In the Spirit of NaNoWrimo - My Personal Challenge Summary

In October, I mentioned that I was planning to take on a personal ‘off-the-books’ NaNoWriMo challenge during November 2018. Official participants attempt to write at least 50,000 words over thirty days.

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Less than 20% of participants finish the 50,000 words. Wanting to write is easy. Actual writing is hard.

For 2018, in concert with the NaNoWriMo calendar, I decided to commit to the same amount of hours it would require to reach 50,000 words if I were officially participating.

I’m editing/rewriting a manuscript at present and didn’t want to start a new project, so I thought a writing time goal would be a good substitute for using words produced.

I’ve successfully completed a couple of official NaNoWriMo challenges before, so I used past experience as a guide. So how did I set my personal target of hours at the keyboard?

Dictation significantly increases productivity. The main difference between my approach and the average participant’s is that I use dictation almost exclusively rather than typing. And I’m very experienced with it since I’ve been using the industry leader Dragon NaturallySpeaking software for more than ten years. It allows for many more words written per hour than typing at the keyboard. I can literally take a prepared scene sheet with the story beats laid out in reasonable detail and dictate a chapter in half the time it would take me to type it. I also find that dictation short circuits the negative critical voice that gets in the way of a first draft. Just looking at the scene sheet and riffing out the chapter without watching the screen is a great way to get ideas down quickly that you can then carve into something worthwhile. First drafts are just that.

A good typist who comes into NaNoWriMo with a well thought out and organized story concept (including a rough outline containing the major scene-by-scene beats) conceivably might average 40 words a minute (2,400 words per hour) of first draft material. At 40 words a minute, the 50,000 word goal would require only 20.8 hours of work. Using dictation, I can easily double or even triple the typist’s average rate. Assuming that I dictate at 100 words per minute, the 50,000 words would only take 8.3 hours!

Sounds easy, no?

No. Because even if you’re organized, you still have to think about what you’re writing as you go along and making the necessary tweaks. No one is going to consistently produce decent copy at anywhere near the speeds noted above. Assuming you actually want to create the beginnings of a decent novel (50,000 words is well under the length of most commercially successful novels so it represents just part of a completed manuscript), you’d be happy if you were able to consistently write 500 - 700 words an hour.

There aren’t any official figures available since the focus is on words and not hours, but I’d bet that most NaNoWrimo winners don’t average more than 700 words per hour which would require about 71 hours to complete the 50,000 words.

Arbitrarily, since I dictate and would be well organized, I assumed I could produce a target of 1,000 first draft quality words per hour requiring 50 hours over the course of the month. To reflect reality, I added an extra 10 hours for good measure. So my target for November was 60 hours at the keyboard. Research and brainstorming not included.

Summary of results:
1. Days (out of 30 possible) at the keyboard: 26 (four missed due to illness).
2. Hours actually at the keyboard: 68.3 total, 2.6 hours average per actual writing day.

Did I achieve my 60 hour target? Yes, even when I lost four full days. So I’d be a third time NaNoWriMo winner without doubt.

But let’s talk about the real world. My professional writing coach recommends writing four to six hours on average per day if you want to produce professional level product with new books coming out at a reasonable pace (one per year). Using that standard, I fell more than an hour a day behind.

So that begs the question. Can I average four hours a day on writing days?

Unknown. That will require experimentation to answer. But I want to ramp up gradually to that target which is what I’ll do during December and January. I’ll target three hours per day and see what happens. If I feel that’s relatively easy, I’ll push to three and a half on good days. I have some doctor visits that also suck up time, so I’ll be lucky to get even three on those days. If the three and half hours is doable, I’ll go to four. My guess is that will really be a stretch since for specific health reasons I need to do heavy duty exercise for an hour every day. And that has to be scheduled early in the day.

I don’t write every day. Unlike NaNoWriMo month, I need at least one day a week where I don’t feel I have to write. Writing optional days for December: the 2nd, 9th, 16th, 23rd, 24th, 25th, 30th and 31st. Sundays are brainstorming days, although I usually log an hour or two of writing. December is also a holiday month which will take at least three days off my writing schedule.

During January, I’ll assume the 1st and all Sundays thereafter will be writing optional.

I will report progress at end of January. My realistic prediction: I’ll probably log a little over three hours most days of the week.

Reading in Your Genre - Listening to Audible

If you want to write thrillers, or any genre for that matter, I think it’s critical to read widely. With all the other things I like or need to do during the day and early evening, I find this difficult.

But I’ve found a solution that really works for me. By the time it’s 9 pm or so, I’m sick of looking at the written word, so I do my ‘reading’ homework by listening to the unabridged audio versions on Audible.

What I’ve discovered is that I pick up the nuances of the story and the descriptions much better by listening rather than reading where I have a bad habit of skimming. I’ve learned a lot about pacing and description by listening carefully. One amusing thing that I’ve noticed in audio books is the use of adverbs by the authors. Writing instructors tell you that using adverbs is anathema. Guess what? Many of the best thrillers are full of them. An adverb well used is just fine.

Depending on my mood, I may take notes as I listen. But usually I put on my headphones and focus on the story unhindered by distractions. With headphones on and the lights off, there’s nothing to disturb me from a full immersion into the writer’s world. If I fall asleep, the next time I start the book, I simply ‘rewind’ to the last chapter I completely remember, and begin from there.

Is my process ‘active’ reading? Probably not, but I enjoy it and it enables me to keep up with my favorite authors when I otherwise might be wasting time watching TV. If I run into an Audible book that I want to study in detail, then I’ll also order the Kindle edition and highlight and note accordingly.

When I’m on a walk, I also frequently listen to a book, but more often nonfiction because walking (or driving) takes me out of the story. I also have Amazon’s Alexa ‘read’ non-Audible books to me when I’m doing chores and the like.

One thing to keep in mind with Audible. A lousy narrator/voice actor will ruin an otherwise great book. A great reader will really enhance your experience.

