Friday, November 3, 2017

More Haste, Less Speed

A while back I came across the blog post series “Take Pride in Your eBook Formatting,” by  Guido Henkel. It made sense:  What comes out of your word processing program can be undependable, and you can’t assume that Kindle or whomever will make your book all pretty and error-free for you.  You know how it should look, and if you take the time to learn some basic HTML, you can guarantee it’s published online looking that way. 

Not only that, but you’ll have an ebook file you can use on any platform, instead of having to come up with a separate format (and a separate ISBN) for Kindle, Kobo, etc.

So I bookmarked the whole series and went on to buy the extended version of Mr. Henkel’s blog series, his book The Zen of eBook Formatting.  

It hasn’t exactly been Zen for me, unless Zen entails hard work and struggle.  Instructions for Word don’t necessarily work for WordPerfect, and in several cases I’ve had to research out a work-around.  And even as I’ve inquired and probed about the best way to get my HTML conversion done, I’ve had colleagues online, both in the WordPerfect and the writing communities, tell me not to bother: WP’s HTML conversion facility is good enough, Kindle’s conversion is good enough, etc., etc.

But I want my debut novel to look a certain way, and I’m taking responsibility for it.

And I’m making progress.  

Or else, I thought I was.

Why the ambiguity?

Because I am an idiot. A week or two ago I figured out how to use find-and-replace within WordPerfect to substitute html entities for the WP code, and I was like a skier on a downhill run. Wheeeee!!! The only place I really got slowed down was with the curly apostrophes and quotation marks. I have a lot of dialogue, but what could I do?  I couldn’t find any way to do a find-and-replace that would understand which marks were right hand and which were left.  Not in WordPerfect, not in my text editor.  So there I was, putting them in, first the left single quotes, then the right, then starting on the doubles in the Prologue, left, right, soldiering, soldiering on.

And then it hit me:

Kid, you’re doing content edits while you’re doing the formatting. And you can’t remember, can you, what those edits were. Meaning the only “final” version of the text you have is this one with code all over it for the ebook.

Ohhhhhhhh, joy.

So I had to plug my entire, massively-coded manuscript into an online reverse converter and get it decoded.  Then run a comparison between the reconverted doc and the last WYSIWYG file I had saved on my computer, to bring the edits to the surface.

I got the review done a couple of days ago and saved it as the Master novel doc, in a separate directory. No, I won’t be able to resist making changes in the formatting copy; I’ll be correcting any typos I find, at the least. But I’m resolved that whatever edits I make, I will immediately make them in the master file as well. And so far I have.

For what it’s worth, most of the changes have been eliminating lines where I tell and then show. And I changed the first sentence of one chapter that began with an ellipse, because how are ya gonna do a drop cap on that?

I have learned a lot, no doubt about it.  The Zen book has been useful.  So has the copy of Murach’s HTML5 and CSS3 someone lent me.

But in the end, the most important thing I’ve learned might be that I don’t want to do it by hand.  Maybe the most efficient thing would be to plug the whole manuscript into a conversion program and get the quotation marks and diacriticals put into HTML that way. I’d have to go back and put in the italics by hand because those don’t convert, but oh, well.

(And please don’t point out that I spent all day Thursday putting the small caps back in at the chapter beginnings, and the online app won’t convert those either and I’ll have to do them all over . . . )

I’ll get this under my belt. I will. And it’s going to look pretty, yes, it will. So there.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Book Cover as Poem

Subsequent to my last post where I said my cover design for The Single Eye was finished, I decided it was too dark and spent the next week lightening it up.

I now have a GIMP file marked "FINAL."  I've even layer-merged and flattened it and exported it as a .jpg.  But . . . I also saved a version with all the layers available for further manipulation.  If I have to.

Yeah, I'm hopeless.  Especially because I'm still not sure I have the exact shade of blue right, and I keep feeling I have to get it perfect.

And my only hope for escaping perfectionism is to think how book cover design is like writing a poem.

Think about it.

A poem uses figures of speech, allusion, wordplay, and so on to evoke ideas and sensations in the reader.  Its meaning enters through the heart and the gut and makes its way up to the brain.  Poetry is not propositional or literal, and its communication of truth is all the more powerful because of that.

A good book cover does the same.  It appeals to the subconscious and invites you without words to click on it or to take it in your hand and open it up.  You think "That's intriguing" without precisely knowing why.

And book covers are like poems in that with each there are any number of ways that inner pull can be produced.

The way I've been fretting over my cover design since early May you'd think I believed there is Only One Perfect Cover for any one book.  I'm not the only one who labor under this burden.  I've been under a lot of pressure from some fellow-authors (it's always fellow-authors) who tell me I have to hire a pro for this, as if any one person could, just by virtue of their being a professional, generate the cover I need.  This is ridiculous on the face of it.  Books are rebranded and covers redesigned over and over as new editions are published.  Are we supposed to believe that only one of those is the foreordained right one and woe to the rest?

