So *Much* Excitement!

The title should actually read: SO Much Excitement! Because it stands to reason that the more emphasis you can squeeze into the typeface, the more excited your readers will be to read it. Right?

Uh, no.

If you’re one of those folks who simply can’t stand not giving your readers stage directions (multiple punctuation marks, boldface, italic fonts, UPPER case letters, or God forbid, all FOUR!?!) then you should probably be keeping a journal. Not because you may want to record insightful thoughts about tender moments in your life, but as a convenient storage place for all the EXCITEMENT IN YOUR WRITING!!! 

When it comes to font follies, I’m firmly in the minimalist camp. At least in my novels and short stories. I will italicize a word or two from time to time, but I try to limit that. As for the rest, no thank you. Why? Because readers hate it. They don’t need to be told what’s funny, or exciting, or puzzling, or ironic. Playing games with the typography won’t improve crappy writing any more than will printing it in a different color or on heavier paper. The only thing you can do to make your story more exciting, or funny, or whatever, is to concentrate on what will best garner those results.

You want mystery? Pose something mysterious. You want excitement? Put your players in peril. You want irony? Design it into your plot or better yet, let one of your characters slam into it at an awkward moment, preferably while being chased by a demon, an ex-spouse, a former employer, or perhaps a debt collector.

I don’t get much pleasure from chatting about the mechanics of writing. For most folks it’s deadly dull. But, when I look at some of my student’s work, I wonder if any of this is still covered in schools. I know many systems have abandoned cursive writing, but have they abandoned writing basics, or did that go out of fashion with chalk and slates?

Maybe it’s the influence of email, the internet, and social media monstrosities like Twitter, wherein the user–from president to pauper–wraps up a complete message in 128 characters or less. But hark! If you’re not tweeting, you aren’t subject to those limits, so you can use <gasp> the entire alphabet. You don’t have to construct tortured words to abreeV8 and save on your letter limits or pile up punctuation like rush hour commuters in order to convey meaning. Instead, you can actually write.

And, as long as I’m on this particular rant, allow me to point out the proper function of ellipses. These are the three little dots that have somehow gained super grammatical power among the Twitter folk and others who never had a terribly firm grasp on the finer points of punctuation. In short, ellipses do one of two things: they either indicate when a voice trails off (making it impossible to “hear” the rest of what’s being said), OR they indicate words a writer has deliberately left out, whether from a quote or some other source. In either case, the dots represent words that aren’t there.

That’s it. If an ellipsis falls at the end of a sentence, it’s proper to add one additional dot, the noble period, which typically occupies the tag end of most sentences.

Please note: the ellipsis, like the typographical nonsense alluded to earlier, is not meant to be used as stage direction. It doesn’t indicate a dramatic pause, shift change at the brewery, a hurried breath, time to signal the third base coach, or anything else. It stands for words that aren’t there.

And, by the way, an ellipsis has three (3) dots. No more, no less. Creating a line of dots longer than that will only annoy readers, especially editors, who more often than not love the language and hate to see it cluttered up. So, clutter not!

The take-away for today: be a writer, not a typesetter.

Please, feel free to argue with me. I’d love to hear some good reasons for using all these typographical tricks. I’m ready, really; so HIT me!?!

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Do-It-Yourself Publishing — Part Two

Last time we looked at independent publishing of e-books. Now it’s time to do something similar to their printed cousins, paperbacks and hardbacks.

Why control freaks LOVE printed books:

Because they get to be in charge of everything–down to the tiniest dot and tittle. When it comes to self-publishing, that’s not a bad thing, unless the control freak in question can’t tell when he or she has created a piece of– Well, let’s just call it something awful. Then, some sort of intervention might not be a bad idea.

It all starts with the basic manuscript. If you have Microsoft Word, use it. It’s considered the industry standard and most on-line “service providers” like it. There are other word processors, and yes they all have their adherents, and yes, Word has more than their share of issues, not the least of which is changing the freaking layout every time they produce yet another freaking version in a never-ending quest to cram every freaking thing into one freaking program. (Full disclosure: I was quite happy with Word 6 which came out a couple decades and countless Shareholder Reports ago.) The bottom line: deal with it.