So don’t look just at the book description and the reviews. Find out about the voice actor. I love the Audible versions of the Dave Robicheaux novels by James Lee Burke. Actor Will Patton is the reader and he brings the Louisiana setting to life in a way than reading the series just doesn’t. I think Patton is the single best voice actor of all the books I’ve listened to, although now it’s a treat to hear actor Titus Welliver reading the Bosch books written by Micheal Connelly. Having Welliver read the series he stars in on TV brings the Bosch character to life. However, I’d never read a Reacher book if it were read by Tom Cruise who stars in the movies. If you’ve read the Reacher series, you know that Cruise doesn’t fit the writer’s vision of the Reacher character at all. The actual series character has been read by Dick Hill who does a credible job although he sounds a bit old in the more recent books. Update: since I wrote this, Hill has retired from voice acting. I’ve started the newest Reacher book that’s just been released, and I must say I miss the familiar voice. And worse yet, the new reader has done another series I listen to, so I keep thinking of that character rather than Reacher.

One problem compared to Kindle: you can’t make highlights or notes. But if I find something interesting that I don’t want to forget, I simply pause the book and ‘write’ a note on Evernote by dictating using a mobile version of Dragon Naturally Speaking. It automatically goes where I want it. It’s quick and gives me a searchable note. I listen to my books on an iPad and dictate on my iPhone Dragon app so I’m not going back and forth on the same device.

I know that listening rather than reading is heresy to some people, but I’m sticking to it because it’s proven its effectiveness to me over the course of listening to 196 titles in my Audible library going back to 2013. As a reference point, I have 942 books in my Kindle library going back to 2007. So I’m still reading more than listening.

Affordability? Audible books are expensive. I subscribe to a recurring plan so I get two highly discounted credits per month, and I wait for the monthly sale where you can buy three credits at a much reduced price. This brings the price down to about what you’d pay for a Kindle book.

Which books do I still buy in paper form? Reference books mostly. They don’t translate well to digital editions. Or anything else I need to refer to often.

It’s now 10 pm and time to listen to tonight’s Audible selection. I’ve finally gotten around to listening to Dan Brown’s most recent book.

Pro tip: depending on the app you use, it’s possible to speed up narration speed. This works best for non-fiction. I like to savor my novels.

Should You Write Every Day?

Should You Write Every Day?


Not necessarily.

From my own experience, I believe there is an alternative to obsessively grinding away on a manuscript seven days a week.

Taking a day away from the manuscript, but using the open day wisely to stoke creativity, may substantially improve your writing in the long run and reduce burnout and resistance at the same time.

The conventional wisdom, from Stephen King and other giants of the craft, is that you should write every day to maintain the habit and keep up the creative flow. That certainly works for many writers.

But for us mere mortals to whom the Muse bestows her gifts more sparingly, I believe in dedicating one day a week away from the manuscript to brainstorm and research without the dreaded writing quota bringing up resistance that hurts innovative thinking. It allows me to hear the Muse whispering new ideas without the thunder of the negative critic’s voice getting in the way.

Taking one day a week to get some distance from my manuscript allows the previous week’s creative efforts to consolidate and gives my brain a chance to percolate pattern recognition processes so that new ideas emerge. But not working on the manuscript doesn’t mean that I’m not using my time productively. Or as an excuse for writer’s block. I simply substitute another structured process to jump start my brain.

How it works: On Saturday night, I write down the main topics — writing related or anything else — that might benefit from brainstorming. Then each Sunday, I put the manuscript away and devote a significant part of the day to brainstorming to prime my mental pump for the upcoming week’s writing schedule.


The brainstorming process: I wake up at my regular time on Sunday, get appropriately caffeinated, then review the previous night’s list, prioritizing each item by relevance and importance. I then start brainstorming the highest priority items by mind mapping on my iPad Pro using the Procreate app.

The more ideas generated the better, even if they lead nowhere. You never know which bunny trail leads to true innovation. Twenty ideas are better than ten because once you get past the easy and automatic responses, you have to mine deeply for new alternatives. Fifty ideas are better than twenty. When you start sweating blood, that’s where the vein of gold is. Each node on the mind map may lead to the creation of more mind maps.

Once my mind mapping runs its course for the day (I can tell when I feel fatigued and new ideas aren’t arising), I exercise or go for a long walk to let my mind work in the background as the day’s brainstorming is processed in the background.  I always keep a digital recorder with me to keep track of additional ideas. Obviously a smart phone with a recording app works too, but I find it too cumbersome to open up the phone, the app, and then dictate a short note. But I do know that if the idea isn’t captured immediately, it probably won’t be there by the time I get home.

The final phase is to take the best of the ideas and create a new note for each in the Evernote app where I expand the concept in written form. This note making phase is my opportunity to flesh out the concepts in more detail. I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking dictation software to speed up the process. I use tags within Evernote to organize the notes. Usually the tags are more helpful in searching for an item rather than looking into the notebook categories themselves. Optimizing Evernote is a huge topic and I’d recommend Udemy courses or something similar to pick up the basics.

If I have extra time, I’ll look at my recent Kindle highlights and notes and work with them in the same way. And the same with basic research - for the current manuscript or a future one. I take the most important items and craft a note that expands on the idea and how I might use it. Some people use Scrivener for the same approach. I like Evernote because all the information is available on all my devices no matter whether they are ios or Windows based.

I try to finish no later than noon, so that I can rest up for the next day by doing something utterly different. (I love to create digital art in the afternoons to rest my brain.)

Do I ever break the rule and work on the manuscript in the afternoon? Of course, if I’m really excited about a new idea that came up in the brainstorming process. But I never force myself to. Sundays are for creative growth and subconscious cognitive processing based on the hard work I do in the morning.

Bottom line: the once a week brainstorming day is an effective way to improve your manuscript by not writing. Although that sounds counterintuitive, it really works because it generates innovative ideas you might otherwise have missed. Your readers will thank you.

It's NaNoWriMo Time Again

This will be a short and sweet post.

If you want to be a novelist but you’re not making the progress you’d like, spend November doing National Novel Writing Month. The official site has all the needed information: so I won’t explain it here.

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You will learn a lot about yourself and what you can accomplish by creating a novel from scratch, at a minimum 50,000 words, in a month. It is a great way to test your grit, creativity, and your actual desire to write. Many people want to be a writer, but find the work much harder than anticipated. By actually doing the work and finishing the 50,000 words, you can prove to yourself that you can do it. It transformed my relationship to writing so I know it works.

