SPS-281: Indie Author Mastermind: One Short Story a Week – with J. Thorn
J. Thorn talks to James about his indie author career, writing a book specifically for traditional publishers, and the value of joining a group of authors who will understand the challenges and joys of being a writer in a way that others may not.
- On the evolution of a writer and their production schedule
- Writing a short story per week for a year
- The challenge of writing a story within a 2500 word boundary
- How J’s mastermind group supports authors whatever their goals
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
STORY TOOL: J offers SPF listeners his free Story Rubric tool for assessing your story’s strength
MERCH: Are you a ligneous beetle or a yawning hippopotamus? Get your SPF hoodies and t-shirts in the brand new SPF Store.
SPS-281: Indie Author Mastermind: One Short Story a Week - with J. Thorn
Speaker 1: On this edition of The Self-Publishing Show.
J Thorn: To put constraints around that creativity and say, "This is 2500 words, period, and I'm going to force myself to tell that story in that amount of time," it's not easy, but I think it's a muscle that's worth flexing.
Speaker 1: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers, no one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?
Join indie bestseller Mark Dawson and first-time author James Blatch as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is The Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello and welcome. It is The Self-Publishing Show with me, James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: Mark Dawson, good to see you all the way down the line from sunny Salisbury in South England. And I'm sort of Southeast England, East England, I don't know.
What's happening this week in the big world of publishing? What's it like being a millionaire author, Mark? I revere you, I've just been looking at yacht magazines this week.
Mark Dawson: No, I've been busy with German and audiobooks. I've had three of the Milton books, the first three done in German from the German translations about two months ago, maybe more actually, and I just haven't gotten around to putting them live which is a bit stupid when you're given that they were quite expensive to do, to get them done.
So I've been messing around with ACX today or yesterday and it is very challenging. Again, when you don't speak German, everything is in German so capital Ein, capital Zwei, Drei, Vier, Funf, Sechs. I had to remind myself of numbers in German.
So on one of my screens I had common German words I was going to need, on the other one I had the German translations so I could make sure that I was uploading the chapters in the right order. And then on the other screens, there are three screens going, I had the ACX upload screen.
I uploaded them all, had a couple of technical issues so then I had to get back to the studio in Berlin to get them to increase the sound because it was too quiet for ACX's QC and then realised I needed the cover to be in a square rather than the normal configurations.
James Blatch: You do all this yourself?
Mark Dawson: Yeah. I have a PA now whose Dutch but speaks German, which has been quite useful for quality control. But it is quite a technical thing to do. I know the techs, I know how to use ACX, I've used it a few times before so it just felt, at least the first time, it made more sense for me to do it. And once I got a process in place, it was okay, so once I got the artwork from Stewart in the right dimensions I'll get that uploaded and then see how we get on.
Probably going to use Findaway Voices as well for this. So I'll be non-exclusive with ACX and distribute to everywhere else through Findaway. We'll see how that goes.
James Blatch: Yeah, that's what I'm planning to do. I haven't chosen a narrator yet. I haven't quite found the right voice yet, but we're looking into that as well. And you mentioned the German translations, I mean that's complicated isn't it, working in another language fraught with the potential for mistakes. Unfortunately languages don't work in a straightforward translation.
In fact, there's a wonderful person on TikTok who does videos of exchanges in English exactly as the French words would be and the German words would be, so you get two people saying, "How is it today that you are, are you?" And it all sounds completely nonsensical in English but it's just simply the way grammar works in French and German. We don't have a sporting chance if you don't speak the language, so you've got to be very careful there.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, the good news is things like translation software is much better now. You sometimes use Google Translate but you use more often DeepL, which is D-E-E-P-L, which seems to be fairly widely recommended. So that's good enough for me to check.
I wouldn't translate things, I'm still not convinced it's as good as a human translator. I'm sure it isn't, but it is quite useful if I get correspondence from German readers so I can translate it so I understand what they're asking. And then I can write in English, get it to translate into German, and feel reasonably confident that's it going to be comprehensible at least.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Mark Dawson: So there's lots of challenges.
James Blatch: The emergence of the German market is something we have mentioned over the last year or so, but it's something we should keep mentioning because it's a very significant thing. And I know you shared a chart with me and Stewart Bache on Fuse Books channel this week. It's quite a significant moment for you.
Mark Dawson: The last four or five days Germany has been my number one market, so ahead of the US and the UK, and often by a few hundred dollars. I've been talking about Germany for a long time now, and it is a very, very, very good market to get into. Of course the issue is it's also quite expensive.
There are lots of different ways. I'm thinking about what I'm going to be speaking at NINC and 20Books this year. One thing I could do is breaking into the market and the things that I didn't know before I did it that I know now, so things like, you'll need translations for everything. Blurbs, ad copy, your newsletters, so I've got a translator on board now to translate a version of my monthly newsletter because I've got over 1500 German subscribers now. And I want to give them the same content that my English speaking subscribers get, but I can't do that myself. So there's a lot of things you need to bear in mind but the rewards are pretty good. I'm happy with how things are going.
