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As Oscar Wilde didn’t say: ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken’. (No really, he didn’t.)
In our early novels, we’re more likely to see our main characters as proxies for ourselves. But there comes a stage where we learn more versatility, and to create new hearts, souls and minds to carry our stories. This was one of the interesting findings of a project organised by a team of researchers at Durham University and reported here in The Guardian.
Authors who took part in the survey were asked how they experience their main characters while writing. Those with many books reported that in their early work they saw the main character as a proxy for themselves. Sometimes it was simply wish fulfilment. Sometimes it was a deeper working, perhaps of a problem they couldn’t express in the real world, or an issue they had left undone. It was only in later books that they were aware they were creating individuals who had their own distinct hopes, dreams, values and reactions.
Does it matter?
Interesting though this is, does it matter? It depends. When editing, I’ve certainly seen where it goes wrong. There might be a sense that the main character’s viewpoint is never challenged, or nobody else in the book is as vivid, or all the other characters victimise, worship or pander to the narrator. It can look like the book lacks any perspective that would engage an outsider.
If you’re writing from your own trauma or sense of injustice, no matter how wronged you feel you still have to win the reader round. Indeed Anne R Allen has written hilariously about protagonists who turn readers off - usually because the writer has put themselves too literally into the story.
Here are some of the problems I’ve noticed.
Passive main characters
In a writer’s early books, the main character is often passive. They do very little on their own initiative; they merely react to what is going on. In real life, writing often appeals to people who are observers and analysers. And even if we aren’t, most of us would prefer trouble to go away. But readers find it exasperating if characters don’t at some point take charge or counter-attack. The passive default is generally one of the first reactions a novice writer must unlearn.
Unwillingness to alter events
Sometimes our emotional investment in the book can cloud our critical faculties. At the writing group I used to go to, I remember one lady who read from her novel, which was about a divorce. When we started to question events that seemed far-fetched, she snapped angrily: ‘but that’s what really happened’. Discussions went downhill from there.
Events need to matter more
Drawing on our own experience might produce tunnel vision. It might also stop us taking an idea as far as it could go.
I remember a very early attempt I made to write a story about my experiences with repetitive strain injury when I was a journalist. It was strangely flat. Although I managed to entertain with the strange medical tests, mystery and uncertainty, it was at best lightweight because the stakes weren’t significant. The worst that could happen was that the proxy me might have to get a different job, but that wasn’t a major challenge to my soul that would hook a reader with its urgency. This made me unhappy, because I wanted to write the crisis of somebody’s life…
Then ghostwriting taught me how real life is just material – and material that needs a snappy tailor. (Lots more here about ghostwriting if you’re curious.)
I had a use for my RSI scenario. It was time to adjust real life and amplify. The major amplification was the main character. Now, after writing a lot of fiction as other people, my first novel was the chance to write as me. But my narrator couldn’t be me, the real me muddling through with average demons and crises. She needed desperation. What’s more, her desperation, although it had to be particular to her, had to speak for a more fundamental essence of the human condition – in this case, a search for meaning and love. Perhaps that potential was in my mind all along in that early story, but it didn’t become fully potent until I invented the character who needed it.
If you’ve read My Memories of a Future Life you’ll be recognising her. Carol has elements of my personality and I certainly felt I was her when I wrote her. She comes from things I understand. But she isn’t me. She is herself, created as the person who needs the journey and healing process of that story.
Paftoo of Lifeform Three isn’t me either, though he started with my love of horses and the things we have lost from the past. I then put that in a situation and personality that would cause the utmost trouble, a fight for his very soul. And for Ever Rest I have four, perhaps five viewpoint characters, all with their own consciousnesses, issues and inclinations. I am not those five people.
How to write a character who isn’t like you
Start with something you relate to – what if you lost something that makes you feel alive? Then mine the deeper level and remove yourself. Every time your character reacts, question it. Ask if that’s your own setting, and if it could be bigger, better or different. Find a key for that new character to sing in. Examine their approach to life, betes noires, responses to stress, desires.
In fact, we all have many characters we could create because we already know how to be different. What are you like with your parents? Is it the same as the way you are with your boss? How about the person you are when talking to a person you want to impress, or the head teacher at your child’s school? You already know how to be different at an instinctive level.
So, to mangle the legacy of Oscar even more (because he still didn’t say ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken): don’t be yourself. Use yourself to invent the people your story needs.
