scene through Sarah’s eyes, then end up floating vaguely over her head, seeing everyone and everything?

Did you write mostly in close third person, but write the occasional sentence in which you as the narrator pass moral judgement on the scene (suddenly switch to third person omniscient)? Any one of these things can make a scene jarring for a reader, or even pull them out of your story.

Telling Feelings, Instead of Showing them

When you see Tom hunch over, his hands protectively clasping a newly forged sword, as if shielding it and himself from his master screaming: Can’t you get anything right?” you feel more for Tom than if I said: his master’s relentless criticisms made Tom feel small.
Yes ‘show don’t tell’ may have been pushed too indiscriminately as writer advice, but showing character feelings makes invites readers to connect with and emotionally invest in your characters. Its part of what persuades readers to stick with characters, seeing them through their challenges (or to see a villain get their comeuppance). A popular resource to help you choose physical reactions or internal sensations to describe to show your character’s emotions is The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

Notebook, computer, glasses, coffee cup and books arranged on table top.

Line Edit Tips

Before we zoom in on line level, try to resist perfecting the dialogue, dialogue tags and scenic descriptions of chapter four. Because when you get to chapter five, you’re going to realise that most of chapter four is info dumping and you’ll delete most of it, and merge its remnants with chapter five.
If you’re a pantser or plantser like myself, you may re-read and do some edits while drafting, to keep the story on track and ensure it does arrive at its ending. You may quickly fix typos that hurt your eyes, or the odd sentence so mangled you simply can’t leave it. But try not to get bogged down about how this sentence is phrased, or how the word choices in that bit of dialogue don’t quite match that character’s personality. First, judge whether or not that scene is purposeful, is worthy of remaining in your novel, well paced, and that the only thing you now need to do with it is refine it at word level.

Personal Pronoun Clarity

My golden rule with pronouns, especially if you’re writing a nonbinary character using they/ them/ their or other pronouns is: the most recently named character is the character the personal pronouns belong to.

Eg. It’s not: She didn’t want to clean her room. She said, ‘Clean it now!’ because this sounds like the same woman arguing with herself. You need to state clearly that it was Sarah who didn’t want to clean her room, and Mum who said, “Clean it now!”

This is even more important if sometimes “they” means those men and women, and sometimes “they” means that nonbinary person. If your nonbinary character and their friend of whatever gender are doing something together, I sometimes say ‘the pair did x,’ after naming both. You could also use collective nouns instead of ‘they’. Eg. ‘the students,’ ‘the workers’ ‘the friends’ etc. Another option is ze/zir or other personal pronouns for the nonbinary character, so ‘they’ as a group of people can’t be confused with ‘they’ the individual nonbinary person.


Have you used the same noun ten words apart? Eg. She slung her bag over her shoulder. She stuffed the potion ingredients into the bag. Is the bag important, is the potion important, is packing the bag important, or is it the fact she’s delivering a mind-reading potion to the Prime Minister that matters?
Keep an eye out for when you’ve accidentally repeated words that don’t matter. Those can jar the reader, and prompt them to focus on unimportant things. Similarly, don’t repeat adjectives with nouns unless its really important to the story that the reader remembers that, for example, its a ‘high window’ instead of just a ‘window.’

He clutched at the retreating horse. How would he ever escape now? There was nothing he could do. He was so angry. He was so worried. He was so sick of the author saying ‘he’ repeatedly😉.
My personal preference for changing it up here is to alternate between starting a sentence with or using the character’s name in one sentence, and their pronouns in the next. However, when the character is nonbinary and ‘they’ could be plural or singular, I make sure ‘they’ singular always comes after the nonbinary characters’ name, so its clear ‘they’ is my nonbinary main character Ruarnon, as opposed to ‘they’ being Ruarnon AND Ruarnon’s friends.

Dialogue Tags

When its: Earasin says, “Did you get the package?”

And Merador replies, “No.”

Then Erasin says, “What if someone intercepted it?”

And Merador replies, “Then we’re in deep shit”

—there are more dialogue tags than necessary. If this conversation continued between only these two characters, you could break it up with character actions. Example, having Earasin rake his hands through his hair and Merador pace restlessly, instead of relentless ‘said whoever’ or ‘replied the other.’ Or you could drop dialogue tags altogether, because we know who both speakers are and that Erasin speaks first while Merador responds. Ideally, each character significant character has their own style of speech, favourite words etc which remind the reader who is saying which bit of the conversation. (And later in the book we will ideally know that character well enough to have a good idea what they are likely to feel or think in response to story events and that will also help us know who is speaking.)

Dialogue Spacing

As an English teacher (in Australia, England and New Zealand) the rule I’m familiar with is: new speaker =new paragraph. You might have a sentence narrating an action, thought or feeling applied to that speaker afterwards, and perhaps the same speaker speaks again. But if it’s: “Then we’re in deep shit,” Merador replied. Erasin slumped. I’d write it:

“We’re in deep shit,” Merador replied.

Erasin slumped.

With the above paragraphing, its super clear to the reader who said what and who did what. And if your story has a lot going on (especially if there’s lots of characters doing it), paragraphing (or phrasing) events as clearly as possible makes it easier for the reader to not get confused.


Yes, you want to avoid using fancy synonyms for ‘said’ that may pull a reader out of the story, eg. ‘He pontificated.’ So if you’re worried about how many times you’ve said ‘said,’ try substituting it for neutral-sounding words. Eg. ‘asked, suggested, objected.’

Word Choices

Have you used powerful verbs instead of adverbs? Eg. instead of ‘They walked swiftly’ try ‘They rushed/ hurried/ raced.’ This is particularly useful in action scenes when you want fast-paced sentences. It can also help your sentences flow better.

Excess words

There are phrases that require more words to get meaning across, which don’t add any value to sentences. I suggest doing a search and replace for the phrases below and any others your critical readers spot.

Eg. ‘In order to’ =’to.’ ‘Was able to’ =’could.’

Filler words

On the same note, filler words are single words that add to your word count without telling the reader anything they don’t already know and without adding value to a sentence.

Eg. Just, even, turned, only, that (NB. sometimes ‘that’ is necessary for meaning and sometimes it’s merely a filler word, so be mindful of that before you auto-cull it).

Again, do a search for filler words and see how many unnecessary words that removes from your novel. For a list of these, see the second link below.

Filter Words

These are words that remind the reader they are looking through someone else’s eyes, which can make the story feel more distant, or even pull the reader out of the story.

Eg. Sarah looked at Tom who was… vs. Tom was…

‘Felt’ can also remind the reader, ‘this is how character x is feeling,’ ie. ‘you’re not there, you’re not feeling it’. Reminding the reader that they are merely reading can push them away from the character, emotionally distancing them from your writing. This can make the reading experience less emotionally powerful, and less satisfying.

‘Looked’ and ‘felt’ are some good ones to do a search and replace for.

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Further Reading

Character Development Checklists, by me.

9 Tips for the First 5 Pages, by me.

Filter Words and Phrases to Avoid in Fiction, by Anne R. Allen, which categorises filter word lists, and offers suggestions on alternative phrasings.

Writer Pantser Interviews

Confession: the earliest incarnation of Manipulator’s War was not planned. I swiftly created a cast of thousands, moving sometimes with purpose, sometimes without and usually taking too long to get there. I’d imagine a scene or two, then sit down and write —I was a pantser. From the murk emerged main ideas and characters. The rest got deleted and the best re-written, informed by character craft and story structure studies. From there, several rounds of critical reader and editor feedback informed notes that led to a full fleshing out of my characters and story. If your first pantsed novel or two are a mess, what can help you bring structure to pantsing and help you minimise epic edits? I’ll interview three SFF authors below to find out, tracking their journeys from their pantser’s journey from story chaos to a semblance of order.

Book Beginnings

In the beginning, did you have scenes, themes or conflict ideas in mind?

A. E. Bennett: I had an overall idea of where I wanted the story to go and who my characters were, but when I wrote the initial draft of Gathering of the Four, I didn’t have any of what you might call the “meat” of the story. My characters had vague motivations, but nothing concrete to really do, which is I think part of the reason why my first draft was such a mess.

Azalea: I’d have characters and a general idea of certain scenes and plot, but nothing really concrete. I just went for it, with whatever came to mind at the time. I’d usually burn out after a few chapters.

Miriam: I had a general idea of the world I wanted to play in and a few snips of witty banter, that was it.

Did you know your main character, what makes them tick, or how they would grow?

A. E. Bennett: Oh, The Four were well-developed when I started. I already knew what Leora, Roland, Aurora, and Leopold looked like and all about their personalities. What I didn’t have was how to get them from point A to B to C. I was in search of a plot!

Azalea: I thought I had them figured out, but once I moved away from pantsing, it took a lot more planning and deep-diving to actually get into the meat of them. There were some stories I’d tried to write that I had zero idea who they were—I planned to find that out in the first draft.

Miriam: Not at all. I knew the MC was sexy and had wings haha.

Critical Readers

When did you first let a critical reader read your work? 

A. E. Bennett: I sent a version to critique partners before my editor. Some were incredibly helpful, others… not so much. I was new to understanding what makes a good critique partner and I didn’t properly vet some of the folks I sent my work to. Lessons learned!

