Characters and their tasks or missions

I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

The task is what the character has to achieve in order to reach the goal. The character’s outward task is explicit and therefore external: to solve the external problem by reaching the goal or attaining the McGuffin. The task is a more or less clearly defined quest. It is the mission the character is set, the action the character must take in order to get to the goal which will, in the character’s mind, lead to achieving the want. So the task probably determines the bulk of the action of the story. The task may be divisible into a series of sub-tasks such as perceived needs, or stages of the story journey.

What is the character’s task or mission?

In most stories, the protagonist has something to do.


The task is the more or less explicitly defined mission a character sets out on in order to reach the goal and thereby solve the external problem.

Many of the major characters in a story will have something to do, which may result in them getting in each other’s way.

Task as Function

In a story, more or less everyone has a task. What characters do in a story defines them and determines their roles and narrative functions in the story. In this sense, it is an antagonist’s task to get in the way of the protagonist; an ally’s task is to help the protagonist; a mentor’s task is to advise the protagonist and set them on their way.

But while all that is true, it isn’t really what we mean by task.

Task as Action

The characters’ actions make them who they are. To define a character’s task is to state clearly what that character has to achieve in the story. It is the action that leads to the goal or the McGuffin.

Let’s look at some easy examples.

It is the knight’s task to defeat the dragon and rescue the princess. It is Frodo’s task to destroy the ring. It is Indiana Jones’ task to attain (or raid) the Ark. It is the Bodyguard’s task to guard his ward.


The task can often be summed up with just one verb.

The task arises out of the external problem, and therefore relates to the surface of the story. In many stories the protagonist will be given the task to perform in the form of a mission. This is typical of crime, fantasy, and adventure stories.

In other stories, the protagonist might set him or herself the task. Odysseus’ task is to go home, and ultimately – after the task of avoiding it for the afternoon – so is Leopold Bloom’s. Humbert Humbert’s first task is to woo and win Lolita, which he seeks to achieve by a specific action, his perceived need: marrying her mother.

The task, then, makes the story journey clear. Defining each major character’s task gives that character a purpose which everyone involved can understand: the author, the character, and the audience or reader.

The value of a character’s having a purpose which the recipient, the audience or reader, clearly understands can hardly be overstated: it generates interest. The recipient will be interested in the story, will want to find out a) whether, and b) how the character will fulfil the task and the purpose.

Furthermore, the process of carrying out the task will usually bring the character to the point of learning and developing emotionally, and probably discovering his or her real need. Elegantly connecting the surface structure element of task with the deeper level of real need – through the use of comparative or contrastive symbols or metaphors, for instance – can lend the story a further level of meaning.

How The 12-Week Year Can Help You Write Your Book

I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

How The 12-Week Year

Can Help You Write Your Book

By Rochelle Melander

A few years ago, fresh from a visioning weekend, I created an ambitious writing and business schedule for the year. I made an Excel spreadsheet and listed everything I hoped to develop that year including blog posts, business programs, and book projects. I color coded each project and laid out a beautiful plan.

But it didn’t work. Three months into the year, I hadn’t made significant progress on any of my projects.

Where did I go wrong?

I had too many projects. I did not have clear, actionable steps. Every time I looked at the spreadsheet, I felt overwhelmed.

Clients often approach me with a similar problem: they have a book they want to get done this year. They’re also launching a podcast and working part time. But they haven’t made progress on any of their projects. Can I help them finish something?

You bet. But it won’t be easy.

In order to finish that book, they need to let go of all of their other projects. For now.

This process is explained well in the book, The 12-Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks than Others do in 12 Months by Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington. The authors recommend that we look at our vision and choose one project to focus on each quarter. The idea comes from a sports training practice called periodization. In this practice, athletes focus their training on a specific skill or discipline for 4-6 weeks. The tool allows the athlete to make significant progress over a short period of time.


The 12-Week Year provides an opportunity for focused writing on a single project, increasing your chances of being successful. Here’s how it works:

Choose a single project

Stop thinking you can get it all done. Instead, imagine what it would be like to complete a single project in the next three months. What do you want to have done by the end of June?

the 12-week year

Pro Tip: Consider what you will need to let go of to complete this project. Do you need to take a break from another writing commitment? Can you let go of social media updates for the next three months? Is there anything else that could be put on hold for three months?

Make a plan

How much time will you need to write your book over the next 12 weeks? Remember, when we’re writing a book, we need more than just writing time. We need time to research and outline. We need time to daydream, ponder, and imagine what might happen next.

The 12-week year

Get specific. How much time do you need to plan the book? How many scenes or chapters will you need to write each week? Do you need to build in time for anything else?

Schedule time. Schedule blocks of time to work on your book. Know when and where you will write each week. Then, once a week, decide what you will write during each session.

Pro Tip. The authors recommend that people build in “buffer blocks”—sections of time dedicated to doing daily tasks like answering email, exercising, meal prep, and more. They also suggest having “breakout blocks”—free time dedicated to enjoying life. I’ve discovered that breakout blocks are essential to the writing process—they give your brain time to rest and often lead to aha moments.

The 12-week year

Ditch the distractions

If you want to finish your book in the next three months, you need to dump the things that distract you.

the 12-week year

When you are writing, turn off your phone. Stay offline. Don’t check email.

You know all that. When it comes to distractions, it’s helpful to go deeper. What else distracts you when you write? Are you thinking about the blog post you owe a friend? Are you planning your next Target run or dinner? Are you worrying about other work you need to do? Before your writing session, schedule time to deal with these tasks. During your writing session, jot down any worries or tasks that pop into your head and add them to your schedule later.

Review weekly

At the end of each week, evaluate your progress. What worked? What didn’t work? Are you achieving your daily and weekly writing goals? If not, why? What changes do you need to make to improve your productivity?

Plan the next week. Make changes to your schedule based on the previous week’s challenges and successes.

Pro tip: Be ruthless with your schedule. If you are trying to do too much, and it is getting in the way of your writing, let go of something.

Rest, reflect, repeat

The authors of The 12-Week Year recommend building in a 13th week to finish up tasks, rest, reflect, and plan for the next 12-week cycle. I think you need a bit more time. Take the 13th week to finish up tasks and rest. Then, during the next week, you can start visioning and planning your next book.

Moving Forward

This process works a lot like National Novel Writing Month. During November, we focus on a single book, block out time to write it, and let go of any commitment that threatens to distract us from our big goal. Think of The 12-Week Year as a sustainable way to bring NaNoWriMo into your daily life. Give it a try and see if it increases your finish rate on book projects.