I’ve done a couple of these on a formal basis. Participating online with other people taking on this challenge and meeting with members of local groups is very motivating. I met the word goal both times.

Now, since I have several projects in progress which don’t fit the official NaNoWriMo model of creating a new novel during the month (they have a ridiculous “start fresh” rule which makes absolutely no sense), I informally participate by using November as an annual month long ‘push-to-completion’ exercise. The idea is to put the same time and effort into a current project that I would if I had to produce 50,000 original words for the official count. I keep a daily log including hours spent and words produced. This year, I’m currently in final editing mode on one of my projects (which runs about 135,000 words), so time spent will be the target.

How have I done in the past with this informal ‘push-to-completion-let’s-pretend-I’m doing-NaNoWriMo’ annual exercise? Not as well as I’d like. Something always comes up, particularly due to the weird timing of Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday prep that takes place the last week or so of the month, and it’s somehow just not the same as participating in the formal program. Choosing the month of November just doesn’t make sense to me, but it is what it is. The timing really proves whether you have the grit to finish or not.

But it’s always worth the effort to set aside one month to write like you really mean it, and I’ll be doing it again this year.

If you already have a work in progress and you’re not moving your novel along as fast as you like, I think this commitment to intensive writing is a great way to get out of the rut.

Designing Your Own Logo Online

For fun, I decided to design a logo for my business cards and other potential branding applications.

I used an inexpensive ‘do it yourself’ online design service called Logojoy. There are many alternative options, and I picked this one since it looked fun to use and fit my price point.

Is Logojoy the best company in this particular design niche? Does it provide the best value? Does it generate the best designs? Are its live designers (should you decide to use one as an optional service) as good or better than others?

Honestly I have no idea. My logo needs were simple, and this one worked perfectly for me in terms of simplicity. So I can’t recommend or not recommend this company. It satisfied my limited needs on a small budget and that worked out for me.

If you have really important branding requirements, I’d recommend you do significant due diligence and use a well regarded professional logo designer as part of your process. A purely automated service doesn’t bring human level creativity into play.


Once I settled on Logojoy, it only took a few minutes for me to use their automated logo generator which runs you through a number of steps (your basic data, favorite colors, preferred symbols and the like) so that the generator has something to work with.

Since you make several choices in each category, the automatic generator has plenty of design elements to work with.

After completing each data field to your satisfaction, it goes to work and generates logo ideas. It plays with the colors, symbols, and other info you provided and combines them in interesting ways using various fonts.

If you don’t like the initial suggestions, you simply click for more choices. And you can always go back a step or two and select new symbols or preferred colors and it creates more designs until you are happy.

I eventually picked a logo that evoked writing, my genre, plus a design with blue curves that reminded me of the sea and islands around Hawaii where I live.

There are several pricing options which provide different services including a live designer. I didn’t need a designer for this particular purpose, so I went a purely automated logo. (I must emphasize, this is not what you want to do with a book cover design. If you are serious about marketing your book, you want to find an experienced and well regarded cover designer. Unless you are a graphic artist yourself, this is one area where the ‘do it yourself’ model won’t optimize results. Another post will cover my experience in finding and using a cover designer. The mock-up designs on this site as of October 2018 are not final covers - just teasers.)

When I was finally happy with the logo design I selected, I went ahead and purchased a basic package with various image formats and colors, including transparent backgrounds so that you can overlay on other images. The final product consists of downloadable image files in different formats.

I’ve ordered some new business cards from MOO, which is my favorite online business card vendor, so we’ll see how the logo turns out on a physical product.

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In the meantime, I get to enjoy my new logo as a motivational tool as my current background on my twin monitors. Every time I look at the logo, it makes me want to open up my various work in progress manuscripts and see what I can create with my thriller writer persona energized and ready to go. That is worth the price of the design even if I do nothing more with it beyond business cards.

Invocation to the Muse

How often has this happened to you?

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You're in the shower and 'bam' - a remarkable plot idea strikes you. Or you're on a long beach walk and 'bam' - a new character who is just perfect for your book appears magically just at the right moment.

Often you were thinking of something else entirely, or simply daydreaming. It's amazing how frequently these mysterious episodes happen.

Some authors, deep in the creative phase of writing, say they feel as if they are just taking dictation from some outer source. The work doesn't feel as if it is even theirs.

Where do these creative, seemingly out-of-body, ideas come from?

Some believe that there is an outer force - perhaps a collective consciousness - where the ideas already exist and are just waiting to be channeled through a perceptive individual. Some believe in gods or angels or some other supernatural beings who serve this purpose.

Personally I believe that these ideas start as iterating patterns in our subconscious where our neurons are constantly being stimulated by mental inputs of all kinds. They are primed to cascade into a perceivable connection by our thinking in general terms about them ("I need a plot idea" or "I need a new character"). When the appropriate connections from all the inputs finally cascade into an actionable pattern, the idea appears. It feels magical, but it is merely an astounding brain function.  But there is no doubt that some people have the knack - inherited or nurtured - to bring the ideas to the surface. This is part of what we call 'talent'. But there is no doubt that this ability to create can also be nurtured systematically.

Steven Pressfield, who is best known for his book Gates of Fire, believes in the possibility of an unseen Power who channels creative inspiration.

In that spirit, he starts out his day by by reading the Invocation of the Muse from Homer's Odyssey.  (The nine Muses from Greek mythology are the immortal daughters of Zeus and are the goddesses of the arts, literature and sciences. They are the embodiment of the arts and have been the inspiration for artists, poets and writers from the time of the Greeks. Many of the ancient poets and writers felt that inspiration came directly from a Muse.) An Invocation to the Muse is a request for help from one of the Muses and was a convention used in epic poems.

The following serves as Pressfield's daily Invocation to the Muse:

From The Odyssey of Homer translated from the Greek by T. E. Lawrence



"Make the tale live for us in all its many bearings..."

That's the goal of all storytellers and that is the heart of what we are asking of the Muse.

I believe Pressfield's daily practice primes his brain to be open to subconscious patterns (created by his meticulous research and hard work) which convert into inspiration. (You can read his discussion of creativity and the Muse in his wonderful book The War of Art.) Believing you have a supernatural ally in the daily battle against resistance (which usually shows up as writer's block) certainly doesn't hurt."