Pic of Oscar by Napoleon Sarony, Wikimedia Commons.
There are a lot more tips about writing a character who’s not like you in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated
What stage are you at? Who are your main characters? If you’ve created people who are proxies for you, was that intentional? Unavoidable? Brilliantly effective? Has that caused problems or interesting feedback from readers and editors? Have you created characters who aren’t like you? If you’ve written many books, have you noticed a shift? Let’s share thoughts!
Anne R Allen, authors, Be yourself, beginners, books, Character, deepen your story, developing a character, Durham University, entertainment, everyone else is taken, fiction, find your writing voice, Fix and Finish With Confidence, getting into character, having ideas, Hearing the Voice project, how to find your writing voice, how to write a book, how to write a novel, literary characters, literary fiction, literature, main character, main characters, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, novels, Oscar Wilde, Oscar Wilde sayings, publishing, Roz Morris, The Guardian, Writers' Inner Voices, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel
My guest this week is another writer with music in his very bones. His novel features four friends who keep their troubled lives on an even keel by singing in a quartet, and is inspired by his own experiences singing bass with an an award-winning capella group. In the novel, his characters are in search of a state of harmony called The Fifth Voice, where all the hearts and minds are playing as one entity. He is Paul Connolly and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
a capella, authors, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Fifth Voice, friendship, John Barry, John Lennon, Kenneth Tynan, male friendship, male friendships, male writers, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Paul Connolly, playlist for writers, quartets, Roz Morris, singers, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, The Fifth Voice, The Royal Harmonics, the Sergeant Pepper album, The Undercover Soundtrack, Thomas Tallis, troubled lives, undercover soundtrack, Van Morrison, vocalists, voice, writers, writing, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life, writing to music
I’m reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness, and its style is rather striking. It’s an omniscient narrator hopping between a lot of heads. The dialogue is run into the rest of the prose, with no punctuation to distinguish it from the rest of the prose. Yes, no quote marks. Not even a dash. Sometimes the dialogue has no tags to tell us who’s speaking – or indeed that it is speech. When the characters speak, it’s not even presented in separate sentences, let alone paragraphed.
A typical spread looks like this
Dense, long paragraphs. Rather offputting, isn’t it? It looks like the book will be a horrendous muddle and heavy going. Dave – who will give most styles a fair crack – tossed it down in disgust, muttering about pretentious gimmicks.
It’s certainly risky to mess with the conventions of dialogue. I frequently see novice manuscripts where all the dialogue is reported. This creates a distanced effect, as if no one in the book is really alive. It also creates a dense block of text that – as you can see – looks forbidding to the eye (although not many writers take it to the lengths Saramago has). But Blindness is enhanced by this style. Let’s look at why.
The society is the focus While there are certain characters who are central, Saramago’s interest is an event that breaks the normal structures of civilisation. The omniscient view and the technique of running the dialogue together in long sentences builds on this. It means they are part of a bigger picture. The focus can be on anyone – the person whose actions are the most interesting or urgent to watch at a given moment.
The main characters become more vulnerable There are key characters, and this style creates a sense that they are more fragile. In any story that follows just a few viewpoints, we’re aware that most of them must continue as consciousnesses until the end of the book. In the dangerous world of this story, anyone could vanish and the world will go on being narrated. So the threat to them is more real.
Nothing is confusing Despite the unconventional presentation, you can usually tell who’s talking. Where you can’t, it’s either not important – or the point is to experience confusion.
It’s set up carefully All stories have to introduce the reader to the rules of the world, and any quirks of the style. Saramago starts as he means to go on, tuning you in so you look carefully at the prose to see if someone’s talking and who it is.
He doesn’t throw us into this many-voiced chorus straight away. The first few chapters follow a limited cast, so we get to know them. This gives us figures who are anchors in the later chapters – if they survive. He assembles a large cast quite quickly, but they are connected with these originals by the establishing scenes so it’s easy to remember who’s who.
There is also a consistency of style, although this may not consciously be noticed by the reader. One paragraph – which may go on for many pages – is a scene.
The story has momentum The style may be unorthodox, but he’s keeping the story moving. Curiosity pulls us along. The stakes keep building, the situation is running further out of control. We keep reading to find where it is going.