Characters and their goals

I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

The goal is the point in the story that the character has to reach. The journey towards the goal the character has to reach (perhaps in order to achieve the want) often forms the bulk of the story’s plot. The goal is the presumed point at which the external problem will be resolved. The story question becomes: “will the character reach the goal?” The goal is thus an external marker, for the reader/audience as much as for the character. At the goal, the character may well gain awareness or have a realisation that the goal may not be the solution, that attaining this goal is not actually what the character really needs in order to achieve the want. Sometimes attainment of the goal marks a story’s central turning point, or midpoint, and the story becomes about the effects of reaching that goal.

The difference between a character’s goal and what the character wants.

In a story, if the treasure is what the hero wants, then slaying the dragon is the goal.


The goal is what the character thinks will lead to the (satisfaction of the) want. 

Since the treasure hoard has been there for ages, there must usually be some sort of trigger for the story to get started, i.e. for the character to want the hoard now, at the time the story begins. Often, an external problem creates such a trigger. It might supply a reason why the hero needs the hoard now, something more specific than just the general sense of wanting to be rich. Perhaps the hoard isn’t the reason at all. Perhaps there is a princess in distress, which certainly adds urgency to the matter. Either way, dealing with the dragon is the goal.

If somebody says the word “goal” to you, the image that springs to mind might have to do with the ends of a football pitch. The image is valid for our storytelling purposes, since the preposition associated with a goal is “through”. With the goal marking the end of the story journey, the character will get what he or she wants by passing through the goal to the happily ever after, i.e. the want, beyond.

At least, that’s what the character believes. See below.

It is helpful to distinguish between the goal and the want. Reaching the goal marks an important point in the story, often at the midpoint or concomitant with what is often referred to as the crisis. The want, on the other hand, is not a point but a state. As such, the want is somewhat more diffuse than the goal, and not really a part of the story journey, because if and when the character has what she or he wants, the story is over.

Two Techniques

One effective technique is the following: Set up the goal near the beginning of the story. Luke Skywalker sees Princess Leia’s message and sets out to help her. Humbert Humbert sees Lolita and sets out to win her. Then let the character achieve what she or he wants at the midpoint of the story. The second half of the story is then about the consequences of having achieved the goal.

Another technique is the “false goal”. Let the character believe that the goal is what is necessary in order to achieve what the character wants. The Prince hero who sets off to slay the dragon wants wealth, power and union with the Princess. But by the time this character reaches the goal, she or he has recognised her or his weakness, and she or he learns that the goal is not really what is needed at all. For instance, if the internal problem of the Prince is hard-heartedness, when he reaches the dragon he may have a revelation and decide not to slay the dragon, but tame it and take it home in order to guard the kingdom. His mercy will so impress the Princess that she will happily marry him.

The Goal is Part of the Plot

In terms of the layers of the story, the goal is external, at the surface of the structure. It provides an explicit direction not only for the plot, but for everyone concerned: the audience or reader, the characters (especially the protagonist), the narrator, and the author. So we all know where the story is going, and the fun of it is journey. And let’s not forget that a story needs to be fun – remembering that what constitutes fun is relative to the ideal reader or viewer.

It is classic story structure to build a story by setting a goal for the character, having that character surmount obstacles on the way to the goal, and then manage to get through it (or not). The Odyssey works like this. Establishing a direction for the plot is in no way detrimental to achieving layers of meaning for the work.

A great way of creating more resonance and a deeper meaning is by showing an inner transformation in the character, beneath the surface structure of goal attainment. This may be achieved by creating an internal problem for the character, which results in the character really needing something other than the explicit goal.

If this is the case, then the character may realise upon reaching the goal that some sort of revelation, learning experience and emotional growth is required. All of that often entails that the goal loses its importance once the character has reached it.

Characters and their wants

I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.


The want is what the character desires. A character must want something in order to be motivated to carry out the action of the story. On the whole, only active characters are interesting. And they become active by consciously wanting something and pursuing it. Usually the character consciously wants to solve the external problem. The desired result of this solution is usually a state of being: solving the problem leads to marital bliss, wealth, power, immortality, survival, etc. So the want tends to be abstract – a state as opposed to a specific thing or point in time. It is distinct from the wish because it comes about because of the external problem. The want is the implied reward for achieving the more concrete goal of the story.

Stories are about people who want something.

We can distinguish between two different types of want:

  1. the wish, or character want
  2. the plot want

Marty McFly wishes to be a musician (character want). He also wants to get Back to the Future (plot want).

The wish or character want is a device which adds cohesion to the story, usually in the form of the set-up/pay-off. Marty is seen at the beginning of the film practicing the guitar; at the end of the film he plays at a concert. A character-inherent wish is a useful technique to make the character clearer to the audience, but it is not essential to composing a story.

Indispensable is what we have called the plot want. As a result of the external problem – the trigger event that sparks the chain of cause and effect which the bulk of the plot consists of –, the character feels an urge, which provides the motivation for the character’s actions in the story.


The want is the state for which the character strives, and is distinct from the goal.

In this post we’ll be talking about active vs. passive characters, motivation, the difference between a want and a goal, a couple of writer traps to avoid, and contradictory wants.

Active Characters

Characters have to be actively acting of their own volition. The want has to be urgent and strong enough for them to do things. If the want is missing or too weak, the character will lack motivation and appear passive. A passive character is usually not interesting enough to hold the audience’ or readers’ attention.

Why is this so?

Evolutionary explanations of stories attempt to shed light on the phenomenon. When characters react to events rather than cause them, they appear weak, as victims in a chaotic, uncontrolled world. Which means that there is not much we can learn from them. Humans try to see cause and effect in everything, not just in stories. And humans experience stories physically and emotionally (our hearts beat faster, our palms sweat), so there is really not much difference between how we experience a story and real life. Since we learn from experience, we instinctively prefer stories which provide us with experiences that benefit us in some way. In stories we vicariously experience or practice primarily social problem-solving, without suffering real-life consequences. We tend to learn more when we experience stories of self-motivated problem-solving.


There is a good reason for that cliché about actors always asking about their motivation. It is motivation that prompts the characters in a story to do the things they do. Stories seem to work best not only when characters are active rather than passive, but often when they have comprehensible reasons for their activity.

