Why I Chose to Self-Publishing My Novel. Part 2.

Last week I revealed why I chose to self-publish my debut novel. In Part 1, I unpacked the benefits of self-publishing. So, for the sake of balance, this week’s post will cover the limitations of self-publishing. 

Another author may make a more extensive list, but the limitations of self-publishing basically fall under two umbrellas: 

  • Money
  • Responsibility

Self-publishing means investing your money
Self-publishing requires you to invest your cash before you make a single sale.


The main reason why people don’t want to self-publish is because you have got to cover ALL of your expenses upfront. You have to invest a ton of cash into the publication and promotion of your book before you can start selling your book baby. (And hopefully, make a profit!) 

Like any high-functioning parent, this can cause resentment. 

First, there are the obvious costs as you hire an editor and a book cover designer, but then there are all the other costs …

  • Editing isn’t a one-round go-around, you have to hire a structural editor ($2000+), then a copy editor ($600 – $2000) and then a proofreader ($500-$1000). For those of you keeping tally at home, that’s three different editors and wheelbarrow of moo-la.
  • Unless you want to do the interior formatting yourself (do you really hate yourself that much?), you’ll have to hire a professional interior designer ($300+) or buy a program ($250+); while this will make things easier, you’ll have to invest x amount of time into learning how said program works.
  • ARC copies. Once you’ve loaded your files onto your publishing platform/distributor, you will need to order a few copies to check that everything is okay ($100+)
  • Membership fee: Some publishing platforms charge an initial sign-up fee (For example, Ingramspark charges $25-$50)
  • Marketing: This can be cheap or really expensive.
    Affordable apps like Book Brush and Place It charge a small monthly fee ($8-$15 per month). These apps allow you to make beautiful marketing images of your book that you can use on social media and in paid ads (such as Facebook and Amazon). Other platforms like Canva will allow you to make free images, but some stock background etc come with a fee.
    You can run your website from a free platform like WordPress, Squarespace or WIX, but if you want a more professional website, then you gotta hand over your credit card.
    Paid Advertising
    Again, this can be cheap or expensive. Unfortunately, it may take a little coin to figure out which ads on which platforms result in sales, for example, Amazon Ads, Facebook ads, or Instagram ads. 
  • Book reviews: Book reviews can cost money, but most reviewers do this for free (thank you kind, generous, book reviewers!). However, it took me SIX months to line up fifty reviews for ETHD. Lesson: This exercise won’t cost you money, but it will cost you time. 
The hardest thing about self-publishing is becoming the CEO of My Novel Inc.


I wasn’t sure what to call this section. Independence? Creative Control? Team with an I? Solo? Basically, the other huge limitation of self-publishing is that you are all on your own. No-one is going to hold your hand through this thing. ☹

You are FULLY responsible for every decision involved in the publication of your book. 

This is additionally difficult because … despite all the research you’ve done … you still have no idea what you’re doing. 

You have to do ALL the research and you have to make ALL the decisions. 

You have to research all the publishing/distribution houses. You have to read blogs, reviews and watch YouTube videos to see what other authors say about these platforms. (Note: self-publishing is changing ALL the time, so the internet is full of contradicting advice and old information). Then, you have to type ‘free-lance editor’ into Google and watch as your bank account shrinks to zero. You will spend days/weeks/months trolling through websites and portfolios as you try to decide who you want to hire. 

In addition to all this, you also have to learn how to build an author platform and how to online marketing works. Being the CEO of My Novel Inc. is a full-time gig y’all, the only problem is you’re tending to this company at nights and on weekends because, you know, you also have that other job, the one that actually keeping the lights on. 

The indie community is a generous one. Every self-published author I have met (in real life or virtually) has been incredibly generous in sharing information and their own experiences. Still, as CEO, you are fully responsible for the success of your novel. This can be exhilarating or terrifying. Usually both. 