I haven’t read very far so I’m looking forward to even more interesting effects, but my final point is this. The run-on presentation with few traditional markers is like hearing a lot of voices and being unable to tell who is who. Isn’t that like being struck blind? It is also panicky, as though things are happening too fast to take proper note of them. It feels out of control (although the writer is tightly in command). You might even say it’s breaking convention as the society of the book is disintegrating. It makes the characters disturbingly into a herd, stripping them of individuality. This clever style choice reflects the experience of the sighted people, who have quarantined the blind people for fear they will catch it. We are at once seeing the story two ways.
This style is creating and amplifying the experience of the world. Wow.
No spoilers, please, as I want to discover the book’s surprises in the proper way… but let’s talk about styles. Have you read a novel with an apparently challenging style that enhances the material?
authors, Blindness, characters, deepen your story, dialogue, entertainment, fiction, Fix and Finish With Confidence, how to write a book, how to write a novel, Jose Saramago, literary fiction, literature, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Nobel Prize, novels, novice writer mistakes, publishing, Roz Morris, style, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing style
My guest this week is writing about a very personal project – a book of oil paintings that contain a story where a young boy is watched by his grandfather. She was inspired by her memories of her father who died tragically young, and she struggled to do him justice in a medium that allowed her so few words. Her guide was the music of Enya, and certain signature tracks carried the emotions she was looking for as she painted and wrote – love, loss, the swift march of time, letting go and still loving. She is Natalie Buske Thomas and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, Desert Island Discs, Doctor Who, Doctor Who convention Minneapolis, drama, entertainment, Enya, family, Grandpa, Grandpa Smiles, grandparents, grieving, loss, love, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Natalie Buske Thomas, oil painting, oil paintings, parents, personal project, picture book, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing from grief, writing from loss, writing to music
You might remember the terrific question Adam Nicholls asked me about daily wordcounts and now he’s sent me this: May I pick your brain about fleshing out a character? I’m struggling with someone who’s addicted to heroin.
What a challenging subject. It’s daunting to portray a character whose experience is well beyond your own, especially to such an extreme. Here’s where one of my day jobs comes in handy. My freelance gig on a doctors’ magazine means I’ve edited a lot of pieces by people who help addicts. So this is my checklist for creating a plausible, three-dimensional character in the grip of a demonic addiction, whether illegal drugs, alcohol or a habit such as gambling.
Choose your poison
The addictive drugs have different effects. Adam has already decided his character uses heroin but you might want your character speeded up, slowed down, made more confident or just mickey finned. For one of my ghosted novels I needed a drug that would produce ghastly, debilitating hallucinations with possible flashbacks and could be easily obtained by ravers. With that wish list I decided on ketamine. (A horse anaesthetic, since you ask. Horrible if taken by humans. And make sure your internet firewall is working. You’ll find some seriously shaky stuff.)
Decide how the drug or habit alters their personality
The drug will probably amplify or change certain parts of your character’s personality. So you need to know what they were like without the drug. And remember personality is not the same as back story. Although you might use back story to demonstrate a traumatic event that led them to addiction, their reaction is individual. That same event may have had a completely different effect on another person.
Consider what the drug does for them
What do they get out of it? Why did they like it at first? Why did they try it? Have they used other drugs and what did those do for them? Are they calmer, more intensely concentrated, does it take the edge off, make them more confident, ease awkwardness with other people, numb a sense of not belonging, being fundamentally wrong or dull some other pain?
Decide how addiction controls them
You’ll undoubtedly be reading first-hand accounts of addicts and those who have been close to addicts. But you can also do a little role-play yourself to understand a person in the grip of a fierce dependence. You may not have dabbled with drugs, but I’ll bet there’s something in your life that is so important you arrange everything around it. Your children, partner, job may all govern your day-to-day decisions and choices. So you know what it’s like to place something at the centre of your life and defend it when necessary. This is like your addict’s need.
What does your addict do to fund the habit and how does that impact their life? Do they steal? If so, do they commit crimes or do they steal from the people close to them? Or are they independently wealthy? Is their supply guaranteed or do they struggle to find the drugs? What dangerous people might their habit bring them into contact with?
Significant others who aren’t addicted
How does the addiction affect the lives of those around them? What story conflicts might that create? Does your character have family and friends who aren’t addicted? How do they react? How are relationships changed by it? Who might be driven away? Who might grow closer in an attempt to help? Who knew the character before they were like this? Who has only known them since it started?
Does your addict have the capacity to stop? What might help them? What might throw them back down?