Azalea: When I started writing Witch in the Lighthouse, it was the first time I tried bullet outlining. It was the first time I felt like I had come to the keyboard prepared, and with some semblance of confidence that I could at least finish a story. It was extremely barebones, but I had made a commitment to myself to bring the novella to completion. I wasn’t even sure it would reach novella status—short story at best. I may have let my critical reader at the time read some early chapters before I completed the first draft, but they definitely helped me work on all the drafts I had after that.

Miriam: I initially made the mistake of letting friends and family critique my work, and none of them had the balls to tell me it was awful. They either thought it was amazing, or were “too busy” to finish it.

How did critical readers help your pantser’s journey produce a well structured book? 

A. E. Bennett: Well, I think the critique partners who helped me the most made me realize that, for something like the epic story I’m writing, pantsing doesn’t really work for me. As I’ve started work on the second book, I’ve realized that I do need an outline and structure in order to make The Serrulata Saga work. I guess you could call me a “reformed pantser” – haha!

Azalea: It wasn’t until I started structuring and writing a general bullet-outline that I started taking writing more seriously, and felt like I was capable of completing a story. Critical readers have helped me strengthen said outlines, however. If I had stuck to pantsing, I don’t think I’d have ever finished a story. I don’t mind being a bit loosey-goosey with chapter outlines at times, but I find the more structured I get, the less work I have in the long run. 

Miriam: Finding people who weren’t afraid to hurt my feelings shot my writing forward, but I would say it was attending writing  conferences that made the real difference in my career. I ended up shelving that pantsed series and plotting something completely new. Working with a group of critical readers is important because all writers have different skills and struggles.

How could you work more efficiently with critical readers?

A. E. Bennett: I’ve gotten much more selective about who I share my work with and whose work I critique with regards to genre. My books don’t appeal to everyone (which is fine, obviously) but I’m not going to get the feedback I need from someone who’s writing high fantasy, when that’s not what I do. I also don’t tend to enjoy critiquing certain genres myself, and I’m much more open about what types of books I will/will not make a good critique partner of. It’s been a learning process! 

Azalea: Knowing what I want out of a read-through/critique helps, and asking for that particular feedback helps everyone stay on the right track. If I feel like a certain area is weak, I try to focus on questions in that area.

Miriam: As Azalea said, know what you want out of a critique. So many times I’ve sent out an early draft looking for plot holes and structural issues, and a reader has fixed the grammar instead. Those readers need to be cut from your team or brought on later in the writing process.

Structure/ Plantsing

When or how did you move towards a form of outlining?

A. E. Bennett: I now make an overall outline – where I want the story to go and how I want it to end up. Some of my books are starting to overlap now, so I use an Excel calendar to keep everything sorted. I then go back and write bullet points about what needs to happen in each chapter to keep things moving. Sometimes my characters surprise me – I’ll certainly admit that – and I have to move things around, but after all of the pain involved with ripping Gathering of the Four apart and putting it back together again, I find this method to be much more efficient. 

Azalea: My outlining started in 2017, when I started writing Witch in the Lighthouse. It was very light bullet outlining, one to two sentences per chapter of basic scenes, and I’d figure out the details as I went along.  Now my outlining has evolved to one to several paragraphs per chapter, and I like utilising character sheets. I started using Fantasia Archive to help me stay more organised, and this helps tremendously.

Miriam: My outlining started just shy of a decade (or 300,000 words) into my writing career. I start with my character’s goal, motivation and conflict, and then outline the end of the novel so I know where I’m heading. From there I write a line or two per scene for the entire novel. Namesakes was the first novel I properly outlined, but I didn’t have a good handle on structure until I wrote Blessed Prey.

With the benefit of hindsight, when was the best time to plan?

A. E. Bennett: I should have thought about some of my side characters earlier. In the first draft of Gathering of the Four, I had a lot of side characters standing around doing nothing or entering or exiting scenes with no real purpose. I could have saved myself some time – and heart ache – if I had thought more about why they existed. 

Azalea: It feels like every time I start a new novel, my method changes, even if just slightly, but one thing that never changes is that there are some things I just can’t predict in the planning that I end up having to scramble over later. There is still a pantser in me, I guess.

In my current WIP, my first draft has been very transformed from what I had written initially, all just from changing the attitude of a single character. That led me to push deeper into the background of what happened offscreen, to really get a handle on why characters were behaving the way they were onscreen, and for it to make sense to the reader. Planning all of these aspects before I’d even written the first draft would have been a blessing, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20. I’m learning all the time!

Miriam: I wouldn’t change it. I learned the things when I was ready to learn them.

Where You’re At

Are you a pantser, plantser or plotter now, and what’s your current process?

A. E. Bennett: I’m much more of a plotter now. Since The Serrulata Saga is shaping up to be more books than I originally planned. I do need to think more carefully about who is doing what and when and why. 

Azalea: I’d call myself a plantser, with an emphasis on plotting. Each time I try to plot more and more, but as usual, you can’t predict everything. I am much more detail oriented now than I was in 2017, my writing has improved by quite a lot, and I’ve found, for now, what works for me with critical readers and who helps me more than otherwise. I still wind up editing many, many drafts! 

Miriam: I’d call myself a planner. I don’t have every aspect of a book or series plotted out, but I do have a solid road map before I go in. I know how the series ends before I begin the first book. My writing time is planned so that I always have something to work on, even if a WIP is off with critique partners. I draft fast and messy, then go though 6-10 rounds of revisions and edits, first working with early readers for character, structure, and plot, then more feedback from another group of readers to make sure those issues are fixed and address scene and line-level stuff. One of my readers is specifically for consistency (makes sure if the character had a coffee at the start of the scene she doesn’t have boba at the end etc) and other readers for sensitivity.

I use ProWritingAid so that my editor gets the cleanest draft possible, and when she’s done, I have the book proofread.


What advice would you give to pantsers, plantsers or aspiring plotters?

A. E. Bennett: Take your time! There is a lot of pressure to churn books out (at least, in my opinion) and you won’t do yourself any favours by rushing. I self-published two books last year and I should have held off on pushing out Gathering of the Four. It was sloppy and I think a lot of people gave up on it because of that. It’s in much better shape now, and I’m proud of it, but for a long time I wasn’t and that was really painful. Don’t be like me – have patience!

Azalea: Find a method that works for you, but try many. Ask questions, opinions, for help, and take your time. I also like to tell writers to just get the first draft down—you can edit later. Little, minute edits aren’t going to stop your progress (usually), but getting hung up on a sentence or paragraph can really turn your process into a slog. Leaving yourself notes in areas you’d like to go deeper on later can help to keep your momentum instead of stalling. Keep going!

Miriam: No one is interested in stealing your stuff, they have their own books to work on, and your early work is awful. Don’t worry, it’s supposed to be awful! But no one wants to steal it, so get it out there, get feedback from other people who write your genre. And show up. So much of writer culture is complaining about writing, making memes and tweets about not writing… that won’t get you anywhere. Do the work.

A. E. Bennett
Headshot of Azalea Forrest, long strawberry blonde hair, black-rimmed glasses, white.
Azalea Forrest
Photo of Miriam holding zir first two books. Miriam has shaved short dark blue-black hair, pale skin with pink cheeks and brown eyes.
Miriam Cumming
Gathering of Four Bookcover. Four characters depicted, the lead a black woman with arms wide wielding fire magic from both hands.
Witch in the Light House cover. Cloudy sky with lighthouse on dark horizon.
Namesakes cover. Mixed race MC wearing tie and white shirt, green headscarf concealing hair and holding glowing books, encircled in green glow with glowing circle archway in background.

Becoming an Indie Author (Part 2: Book Launch)

Having covered the steps of the editing process, setting up your author platform and choosing distributors in this blog, it’s time to talk indie book launch tips. On to self-publishing step 8!

8. Book Launch (Marketing Plan)

Your marketing plan depends on publishing on KU or publishing wide, and your goals. For KU you’ll want social media posts, perhaps a paid cover reveal, a giveaway and or other to ‘generate buzz’ about your book. Your goal will be to get as many pre-orders as you can, ideally at least one a day every day of the pre-launch period, to chase a good Amazon ranking on launch day. If you plan to publish wide, Amazon rankings won’t matter so match, but you’ll still want to do a cover reveal and spread the word about your book. If you’re aiming for a softer launch, this blog detailing Emma Lombard’s marketing plan and experience is worth a read. Whether you choose a buzz filled hard release, or a soft release, many things bellow will need considering.

Research Marketing Mistakes to Avoid

To put it bluntly, from reading, viewing and talking to fellow indies, it seems that paid advertising offers many ways to set your money on fire. Step one to avoid that seems to be take a course before spending money you don’t intend to entirely lose on Facebook or Amazon adds. For any other paid services, I highly recommend talking to other indies to see what they recommend based on their experiences. If you don’t have many to talk to, read the article bellow.

Resources: 17 Author Tips and Biggest Blunders by Emma Lombard.

Set Up Pre-orders

If you’re going for a hard release (and particularly for later books in a series, when you’ve already got a reader base), you may want to set up pre-orders well in advance. You’ll want to plan social media and other pre-order promos daily in the week leading up to release day. Before that, you’ll need to set up pre-orders on Amazon. For that, you’ll need your blurb, and the the details (key words, categories, meta data and price) unpacked under Step 12: Uploading Your Book (near the bottom of this post).

Book Links. Before posting pre-order links, use booklinker to generate a link that will take people clicking on it to the Amazon store selling in their local currency. If you’re releasing wide, use bookstoread to create a link to a page displaying icons linked to your book’s page on each retailer your ebook and paperback are available at.