James Blatch: Good. Now if you're interested in this area of marketing, particularly, not just Germany, but particularly UK, USA, an English speaking world, the level of detail that Mark and I are now into with our advertising - me with just one book and our Fuse Books project, which is gone great since we began with a couple of authors there. We have our Ads for Authors courses being the foundation that I've used to tag a couple of authors from very little income to a good profit they can live off each week.
I've seen my own books sell, go through a thousand copies since I launched it earlier this month, or end of last month I think, actually, technically. Not profitable yet, but that will come with books two and three following the method that Mark teaches.
The Ads for Authors course is going to go on sale from Wednesday the 9th of June, that's next Wednesday, you can find out everything you need to know. If you want to know what's in the course, whether it's going to work for you, selfpublishingformula.com/adsforauthors, all one word, obviously.
And just to reiterate like we always do, we are as fair as we can be with these courses, we do a 30 day no questions, no quibble, money back. So if you buy the course and you think "This is not going to be worth it for me, I don't think I can do it," or "I know it all," or whatever your reason is, you don't even have to spell that out, you can take your money back and move on.
But we know that thousands of authors have very successfully used the course to accelerate themselves into being a full-time author or accelerate their profits or got their books in a position where they're paying one of their utility bills every month. Whatever your expectation, your aim is, hopefully the course will pay itself off very quickly for you.
We're going to be busy with that in the next week or so. I would like to say, before we go any further, I thought I just closed it down because it was beeping at me. John Dyer was asking me questions on our Slack channel.
Mark Dawson: We have Ben Wiggs from Croydon in the UK and Alex Chaseling. We don't know where Alex lives, but thank you very much to both of you, we've got lucky enough to have a quite a few Patreon supporters now and that helps us to keep putting out the podcast every week and we value each and every one of the patrons who are kind enough to help us do that.
James Blatch: As you're so professional, Mark, where do they go if they want to sign up?
Mark Dawson: Well they need to go to patron.com/selfpublishingshow. And they'll have a number of options there for however they want to support us. There's lots of cool stuff as well that we give away, including, which we should do quite soon, every time we launch a course we'll pick a patron at random and they'll get their course for free, which can be quite valuable when you look at the value of the Ads for Authors course.
James Blatch: Yes, the winner of the Ads course will be informed before we open on Wednesday, so you'll know whether it's you or not. We'll announce them in the next episode.
I don't think I've got any particular updates on my book, on my side of things at the moment, or Fuse. We are about to take on a second series. We're in the contract stage with another author, it'll be our third author so we'll see where we go with that. I know lots of people have submitted, and I get emails every week from people pleading their case to be taken on and what we're doing is basically, they're sitting there, we go through the pile, we start talking to somebody, it takes a while, we sign them, it's one at a time, we're not a big organisation, we don't take on five authors a month, anything like that.
I don't reject anyone. No one's had a letter saying you're definitely not going to be in there, it's just sitting there in our list to be considered at some point in the future.
But I would say to people who've submitted, don't stop doing anything else, don't pause and wait for us, just carry on with your marketing, carry on with your plans, and if you hear from us all well and good at some point in the future, we'll pick it up where you are.
It does feel like a busy time in our Self Publishing world. Can't wait to get back out there with the conferences and hear lots of stories. You only pick up so much reading online, but chatting to people, how they're doing, I know my little author group so I chat to it, are doing well at the moment so it feels like a good time. And we're talking to somebody with their ear, I think to the ground, in Self Publishing world and publishing generally, which is J Thorn.
We've had J on the podcast before, he's partnered with Zach Bohannon. We had Zach on a couple of weeks ago so it seems like a good match to have J on now.
J has a few very good resources for authors in this interview, and we'll put in the show notes the links to what he's talking about. They're all free, you don't even have to sign up with an email address to get them. Very useful indeed. J also runs a mastermind group you might be considering. So, without further ado, let's hear from J Thorn, then Mark and I will be back for a quick chat.
J Thorn, I think this is the second time you've been on our show. It was a while ago, and last time I seem to remember we talked a lot about your train journey from Chicago to New Orleans and funny enough, I'm about to go onto Jo Penn's show after this, so that may even come up again. And we had Zach Bohannon recently, but what I found interesting was talking to Zach, he told me a little about the way you operate, which is you're a very positive guy, you have ideas and you're a very "We can do this, let's do this." You're the do-er. You get things done, or at least you ask other people to get things done.
J Thorn: I'd say that's accurate.
James Blatch: And that's good, because it's a new frontier, right, self-publishing. So it's up for grabs.
If you have an idea, there's nothing stopping you.
J Thorn: Yeah. I agree, and I wish I could pat myself on the back and take credit for this attitude that I have but it's just how I came out of the box. It's how I'm wired, so I just live my life the best I can.
James Blatch: Well that is great. And we're going to talk a little bit about you and a little bit about what you're up to at the moment and about, I think we're going to talk about cooperative and mentoring groups, which is something I'm increasingly interested in as I get into my author career so let's start, though, with a recap about who J Thorn is. You better tell us.
J Thorn: I want to start with a congratulations because Final Flight has taken flight.
James Blatch: It's taken off. It's in the air. It's climbing out.
J Thorn: Congrats, man. I know that's been a long, passionate project for you and I was thrilled to see that hit Amazon.com., so congrats on that.