In the hopes of saving you all some time, money and heart-ache, here are some of the key lessons I learned when publishing ETHD:

  • You can’t trust testimonials

  • Sometimes you’ll hire a truly stellar professional, but then something happens (they have an accident, fall ill, have a death in the family). This may mean that deadlines have to be extended and the publication date pushed back. If you’re lucky, this happens BEFORE you’ve announced pub date

  • Sometimes you can trust testimonials

  • Some professionals will be great communicators and they will respond to your emails quickly. Some professionals are … not very good at communicating … and you’ll (maybe) hear from them once a month – despite the glowing testimonials on their website …

  • Designing a cover is HARD and so much fun

  • Naming a book is HARD and not very fun

  • When you show the mock-up designs of your book cover to beta-readers, family and friends and NO-ONE picks the cover you liked … you will start to second guess EVERYTHING. Maybe I don’t know my target audience? Maybe I should re-design all my marketing images and adjust all the copy? If I picked the ‘wrong’ cover, maybe the whole book is ‘wrong’? etc. etc.

  • Making marketing images is fun … and kind of a time suck

  • So much of marketing feel kind of like you’re doing nothing

  • Checking interior formatting takes FOREVER and is mind-numbingly dull

  • Applying edits takes FOREVER and you literally live for those tiny compliments and smiley faces your editor has sprinkled throughout the document

  • Publishing a book takes about eight times longer than you think it’s gonna take and it’s three times more expensive. 

Self-publishing has its limitations, but I knew from the beginning that it was the best option for me.

Becoming CEO of My Novel Inc. has been a huge learning curve, but I’m going to ride this crazy roller coaster all the way to the end. If you’re looking for a ticket, don’t worry, I’ll hook you up with one of the scouts out front. 😉

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Why I Chose to Self-Publish My Novel. Part 1.

I chose to self-publish my debut novel, Every Time He Dies, for many reasons; most of which I will unpack in this blog. 

Before we get started though, I do want to add the disclaimer that both self-publishing and traditionally publishing have their strengths and weaknesses. 

There are many factors that you need to consider before choosing an option, such as:

  • what your publication goals are 
  • how comfortable you are with technology 
  • the strength of your author platform (or your wiliness to build one)
  • your budget 
  • how much time and energy you can (realistically) dedicate to this endeavour.

Now, my gut has always told me that self-publishing was the best option for me. However, to be completely transparent, a number of friends who are traditionally published and/or professionals in the industry convenience me to give traditional publishing a go.

I got close twice, but no banana. 

So, why didn’t my novel “make it”?

#1 / It was too similar to a book that had already been published earlier that year

#2 / The company already had an extensive backlog (“And by the way,” … the receptionist whispered … “We might not be around that much longer anyway…”)

I didn’t walk away with a contract, but I did walk away with an important lesson: if the timing isn’t right, it doesn’t matter who you know!

I have to say though, I wasn’t crushed. Like I said before, my gut was telling me to self-published. This is probably because my genetic make-up is one part arrogance and one part naivety. 

Plus, I’ve been a long-time listener to Joanna Penn’s, The Creative Penn, podcast (among others), and there’s a lot of self-published authors out there that are killing it. Of course, most are lucky to earn a couple of bucks a month, but the same goes for traditionally published authors. 

For me, the benefits of self-publishing outweighed the drawbacks. 

Full creative control

Self-publishing means that you get to choose who you work with – time and money permitting. Basically, you are the CEO of My Novel Inc. Congratulations! You are now in charge of researching and hiring the best professional money your budget can buy!

Personally, I loved the fact that I got to choose my own editor; that I could hire the interior formatter that I liked and that the cover wasn’t designed by a department, but through the one-on-one collaboration between ME and the designer I had hired. 

As CEO, I also had the final say on everything. Cos, you know, I was paying for it. 


The number one reason why people want to go traditional is because they don’t like marketing. 




You’re just gonna have to get over that. 

As part of my community service to the online writing world, I’ve chosen to write an open letter to all the ‘but I don’t like marketing’ Luddites.  

Dear ‘I Don’t Like Marketing’ Luddite, 

It is highly unlikely that you will get a contract with a major publishing house if you don’t have an author platform. If you aren’t willing to promote your books then why should they?