Grow Your Newsletter

Consider newsletter swaps with writers in the same genre, writing for the same audience age. Building your list means more people to tell when your book drops. Your reader magnet can get its own landing page on BookFunnel, where you can organise newsletter swaps. Story Origin is another good site for swaps. If you write SFF, here’s a facebook group for organising swaps with SFF authors (though you may want to file it for it for later as these FB lists seem to be 2k+). If you don’t write SFF, its worth searching for FB newsletter swaps in your genre. This is something you can put more focus on after the book is out if you run out of time beforehand (which is my post-launch intention.)
Also: Keep Subscribers Engaged. Here’s some content ideas from Bookfunnel to help with that.

Multi-Author Promotions

Again, this is something I’ll keep in mind for perhaps book two or three’s launch, but you may like to consider Social Media Author Hops with other authors. for a Facebook example. see this guest post by Anna Campbell).
If you’re on Book Funnel, here’s a FB Group for organising multi-author promos.

Resources: Designing Your Own Virtual Book Tour Basics.

Reviews and Blog Tours

Reviews don’t just show potential readers what they may enjoy about your book, getting enough of them makes you eligible to be featured on Bookbub, and can make your book more visible on Amazon (displaying it as an ‘also bought’). But don’t pay for reviews. Amazon don’t like that and I know people who have been rigorously policed by them, losing reviews Amazon suspect they paid for. The alternative I’m finding works well —especially as I’ve only released my debut book— is blog tours. This isn’t paying for reviews, its paying for a tour organiser to make your book accessible to reviewers and or book bloggers, and for your book (and sometimes you as an author) to be featured on blogs and or social media.

Which tours are worth the cost? I’d say the ones that get reviews, though reviews may not be guaranteed. Rachel’s Resources has been recommended to me by indies who were happy with reviews they received. Itsy Bitsy was also highly recommended to me by two indie author friends and I had my debut’s Book Spotlight with them for three weeks and was very happy with it.

Promotion Sites & Paid Newsletters

Check out platforms which host giveaways, or otherwise promote newsletters and books, the big one being Bookbub, Bookfunel also being popular . Think about whether you may participate in giveaways, in which case sites like BookSweeps may help. Another option is Prolific Works.

A relatively safe way to spend money when you’re still learning how to market books wisely can be paying for a feature in paid newsletters. First: ensure you did get critical reader feedback on your blurb, that your cover is genre appropriate and up to scratch (for more on these see part 1 of this blog) and your price appropriate. This can still waste money if any of those three need work (I know because my first paid newsletter was an expensive way to sell books 😉).
Again: ask people publishing in a similar genre what they’ve had success with, or read this post of paid newsletters Nicholas Erik has had good experiences promoting a range of genres in.


I’ve seen so many authors say that Facebook adds or Amazon adds ‘don’t work for them’, yet for some authors they seem to be AM-A-ZING. I haven’t tried either, but the fact people have designed week long courses and written whole books about one or the other tells me that if you plan to use either without thorough research -you’re wasting your money. Even with study, you may still find one, the other or both just aren’t your jam. So proceed with caution (and see the free courses linked below).

Measuring Sales

Book Report is handy for this, and syncs with Amazon Kindle to analyse your sales data.

Press Kit

Its not like a newspaper, or magazine is going to interview me, random indie author is it? But they may (as Emma Lombard can tell you). And if they do and they ask you questions, do you know what you’ll say? If they want easy access to pertinent info, do you have a page on your website they can refer to, to check any details and ensure their interview article is accurate? For an example press kit, see mine.

Marketing Resources

Facebook Group 20booksto50k is a great space to discuss and learn to market indie books.

Free Courses: Amazon Add Challenge, a 7 Day Course by Brian Cohen.

5 Day Amazon Add Course, by Dave Cheeson (Kindleprenuer).

Starting From Zero, with David Gaughran.

Google Air, free Google add workshops (you have to register using your Google account.)

Wondering about sales trends? K-lytics is a handy (free) blog to follow, though their paid services are expensive.

9. Set up Your Author Profiles

Before you seek reviews, you need an author profile and your book’s information to be up on review sites. Your book will need to be on sale or have pre-orders to do this, as each review site will want a purchase link for your book. I set up pre-orders for my debut on Amazon (which doesn’t require the book to be finished, though I suggest making an attractive ‘coming soon’ template if your cover isn’t ready), so I could set up my author profiles for reviewers ahead of launch day.
For Goodreads, you have to add your book to Goodreads first, then you can claim your author profile on it. This is worth doing early on, as reviews can be uploaded to Goodreads well before launch day. Tip: get your betas to add their reviews when they finish reading your late draft.

On other sites, you simply need to sign up, add a purchase link for your book, add a profile photo, fill in your bio etc. I suggest using the same profile photo and short bio for all of these sites, and the same author photo on your website, social media etc., so people you ‘meet’ on any digital space recognise you on others. If you seek ARC reviewers, I suggest giving them your Amazon, Goodreads and Bookbub profile links, and encouraging reviews on all three. Bookbub reviews may one day help you become eligible for a coveted Bookbub feature, while star ratings on Goodreads will display with your paperback blurb on Book Depository.

I have author profiles set up on Amazon, Goodreads, All Author and Bookbub. –The Amazon and Goodreads links are to instructions to set up your author page while the All Author and Bookbub links will take you to the sign-up pages for those platforms].

10. Update your Socials

Now is a good time to put a book banner on your website’s header and a cover, blurb and pre-order or purchase link front and centre on your site’s home page. It’s also a good time to place a book banner as your Twitter/ Facebook Page or group/ Pinterest header and a pinned post about your upcoming release.

11. Get Your Street Team Set Up

A ‘street team’ for a traditionally published author may be a large group of people excited about the upcoming book, formally organised on a Discord server, or other digital space. It probably has an application form to join and hundreds of applicants. It will definitely be an organised group effort to ‘generate hype’ about the upcoming book. For debut indie authors, your ‘street team’ may simply be a few friends you privately message for help spreading the word about your book. Ideally, it’s (and in my experience it works well to have) a mutual indie support group, which helps in any (or all) of the below three ways. Yes, I have an SFF Author Indie Discord for this. Feel free to reply to this tweet or use my contact page if you’d like an invite link to it.)

Social Media Boosting

True, social media is primarily for socialising, not selling and buying stuff. But you want help telling everyone you’re been interacting with on social media (and ideally potential readers beyond those people) that your book will soon be released. I suggest doing this by creating or joining mutual support groups of indie authors writing similar genres likely to be read by your potential readers. Creating for example Twitter Dm groups to comment on and or RT each other’s tweets boosts your book’s visibility in the pre-launch period and beyond. (Yes I’ve had and seen others have success boosting tweet reach with this, particularly with cover reveals).

Blog Visibility

I’ve heard that blogging is more useful for promoting non-fiction books, and may have little impact with fiction. But my first interview was met with a detailed reply from someone I didn’t know on Twitter, who had read and enjoyed the interview. Blog reach may be small, but a lot of indies I know are interviewing each other about writing, life and their books. Again, ideally the people you interview and are interviewed by, write similar books and have a similar audience to you, the goal being getting your name and book’s existence out there and helping them do the same.


Ask people interested in your genre, including fellow indie authors, if they’re interested in receiving an ARC (advanced reader copy) for free, in exchange for writing a review (ideally posting on launch day or soon after on retailers, Goodreads and Bookbub). Your ‘review street team’ may include finding ARC readers on Booksprout, and if you’re releasing a fantasy book, this FB group for finding beta readers and reviewers may help you get more ARC reviews.

How do you reach people for social media support and author interviews?
Hopefully, your social media networking since step 2 has led you into author groups, or built you enough of a following to organise your own, or your newsletter has enough reach to do so. If not, again, SFF authors feel free to reply to this tweet or use my contact page to join my Discord for help with this.

12. Format Your E-book (+paperback if applicable)


Perhaps ironically, I found formatting paperback (in Word) easy. You choose your paper size (I chose 5.5 by 8.5 for my YA Fantasy, a common size), set your margins (do this early because when I changed them last, Word re-inserted page numbers into the front matter). I followed Chloe Alice Balkin’s youtube tutorial, using ‘layout,’ ‘page breaks’, ‘next page’ to add page-number-free front matter, created styles in Word for front matter, back matter, titles, chapter headings, chapter header art, dingus and for body text. Then I saved the Word doc as a pdf and the book was uploaded to Amazon without mishap. (Ingram Spark warned my chapter heading art, author bio pic etc could cause print issues, but they didn’t).

Ebook Formatting (in Word)

This I found fiddlier. If you format a paperback yourself in Word, mistakes can insert random blank pages throughout the book, or splice content across pages.


-Hit ‘enter’ for page breaks (your book may format without page breaks, and for multiple pov books this will present to readers as head-hopping.)
-Let Word generate a Table Of Contents for you (there are many ways this can go wrong).

-Leave any images without a style (my chapter header images were displayed on separate pages to chapter headings when I converted to epub because of this).


Use a tool to do the formatting for you. Reedsy’s tool is popular. Draft2Digital will format your book for you (though check it, as it couldn’t handle the chapter header art in mine). If you’re a Mac user willing to pay a one off fee, Vellum is very popular (no, I’m not an affiliate for them or anyone else linked in this post).

OR Use a Style Guide. Smashwords Style Guide is good, but wordy.