Absurd.

No, the challenge is to get this particular cover to evoke the book, just as a poet crafts this particular poem to express the subject he's writing his verses on.  Is there only one poem that can be written on love?  How about war?  How about the futility of this earthly existence (cue violins)?  Of course not.  All these things can have an infinite number of poems written on them.

They need to fit the subject, of course.  But within that framework the poet strives to make her poem as internally-consistent and as perfect an expression of love or war or futility-of-human-existence it possibly can be.

A book cover is the same.  Yes, you want to follow genre conventions.  Put pink frills and flowing script on a noir murder mystery and you'll end up with some pretty annoyed readers.  But once overall genre expectations are met, your cover has no need to be uniquely perfect, only to be well-proportioned, expressive, and consistent within itself.  

And thanks to advent of the ebook, if I should think up a new design that is even more that than what I have now, I can easily switch the new cover out.


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Good Enough, or, The Hamster Wheel

These days I'm trying to make progress on my cover for The Single Eye, and considering that I've been working at it pretty steadily since the third week in May, that progress is pretty darn slow.

No, it doesn't look the same as it did then, it looks better.  And I'm learning GIMP at a good clip.  So all's good, right?

No, it's not.  Seems like the more I work on it, the shakier my confidence gets.  

I mean, you need feedback, right?  And I've asked for it, in my general online writers' group, on Facebook in the authors' group I belong to there, on my personal Facebook page, on Instagram, and in person.

The reaction from ordinary people in person and on social media has been very positive.  For them, the proposed cover looks "real."  They want to know when the book will be available for sale.  They're asking if I've set up preorder.  On Instagram I've had some nice Likes from professional designers.  Very encouraging.  But when it comes to my fellow-writers . . . ouch.  The comments and critiques are all over the place, and what one person likes the other hates. 

I'm taking in the critique.  I note where potential readers might be confused and alter the design accordingly.  And I think what I have now is better than what I started with.   It might even be Good Enough.  

But there's a sick perfectionist urge in me that whispers, "Keep working on it.  Keep working on it.  Even if it takes till next year or the year after.  Keep working on it.  You have to please everyone.  You never will, it'll never be good enough, but you have to try."  But I can't keep working on it.  There's a point where I'm going to have to say This Is It, and I need to say it soon.

A lot of people would advise me, "That's why you hire a cover artist and don't try to do it yourself."  Yeah, but unless I could afford someone with the chops of a Chip Kidd, how do I know the cut-rate designer I've hired (and right now, I couldn't even afford to hire someone off Fiverr) has provided me a design that's all it should be?  I've gotten to the point where even if my cover--- my design or someone else's---  looked like the one on an Amazon No. 1 ten-week bestseller I'd still worry there were ten things wrong with it.

It's sick.  So I have to ignore the neurosis and the paranoia, and maybe my helpful critics, too.  Which is why I'm not posting any more progress views.  I can't let anyone give me the excuse to stay on this hamster wheel.

I've done my best on it, the best I can at this stage.  And I should be able to recognise that.  After all, I've been an artist, architect, and graphic designer a lot longer than I've been a writer, and I've cranked out some very successful publicity pieces during my misspent career.  

And if I think of a way to improve my cover later, I can.  Hey, that's the beauty of doing it myself.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

I Quit My Critique Group

Last night. Though I've been thinking about it for weeks.

Going in, I cherished the idea that in a local group relationships would be formed and ideas exchanged warmly and freely. I thought we would go deeper than we can in the online workshops and I could get an immediate response to my questions about my work. But that's not how it was, and perhaps could never be.

I quit, and it wasn't just the time commitment factor (which is all I mentioned in my email to the group), though that was big.

Or that I never really fit in socially with the others in the group, or that the others all write YA and I don't.

It wasn't just my discomfort with how the moderator was running the sessions, or the fact that she and I were on different wavelengths as to how she was structuring them--- were we all taking turns or was it a free discussion? (That got awkward, the last meeting I went to.)

It wasn't even my frustration at having the others try to remold my storyline and my characters to fit what they thought they should be. Though that weighed in heavily, too.

It was mostly that I was turning into That Writer, and I didn't like myself. You know, the author whose lizard brain goes wild when her writing is attacked and who finds it impossible to say "thank you" for critique that seems to have no relation to what she's trying to get down on paper. I like to think I held back from actually defending my work, that all I ever said in response was to explain what I was going for in the story and ask them to help me apply their comments to that. But even that I could never do gracefully or well. My mind would go blank, the adrenaline would surge, and while I might manage a terse "I see," what I was seeing was anybody's guess.