Since there are many free texts available on the internet which explain how to format a manuscript for printed books, I won’t go into details here. I can, however, make some suggestions which could save you time and aggravation. The easiest thing to do, of course, is pay someone to do it for you. But, if you’re anything like me, you’re not eager to part with hard-earned cash. Instead, you can go to Createspace.com, choose the page size you want and download a Word template.

Open the template in Word alongside your epic. Then just copy and paste your text into the already formatted chapters in the template. Also included are formatted pages for all the front matter–title page, copyright page, dedication, table of contents, etc. Pages are pre-numbered, and you can plug in your name and the book title in the header. Couldn’t be easier.

You then upload the .DOC file to Createspace; they work their magic, and in minutes you’ll be able to look at your now-formatted book on-line. If you like what you see, you can order a printed proof (always a great idea), or if you find something that needs changing you can re-open the template, make the necessary edits, and then upload the file to Createspace again. I typically go through this process a few times before I get it just the way I like it. But then, I change lots of stuff like type face, paragraph spacing, font size, etc. Why? Because I can! I’m a control freak; it’s what we do.

Now, if you’re really a control freak, just filling in a template that someone else built likely won’t be enough. Even if you fiddle with some of the settings. If you’re really into control, and you want to handle absolutely everything, then you need to invest some time in a desktop publishing program (DTP). There are several excellent applications to choose from, and they’ll all do an amazing job. You’ll have the full range of layout techniques at your disposal. The downside? Like everything else, it’s time and money. The price range for DTP programs is pretty wide. There’s perfectly adequate software available for about $100. I like a program called Page Plus (as of this writing, they’re on version 9. I use 8.) At the other end of the spectrum is Adobe InDesign currently available for around $200 a month.

There are also some open source DTP programs available, and I’ve heard some good things about them. I hesitate to suggest a specific one since I’ve never used them myself.

This article is by no means intended as an exhaustive survey of layout options. There are many service companies, programs and individuals who can and will help you, for a fee. My advice, if you’re going to be doing this more than once, is to learn how to do it yourself. You won’t regret the time spent or the money saved.

Next up: it ain’t a book ’til it’s got a cover.

 

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Do-It-Yourself Publishing Part One

Because there is so much information already available about self-publishing, I’m only going to scratch the surface here, but hopefully I can shed enough light on the topic to make it a little less intimidating. More than anything else, self-publishing requires patience. There are quite a few steps, and some of them can be downright tedious. None of them, however, are so difficult that someone with average or above intellect can’t deal with them. For most folks, it’s not an intellect issue at all; it’s a time issue. They’re either in a hurry to see their work published, or they don’t want to take the time to learn how to do it on their own.

The alternative is to pay someone to do the parts you can’t or won’t tackle independently. There’s no shame in that. Most people have no idea how to design a cover, arguably the most important part of an indie publisher’s marketing program. A bad cover will almost certainly result in bad sales. But, so will a bad story. I’m going to assume that since you’ve been reading this blog, and you’ve applied all the lessons, you’ve written something worth publishing.

Why control freaks don’t like e-books:

An e-book, no matter how the reader views it–on a Kindle, a Kobo, a Nook, a PC, a smart phone, or whatever–consists of text. The reader gets to choose what size. Oh, and what font. And what color. In fact, the reader gets to pick everything, not just whether or not to read the book. As an author, you get no say in how your brain child appears on somebody’s reader. You either write something so good they’ll want to buy more of your stuff, or you don’t. Other than adjusting the price and making your books available in as many different formats as possible, you’re done.

If you’re wondering how to format a version of your manuscript for e-books, get Mark Coker’s excellent guide. It’s free! (Here’s the link.) He’ll show you, step by step, how to clean up your manuscript and get it ready for e-publication. Coker is the founder and head honcho at Smashwords.com. He’s been in on e-books since Day 1, and he knows whereof he speaks. While Smashwords is not the only e-book aggregator around, it’s one of the oldest and most reliable. I use it and have never been disappointed. Only very minor changes are needed to get your manuscript ready for the 800-pound gorilla in the e-book room: Amazon Kindle.

If you’re going to produce e-books, then you’d be insane not to format them for Amazon’s stable of Kindle e-readers. Kindle Direct Publishing has a new (as of this writing) program that will take your Microsoft Word document and prepare it for uploading to Amazon. I used it on my latest novel, Oh, Bits! and it worked just fine. I fiddled with it for awhile but quickly got comfortable with the (limited) options available. In short, it’s free and works great. You don’t need to pay anyone to format your e-books for you.