The reason for what a character wants is usually comprehensible for the audience or reader because of the external problem. In simple terms, the character wants to solve the problem. Take the Cinderella story as an example. Her problem is that she is bound to the stepmother and her two nasty daughters.

In other words, the want is a vision the character has of his or her situation without the problem. Hence what the character wants is actually a particular state of being. Such a state might mean being in a position of wealth, power or respect, or being in a happily ever after relationship. Cinderella wants merely to be free of her involuntary servitude, if only for a little while.

This makes the want distinct from the goal, which is the specific gateway to the wanted state of being, as perceived by the character. A story usually sets up a goal the character needs to reach or attain in order to achieve the want. In Cinderella’s case, it is attending the ball.

So, a story has its characters pursue their wants. These different wants oppose each other, causing conflicts of interest. The conflicting wants make the characters active, and the audience/readers like stories about actions, that is, about characters who do things.

Sounds simple.

And yet frequently stories seem to mess up on this vital point.

Next to passive characters without a strong enough want, lack of clear motivation is a huge writer trap. It is possible to write a whole story full of characters who are reactive instead of active, or who do things of their own volition but without that volition being clearly recognisable to the audience/reader. It is perhaps even tempting to write stories like that, because they seem more lifelike. In real life, people do not necessarily have distinct goals. Often, our wants are vague and not clearly definable. What about writing a realistic story about a character with a general sense of dissatisfaction, who, like so many of us, has lost sight of any clear objective in life?

It’s doable, certainly. But the audience/readers will probably start to look for the specific want of such a character. They would probably begin to expect the story to be about this character’s search for a clear objective in life. That might be the want the audience would tacitly ascribe to the character.

And if the story does not bear such motivation out, the risk is significant. Because stories in which the audience does not understand what the characters want lack emotional impact.

Contradictory Wants

A way of adding psychological depth and emotional complexity to characters is to give them several and even contradictory wants. Gollum in Lord Of The Rings wants the ring. Yet a part of him also wants to give up the ring and help Frodo. Next to solving the case, Marty Hart in True Detective wants to be a good husband and family man, but he also wants affairs with other women. That’s three wants for one character.

A want is not merely a yearning, it is an expression of values. What a character desires shows the audience something about that character. In this sense, two contradictory wants provide the basis for a powerful scene of choice. At a crisis point, the character may face a dilemma and have to choose between two courses. Both might lead to some state the character desires, but these desires prove to be mutually exclusive. For the audience, which choice is the right one might be obvious – they will be rooting for the character to go one way. But for the character there may be a strong pull the other way. The final choice shows the character’s moral fibre – and often expresses the story’s theme.

When not to want

Is it really always absolutely necessary for every character to have a clearly defined want?

Not entirely. Because, of course, there are exceptions.

In certain cases, the author might deliberately obfuscate the why of a character’s actions in order to inject mystery. Not knowing something keeps the audience/reader guessing and turning the pages or not switching the channel. Usually this mystery is cleared up at some point. The audience tends to expect that. Which implies that even if the want was not made clear to the audience early in the story, it was there in the character nonetheless – and certainly the author was aware of it.

Injecting mystery by keeping character motivations hidden is not in itself a writer trap. But nearly. When tempted to use such a device, an author should at least consider if it would not actually be more interesting for the audience to know the character’s motivation.

Having said that, there are rare cases where a character’s motivation does remain unexplained. And those cases can be powerful. Especially when it’s a baddy we don’t understand.

Think of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, who is simply bad to the bone and we’ll never really know why. Shakespeare – deliberately, one presumes – gives no hint as to what Iago hopes to achieve by ruining Othello. Shakespeare might easily have given Iago some clearly understandable motivation, such as revenge of a past wrong, envy of Othello’s success, desire to usurp Othello’s position, lust for Desdemona. But he didn’t. And Iago is one of the most superb villains ever.

Another possible exception are (fiction) memoirs in the first person, such as David Copperfield, The Catcher in the Rye, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, or William Boyd’s Any Human Heart. In such stories, the effect of the narrator telling his or her own story creates a disparity between the time of the story told and the implicit future time of the act of telling. The narrator is relating a past from the perspective of an older self. This older self has reached a state of being which is different from that of the character being told about – the narrator is wiser than his or her younger self. This creates an effect for the reader: the reader wants to know how the character reach this older, wiser state. With this device, it is possible to make character wants less obvious or direct and still maintain an emotional drive to the story.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about a character’s want is how it stands in conflict with what that character really needs.

Scrivener: A Better Word Processor for Writers

I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

Scrivener: A Better Word Processor for Writers

When I first started using Scrivener, I was skeptical. I thought, What can this do that I can’t already do in Microsoft Word? I’m a true cheap skate, and the idea of spending $45 on a program that was basically the same as a program I already had seemed silly.


Photo by Haris Awang (creative Commons). Modified by The Write Practice.

However, I couldn’t argue with the people who recommended itSeth Harwood, a novelist I admire, said, “I use Scrivener for writing my novels and a MacBook. I used to use Word, but literally I can’t imagine how I’d write a novel without Scrivener now… There’s nothing that can match Scrivener’s chapter view for seeing where the book has gone and is going.”

So I bought it.

And I’m not going back to Microsoft Word any time soon.

Check out Scrivener and get a free trial here.

Here’s what I use Scrivener for:

1. Capture More Story Ideas

Scrivener Research

For two years, I’ve been doing research for a novel. Nearly every day I read something interesting pertaining to the story, or get a phrase to write down on a napkin, or see a picture on Pinterest that reminds me of one of my characters.

In the past, I had a hard time capturing all those ideas into one, organized place. I had dozens of Word documents strewn around on my computer with snippets of text. I had piles of napkins and scraps of paper all over the house.

Scrivener made all that go away. Now I have one document to capture all my ideas in, whether they’re pictures, snippets of text, links to articles, or quotes from a novel.

I couldn’t have done that with Word.

2. Structure Your Book

Scrivener organization for writers

I’ve worked on five book projects with Scrivener, and I’ve been impressed with how much easier it is to stay organized, especially between chapters and sub-chapters.

I’ve had people ask me whether I create separate Word documents for each chapter, and now I say, “Not anymore!” Scrivener lets me keep all my chapters separated but easily accessible, which is convenient when working on a big project.

3. Boost Your Productivity

Scrivener also allows you to create word count goals for each section. So if you need to write five more chapters of at least 1,000 words, Scrivener lets you input each goal and see how close you are to achieving them at a glance.

