2015-10-25

Self-Publishing: Tools of the Trade

 I am about 50% done with my re-edit of Chroniech. This was the very first novel I published and it needs a lot of work. But, I don't want to change the story or alter it too much because it's been in circulation since 2009. That doesn't mean I can't fix things that are just plain wrong. One of the complaints was that the story reads too much like an encyclopedia. There's not much I can do about that because I want to give the reader a large amount of history of one of the key races. I'm working on shortening the historical summaries, but there's only so much I can do.

Another complaint was that the ending was too abrupt. Again, without changing the story there's little I can do. When I get to the ending, I will look for things I can do to make it better. When I'm done, if anyone has a current copy of Chroniech and would like a revised version, please let me know and I will gladly send it to you. I will remind everyone again when the editing is complete and the new version is released.

One more bit of news before I get to the main topic. Sales have been on a very slow decline over the past few months. Because I treat my writing as a business, this means I will not be making as many writing-related trips next year. I was thinking of attending WorldCon in Kansas City, but I'm almost certain I will not unless sales begin to increase. I will, however, be going to Launch Pad as long as it's still okay with Mike Brotherton.

Tools of the Trade
Ask someone to visualize a writer and some people will picture a person hunched over a tablet, pen or pencil in hand, scribbling away furiously under a naked lamp in a cramped, isolated room. Other see a person sitting in front of a keyboard in pretty much the same setting. For some writers, this is true. But, make a trip to your local bookstore or coffee shop and you might catch a writer sitting in front of a laptop, drinking a cup of coffee and occasionally looking up and observing the world around them. The person next to you on a plane making short notes or banging away on a netbook during the flight might be a writer. How about that person taking way too many pictures on his walk through Yellowstone National Park? Writers come in many forms and use many tools to perform their art.

I know authors who hand-write their first and second draft using the tried and true pen and paper. Most, like myself, do all their work on some type of computing device. Those who write by hand, must eventually transfer their prose into electronic form. These are the tools needed to get the words down and make them available to the rest of the world. They are the most visible tools of the trade and the ones people will always think of when asked to visualize a writer. But every writer must have a toolbox full of useful and often-used tools and most of these are invisible.

The first tool every writer uses is her brain. This massively parallel processing device has been shaped and honed by nature to learn and tell stories. Ancient humans developed language so they could communicate with each other and most early human knowledge was passed down from generation to generation in the form of stories. Modern man has invented writing so everyone can read another person’s story. That story begins in the mind. Our brain uses its senses and imagination to create memories which are split and recombined to create new stories.

But this is the 21st century and writers today should have modern tools in their toolbox. My toolbox is full of all sorts of things. Some I use every time I write. Others, gather dust but are within easy reach if I need them. The tool I use the most is Scrivener. This is my personal choice for writing my first and second drafts. Scrivener was built with writers in mind and–like any good tool–it pays to read the user’s manual. While writing, I will often use the internet to check facts and look up questionable ideas. I also make heavy use of Microsoft Excel. I have a complex set of equations I use to generate the numbers that appear in my hard science fiction books. I also use it to build my timelines.

After the second draft, I compile the Scrivener files into a single Word document. While I’m editing, I also use a program called TheSage to help generate different words and make sure I’m using the right word. All of these tools so far require another very powerful tool–my computer. I have a desktop machine with two monitors that I use extensively to keep reference material on-screen while I write. When I’m away from my home, I use a small netbook (10 inch screen). I keep the two computers synchronized through DropBox. In case you're curious, here is what my writing desk looks like:


Next to my writing desk, I have a collection of reference books as well as books on how to write. Writer’s Digest has an extremely large selection of very good books to help you master your writing skills. I always have at least one such book that I’m reading. Also in my collection, is the Associated Press Handbook of Style as well as a couple of basic grammar books. A new edition, The Chicogo Manual of Style, is on its way and will be on the shelf in a few days. Sometimes it’s easier to look things up in an old-fashioned hard-copy than on the internet.