28951541_ml compositeMost self-publishing efforts rely heavily on e-books. Though the royalty payments are lower, since the purchase price is lower, sales are usually much higher than for print books. Many self-publishers use print copies as give-aways and to solicit reviews. These are called ARCs or Advance Reader Copies. The advantage of e-books, aside from their lower price, is portability. Readers can use them almost anywhere and under almost any circumstances.

If you just can’t stand the thought of doing the work yourself, you can always hop over to Draft2Digital.com and let them do it. It’ll cost you a slice of your profits, but it’s not too high. They provide a service similar to Smashwords by aggregating sales through many of the biggest e-book retailers. And, like Amazon, they pay you monthly rather than quarterly.

Next time around, we’ll take a look at self-publishing print books.

–Josh

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Make Me Rich, Or Famous, Or Something

That wonderful day arrives–you’ve finished your first book. Your excitement level has reached a new high, and you can’t wait to revel in your success. Fame and fortune can only be moments away–nanoseconds in the fullness of time. You’re on the brink of greatness; the celebrity life is at hand. And boy oh boy, are you ready!

But–and nobody likes a but–it might be a good idea to chill for a minute or two before you put in your order for a floating mansion you can populate with your peeps. There might be a couple things to consider first. Yes, you’ve finished the writing, for now anyway, but there’s a whole lot more to this game than producing words, even really extraordinary words like yours. You still have to get it published.

Traditional or Independent?

There are really only two ways to get your book out into the world: you can do it yourself, or you can try to get someone to do it for you. The latter approach is commonly called the “traditional” method in which the writer either finds an agent to represent them to the publishers, or the writer goes directly to the publishers on their own. Both strategies have worked, and writers have snagged some very handsome advances for their work.

If you are already well-known, like a celebrity, a politician, or an athlete, you’ll probably get away with announcing that you’ve written a book, and agents will come knocking on your door. The traditional route is clearly the best way to go for you. If you already have connections to people with some pull in the publishing business, your task will likewise be pretty simple. You pick up the phone, call your pal, and tell him or her your manuscript is ready.

But assuming you’re one of the “great unwashed” (Thank you, Edward Bulwer-Lytton), your options are limited. You can mail query letters to agents and editors, or you can arrange to meet them in person at writer’s conferences and/or fan conventions. Sometimes these encounters are planned events which you sign up for in advance, or they might be pure happenstance–like bumping into someone in an elevator, a restaurant or a bar.

There’s a certain etiquette expected at these gatherings. It’s considered extremely bad form to interrupt an agent or an editor while they’re talking to someone else, or eating, or trying to grab a moment’s rest. And never, ever, approach one in a public restroom unless they’re screaming for help. Think of them all as belonging to a huge private club, which isn’t too far from the truth. Most of them know each other, so if you stick your thumb in an editor’s Key Lime pie in an attempt to get his attention, word will spread very quickly, and your career as a published author will instantly be on tour of the local sewer system.

However, if you’re patient and respectful, your chances will come. A prospective agent or editor will look you in the eye, smile, and ask you to tell him or her about your book. This is where you’ll need to deliver the much-ballyhooed “elevator pitch.” It got the name because back in the day, writers often tried to pitch their book in an actual elevator while the agent they’d hunted down was trapped and had to listen, at least for as long as the elevator ride lasted. That meant the writer had to pack all the pertinent details into a spiel lasting no more than thirty seconds. Shorter was better. Probably still is.

What goes into an elevator pitch? Pretty much the same stuff that goes in your back cover blurb. You remember those. We covered them here (in “I’ve Got A Great Idea For a Book”). The blurb, as you’ll recall, distills the essential elements of your story into a compact sentence or two designed to intrigue potential readers. Having that short, snappy one or two-liner tells the editor/agent a couple important things: you understand the importance of a short, snappy sales pitch, and you’re interested in publishing as a business, not a hobby. You didn’t attend the conference or convention merely to rub elbows with your buds, some of whom may be in the elevator with you, possibly in costume. Oh, and by the way, never pitch a book when you’re in costume, unless the agent/editor is, too.