Although I don't believe in any supernatural source of ideas, I like the idea of invoking the creative spirit within me to help win the day's writing challenges.

To that end, I’ve written my own version of an Invocation which I keep posted on a virtual ‘Sticky’ on one of my computer monitors.

My Invocation:

Dearest Muse, "I don’t know if you are a habit, mind state or a divine Goddess, but I come to you as a supplicant, humbly asking for your gift of the spark of inspiration. Ignoring my old friends Resistance and Fear, breathe life into my writing, I beseech thee. I commit to the mystery of the creative fire. I bring to you my intent of opening to your creative guidance. As for myself, I gird myself as a writing warrior and commit to total effort in the present moment with no fear and no expectation of future rewards. I will foster a patient mind, open and aware. Oh, Muse, I understand your ways are beyond the ken of mortal mind. I expect nothing—but I place myself in your graces. Every day I will come to the writing place and begin. Writing with professional intent and discipline, but always receptive to your gifts. With deepest love and respect, your obedient servant.

Yeah, I know. Homer I ain't...

But I find the Invocation soothing and perhaps even healing. And I seem to find enough creative ideas from the unknowable source to improve my work. Who knows? Perhaps this Invocation thing works.

And when the Muse (supernatural or natural) does appear, be sure you get the inspiration down somehow. It often comes as just a fuzzy wisp of an idea. If you don't capture it, it's gone. I carry my phone or an Olympus mini-recorder wherever I go - so when it appears - the glimmer of an idea, divine or otherwise, doesn't get away from me.

If you are an active writer or other artistic creator, I highly recommend several of Pressfield's nonfiction books:

The War of Art

Do the Work

Turning Pro

The Warrior Ethos

They are full of amazing insights into how to survive and thrive in the creative life. I would start with the War of Art.

My Writing Space

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Every creative person has a particular preference for the location to conduct their craft. Doesn't mean they'll get it. Many people write when on public transportation, or for that matter, any place where they can grab a minute or two. I'm fortunate in that I write and digitally paint in an almost perfect place of my own making.

I work in what a friend calls a 'tech nest'. My wife calls it 'mission control'. I call it my 'Idea Factory'.

I find that I create best in an air-conditioned environment, bathed in incredible visual beauty I can see from my monitor when I look up, access to the most up-to-date digital tools and a calm quiet undisturbed environment where I can work for hours without interruption. I'm not the 'I like to work in a noisy coffee shop' kind of person. I like my cool air and absolute quiet except for the humming of the AC.

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When it’s daytime and it’s nice outside, there is a wonderful tree-house feel to my writing area. As you can see from the picture, I have a world class view from my Kailua, Oahu office window. The Ko'olau Pali mountains are in the distance. When I'm pondering a plot problem, I just gaze out at the mountains and I'm transported to a different place. (And I'm a five minute walk to a world class beach if that doesn't work.)

My work station is dedicated to working on my novels in the morning then I switch to digital art in the afternoon after I’ve finished my writing quota.  I’m at my desk much of the time during daylight hours except for a minimum hour-and-a-half a day exercise program. A beach walk is often included.

My systems are all networked. Most everything is Bluetooth or wireless.

I have very early stage Parkinson's, so productive writing now requires 80% voice recognition dictation. Typing and using the mouse are problematic as my right hand freezes. Oddly, drawing with a digital pen doesn’t seem to induce the freezing because much of the drawing is more a shoulder movement than hands.

I use a high tech ergonomic vertical mouse which my family members can’t stand because there is a learning curve to using it, but it’s saved my wrists and is easier to handle with a movement disorder.

I have a fairly robust computer (Dell 3.20 GHz CPU and Windows 10 64-bit operating system) running on a solid state 1 TB drive and 16 GB installed Ram.  Dragon Naturally Speaking dictation, and higher end image work with a Wacom tablet and Painter 17, don’t seem to work terribly well with anything less and I've experimented with many systems over the years.

I use a Yeti desktop microphone (most people use them for podcasts) for dictation. Much more convenient than headsets. When I’m not at my desk, I use the Dragon Anywhere app on my iPhone which links to my Dropbox account and uses the same rules as my desktop version.  So I can dictate anywhere and edit on the desktop. 

Many of the indie authors on Amazon put out at least a couple of books a year using dictation since it’s so much more efficient and it helps avoid carpal tunnel syndrome. I'm not that productive — at least not yet.

I use two monitors – a 26 inch and a 24 inch. One for my writing work in progress – the second for Scrivener, and often a thesaurus and grammar app (I use WhiteSmoke).

I backup everything on multiple cloud accounts plus a portable 1 TB drive. I learned the hard way that a single backup method is not enough. I lost a bunch of digital paintings recently with a problem linking with iCloud due to an unexpected automatic software update and I was nearly in tears given the hours the work had taken. Fortunately my manuscripts had been saved elsewhere.

I have a laser printer for text. A photo printer for photo print quality images, and an HP Scanner Office Jet for non-photo quality color prints.

I use an iPad 12.9 inch Pro for drawing, painting and research. To get the most out of it's graphics capabilities, you need to buy a separate Apple Pencil which is already integrated for highest performance. Procreate is my digital drawing app of choice.

I use Evernote as my primary note taking app since it works on all my devices. Same thing with Dropbox for saving files but I do secondary backups to other cloud services. I use Mozy Home for automated backups of my computer. I use Scrivener for outlining my novels but still prefer to work my manuscripts in Word.

I must admit that sometimes I just go 'old tech' and take a notebook and a pen out on the deck for freewriting or brainstorming. Or I'll sit at the beach and dictate on my iPhone.

But I still have that view...

Mid-Month Nanowrimo Update

"Life happens when you're making other plans."

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Not sure who actually first said that (it wasn't John Lennon) but it's certainly true.


I managed to get sick a week in and still haven't recovered enough to do meaningful creative writing.

Discouraging, but Nanowrimo is a philosophy more than a strict set of unbreakable rules. Since I've completed the official challenge successfully a couple of times, this doesn't bum me out because I was working in the spirit of Nanowrimo - the notion that relentlessly pursuing a meaningful goal can ultimately prove you can accomplish more than you think you can if you apply sufficient 'grit'. I still embrace the concept.