To keep track of the business end of things, I use Quicken. I have a completely separate Quicken file just for my writing business. I use NeatDesk to scan in and archive all of my documents and I keep hard copies in my desk organized in folders by year. My writing area is also decorated with a large number of dragons. These are my friends and they are there to guide me if I get stuck. Other ‘tools’ include my friends and family as well as all the authors I’ve met through Launch Pad. They are there to help if I need it. I subscribe electronically to two magazines (Writer’s Digest and The Writer) that I normally read cover-to-cover on a tablet device.

There’s Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn to give me a social presence. I’m a member of Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s of America SFWA, I belong to Codex, and I occasionally poke around the SFF World forums. All of these, even if they are seldom used, are tools. A writer must use every trick available, every tiny source of inspiration, and every means to promote their work to be successful. It’s hard work!

Other writers have different tools. Some write their entire novel using Google Docs. Another very useful tool is Grammarly. If you’re weak on Grammar, a subscription to this service might be of benefit to you. There is also a free version available that works quite well with Google Chrome. Writer’s conferences, editors, agents, writing retreats, workshops, the list seems endless. When I first began writing, I thought a typewriter and a stack of clean paper along with my imagination was all I needed. No longer.

You might be wondering, all these tools apply to all types of writers. Which specific tools do I, as a self-published author, need? In this instance, there are no differences between a self-published author and one who prefers to publish traditionally. Self-published authors will need to find an editor and someone to do their covers on their own. These are normally supplied by a traditional publisher. The only difference between the two types of writers is how the books are published. Listing them here, can also give a new writer an idea of what they're getting into. When you stop and think about it, a writer's toolbox is packed full and is never complete.


Next week, if I can swing it, I’ll be interviewing a self-published author who is a good friend of mine. She writes fantasy and has recently released a new book. 

2015-10-18

Self Publishing: Time Management

Upgrade Status
I am making good progress on upgrading Chroniech to a more professional looking novel. The editing is moving along and I'm fixing little problems here and there. Following that, I will make a formatting pass for Kindle and then another for CreateSpace. I've also found a new possible cover for Peacekeeper 2 that is more in line with the other covers for the series. I need to see if it will work and then I need to get permission from the person who took the picture before I can use it. The problem is he's in space right now.

Time Management For Writers
All writers have this problem, especially if you are married and (as most of us do) hold down a day job: How do you find the time to write? Just look at all the things a writer has to balance in his or her life:

  • Spending time with your spouse (failure to do so can result in your becoming single).
  • Working your day job.
  • Doing all the little things around the house that must be done.
  • Watching your favorite television show.
  • Reading.
  • Blogging.
  • Social networking.
  • Eating.
  • Sleeping (something I wish I could eliminate).
  • Spending time or staying in touch with family.
  • And, as it often seems, last -- writing.
The problem is -- there's no secret formula that works for everyone. Each person's solution to this problem is going to be different. The trick is to sit down and create a plan that works for you and then stick with it. Getting your spouse involved will go a long way toward making sure your plan works. There are only so many hours in a day and the secret to finding time to write comes down to a single word: Sacrifice.

There've been writers who've written a best-selling novel 15 minutes at a time during their lunch breaks. These people sacrificed interacting with their fellow workers during lunch for time to write. Others get up an hour early and write before work - sleep sacrifice. You can also find time on the opposite end by staying up an hour later than normal. Instead of watching a television program, some people write. The biggest sacrifice of all is when you decide to quit your day job so you can write all day long. If you wait until you retire, then you're sacrificing time in another manner -- time spent working on your book before retirement.

Jamie Todd Rubin is a prolific writer I met in 2013 while attending Launch Pad. He uses a hand-crafted writing tracking tool to automatically record his productivity. This helps him because humans are competitive by nature and he's always striving to best his best performance. Tracking your daily word count can drive you to write every day no matter how little time you think you have. Jamie freely shares his writing numbers and techniques with the public and I recommend checking out his website. He also has a few tricks I don't use, such as listening to audio books while he jogs or on the drive to and from work. I use my drive time to listen to NPR news.

