How I Used Tarot As A Writing Buddy In A Small City In China by Leenna Naidoo

I began writing in earnest in China in Yulin, Shaanxi Province in 2010. Yulin had few English speakers interested in the genres I loved. I didn’t know anyone I could communicate with about writing and, being such an introvert, I was too unsure and shy to join any international critique group.


So, with my experience with the tarot, I turned to the cards.

I used to write most weekdays at one of the two KFCs—the only places in town guaranteed to have Ceylon tea and nibbles at an affordable price or a brekkie/lunch I could eat with one hand. Plus, they had a chair-table height that was comfortable for writing in my notebook. I’d sit in the Second Street KFC or FuShi Lu one for at least an hour or two with tea, pen, book, and my tarot cards. Yulinese are a tolerant and respecting people. I did get some curious glances but was hardly ever disturbed. When stuck or unsure, I’d use my Manga Tarot mini-deck, placing three to nine cards on the Formica table next to the tray containing my food and drink. Then I’d scribble the keywords or thoughts and continue with my writing.


I’d consult the cards for most things you’d consult beta-readers and writing buddies. Brainstorming and exploring ideas with What Ifs for short stories.

Resolving plot points and motivations for No Distance To Run: why did Jay say that? Why couldn’t Sammi see how much he loved her? What’s the deal with Terry, anyway?

Cheering myself on or finding motivation: Is this story going to sell? Am I going to be a best-selling author? Am I going to find an agent next week? While these types of questions brought answers that were fuzzy, incomplete or downright misleading in retrospect, they kept me confident and writing constantly. These kinds of questions, by the way, are the equivalent of Do I look fat in this? So…


It was working for me, in my curious introverted way, using the tarot as a stand in for a writing buddy.

It didn’t occur to me to try any other methods. Not knowing what a writing buddy was back then, it didn’t strike me that I should seek one. But that’s newbies for you.

By the time I started my second novel, Situation Now Win, using the tarot was one of my writer habits, like writing in those KFCs—comfortable habits as, even when I moved cities later on, or visited other places in China, I’d usually find a KFC and be able to get into my writing mood (with that tea) pretty quickly. My mini-deck lived in my bag, always at hand ready to brainstorm or advise.

With time, I tried the tarot for exploring my craft further, experimenting with developing villains with more depth for Situation No Win: Why does Struan really hate Tom? Who’s the real baddie? Why does Jean stick with Struan?

I’d often do more than one read for such questions as the story expanded, sometimes having a ‘conversation’ with the cards, getting points and suggestions. I used a lot of these suggestions, but not all of them. After all, the story was being written by me, not the cards.

That was something I had to remember: that the readings were just suggestions and ‘In My Opinion’s and to take them much as I now do a critique partner’s comments.


I used the cards in a more ‘usual’ way, too,

for advice on my writing and mental health: How can I be a better writer? Why do my submissions go unanswered or rejected? What am I doing wrong? Should I give up?
These types of questions also got the ‘Do I Look Fat In This?’ treatment, but I did get gems from these reads, too. Like the time when I felt so stuck because I knew Tom and Melissa had to have a significant kiss for the romance to continue and I just didn’t know if I could write such a scene. It seemed so…personal. The advice given by the cards was something with the Ace Of Swords and the Queen Of Wands, if I remember correctly. Basically they were saying: Cut through the BS you’re telling yourself and just do it, already!

All good writing buddies tell you that at some point, don’t they? Only, in my experience, my human writer buddies tend to be more polite or circumspect in their wording! Even the usually straight-talking guys.


Then, in 2011, came the fight scenes for Situation No Win, particularly those at the end.

I knew I was partial to visualizing and using Tai Chi-based actions as I was studying it at that time. It was fine for Tom, but I needed another style and set of moves for Struan. I was watching a lot of action movies back then but couldn’t quite overlay those moves onto Struan when I was visualizing the scenes. I needed another source of stimulation or ideas generator.

I’m lucky in that the deck I was using has illustrations depicting martial artists and stances. I didn’t use the cards to choreograph a scene. Instead, I used them to explore the stance and the possible emotion of Struan and Tom at different points. This helped me visualize the action and how it might all flow together.

Now that I’m revising Situation No Win, and have gotten some good critiques on it, I can see those action scenes are far from perfect and still too technical. Still, I’m pleased with getting through a part in my story that would otherwise have been a block and in doing so, got the first draft completed without personal drama. For a newbie writing in isolation with little to no significant or helpful feedback except for the cards, I think I did fairly well. I went ahead and actually published Situation No Win about 18 months later with very few changes, but that’s newbies for you.


Did the cards advise me not to self-publish?

No, they didn’t. Today I can understand why. I’ve come to realize self-publishing is such a boon. It helps you make mistakes, learn and grow with your early stories, and revision is always an easy to implement process if you’re on digital only. So, yes. The cards aren’t always straightforward, nor are they saying what you want or think they may be saying, but they do allow you a growth experience when other options seem closed.

Besides, do all writing buddies really know the perfect place to publish your story, or if your story is going to resonate with readers in three months time? Everything comes down to their own beliefs and what worked for them, doesn’t it. Not that I’m suggesting you ditch your writing buddies, as I do love mine and the way we grow together and continue learning from each other. After all, nothing beats a chat with a real, live, breathing person even if it’s only via email. Still, it’s always nice to have a different perspective.


I wonder sometimes what I might have done had I taken a different route in my most formative writing phase.

Would I have completed those drafts and stories? I know I would have, because I’m a writer and have publishing in my blood. But what might I have done, and what would I advise newbie writers today to use if they don’t have, or want, the cards?

There’s always the Runes, but they’re a little too similar to tarot in some respects.

There’s journalling, much as you would during a coaching session, or getting a writing coach. I would have liked one back then, a writing coach…

One method I’d have used a lot more than I currently do is what I call my Instant Decision Maker. It’s a grid of Yes and No repeated. You simply take your pen/pencil/finger circle it around and point to your answer. I find it better than sitting around agonizing over would he, wouldn’t he? Could she, Couldn’t she?

I might have joined a writers or critique circle sooner but I dislike (almost to the point of superstition) sharing unfinished drafts, so maybe not…I was, after all, still learning to walk and had yet to run.

But that’s just me. We all have our own ways forward. Perhaps, your non-human writing buddy is your favorite pot-plant, your pet, your lucky coin or something like the Instant Decision Maker.

I don’t really care, and neither should you—newbie writer or old hand. What matters is getting the draft done, keeping our confidence high, and our writing experience rich and fun!

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A young wandman on a fool’s quest. A six-fingered former thief with a taste for a good brew. An animate parchment born of magic and a boy’s despair. The one’s Emrys Lailoken, the other his best friend and companion Dierder, and the third, naturally, is Parchment. Together they will learn what disaster spells like, how randomly love casts its nets, and just how far a bad old-fashioned pun can take you. Full of feint-hearted wizards, feared less young witches, and the occasional needling demon, this story will have you seeing stars…and the odd planet.

For fans of Terry Pratchett, The Princess Bride and Guardians Of The Galaxy.


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Leenna writes cross-genre suspense, romance, and dabbles in sci-fi/fantasy. She also reads the tarot. Her short stories have appeared in The Mad Scien...