This is especially important if you are trying to publish your debut novel. A publishing company WILL NOT INVEST a ton of cash into a marketing campaign for a DEBUT novel. 


Cos no-one knows who you are!

You haven’t proven yourself yet and you don’t have a trusted, loyal fan base. 

It doesn’t matter whether you chose to self-publish or traditionally publish if you want to sell books, then you have to market your own books. 

Sure, a publishing house will put some money towards a marketing campaign, but you, sweet innocent writer, will be expected to do some heavy lifting too. 

No one rides the bus for free. 




I can appreciate that not everyone will be on board with this one, but in case you haven’t heard, our planet is currently in the midst of the sixth extinction. So, publishing 5000 copies (or more) of a book that I may only sell ten copies of seems like a huge waste of our already depleting natural resources. 

Print on demand doesn’t completely solve this problem, but it’s a step in the right direction. Companies like Lulu, Amazon, and Ingramspark (among many others) offer the print on demand option. Every time someone goes onto Amazon, iBook, Kobo, Barnes & Nobel etc. and orders a copy of your book, the publisher (Lulu/Amazon/Ingramspark) will print, package and post that book to your wonderful, generous, and sparkly reader. 

How great is that?

Gone are the days when self-published author had to keep twenty book boxes in their garage and physically distribute said books themselves (probably from the trunk of their car…).

Bookshops and Libraries

Another common reason for going traditional is because authors want to see their book in their local independent bookshop or library. 

Oh, man, I feel like I’m about to tell you that Santa isn’t real …

Okay, look, the thing is, most new releases only stay in bookstores for the first three-six months following their release. 

That’s it. 

If your stock doesn’t sell, then the store will ship your book back to the publisher where it will hang out in a giant warehouse until someone buys a copy online or until another shop orders in extra stock (if you’re really, really lucky). 

So … that book that you spent years writing will be on the shelf at your local independent bookshop for a few months … maybe.

So, you better enjoy that ‘thrill’ while you can, sailor. 

It’s a common misconception that independent bookstores and library won’t/can’t sell self-published books, but that isn’t true. Thankfully, services like Ingramspark make it easy for bookstores to order in (at wholesale price) copies of your book. YAY! 

If you live in a small town, you might also be able to negotiate a deal directly with your local bookstore owner. 

Companies such as Kobo, also make it very easy for libraries to order in your book. However, someone may need to request the book in order for this to happen. (It’s about time your Nan did something for ya, right?) Alternatively, you can always donate a copy to your local library. Now all the local residents will benefit from your literary generosity! 

These four pros are the biggest reason why I chose to self-publish. I would list the cons here too, but that would make the post WAY too big.

Don’t worry, I’m gonna realise part 2 next week. 😉

All that being said, you are in charge of deciding what is best for you and your project.

While I have chosen to self-publish this novel, I would be open to traditionally publishing in the future just so I could experience it. (You may have noticed that I have a writing blog … that means I like to do stuff and then write about so that others can learn from my experience).

Writing, editing and then publishing my debut novel, Every Time He Dies, has been one very long road. For the most part, though, the view had been spectacular. 

I hope you can say the same.

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Why Keeping a Journal is Vital to your Creative Practice

I’ve written in the past about the value of keeping a creative journal: a place where you can reflect upon your current project while you are creating it, but this post is different. This post is about journaling in general and how this practice can help your writing. 

Perhaps you’ve kept a diary or a journal in the past; a place where you could record activities, events, meetings, or appointments. But have you ever kept a journal that recorded your observations, thoughts and feelings?

If you can become an observer to your own thoughts and feelings, then you will be able to articulate certain experiences and sensations better than a writer who doesn’t take the time to analyse or reflect upon their life. 

By recording and critically evaluating your behaviour, feelings and thoughts, you will begin to clarify what your core values and beliefs are. As a writer, you need to know where you stand on particular issues so that you can write about them from a conscious and informed stand-point. 