So I'm going to restart my own mini-Nano when I get over the current malaise.

The point is to never give up in the face of setbacks. They happen.


In the Spirit of NaNoWriMo

It’s NaNoWriMo Time again. My most productive writing month of the year.


National Novel Writing Month starts November 1 and lasts for thirty days. I simultaneously love it and loathe it because it forces me to push beyond my normal writing pace and out of my comfort zone.

Since 1999, November has become the sacred month for long form fiction when over three hundred thousand writers sit down with the lofty goal of producing a coherent fifty thousand word novel by the end of a single month.

Thousands of eager writers try. Many succeed, most don’t. On average, less than 20% complete the fifty thousand word challenge. I’ve tried it a couple of times - the first one in 2005 - and succeeded both times but I use the unusual method of organizing beats ahead of time and then dictating via Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Most participants don’t use voice recognition, to their detriment with such a huge mountain of words to climb. You might be a pretty good typist at 50 words per minute but you can easily dictate at twice that rate with the side benefit of avoiding hand and wrist problems.

If you have structured the main story beats ahead of time, you can really crank out the words using Dragon. I’ve easily achieved eighty thousand to ninety thousand words during the month.

Although fifty thousand words a month seems a lot, there are many indie genre series authors self-publishing on Amazon who put out four full length books of that length or more over the course of year. It’s a matter of organization and practice. And they have the grit to keep their butts in their chairs no matter what.    And if they use dictation, they can regularly achieve rates of 3,000 words an hour. 

While I don’t officially participate in NaNo any longer, I treat the month of November as if I’d actually signed up. The idea is to achieve a dramatic increase in output for those thirty days. The kind of output a successful ‘NaNo-er’ needs to make their word goal.

This year I’ve saved November for the final rewrite of Blood Stakes —  a Morningstar and McBride thriller series novel —  and will attempt to complete the rewriting process entirely by the end of the month. I think it’s really going to be a push because rewriting to an editor's comments is not as dictation friendly, but that’s the whole point. Completing Nano successfully can prove to yourself that you can accomplish more than you’d ever imagined if you can stick to a plan and maintain focus. It's about having grit as much as anything else. No grit. No glory.

My strategy is to put in a solid 4 to 6 hours every day,  seven days a week,  for the entire month. Of course life happens so a maintaining a chain of 30 consecutive days at sprinter's pace never seems to actually happen, but if most days are solid and you put in a little extra time to make up, you can attain the goal. It's a stretch. But possible.

My approach is to set aside five to six fifty-minute writing periods with absolutely no interruption allowed during the sprint. After each fifty minute sprint, I'll take a ten or fifteen minute walking break and go after it again. Mid-day I'll do my main physical exercise for the day and then, in the afterglow of blowing off the morning's stress aerobically, start my afternoon sessions and continue until I've reached the magic number.

This method — often referred to as the Pomodoro method — works well for me, and the fifty minute uninterrupted work cycle followed by a ten minute break is scientifically proven to be the best work/break combination. Fifty minutes seems to be the longest I can maintain intense focus anyway so this already is my usual approach. I'll just add more cycles during NaNo.

 No blogging during November. See you in a month.



Prime Your Writing Session With Poetry

I’ve been thinking about the power of poetry after having recently having reread Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing.


Bradbury believed that to prime the subconscious, poetry is the perfect vehicle to access more subtle uses of language. He says “Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition. It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your tongue, your hand. And above all, poetry is compacted metaphor or simile. Such metaphors, like Japanese paper flowers, may expand outward into gigantic shapes. Ideas lie everywhere through the poetry books…” Bradbury apparently started his morning off by reading a poem.

Following Bradbury's advice, I’ve begun to do the same thing just before starting my writing day. I’m also spending a few minutes a day with John Fox’s Finding What You Didn’t Lose – Expressing Your Truth and Creativity through Poem Making.

As a thriller writer, I'm no poet - and never will be - but starting off my writing day with inspired imagery and language opens my mind to the possibilities. Perhaps a little of the magic will eventually trickle down into my pages.

To Blog or Not To? That is the Question.

You’re a Genre Writer. Should You Blog?


So much to do. So little time. Prioritization of effort is critical.

As an author in any genre, you should definitely have a website with landing pages for your novels, a mailing list signup form and a call to action as part of your marketing strategy. These are simple projects and likely you can do them yourself.

But what about blogging on your site? Depends who you are and your objectives.

If you are an indie fiction writer with a small or nonexistent backlog on Amazon, everything I’ve recently read and listened to in Podcasts by marketing experts suggest a very strong ‘no’ if your intent in blogging is to build a readership. There’s little or no marketing payback in 2017.  The blogging instruction industry would have you believe differently, but that’s the honest truth.

On the other hand, if you are a non-fiction writer, the answer can definitely be 'yes'. This is a great way to build a mailing list if you regularly provide new value added material associated with building your platform. But it needs to fit your marketing strategy. And you need to keep your reader’s interest. There are so many blogs that readers have to have a compelling reason to read yours.

So back to genre fiction since I’m a thriller writer. If you’re serious about becoming an fiction authorpreneur and you’re not well established, the time spent blogging as a marketing tool takes you away from what you should be doing which is putting out a continuous stream of high quality fiction product. You need substantial inventory to make money writing fiction. Blogging on your author page doesn't create saleable inventory.

The reality is that for 99% of us,  we aren’t going to attract enough visitors to our blog to make the blogging time cost effective because the blogosphere is already packed to the gills with blogs no one reads. And even if you are established, the people who are attracted to your site are more interested in your books than your blog. The exception being other writers who want to see how you got to your lofty position.

When you have the creative juice for writing, you should direct that energy into your product line – your books. At first you should put 100% of your available time in creating the best fiction you can. Once you have some substantive product - like two or three books in a series - to sell, then you can switch to 80% writing with straight forward marketing for the remaining 20% of your time. For fiction writers, blogging still doesn’t really fit in the 20% since it’s time intensive.

So given all that, why do I blog? It obviously isn’t for commercial reasons.

I blog because it is an interesting way of thinking about issues.

I blog as a creative exploration. Writing about a subject is a time tested way of learning about it.

