Saturday, July 7, 2018

Adopt, Adapt, or Abandon: What to Do With Writing Advice

When I turned thirty, I decided I was old enough not to have to justify myself to people who liked to lay down the rules on how things had to be done.

I suppose they weren't actually giving advice; more like laying down the law.  Trouble was, their "law" didn't necessarily work for me.  Like the teacher of a sewing class I took, who dictated that proper tailors/seamstresses/sewers used only one particular size needle, and all others should be thrown away.

I kept those other needles.  The one she favored worked for me in some circumstances, but not in others.  I realized that, unless she was actually planning to come to my house and rifle through my sewing kit, it wasn't necessary to argue the matter with her.  With that instructor and any other, I could adopt the practices that worked, adapt the ones that needed adjustment, and quietly abandon whatever didn't fit.

I'm more than twice thirty now, and it's too bad I didn't have the sense to follow this practice when it came to my non-writing career.  Time and again I took advice from those who were supposedly wiser and more experienced than I, and who, of course, had only my best interests in view.  If I had paid more attention to my gut and less to them, I would have kept myself out of some bad employment situations and the trajectory of my professional life would be vastly different.

On the other hand, there was some career advice I was given and didn't "hear," because I was so eager to believe that a certain job was the one for me.

Never mind.  If I'd been more sensible about listening to or reject advice on my day job, I might not be embarking on a career in writing now.

But here I am, and it's up to me to see what I'll make of it, and to use others' experience with my eyes open and my judgement engaged.

I'm thinking of this because yesterday morning I listened to a guest being interviewed on a podcast about scheduling your writing.  And tonight I was reading another, quite prolific, writer's blog posts on how one should approach writing in general.  The guy who was talking about scheduling said he wrote his X-number of words faithfully in the designated time, then shut off his mind and didn't think about writing at all outside of that.  The writer of the blog posts has strong opinions about writing and rewriting, especially on the value of generating a clean first draft, letting go, and writing the next piece.

These stood out, because usually I can see myself using the advice I get from writing gurus.  Maybe not now, but someday.  But these, no.  I've thought about it, and these nuggets of wisdom don't fit.

And that's fine.  As much as I'd like everyone to like me and approve of what I do, if I decide someone else's proven practice runs counter to who I am and how my mind works, I can smile gently and let their advice go.  E.g., a lot of my "writing" doesn't take place at my keyboard, it happens when my body's busy but my mind is free at my night job.  And as for extruding a workable draft the first time, I don't even know who my characters are the first time around!

That said, I can see how practice writing story after story after story can get you to the point where you can whip off good prose without hours and days and weeks of polishing.  Heck, for that matter I can see that if I would stop making perfectionistic edits to my WIP I could publish the blinking thing and get onto the next.

In other words, that might be advice I can adapt to how I work, or maybe, I can adapt my work practices to better serve my writing.

But instantly embracing every last piece of writing advice isn't going to do that.  A lot of it is aimed towards keeping the novice out of trouble, but you'd think it was written by the finger of God on Mount Sinai.  "Don't write prologues."  Do you realize most of the books I've checked out from the library in the past couple of years have them?  "Don't write in omniscient POV, it only leads to Narrative Intrusion."  Ditto.  Published authors love them an omniscient narrator.  "Show, don't tell."  Well, maybe, sometimes.  But not everything is worth showing, and maybe "telling" can reveal a lot about your characters and the kind of people they are.  "Get up an hour earlier in the morning and do your writing while you're fresh."  Charming, but some of us have schedules or physical limitations that prevent that.

The point is, all the advice we get is good in its way.  The question is, is it good for you and the work you're doing?  To answer that, you have to know yourself.  Those physical issues that keep you from getting up and writing at the crack of dawn they may be real impediments, or you may just be lazy.  It's up to you to be honest with yourself and decide.

Adopt what fits, adapt what needs adjusting, and abandon the rest.  Or maybe just set it aside for later.  It may come in handy, and if you've kept yourself from justifying why it simply won't work, and refrained from declaring how ridiculous a certain piece of advice is, it'll be easier to adopt or adapt it when its time has come.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Learning from My Mistakes, or Professional Book Formatting for Amateurs. Sort Of.

I need to be more regular on this blog, and I've told myself I can't read the latest Business Musings post from Kristine Kathryn Rusch over at (a high point of my week) until I've produced something of my own.

So, take this as a glorified apology for not having blogged since last autumn.  My only excuse is that I am doing the formatting on my book myself.  Which is why it's mid-way through April and I haven't yet published The Single Eye.

Yes, I know there are lovely professional services and remarkable tools out there that will do the job for me.  But I can't afford them, and besides, I know what I want and I haven't seen it available commercially. 

I've been working steadily.  Just being aware of the pitfalls in doing things myself brings out the rabid perfectionist streak in me.  I want my book, both versions of it, to look as professional as it can.

But that doesn't mean I've been working efficiently.  Oh, my, no.  Which is why it's mid-April and, despite a good three to five hours spent on this per weekday, I'm only now scenting the end of the trail.

What I've learned in the process.

  • If you're working to format a big file, split it up into sections.  There's less of a chance of corruption, and if the inner coding on one page is the issue, it won't drag your whole ms down with it.
The Single Eye, at around 145,000 words, is not a short book, and the formatted-for-print version made for a pretty hefty file.  In December I started to have issues with saving it, and in mid-January it crashed altogether.  Thank heaven I was able to remember the edits I made when the latest version of my manuscript refused to open, but several days worth of reconstruction was required.  That could have been averted by breaking the file up.
  • If you're working in Dropbox, save a copy of your latest working copy on a thumbdrive or at least in another directory on your computer.  
When my Dropbox file took a nosedive on my laptop, the desktop version went down at the same time.  And thanks to the efficiency of the Internet (she says ironically), the copy on my cloud backup service was toast as well.  Not only that, but the corruption spread somehow to other recent versions that were in the same Dropbox folder.

Thank heaven I was able to find an earlier version that wasn't messed up and restore the edits out of my memory and the ebook version.  But having to do it really slowed things down.

Which brings me to something else:
  • Assuming you're doing a print book, format it first.
Gosh, I wish I'd tumbled to that last autumn!

Why do it first?  Because you'll pick up on a lot of typos, grammatical errors, and plain old writing that needs to be revised when you're going through your print version page by page making sure your hyphens are in the right place and your bottom margins line up.  Get that done first, then when your ms is nice and clean and edited, start playing with your ebook file.  Do you really want to be like me and correct your ebook file (with all its wonderful html entities) every time you make a change?

No, you don't.

  • If you don't know how to already, learn to use Styles in your word processing program when you first compose your text.  
Doing that from the beginning would have saved me hours of work updating and correcting features like chapter titles and opening paragraphs one at a time.

What else?  
  • The best way to get your quotation marks, apostrophes, em-dashes, ellipses, and so on to look right in the ebook version is to convert them to html entities yourself. 
I've learned some effective ways to do that, but it's been another long day, and yes, I want to see what Kris has said on her blog.  If I'd been blogging about this last fall when I learned it . . .

Well, never mind.  Next time we can talk about something more cheerful, like DIY typography.


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?


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.