Do not get hung up on the ‘proper’ way to keep a journal. There is no right way to record or reflect upon your day. To begin with, you might like to keep a bullet-point journal where you list the day’s events in bullet form followed by a brief (1-2 sentence) description of your thoughts or feelings. Maybe you’d prefer to write a paragraph about one event.  If you lean towards the spiritual/mindfulness side of things, you might like to keep a gratitude journal where you list all the people, experiences and objects you are grateful for. If you’re more of a pessimist, you could always rename this exercise as a what’s not wrong right now list

Writing cannot be separated from living.

If our writing becomes too detached from lived experience or from the world, then our stories will fail to connect with readers. Our words will become flat, our characters dull and our plots predictable.

If truth is stranger than fiction, then what better inspiration can there be than the content of our own lives, community and world? 

Inspiration is ‘out there,’ but it’s through our internal processing that we can turn the messy, perplexing, beautiful, scary, dramatic and reverent event into gripping stories. 

Writing is not a purely intellectual activity. It is a combination of imagination and intellect.  As Virginia Woolf said, it is the result of “discipline and the creative fire.”

All brain and no heart leads to unremarkable writing. 

Journals are loose, unpredictable and creative. You can write about the weather, reflect upon the day’s events, record your sleep patterns and dreams, your goals, your disappointments, that shitty thing you did to X and all the ways you were incredibly generous to Y. You can riff on a topic that’s gotten you all fired up or write about how a certain book or movie made you feel. What did the storyteller do right? What would you change about it?

You don’t have to write in your journal every day, but taking the time to regularly reflect on your life is a good practice. Not only for your craft but also the development of you as a human being. You needn’t write for hours. Fifteen minutes is good; three pages is enough to satisfy Julia Cameron. 

Keeping a journal may seem self-indulgent or juvenile, but that’s simply a matter of perspective. Learning to meaningfully reflect on your life, behaviours and thought processes isn’t childish. If anything, it is the mark of a person who is brave enough to examine the beautiful and the disfigured facets within their own character. 

Writing will make you a better writing. Keeping a journal will make you better still. And I can think of no better time to start than right now.

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All Things Every Time He Dies

Today’s blog is very special as I am answering ALL your questions regarding my debut novel, Every Time He Dies.

Before we get into today’s questions, I’d like to remind that if you haven’t already joined my newsletter … you should seriously consider doing so.

In the led up to the official publication of Every Time He Dies, I will be running competitions, giveaway and other exciting events for all of my followers.

However, everyone who joins my email list will have early access to ALL of these goodies, plus, they will have exclusive access to downloads and information that I only share via email.

Everyone who joins will get a free downloadable copy of my workbook, The Writers Kickstarter Pack: How to Write a Blog and Get Published. Plus, you’ll receive email updates every Thursday morning as soon as my weekly blog and vlog go live!

So, if you haven’t already, please subscribe to my email newsletter. Please click here. 

Now, on to your questions.

Q&A: Every Time He Dies 

 1 / What is the novel about?

Every Time He Dies is about a woman, Daphne, who finds a watch that is the same design as her deceased boyfriend’s only it is haunted by a ghost with amnesia. While trying to uncover the ghost’s identity, she becomes involved in her estranged father’s homicide investigation.

The novel’s core themes are grief, time, memory and family.

2/ What genre is it?

Speaking generally, I would describe it as a classic mystery novel, but to be super specific, I’d say it’s a soft-boiled crime novel with paranormal elements.

3 / Who’s the target audience?

Adults 18 years and over. This book is for anyone who loves mystery, crime or supernatural stories.

4 / What’s the setting?

Every Time He Dies is predominately set in Queensland, Australia. My protagonist lives on the Sunshine Coast, but her tale spans across the Sunshine Coast, Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

5 / Can you tell us about the characters?

There are three central characters in this novel, but for the sake of simplicity, I will focus on Daff who is the primary protagonist.

Daff is a twenty-eight-year-old female living on the Sunshine Coast. She is scientifically minded, practical, literal, has a dry sense of humour and she loves gardening.

Daff was initially studying to become a forensic investigator, but then her life took a hard turn: her parents got a divorce, her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and then her fiancé died in a tragic car accident.

