Strokes Before Pummels - Kindness Before Criticism


Hey y’all,

Aren’t most people resistant to criticism. Some may even be terrified of it, especially writers when it comes to their work. For me, my anxiety around criticism started in my college creative writing class. In each one I took, there were students who loved to revel in their brilliance when it came to incisive criticism. To say I was traumatized might be going a bit far, but by the time I came to the Extension Writers Workshop at the University of Washington, Seattle in the 90’s, I was truly defensive (still am, really) and very apprehensive about the critique process.

The Writers’ Workshop was divided into 3 capsules of roughly 2 ½ months with breaks to make up a 9-month program. The Cage-Escape-Quest-Dragons-Home structure I wrote about in the blog on August 1st I learned in this course, in the 2nd and 3rd capsules.

But the most awesome teacher of the course was in my 1st. Margaret Grossman was so fantastic, all of us wanted to keep her. In her evaluation, many of expressed a preference to have her teach our 2nd capsule, and if we could, have her as our teacher for the whole course. Our praise of Margaret was so lavish that she almost got in trouble for it. Too many ruffled feathers and bruised egos, I suppose. Either way, she talked to us about the value of having a variety of teachers so we would learn more about the craft of writing, and to please be at peace with moving on for the next capsule.

In her mid-to-late forties, Margaret had the ageless quality that prompted her elder daughter’s friends to say: “That’s your MOTHER?” She had thick, dark, red hair, and hippie overtones to her style of dress. She had the good sense to prefer comfort over fashion, casually dressed in jeans and cozy sweaters (this capsule started in January).

“It is ridiculous for anybody to get an MFA right after undergrad,” Margaret said one night. “If you want to be a writer, give yourself something to write about. Get out there and do some living.”

Margaret was living proof good stories came from a vivid life. Her life story was as fascinating as anything you would read in a novel. She grew up rough. Alcoholic parents – her father drank himself to death by the time she was in her twenties. Her mother was still alive, but if Margaret didn’t call her by 11am, she was already incoherent. Margaret was a huge fan of Jack Kerouac before alcoholism sucked his soul dry. She had lived the On the Road lifestyle as a young teenager, leaving home to hitchhike at 14. When I expressed shock at how dangerous it must have been to throw herself in the world like that, she said: “With what was going on at home, I felt safer on the road.” She listened to Alan Ginsburg read poetry to the urchin runaways who found themselves in his backyard – she was one of them. This was the early days of Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Somewhere in all this, her mother got her married off to some guy she didn’t like all that well, with whom she had two daughters. She left him, managed to get an education (with an MFA), and remarry somebody she liked a lot more who took on her daughters as his own. Since they had no relationship with their bio-father, I think that made things much simpler.

“My husband’s pretty aware,” she said. “He knows sperm doesn’t really matter.” 

Obviously, Margaret Grossman was a very intriguing human. And it was Margaret who taught us how to critique effectively. In fact, it was the first thing she taught us before she let us anywhere near each other’s writing. Her technique was simple. Rooted in kindness.

“Writers are insecure,” she said. “We all are. Just admit it. We don’t get enough nourishment, so always put the positive before the negative. Point out everything you like about somebody’s work before you criticize it.”

And the more we waxed eloquent over the qualities we liked – even loved - about a piece the better. Flattery was the silver bullet of criticism. For the recipient of the critique will receive what you had to say after you compliment their work. Also, as the giver of the criticism, you’ve been primed to deliver in a way that is softer and gentler. Instead of focusing on your critical brilliance, you find yourself with the desire to help your fellow fledgling writer.

Of course, for anybody who LIKES to give incisive, crushing critiques to kill the spirit of vulnerable, beginning writers, this blog is not for you. Unless you’re an editor of a major publishing house or at least an average literary agent, people are probably going to think you’re a douche bag, so I hope the ego massage is worth it.

Speaking of massage, that works the same way as an effective critique. Pummeling is a healing technique. When done with excellent timing, after the body is warmed up and relaxed, pummeling brings the recipient to even deeper relaxation. It is actually a pleasure when the therapist literally punches your back with their fists, if you’ve been massaged first.