I love word count goals. They keep me so motivated!

4. Sync Between Your Computer and Phone

Often when I’m stuck on a chapter, I like to take a walk to clear my head and brainstorm solutions. If any notes came to me during this process, I would take them down using Evernote, or another app, and then have to laboriously message them or copy and paste them when I came back to my computer.

Scrivener’s new iOS app makes this process seamless. I can sync my chapter with my phone, then take it with me without have to switch between different apps and documents. It’s a huge time saver.

5. Get Published!

Scrivener’s advanced “compile” feature allows you to quickly format your book into publish-ready PDFs, into eBooks, like ePub and mobi (for Amazon Kindle), which you can publish directly to services like Kindle Direct Publishing and Barnes & Noble, and even into documents for agents and publishers.

This can be a huge boost to efficiency. Plus, you don’t have to learn how to convert to all those formats yourself!

Scrivener is a Better Word Processor for Writers

Scrivener can be installed on Macs and PCs. You can purchase it and download it here.

Ready to try out Scrivener? You can download a free trial from Literature & Latte here.

Learn more and download Scrivener here »

All in all, Scrivener is better than Word for writers. If you’re having a hard time writing large projects with Word, it’s time for an upgrade.

More Articles About How to Use Scrivener

Interested in learning more about how to use Scrivener? Here are more resources:

Do you use Scrivener? What do you like about it? What other word processors do you use for your writing? Let us know in the comments.

(Some of the links above are affiliate links.)

A Brief History of Creative Writing

I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

A Brief History of Creative Writing

by Matt Herron | 19 Comments

Today’s the last day to enter our Typewriter Giveaway. Join the fun and enter here »

There are hundreds of new programs, websites, and apps to help with your creative writing, but it might help you put them into perspective by examining the history out of which these technologies have emerged.

A Brief History of Creative Writing


Like all technology, new tools are built on the foundation of the ones that came before them. Let’s take a quick journey through the history of creative writing tools so that we can evaluate modern creative writing tools in a historical context.

Oral Storytelling

Originally, stories were passed from generation to generation through oral storytelling traditions.

In these traditions, the primary “writing” tool was the storyteller’s memory and voice, though stories were often augmented by instruments and dance. Stories were imbued with the personality of the teller, and took on color in the creative exchange with the audience.

Stories  evolved over time through the retelling. They improved, were embellished, or were transformed into myth and legend.

The Written Word

It wasn’t until (relatively) recently, with the invention of the written word (archaeologists place its formation around 3200 BC, depending on location) that we started writing stories down.

This is where the history of creative writing really begins.

Some of the earliest examples of written stories in the Western tradition are the Bible and Homer’s Odyssey; in the Eastern Tradition, the Indian Vedas and Sanskrit poems; in central America, the Mayan Codices.

It’s likely that many of these early texts were simply being transcribed from the oral tradition. The legend that Homer was blind—whether it’s true or not—gives us a symbolic link connecting the oral and written storytelling traditions.

In any case, storytellers started writing their stories down. Once that happened, the process of creative writing evolved.

Instead of telling and retelling stories orally and making them better over time, written language gave storytellers the ability to tell themselves the story over and over again using a drafting process. It gave them a way to record more stories by providing them a physical extension of their memory: ink and paper.

The art of writing was an esoteric discipline for a long time. At first, only monks and the rich and educated classes were taught how to write. Inks and quills were expensive. Paper was hard to come by and difficult to make. World literacy skyrocketed in the second half of the 20th century. As late as 1950, world literacy was estimated at a mere 36%.

Today, 83% of people can read and write.

The Printing Press

Apart from the expense of writing in ancient times, many obstacles to distribution had to be surmounted. The Bible is an example of a collection of stories that found early success and popularity. But access was limited. Bibles were copied out by hand and manually bound.

This laborious process continued for several hundred years, until Gutenberg came along in 1450 and invented the printing press. Though it was not the first printing press (the Chinese are often given credit for inventing the first moveable type), it changed everything.

The printing press made the first mass production of books possible. It’s important to understand that Gutenberg’s press led not to an improvement of the writing process, but to the distribution process. This is an important distinction. Writing a story was still laborious as ever, but now a writer could reach their readers in a more affordable way.


Around the late 1800s, the invention of the typewriter began to develop the creative writing process in earnest.

The typewriter quickly became an indispensable tool for writers. Instead of writing a story by hand, then having it typeset by a printing press, a writer could now push buttons to get their words printed directly on the page. It made the writing process faster and more efficient, and the wide and rapid adoption of the typewriter proved its worth.

It’s not a novel thing to you and I that a writer can push buttons and see their words appear before them—we grew up with computers. Yet, to writers at the tail end of the 19th century, it must have been a magical experience.


A hundred years later, computers were invented and another dramatic shift in the writing process was made possible. Instead of typing a story on paper, writers could type it on a screen—no more white out, no more wasted paper.

The invention of computers, and the writing software developed for them, marks the next evolutionary step in writing tools. A Brief History of Word Processing explains: “With the screen, text could be entered and corrected without having to produce a hard copy. Printing could be delayed until the writer was satisfied with the material.”

This was followed by increased storage capacity, which upped the volume and number of works which could be edited or worked on simultaneously, spell check, instantly accessible dictionaries, and other innovations.

Non-Linear Word Processing Software

This brief history of creative writing tools brings us to the present day.

And yet, word processing software has not changed all that much in recent years. Modern versions of Microsoft Word, for example, are almost identical to the version from 1997 on which I first learned word processing. That annoying paperclip fellow is gone, but the interface of the software and its core functionality remains the same. Namely, the writer is presented with a single vertical column of digital “pages” on which to type. In most word processing software, that linear structure cannot be changed.

The well-informed among you are now thinking about the exceptions to this rule, or what I like to call the next milestone in creative writing tool history: non-linear creative writing programs like Scrivener and Ulysses.

Instead of trying to imitate the typewriter, these programs approach writing from a structural angle.  They allow you to write out of order and rearrange components (pages, scenes, chapters, etc.) in a hierarchical tree structure. They also give you the ability to apply meta-data to your work—things like point of view, draft status, etc.—in an effective, tangible way that increases understanding and, if used correctly, productivity and enjoyment in the writing process.

In the history of creative writing tools, non-linear word processing software is the cutting edge.