So I removed myself. Maybe someday, when I'm getting more than two hours of sleep a night . . . but for now, online groups and remote beta readers may be the best ways for me to get feedback for my writing. Dealing with criticism on paper or on a computer screen keeps me objective. Not so much, face to face.

If you've ever left a writers' group, how did you know it was time to bail?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Condensed Version

Two years ago at this time I was in the same position I am now: Needing to generate a synopsis of a new novel for my Read and Critique session at the annual Pennwriters conference here in Pittsburgh.  Single-spaced, half a page.  No more.  Rereading my post of 13 May 2015, I see I was in "Oh my gosh, take a deep breath, don't freak out" mode.  How was I ever going to condense the plot of Singing Lake Farm down to that?

Well, though I neglected to blog about it at the time, I succeeded.  I distilled it down to 379 words (not counting the heading) and my novel idea and first two pages went over well with the professional reading panel.  (I neglected to blog about that, too.  I wish I had, as they said some very nice and encouraging things.)

This year, my problem was not that I had too much plot in Strong as Death to press into a half page, but that to a great extent I didn't have a plot for the new novel at all.  Not a complete one, anyway.  The first act of I have well in mind.  I knew I had to get my characters (Eric and Sandy from The Single Eye) involved in something people like them ordinarily wouldn't be tangled up with, and I had a sketchy idea--- but only sketchy--- of how to make that work.  I had a pretty good picture of the climactic scene.  But beyond "there's a big fight, the bad guys lose, the good guys win and live happily ever after," I hadn't a clue.  Especially as the real antagonist isn't my Red terrorists, but my heroine's cheating former boyfriend Werner.  What becomes of him?  He's got to change somehow, but it has to be organic, or I've written propaganda or crap.  The challenge for that is especially stiff when you're writing a Christian novel.  Not even God "makes" us be good!

Happily, by now writing a half-page-only synopsis doesn't panic me; rather, it's an exercise in focus.  How can I make this plot work?  What twists can I come up with, and how can I use them to effect the final outcome?  What's really important, and what can I leave out?  How can I word all this in the most economical way?

I've been working on the Strong as Death synopsis since yesterday and at 366 words I believe I have something that will fly.  In the process I've gotten the plot a lot more clear.  I don't say there aren't any possible holes, but I think any that emerge can be plugged.

But I wonder:  am I cheating a little?  Do the panelists expect the novels whose beginnings are submitted for the R&C sessions to be finished?  If not, it'd be really hard for a discovery writers to provide a synopsis.  Often they have less idea how their stories will come out than I did!

Never mind.  This is a good chance to find out if I'm giving Strong as Death a good start, and I'm taking it.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Willing

Funny about this writing thing.  Just when you think you have a grip on rules and definitions and best methods, up pops a whole group of experts, in how-to books or on the 'Net, to let you know you've understood things all wrong.

Or have you?

Take the principle called "willing suspension of disbelief."  I was taught and always believed it meant--- no, let's hold off awhile before I tell you what I thought it meant.  At any rate, my perception was different from what the pundits I'm reading lately say it is.  They say it describes the overall approach of a reader to a work of fiction.  That is, when said reader opens your book he is fully aware that the world you have created is unreal and he doesn't believe a word of it.  But he wills himself, consciously or not, to turn off his doubt and enter your story anyway.  No less a writer and teacher than Orson Scott Card says in Characters and Viewpoint:


In a representational play, the actors all act as if there were a fourth wall between them and the audience.  . . . This technique helps the audience maintain the illusion of reality (or, as it is commonly called, the willing suspension of disbelief).
. . . If you know what to look for, you'll see the actors, the director, the lighting technician, the makeup artist, the playwright, and everybody else working hard to sustain the illusion of reality.
All this is in the effort to deal with the audience's constant query: "Oh yeah?"

Card says it works essentially the same for a work of fiction.

To which I (in my temerity) say, Non credo.

I don't believe it.  What reader approaches a book that way?  When we crack the covers or open up that file, we expect to be drawn in, to be immersed; ideally, to be so engulfed in the author's world that we lose all sense of the one we're physically in.  In fact, when the writer makes a misstep that jerks us out of it, we resent it.  If "willing suspension of disbelief" meant "Author, I'm willing for you to convince me this is real," we readers would be like lawyers piling up evidence for a court case, or scientists compiling data to prove an hypothesis.  But that's not how people read.

I would argue that, once an author has hooked us, it's actually a matter of willing extension of belief.  And, that trust once given, woe betide the writer who violates it.