Formatting In Word
-Use styles for EVERYTHING (headings, copyright page, all images, body text etc).
-Manually create your contents page by bookmarking each chapter and linking the bookmark to the chapter heading on the contents page. (Smashwords Style Guide, page 20 has a video showing you how).

-If you’re wide, upload your interior file everywhere at the same time. Kobo and Smashwords spotted issues with my ebook that Amazon didn’t, while Ingram noted potential paperback issues Amazon didn’t. Cross-checking issues each distributor and or store spots, then making final tweaks, can help you give a better-formatted version to all of them.

get proofs for every format on every store/ distributor to ensure they turn out ok. (Kobo converted my Word doc to epub without mishap, but Draft to Digital had one issue throughout, while the Smashwords epub conversion was so bad that I converted the epub myself (using Convertio).

Front Matter Tips

-Keep it short so readers can get to the book and online look inside features show the opening pages.
-Look at the copyright notices of other indie books to help you phrase yours.
-Mention other or upcoming titles on your ‘also by author ____’ page.
-Include a digital table of contents in ebooks.
-Consider a map and or personis dramatis for epic fantasy or similar, so readers can see where things are happening and check who is who as they read. (Maps are good in front matter, but for ebooks put it at the back so the ‘look inside’ preview shows potential readers pages that pull them in, not a cast list they don’t yet care about).

Back Matter Tips

-Don’t use your full author name, use some initials, as Amazon doesn’t like it.
-Link to your website, newsletter sign up and if you like, your social media/ Goodreads/ Bookbub.
-You may like to politely ask for reviews, but only include an Amazon link for reviews in the Kindle ebook. Apple will reject your book if it has an Amazon link in it. Tip: link to Goodreads in review requests for all non-Amazon stores, seeing as Goodreads isn’t any store’s competitor.
-Write a book two blurb and in the ebook have a pre-order link to book 2.

Formatting Error Checklist

Is your front matter free of page numbers?
Does your ebook contents page display appropriately and do its contents link correctly to pages?
Does your epub have random blank pages anywhere?
Are your front and back matter spaced as you wish?
Are your chapter headings (and images) spaced appropriately and consistently?
Does your back matter only contain links to Amazon in the copy you’re uploading to Amazon? (Other stores may reject interior files with Amazon links).
Does your Ingram Spark file only contain black and white or greyscale text, styles and images? (NB: They’ll warn you off colour, even colour overlaid with greyscale, but my colour overlaid with greyscale chapter header art, author profile pic etc. printed fine).

13 Uploading your Book

Meta Data

If you’re going wide, I suggest creating a file that has all the meta data you’ll need to copy and paste everywhere you upload your book (your name, book name, genre, categories, tags, blurb, contributors, ISBN etc).

Choosing Amazon Categories.
Check which categories your comp titles are listed under using this category checker.
Have a look at which sub-genre/ fiction headings match your book using Book Industry Study Group’s List.
Check the number of competitors in relevant categories. Standard advice says ‘pick obscure categories you can rank in.’ But my best rankings (in the US) weren’t in completely obscure categories. On the US store they were:

Elise's Amazon rankings.
130 IN Teen & Young Adult LGBTQ+ Fiction (Kindle
383 in Teen & Young Adult LGBTQ+ Fiction (Books)
919 LGBTQ+ Fantasy (Kindle)

Amazon will initially only let your book be assigned two categories, but you can email them for it to be assigned an additional eight (Go to your KDP dashboard. Select ‘help,’ ‘contact us’ at the bottom of the menu, ‘Amazon store & product detail page’, ‘update Amazon categories’.
Bad category news: every Amazon national store has different categories, so you’ll have to contact them telling them the exact category string for EVERY store you want categories on. NB: English language categories aren’t just on the US, Canada, UK and Australia, India and Germany’s are also in English, Germany being where I’ve had the second highest no. of clicks.

Choosing Amazon Key Words
Use ‘incognito’ mode on your browser, then on Google, Goodreads or Amazon, type your genre and audience age, and see which search terms your browser suggests (popularly searched ones) and which are relevant to your book. You’re not limited to 7 of these —jam as many as you can fit into Amazon’s 7 key word boxes. Also, there’s no need for key words to repeat your category, title or subtitle.


To determine a price in any currency, this article outlines factors you may like to consider.
My best advice:
-Get on the Amazon store of each region of the world it sells to (Important NB: a reasonable $US price converts into what Brits consider to be a too-expensive UK price, so don’t just let retailers convert international pricing, check which pricing appears reasonable by currency and national store).
-Search books of your genre and audience age and note pricing.
-Get an idea of cheap prices, moderate prices and outrageously expensive prices (you will see the latter).
-Observe whether you think a book is indie or traditionally published and how prices vary because of that.
-Check how many pages a books has to get an idea of a reasonable price for a 70k vs. a 100k+ book.
-Choose a price taking the above and your personal publishing/ marketing goals and factors in the article linked above into account.

Check the profit margin in every currency. Does it leave you room to put the book on sale without losing money? In the UK, books are so cheap that you may struggle to discount your book there and still break even, but if you aim to make even the smallest of profits on every sale (as opposed to freebies), you’ll need to check regular vs. sale price profit margins carefully.

Sale Pricing

If you’re discounting your pre-orders or book, don’t just change the pricing in KDP’s or any other distributor’s dashboard. Sale prices are entered separately. On KDP, as with categories, go to your KDP dashboard. Select ‘help,’ ‘contact us’ at the bottom of the menu, then ‘pricing’ and read the information.
NB: if requesting a price match you’ll need to have links to the Apple/ Barnes and Noble/ Kobo price for each countries store you want price matched on Amazon.


To Distributors. Before you upload your book to any distributor, be clear about which distributor you want to send your books to which retailer (or other distributor), so you don’t double up. After you’ve uploaded, you can sync Amazon to Goodreads so your shelves are automatically updated.

Upload To Libraries. If you’re American or Canadian, you can upload your books to the Indie Author Project to get your book into libraries in both countries. And yes, you’ll earn royalties -see the FAQ page.

Local Brick and Mortar Stores. This involves being bold, but I’ve spoken to indies who’ve told local booksellers they’ve published a book and the booksellers wanted to see it (yeah, carry it or have a photo of your cover on your phone) and then stocked it on consignment (meaning they pay you if it sells, and hand it back to you if it doesn’t). So it pays to be bold! To help you prepare to approach book shops, here’s some comprehensive (Uk sourced) advice on Getting Your Book into a High End Store.

14. Cover Reveal

Post your cover on your social media, share it in your newsletter and share it on any promo sites you’ve joined which feature cover reveals, such as xpressbooktours. You may wish your cover reveal to be the first of a series of social media promo posts counting down to launch day, featuring teasers, character introductions, ARC review snippets etc and containing or naming the location of your pre-order purchase link.

15. Release Day

Put purchase links on your site and author profiles. Post your launch day post on social media and interact with everyone who replies. I hope it goes well for you!


I learnt A LOT of the above from conversations with and between the following indie authors:

Cheryls headshot. 70-something white woman with neck length white hair.
Cheryl Burman, Historical and SFF author.
Pineapple with love heart art -Chloe's symbol.
Chloe Alice Balkin, Speculative Romance
Cartoon of Chris with a green mo hawk, raised left brow, holding glasses on the end of his nose.
Chris Vandyke, SFF Author
Bitmoji of Brown, shoulder length haired, black round classes waring Becky waving.
Rebecca Jonesee, Romance
Headshot of black curly haired, brown eyed Dreena wearing glasses and smiling.
Dreena Collins
(Jane Harvey)
Waist to head shot of K.W. wearing a black training top and cap with her long blonde hair in a pigtale, and a white-toothed smile.
K. W. Kenny, YA Fantasy Website
Elderly Jay's grey eyes peer out of this headshot.
Jay Veloso Batista, Fantasy Author. Website
Leia in a fluffy purple hat, blue eyes on camera, pink lips smiling.
Leia Talon, Fantasy author.
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Further Reading

Just in case your head isn’t exploding with information already, there are more resources on many of the above topics on my Writers Resources Page. I’ll also point you towards a Self Publishing pro, David Gaughram.
If your head is exploding, I suggest bookmarking this post so you can revisit a few of its steps at a time.

Whichever of the above steps you’re at –Good Luck!

Character Development Checklists

You’ve just finished the first draft of your novel; what now? First, I’d check the big picture of your story. Does your main character and the antagonist develop and do the stakes increase throughout your story? Do you have a fully rounded antagonist and fully developed secondary characters, or is your main character facing a stereotypical villain with the aid of allies who exist solely to help them achieve their goals? Do you have realistic tension in relationships between key characters? Does each chapter actually need to be in your story? And once all of the above is looking good, is the tone (relatively) consistent throughout?
This checklist will unpack all of these things to help you evaluate character development, character arcs and story tension throughout your novel.

Main Character & Antagonist

First things first: what drives your main character and antagonist? If both are human, why do they believe they are right? How do they believe what they want will make things better? And for who?
Have you made their motivations clear throughout the story (when relevant)?

Main Character Considerations

To check your character arc is on track and that each chapter contributes to the development of your MC (main character) or point of view (POV) character’s arc, here’s a few questions.

Youthful heir Ruarnon in bronze full body armour, holding a bronze helmet and leaning on a spear.
Whom else would I illustrate characters with than my nonbinary main character, Heir Ruarnon?
Art by GlintofMischief.

What does your main MC want? What do they think is in their way? What’s actually in their way? Does their goal change as they learn and grow throughout the story? How?