Imagine that! What could be painful feels really good if it’s delivered after a whopping dose of praise! Healing massage and good writing - who would have thought the 2 had this much in common?

For the record, Margaret wasn’t all sugar and sweetness. She had an editing symbol reserved for irredeemable pieces of shit. From what I remember, she made a mini-tree, and what that symbol meant was: “You killed a tree for this!” She said she only had to use it once. She also said she still found something she liked about a piece that she thought so awful she used the dreaded murdered tree editing symbol. To my relief, Margaret did not use it on any of my work.

I haven’t thought of Margaret Grossman in years. I never saw her again after her workshop. I’ve used her critiquing technique ever since I learned it, and this came up in my most recent gathering of writers. I mentioned that I should write a blog about this, and their enthusiastic response: “Do it!”

Anyway, with my memory jogged, I tried to Google Margaret Grossman to see what became of her. All I found was something vague, but it looks like she died in 2001. She from the University of Washington had her in her journal footnotes – “Margaret Grossman’s death.” Why that was on the internet, I don’t know. I only know that my heart hurt when I read that.

RIP you spectacular, warrior woman. You inspired me more than you will ever know.

Massage before Pounding. Positive Before Negative. Kindness Before Criticism. It’s the only way to critique. In writing and in life. 

Margaret Grossman’s legacy is worth remembering.




World Building Tips for Fantasy Writers

World Building Tips for Fantasy Writers

Here's your quick-start guide to fantasy world-building, with questions to help you create a rich, believable fantasy world. You can use these questions as prompts to help you get writing, or you can use the questions as a template for each world-building writing session you enter into.

I've even included a bonus worksheet and checklist for you to use over and over as you make fantasy worlds come to life!

Read More

How to Write a Book Review

Book reviews are not all created equally. As a reviewer, you can gain raving fans who hang on your every word...if you know what kind of details to give them, that is. Want to know how to write better book reviews and earn followers?

Take Notes

When you're reading, keep a pencil handy. If you hate marking up the pages of your book, or if you're on a kindle, use a separate notebook. I like to highlight quotes I found particularly delicious, and make a general outline of the character relationships and plot. This will help you when you move onto step 2, which is creating a brief summary.

Often we read a book and then want to talk about it -- but can't remember the details. By taking notes you'll make it so much easier to jump into writing your review so that it's compelling, clear, and spot-on.

Offer a concise summary - but leave out the important details.

The best way I've found to do this is write the review as if it were a long-form blurb on the back of the book. You want to leave tension and mystery so that the reader will want to pick up the book and read it herself.

Look at the backs of other books and get inspiration for what kinds of information you could include and what you should leave out.

It's especially helpful to find a book blurb for inspiration that's in the same genre as the book you're reviewing. Each genre has its own way of appealing to an audience. Ie. a mystery is going to sound different than fantasy or sci-fi.

Putting a summary first lets the reader decide if they're interested in the book depending on the book's own merit, which is why I suggest leaving your personal opinion for after the summary.

If you start off saying "I liked it," or "I found it really dull," you cloud the reader's ability to decide for themselves whether a) they trust your opinion or not, and b) if the book's summary suggests the same.

Once you've laid out the landscape of the book, the reader can then seek your opinion. After hearing about the plot, what you thought about will make a lot more sense than if it came before.


Include personal details by explaining how the book as a whole affected you.

Was it fast or slow? Was the writing on point? Readers want to hear how you felt when you read the book. Once you've established credibility by writing a solid summary, you can offer your own thoughts about the fluidity of the writing or the stilted dialogue.

Be sure to temper your opinions and back them up with the contents of the summary -- you don't want to undermine your credibility by slamming the author when the summary seemed like everything was pretty good.

Go deep.

For a stand out review, go deeper than just stating the plot and how you felt about the book. Give the reader some tantalizing information by answering the question, "What really stood out?"

Character development? Plot twists?

Make sure your language is up to snuff. Readers judge reviews based on how well they read, so please please edit your review and make sure your grammar and spelling are on point.

Wrap it up with a strong call to action.