But if I'm saying willing suspension of disbelief is not what Card, et al., claim it to be, what is it?  What understanding of it did my teachers pour into me, and what do I maintain it is, to this day?

Willing suspension of disbelief is that courtesy the reader extends to the writer when, for reason of genre, plot, or structure, the writer has to violate the reality of the world she is writing in.  I've found this happens quite frequently in the areas of human relations, technology, and the passage of time.

For instance, rarely do people fall in love at first sight and get engaged shortly thereafter.  But the insta-forever romance is the norm in romance novels.  These novels are (usually) set in the real world and involve real human beings with real psychology.  Those who read this kind of fiction know that, with real people in the real world, meeting a guy on Sunday and being engaged to him the following Saturday has maybe a .00005% chance of happening.  But they overlook that point, they willingly suspend their disbelief, and accept that of course, in the world of romance fiction, it must happen all the time.

We see it too as we reread early science fiction.  We know good and well no one could reach outer space with the kind of technology described, let alone survive there.  But we cheerfully overlook that and let the author tell his tale.

As an avid reader of Nineteenth Century fiction, I need to do this constantly when it comes to the passage of time.  The stories are set on our earth, with the same twenty-four hours in the day, but the time expands and contracts in the most extraordinary ways.  Women write diary entries--- by hand--- that would take a day and a half to set down, yet they do it at most in a few hours  (I'm thinking especially of Marian Halcombe in The Woman in White).  Men sit down in the smoking rooms of their gentlemen's clubs at ten in the evening, share a story that would take a half hour at most, then one of them jerks himself into alertness and says, "By Jove!  It's past 3:00 AM!"

Any sensible person knows these things aren't possible.  But we readers overlook the trick, because it's been worked for the greater good of the novel.  If our diarist didn't accomplish her superhuman feats of writing, we wouldn't have our story.  If we were subjected to five hours' straight of the gentlemen's chatter, we would be bored to tears and miss the story the author wants us to remember.  Whereas if she sends them all to bed at 10:30, we wouldn't get the spine-crawling incident that befalls one of them in the hallway in the wee, sma' hours of the morning.  So we willingly suspend our disbelief and let the author get on with the tale.

I've been thinking about this lately for a couple of reasons.  One, because I'm considering reworking some old material into diary form, and I'm not sure how far to push willing suspension of disbelief in my readers when it comes to the main character having time to write the entries.  I've kept a journal off and on since high school and I know first hand that the days when interesting things happen are the days that get skipped.  If I don't believe my protag would be able to record it all, how will anyone else?

Two, because of what's happening in my new writers' group.  Perhaps I shouldn't admit anything negative about my writing in public on this blog, but some members have made it clear they aren't willing to extend me belief when it comes to some aspects of my WIP.  No, they're not saying what I've written is physically or emotionally impossible.  Rather, I've been getting comments early on to the effect of "I don't know why this chapter is in here.  Cut it out."  The material in question is there for very good reasons, at least from my point of view, and if I followed the advice I'm getting I'd no longer be writing psychological horror, but the book version of a creature feature.

But the fact they're saying this shows me I've failed to do something.  I haven't achieved their trust such that they say, "Hmmm, the MC is talking with this person at this point.  What I'm finding out must be important.  I'll read on and find out how."  That's what I would do, especially in the first part of a book.  But the same has not been done for me.  They haven't willingly extended their belief, and I'm not sure why.

Regarding minor points, I'm taking some of their suggestions.  But I'm keeping the overall structure and progression of the novel as is until it's done.  By then I'll have my own better picture of what should stay and what should go, and I can send it out to beta readers to see what they have to say.

For that, I'm willing.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Back Again

It's been two months and more since I resolved to step back from the keyboard, and a lot has happened--- and has not.

First, what hasn't happened.

As promised, I did not touch my draft of The Single Eye.  In fact, I didn't open it till the 20th of this month of March.

The other thing that hasn't happened is that I didn't hear from either of my Last Two Beta Readers.  That isn't to say I was never in touch with them; I just got nothing back on the novel.

Now, I could take that as a very bad sign.  Yes, the one has been through severe health issues involving herself and a close family member.  The other has a very full, not to say harried, schedule.  But there's a nagging voice that says, "If your book was any good, they'd be compelled to read it anyway.  They'd find it a solace in their affliction!"

But as much as The Single Eye involves themes that go to the heart of the human condition, as much as I hope the reader will come away having learned something about him or herself, as much as I'd love it to be the kind of book a reader will pick up again and again, it's still a novel.  It's entertainment.  And when your newborn has to be rushed to the ER because she can't clear her lungs, Mama ain't got time to beta read no novel.

So I'm going ahead and doing a last copy edit out of my own eye--- if that makes sense.  More on that later.