Introduce the reader to the behaviour that will be abnormal
Your addict character won’t behave like the others. If they develop the addiction through the story, you can introduce their bizarre actions gradually. But if they’re already addicted at the start, you need to handle the character-establishing scenes carefully in case the reader mistakes them for clumsy writing or refuses to believe them. This may be tricky for you to judge by yourself, so when you give the book to beta readers, ask for feedback about it.
Ultimately, when writing an addicted character, it’s not about the substance/habit or the extreme physical experiences. Concentrate on their personality, priorities, conflicts and other people. Thanks for a terrific question, Adam – I’ve enjoyed tackling this.
There are a lot more tips about writing a character who’s not like you in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated
Guys, do you have any tips to add? Have you had to write a character who’s addicted, or somebody whose world is significantly different from your own?
Adam Nicholls, addiction, authors, back story, Character, characters, characters who are alcoholics, characters who are compulsive gamblers, characters who are drug addicts, characters who use drugs, deepen your story, drug addict personality, drug misuse, Elementary, entertainment, fiction, fictional characters, Fix and Finish With Confidence, how to write a book, how to write a character who's a drug addict, how to write a drug addict, how to write a drug misuser, how to write a novel, lifelike fictional characters, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, publishing, Roz Morris, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing characters who are addicts, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel
My guest this week used the Moonlight Sonata to guide her through her latest novel. A central character was a pianist, and the story explores the emotions and reckonings that emerge in the wake of his death. She says the Moonlight pulled her in surprising directions, peeling off the layers of a family’s bonds and rifts, and illuminating a complex web of relationships and resentments. The piece became so significant that when she launched the novel, she persuaded her husband to give a performance of the first movement. She is award-winning author Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, Beethoven, central character, classical pianists, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, Dolly Parton, drama, entertainment, Gary Oldman as Beethoven, Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn, literary novels, Moonlight, Moonlight Sonata, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, pianists, pianos, playlist for writers, relationship, Roz Morris, The Moonlight Sonata, The Piano Player, The Piano Player's Son, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, Worcestershire Literary Festival flash fiction competition, writers, writers who use music, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing to music
My guest this week had talismanic pieces of music in his mind while he wrote his debut thriller. Indeed he says the music was such a guiding force that he cannot imagine how anyone reading the book could not hear it too. He chose anthems to embody his characters, their state of mind, their dilemmas and the way they change in the story’s events. They are protest songs, wry looks at characters who are abandoning their principles and songs of obsession and downfall. I’m also delighted to report that he includes Peter Gabriel – one of my long-time favourite musicians. He is Paul Sean Grieve and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
Animotion, authors, Christina Aguilera, contemporary fiction, debut thriller, Desert Island Discs, drama, Eddy Grant, entertainment, Gotye, Honduras, Katrina and the Waves, Kenny Rogers, male writers, Midnight Oil, Moulin Rouge, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Paul Sean Grieve, Peter Gabriel, playlist for writers, Poison: A Novel, reggae, rock, Roz Morris, The Police, The Undercover Soundtrack, thriller, thrillers, Toronto, toxicology, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing to music
All this week I’ve been running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write , making a character distinct through dialogue , a fundamental misconception about self-editing and letting the manuscript rest. I want to end on this note -
The revision journey
A clear message emerged as we discussed my usual stops in the self-editing process – checking the pace, structure, character arcs, tone, using beat sheets and the number of passes you might do to get a scene right. Revision is more than a process of tidying and troubleshooting. It is a voyage towards a state where we know our book extremely well.
It reminds me of when I was at school, revising for chemistry A-level. For a long time the equations and Periodic Table rules seemed an impossible amount of information. I kept rereading my notes, hoping more would sink in, when gradually I noticed it was making sense as a grand pattern. From that point, I felt I could use it.
When I first start to revise a novel, it is a mystery to me. I wouldn’t scrape even a GCSE pass. Revision brings familiarity, clarity, the insight to understand what human forces are at work in the book, how the themes will bind it together, where the most fundamental resonance lies. And that’s why I find revision is more than a process of correcting, polishing or changing. It is learning to use my material. And it is thoroughly creative.
The beat sheet is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence. There’s also more about it here.