What can I say, sometimes life sucks.

It was at this same time that she had a falling out with her father. Having cut all family ties, Daff lives her native Brisbane and moves to the Sunshine Coast where she becomes an apprentice embalmer at a funeral home. As the years pass, Daff buries her unhealed grief. The only thing Daff succeeded at is isolating herself.

One night, Daff is dragged along to a meditation circle by her best friend, Peta, and this, my dear friends, is where Daphne’s story truly begins.

6/ Comparison novels?

There are no comparisons. My novel is completely original and it is unlike anything else that has ever exist or will ever exist.

Okay, look. Maybe it’s not that original. 

I suppose you could say it’s similar to Lauren Beaukes’ Broken Monsters … but only because Lauren is an amazing writer and that book is awesome.

If you need a TV comparison, Every Time He Dies, is a mash-up of Sons of Anarchy, True-Detective and Bones with a dash of Ghost Whisper.

Basically, its got motorcycle gangs, moody cops, psychic badasses, a dry leading lady, and a ghost who is experiencing an identity crisis.

7 / Does it contain sex or violence?

There’s one kind-of kiss, but no sex. In terms of violence, I’d say it’s pretty low-grade. Put it this way, if you can watch Sons of Anarchy, True-Detective or Bones, you’ll be fine. However, it is a crime novel and there are two scenes where a character experiences sexual harassment, so if that is a trigger for you, consider yourself warned.

8 / When will it be published?

Tuesday, 5 November 2019.

Every Time He Dies will be available in paperback and ebook. I’m currently looking into audio too, but don’t worry, I’ll keep you posted.

9 / Will it be available for pre-sale?


Every Time He Dies will be available for pre-sale in September. Be sure to join my email list and to follow me on social media for the specific dates!

10 / Where can we learn more?

I’m so glad you ask. As I mentioned at the start of this blog, everyone who joins my email newsletter will receive updates and notifications about the book before anyone else. This includes information about competitions, giveaways, and early access to novel content!

Of course, all this same information will be shared on my social media platforms, but my newsletter subscribers will receive all this information, plus free content and giveaways before anyone else.

To join my email newsletter, please fill out the signup form here.

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Tiny Tales: Why Small Projects Are So Important

Writing a book is BIG.

It’s a big investment of time, energy, money, and caffeine, but don’t let that put you off trying. We have a tendency to think that the bigger the book the better, but if you’re just starting out or if you’d like to engage with a creative project minus the pressure, then starting small may be the better option for you.

Instead of sitting down to write a multi-generational family saga, try writing a tiny story about a child and their toy, an unexpected encounter, an uninvited guest or a mysterious package in the mail. 

Set a tiny word count between 10-500 words. 

You can be as precious or as un-precious as you like; you can scribble something out in five minutes, or you can spend an afternoon perfecting a single paragraph stuffed with ornate description.

Then, and here’s the kicker, publish it.

Post it on one or all of your social media pages. Stick it on your blog. Submit it to a short story or flash fiction competition.

If you really can’t stomach the idea of publishing it online, then read it to your partner, your parents, or best friend. Hell, read it to your dog! 

Learn how to engage intensely with your writing and then learn how to release it. The exercise will show you a number of things:

1) Your writing didn’t change the world, but it made some people happy
2) Your writing didn’t change the world, but it made some people unhappy
3) These people were mostly unhappy because your post had a typo

3) The world didn’t stop because you published something with a typo.

It takes a long time to write a novel. It’s an exercise in discipline and delayed gratification. These are good skills for a writer to have, but sometimes you want your cookie now, not after lunch.

Instead of writing an epic fantasy consider writing a tiny book.

This tiny book could be a collection of tiny stories, or it could be one beautiful tiny story. 

Your tiny book can be 30 pages long or 120 pages long. Don’t stress over the page count, the story will tell you what it needs. 