Which is the sequence of steps your pov characters take to achieve their goals?

What obstacles do they face along the way?

When do internal demons, doubtful or worried allies or ‘friends’ with conflicting interests hold them back?

At which point do the characters learn or discover things which aid their ultimate success?

When do they hit roadblocks, and does overcoming roadblocks help them grow and lead to success later on? 

Is there a lie they believe and if so, what helps them begin to see and ultimately brings them to accept the truth?

Does every chapter do at least one of the above? (ie. does every chapter pull the character’s arc forwards?) If it doesn’t, how is that chapter pulling its weight? Has it earned its right to remain in your novel?

Antagonist Considerations

Whether your antagonist (antag) is a human, an internal force like self-doubt or an external force, here are some questions to check their development, and to check human antagonists are fully rounded characters.

What steps does the antagonist take towards achieving their goal? If the antagonist is a force of nature or inner demons of the main character, how do they obstruct the MC and at which points?

What obstacles does the antag face? If your antag is a force of nature or internal demons, approaching it this way may help deepen your awareness of and how you portray your protagonist(s), who are likely obstacles to your antag.

Does a human antag have revelations that prompt them to progress along a negative character arc? Possibly as they resort to increasingly harsh/ immoral means of obtaining good ends?

How does the antag respond to roadblocks? If they’re human, are they resilient, or able to charm and win over people who oppose them, or do they throw tantrums and become more aggressive —do roadblocks drive their negative arc? 

Even if the human antag has a distorted worldview, does the narration from their point of view show how, to them, what they believe is rational and right?

If the antag is inner demons, does it counter the MC’s success with irrational reasoning, guilt or other powerful emotional reactions to story obstacles?

If the antag is a virus/ monster/ climate change —does it keep evolving in a way that threatens humanity, as humanity learns to adapt to/ combat it?

Is there a lie the antagonist believes and what in the story confirms and strengthens their belief in the lie?

Does each chapter in which the antagonist/ antagonistic force appears move the story’s conflict forwards?

Later Structural Edits

If you’ve achieved the above, but would like to kick your story up a notch, here’s two suggestions for doing that.

1. Make it harder for the MC. Use contagonists, insecurities or roadblocks to make the MC’s struggle greater.

2. Up the stakes. Now the reader knows what the story’s all about and everyone involved, threaten more people or increase the severity of the threat.

Secondary Characters

A trap with secondary characters is making them subservient to the main character’s goals —the faithful friend stereotype. That may mean you write secondary characters who don’t seem to have lives of their own, or whose goals perfectly align with the MC’s. So your MC and secondary character may co-exist in harmonious unity —not very likely, or realistic, or good for story tension.

Who supports the MC? Who is officially onside but disagrees with the MC’s supporters or challenges the MCs methods?

What are the secondary characters goals and how do they align or compete with the MC’s goals?

Are characters sometimes helpful but sometimes arguing? For example, do your secondary characters have any conflicting interests with the MC? Does this lead to rising relationship/ story tension throughout?

Do you have secondary characters who are very similar or playing a very similar role in the story? Can you merge these characters, so there’s a smaller cast the reader gets to know better and connect more deeply with?

All Characters

Are character actions and logic believable and does backstory indicate why they are predisposed to be that way? (This is a good question to ask your beta readers).

As characters speak, act and pursue goals, are the biases, knowledge, prejudices, sympathies or passions that guide (or misguide) them clear? How do these things influence character actions?

Does each character speak with their own voice? (In dialogue and especially if you have multiple point of view characters).
Possible voice influences: socioeconomic status, education, are they speaking from a position of authority or servitude? Publicly or privately? To a friend, family member or stranger?

If all of the above is going well, I’d do an edit focusing on the internal consistency of character beliefs, opinions, actions, dialogue and voice.

Focus on Chapters

How does each chapter reveal what drives a point of view character in the story?

Does each chapter bring point of view characters closer to or push them further away from achieving their goals?

How do relationships or revelations prompt the MC to reevaluate their goal? 

How often do chapters raise the stakes of the story goal?

Story Tone

Now we know who’s in this story, what journey they’re on and what they’re up against: What is the overall tone of your story? Serious and heavy? Light? Playful? Casual? A mix of deep, possibly dark themes and comic relief?

As you edit —how do scenes and character interactions fit with the overall tone? Do some scenes clash with the overall tone? Ie. are some scenes too light and funny, or too dark compared to the tone of the rest of the book?
This may not be an issue in chapter 10 (especially if it’s a grim story with comic relief), but if the tone and events of chapter one hilariously silly and innocent and then chapter two gets violent and nasty —the reader won’t know what kind of story this is. So I’d check your events and character interactions in the early chapters set the tone for the book.

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Further Reading

Chapter Checklist by K.M Allan.

Chapter One Checklist by me.

Act 1 Checklist by me.

Act 2 Checklist by me.

Act 3 Checklist by me.

Becoming an Indie Author (Part 1/2)

You’ve written a book, you’re considering self publishing and you wonder what it involves. In short: a lot! This post is a concise summary from editing, through self publishing and book launching, with many links to tools and information to help you along the way. It contains almost everything I’ve learned from indie author discussions in a Self Publishing Twitter group by Cheryl Burman, and what I’ve learned while self publishing my first book.

I’m Writing/ Have Drafted My Book, What Now?

1. Craft Knowledge

If this is your First book, and or you haven’t already researched how to develop your characters and plot, or read up on story structure, now is a a good time! Make notes to help get your head around character development, story structure and how they intertwine. Then use your notes to write character and plot focused outlines or revision/ structural edit lists to address potential character/ plot holes in your draft.

Resources to Help: KM Weiland’s Blog Series’: Developing Character Arcs, Story Structure and Scene Structure.

2. Start Building Your Author Platform: Social Media

Yes, I’m talking about social media before you’ve even edited your manuscript, let alone have a book seeking a publishing path. Why? Because it takes time to grow a following. And the writing and editing stages are great opportunities to get to know fellow writers, build friendships and learn from each other. This is also the time to begin describing interesting features of your book and start generating interest in your story!

Post about the contents and the experience (or process) of writing your book. Talk to other writers about it on Twitter’s #WritingCommunity —or Instagram’s. Connect with people you share interests with on social media (local interests, genres, themes that inspired and tie in to your story etc).

To begin with —pick ONE social media you feel is a natural (or least uncomfortable) fit for you. Get comfortable calling yourself a writer there, and publicly interacting as one. (FYI: there’s no such thing as an aspiring writer. If you write —you ARE a writer!). Experiment, and learn the ropes of your first platform. Then start on a second platform. (Unless you’re bursting with restless energy *waves* and would rather choose the chaotic path of tackling multiple things at once over the easier one *waves again*).

Resources: Social Media for Writers, Facebook For Authors by Jane Friedman, #WritingCommunity Hashtags for Twitter and Instagram.

3. Critical Readers

Get at least three beta readers (if you can find more, I’d do so) to comment on how they find your characters, plot, pacing, story tension ect. If all they say is, ‘this is great and I liked this bit,’ I’d be asking, do my betas have the: Experience and ability to critically evaluate my story?
Willingness and time to honestly comment on things they find problematic (or less than ideal) as a reader?
Communication skills to spell out how any particular aspect of my writing confused, bored or otherwise put them off?
Or do my betas think I only want encouragement (or a positivity pass), as opposed to constructive feedback to help me grow as a writer and to ensure my story is clear and engaging to unfamiliar readers?

If you suspect any of the above is an issue with one of your beta readers, I’d get another/ an extra beta reader. I wouldn’t be satisfied readers will be satisfied with my book until I’ve had that rigorous critical reader who pulls me up on every potential crease, tear or hole in the reading experience. —And I’ve repaired and ironed those things accordingly. Having attempted that for Manipulator’s War, I’ve now got reviews complimenting things (pacing and characters) the reviews may have complained about, if not for my critical readers.

Resources to Help: Finding Critical Readers, Mentors & Editors.
Checklists to aid Critical Reader feedback: Chapter one, Act 1, Act 2, Act 3.

4. Editing

Consider your goals for this book/ series and your budget. If you can’t afford an editor, get a second round of critical readers to comment on your post-beta-edited draft. Then, if you’re happy with it —get other, sharp eyed people to proofread it.
If you can afford an editor, consider which type(s) of editing you can afford: developmental (structural), stylistic (line editing), copy editing (word level technical & factual edits) and proofreading. Manuscript Critiques/ Reports can be pricy, but are a cheaper alternative to (prohibitively expensive for most people) developmental edits. Bear in mind, some freelance copy editors charge by the hour instead of by the word. So if you tend to write fairly clean 100k books for example (like me), paying by the hour is more affordable and better value for money.

Resources: Different Levels of Editing and Critical Reader Services by editor Amelia Wiens (who did my manuscript critique) and 5 Things Authors Need to Know Before Hiring an Editor.

5. Decide on Cover Art

In choosing an artist or creating your own cover, research current covers in your genre and audience age. You want a cover design that clearly says to the reader “this book is (insert your genre)”. You also want a design that appeals to readers of that genre in ways they’re used to seeing. Pay attention to current trends in your genre, by researching new releases and studying their covers. For example, dark covers are a thing with YA Fantasy at the movement, and if characters are on epic fantasy covers — they’ve got weapons. So my cover for Manipulator’s War is dark and features weapons.

