How Obsidian.md Replaced Video Games & Helped Me Publish

A little over a year ago, I downloaded Obsidian.md because I wanted a desktop app to help me manage my worldbuilding notes, instead of the wikis and subscription software I had tried in the past.

This morning, I decided it was time for a little reflection about how it’s changed my life.

Now and then I feel self-conscious about being so active in the community Discord because of stuff I see cross my dash periodically about “productivity porn” or about hoe “tools don’t matter” or whatever, and then I realize that no, actually, I’m genuinely — objectively, demonstrably — doing more things I love.

For example, somebody recently asked me whether I started writing my newsletter because I found Obsidian. I didn’t, actually — but Obsidian revolutionized how I write it, and my blog, and even how I play video games…

…which is to say:

I don’t play video games anymore.

Every time I consider opening up a colony simulator like Rimworld, or an ARPG like Path of Exile, or even a survival horror game like 7 Days to Die, I realize that the part of those games I really enjoy are inventory management and tweaking automations.

To be honest, it’s the same part of my brain that enjoys moving information around in my notes, or fiddling with my templates to optimize them. The sense of enjoyment and satisfaction I get from clearing out the guild stash in Path of Exile or doing all the quests in Rimworld is the same part of my brain that enjoys clearing out all of my tags.

My current list looks something like:

#research 22
#pkm 54
    #pkm/process 1
    #pkm/finishReading 2
    #pkm/synthesize 4
    #pkm/crossReference 27
    #pkm/indexThis 29
#fic 75
    #fic/crossreference 
    #fic/planNovel 
    #fic/expandWorldbuilding 
    #fic/editPending 
    #fic/storyStem 
#nonfic 68
    #nonfic/analysisIdea 
    #nonfic/articleSeed 
    #nonfic/twitterFodder

Each task represents something I need to do. I need to process a raw file of highlights & annotations into usable form, finish reading two articles, synthesize eight notes into a cohesive thought, cross-reference 27 different notes with other notes in my vault in order to double-check the information and see what I can come up with, and index 29 different pieces of information I came across on topics I care about.

If I’m too tired to create content, or don’t have anything pressing, or am just stressed out and want to feel like I’ve accomplished something, I’ll often start going through those tags and “clearing” them. Earlier this week I sorted and dealt with everything tagged “followUp” and it was satisfying in the same way that finding enough research books in 7 Days to Die to make an upgraded weapon used to be for me.

Except better, because I’ve somehow stumbled into gamifying the act of organizing knowledge for myself, which means that instead of chatting with my husband at the dinner table about my progress in a video game, I’m able to say things like, “I stumbled across some notes about how I wanted to learn more about Roman magistrates, and actually got around to asking some historians about it on Reddit, and did you know that some Roman priests weren’t allowed to touch iron or leave Rome for more than a day?

I blog a lot more.

I had a blog since the early days of Livejournal, but I never blogged consistently. Just now, I checked the chart of my publishing history since creating this website, which I made mostly because I had dreams of publishing a novel one day and knew that a web presence was important and that SEO favors websites with a history.

I started out strong, almost 2 posts a month. Then fewer than one post a month in 2017, then one post the entire year of 2018, which was my first year of teaching. I doubled that in 2019, started posting more again during the pandemic, and now for the first time in my life I’ve actually managed to publish a longform article more than twice a month — on my blog, not counting any of the other content I’ve created.

As someone who has had multiple abortive attempts to publish regularly in a variety of venues like Wattpad and special interest blogs set up as joint projects with friends, I can’t tell you how much that means to me.

And it’s not a question of “having enough time,” either. I’m a public school teacher — I’ve had summers off for years, and never managed to build a regular writing habit before. I would start off strong, then my brain would insist on doing something different, because I’d burn out. So I’d spend 3 months playing a video game, get an idea for my novel, go back to that for awhile, get an idea for a blog post, write a couple of articles, go down some research rabbit holes, burn out, start writing, burn out, start playing video games…

It had that cycle for years.