James Blatch: Hey J, thank you very much indeed. You've been part of that journey as well, all the encouragement and help. And I look up everything online that you do.
Yes, it's been a long journey but I think people's first books often are quite long journeys because you start off not knowing anything and I feel enthused now that I can start writing book two starting here rather than down here with all that learning that I've done, and that's what I'm excited about. And looking you in the eye, and saying "I'm now also a published author," which I feel I can do. So thank you very much.
J Thorn: You're welcome.
James Blatch: Back to you J, well ahead of me on this front.
J Thorn: I've been publishing since 2009 roughly. I was in one of those early waves of what they call the Kindle gold rush, which is a bit of a misnomer. But we know history will be kind to it so we'll call it that.
I was not a traditional published author who came over. I know there were a lot of folks who got their rights back or they had novels intrunked and they were able to get those up onto Kindle rather quickly at that time and really take advantage of being a first mover in the marketplace.
I was starting from scratch. I come from a 23-year career in education. I like to say I taught kindergartners how to read and graduate students how to write, and just about everything in between. So I started transitioning, I was writing on weekends, early in the morning before my kids would get up, and just kind of chipped away at it, never really had a breakout success.
My friend Zach, his first series really took off and it gave him the confidence and the ability to go as a full-time author pretty soon after that. I've been more of a slow burn.
I think my career's been much more like our mutual friend Joanna's. She'll tell you she hasn't really had a single spike, it's just been year after year, production, keep doing the same thing and building that back catalogue and so, 10 plus years later, here I am.
James Blatch: And what is it you write? I know you've moved genres a little bit over the years, what are writing at the moment? What do you like writing?
J Thorn: I started out writing more traditional horror. Not slasher horror, but more like Stephen King, Dean Koontz style horror. And then I transitioned into writing more dark fantasy, some post-apoc and dystopian flavoured sci-fi.
Now I'm sort of coming back more towards the traditional horror. As you know I do the podcast with JD Barker and he's been mentoring me on a manuscript I've been working on for about a year. And it's definitely more of a mainstream horror suspense thriller, more so than the genre fiction I had been writing. So I've kind of come full circle in a way.
James Blatch: I think horror's an interesting genre because lots of people, I mean Stephen King's obviously incredibly widely read, and people will read The Shining and Carrie. But the rest of horror, outside of those big authors, seems to be quite niche. There seems to be quite a gap to me.
I don't meet horror readers as much as I meet other genre readers, but you do meet Stephen King and I suppose James Herbert maybe, before that there's been a few authors who've broken through.
Is it more difficult with horror to break through to that bigger mass market?
J Thorn: I think it traditionally has been. I think that's changing. Over the past couple years, this term has kind of bubbled up called elevated horror. And it's made its way through the film industry and the book industry, and it's a bit of a polarising term. But the general idea is that elevated horror is more cerebral, it's more supernatural, it's less about the gratuitous violence and more about the unexplained. I think there's a been a resurgence in horror in a way around this idea of elevated horror. Let the Right One In is a good example of what's considered elevated horror.
But I think, to your point, Stephen King is really a genre on his own now. When he started out, when I was reading him as a teenager in the early 80s, he was considered a hack. Real literary folks didn't read Stephen King. And he persevered through decades and now he has become a genre onto himself.
He can write things like 11/22/63 and The Green Mile and have this very diverse catalogue, so in a way, he is the aspirational model that I think many horror writers aspire to, and we want to get there. But you're right, I think horror is still a bit of a niche thing. It's not as widely accepted by the mainstream for whatever reason, but I think that's changing.
James Blatch: Yeah. And of course self-publishing, independent publishing makes it much easier to find your market and find your reader. I don't want to be anti-trad publishing, but you can understand why they might not take up genre horror writers as readily as they do other genres that they can see an already market for.
But with self-publishing we have that ability through targeted ads to find our tribe, find our readers. So all power to you, to the horror writers.
J Thorn: Yeah. And there's a hidden disadvantage for horror writers that I think other genre fiction writers don't face, which is this idea that it's hard to write a series in horror. And you guys know from your work that-
James Blatch: Because everyone dies.
J Thorn: Yeah, right. And there's a certain level of maleficence, there's a certain force of antagonism that it's hard to carry through multiple books. It's so emotionally intense, and it can really tax the reader. I think that's why you see that horror standalone novels do fairly well, but it's hard to write those in a series.
James Blatch: I didn't really think about that, but it does make sense. You think about all the big horror stories, they are all standalone, generally.
J Thorn: They tend to be. Yeah.
James Blatch: I think J Thorn's going to be a genre in his own right because you always aspire. Stephen King is our king, let's say that. I loved his books when I was a kid as well, and in fact, I love James Herbert books. They were some of the first novels I read. The Rats might've been the first time I felt like I was reading a grown-up novel.
Where are you with your writing at the moment, J? What sort of production do you do? A couple of books a year, three books a year? Or are you a book-a-month guy?
J Thorn: Yeah, it's funny how, and I think you'll see this too, once you start publishing, you go through these evolutions, you go through cycles.