What you’re hoping for from one of these contacts, and hopefully you’ll score more than just one, is an invitation to submit a manuscript, or a piece thereof. It means you’ve breached the outer wall of the publishing stronghold; you’ve made yourself known. You will clutch the business card said personage gave you, and you will treasure it as the rare key to the kingdom which it is. When you write the cover letter that goes with whatever you were asked to submit (nothing more, nothing less), you will remind the addressee of your encounter at the conference on such and such a date. In most cases, they will recall meeting you and will read your submission.

If, on the other hand, you choose to send out dozens, if not hundreds, of blind queries, your response rate will be abysmal. That’s normal. Most literary agencies don’t bother to respond unless they’re interested, and most of them never are. Your best bet in this strategy is to connect with agencies advertising for clients. The drawback here is that these probably aren’t the folks who’re going to take your book to the top. Yes, there are some agents just starting out who will eventually be stars, just as there are editors who will do the same. Understand, however, that they’re the exception, not the rule. But, you’ll never know unless you try.

Next time around, we’ll take a look at doing all the work yourself. It’s really not that hard.

 

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Giving And Getting The Gold

So, what goes into a critique? What is it that makes it useful, or not? For openers, try to be positive. That doesn’t mean sugar-coating. It means finding something you can focus on in order to start on a positive note, even if most of the piece being reviewed needs work. Then you can move toward the areas that you found confusing or which bumped you out of the fictive dream.

A critique is NOT a rewrite. Writers need to do their own revisions. Your job is to point out the places where those revisions should be made. For instance, if the author is telling rather than showing, or writing in passive rather than active voice, let her know. Asking “Can you show this?” or “How ’bout using an active verb here?” points this out. There’s always a chance she had a reason for writing it that way. It’s more likely, however, she simply didn’t notice she’s taken the easy way out.

Comments should feature your thoughts, not declarations about what the world will think. Try using statements that reflect that approach, like: “I found this passage confusing” rather than “This passage is confusing.” Or “I couldn’t understand this,” instead of “this is unintelligible.” After all, maybe you’re the only one who doesn’t get it.

Make suggestions for improvement. Let’s say you found a particular section dull and boring because the narrative focuses on something mundane. Rather than say, “I thought this part was boring,” make suggestions for improving it. “If there’s nothing special about what he wore or how he put it on, consider saying: He got dressed.”

Comment on the writing, not the writer. Anyone in one of my classes who tells a fellow writer he does sloppy work, or that she’s terrible, wins an immediate guided tour out the door and a follow-up, “don’t come back.” C’mon. Being considerate isn’t that difficult. If you want to experience life as a total asswipe, create one as a point of view character in your next story.

Your thoughts are not the equivalent of holy writ. No matter how strongly you feel about an issue in a story–character, plot, voice, even statements of fact–your job ends with your suggestions. It’s up to the writer to decide whether or not to incorporate them.

Use the “sandwich” method. If you started by finding something positive to say, try to end on a positive note as well. You’re not a personal trainer. Writer egos tend to be fragile. Your tough love comments are less likely to help a writer grow a thick skin than they are to make them give up writing altogether. Stick with the job at hand, critiquing, don’t turn it into something else.

And what about the person receiving the critique?

Knowing how to respond to a critique is critically important–too important, in fact, to screw up. So, pay attention!

Start by keeping your mouth shut. Oh, it can be hard I know, incredibly hard, but your job at this point is to just sit there and take it. Remember, you asked for it, and you did that in order to make your work better. So don’t defend a single word of it, no matter how strongly you feel about it. Suck it up and learn. Very often the things you hate hearing the most are the things you most need to work on.

No one ever made the Olympic team the day they took up skating. Don’t expect writing to come any easier. Even if you’ve been at it for a long time–even if you’ve been praised and published–there’s still room for improvement. There always is. Be thankful you’re getting the opportunity to produce even better stuff.

It’s not about you; it’s about what you wrote. Sometimes, despite the best intentions, a critique can sting worse than a foot-long hypodermic. Never assume the comments are about you personally, no matter how much it feels like it. If you find it hard to handle rejection now, just wait until the real world sees your work. If it’s less than it should be, the criticism will be aimed squarely at you, and it’ll be much worse. Suck it up and fix it now, while you still can.