I blog because it's fun.

But I ensure that I blog when I wouldn’t otherwise be working on my novel. My rule number one: I don’t even think about blogging until I’m convinced I’ve created my fiction quota for the day and that continuing is not productive. I work on the blog sporadically on topics that I find interesting. Rule number two is that I only do short form blogging so that I'm not using up valuable time.

Bottom line: as genre fiction writers, our time is better spent creating the best work we can. Get it professionally edited. And only then working a marketing strategy which includes the best cover we can afford, creating compelling back cover sales copy, and finally using the best Amazon strategies currently available.

I think the best current source about indie publishing and marketing is Joanna Penn's She's had notable success in both indie fiction and non-fiction and much of her marketing content on her site is free.

If you want to blog, fine. But don’t think that you’ll gain marketing traction as a result. Blog because it's something you want to do. Not because you think you have to do it.



Can Brain Entrainment Improve Your Writing?

A well-known author/blogger/writing instructor, whose name I won’t mention here, says in a recent Udemy instructional video that one of the best new tools for writers she’s discovered is brain entrainment.

Specifically, she says that she’s had creative breakthroughs and much better focus listening to brain entrainment sound patterns while she’s working. She notes that other writers have told her they’ve also had similar positive experiences.

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So what is brain entrainment?

It’s a technology which uses pulses of sound or light to stimulate your brain ‘waves’ into a ‘following’ pattern matching the frequency of the pulse. There are many entrainment frequencies which are said to be correlated with a number of desirable mind states including creativity, focus, anxiety reduction, meditative states, relaxation and so on.

The idea is that you can attain the mind state you want on demand with no effort whatsoever other than listening.

Amazingly, although this sounds like pseudoscience, there is a slim body of research demonstrating supportive evidence that entrainment appears helpful for certain conditions. But there isn’t an overwhelming amount of research although the technology has been around for a long time. When you do a Google search, nothing much comes up except for posts from the companies selling the product. That’s a red flag in my opinion.

See: for an quick overview of the research.

Given the relative paucity of well designed corroborative studies, I’m still left with the question of whether it actually has a substantial impact on creativity. My creativity in particular.

I’m a skeptic. I tend to believe that for many people who have tried this and rave about it, there’s been a substantial placebo effect producing the perception that creativity has improved.

Skeptic or not, I’ve been experimenting with it for several weeks while mind mapping, note taking, and doing 'pre-writing' with pen and paper. I’m not using it while actually writing scenes because I usually use dictation software with a headset.

I’m using the Brain Wave app found on the Apple App Store. It allows you to pick the brainwave state you’re looking for and combines the appropriate pulse frequencies with ambient sounds that are more pleasant to listen to than the entrainment frequencies by themselves.

So, with several weeks of actual experimentation under my belt, have I experienced a significant increase in creativity when listening to the app?

Not that I can tell, but there’s no objective measure to compare it against. It seems to be relaxing and that might have a side effect of calming the inner critic enough to allow for creative thoughts to arise. But I haven’t found any kind of dramatic breakthrough. Not even a noticeable placebo effect.

Nevertheless, I’m not going to give up on it quite yet since it’s only been a few weeks, it's relaxing and has the side benefit of covering up distracting outside noise in a neutral way that listening to music doesn't.

Bottom line: in my case, it hasn’t lead to creative nirvana. But the technology has been deemed safe to use and does create a relaxed state.




Spontaneous Mind Mapping


When I’m home, and I’m reading for pleasure or watching TV, ideas about my work-in-progress—or anything else that arises when I’m problem solving subconsciously—pop into my head.

I know this happens to you too. That’s how our minds are designed to work.

In the past, I’d tell myself I’ll take notes later. And of course I’d forgotten most of the ideas when, or if, I ever got around to it. If I did take a note contemporaneously, I usually didn’t expand it immediately, so the idea was half formed at best.

Now I’ve discovered a better way.

Whenever possible, I immediately get the idea down in mind map form. I’ve found this more effective than jotting notes in a notebook or recording them on my phone or digital voice recorder.

I keep a pen and a clipboard with printer paper at my side during appropriate activities. When an idea pops to the surface, I capture it in the center of the paper and then immediately start brainstorming various iterations of the idea in mind map form. If I want to expand on a node, I start a new page and mind map that. I don’t let my inner critic whisper nasty things into my ear. I just get the ideas down as fast as possible knowing I can work with them in a logical and conventional way later. The lack of self-censoring is a huge advantage over linear problem solving, particularly if you're working on a creative project.

Tonight for example, streaming two episodes of Dark Matter, I ended up with nine full pages of mind mapped ideas that had nothing to do with the episodes. And some of the ideas were pretty good. I can work with them in more depth tomorrow.

Why is this better than conventional note taking? Because your mind is already primed for brainstorming. I’ve found that the mind map is the easiest way to get the ideas down in a non-linear way.  It’s a great path to intuitive out-of-the-box lateral thinking.

I still rely on voice recorders when I’m in the car, or jot down a note on paper when it's not appropriate to mind map, but whenever I can, I map. I’m convinced it’s the best way to painlessly invite original thinking into a workable format.

One rule: don’t stop the video stream, or do an obvious mind map, if your significant other is watching with you. Your clipboard will be taken away.





I am a strong believer that as a writer, consistent structured work will set you free. If you can develop simple systems and a process to organize your time, your inner writer will show up on demand and respond with peak productivity and creativity.

As writers we suffer with so many distractions in our social media dominated world that it is difficult to maintain focus and accomplish our goals. Emails. Cell phone calls. Facebook. Twitter. Linkedin. Instagram. And so on—ad nauseam. And then when you add normal procrastination and writer’s block to the mix, it’s surprising that anything gets written.

For me, the most effective tool I’ve used to achieve maximum time management productivity is the Pomodoro technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980’s.

Named for a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato (Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato) your available writing time for the day is divided into timed increments. In the original iteration, work periods were divided into a twenty-five minute working session and a five minute break. After four work periods, you’d take a fifteen to twenty minute break. Another more recent study suggests that working for fifty-two minutes and then taking a break for seventeen minutes is the magic combination.