Four or five years ago, Zach and I were writing a book every couple months. We were following the rapid release format as it was at the time. We were writing in series, we were trying to get something out every 60 to 90 days, keeping the algorithms going, and I think now I'm to the point where I've realised I can't write that way. That's not my game.
Other people do it really well. I'm not wired that way. I tried and I gave it a good try. I had some moderate success with it, but it's not something I can sustain. And the last thing I want to do is hate writing. I felt like if I put myself on that treadmill that I would end up hating writing or turning it into a job, which is not what I wanted. So I've really reevaluated and I've reassessed what it is I want and what I want to do with my time.
And what I've realised is I want to do deeper dives and I want to take longer chunks of time to work on projects. I don't want to have the pressure to publish something every 30 to 45 days. So what I'm doing right now, I have two fiction projects that are running concurrently. One of them is a short story experiment, so I decided with my mastermind group that I run that I was going to write a short story a week for one year, for all of 2021. And they were going to be short, 2500 words to 3000 words, but I wanted to follow the Ray Bradbury model.
I wanted to say, "Okay. I'm going to sit down and I'm going to write a short story every week and I don't have time to polish it, I don't have time to be a perfectionist. I've got to just crank these out and do the reps." So I'm doing that and as we record this we're almost to the fifth month of the year and I haven't missed a week yet.
And then the other project that I mentioned is I'm working on a manuscript with JD and I have self-published everything up until this point, and this is the manuscript I want to clear the agents with. And I totally understand the game, I understand I'm going to lose control, I understand, I get it.
For me this is more about can I do it? Can I play in that sandbox? And so JD has been really gracious and said, "I'll help you through the process." I threw out an entire novel so I started with one novel and he's like, "No, this isn't going to cut it," so I completely set that aside, started brand new. That's been about a year and last week I just sent it over to him and I said, "Okay, I'm taking my hands off the wheel. I've done all I can do with this thing. Let me have it," so that's kind of what my projects are right now.
James Blatch: And this is the one you're talking about on your podcast, on Writers Ink?
J Thorn: Yes.
James Blatch: I should give a shout out to your podcast. It's called Writers Ink and I think it's fairly easy to find online. But you talk about this mentoring. I'm going to ask about mentoring in mastermind group in a second, but just going back to your other books. So you're doing sort of the deeper dive type of book at the moment, spending more time on it.
And these are books you're writing by yourself, J, or are you still co-writing?
J Thorn: I'm not currently co-writing with anyone right now. Zach launched a new zombie series that's doing really well, really proud of him. He's doing great with that. That was something he really likes and he wanted to go back to that, and I wanted to pursue this one-off project-
James Blatch: The short stories? Yeah.
J Thorn: Yeah, in short stories. So we decided we'll set the co-writing aside for now and focus on our own stuff. So yeah, I'm not currently co-writing anything.
James Blatch: What do you do with the short stories? Where are you publishing them? How are you publishing them?
J Thorn: Yeah this is interesting. When I was developing the mastermind group for 2021, I told the attendees I want some level of accountability. I would love for us all to be working towards something. So the idea I came up with was, let's commit to something a week, whatever that is.
It could be an 800 word blog post, it could be a 2,000 word short story, it could be a 100 word flash fiction, it doesn't matter. The important thing is consistency. Let's do it every week, we'll keep track of our words, I'll do it with you. I'll get in there and do it with you. And so that was the idea.
And for me, I know that audience is important, and I didn't just want to write these and leave them on my hard drive. So I emailed my list and I said, "I'm going to write a short story a week for all of 2021 and if you want in on this, I'll sell it directly to you. 10 bucks, one-time payment, the whole year, not per story, just 10 bucks, and every week you're going to get a book final link from me with the newest story."
I told that to my list, and now what I can do is at the end of 2021, I can take all the short stories and I can decide what I want to do with those. Do I want to submit those publications individually? Do I want to bundle those as an anthology? But I knew for me I needed to get the story in front of real readers to keep motivated, to keep writing them.
James Blatch: That's quite a different thing, a short story, I can't imagine. I think I tend to overwrite a little bit, and I've been up of 190,000 words at one point with my novel.
It's a strange concept for me, telling an entire story in 2,500 words.
J Thorn: It is quite a challenge, and I started out writing short stories in early 2000s, and I think that's what eventually led me to start writing novels. I don't know who it's attributed to, there's some question of whether it was Mark Twain or someone else who said, "I would've written you a shorter letter but I didn't have the time."
James Blatch: Yes.
J Thorn: I love that. And it's so true. I tell many of my clients and the people who I mentor in my mastermind group, writing shorter is way harder. And if you can do it well, those skills will translate, but if you force yourself to put constraints around that creativity and say, "This is 2,500 words, period, and I'm going to force myself to tell that story in that amount of time," it's not easy, but I think it's a muscle that's worth flexing.
James Blatch: You mentioned Ray Bradbury as an influence, but I remember Isaac Asimov as I absolutely loved his short stories. I found them very atmospheric and they were, I suppose, like a glimpse into a world. There was a novel there, but you were having this one little moment from the bigger novel. That's what I always felt with his stories.
J Thorn: Totally agree.
James Blatch: I don't know if I ever felt frustrated that I wanted to read the whole novel at some point, but you moved onto the next short story and there was another.