Creating Your Own Cover

Remember that you need copyright permission for the art and fonts you use.
These fonts are public domain and free on Google. You can also purchase fonts from Creative Market.
You’ll find free public domain images on Pixaby, Smithsonian Open Acess and paid ones on Shutterstock. To make the most of those resources, you may like cover design support from fellow indies via FB Group Book Design 101 and feedback on your cover and blurb from FB group Indie Cover Project.


Traditionally published authors will have honed their pitches near to perfection. Their blurbs will have had a LOT of critical feedback, editing by a literary agent, and possibly by an editor before a back cover exists to place those blurbs on. So for your blurbs to compete at online retailers —hone your pitch craft! You can get pitch critiques in the facebook group Author Unleashed, which focuses on this skill and on my Authoring Discord. You’ll find my best advice for writing an engaging blurb in this post.

Cover Artist
Cover by GlintofMischief.

If hiring a cover artist, check the contract to see if you own the art, and if you need to pay the artist fees for using the art in your merchandise, on your website and in any promotional graphics you make. If you’re unsure which of multiple pieces of concept art to use for the final cover, try posting a poll on social media and or consulting your newsletter subscribers. In considering cover artists, you may also like to ask how they work, and how much your cover design can change within the negotiated price. For example, my cover artist Judah (GlintofMischief) and I built a set of Pinterest pins as well as discussing my cover, and I reviewed multiple concept sketches before we chose (and modified) the published cover. I also chose my fonts, and designed the glyphs on Manipulator’s Wars cover.

If you want to be actively involved but don’t have the skills to produce your own cover, check you’re hiring an artist as prepared to work collaboratively with you as Judah is with me. If you’ve got Indie Author friends, I suggest beginning your cover artist hunt by asking them (or tweeting) for recommendations.

6. Choose Your Distributer(s)

Kindle Unlimited or Wide?

In choosing a distributer, you’ll have to decide whether you want your ebooks available on Kindle Unlimited (where readers pay a monthly rate to access Kindle’s library, as opposed to buying your ebook, and you are paid per page read). This means your ebooks are exclusive to Kindle. Alternatively, your books can be sold in multiple digital spaces —publishing wide and available on Kindle, but not Kindle Unlimited. Wide vs. Exclusive: A Tale of Two Marketing Systems by David Gaughran is a good resource to help you weigh factors and understand both options. If you’re considering wide, I highly recommend the Facebook Group Wide for the Win, who discuss marketing strategies and have information threads on publishing wide.

Publishing Wide, Some Distributor Factors to Note

Do you want to publish ebook and paperback or just ebook?
Do you want pre-orders? Again —ebook (and paperback)?
How do you feel about managing multiple dashboards on difference distributors/ stores?
Do you want your book to be distributed to libraries as well as stores?
Do you want access to retailers in-house promotions?
Resource: Why Ingram Spark expanded distribution for print books is preferable to Amazon’s, including ISBN advice, by Eric V. Van Der Hope.

Ingram Spark

Allows paper back preorders via Amazon (KDP/ Amazon only allows ebook pre-orders).
-Lets you order paperback author copies before publication, (Amazon doesn’t).
-Requires you to purchase an ISBN for paperbacks.
-Distributes ebook and paperback globally, but multiple sources I’ve read discourage using their ebook distribution.

Draft 2 Digital

D2D charges a 10% commission and has paperback distribution in beta, using Ingram Spark print books.
In-house Apple and Kobo promotions are available via D2D (and not otherwise unless you go direct to these retailers).
Around half the retailers and libraries Smashwords and DraftToDigital distribute to overlap, and these two distributors are joining forces, so signing with one will in time mean you’re with both.


Having uploaded my book to Amazon, Kobo, D2D and Ingram before Smashwords, I found Smashwords dashboard the most challenging to navigate. There’s a LOT of information and links to process. I didn’t find it user friendly. However, I persisted with them because around half the places Smashwords distributes to differ from D2D, and I wanted my ebook available there a.s.a.p.

Distributer Links: Kindle Self Publishing, Ingram Spark, Draft2 Digital and Smashwords.

Going Direct, Some Considerations

By going direct, I mean which stores will you create an account with and upload to directly? In answering that, I’d consider:

Which stores dominate and have the most reach generally?
In which countries do you want to sell your book in and what are the biggest retailers in those markets?
Which retailers have the biggest share of the market in your home country?
Does the store you’re considering pay in your local currency? (Being based outside the US can be a disadvantage here).
What do other indies have to say about their experiences with specific distributors? Have they had issues, what kind and how did they find customer service/ support?

Amazon is obvious for market share and reach. Googleplay store is hardly a leading book retailer, but they’re Google, so that appeals to some indies. (They were unable to verify my Aussie bank account, which is why I’m not direct with them). Barnes and Noble are another logical choice for popularity in America (they only pay Australians in US dollars and the currency conversion fees may be higher than my earnings, so I’m not direct with them). Beyond that, I’d be considering the questions above to decide who to go direct with.

Imprints: do you Need or Want One?

Amazon will display information about your book to potential readers, including ‘publisher.’ If you don’t want Amazon to display ‘publisher (insert your legal name)’, I suggest creating an imprint. Mine is Faraway Fiction Press. I’ve registered it as a business name with the relevant Australian body for tax purposes and it has its own website (to reserve and link the .com domain name to my books).

Resource: For info on the benefits of having your own press, see this post by David Wogan.

ISBNs: Do you Need or Want them?

Many retailers offer a free ISBN, which can only be used for your book at that retailer. So if you use free ISBNs, your ebook will be registered under a different ISBN at each retailer, and that ISBN will link back to that retailer. If you purchase and choose to use your own ISBNs, each format needs its own ISBN, but you can use the same ISBN for your print or audio or ebook at different retailers. ISBNs are free in some countries (Canada and Sweden among them), and are best purchased by their official seller (Bowker) in the US, Australia and elsewhere.

NB: If you distribute print books via Ingram, you must purchase an ISBN. If you only plan to have print books on Amazon, you may prefer to use free ISBNs for everything. Which ISBNs are best —free or paid— depends on which factors you prioritise: saving money, having sequential ISBNs pointing back to you instead of a retailer or other. Many indie authors seem happy with either option.

7. Extend your Author Platform


I suggest setting this up after social media because imposter syndrome is real, and hopefully having been on social media and presented as a writer for at least a few months (I was on social media over a year before I took this step), you will find it more natural to write an author bio and present yourself professionally as an author on your site. Blogs are optional and of course take more time, but they bring a lot more traffic to your site than an author name and book title no-one has heard of, so I recommend them.

If you decide to have a blog, I recommend drafting posts ahead of time. (I teach full time, so I write most blogs in the summer holidays, then edit and publish them once a month).

Resources: Author Website Set Up Tips, Unpublished Authors and Websites by Jane Friedman, 100 Unpublished Author Blog Ideas by Mixtus Media.


Once your site and social media presence are established, its a good time to think about your newsletter. If you only have time for a blog OR a newsletter, here’s a post by Jane Friedman weighing pros and cons of having only either. If you start a newsletter, you’ll need a reader magnet. A 10-20k short story, maybe the origin or background story of a central character or a subplot you had to edit out of your novel can work nicely for this.

Resources: Not sure what to say in your newsletter or where to promote it and how? I’ve blogged ideas in Author Newsletters: the Basics. See also Unpublished Author Newsletters by @LombardEmma. For newsletter providers and more information, see Jane Friedman’s Newsletters for Authors Getting Started Guide.

Part 2

I suspect that’s more than enough information to get you started, and possibly enough to make your head spin, so I’ll end this blog here. Part 2 is packed with ideas and resources for your book launch and initial marketing plan, author profiles, formatting and uploading your book and tips right up to launch day.


I learnt A LOT of the above from conversations with and between the following indie authors:

Cheryl Burman, Historical and SFF author.
Chloe Alice Balkin, Speculative Romance
Chris Vandyke, SFF Author
Rebecca Jonesee, Romance
Dreena Collins
(Jane Harvey)
K. W. Kenny, YA Fantasy Website
Jay Veloso Batista, Fantasy Author. Website
Leia Talon, Fantasy author.
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Further Reading

Just in case your head isn’t exploding with information already, there are more resources on many of the above topics on my Writers Resources Page. I’ll also point you towards a Self Publishing pro, David Gaughram.
If your head is exploding, I suggest bookmarking this post so you can revisit a few of its steps at a time.

Whichever of the above steps you’re at –Good Luck!

Identifying as Nonbinary

In our cis gender, binary, world, I could never have identified my nonbinary gender without a good deal of reflection. With it came two main questions: how could I have recognised my gender identity throughout my life, and to what extent does it explain why I never ‘fit in’?

As a Kid, Gender didn’t matter as much

I’m a nineties kid, born and raised in Australia. Back then, their were boys and girls -that was it. In lower primary, I had two friendship groups. Girls with whom I played imaginary games. And tough boys, who, like me, were inclined to hit back when punched by random bullies in the yard. I got to wear pretty clothes and play with girly toys when I wanted. Alternately, I got to wear baggy t-shirts and shorts when I felt like it. And when I wanted to play with boys toys, my brothers were at my disposal. It was in later primary (around puberty) that I started to feel adrift.