End by telling the readers what you want them to do. Kirkus review has a rubric their critics like to use:

Buy It = this is a can't-miss, fabulous book; Borrow It = not perfect, but we think you'll enjoy it; Skip It = critical miss

Follow this recipe for a review and you'll build up a stockhouse of raving fans in no time!



How to Start Your Own Book Group


Book Groups are a fun way to not only read much more, but also to get more out of the books you read. In a book group, you get to discuss the book with your friends, share your opinion and hear other ideas you hadn't considered before.

  • As you may have guessed, the first step to any functional book group is to have members. Optimally, I would suggest that you have at least three people. This is because only two people would be just you and your friend trading book recommendations, which is certainly pleasant and fun to do, but doesn't quite qualify as a book group.

Ask around your group of friends. It shouldn't be too hard to find members since most people wish that they read more. Make sure to tell them the benefits of joining your book club, like how it will be a great way for them to get more reading time in, and they don't have to go through the process of trying to decide what book to read because one will be chosen for them. Also, being in a book group give just the right amount of pressure to actually read and finish the book, while when you read on your own time, it can be hard to motivate yourself to read if you're busy. And then when it's their turn in your book group, they get to choose a book to share with everyone else, which is always fun.

  • Once you have your members, set up the meeting time and place.

I suggest that you contact all of your members individually and find out what days and times they are available. Write it all down, and then you should be able to come up with a day and time that works for everyone. If everyone is busy on different days and it's hard to pick a specific day, it’s okay to rotate days as long as you find a consistent schedule that you can all agree on. The location will also depend on everyone’s schedules, but some common spots are in a library, cafe, or in the homes of the members. If you're able to, you can host every meeting at your house, or rotate to have the meeting at the home of whoever offers or whose turn it is. Your members may offer suggestions of where to meet also, but in general try to find a spot that is easy for everyone to get to, and if possible close to everyone's home so now has to commute a long way to get to the meeting.

  • You first meeting: planning and setting things up

Now that you have everyone in one place, it's time to discuss some important questions about your book group:

-How much time will you have you have to read a book? Commonly, book groups will meet once a month just to give everyone enough time to finish the book, but you can adjust the length of time base on the length on the book or how busy everyone's lives are.

-Find out what types of books everyone likes to read, and what they don’t. If several people dislike scary horror stories, then maybe than genre can be ruled out. But even if everyone likes a different genre, you don’t have to struggle to find a common genre of interest. Part of the fun of a book group is reading a book you’ve never considered before.

-Consider ways to make the book group fun, by making it a pot luc or going out to dinner before the book group and ten reconvening at someone's home after. I know of one book group that decided that whoever got to choose that month's book would bring snacks for everyone. This seemed fair and worked for them, but you can also rotate snacks and other duties.

-The last step is to exchange contact information with everyone. Make sure you have at least one way to contact each member- I recommend getting their main phone number and email dress just so you can contact them about changes in the meeting time or place, and so people can get in touch if they can't make it to a meeting.

  • Now it's time for you and your book group to start reading!

It's customary for whomever starts the book group to choose the first book. All you need to do is give each member the book's title and the authors name. Even if you choose your favorite book that you've read over and over, it might still be a good idea for you to re-read it along with everyone else.

-While you read, annotate and take notes as you read so you can keep track of all your thoughts and have then ready when its time to discuss. If you own the book, you can write your notes in the margins, or dog-ear the pages. If it’s a library copy or not yours, then you can use sticky notes and/or write your notes on a separate piece of paper (which can double as a book mark!)

-Even when your turn isn't coming up, you can still be on the look out for the next book you want the book group to read. I recommend having a list of potential books

-Just because someone has read your book of choice before doesn't mean you have to skip it! It does depend on how they feel about re-reading the book again, but usually most people don't mind a re-read, especially if other members of the group haven't read it yet. If you and/or another person has already read the book, challenge yourself to think of at least one question

  • Now that you've finished the book, it's time for your group's first real meeting

-In a single meeting, book groups typically discuss what everyone thought of the book, addressing any questions or concerns and having a fun discussion about it. If the book you read has a movie adaptation, and you and your friends have enough time, consider watching the movie during the meeting as well. Then at the end of the meeting, the next book will be announced, as well as the next meeting's time and place.