You could write a tiny story from the perspective of your cat. You could write a tiny story about a boy wandering lots in the city, then flip it and write it from the parents’ point of view! You could write about a segment of the population relocating to mars or about a girl who travels back in time to meet David Bowie — Oh wait, I already did that. 🙂

When you’ve finished your tiny book, make a book cover or hire someone to do it for you and then publish your beautiful little book through Amazon or Ingramspark. 

If technology ain’t your jam, then print your story and leave it on your partner’s bedside table, or slip it beneath the front door of your best friend’s house, or between the covers of a book in your local library or independent bookstore … You wild writer devil you. 

Writing can be VERY SERIOUS, but it can also be a teeny bit magical. You can write a long book or a very short book, but remember that the length of a book is not reflective of its quality or the joy experienced by the author when they were creating it.

Write long books, but write tiny books too. 

I look forward to reading what you come up with.

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The One Skill That Will Actually Help You Get Stuff Done

Creatives are rarely described as Type-A. Creative people are usually described as flaky individuals that are easily distractible. They are project hoppers; they are people who like to follow “shiny-objects,” and they haven’t exactly been known for their ability to focus or follow through. Fortunately/unfortunately, focus is a skill that is in short supply these days. 

The reason for our decline in focus is pretty obvious: technology.

This lack of focus is effecting the productive output of many industries.

Take academia for example. Email, smartphones and the internet have been readily adopted by knowledge workers because they supposedly save time. Now, we can easily organise meetings and projects through the convenient format of email (a prolonged and fractured conversation); colleagues/family/friends are constantly contactable, and we have convenient access to a wealth of (free) knowledge and information.

However, scholarly output has not increased alongside the introduction of these technologies, some argue it has plateaued and others say it has declined

Distractions: Emails, smartphones and unexpected drops ins

One reason why our collective output has suffered is that it is so easy and convenient to contact one another. We all know that it is difficult to get back into a focussed state after being interrupted, but studies show that it’s equally difficult to concentration if we expect to be interrupted. 

Ever noticed how it’s so much easier to get work done when you’re the only one at home or when you go into the office on the weekend?

You may think this is binal — obviously, it’s easier to get things done when no-one else is around — but I think it’s fascinating that our productivity can drop (measurably) simply because we fear potential interruptions. 

These interruptions are not limited to a knock on the door the bing of incoming emails, text messages or notifications are just as disruptive. 

How Long Can We Focus For? 

Our society is structured around the forty-hour workweek. (Note: this is an arbitrary number that was based on machinery during the industrial age and it’s not based on research data. Humans are not machines. Go figure.) And yet, studies show that we can only focus for four or five hours a day. Max. After that, the most you can handle is low-grade task such as admin, email or any other unspecialised task. 

In fact, Sweden is moving towards a thirty-hour work week (6 hour days) after a study showed that productivity remained the same (despite the shorter workday) while workplace drama decreased. 

It typically takes 20 minutes to get into a state of deep concentration. However, the average office worker is interrupted (via email, phone, or a colleague) every 11 minutes. You do the maths. Basically, we’re all struggling to get meaningfully task done. 

The main reason why so many writers do their work early in the morning or late at night is because there’s no one around to interrupt you! 

You can push yourself to remain in a state of deep focus for longer periods of time (8-12 hours), but you must take frequent breaks. Do not work any longer than 90 minutes and make sure that when you do take a break (10-20 minutes), that you’re engaging with tasks that are unrelated to the project you are working on. Go for a walk, talk to a colleague or family member or friend (about something other than work!), read an article in the newspaper (only if it is unrelated to your project) or make a cup of tea and stare out the window.

You can open your email inbox, but only if you are very very disciplined.  

The problem with email is that you may not have enough time in your 10-20 minute break to adequately reply to a request. If you read an email and think, “I’ll reply to that later when I have more time,” and then you return to your work, one part of your mind will still be thinking about how to respond to that email while the other part is trying to focus on your project. It takes at least 20 minutes (approx.) to ‘rid’ your mind of this distraction and to get back to work. 

Simplify to Amplify 

If you want to achieve big things, then you have to say, ‘No, thank you’ to all the requests and opportunities that don’t align with your goals. 