So how do I manage my time? My weekends are pretty much the same. I'm a morning person and my wife is a night-owl. I'm typically up before 6:00 AM giving me time to write between then and 9:00 AM or 9:30 AM when she gets up. I could watch some of my recorded television shows, or keep up with social networking, or any one of the other things I need to do. But, typically, I use the time to write. We usually go to Barnes & Noble on Saturdays. If I don't have a writer's meeting to attend, I will sit at the table and write.

Sunday's are usually spend doing household chores or catching up on other things I've sacrificed. One thing I constantly have to remind myself about is that our television shows are recorded and they can wait until I have time to watch them. Eventually, I'll have some time and I can catch up. I will often sacrifice watching a television show for writing. Sunday is also the day my wife and I spend together -- it's 'our' time and we try not to let anything interfere with that.

During the week, I have to be a bit more flexible. I'm up at 4:30 AM and start work at 5:30 AM. I typically don't have any free time at all during work unless my two computers are tied up running code. That's my time to catch up on Twitter or read a work-related computer book. I also keep at least one book on writing at work. I read this when I have to use the restroom. You can get quite a bit of reading done in 10-minute intervals this way!

I leave work at 1:30 PM and I'm home by 2:00 PM. If my wife is home, we'll usually go for a walk. If she's out with a friend, I choose between catching up on a television show, writing, or other activities. Sometimes, I multitask when possible. Trying to edit while watching Agents of Shield is not a good example but checking Facebook or Twitter is possible. I can also watch TV and do household chores at the same time. I often find myself with 10 or 15 minutes of time when my wife is off doing something and I can use that time to squeeze in a few pages of reading or Twitter.

If you were to follow me around for a few days you would notice that I am never idle. I've been like this since I was a kid. I always had a book in my pocket and I would read at every opportunity. I can't stand to just sit. I must always be doing something. In today's world of tablets, pocket computers, and netbooks, I can always find a few minutes to catch up on something. I've never tried writing on my cell phone, although I know a couple of people who have done so.

My biggest problem is spending enough time with my wife. I've talked to other writers about this and they tend to have the same complaint from their spouses. Writers are driven to write. It's like an obsession. The story is in your head and it's clamoring to get out into the public and the only person who can do that is you. If your spouse works and you don't, then you have the time to satisfy that constant itch. If the roles are reversed, your spouse has all the time and you don't, making time difficult to find. In this instance, talk to your spouse about how you feel. It's best to come to an agreement than to end up in divorce court.

Next week, I'll be talking about the Tools of the Trade. Writers no longer need just a pencil and paper to get their work done. Although that is the bare-bones minimum, technology is pretty much a requirement these days. I'll be listing what I use as well as alternatives used by successful writers I know.

2015-10-11

Self-Publishing: Formatting

The newly revised Translight has been uploaded to Amazon. A new print version is also available along with a modified cover. I’m starting work on the re-edit of Chroniech.

I thought I would spend this week talking about formatting your book. I spent a considerable amount of time trying to find a computer program that could format my book interior for the print version. There are a number of programs available ranging from very expensive to free. After searching and trying a few of the free ones, I went back and used Microsoft Word. I’ll discuss how I did this in just moment.

My biggest disappoint was with Microsoft Publisher. In theory, it should be able to import a Word document without screwing up the page formatting. This didn’t happen. It inserted blank pages where none was before and began page numbering at the title page (which Word did not). When I deleted the offending blank page, Publisher would mysteriously reinsert it after a few seconds (presumably after it reformatted based on the page delete). I have been unable to find any good reference books on Publisher and how it can be used for actually publishing a book. Anyone have any ideas?

Formatting Your Book
Taking the time to format your book’s interior is a time-consuming activity. But, it's a step you should not forego. Failing to properly format both your printed and Kindle interior will brand you as an amateur among those who know. Right now, my books brand me as an amateur but I’m making the needed changes to correct that. If you’re just starting out, there are a number of important things you need to learn and keep in mind. If you’ve already published, perhaps you should consider going back and fixing your interiors as I have.