  • Discussion:

-Don’t be afraid of discussion- its okay if not everyone likes the book, often times the best discussions arise when people have different opinions. Just remember to be respectful and keep the discussion civil.

-You can also start a discussion by each of you rating the book (secretly so people won’t feel obligated to change their score) maybe a grading system of A+, or a 1/10 or simply a thumbs up/down.

-some books have questions for discussion in the back, but since most of them don’t, you can look up some questions and/or read reviews others have left online. While you read them, discuss with your friends whether or not you agree with that person's review, and potential biases they might have.

-After your turn is over and the group has met and discussed your book, then decide who's turn it will be to choose a book next. In the beginning, just go with whoever volunteers or has a book ready. Then, once everyone has had their turn, begin the cycle all over again.


Thank you for reading and good luck with your book group!


5 Essential Marketing Strategies for your Ebook


The landscape of the contemporary book market is chaos. You have a wonderful book you know readers would love, but how will they ever find it? There are a myriad of websites telling you you must do this, and you must do that, but if you did everything they were telling you you absolutely had to do, your time would be booked out six hundred years from now and you'd never find the time to write another book again. So what is absolutely essential to getting your book noticed? Do you have to be on six different social media platforms? Do you need to spend 80 hours a week marketing your book, leaving no time to write? Of course not!

Here is our essential list for marketing your book. Forget the rest. Focus on these and you'll have plenty of time to write your next best-seller.

5 Ways to Market your Book that Leave You Free to Write the Next One

1. Find your Niche

Fantasy, Romance, Thriller, Non-Fiction (what a broad swath!), Sci-Fi. Umbrella terms that will only lump you in a massive pile with millions of other authors. How is a reader ever to find your book? It's like casting about blind in a pile of stones for the one that has your name on it. So how do you start lifting rocks out of that pile, making it smaller and much easier to discover hidden gems? Finding your niche is the first step to making your book stand out. Readers know what they want. If they loved Harry Potter, they're not going to want to sift through a slag of books that include sub fantasy genres like horror or historical fiction if they want a book that's just like Harry Potter.

Ask yourself a few questions to define your demographic: who are my readers? What other books are like mine? What are THREE key words that differentiate my book from the mire?

Use the answers to hone in on your niche. Do a google search with your key terms and see what other books pop up. If they have a smaller category, consider tagging your book with that label, so readers can more easily find the book they're looking for: Your book.

2. Design a Website that can be easily updated. Then forget about it.

I love movie websites. They include the only information you'll need to know (if a movie's already been released.) One of the most minimal examples I've found is this one for Limitless. What I love about this site is that there are no moving parts. I mean, except for the trailer than plays on load. But there's nothing to be maintained, and your author website could be like this (this is one example). If you really hate working to promote yourself, why spend time developing a website that will require your constant engagement? If you don't like blogging, don't do it--no one will want to read a passionless post. If you do love blogging, then by all means, create one. You want essential information to be given to readers immediately. Your website should tell them these key things:

  •   Who you are.
  • What genre your book is, and who it's intended for.
  • A cover, synopsis, trailer, excerpt, etc.
  • An email sign-up form (offering a free ebook download or some other swag to entice the reader to sign up for your list)
  • A where to buy link.

Those are the essentials. Cramming your site full of extraneous fluff isn't going to engage readers. They want to know who you and what your book is and that they're going to love it. That's it. Easy. Then, in all that free time you now have, you can add the next book in the series and leave it alone again until the next one. (You're welcome.)