But since I’ve started using Obsidian regularly, I might write microfiction every day in a row for a week, and then switch to focusing on something else, but no matter where my brain is at, I’m always working on something in the “ecosystem” of my end goal: supporting a career as a speculative fiction author.

I’m actually publishing.

One of the things that’s always held me back as an author was the knowledge that to have a career like the people I looked up to — L. E. Modesitt Jr., Seanan McGuire, Laura Anne Gilman, Ilona Andrews — I needed to write consistently. Most authors publish at least one full-length novel a year.

The problem was, I did not want to quit my job and write full-time. I love teaching. I kept hoping that I would eventually get good enough at writing that I would write faster, or that I’d somehow figure out how to build a consistent writing habit where I just wrote a thousand words every day and then switched gears and edited or did marketing stuff or played a video game or whatever.

It never happened.

What did happen was that I finally had enough notes in one place to become professionally published as a nonfiction writer. I published two articles on Tor.com, Five Unconventional Economic Systems as Imagined in SFF and Five SFF Stories That Shed Light on Obscure History, as well as Unusual Governments to Take Inspiration From on the SFWA blog. These are some of the highest profile platforms in the speculative fiction world, and it gave me an incredible confidence boost.

I liked writing short fiction, but the writing was on the wall, there: these days, almost nobody gets famous for their short fiction, not even the ones who win awards. Besides, the grind for getting short fiction published is even worse than novels, since you usually aren’t allowed to submit the same piece to different markets at a time and it can take months to hear back from a particular market that you’ve been rejected.

It can take years of rejections before a single story finds a placement, even at the pro level, and by then, the point the story was trying to make may have long since lost relevance.

Besides, my short fiction all takes place in the same world, which would force fans to follow my work across multiple magazines to piece it together. Microfiction, which I love to write on Twitter, is so small that it’s almost impossible to profit from — most places pay per word and have ruinously high royalty rates, and the current meta strongly favors long-running series focused on a single character or set of related characters.

My writing is based on the older model pioneered by Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar & L. E. Modesitt’s Recluse. I enjoy telling the history of a world from the perspective of an expansive cast of characters over a long-running series that stretches across millennia.

So ultimately, I wound up not doing a lot with my stories… until I stumbled across a newsletter article on substack talking about how people were serializing their novels on newsletters, because the new newsletter-subscription models let them sell directly to fans without using Amazon or Wattpad or Patreon as a middleman.

I’m a longtime support of creators on Patreon, and particularly love the model used by Catie Murphy, Laura Anne Gilman and Seanan McGuire. Among other perks, they offer short, supplemental fiction for their novel series once a month. The short stories go out over email, along with an update about what they’re working on, and sometimes recipes or cat pictures.

Patreon allowed popular and mid-list authors earn a living, and it even catapulted some previously-niche authors to mainstream success.

I don’t really write short stories — I tend to write things even shorter than that. I don’t love the way that Patreon makes people’s revenue obvious, and I really don’t like the way it’s so strongly associated with paid content. If I say “sign up for my Patreon,” people would naturally assume they would have to pay.

I wanted everything in one place, and I already had an email newsletter.

My newsletter started as a marketing effort

I talk to other authors a lot, many of whom have made it a career, either during retirement or as a side gig or by going full time. Everybody from the smallest of self publishers to the biggest NYT bestsellers has been talking about the importance of a newsletter for years. It’s basically the only way authors can make sure their fans know about new releases. Every other method leaves us dependent on a platform that may or may not decide to “bump” the release announcement.

So I thought about it. I didn’t already have a bunch of books out. I didn’t think people were likely to remember me potentially 1-10 years between when they stumbled across my content and when I finally published a book. I wanted to do something that people would bother to open and read, without being a gimmick, committing me to give away fiction for free as a loss-leader for a product that didn’t exist yet, or appealing to a different audience than I thought my actual books were.