And of course the other guy, I mention him quite often because I'm a big fan of his, Ian M. Banks. His culture series, which are all quite short, but a couple of those books are short stories within them, and they're great reads as well. I think it's quite an interesting concept and one I might even play with myself. I'm desperate to come up with some kind of lead magnet. As I get towards book two, I really do need to have something I can use. I've got all this Facebook Ad experience now. I need a lead magnet, so maybe that's something I should think about. Couple of ideas.
J Thorn: Yeah, and short stories are so versatile. You can just use them in so many ways. As a lead magnet, as a free gift, a thank you to your list, as a Patreon reward, there's just so many opportunities.
I wanted to mention, too, you mentioned Asimov. Nightfall is one of my favourite anthologies, and it reads like a novel, even though it isn't. And I'm fascinated by the way that man told stories. Like you said, so compelling in giving you just a taste that you want more, but there isn't anything more to give you, and I love that feeling.
James Blatch: I must go back and revisit him because thinking back to, obviously I read this as a teenager and I didn't analyse stories in the way that I now, every book I read I'm thinking, "How have you put this together?" I'd love to go back and read that, because I imagine he's a master at leaving stuff out, which is why those novels work so well. Just almost assumes you're standing there, this is what the world looks like, dogs are mechanical in this world, so there's no labouring it, there's no over-description. It was fantastic, yeah, brilliant man.
Let's talk about mastermind. So you've mentioned your mastermind group a couple of times and I know this is something you're quite big into. This is a mastermind group you yourself have started?
J Thorn: Yes. I started reluctantly, which is kind of funny. If we go back to The Career Author podcast, which Zach and I don't do anymore, but we started it a few years ago, around the same time that Mark LeFebvre started his podcast. And at the time, Zach and I were co-writing and this was around the time we did the Authors on a Train trip, and I was trying to run from my past.
As I mentioned, I have a master's degree in education, I spent 23 years in the classroom, and the last thing I wanted to do when I started writing was teach. I was like, "I'm done teaching." I was done. I wanted no more of that. Zach kept prodding me and he's like, "You got to do something with this. You're good at this. You really need to do something with it."
We started Career Author podcast, and that was for me, sort of a reawakening in understanding that I don't have to choose between what I think I want and what I did. We all have these skill stacks that, we have these unique sets of skills that other people don't have based on our life experience. And my skill stack happened to be a background in history and education and an ability to write.
And so I finally accepted the fact that I am a teacher, I'll always be a teacher, and that's okay. And so what I started to do is I started to transplant everything I learned in all those years teaching unruly fifth and sixth graders, 11 and 12 year olds, and used that with writers, and I found it to be very effective.
A little over a year ago, I started my first official mastermind group called The Author's Success mastermind. There's two levels to it. The one is a paid community, it's a monthly membership, it's 30 bucks a month, and it's everything you would expect. It's an archive of online courses and resources. There's a great Slack community.
And then from within that group, there's what we call the platinum level which is a small group of those people, only 12, and those people get on a Zoom call with me once a week, every Saturday, for an entire year. And we do things like, we do scene analysis, we do Business Model Canvas work, we do the traditional hot seat where someone brings an issue or a problem and everyone tries to solve it.
I've found that really has been wonderful, not only for me, but for the people who attend it because I'm able to leverage everything that I've learned and figured out as a teacher, and everything that I've learned and all the mistakes I made as a publisher and a writer, and can bring those two together. That's been officially running for a little over a year, and I'm thrilled with it. It's one of my favourite things to do every week.
James Blatch: It sounds quite time consuming but obviously it's working out for you.
J Thorn: It is, and I think it works in tandem with what we talked about earlier, about getting off the rapid release treadmill. I think I realised if I was going to do rapid release, I would have to be all-in on that, because that takes a lot of time and a lot of concentration. In the same manner, I realised that if I'm going to run a community, I've got to be all-in there.
People are expecting me to be there, that's what they're paying for. They're paying for my presence, my guidance, my support, and I've got to be in there 100 percent. And like you said, I love it, but it takes time. I couldn't do both, and I like the balance that I have now. It feels right to me.
James Blatch: Yeah. So there's a wider membership, and the 12, hesitate to call them your disciples, as a teacher, but the 12, that's another level of membership, is it?
J Thorn: It is, yeah. That's a significantly higher investment. It's only open to people who are within the greater community, not the general public, and these are people who usually have known me for months or years. Most of them I've met in real life, and it's a very intimate thing. It's not something I want or could scale.
I'm not interested in having 10 of these sessions. I have one and I open it up once a year, and it's 12 to 15 people, and I'm very happy with that. I don't want to scale it because then I lose the intimacy that I've created with it.
James Blatch: I like the fact that you're no longer a recovering teacher. You've admitted that you are a teacher, and you're going to be a teacher. You don't have to go to teachers anonymous anymore.
J Thorn: I still have a lot of teacher friends, too. I don't have to hide from them anymore.
James Blatch: Out of interest then, what are coming up? There must be some recurring themes that people are bringing to the table, both in the intimate mastermind group and the wider ones. What are the ones you're typically dealing with, or perhaps we could thrash out a couple of those here?