Digital Publishing

Modern authors also need tools that gives them a leg up on the digital first approach. Anyone who has ever tried to convert a Microsoft Word document into an ebook will sympathize with this challenge—Word has a penchant for adding hidden formatting tags and making it difficult for writers to convert their stories into publishable digital formats.

Tools like Scrivener help remove that pain by giving you a compile process that is designed to export for all the modern e-book formats.

I don’t want you to struggle with out-dated linear word processing software anymore. I want you to be an evolved writer.

I want you to think digital first. I want you to write in a way that’s natural to you—whether that’s out of order or linearly—using a modern piece of software that’s designed for both.

When you write, think about digital publishing from the beginning.

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Scrivener is my tool of choice, and I’ve already written several articles about how to use it. Over the coming weeks, I’ll continue to cover the writing process with Scrivener in detail, from planning a story all the way through compiling to publication-ready formats.

I hope that with this historical context, you’ll be able to see the benefits of working with the most modern creative writing tools. And if the learning curve of a program like Scrivener intimidates you, you’re not alone. Stay tuned, and I’ll walk you through it from beginning to end.

Characters and their external problems

I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

The external problem may be a predicament the character suddenly finds him or herself in or a mission set to her or him. In stories, characters tackle problems. These tend to come in two types: 1) problems that already exist, but that only become relevant when the story starts; 2) new problems that hit the character from out of nowhere. The former are character inherent such as a weakness or a wish and are therefore not “external”. The latter come out of left field, external to the character, and tend get the action of the plot going. They are a disturbance to the normal order of the character’s world and mark the one instance that coincidence in story is not only forgivable, but virtually a necessity. Whatever the external problem, the character wants to solve it. The external problem therefore triggers what the story is outwardly, on the surface, all about.

In stories, characters solve problems. This is the basic principle of story.

Problems come in all shapes and sizes. What’s more, in storytelling they come from within and without. The problems that come from within are hidden, internal, and it is quite possible for a character not to be aware of them. They are typically character flaws or shortcomings.

But they are not usually what gets the story going. Most stories begin with the protagonist being confronted with an external problem.


The external problem of the main character triggers the plot. It is shown to the audience as the incident which eventually incites the protagonist to action. 

In some genres this is easy to see. In crime or mystery fiction, the external problem is almost by definition the crime or mystery that the protagonist has to deal with. So at the beginning of the story there is a murder, the detective is called in to investigate and solve the crime. The case of the murder is the external problem – it has nothing to do with the protagonist until the call to investigate it. In adventure or quest stories the external problem is usually the task of attainment of a precious thing (the Lost Ark, the Maltese Falcon), or the destruction of a dangerous one (the dragon, the ring in Lord Of The Rings). So the external problem arises when the protagonist is assigned a mission to find, protect, accompany, destroy, etc. something or someone either valuable or dangerous.

By suggesting the story question, the external problem on the level of plot sets up what the story is about. Will Indiana Jones find the Lost Ark? Will Sam Spade retrieve the Maltese Falcon? Will Marty make it Back to the Future?

While in other genres the external problem may not be as sensational or spectacular, there is nonetheless likely to be one. Meeting a potential partner might be the external problem in a love story.

We are defining the external problem per character, so it is not completely synonymous with the term inciting incident, which is usually used to pinpoint one particular scene in the narrative. It is quite possible, even likely, that different events present the external problems of various characters. For example, in The Godfather, the external problem for the Godfather is conveyed in the scene of his meeting with Sallozzo. For Tom, the moment comes when he is kidnapped. For Sonny it is when he gets the phone call about the shooting. For Michael it is when Kay points out the headline in the newspaper to him. 

Wanting the Solution

The external problem creates a desire in the character, i.e. to solve the problem. That’s why it is necessary as a component of story: to provide the reason for the story to begin now. The external problem acts as trigger, or starting gun, for each character. In many cases, the concept of external problem is directly related to the scene that is often called inciting incident. In this sense, the external problem is the prime mover of the plot of the story. It is the first domino that falls, the first cause of a string of events that affect the character.

That plots are built around the external problem is not new, by any means. It’s classical. Odysseus’ problem is that he is lost. Oedipus’ problem is the plague, which he learns was sent by the gods because of an unsolved murder.

The external problem causes the character’s motivation, i.e. to solve the problem. The protagonist wants a situation which is freed of the problem, which typically means reaching a goal. Attaining the goal will, in the character’s mind, solve the problem. In many stories, the goal is reached near the end of the story. What happens at the goal is the story’s climax.

But in some stories, the goal is reached much sooner, perhaps round about half way through. Then the story becomes about the consequences for the character of attaining the situation he or she wanted. This can mean that the external problem is replaced by another, often its opposite. Stories that work like this are said to have a midpoint or peripeteia. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex works like this, so does Nabokov’s Lolita, or the oldest of the Star Wars movies.

However soon the protagonist’s problem is solved, each major character must have his or her own problem in order to create conflicting interests. In some cases, the problem and resulting want may be the same for several or all characters. Almost everyone in Raiders Of The Lost Ark wants the Ark, in the same way that the Maltese Falcon is the object of desire for each person in that book and film. Whether the characters have the same or different problems, the most important thing in the story is that the wants resulting from their respective problems result in conflicts of interest between the characters.

Why? Because conflict is a driving force of stories. Where does it come from? It boils down to the external problems the characters have. That’s why it is important for the author to be aware of each major character’s external problem at an early stage in the creative process of thinking up a story.

Character Sketch Template: How to Sketch Characters in Scrivener

I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

Character Sketch Template: How to Sketch Characters in Scrivener

by Matt Herron | 16 Comments

Are you looking for a character sketch template that will make your character building easier and more fun?

Scrivener has an amazing character sketch  tool that you can use to develop better characters.

character sketch template


In this article, you’ll learn how to sketch a fictional character and cast that will make you proud. Read on for a hands-on walkthrough of how to use Scrivener to create characters, from character profiles to their physical descriptions, and then some.

Characters Can Make Your Book: Here’s How to Create Them

Nothing is born in a vacuum. Characters don’t emerge fully formed. Character development is a process of getting to know your characters and working to make them come to life. They’re developed through character sketches, through the writing process itself, through lots feedback, and diligent revision.

When you’re going through the character development process, it’s helpful to have some tools at your disposal, and one of the most helpful tools for writers, especially when it comes to working on your characters, is Scrivener.

What is a character sketch, what is Scrivener, and how can it help you create compelling characters? Read on to learn more!