I spent some reflecting on what kinds of things I talk about at science fiction conventions and parties with my friends and decided that the thing that made me interesting was all the neat stuff I stumbled across doing research for my stories. Friends and strangers mostly don’t really care that I wrote a story about an indigenous mage who struggles between the need to protect his people’s traditional way of life and to industrialize enough to fend off their enemies, at least not enough to sustain a conversation about it. People are a lot more interested when I start talking about the life cycle of axolotls and how they’re one of the few animals that, like humans, experience neoteny — or juvenilization, where sexual maturity may happen when the animal is still in a fundamentally “larval” state.

I decided to share my neat stuff I stumbled across doing research every week. I’m forever researching things, and the newsletter was useful for me too, because it let me refer back to things in an organized way.

For months, this was the only way I took notes on what I researched.

I needed something better

Before Obsidian, my newsletter was a once-a-week offering that was only about 10 sentences long. Most of the value was in the links. But once I started connecting and synthesizing things, it got a little longer — not overwhelming, I hope, but I was able to start putting things in my own words and explain.

I found myself wanting to explain in depth, too. Way more than what fit in the Monday research summary. I had all these stories I was writing as part of Twitter events that I couldn’t use for anything, and couldn’t really share with anyone who was interested in my fiction because, well, who wants to buy a .99c book on Amazon that consists of only 280 characters? No one. I didn’t want to send 280 characters a week in an email, either.

But darn it, a lot of work had gone into those stories, and it was work I knew was interesting — because I could see people’s faces when I talked about it.

I could write about it on my blog, but my blog was already full of stuff, and sort of messy, and, well, to be blunt, these days RSS is pretty niche and more people read newsletters. Besides, most of my worldbuilding articles on my blog are pretty formal, and “evergreen” in that they’re directed at being resources for other authors. They tend to run long, too, sometimes 3,000 words or so and they’re exhausting to write because of how extensively I source everything.

I didn’t want to just start sending my newsletter subscribers a whole extra email, either. They hadn’t signed up for fiction and an article — they’d signed up for a research summary. But I didn’t want to start a whole separate newsletter for this, either.

From a technological perspective, it was actually easiest to sell the fiction and supplemental “afterword” as a premium offering to the existing newsletter.

So I went for it.

I write a LOT more.

I had never “won” National Novel Writing Month before I found Obsidian. I’d never written more than 20,000 words at a time on a single project (I’ve finished novel drafts, but not all “in one sitting” as it were).

Since finding Obsidian, I have written something — a note, an article, a blog post, a newsletter, a story, something — every day.

Back when I still used Scrivener, I would often go days or even weeks without opening the program, and then when I was finally in the mood to write, it would take so long to load — or I’d have to go through so many steps to update — that I’d ultimately wind up finally getting it open and then have lost my inspiration or gotten distracted or just plain run out of time.

Obsidian is always open, and when it’s not, it opens fast — even on mobile, as long as I don’t install too many plugins. I can easily switch between modes of thought, and different moods, without losing the thread of doing something useful and enjoyable. It never feels like a chore to fiddle around, or add a thought to something over the course of months until it finally grows into worth sharing.

Over the last 15 days I’ve written 26,242 words of fiction — and that’s not even counting the nonfiction, like this article or the 2-5 page letters I write to fans explaining how my personal experiences and improved understanding of history and science allowed me to create fiction that shines.

I’m also getting close to the point where my newsletter will be sent to over 500 people each week — nearly a hundred of whom have chosen to pay for my fiction.

To put that in perspective, a hundred short fiction sales a week on Amazon, even at $.40 a piece (if that were a price it would actually let me charge) — would be incredible.

I’m not yet making the “bare minimum pro rate” of $.08/word (if you’re curious what pro rates are, check out this article but for the first time in my life, being a professional author feels attainable — without having to fight my way through the expectations (and royalty rates!) of Amazon & the publishing industry.

The Tools Matter

When I see people insist that “the tool doesn’t matter” and “shiny features aren’t important,” I know those people don’t mean “you were a failure before because you couldn’t be this successful using Scrivener or whatever” but that’s what it often feels like. Like I should have been this productive with Scrivener, or like I should have been able to take notes just as good with plaintext files long before Obsidian came onto the market.