J Thorn: Before we talk about that, I think it's good to understand that it took me a while to figure out who the audience was. A few months ago, I brought on my good friend, Chris Kane, as a business partner in the mastermind group, and so she helps me with it now.
Over the course of interacting with people and asking them and getting surveys, we figured out that the people who are drawn to what we offer tend to be people that are not brand new, but they're not self-sustaining authors either. They have a book or two, maybe published, they're working on a book or two, and more importantly, they don't necessarily want to become full-time writers. They like their day job, they like their career, and the reason they come to us is because they don't have anywhere else in their life where people understand the problems that they have.
So to answer your question more directly, most of the issues that we deal with in the mastermind group are around mindset, accountability, and really just a sounding board. I've used this example before, you probably know it too James, the friends and family you have who are not writers, they don't understand what you do, and they don't understand how you feel about it. And not that they should, right?
There's not an expectation that they should, but we hear from a lot of people like, "Yeah my wife just doesn't understand the challenges I'm facing," or "My husband doesn't understand why I get up at 4:00 AM to write before the kids get up," and we're like, "We do." So this is sort of the writer family for those people where we can commiserate and say, "Yeah, I know how that feels, and here's what I did to help get around that."
James Blatch: I do notice that people fall into two groups. Either they understand or look at it and think, "God that must be really hard, writing a novel," or they fall in the group of "Oh, I'm going to write a novel." It's one or the other. And I don't know which one I was before I embarked on writing my first novel, but I may have been in the latter one.
But you do kind of smile and encourage somebody who says they're going to write a novel and you think, "You have no idea. It's really hard."
J Thorn: There's a Litmus test that you probably have heard, too. When you're at a cocktail party, here's how you can tell people who are writers and people who are not. People who are not writers, when they hear you're a writer, they say "I've got this great idea for a book for you." You go, "Okay, you're not a writer," because that's typically not where writers struggle. They don't struggle with the ideas, it's the execution part.
James Blatch: So that's interesting that's what people are coming to you. I guess it's basically just feeling motivated and feeling, it is an isolating career. Even today, even with all our books, you got your groups and so on, you've got your group, 20Books, and we got SPF and so on, but even with those, it's still a slog, an isolated slog. And feeling isolated within your relationship, with your marriage, in your family, it's a real thing, isn't it? So that's a valuable service, I think, right there.
J Thorn: It really is. Chris and I step back and said, "Okay, let's watch behaviours. Let's see what people are looking for, what they're asking for." One of the ways we did that was we didn't pre-populate our Slack board with a bunch of different channels. We had a few basic ones and then we said, "Okay, tell us what you want," or we would follow the conversation and say, "Okay, what are people talking about?" And one of the things that came up that we hadn't thought of was an accountability partner channel.
We have one channel on Slack, and we have it integrated with this free video chat tool, where people can just pop into that channel, click a link, they're in a Zoom room, and all they're doing is writing at the same time as other authors. For so many authors, just being able to look up and see someone else typing away, and they have a little chit chat here and there, but the idea is, "This feels so isolating, I'm doing this by myself," yet you get into this accountability partner room and you realise there are four or five other people doing the same thing as you at the same time, and a lot of people find that really motivating.
James Blatch: Do you do much craft? Do people come to you with, "I can't show and tell," or whatever, the nitty gritty of writing a novel?
J Thorn: They certainly do, and I think it's because a little over a year ago, Zach and I published Three Story Method, which was our story-telling methodology. And since that book came out, I've gotten a lot more interest in craft. And because we wrote that book, we have a lot of resources that will help people.
So within the mastermind group, and even within the Saturday group, we have craft sessions. And one of the things I do with the smaller group on Saturdays is we do scene analysis. Someone will write a scene and then they have to present it to me in front of the rest of the group, and we kind of critique it together. So there is a lot of balance there.
My last teaching position I was the assistant director of entrepreneurship for a private independent school, and I was teaching teenagers how to be entrepreneurs. And I was using Lean Launchpad and the Business Model Canvas. So I've moved that into the mastermind group, and I also help authors determine, "What's my brand? Who's my customer segment? What's my value proposition?" So there's an element of that, too.
It really is a holistic approach, but I think what's really been key for Chris and I to realise is that we are not catering to people who hate their job and all they want to do is be a full time writer. Those are not the people we're serving. We are serving the people who really are passionate about writing, and they just want to do it with the support of community.
James Blatch: Yeah, that's interesting, isn't it? I think a lot of marketing for a self-publishing author is the kind of "Quit your day job" type. We're marketing base, so I guess that is going to underpin a lot of our messages for people who want to make money from it. But if you're talking about supporting people writing, it's not always about that. In fact, very often it isn't. I do know, in fact I had a chat with Nathan Van Coops recently, you probably may have come across Nathan at some of the conferences.
J Thorn: Yeah, I know him.
James Blatch: Nathan made the point that he really likes his day job. He's a pilot, he's an aeronautical engineer and a pilot. And he doesn't want to be a full-time author. He loves the fact that he has an income from his books, and he wants that to grow, but I think that's representative of quite a lot of people.