Full disclosure: some of the links to Scrivener below are affiliate links. That means if you order Scrivener and use it to write your books, I will earn a few dollars to help me keep writing. That being said, this didn’t affect my opinion of Scrivener (which I personally use in my own writing).

What is Scrivener?

Scrivener is a writing program and word processor designed specifically by writers, for writers. If you’re working on a book, I’ve found that Microsoft Word and other word processors just don’t cut it.

Having a tool like Scrivener that’s designed specifically for books can save you hundreds of hours and help you write a better book.

If you’re interested in learning more about Scrivener, read my Scrivener review here.

Or you’re ready to purchase scrivener now, you can get the Mac, PC, and iOS version all here:Download Scrivener here »

What Is a Character Sketch?

Think of a character sketch as the rough draft of your character. It’s a place where you can freely experiment, where you can tell yourself (or your writing partner) who your characters are, how they look, and where they come from.

You can type out their whole backstory, or just the parts of the timeline that inform your character’s identity. Their inner and external conflicts will be crucial to your story, so be sure to include those, too.

Most importantly, use character sketches as a tool to discover your characters’ key motivations and goals, because those are the engine that drives your story forward.

Creating characters has never been easier with Scrivener’s character sketch template sheets. Learn how to use them in this article.

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How to Use Template Sheets in Scrivener

Template Sgeets

Scrivener has a template sheets function that makes building out character sketches easy. If you started using one of their document templates, like the novel template that comes with Scrivener, there should already be a Template Sheets folder in the your project document that looks like the screenshot to the right.

If not, you can make a Template Sheets folder by creating a new folder in the Binder (the left hand column), and then from the top menu selecting Project > Set Selection as Templates Folder.

Once you have the folder, you can add as many templates as you like!

Sidenote: I reference Scrivener’s features and include screenshots of the software, but you can still use these methods without Scrivener. Simply create a separate text file for each character and keep them in a folder named “My Story – Character Sketches.” If you’re interested in Scrivener, Joe reviewed it here.

Visualize Your Characters Using Scrivener’s Corkboard

Now that you have your template sheets folder, you can generate character sketches by creating new files from the template sheets you have.

Fortunately, we live in a digital age and Scrivener’s digital corkboard interface gives us the power of notecards in a way that allows us to drill down from the card view into the character sketch itself.

The notecard system is well documented and has been made famous by a dead authora living authorWriter’s Digest, and teenagers writing research papers everywhere. Scrivener simply digitizes this time-tested method.

In the screenshot below, you’ll see that I have several characters in view. They’ve all been generated from the Character Sketch template sheet we created previously.

What’s great about this is that you have a card for each character, with optional visuals or text description.

All the characters


I go for visuals out of the gate, as it helps me ground my character in an image. Having a visual on hand makes writing about them easier, at first, because the photos jog my imagination. Once I’m really entrenched and know my characters (i.e. about twenty-five percent of the way through the first draft), I don’t need to look at the visuals at all.

You’ll notice that some characters don’t have photos—I added those characters during the story and didn’t bother going back to find photos for them.

That’s okay. One of the most important things to remember about your planning or pre-production phase (to borrow a film term), including character sketches, is that none of it is set in stone.

Your story will evolve, and so will your characters.

For the images I’ve picked a few actors and photos I found on Google Images.

To add a photo to a Character Sketch in Scrivener, click on the character’s card, open the Notes column on the right hand side, and drag your image into the image area where the instructions are:

Image Drop


To insert a photo inline with the text, first click where you want the photo, and then go to  Edit > Insert > Image from File…

Individual Character Sketches

Here’s a screenshot of an individual sketch of one of my characters:

Character Sketch - Scriv Default


This sketch was created using the character sketch template that comes with Scrivener. I’ve since abandoned Scrivener’s defaults in favor of my own compilation, which follows.

An Alternative Character Sketch Template

As you learn more about character sketches, you’ll probably want to customize your character sketch template and make it your own.

Personally, I find Scrivener’s default sketch sheets superficial. When sketching characters, I like less structure, and less prescriptive fields around the character’s physical appearance and personality.

If you’re just starting out and you don’t have a character sketch template, here’s one I put together based on my own experimentation.

This is what my character sketch template looks like in Scrivener:

Mr. Miyagi


And here’s the full text, which you can feel free to use or modify as you see fit:



One Sentence Synopsis This character in a single sentence.

Summary This is a paragraph summary of your character. Include physical attributes, habits, mannerism. Sketch your character.

Motivations & Goals What do they want?

Conflicts What makes them human?

Narrative What happens to them in the story? What else is important?

Why Character Sketches Work

There are practical reasons to do character sketches. For one, developing characters is a process. Paving the way with character sketches, along with setting sketches in the following article, are a great way to give the gel of the story time and space to set.

Yes, they’re extra work, and yes they can be difficult. But that’s part of the process.

If you feel like you really know the character and can write the story, run through this checklist to make sure before you move on:

  • What is your character’s primary motivation? What are their hopes and dreams?
  • How does your character change in the course of the story?
  • What does your character look like? How do they act around their parents? Their friends? Their boss?
  • How does your character act under stress?
  • What is your character’s weakness, their kryptonite?
  • What will your character die for?
  • What is your character’s biggest hypocrisy?

If you can answer all of these questions with confidence, congratulations, you’re probably ready for setting sketches, which we’ll cover next week.

Ready to Develop Your Characters With Scrivener?

Now that you’ve learned how to do character development in Scrivener, put it to use!

You can get the Mac, PC, and iOS version all here and start creating your character sketches now:Download Scrivener here »

Or if you’re still wondering if Scrivener can help you finish your books, read my Scrivener review here.

Then, continue to the practice section for a writing exercise to help you get started.

Does your method for sketching characters line up with how I do things? What are your tricks for helping bring your characters to life? Share in the comments section.


Here’s a creative writing prompt to help you get started with character sketches.

Set aside a block of time (no more than thirty minutes to one hour) to sketch some characters in your latest work of fiction, whether it’s a short story, a novel, or a ten book series.

No characters coming to mind? Try sketching some of these characters and see how it goes!

  • A disciplined, medal-winning Jui Jitsu practitioner whose sister just died
  • A mother of three on a Thursday morning
  • A soldier who has returned home after being a prisoner of war in Iraq
  • A journalist covering the derailing of a local train that killed four passengers

Naming them is just the beginning. Don’t be afraid to get personal with the characters you create. When you’re finished, share a few paragraphs about one of your characters in the practice box below. We’d love to see who you come up with!