The fact is, Obsidian’s feature set — and community — is uniquely suited to how I have been trying to organize my notes for years. The way it subtly pushes me to write more “atomic” thoughts is one of the reasons I started prioritizing my short fiction. The way it lets easily me trace connections between research and stories, and different storylines, is one of the reasons I’ve finally started integrating old ideas into the worldbuilding. For the first time I’ve really been able to consolidate my notes into one cohesive form.

Sometimes people ask me why I pay for Ghost to run my newsletter on, instead of using something like Substack, since Substack doesn’t charge (it takes a percentage of profit, instead). Even when you self-host Ghost, server space & mailing lists are rarely free.

There are a variety of reasons I’ve made this choice, but a big one is that Ghost supports a philosophy that puts the website and the emails on an even playing field, and lets me control navigation and styling in a much more intuitive way than substack does. Another is that once you get big enough, one  way or another, all the various newsletter providers cost money — and Ghost is actually cheaper for bigger newsletters. I hope one day for that to matter.

Besides, the things I’m doing with Ghost just aren’t possible on other platforms, in the same way that the things I’m doing with Obsidian just aren’t supported by any other notetaking apps I’ve tried.

Eleanor

Eleanor teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing stories that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

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4 Responses

  1. Thanks for this post, Eleanor. I long resisted writing actual articles in Obsidian—I wanted to keep my notes system purely for notes—but the benefits of having my notes and draft articles in the same place recently won me round. But the ‘solution’ I came up with just seemed wrong. Your post inspired a few improvements to my system, and I spent an hour this afternoon reconfiguring all my article ideas. The new set-up seems much better—although I’ve yet to use it in anger.

    • Eleanor says:

      I don’t know if this will help you but my trick is to extensively use the comments feature in Obsidian and then copy/paste from preview. This works 95% of the time and for all the rest there’s Pandoc or Word + regex.

  2. Andrej says:

    I am running my notes in markdown for years now.
    Basically a folder with a lot of files.

    I just discovered obsidian a few weeks back. Luckily markdown files are universal and I can just import them.
    And yes it way more fun to write something than before!

    I also say tools do not matter. But they do, at least to a degree!

    Could you elaborate on how the gamification works for you?

    I tend to have problems to gamify things for me in order to stick with it.aybe you got a tip or two regarding the writing and gamification.

    • Eleanor says:

      I think it’s important to note that I didn’t set OUT to gamify my note-taking process, it happened organically and I kind of accidentally realized that I wasn’t playing video games anymore, because the games I used to find really satisfying started to feel like distractions and chores.

      That said, I’ll do my best to elaborate. One of my favorite games for years has been Path of Exile. I really enjoy the lootbox style item drops, sorting my inventory, and grinding for gear. I replicate that emotional experience by searching through my read later app for gems, sorting through my notes and organizing them, and trying to find the “perfect” research article to serve as inspiration or fodder for a newsletter.

      I also really enjoy Rimworld. It’s a storytelling engine / colony simulator with a big element of optimizing the base design for defense against raids / natural disasters. It’s basically the same part of my brain that optimizes folder structures in my vault and prepares backup solutions.

      Strategy games where you have to find and exploit weaknesses in the opponent’s setup? Is a lot like bughunting with plugins I’m alpha testing.

      I don’t mean gamification in the “give yourself a gold star when you complete a task, pretend you’re on a quest but really you’re cleaning your toilet” kinds of gamification, I mean Obsidian actives the same sorts of “find random awesome stuff” and “be clever and feel good about yourself” parts of games that are why I, personally, play them.

      I guess if I played a bunch of FPS games it would be different, but I haven’t been into FPS games since I was a teenager, and even then I tended to class as a sniper, which … is the same part of my brain that loves getting a perfect screenshot to round out a quality bug report, if I’m being honest.

Let me know what you think!