As Marie Forleo says, “You have to simplify to amplify.”

Take a look at your workload and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Which tasks do I really have to do?
  • Which of these tasks will really move the needle?
  • Is this task going to lead to my desired result?
  • Is this task actually important, or am I using it as a way to look busy?

Mmmm that last one stings a little bit, doesn’t it?

When you can pinpoint what your priority tasks are, it is way easier to let go of frivolous tasks. 

For example, writing a book or an article may be a top priority.  The thirty minutes you spend crafting social media posts and replying to comments (every day) may now seem less important in light of this goal. Building an online audience is a good idea, but what use is an audience if you don’t have any books or publications for them to read?

The ability to focus in a world filled with distractions and interruptions is a specialised skill, but it is a skill that you can develop and strengthen.

If you’d like to improve your ability to concentrate, then I recommend scheduling large blocks of time (2-4 hours) several times a week for doing just that. Treat this like you would any other appointment. Log out of your email (set an auto-responder if you have to) and put your phone on flight mode. If your fingers itch to “just check” your phone or email, strengthen your resolve to stick with the task at hand. If “looking up” a certain fact, method, procedure, recipe or dog grooming technique suddenly seems vitally important, write this thought down on a notepad with the intention of Googling said query after you’ve finished working. 

Learning to focus isn’t as easy, and few would describe this process ‘fun’, but there is little satisfaction in a workday spent replying to emails. Just remember that the next time you go to check your inbox. 

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How To Make Your Daily Walk Part of Your Creative Practice

In previous posts, I’ve written about how walking in a relaxed state with an open mind can lead to creative insight and new ideas. In fact, many authors consider their daily walking a part of their creative practice, as they use this time to solve plot holes and other creative problems. 

The walking practice I’m going to unpack in this post is different.  

Instead of walking with the intention of observing your surroundings and allowing your mind to wander, this post is about walking with the intention of solving creative problems by concentrating on them intensely. Cal Newport refers to this practice as productive meditation.  

Productive Meditation: walking as a way to solve creative problems

I first heard of productive meditation when listening to a podcast with the aforementioned Newport — an Associate Professor at Georgetown University and author of six productivity books. The phrase productive meditation may sound like an oxymoron and hard-core meditators may find this term slightly blasphemous but don’t discredit this practice just yet. 

The intention of meditation is to become detached from your thoughts; the purpose of productive meditation is to hone your thoughts on a creative problem. In this way, both practices are requiring you to take control of your thoughts. Meditation is about focussing on a mantra or your breath where disruptive thoughts are acknowledged and released before the meditator returns their focus to the mantra or their breath. Productive meditation is about focusing on a creative problem in order to find a solution. The idea is that when your mind wanders, you notice this disruption and shift your focus back to the issue at hand. 

Productive meditation is its most effective when done while going for a long walk, 60-120 minutes. Walking activates parts of our brain that are dormant when we’re sitting. This is why we often coming up with fresh ideas, creative solutions or insights during an afternoon stroll. 

My Experience

I decided to experiment with productive meditation after listening to the interview with Cal Newport. At the time, I was dealing with a particularly sticky creative problem. As you may or may not know, I started a doctorate in creative writing earlier this year. My doctorate comprises of two components, a creative work (in my case, a novel) and an accompanying exegesis. 

My research covers multiple areas of study including, but not limited to, ecofeminism, Anthropogenic fiction, the trickster archetype and human-animal relations. 

The problem? 

I was struggling to pull these seemingly incongruous areas of study into one cohesive narrative. While the novel doesn’t have to explicitly reflect ALL my research, I was unsatisfied with the work as it currently stood.

Basically, I knew I could do better. 

So, I followed Newport’s advice. 

To be clear, productive meditation is not as easy as it sounds. You are not simply thinking while walking. No, in order to get the most out of this practice, you must push your mind to think harder and to actively look for new connections, possibilities and solutions. Little will be gained by lazily cycling through the facts you already know and repeating the familiar thoughts you’ve already had about this particular problem.  