If you’re up for it, share your feedback with another writer in the comments.

Happy writing!

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Matt Herron


Matt Herron is the author of Scrivener Superpowers: How to Use Cutting-Edge Software to Energize Your Creative Writing Practice. He has a degree in English Literature, a dog named Elsa, and an adrenaline addiction sated by rock climbing and travel. The best way to get in touch with him is on Twitter @mgherron.

Emotion and The Setting: A Powerful Story Combo

I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

Emotion and The Setting: A Powerful Story Combo

By Guest Angela Ackerman

An interesting thing happens when setting and character come together, something writers don’t fully realize, or if they do, may not use to its full advantage: combined with intent, these two elements produce emotion. 

What do I mean by that? Well, think about us in the real world. Are there places you choose to vacation again and again? Is there a specific route you like to walk the dog, or areas in the city you enjoy visiting? Do you have a favorite restaurant, room in the house, coffeeshop, or park to sit in? I’m betting you do. Spaces we return to are special in some way, causing us to experience positive emotions. We may enjoy them for their beautiful scenery, their energy or solitude, because they remind us of the comforts of home, or some other meaningful reason. 

Just as we gravitate to places that make us feel good or safe, we also make emotional decisions about locations to avoid: that dark ally shortcut, the friend’s car that smells like spoiled milk, the high school football field where we were humiliated in front of the entire senior class. These spaces make us feel unsafe, vulnerable, or unhappy.

Our characters are just like us, so they will also have a catalog of places that hold personal meaning, good and bad.

The difference between the real world and the fictional one? Rather than shield our characters from uncomfortable emotions, we want to encourage them.

I know, it sounds a bit sadistic but exposing them to settings that trigger a range of emotions, some of which they desperately want to avoid, will not only produce conflict (a necessary ingredient in story), it will help to reveal their hidden layers. 

Beneath the surface of any character is a dark underside: insecurities, fears, and pain caused by negative past experiences and unresolved emotional trauma. This baggage is costly to lug around, causing unhappiness and steering the character’s life off course. This is usually how readers find them at the start of a story: incomplete, adrift, and hurting. And, if the writer has chosen a change arc for the character, it’s even more important to pull this pain to the surface where it can finally be acknowledged and dealt with. Only then can the character move forward toward happiness and hope, fulfilling the change arc and achieving their goal. 

Positive and negative, emotions are the lifeblood of a story. The setting we choose for each scene is a vehicle to bring out a wider range of emotions, including those that provide a window for readers to see inside the character and the struggle going on within. Here are three ways you can deliberately use the setting to bring out your character’s deeper emotions. 

Choose Specific Settings for a Reason

With each scene, think about the actions that will unfold and what each character’s emotional state will be. If you can, find a setting location that will amplify these emotions, perhaps by choosing one that holds personal meaning (good or bad). For example, what location would be a better choice for revealing a parent’s betrayal to her adult son: in the car on the way to the airport at the end of a visit, or at the playground where the character and his mother would come every day after school? The setting itself can trigger powerful emotions in the right circumstance.

Provide Obstacles

If your character is under so much pressure they’re struggling to function or they are on their final frayed nerve, use the setting to plant a natural obstacle in their path (a nosy security guard, a locked door, a car that dies halfway to their destination) that pushes them past their limits to cope. This new difficulty will trigger powerful, raw emotions whether they break under the strain, or find inner strength to prevail. 

Resurrect a Ghost

When it comes to the painful past, characters want it to stay there: in the past. So instead, we writers should dig around in that old suitcase of pain and resurrect a ghost: a person, thing, situation, or experience that will act as an echo of that past trauma. It might be a setting itself, or something that can be inserted into the setting. Maybe the character’s alcoholic dad shows up unannounced to her child’s graduation party at a restaurant, or a couple planning a honeymoon trip arrive at their appointment to discover the travel agent is a bitter ex-girlfriend. Perhaps the character is ill and is forced to pull into a roadside stop, a place she normally avoids at all costs as she was carjacked at one once.

What does the character feel in this moment? What will they do? Choose settings and setting elements specifically to awaken complicated emotions and possibly force them to deal with something from the past. 

Becca and I love to think about how we can push description to work harder in our stories. The possibilities are endless, so we encourage you to always think deeper, combining elements and experimenting with ways to increase tension, personalize story moments, and especially to deepen emotion. 

If you ever need help, visit our website or check out our books. And if you happen to be a fan of our work, you might be interested to know there is now a Second Edition of The Emotion Thesaurus. We’ve added 55 new emotions to the original 75 and have made a lot of other improvements. We also have a free webinar on Using Emotion to Wow Readers that we’ve made available until the end of February. If this is an area of struggle, visit this post to grab the link!

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, (now an expanded 2nd edition!) as well as six others. Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. Find her on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

How to Know When You’re a Successful Author?

I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

How to Know When You’re a Successful Author?

by K.M. Weiland

How to know when you’re a successful author? I suppose almost every writer asks this at some point—and very likely at frequent points. There are multiple ways to define and measure the answer. For many of us, the answer seems come down to commercial success. And yet because commercial success is sometimes elusive, this metric often seems at least vaguely unsatisfactory.

Recently, Wordplayer Rhonda Denise Johnson emailed me the following thoughts on the topic:

If you haven’t already, would you be interested in doing an article on how to know when you’re a successful author? What is the sine qua non of a professional success? When you land a deal with a big publishing house? So, should indie authors count themselves out? When your aunt Harriet stops asking you when you’re going to get a job? To paraphrase a writer is not without honor except in his own house.

I sometimes feel discouraged because I’ve been disappointed by the quality of writing in one too many so-called best sellers. It leaves me feeling like excellence doesn’t matter in this industry as long as your books sell. What we do when we craft a novel seems too precious to be measured in dollars and cents like merchandise, vacuum cleaners, and cheeseburgers. How then should an author measure herself, and how does he know when he’s “made it” as an author?

Rhonda’s email reminded me that I did, in fact, write a post on this topic: How to Tell if Your Book Is a Success. I wrote it at a time when my own career was relatively young and when I was earnestly asking the same questions of myself. My personal take on the subject remains pretty much the same as when I wrote that post, but since it’s been ten years (!), I decided it might be worth revisiting the topic, for myself as much as anyone.

Why Do We Feel It’s So Important to Be a Successful Author?