It seems to be that's what you've discovered in the marketing process with this mastermind group.
J Thorn: I don't pass judgement either way. There's nothing wrong with saying, "I want to be a full-time writer and I'm going to do everything in my power to get there and I'm going to leverage paid ads and I'm going to build a community," that's great.
It's also great just to say, "You know what? I like getting up on Saturday morning and writing a little bit with a cup of coffee," and that's okay too. The world is so different now. You and I didn't grow up with the internet and online communities, and so now you can find the exact group of people who have the same values you do, that resonate with the same messages you do, and it doesn't mean you have to exclude everything else because of that. I'm in favour of all of the different types of communities and all the style of writers.
And I agree, I think there have been some people I've talked to who have made it to the mountaintop and then found out it wasn't what they thought it was, and I think I had a little bit of that, too. When you're working the day job or you're working for somebody else, you have this vision of what it means to be a full-time writer, and quite often it's a bit of a fantasy. It's not necessarily sitting out in the cabin in the woods on a typewriter, handing a manuscript to a publisher and then cashing the check. That's not typically how it works, and so I think there have been some people who've said, "Hey, this is great, I'm grateful for it and it's awesome, but it's not exactly what I thought it was," and that's okay, too.
James Blatch: How do people find your group, J?
J Thorn: Well the URL is a bit of a tongue twister. It's theauthorssuccessmastermind.com, but my personal website is theauthorlife.com and there's links to everything there so they can get to it either way.
James Blatch: Good, and for the future, you're going to obviously carry on with the mastermind group as it is at the moment, or do you have grand plans for something else to add on to it? There always to be something going on with you, J, another project-
J Thorn: I know, I can't sit still too often, James. I'm dabbling with a few things but they're in such early stages it's probably not worth mentioning. One thing I will mention though, that the SPF audience might be interested in is, a few months ago I took one of my teaching tools that I use in editing, and I gave that away. And I wanted to do it because I want to make better writers and better stories.
It's called a story rubric, and I created a single page website called storyrubric.com. You can go there and you can get the rubric completely free, you don't even have to put in an email address, you just go to the website. There's a word document, Google doc PDF right on the page, and it's in Creative Commons licencing. So you can take the Story Rubric I've created and you can adjust that for your clients, for yourself.
Basically what it does is it breaks down different elements of story like characterization, dialogue, plot, and it gives you a scale, and it's a self assessment tool. It's a way of taking a look at your draft in a more analytical manner. But like I said, that's completely free, I'm not even asking for an email address, I just put that up there because I think that will really help writers, and I have a non-fiction version as well. That's at storyrubric.com.
James Blatch: That sounds really interesting. So this is ideally after you've got an outline or after you've done a manuscript or when you've just come up with an idea?
What stage would you use it?
J Thorn: You could really use it at any stage. Where it came from is I used to use this with my writing students in grading papers. So I would give the rubric to my students and say, "This is how you're going to be assessed. You can look at it ahead of time, or not, but know that this is the criteria I'm going to apply to what you've written." So I think you could look at it first and see, "Okay, I want to be in that excellent column for all of these categories," and know that going in, or you could just write something and then take the rubric and say, "Okay, now let me do a self-assessment and see how I measure up."
James Blatch: See if it needs to be strengthened in any areas.
J Thorn: Right.
James Blatch: Well that's great. Thank you very much indeed for that, J. So we'll put that link into our show notes.
Is it a PDF, how's it work?
J Thorn: You can download a Word document so you can easily edit it or a Google document, there's a PDF that's formatted to print on 8.5 by 11 paper nice and pretty. And if you make it an adaptation and you want to send it to me, there's a form on that page. You can create an adaptation of it, and because its Creative Commons, I'll give you credit and post it up there. The only thing I ask is if you use Story Rubric anywhere that you just attribute it to me, but other than that, it's completely free. No strings attached.
James Blatch: Great, okay, well we'll put the link in the show notes. Probably the easiest way for people to get there.
Are there going to be some more train journeys? We should say what the train journey is for people who missed this, but obviously it's not something probably that's happened during COVID, but the idea is that the authors on a train write together. And the first time was a single novel, right?
J Thorn: Yeah, the first unofficial one was with Joanna Penn and Lindsay Buroker and Zach and I. And then we decided to run it for other authors, and that was Chicago to New Orleans, and we did those. They became short story anthologies, so the people who do that would write a short story.
And then the third one which we did in January of 2020, right before the pandemic hit, was Authors on a Train California, where we went from L.A. to San Francisco. That's the one that we were going to do in 2021 and obviously couldn't, and hopefully, I don't know, fingers crossed, maybe it'll make its return in 2022.
James Blatch: Yeah, great. Well we'll talk to you again, I'm sure, at some point in the future and see how that's gone. J, thank you so much. If you've been watching on YouTube it's a pleasure to see your smiling face.
J Thorn: Likewise, James, it's always fun to talk to you.
James Blatch: It's like an injection of enthusiasm, I really appreciate it. Good luck with everything and we'll catch up again. Thanks so much for coming on, J.
J Thorn: Thank you.