I Don’t Quite Fit

Even before then, as young as eight, female friends had seemed closer to me than I was to them. And I didn’t quite like who I was around them. Something was off about me. Then, I changed schools and made new friends, but they were all girls. I didn’t feel like I connected to them as well as I had connected to boys. But boys saw me differently now. I was a ‘girl’ and someone they did or didn’t have a crush on. And that was it. And it was very disappointing. I had crushes as a teen, but as an asexual, friendship is infinitely more important to me than romantic relationships. I liked a boy at the time, but I didn’t actually want a boyfriend.

Early Teens

In hindsight, something that fuelled what was probably clinical levels of depression in my early teenage years (when I had a lot of non-gender related baggage to sort out), was my isolation. On one hand I was vastly more emotionally mature than most kids my age. On the other, I didn’t relate to a single kid at school when it came to gender identity.

Friendship groups were very much boys or girls in early high school. Boyfriends and dating were a thing. I had no prospect of male friendship. I related to girls even less than I had at primary school. And while I’m asexual, I could find certain boys aesthetically pleasing, or like their personality, but I always felt like they were more into me than I was into them. In hindsight, that’s because I’m also inclined towards a-romantic. So my gender neutral side was not destined to find a partner it related to, as I’ve never really wanted a romantic partner (beyond intellectual curiosity.)

Struggling to Relate

Late high school was bittersweet for me. I made some great friends, but the divide between single me and friends with boyfriends began. I knew some lovely girls in high school. But it wasn’t just the ones who had or sought boyfriends that I drifted away from. It was the more girly ones. They were lovely people, but I didn’t relate to them. They were too feminine. I did have some male friends around this time. There were a few boys who could see me not as a potential girlfriend or a ‘female’, just as a friend. I treasured them.

Boys brought out my gender neutral side. Girls generally brought out my feminine side. But when I’ve been surrounded by girls or women, with no break, I’ve felt kind of smothered. Its like those times use up all my femininity, and my gender neutrality was kind of shut in a room by itself. That was what felt off about having only female friends. That was why I couldn’t connect to girls and I haven’t been able to connect or relate to women the same way they usually connect and relate to me. Because I’m not a woman. The feminine is only half of who I am. When people only respond to my feminine side, displaying awareness of only its existence, it can feel like they only see me on the surface. Like they don’t truly know who I am.

In my Twenties, Nonbinary Clues

At Uni, there was more opportunity for female and male companionship. But I didn’t meet anyone who recognised me, or I them, as nonbinary. So who did I relate to more than 50% of the time? I often (pre-covid) travel by myself, and strike up conversations with retail assistants, people in hospitality and fellow tourists. Since joining Twitter, I’ve been very active in its WritingCommunity and created not one, but three writer Discord Servers. I’m a people loving person, whose always sensed an invisible barrier between myself and most people.

For my entire life, everyone I meet has assumed I am female. Girls and women have welcomed me as such. I have the lived experience of ‘girlhood’ and ‘womanhood’ so yes, I can relate to much of what women say. But in a conversation with multiple women, there always comes that point where the women are connecting more and more, and I’m feeling increasingly emotionally distant from them. I’m like a guest in their world. A welcome guest. On the surface, I fit in very well. But I don’t belong there.

That’s why male friendship and colleagues have always been so important to me. When men see me not as a ‘female’, nor as a potential date, just a person they can chat to and hang out with, my gender neutral side naturally engages with them. The other half of me gets to live. Its like oxygen after a bad head cold. Like pulling off too tight clothing that hinders your movements.

Me standing before Thames River and Parliament house and Big Ben, with backpack on, sunnies on head as its overcast and a glaring smile with short curly brown hair blowing in the wind.
Travelling, 2014.

Gender Fluid Clues

And this is probably a good point for me to define the problem with ‘woman’ as an identity for me. Yes, I can relate to much of it. I can relate to the feminine as a feminine person. But at the end of the day, its a garment that’s too tight. It doesn’t allow me to be all I am. It masks my gender neutrality and my masculine side with make up and pretty clothes and all the cis female expectations society attaches to those.

When I told my mum I’m nonbinary, she tried to relate by saying how she enjoyed dressing up as a man at a dress up party once. When I wear a pretty dress and make up to dinner (very rarely), that’s almost the same to me as going to dinner dressed as a man. Why? Because it isn’t who I am. Yes, I do sometimes wear dresses. But I’ve donated the prettiest to charity. I like them, but I’d rather pin them to my wall and admire them. Or admire them on women. I don’t actually feel like wearing them much, because they’re not me.

I talk about ‘women’ -not me. I talk about ‘men’ -also not me. If you’ve noticed this, it shouldn’t surprise you that in my twenties I defined myself simply as, ‘I am not most people. I do not do what most people do. I cannot relate to either binary gender the way they relate to themselves, or each other.’

I know Who I Want to Be When I Grow Up!

Other kids looked to pop stars etc, and said, ‘I want to be like that when I grow up!’ I never felt that way. I saw only little bits of me in any one person, perhaps in part because they were all binary men and women. But in my early twenties, I saw much of myself in a fictional character. A sociable, people loving person. A traveler, passing through, helping out where they can: Dr Who. No, not Jodie Whitaker. David Tenant’s portrayal. And Matt Smith’s. I find Dr Who in the new seasons quite androgynous. Unbound by gender in character, behaviour, thinking and feeling. And that removes what would otherwise have been a barrier to other Dr Who traits I relate to.

Gender Fluid –Wardrobe Development

When I started teaching in 2011, I was drawn to women’s professional clothing. Its more stylish, interesting, arty or attractive. And I like elegance. So in summer, when I noticed very few smart shorts for women, I found myself in dresses five days a week. By Friday, I felt like the wind had gone out of my sails. I wasn’t quite myself. I also noticed that when I skipped my usual evening run, I felt sad. In hindsight, it wasn’t exercise I missed most. It was doing what has traditionally been a masculine activity, in gender neutral clothes, which gave my gender neutral side room to breathe.

From then onwards, I made a point of wearing gender neutral casual clothes at home, and for exercise. I reserved feminine clothing as much as practical for work. Dressing half the time in a feminine way and half the time gender neutral worked for me. That’s a nice clear point to establish that I’m not only nonbinary, I’m gender fluid. My mood, my responses, which other gender I relate to best changes not just every day, but can change throughout the day as well.

In recent years, I’ve removed the prettiest clothing in my wardrobe. I’m happiest in clothing I can be comfortable in whether I’m in a feminine or a more gender neutral mood, as that’s likely to change after I get dressed for the day. And while I can be happy in androgynous clothing for five days in a row, I’ll often wear dresses for a couple of days after that. Its all about balancing gender neutral and feminine for me.

Still Not Relating

A teacher in my twenties, its after 2011 and I still haven’t claimed ‘gender fluid’ or ‘nonbinary’ as my identity. One of many schools I’ve worked at liked Friday night drinks. It was usually a few women and a few men. Every time, we’d start off sitting and talking together. Then came that inevitable point when the women gravitated towards and chatted with one another and the men did the same. I always, usually quite literally, found myself sitting in the middle, drawn to neither. I’d sit looking from one to the other, and have to choose which to make an effort to join in with. Sometimes I’d just listen and sip my drink for twenty minutes, before saying a word. That’s unlike me. Here was more proof that I simply did not relate, connect or gravitate to a binary gender the way either gravitates towards itself.

Appropriate Labels

So when did I FINALLY find the words to name the identity I’d pretty much figured out by now? It was after Miley Cyrus identified as ‘girl’ and ‘boy.’ After a celebrity or two announced that they would like to be referred to by the personal pronoun ‘they’. In a society seeing and expecting nothing but binary male or female, words were finally finding me.

That wasn’t the end. By now, I was in my thirties. Still teaching. I’d had a lifetime of not relating to either binary gender the way they related to each other. A lifetime of being a stranger, just passing through, who meets, likes and helps people, then moves on, without fully connecting. I defined myself now as simply ‘other’. As ‘labels, boxes, societal conventions, blah, blah, blah don’t apply to me’.

In my teens, I was often labelled an ‘airhead’ because being a pretty, female-presenting, thin person was perceived as scientific proof of lack of brain cells (or so thought many a moron). I’d been labelled a ‘slut’ in my teens at times too (oh yes, despite zero dating, kissing or even hand holding and oh yeah, being asexual!) I was used to not being seen, being mislabelled (and in my teenage years, to thinking most people were idiots because they consistently failed to notice SO MANY things that were bloody obvious to me).

Gender Identity Became A Thing

Now, I was 33 and had joined Twitter’s WritingCommunity. By this time, ‘sex’ was no longer a synonymn for ‘gender’. People didn’t speak of ‘gender reassignment surgery’, like they had in the nineties. Now, I’d come more often across the word ‘trans’. I was introduced to the idea that gender identity, who a person is in their mind, their heart, their soul can differ from biological sex. I started hearing that trans men are men, and trans women are women. For the first time in my life, a fact that was self evident to me was finally visible to other people: that biological sex does not determine a person’s gender.

Twitter was the first time in my life that I was given the choice of stating my personal pronouns. Not having them dictated to me by a cis, binary gender society. Of actually telling people who I was, myself. But what the fuck words did I use?

Label & Personal Pronoun Aversion

Then there was the other problem. I’d privately concluded that when it comes to my gender, people have no fucking clue what I am. There was no point trying to tell them something they knew nothing about, using words that didn’t exist. I’d forgiven them for their ignorance and was moving on with my life.