3. Pick ONE social media site you ENJOY using and focus on that one.

Don't go crazy and spread yourself thin over Pinterest, Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook, and the million other social media sites out there. If you don't want to make regular, quality contributions to twitter, stay off it. If you're not used to Pinterest, don't spend hours trying to learn how to market yourself there. If you love facebook, have a ton of friends, and enjoy going on there for an hour a day, that's probably your best platform to use. Goodreads is a perfect spot to connect with authors and readers, but it takes effort to join groups and engage. Learn about different social media sites, what they have to offer, and which one would be best for you. Pinterest is all about visuals. If you have great art to go with your book and genre, slap a juicy quote from your book on an image and post it up. Twitter is all about the 140 character nugget of tantalizing information. Goodreads will make you friends that are readers/writers/lovers of the book. Explore, try things out, but keep your focus on one site and limit your time spent on others so you can write that next book!

Do you hate using social media?

Download my guide Social Media for Authors Who Hate Social Media and shortcut your way to success!

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4. Engage

Engage with your readers. Engage with other writers. Engage in conferences and events for your niche. Find blogs that offer author interviews or guest posts and do one. Spreading yourself out there in these ways will get you noticed and garner you a following.

To engage with your readers, get them on an email list and send them memorable, awesome content once a month. Include a free printable poster/book excerpt/discount in each email along with a tantalizing update about your book's progress, or whatever you want to share with them.

To engage with other writers, do what you wish they'd do for you. Review books. Comment on their website. Offer a guest post over at your blog. Tweet about their book.

Find conferences and events in your area. We've just started attending steampunk/fantasy conferences in the Pacific Northwest and I can tell this is a great place to find readers will pick up your book and buy it. Unlike book fairs, conferences that are specific to a genre allow you to present your work in front of your demographic. And it's not likely you'll be competing with 100+ other writers. There will be artists, makers, designers, and a whole slew of other producers who won't be in direct competition for your sales. Events are great places to network and find friends who share your goals and aspirations, and can help you get there.

Bloggers everywhere offer guest posts and author interviews. If they're in the blogging business, they want content. You can both benefit by sharing your email list, tweeting the post to your followers, and using other methods of promotion that reach twice as many people. Pitch the blogger with your great idea for a post that will be worthwhile to their readers. Offer your promotion up front, as in "I have an email list of sixty dedicated readers who would love to know more about your X blog!" This is another great way to make friends and help yourself while helping another.

5. Write the Next Book

There's nothing better for your book business than writing that next book. Having more books under your author name gets you noticed exponentially more. You can market more, offer more diverse content for your readers, and just have a heck of a lot more material to work with. If you implement the four steps listed above, you'll have plenty of time to write the next book while gathering buzz for its release.

As always, we'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the self publishing business! Comment below!

How to Revamp a Fairy Tale


We all love them: the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, the new re-tellings of fabulous fairy tales by contemporary authors such as Aimee Bender or Kevin Brockmeier. Fairy and folk tales have a lot of allure. They touch on universal topics, they're strange, they captivate, transport, and feel real all at once. Fables are the inspiration for Ella Bandita and the Wanderer. They're easy to contemporize because they have such universal themes. This post is going to give you a few quick, easy applications for transforming your favorite story into a new, contemporary piece. Want to be inspired?

Download your free story of Scheherazade - my retelling.


How to Make an Old Story New

There are, of course, many ways to re-tell a story. You do it all the time when you're telling your friend what happened on the latest episode of New Girl, or when you're describing the jerk at work whose sour attitude always spoils your day (I hope you've more experience with the former, not the latter!). So that's your story telling backbone. Now, take a fairy tale you know a little something about -- it doesn't have to be well -- and try some of these exercises on it to see how you like the story you've created.

I'll start with my favorite:

  • Write the story from the point of view of the "evil stepmother/brother/witch/sorcerer" and make the reader sympathetic to them. OR, and this is maybe even better, make the sympathetic character the evil one (ie, Cinderella's really a nasty, scheming gold-digger).
  • Replicate the story exactly, but change the setting to a contemporary landscape. For example, Francesca Lia Block updated Cupid and Psyche by turning them into a couple who met on an online dating site. (It's a GREAT story! Read it!)
  • Combine two fables. See where the original stories intersect and create your own based on that comingling. (like the little Mermaid meets Leda's swan)

« Léda et le cygne », huile sur bois (H. 64,5 cm ; l. 80,5 cm) réalisée avant 1600 par Pierre Paul Rubens (1577-1640) - Œuvre faisant partie de la collection Stephen Mazoh en dépôt au musée des beaux-arts de Houston (États-Unis). Photographie réalisée lors de l'exposition temporaire l'Europe de Rubens - Musée du Louvre (Lens).