The details of how to format your book are easily found in many sources on the internet and vary depending on the type of book you're creating. For myself, the rules of interior formatting can be boiled down to a few items I keep in OneNote. I frequently reference this information while I’m doing my final formatting. You should do this final formatting after your final edit, just before publishing your book. If you later go back and make changes, you’ll have to check your formatting again before publishing the revision.

A very good reference I recommend is “From Word to Kindle” by Aaron Shepard. There are also free guides on Amazon’s website and scattered all over the internet. When you read these books and articles, read them with the intent to learn. Take notes, and then refresh your memory just before you begin the formatting process. It is also best to have a good working knowledge of how to use your word processor. Most people never take the time to read a single book on how to use Microsoft Word. It is well worth your time to do so!

Instead of trying to explain each and every setting, I will list my collected notes at the end of this post. I hope they will be a good starting point on your interior.

Formatting the interior of the printed copy of Translight was actually easier than I thought and I used Microsoft Word to do so. One reason I wanted to find a professional publishing program was so I could do micro-kerning to adjust the pages. If you can’t do this, you end up with a book that might have only a few lines on the last page of a chapter. Since chapters are supposed to begin on a right-facing page, this can leave your book with a page that’s mostly blank followed by a blank page and then a new chapter. It doesn’t look good.

To fix this using Word, select a page or two of the end of the offending chapter and make a tiny change to the line spacing of those paragraphs. Decrease the spacing by a couple tenths of a point. This change will not be noticeable to the vast majority of readers. View the results. If there are still some lines on the last page, use CTRL+Z to reverse your change and then go back and select some more. When you have the right number of paragraphs selected, your text will reformat to eliminate the offending page.

CreateSpace does a wonderful job of verifying that your interior meets their requirements. One of the most frustrating things that I go through every time I upload a new book to CreateSpace is caused by how Microsoft Word displays the pages in its two-page per screen view. CreateSpace always begins printing on a right-facing page. If you preview your book as I always do in Word using the two-page per screen view, the right-facing page is on the left!

There are slightly different formatting requirements for the Kindle and the print versions of my books. I generally format the Kindle version first and then make a copy of it for use in the print version. Making changes after you format your book presents a challenge because now you have two copies you have to make changes to. If your changes are extensive, it's probably best to discard the print version, make your changes in the Kindle version, and then rebuild the print version. This will take a lot longer, but you will be assured that your printed version is formatted correctly.

CreateSpace recommends that you download their template for formatting a book. I have never used any of their templates before until last week. I downloaded the cover template and used it to build my new cover instead of using CreateSpace's cover creator. This gave me better control over the final product. I used Adobe Photoshop Elements and the results were quite good even though I am far from a Photoshop master. Before you can get your hands on a template though, you need to have your interior formatting done because the template is built based on the number of pages in your book.

Below, are my collected formatting notes (in no particular order) that I’ve gathered from my various readings over the past couple of months. Some of these will apply to all books and some may only apply to books with no pictures.
  • My printed books are 5.25 x 8 with an interior font of Garamond 11. First line indent is set to 0.3” with line spacing set to “at least 15 point”.  Text is justified with automatic hyphenation turned on and window/orphan control turned on. Margins are mirrored with the following settings: Top – 0.7, Bottom – 0.7, Inside – 0.8, Outside – 0.5.
  • Chapters always begin on a right-side page.
  • Make sure the following Word styles are available for formatting: Before Scene Break, Chapter Text, Left Flush, Main Text, Scene Break. These styles are used to format the printed as well as the Kingle version. [NOTE: These are styles I created in Word. I import them into the document if they're not there. These are the only styles I use for all of my text. Small changes to the individual style to adjust typeface, etc. are done on a paragraph by paragraph level.)
  • Use of dash: It is always “space M-dash space”.
  • Do not use manual page breaks. Use “page break before”. This is built into the Chapter Text style.
  • Start off by selecting everything and formatting as Main Text. This eliminates all use of the Normal style which Kindle sometimes alters and it puts the text into a known starting configuration. Prior to doing this for the Kindle version, change the fonts of all the styles to Georgia.
  • Never use the “spacing before” setting in paragraph style. Use “spacing after” in the previous paragraph. This is built into the Before Scene Break and Scene Break styles.
  • The most common color for interior pages is cream. This cannot be changed in CreateSpace once a book is finalized.
  • Download and use the CreateSpace book cover template.
  • The first line of each chapter and the first line following a scene break are not indented. To ensure this happens when displayed on the Kindle, set the left indent to 0.01” otherwise Kindle will indent it automatically. This is accounted for in the Left Flush style.
  • San-serif fonts (i.e. Arial or Calibri) are to be avoided at all costs.
  • Make sure the text color is set to automatic. Setting it to any other color will cause problems with Kindle.
  • Use Georgia font for all Kindle text.
  • Make sure “Keep track of Formatting” is turned off.
  • Page numbering for print books begin at page 1 which should always be a right-hand page.