Now the words did exist. But for thirty three years I’d never applied them to me. Since the age of fifteen, I’d had an aversion to boxes, labels or categories of any sort. After all that time resisting boxes, did I now elect to put myself into one? And having called myself simply ‘nonconformist’ in my teens, ‘other’ in my twenties and simply ‘me’ by my thirties, did I now want to give my gender a name that was foreign to me? I’d heard that ‘they’ singular was becoming a thing, but it too had had nothing to do with me for my entire life.

I totally accepted the idea of putting personal pronouns in Twitter bios. It challenged the assumption that biological sex is the sole determinant of gender. It encouraged cis people looking at a profile pic, going ‘biological male = man’, to stop, and recognise that actually, she is a trans woman. I also liked the idea of normalising personal pronouns in bios, so the onus of identifying gender isn’t just on trans people, its on everyone. Why am I not mentioning nonbinary folks here? Because the conversation I saw at that time didn’t yet include nonbinary people.

Overcoming my Label Aversion

My problem? Other people called me she/ her/ woman all my life. They were the only personal pronouns. Suddenly I had the choice to use ‘they’. I didn’t, at first. I used she/her to signal my Twitter feed was a trans friendly space. But it felt wrong. So I pulled back to ‘she’. On its own, ‘she’ wasn’t enough. ‘They’ was still alien, so for a year, I went to no pronouns. (If you’re in this boat, ‘all pronouns welcome’ or ‘pronouns any’ is a good way to indicate your account is trans friendly. I only heard of it later).

By now, its was 2020. Months of lockdown awaited me, as did unemployment when I spent lockdown in Australia and couldn’t return to teaching in New Zealand. I had time to think. To reflect. And FINALLY, I met and interacted with nobinary people on Twitter. It was a short leap to realise I’d found my people. To re-writing my author bio on this site using they/ them/ their pronouns, to try it on.

For a few weeks, I felt painfully aware of personal pronouns in general. Every pronoun in my author bio seemed to be shouting. But I kept switching my pronouns, on Discord, then Twitter. Because it felt right. It fit. And in telling people my personal pronouns aren’t just ‘she/her’, they’re ‘they/ them and their’, I felt like I was giving myself room to breath. To speak, act, dress and relate to others in a gender neutral way when I was in a gender neutral mood. To be masculine on occasion and to act feminine when I felt that. With a balance of feminine and gender neutral, in clothing, speech, actions and how I relate to other people, throughout my day and week, I’m comfortable. Happiest. Myself.

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Related Reading

I Just Came Out as Nonbinary, Here’s What That Means, by Arlo, at Minus18.

Gender Definitions and Personal Pronoun info & advice, by NPR.

On perceiving nonbinary: Some Thoughts on Being Nonbinary by Luke Roelofs.

Manipulator’s War: Origins

My first novel began as a speculative mission seeking answers to things teenage me wanted to know. Like, if grown ups are so mature, with so much knowledge, patience ect, why do sane adults start wars? And where can I hang out with people as emotionally mature as me? And when can teenagers do shit that actually matters, instead of stereotypical, hormonal, dull, monotonous real-world crap? Where’s the action, adventure and interesting places? And how fast can you rush through them, trying to achieve how many goals? This blog explores the influences that answered these questions in my first YA Fantasy Manipulator’s War.

Narnia’s Influence

My escapism into fantasy began with Narnia, read to four-year-old me by my mum. To this day, I enjoy re-reading the books periodically, so naturally my first fantasy featured a royal heir and characters from the real world. I liked contrasting a blunt, irreverent Aussie cast with posh, British-inspired rulers, so Linh, Troy, Fiona and Michael are Australian. And while Narnia seemed a place for C.S. Lewis to revisit his childhood, teenage me was grappling with grief and trying to understand the world I lived in. So my Ruarnon Trilogy was going to be darker. It would be as uncertain and insecure as I found life (and later the pandemic). There wouldn’t be physically present gods, this would be an antheist’s reply to Narnia.

Archaeology and Realism

Teenage me knew that in kids books bad guys are bad and good guys are good and those are the lies adults tell kids, the real world being far more complicated (and hopefully less sexist and gender diverse oblivious now than it was when I was a kid). At Uni, I studied the ancient Mediterranean World. I learned that for all the talk of nobility and what’s right and just in kids books, usually people start wars because other people have stuff, and they want it. But that was boring. A king who believed in pacifism declaring war would be much more interesting. Maybe I could have the greedy bastards wanting to seize stuff somehow twisting said ruler’s arm to make them go to war against their will? What would that take? Yes, Manipulator’s War answers this question 😉.

As for ‘bad guys are bad and good guys are good’, wouldn’t it more interesting if the ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ had the same values, goals and desires? The same motivations? So Kyura and his traitor-filled court came to be, opposite Ruarnon and their generally more loyal court.

My external conflict would be people wanting stuff. Those people (the Zaldeans) philosophies and beliefs about the afterlife are influenced by Celtic Warrior culture. To make it interesting, they’d need to be an empire. But ’empire conquers kingdom in exponential expansion’ = boring. Rome vs. Carthage is more interesting because it could go either way. What about a war that had gone both ways, between an empire invading a colony-turned-kingdom allied to a second empire? The allied empire would need to be a sometimes selfish, unreliable ally, because undying loyalty is predictable. Enter the Timbalen Empire.

The Ancient World

Manipulator's War cover on fragmented yellow paint background.
Cover by GlintofMischief.

As for a setting, I studied ancient Egypt at Uni, so there was every chance fashion, architecture and Tarlahn afterlife beliefs would have Egyptian influences. I particularly liked the idea of the heir becoming co-ruler with the current king, for on-the-job learning. The fashions would be more androgynous than the world I’d grown up in, and Tarlahns would be more accepting of nonbinary and gender non-comforming people than say, the Romans. Meanwhile, the Zaldean Empire would be hardcore warrior and generally toxic masculinity, hence the Zaldean insatiable appetite for war.

Characters Getting Bits of Me

But what of characters? I’d have a ‘prince,’ yes. But I’m nonbinary, and I wanted to write an alternate form of ‘masculinity’. In hindsight this was a nonbinary main character using he/him and they/them pronouns. But mixed pronouns for a point of view character written in third person may do reader’s heads in, so I stuck to they/ them. To balance the patriarchy and sexism of the Zaldeans, and ‘good guy’ Tarlahns, I’d need ‘gender non-comforming’ (read kick arse and highly competent 😉) women: enter Ruarnon’s best friend Lenaris and General Takanis.

What of the Aussie characters? As recently as 2020 I thought, I really should write some more diverse characters. So Michael became indigenous Australian. (The Murai were always BIPOC, and never colonised or enslaved). But what of LGBTQ+ and neurodiversity? Well, my aversion to labels had, it turned out, prevented me from identifying as nonbinary. I knew I was asexual, though only later in life did I hear of a-romantic. When I did, sure enough, I realised I’d subconsciously written a nonbinary main character (Ruarnon), with an Aussie offsider who was asexual and aromantic (Linh).

I decided to give the portal characters their own personalities and voices by portioning my own character traits between them and exaggerating those traits. Again, only later in life with the benefit of much reflection, can I spot that Michael got my autistic traits, while Troy embraced my ADHD ones wholeheartedly. Fiona was the ‘normal’ character, but she’s a sweety, so I think we can forgive her.

Internal Struggles

Ruarnon would carry the weight of their people’s survival on their shoulders. They would be a bookish heir, standing in the shadow of a war hero father, defending their people. Inexperience and an introverted personality would make them struggle to persuade others to follow them. They would be quiet and thoughtful, when the people are used to loud, large leaders swinging their spears around.

As for Linh and my portal characters, having apparently stumbled into a fantasy world by accident (it wasn’t accidental ofcourse, but only later do they learn why), uncertainty would be the bain of their existence. Restlessness, and having to choose between staying safe and never seeing loved ones back home again would propel them into danger. And through the experience none of us wanted of uncertainty during a pandemic, their challenge would mirror ours. As may the strategies they would learn to maintain perspective and to manage their mental health.

L.O.T.R, Harry Potter & Shakespeare

I love the fellowship in Lord of the Rings, and how close knit (after Edmund sees the light) the Pevensie children are. Friendship in the face of adversity was an obvious theme to explore. But so would be manipulation, treachery for self-gain and the struggle to sustain belief in what is right in the face of overwhelming opposition. That way was likely to lead to tragedy and is how I suspect studying Macbeth, and learning that tragedy in ancient Greek stories was thought to expunge the spirit of evil thoughts, bled into Manipulator’s War.

Another large thread of my Ruarnon Trilogy was influenced by the Harry Potter books, a thread of mystery. I’ve watched many murder mysteries, Midsummer Murders and Poirot being among my favourites. But the standard elements of a Who Dunnit are SO familiar to readers and viewers. I wanted something less predictable, an alternative, like who betrayed Harry’s parents and what truly motivates Professor Snape?

The greatest mystery I could align with my story was who is Nartzeer, what does he want, and how can everything my characters learn about him be turned up-sidedown? How can Ruarnon and allies anticipate, let alone combat an enemy whose acts of hostility make no sense to them? That mystery, and developing my ultimate antagonist, King Nartzeer and his backstory were my favourite parts in writing this trilogy. I hope you have or will enjoy reading Manipulator’s War nearly as much as I did writing it.

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Related Reading

For more about me and my writing, see my interview by fellow author and poet Lily.

You’ll find Manipulator’s War on Amazon and these stores.

Indie Story Geek you now know that the person who emailed you did indeed write Manipulator’s War 😉.

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