Having inflicted a new post on you for the last 7 days, I’ll be a bit less prolific next week. The next novel-nailing post will be on 17 August, although there will be an Undercover Soundtrack as usual. And of course I’ll be answering comments. On that note -
Any thoughts on the creativity of the revision process? Let’s comment! Except for Robert Scanlon, who raised this point already in his most recent note here. Robert, you can give yourself a gold star for being ahead of the class :)
authors, beat sheet, chemistry A level, editing, entertainment, fiction, Fix and Finish With Confidence, get distance, Guardian masterclass, Guardian newspapers, having ideas, how to edit your novel, how to use words, how to write a book, how to write a novel, I want to edit my book, I want to edit my novel, interesting questions, masterclass, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, novels, polishing, publishing, revising, revision, Roz Morris, self-editing, self-editing for fiction writers, what you really meant, write a good book, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel
All this week I’ve been running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write , making a character distinct through dialogue and a fundamental misconception about self-editing. Today I’m talking about the rest period before we edit.
Putting the book away to get distance
How long do you have to put your book aside before you can see it objectively? One student asked this because he’d left his in a drawer for several years. However, when he read it again, he couldn’t judge whether it worked because he remembered exactly what he meant to say.
One of the biggest editing problems is spotting the difference between what you mean and what comes across. It’s possible that this gentleman did write the novel perfectly. Or maybe he has an unusually retentive memory and will never be able to judge that for himself.
My own memory is terrible. I can barely remember a book I read two months ago – whether my own or anyone else’s. Never before have I considered this to be an advantage but perhaps it is.
Moreover, his point made me realise how individual our writing and revision routines have to be, and also the fundamental essential of the rest period. Leave your book until you’ve forgotten it and are no longer reliving your intentions as you read. If you know you’ll always have trouble with this, or your production schedule doesn’t allow a long wait, line up some beta readers for the test drive.
(Thanks for the pic, Phineas H)
Tomorrow: what revision really means
How long do you leave your manuscripts before you edit? What’s the longest you’ve ever left one? And has anyone seen my car keys?
authors, editing, entertainment, fiction, Fix and Finish With Confidence, get distance, Guardian masterclass, Guardian newspapers, having ideas, how to edit your novel, how to use words, how to write a book, how to write a novel, I want to edit my book, I want to edit my novel, interesting questions, masterclass, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, novels, polishing, publishing, revising, revision, Roz Morris, self-editing, self-editing for fiction writers, what you really meant, write a good book, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel
This week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write and making a character distinct through dialogue. Today I’m tackling a fundamental misconception about self-editing.
Editing is not just tweaking the language
One lady in the masterclass shared a story that illustrates a common misapprehension of novice writers. She said she had come close to a publishing deal, but the imprint folded. Before that, they mentioned the book had some problems and were talking about editing. On her own again, and unable to ask them any more details, she assumed they must be talking about the language, and so she worked to write it in a more suitable way. Still, though, she was unhappy with it and she knew she hadn’t solved the problems.
Editing veterans will be nodding sagely here, knowing that language is only one of our considerations. I’ve leaped into this trap myself. In the early days when I was querying agents, I’d get feedback that mentioned a few rough areas. I made the only possible assumption – that I needed to make the ‘writing’ somehow better. And so I fiddled, line by line, adding and pruning here and there. I probably ended up with an over-bloated muddle and didn’t touch the underlying problems. I had no idea about the mechanisms that work under the words, and that language is really the skin on top of the structure, pacing and character arcs.
Tomorrow: Putting the book away to get distance
How about you? Have you made the same rookie mistake about editing? Or a different one? Let’s discuss!
authors, editing, entertainment, epilogue, fiction, fiction characters, Fix and Finish With Confidence, Guardian masterclass, Guardian newspapers, having ideas, how to edit your novel, how to use words, how to write a book, how to write a novel, I want to edit my book, I want to edit my novel, interesting questions, language, literary fiction, literary style, masterclass, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, novels, polishing, publishing, revising, revision, romance writer, Roz Morris, self-editing, self-editing for fiction writers, using words well, villains, words, write a good book, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel
I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- So You Want To Be A Writer? New radio show to get you started September 29, 2014
- Novels aren’t movie scripts: how to write great dialogue in prose September 28, 2014
- ‘Tom Waits makes my brain chemistry change’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Trevor Richardson September 24, 2014
- The gap in your narrative, the scene you’re avoiding – stop and brainstorm! September 21, 2014
- ‘Memory lightning’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Nick Cook September 17, 2014
- Self-publishing answers: from writing to finding your readers – podcast with Nick Thacker September 14, 2014
- How to publish ebooks – the beginner’s ultimate guide September 11, 2014
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