2015-10-04

Self-Publishing: You as an Author

Translight is ready for upload to Amazon. I have a new cover using the original cover art so people will not think I’ve released a new book. I’m aiming for a consistent look and feel across the entire Galactic Alliance series. It should be uploaded this week. I’ve been playing around with some inexpensive desktop publishing programs in an attempt to get my print interior formatted properly. I’ve not had any luck.

One would think that Microsoft Publisher would be an easy choice. It reads docx files and builds a pub document. Unfortunately, it inserted blank pages where none were before and – even more frustrating – put them back after I deleted them! It also didn’t seem to know how to deal with some of the other more common formatting I already had in place. I tried Scribus but it does not read docx and it refused to read the PDF file that Word created. I downloaded a trial version of PagePlus but with only 5 pages to work with I can’t tell if it would work. I’m not going to pay $95.00 just to find out I can’t use it. LaTex will take too long to figure out.

I guess, I’m just going to have to do the best I can with Word.

You as an Author / Conventions, Awards, and Professional Organizations
I’ve decided to combine these two topics because they go hand-in-hand with each other. That means I’m all out of the topics I came up with at the start of this new series. If anyone has an idea for another one please let me know. If nobody has a suggestion, I think I'll be writing about time management.

What is an Author? Based on the reaction I get from the large majority of people, an author is very much like a mystical wizard who walks among the people unseen and ignored but possessing the power to influence thousands with a simple wave of his wand. When someone I don’t know discovers I’m a published author, their eyes light up and suddenly they want to know all about my business. If you just tell them that you’re a writer and not yet published, you are instantly downgraded to the rank of wanna-be. Everyone wants to be a writer and everyone, it seems, is working on a story. Once you’ve published one, now you’re a powerful wizard.

When someone learns you’re an author, how you present yourself to that person can result in a sale. If you’ve written a series and they like it, you have a new fan. I know it’s a pain to set aside your writing to answer a few questions, but please do it. That person might read your book and tell her friends. If they do the same, now you have a geometric increase in sales. It’s possible, so don’t pass up the opportunity. Your words are out there for the entire world to see, the rest of you should be out there as well.

As a self-published author, you are not only the writer, you are also the public relations manager and primary marketer. Who you are and how you behave around other people can influence your sales. It’s possible to write and promote your story without interacting much with the public. If your stories are good and the writing has been properly edited with a good cover, there’s a good chance you can remain isolated, write your heart out, and watch the money roll in. But, I’ll bet that sooner or later you’re going to have to make a public showing.

But being in the public eye is not all you need to worry about. Readers love to interact with the authors they enjoy reading. They will send you emails, write comments and reviews of your books, and discuss your novel on forums or Twitter. How you react to these, will determine how the public perceives you and ultimately how good your sales are. There are some authors who can thrive on being cantankerous or who are revered for having a sharp criticizing tongue, but these are rare.