Only you can decide what to change. Not all critique suggestions are valid. One reader may stumble on a point everyone else sails over without tripping. Do you change it for just that one person? Probably not, but then, what if it really is something important? Maybe the reason no one else commented on it is because they’re not as astute as the reader who did. It’s your job to noodle this out. Change the things you agree with; ignore the others.

Don’t rush your updates. Let the critique sit for awhile, preferably long enough that you can be objective about working with it. Working under the influence of the wrong emotions will make it harder to take appropriate action. The file you erase today out of anger and frustration will likely be the file you’ll want to work on tomorrow. It’s okay to be angry (in solitude); it’s not okay to be stupid.

I’d love to hear YOUR stories about critiques — the good ones, and the not-so-good.  What are your best and worst experiences with critiques and critique groups?

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Critiques Are A Writer’s Gold

It will come as a profound shock to many beginning novelists to learn that what they’ve written, perhaps even slaved over, is pretty much crap. Dross. Bison snot. Burnt toast bad. I’m not saying that to be mean, rather it’s meant to supply a realistic jolt. You’re going to make mistakes, because you don’t know any better. That’s not a smear or a put-down. It’s merely how things are. You don’t get a participation ribbon simply for putting words on pages. They have to be worth reading, too.

And how do you determine that? After all, your stuff looked pretty damned good  when you first wrote it, right? Mine certainly looked that way to me, and it hurt like hell when someone pointed out–with a great deal of red ink, deletions and aggrieved comments–that I’d missed the mark by the width of several zip codes, at least.

Once I quit moaning and groaning about how cruel and insensitive my reader was, I realized there might, just possibly, be something to what he said. But, rather than take my lumps, especially when I had anticipated taking a bow, I sent the same document, sans corrections, to another supposedly enlightened reader.

To my utter shock, it came back marked up in much the same fashion as the original. That is to say, with mark-outs, red lines, endless comments and one or two attaboys. I felt like mighty Casey as he schlumped back to the bench. I, too, had struck out.

It took a while to get over it. And during that time I maintained a very low profile among the gaggle of writers in my on-line critique group. I shut up long enough to start listening to what many were saying, and I discovered they’d all gone through pretty much the same tough innings. Those who stuck it out and kept working at the craft, learning from what the others observed about their work, and making appropriate changes, became better writers. Much better.

From time to time a few very well-known and oft-published authors would drop in for a virtual visit. They offered their own comments and shared much of what they had learned over the years. And, they acknowledged, they too had suffered some tough, tough feedback. To a man (and a couple women), they agreed that no-nonsense critiques made a profound difference in their work. Wishy-washy, oh-so-lovely ego-stroking did nothing for their work. If anything, it would have prevented real improvement.

This rigorous process taught me as much about writing critiques as it did about writing in general. And that is why it’s one of the tools I use in most of my writing classes. It’s not enough to know that something isn’t working. If you’re writing a critique, you also need to supply a reason. You’re entitled to be wrong from time to time. Everyone is. But you’ve got to make the effort.

Why should you invest so much time in the work of others, many of whom write at a level above or below your own? Because of what you’ll learn in the process. All too often we’re blind to our own mistakes. Our excesses level themselves out in our minds. Everything flows smoothly; our words are pearls on a field of velvet. It’s only when someone notices that our words are more like BBs on corduroy, or bowling balls on railroad tracks, that we see something amiss.

If you’re currently in a writer’s group, take a serious look at the feedback given. If it’s more concerned with a person’s feelings than their ability to express themselves, you’re in the wrong group. You want people who will tell you the truth about your work and what they think of it. Anything less is useless.

Honest doesn’t mean unkind. Critiques ought to be civil and constructive. There are ways to point out the flaws in someone’s work without going into attack mode. The goal is to judge the work, not the worker.

In the next installment we’ll take a closer look at what ought to go in a critique, with an occasional sample of what shouldn’t.

–Josh

Last minute update: Here’s a short video of me recorded by the Kennesaw State University /Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Their publicity staff is excellent!. They asked me to talk about writing. And, they asked me to keep it short. I tried, but if you know me, you know it wasn’t easy!

See for yourself: https://www.facebook.com/KSUOLLI/videos/1396902097052277/

 

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