Taken at face value, the question of “how to know when you’re a successful author?” offers some pretty basic and obvious answers:

  • When you’re published.
  • When you’re a bestseller.
  • When you make at least a comfortable amount of money.
  • When you’re famous.
  • When you achieve critical acclaim.

However, as soon as we drill down to any depth, what is also obvious is that all these answers speak to entirely different experiences within the publishing journey. For instance, just because you’re published does not mean your book will sell, provide you a living, or be widely read. And as Rhonda pointed out, just because you’re a widely-read millionaire does not mean you will necessarily achieve universal critical acclaim.

Right away, we can see that perhaps one of the reasons “how to know if you’re a successful author” is such an unceasing question for writers is that there really isn’t a solid answer. That said, the one thing that all these answers have in common is that they are pointing to the experience of writing something that finds external validation. At first glance, we might think this simply points to the need for ego gratification, but I think if we go down yet another layer, we find that what writers are really seeking from these forms of external validation is simply a sense that what we’re doing has meaning.

We all write for many different reasons. But mostly I’d venture that, under it all, we write for two reasons:

1. To share ourselves.

2. To impact others.

Both of these objectives, however unconsciously measured, are foundational to the human’s need to feel that who we are and what we do has meaning—that our time in this life matters in some way. But both of these are highly abstract and thus difficult to measure. You may write something that changes my entire life, but you’ll probably never know it. In fact, I may not even know it. I may read your words, internalize them unconsciously, and never realize they were the fulcrum on which my future just turned. But it doesn’t matter if either one of us fully realizes what just happened. What you wrote—who you are—just mattered. I’d say that makes you a successful author. And yet… you may never know it. Certainly, you can’t measure it.

And so, we usually turn to more concrete measures of success, as defined by whether others are willing to read our work, publish our work, pay us for our work, and praise us for our work.

These are all entirely legit metrics of success, particularly if our abstract motivations are also driving eminently practical goals such as making or supplementing a living. But if we focus our definitions of what it means to be a successful author entirely on practical metrics, it can be easy to discount our true and deeply personal definitions of success.

My Evolving Definitions of What It Means to Me to Be a Successful Author

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland

Outlining Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

When I wrote my original article, pondering what it meant to be a successful author, I was about four years into the biz of being an indie author. I’d published two novels, neither of which had gone gangbusters, and my first writing-craft book, Outlining Your Novel, which had done well. It was a time when I was beginning to find the culmination of some of the more practical definitions of success, while also coming to terms with areas in which my career was not looking like the poster version. I was just starting to make enough money to be able to write full-time, and yet indie authors were still largely viewed as “less than.” Particularly since I wanted to be a full-time novelist, not a full-time non-fic writer, I sometimes felt conflicted.

Time went on, and the website continued to grow. I published more novels that met with only moderate sales and more writing guides that continued to sell solidly and allow me to launch into being a full-time writer. By most practical metrics, I could view myself, at least as an entrepreneur and non-fiction writer, as successful.  I had accomplished many my goals, and yet the “success” finish line always seemed out of reach. I began to realize that continuing to measure my success by outside metrics was a never-ending treadmill. There were always better sales rankings to achieve, a higher income to chase, more awards to seek. Wherever “there” was, I’d never reach it. There was always more external validation to seek.

In short, my experience has been that defining success is a slippery thing. Even if you reach the baseline of what popular consensus agrees is “successful,” this doesn’t automatically mean you will have found either personal or perpetual success.

So how do I define a successful author—both for myself and others?

Certainly I factor in external metrics. By most commonly agreed-upon definitions, success does entail publication and decent sales. If I see an author who checks those boxes, there’s a little “success” light that goes on in the back of my brain. But the light also goes on when I read a little-known indie work or an unpublished novel and it’s awesome. And that light also goes on when I hear from writers who by their own definition have reached success, whether this means finishing a first draft, self-publishing, or even simply writing something for themselves that helped them find personal healing or happiness.

In short, I believe the single most important metric in knowing whether or not you’re a successful author is first and foremost getting super-clear on your definition of “success.”

How to Define Your Own Success as an Author

Why are you writing? It’s a question with a multiplicity of answers. But if you can dig down to the root, you’ll probably discover the essence of your own definition of success.

Most of us write primarily because it scratches a deep-down itch. But you are also likely writing because you want external validation.

For you, maybe it’s enough just hearing that a reader had fun reading your story or was moved by it. Or maybe, for any number of reasons, you want writing to be a lifestyle—and you need it to pay for itself. Or maybe you just want to feel your own joy and excitement about your story mirrored back to you in excited reviews.

Whatever the case, try to get as specific about your reasons as possible. Then create a personal metric that can act as both your mission statement and your measuring rod as you journey forth to seek success. Most likely, you will find that you have many layers of metrics, some of which will evolve with you as time passes. Examine not just your own goals (i.e., finish the first draft, get published, get 10 reviews, sell 1,000 copies), but also how you define other writers as successful. In your view, are only the super-famous such as Stephen King successful? Are only books about serious topics successful? Are only traditionally-published authors successful?

There are no wrong answers. There are only your answers. For instance, if you realize you need the stamp of a traditional publisher in order to feel successful, that’s probably a sign that, at least at this point, you should steer clear of publishing your book independently. If you realize you feel a certain dollar sign is your definition of success, then you can distill your goals to help you leverage your marketing. If your primary reason for writing is simply self-expression, this may help you feel successful even if external validation is lacking.

For me, two realizations are paramount in helping me define my own success.

One is that success is a moving target. At one point, selling 1,000 books seems like success, but after you’ve reached that, the definition may change into selling 10,000 books, 100,000, even 1,000,0000 or more.

Second, “success” is only the point insofar as it offers a reward. That reward may be simply the sheer practicality of keeping the electricity turned on. Or it may be the need to prove something to yourself—that you can write a book, publish a book, sell a book, share a book that matters to people. When whatever it is ceases to offer personal validation, it can no longer be used as a benchmark.

The pitfall to be avoided is identifying ourselves with any one definition of success—and especially if that definition comes from someone other than ourselves. Success, in the end, doesn’t matter. It comes and it goes. Only a few of the authors you now see ranking on Amazon will be remembered past their own lifetimes. To use metrics such as sales, reviews, etc., to calibrate our goals is one thing, but to define our identities as “successful” or “unsuccessful” based on these things misses the true heart of what it means to live a meaningful life as an author.