  • Ms Litterati recommends this, and it sounds like loads of fun: take away the magic. "A fairytale without magic sounds completely ludicrous at first but it’s a way to put a fresh twist on your story. Think about the movie A Cinderella Story: it follows the storyline of Cinderella without having an actual fairy godmother to wave her wand and help transform Sam, the “Cinderella” character."
  • Copy the plot of a fairy tale, then put in characters from another book. Everyone handles situations differently. Just imagine if Hermione were in Harry Potter's place...

What are you ideas on how to revamp a fairy tale? Link to your story in the comments if you want to share one!

Ours is a highly individualized culture, with a great faith in the work of art as a unique one-off, and the artist as an original, a godlike and inspired creator of unique one-offs. But fairy tales are not like that, nor are their makers. Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup? Think in terms of the domestic arts. "This is how I make potato soup." --Angela Carter

Remember to sign up on our mailing list for actionable advice about self-publishing and fantasy writing. Plus, I'll send you a copy of Scheherazade for free!




Top 5 Websites for Author Marketing Resources


Over the first year of developing a press and author identity online, Free Flying Press has a few gems to offer other writers starting their journey to independent authorship. A few things are absolutely essential for the aspiring indie author: community (made up of readers and authors alike), social media (get out there and engage!), and a marketing platform. Of these, the latter always proves the most difficult. Here's a round up of the top 5 most useful advice and author marketing platforms that we've found:  

  1. The Creative Penn


Joanna Penn is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author.  She shares her knowledge about self-publishing and marketing with monthly emails and great content on her website. If you want to know about how to start your marketing platform, build a social media strategy, and sell your first book, check her out!


2. Author Marketing Club


AMC has it all. Tutorials for beginning authors, marketing strategies, tons of great freebies, all in a centralized, easily navigable place. Great for each novel you put out. Our favorite feature is the 'review grabber' which lets you search a genre or title in amazon, and pulls all of the reviewers email's or websites from the reviews. Then you can set up your plan to email them for reviews of your own book! For every 20 reviewers I mail out to, I get about 5 responses, and of that about 2 reviews. Not bad! It's about $25/mo to join, or $129 for the year. Totally worth it.

Here's a rundown of their services:

  • Book Widget Creation Tool
  • AMC Buzz Team
  • Amazon Enhanced Description Maker
  • New Member Book Feature
  • FREE Pre-made Book Cover
  • Masterclasses
  • Free 99c Book Promotions
  • Author Marketing Academy (videos/webcasts)
  • Author Success Interviews
  • Author Marketing Checklist (they give this away for free)
  • Book Discovery Sundays
  • Author Secrets Mastermind (marketing and promotion strategies)
  • Author Tales (you can upload text or video)
  • AMC Bookalyzer
  • Brag Board
  • Help Me Choose a Cover


3. Goodreads


This is the best place for community. Goodreads offers groups, which let you build community and find like-minded readers. There are also groups for readers/reviewers, where you can get a fair number of reviews for your book. You may have to work a little to get them, but that's what this is all about--work and results! Plus, host a giveaway on goodreads and reach thousands of potential readers who will save your book in their 'to-read' file and boost your rankings.

4. Inkitt


Inkitt is a goldmine. Here you can post your own stories and get feedback from writerly readers. You can also find great stories to read and authors to connect to. They have near-constant competitions running so you can get your work noticed. It's rather new, so you have a smaller, targeted audience, and a lot of passionate writers to connect with.

5. Standout Books


With tons of cute infographics to go along with solid writing and marketing advice, Standoutbooks is a fun mailing list to sign up with. They offer a few promotional/marketing/editing services, but I go there mostly to peruse the advice blog.

Bonus: Your Guide to Social Media

If you're like me and you loathe social media, my guide for authors who hate social media will help make this necessary evil a lot less daunting and horrible.

Get your guide now !

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