There are two camps authors fall into when it comes to reading reviews. Some read them and some never do. Those who do not are usually those who have signed on with a traditional publisher. I’m not sure why this is the way it is, but it’s a pattern I’ve noticed over the years. Those who refuse to read their reviews believe the sales will show how well the book is doing. Perhaps they rely only on their editor and publisher for feedback. Negative reviews can be hard to swallow and it’s very tempting to respond to an obvious troll with a negative and argumentative reply. But, doing so gives an author a bad reputation. If you can’t resist the urge, then by all means never read a review!

I, on the other hand, believe reviews are an important feedback mechanism from concerned readers. I have learned how to ignore the obvious troll. If a reader does not like my book and they have a specific reason, then perhaps hearing about it can influence my next story. Even if someone likes your story, they may feel compelled to say something about the content. These are learning opportunities. I have had readers who were quite vocal and were detailed in the feedback they presented. One such reader is now my content-editor. I have learned a great deal from reading my reviews. I’ve learned where I need to focus my learning to make myself a better writer.

Eventually, you’re going to want to interact with other writers and authors. If you meet a well-known author, treat her with respect and not as a stepping stone to getting your work promoted. Before they became a well-known author they were just like you and I. If you’ve published, don’t brag about it. Nobody likes a person who has the “look at me!” attitude. So how do you meet other writers and authors? This was covered in an earlier post. Conventions and professional organizations are two ways I’m going to go into more detail here.

I’m a science fiction author and becoming a member of SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) has always been a dream of mine. I was a bit shocked to learn that many self-published authors do not feel the same. They view SFWA as a group of holier than thou authors who look down at indies with disgust. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. I know many authors who are members of SFWA and they respect me as a fellow author. Granted, if you’re a self-published author who refuses to follow the guidelines of getting your work properly edited, then other authors are going to look down on you. But SFWA does not single out self-published authors.

Should you join? It depends. SFWA admits that if you are an author (not just self-published) and you are doing well, they have little to offer you. But, being a part of an organization like SFWA can have benefits. Just being able to interact with the other members in the forums is something to look forward to. One possible benefit for a self-published author is SFWA contract review. If you sign up with a publisher, SFWA will review your contract if you want. If you meet the eligibility requirements, please join, get engaged, and see how you feel after your first year’s membership runs out. A word of caution, I would avoid talking bad about traditional publishers. For those authors who have a good relationship with them, it’s working out well for them. Traditional publishers and self-publishers are slowly learning to respect each other. Help this process along.

There are organizations out there specifically designed for the self-published author. I’ve signed up for a few of them. Other than being able to interact with the other members, I have not found them to be very useful. It might be because I don’t sit in front of my computer looking at the various forums every week. I just don’t have the time.

I’m going to close with a short discussion about awards. In the science fiction field, the top awards are the Nebula and the Hugo. Simply being nominated for one of these is a big deal for many authors. Publishers also make a big deal of this and they will use this to promote a novel. But what would being nominated for an award mean to a self-published author? Recognition! It would be a very uplifting experience. But will it increase sales? Traditional publishers think so and they will crank up their marketing engine to promote a book that hits the nomination list. But a self-published author does not have a multi-million dollar, world-spanning marketing department.

The next time you’re out and about, ask a few people you know who read science fiction if they know who won the Hugo award for best novel or the Nebula award this (or any) year. You might be surprised to find out that they’ve never heard of the awards before! If they don’t know about these awards, then they won’t care if the cover says the book was nominated for one. They don’t seek out novels that were on the nomination list. They buy books based on what their friends say and other factors. Awards are mostly for publishers, editors, and other writers. It provides recognition within this rather small group of people.

I’m not downgrading how important these awards are though.  I was in the audience for the 2015 Hugo awards and I watched at least one friend of mine walk up on the stage. I felt very happy for her. I would like to be on that stage myself someday. I would love to sit at my writing desk and stare at a shiny rocket ship with my name on it. But realize this, there are hundreds of thousands of books out there and only a tiny handful can be nominated. What are your odds? I am just as happy to see my sales continuing to be steady – that’s recognition enough for me.