You needn’t power walk, this process isn’t about exercise. A gentle stroll or amble is suffice – preferable in fact – because you want your attention to be focussed on the problem at hand. Your thoughts should be turned inwards, not outwards. That being said, creative idealisation is heightened again when walking outside in nature as opposed to urban settings or office stairwells … after all, you’re not going to find much inspiration in there! 

It’s also a good idea to take a notepad and pen with you to record any ideas or insights that occur during your walk. 

My first productive meditation session went for two hours and to be totally transparent, the first twenty minutes were incredibly difficult.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the thoughts that were cycling through my mind:

  • You don’t have time for this
  • You should be back at your desk reading that journal article/writing that paper/working on the next chapter/revising that other chapter/replying to that email blah blah blah
  • This is stupid
  • Screw you, Newport
  • This isn’t working
  • I can’t find a solution because there is no solution to find
  • I’ve painted myself into a corner
  • I’ve totally screwed up this research project, what the heck was I thinking?

Now, to be even more transparent … I was terrified of finding a solution. 

Let me elaborate.

The reason I was resisting this exercise is because I was afraid that I might come up with a solution that would require me to scrap the manuscript and start again.

This is an unwelcome thought for any writer. The idea that I may have to toss my 60,000 word draft in the bin was .. let’s say … disheartening. 

Despite these thoughts, I was determined to stick with the experiment, mostly because Newport’s anecdotes were so convincing. For the first 20-30 minutes, I really struggled to stretch my mind. My thoughts alternated between all the research I had gathered over the past six months and the novel’s premise; cycling and repeating the same information over and over. 

I could sense the connections that ran between these supposedly unrelated topics, but I couldn’t articulate what those threads were.

If these connections were a school of fish, then I was standing on the pier with neither a line nor bait. 

I kept walking and I kept thinking; hard. Slowly and painfully, the connections between my research and the manuscript started to become clearer. The fish swam closer to the surface of the lake. 

After an hour, something shifting. 

If there is one thing I learned from this exercise it is this: you must stick with this process until you experience that first shift. 

That first shift is the key to unlocking your thinking process. Like a domino effect or a chain-reaction, once that first new idea pops into your head, you’d be surprised how this dislodges creative blocks and new ideas start flooding trickling in. 

As I continued my walk, I pushed harder against the boundaries of my limited thinking. I actively sought out new solutions, stopping every ten minutes to write down whatever ideas came to me. This may all sound a little vague, so let me get super-specific. 

During this stage, my thought process looked a little like this:

  • How can the research be turned into the premise for a novel?
  • How else might the research be reflected in a novel?
    (Hint: this is one of the best ways to come up with better ideas. Don’t ever accept the first answer/solution your mind comes up with. Ask what other possibilities many exist. Dig a little deeper and try to come up with at least five responses to every question or problem). 
  • What do I really want the novel to be about? 
  • How big of a scale do I want this novel to be? 
  • How do I want people to feel when they read this novel?
  • Do I want the voice/style/tone to be warm/literary/moody/eerie?

These were the general question that eventually leads to the first BIG realisation. After that, I was able to drill down on the structure of the manuscript. Another 90 minutes of walking passed. I continued to write down ideas and to ask myself further questions. Eventually, I had clarified my ideas enough to sit down at a picnic table and to write a fresh outline. 

To be clear, this was a broad outline that filled two A4 pages. (I tried to follow Steven Pressfield’s method of a single page outline, but failed!)

The Take-Away?

Productive meditation is a very effective tool that can add great value to your creative practice. My project benefited so much from this process that I’ve decided to do one session every week. 

To date, I have only used these sessions as a way to develop my creative work, but I have no doubt that they would be equally beneficial for academic work such as outlining research papers or thesis chapters. 

If you choose to experiment with this method, then I urge you to fully commit to the process. Push yourself to break out of your cycling thinking, challenge yourself to find new solutions and stick with the walk for the allotted time period (60-120 minutes). 

If you do decide to give this method a whirl, please reply in the comments or send me an email. I’d love to hear about how this method works for other creatives.


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