I honestly don’t believe the specific combination matters as long as you find a blend of work and break time that works for you. The idea is to find that sweet spot where you can focus intensely with no disturbances for a period of time and then recharge with a break. You have a limited amount of focus and willpower available to you in any work day, and this is the way to optimize it. Our brains are not built to go for hours on end without a chance to reboot. After a few weeks your mind is conditioned to the method and you’ll find your productivity has vastly increased.

After experimentation, I personally work fifty minutes with a ten minute break. I take a thirty minute break after three work cycles.

During the fifty minute period, I do nothing but focus on my writing. No interruptions. No Internet browsing. No telephone calls. No Internet at all except for valid research. If I hit writers block, I simply do something related to the work in process. For example, I ask myself the classic questions of “what if”, “why not”, “who”, “how”, why”, “when” and “where” and apply them to the problem at hand.  As long as I work on some WIP related task until my timer goes off,  I’ll eventually regain momentum or have a creative breakthrough.

During my break times I usually do some sort of mini-exercise such as a few crunches and push-ups, some dumbbell exercises and a bit of stretching. Then my mind and body are ready for the next work period. The important thing is to get up and away from your work and have a complete break where ideally you are moving your body.

Critics say the method is too rigid. Life doesn’t work that way. The real world has interruptions and sometimes you have no choice but to push through. Of course that’s true. Work life is messy and not always controllable. But remember that Pomodoro is just a method, not a religion. When possible, use it. You’ll like it.





My Favorite Book on Writing

People always ask me what my favorite book on the writer’s craft is. I hem and haw. Choke a bit and cough. Finally squeak out an answer in a low whisper.

I know what I’m supposed to say. It is expected that I will answer with one of the following:

  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • The Writing Life by Annie Dillard.
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
  • Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
  • How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James Frey
  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.
  • The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing by Evan Marshall
  • On Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
  • Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

I have all of these and 50 more. I absolutely love the books on this list and as a writer you do yourself a disservice if you don’t read them all. Although, for learning the craft, there’s a new series of books that I highly recommend for the nuts and bolts of effective genre writing. I’ll cover it in a different post.

But back to my favorite, I picked up a book in the early 2000’s at the Maui Writers Conference that I use almost every day (or at least the tools derived from it). It is a completely obscure book about brainstorming for writers. It is the Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer by James V. Smith Jr. and is the only book that I own that is full of my own notes, bookmarks and underlining. (Although all my recent Kindle purchases are highlighted extensively.)

I believe brainstorming is a fundamental key to writing fiction that is fresh. You may have mastered all the other writing skills but your reader is looking for a new surprise or twist.

The book is essentially a compendium of writer’s brainstorming tools that I haven’t seen in one place elsewhere.

Smith’s ‘Brainstormer Strategy Five — Never Settle’ speaks to the intent of the entire book. He suggests you tell yourself:  “From now on, no one answer, especially a first answer, will do. I will no longer be satisfied with the first thing that pokes me in my minds eye. I will not spit out the first word that I lay my tongue on. I will not trundle out the first cliché that pops into my keyboard. I will not accept a one-dimensional character in my fiction because I’m too lazy to dig deeper into his personality and find his unique quirks. I will not let my hero out of a jam in my script by taking the foot-worn path of thousand television sitcom heroes have traveled before him. I will never again settle. Never, never, never. I am writer. Hear me roar.”

I read that quote every day as I complete my daily Writer’s Journal before I begin work on my current novel.

The book is full of checklists, prompts and ideas that if utilized consistently will jumpstart your brain. I’ve converted many of the ideas into forms that I use every day. The more often you stretch your creative capabilities to force new associations and ideas, the easier it becomes.

If you’re suffering from writer’s block or you want to push your thinking beyond the obvious, the Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer can lead you out of the desert. It is incredibly cheap on Kindle: $3.99 to buy. Or $0.00 on Kindleunlimited

If you only get one decent idea out of it, it’s more than worth the price. If nothing else, write down the 'never settle' quote from above and think about it every time you start to write.

After writing about this, I think I’m in the mood for brainstorming….

Writers Conference or Retreat:Which Should You Attend?

Over the years I've attended numerous writer’s conferences and writing retreats.


I was fortunate to attend several Maui Writers Conferences, which was the world’s premier conference before it met its sad and avoidable demise.

I’ve also been to a ThrillerFest with my author friend Gary Braver, and a couple of other conferences in Honolulu. At the various conferences, I attended a number of great seminars, pitched to well known agents and editors and met a lot of other talented writers as well as best selling authors.

But (there’s always a “but”), if you’ve attended at least one comprehensive high rated conference where there are a number of craft seminars and many well known authors, you may have mined most of what you can get from a conference until you’ve finished a complete manuscript and can seriously pitch a well edited, professional level, project to agents and editors.

Everything you can learn of the writing craft from a writer’s conference is available in books in greater detail. (In another post, I’ll tell you which ones I suggest. And I have an entire bookshelf of them to choose from.)

Bottom line is that your first comprehensive conference is worthwhile to attend. But if you haven’t completed a manuscript or are well into a serious work in progress, I personally don’t think that going to multiple conferences produces the best bang for the buck unless you’re just seeking a motivational boost. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m always pumped up after attending a conference.

Retreats with expert authors who are experienced instructors can potentially deliver much more benefit than conferences if you’re willing to do the work during the retreats. I’m talking about taking the day’s learning and rewriting at night as long as it takes to apply the day’s instruction. Good retreats are not vacations.

Expensive?  Yes.

Worthwhile? Absolutely!

I’ve done several retreats lasting from three to five days with authors in my genre. I’ve learned more from the interaction with the instructors, who are best selling authors, and the other serious students than I ever did from attending conferences programmed with the same old subject matter craft sessions.

Just reviewing the instructor's line edits on your submitted chapters can give you a jolt of insight that can be amazing and transform your writing.

There are many retreat instructors out there. My preference is for instructors who have written more than one best selling book. They understand the craft and how to overcome the hurdles to the publishing path.

My advice is to work on your manuscript as many hours a day as you can. Read the best books on the craft and apply them, and when you have a reasonable work in process, book a five day retreat with an author in your genre.

For thriller writers, I highly recommend William Bernhardt who does several retreats a year at various locations around the country. I, and many of my other Hawaii based writer friends, have found him incredibly helpful.