James Blatch: Okay, J. Thorn, Zach Bohannon, this is J and J.D. Barker, have a podcast. J.D. Barker, who we've had on the podcast before, he's well connected in publishing circles and they do get some pretty good names on their podcast. I would like to get one or two of them. I know they had James Patterson, who J.D. does some work with, not that long ago. But we keep saying to Tom, don't we, "Where's J.K. Rowling? Why haven't we got her on yet?" I love the guests we have on, and we've got Mark Dawson, we have him on every week.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, he's overrated. I was actually thinking today I just saw Scrivener have got their own podcast, you might not have seen that. They've just opened, well I think they've just published their first one. We pushed getting them on at some point, and either we forgot about it or they did, I can't remember, but I had just emailed Tom to say let's try and get Scrivener on because they're based out in the southwest, not too far from here actually. I think it's down in Cornwall or Devon or somewhere like that, so it will be great to get them on. It's one of those, you hear Vellum obviously spoken about, and the Brads have been on podcasts, including ours, before.
Atticus, the software that Dave Chesson has put out, these are people here that community have heard from, that I know, I can't even remember the name of the programmer behind Scrivener now but it's a piece of software that is very, very extensively used. I use it, I think you use it, loads and loads of writers do, but I've never heard them on a podcast before, so we need to correct that. So let's see if Tom can work his magic and we'll get them on.
James Blatch: Yeah, definitely. And then we'll have Salman Rushdie after that.
Mark Dawson: Yes. Yeah, oh I know.
James Blatch: I've never read a Salman Rushdie book, have you?
Mark Dawson: Yes, I have.
James Blatch: Did you read The Satanic Verses?
Mark Dawson: Midnight's Children, I think it was. I may have read more than one, actually. But yeah, he's very good.
James Blatch: I'm still slightly playing through my biography of Stalin. He hasn't actually even started killing people yet. I've been reading it for a long time, and I noticed I'm 38% of the way through. This is a long book, but if I picked it up in a bookshelf I probably would've been put off by the size of it. On a Kindle you can't tell until you realise it's May and you're still reading the same book, but it's fascinating.
Mark Dawson: I'm reading the third in the Game of Thrones series at the moment. I'm really, really enjoying that, and it's, as I mentioned before, it's in those Folio Society editions, so they're gorgeous hardbacks with illustrations and illuminated capitals at the start of each chapter. It just looks gorgeous, so I'm having fun with that in the evenings.
James Blatch: Good. We're also planning our travel. We are intending to go to NINC and to Vegas this year. COVID willing, we will be there and we're certainly booking the flight and booking hotels at the moment. We're hoping to get onto a golf course, probably in Vegas, on the Sunday. So if you're a golfer and you'd be interested in that, we could try and get a block booking of slots. We'll have a sort of full ball to ourselves and play all around, that's if you want to.
And we will definitely have drinks as usual, in the Sharktooth tavern, I guess in NINC. And we'll do something in Vegas, probably with realty, but we'll tie all those loose ends up at some point. But if you're planning your year, we are aiming to be at these places. I know NINC is a bit restricted at the minute, but it may even open up by the time September comes around.
I think that's it, Mark. We've got Ads for Authors to open those gates. The hinges on the gates need just a little bit of oil and then three of us, you, me, and John, have to push the gates, then we have to get the gates open. Come on, join me on this metaphor.
Mark Dawson: I'm going to let you struggle on this one.
James Blatch: It's like an old lock, an Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed waterway in the UK. And once we've opened it up, if you like there, the floodgates, that's what they are. And the authors are pressing at them, lots of them get through, and we open them up and we let them through. And then Catherine is there to greet them. She gets trampled sometimes. She's on a dingy in the lock, so she's on the rising water because the water's rising, because rising tide helps all the authors. I don't know what the authors are in, maybe they're on paddle boards. The authors are in paddle boards at this stage, and we're going to help them onto their boats. That's the thing, and eventually they'll be on your yacht. Not your yacht, their own version of your yacht. Is that good?
Mark Dawson: There's a lot of yachts in the lock.
James Blatch: If you're thinking about reading The Final Flight, there are not many metaphors in there, I should just point that out. This is not how I write, this is just how I talk to Mark.
Good, okay look, that's it. We've got some work to do is what I basically meant to say. So thank you very much indeed to J, lovely to talk to J. I find his enthusiasm for everything quite a boost. I really enjoy his company, his very smiley, enthusiastic, can-do attitude to everything which is something we need around us as much as possible.
Mark Dawson: And he likes metal. He has good taste in music.
James Blatch: He likes metal. I've booked my Green Day tickets today for next summer, which I'm very excited about. Big Green Day fan, taking my daughter, who says, "Never heard of them, but I'll come with you, Dad, because I trust your music."
Mark Dawson: Oh my gosh. I quite like Green Day but I think Emily doesn't know what she's let herself in for, some bad dancing.
James Blatch: I think she's just impressed I bought platinum tickets with the lounge access. Well come along, it's next year in London. It's at the West Ham stadium, so you'll feel at home.
Mark Dawson: Okay. A London stadium, yes.
James Blatch: A London stadium. Anyway, look, that's it. Thank you very much. We are now officially at waffle stage. So all that remains for me to say is a goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
Mark Dawson: Goodbye.
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