Literature Immersion Challenge

Update: February 5, 2017. A book a week given all my other goals isn't achievable. So I'm cutting my 2017 goal to 26 books. I need to keep up with my writing schedule as well as keep in touch with the thriller market, so this goal will have to fit realistically with my objectives.

I’ll admit it. I wasn’t an English major. Although given my high verbal SAT scores, Occidental college, my alma mater, was convinced I was, although I'd taken few English courses there.

A heavy reader yes. Science fiction, fantasy, thrillers and the classic pulps like the Conan and Doc Savage series. I read all the greats in my favorite genres including Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Tolkien, Frank Herbert, Heinlein, Ursula Le Guin, Arthur C. Clarke, Bradbury and many more. Read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories although they didn't fit with my usual preferences. A good number of these authors did write books that are now considered classics.

All through my childhood and young adult years, I was never without a book. I literally devoured them. But my usual choices didn’t represent the canon of English literary fiction. In prep school I read what I had to, without taking pleasure in the deep roots of our literary heritage. In study hall, I hid what I actually was reading.

In college I was a pre-law major. My Masters degree was in labor negotiations. Did I pursue an MFA in English literature? Obviously not.

During and after college, I kept up my previous reading habits. A book or two a week outside of required reading. Very little literary fiction. I have well over 700 titles in my Kindle library, and who knows how many books I read before Amazon revolutionized the technology of book delivery. In college and after, I did branch out to some mystery authors like James Lee Burke, Tony Hillerman, and Micheal Connelly who really have a special sense of place. I also like Cormac McCarthy who fits no particular genre.

If I categorized the hundreds of books I've read, there would be very few in the pure literary category.

So I can say without doubt that my literary education is not complete.

I’ve had a long term itch that finally called out to be scratched. I decided that if I want to be a writer, my previous education was missing something important, so I’ve set myself a challenge. For 2017 I’m reading at least a book a week chosen from the top 100 American novels from the 20th century forward. For 2018, I’m going to extend my reach to all of English literature. For 2019, novels that weren't originally written in English The ultimate goal is to read the top 100 novels in all three categories.

I asked family and friends for their recommendations as well:
Lucy Corin, Gary Braver and William Bernhardt. All successful authors and teachers in their own areas of expertise. They had unusual recommendations from their own experience. I've included their recommendations into my initial lists.

So what does the challenge have to do with my own writing?

I’ve been pursuing the writer’s dream from the first time I attended the Maui Writers Conference in 1999. I thought I wanted to be a fantasy writer. But I never could find my voice. Everything I wrote sounded derivative. Now I understand that most genre books are derivative in some sense. That’s why people read them. The key is to accept the norms and make something new of them. I finally settled on thrillers.

The literature challenge will undoubtedly give me new perspectives, and with effort, an enlivened toolbox that I can apply to my own work.

Reading the best 300 books written will touch the aware reader in so many ways. Use of effective metaphor. Transcendent descriptions of setting and place. Dialogue that sings. Theme beyond the simple good versus bad. Rich character development.

Everything that writers hope to achieve in their own humble efforts has been done in consummate form by the literary greats.  How can you not learn by reading them?

I’m not sure how many successful genre authors were former English majors. But I suspect that every writer can benefit from reading the words of the Masters or re-reading them for that matter.  I'm confident my own writing will be enriched.

Join me in taking on this challenge. Your brain will thank you for it. As will your readers. It's never too late.

How Fast Can You Type?

You’re a writer and you naturally want to tear through that first draft so that you can get to the fun stuff; editing your book into something publishable.

An average typist can pound out about 40 words per minute. A professional career typist speeds through 100 words a minute or more.

With Dragon NaturallySpeaking, the best known speech recognition software, you can dictate at 150 words per minute or more with practice.

If you’re an average typist it will take you 33 hours of straight typing to knock out an 80,000 word first draft. With Dragon you’ll spend about nine hours.

The best part? You’re not wrecking your hands and wrists. I have Parkinson’s and my right hand often doesn’t cooperate when typing, so speech recognition is a godsend for me.

I’ve used Dragon for several years and the software has finally become accurate enough where I prefer using it for most applications. Yes, it makes mistakes, but the extra speed makes up for having to make occasional corrections. And the more you use it, the better the accuracy becomes.

Transcribing notes is a breeze. You don’t even have to look at the screen while you’re reading off your handwritten notes or transcribing a quote from your favorite book. I also like to use scene summary cards and then look away from the screen and riff on the scene while looking at the cards or even closing my eyes and envisioning the action and dialogue. Your inner critic can’t talk back to you when you’re improvising at normal speech rates. Bypassing that nasty demon whispering in your ear is a huge benefit for a first draft. Obviously it helps if you’ve done the complete plotting and outline for your novel before you start. If you’re the type that likes to make up your story as you go along, you won’t get as much benefit but at least your hands are not taking a beating.

It can’t do your thinking for you but it can vastly increase your productivity.

Some authors put out several books a year using voice recognition. Not sure about their quality but they have a handle on quantity that they couldn't achieve with regular typing.

I don’t recommend it for editing where you are doing a lot of cutting and pasting, but for notes and first drafts you can’t beat it.

I use Nuance Dragon Professional Individual version 15 and an Andrea voice recognition USB headset with noise canceling microphone. And when I’m away from my computer, I use an Olympus portable recorder. When I get back, I simply plug the built-in USB into my computer and have Dragon transcribe my voice notes. Anytime I go anywhere and the Muse makes an unexpected appearance I simply make a voice note. My good ideas don’t get away.

There are a number of books on Amazon that cover the best practices of using voice recognition software. Many are available on Kindle Unlimited at no cost.

The only thing I don’t like about the current version of Dragon is that the Windows version isn’t integrated with Evernote. When you dictate into Evernote, the Dragon app transcribes your note into a separate text box. It’s easy enough to transfer but I’m not sure why they haven’t fixed that.

It has the same problem with Scrivener.

Dragon works flawlessly with Microsoft Word, which is probably the most used application by writers. It also works with Squarespace if that's your website or blog platform

It’s definitely worth the investment. I would recommend it to any novelist or anyone who does a lot of typing. Save your hands and let your brain do the work.