Monthly Archives: March 2016

Guest Blog: Gre7g Luterman on Self-Publishing

Disclaimer: This article is not meant to be a guide to self-publishing, and it certainly is not meant to be a guide to making money with your self-published book. I’m writing this article mostly with an eye towards capturing the steps that I took when self-publishing my book Skeleton Crew so that next time I won’t have to do as much experimenting and can, I hope, hopefully steer clear of the potholes on this road. There may be far better strategies out there. Please don’t accept this as canon.

Before you start writing your Great American Novel™, select your editing software and learn it completely. I can’t stress this enough. If done correctly, you can encode a lot more information than just text into your document. Here are some examples:

• Paragraph style information lets you keep your font, tabs, and spacing in a single place. Suppose you decide to use Garamond Normal instead of Times New Roman for your body text, 11 point instead of 10, or a 0.4-inch indent instead of 0.5 inch. If you use styles, you can change the style specification instead of restyling the text throughout the entire document. This changes a three-hour task into a ten-second one.
• Paragraph style can work with page style information to make sure chapters start on odd pages (without having to manually change page breaks each time you edit) and have consistent vertical spacing from the top of page. You can also make sure that the first paragraph of a chapter is not indented, while the others are.
• Character style information lets you change the representation of a character’s thoughts from italics to bold-italics in just a couple clicks without having to search through your entire document. This is great, because inevitably, you will miss one and leave your book with inconsistent styling.
• Character style information can also be used to tell the editor not to spell-check dialogue that is intentionally incorrect. Suppose you have a character from the bayou, and all his spelling errors are filling your screen with red squigglies. Don’t add his slang to your dictionary! Mark his dialogue with a bayou character style that has no spell-check. If a character speaks another language, you can tell your editor what language rule-set to use for those sentences too.
• Each time a document is moved between tools, some or all of this meta-information will be lost and must be added back in manually. So choose wisely the first time, and save yourself some pain.

Some editors/formats to consider:

• MicroSoft Word – Word is the granddaddy of PC document editing. It is expensive, bloated with features you won’t need, aggravatingly quirky, and — starting with the 2010 version — so many important features have been hidden inside a dumbed-down interface that you’ll spend more time Googling for “Microsoft Word how to …” than actually formatting documents. I hate Word, but it is completely capable of formatting a book — if you can figure out how.
• LibreOffice – I love LibreOffice. It’s powerful and free. It works as expected, and I was able to learn it quickly. Your mileage may vary, but I think LibreOffice rocks.
• LaTeX – I’m very tempted to try LaTeX. It’s free and very powerful, but people say that it has a very steep learning curve.
• Google Documents – I love Google Docs. It’s free and an easy way to share documents between authors, reviewers, and editors. But for all its awesomeness, it is a little light on power. I don’t think you can create custom styles, so if you care how your book looks, eventually you will need to use some other tool. I write in LibreOffice and copy chapters into Google Docs to share with my editor. I have to manually enter all my changes back into my LibreOffice document, which sucks, but I don’t know a better way. I’m not fond of e-mailing my .odf around and having people add suggestions to it. Bleah. Unless I stopped editing while waiting for comments to come back, I don’t know how I’d resync everything.
• Scrivener – This is a neat, inexpensive, and innovative tool. I tried this out a couple years back and was moderately impressed. I can see how this would be a very inspirational tool. However, it was very light on power and did not have styles. Perhaps they have fixed this by now? I doubt it will be powerful enough to format a book, regardless, so expect to have to migrate to a new tool if you select Scrivener.
• Flare – I’m told that Flare is the Cadillac of page layout software. A buddy of mine uses this at work, but at fifteen hundred for a license, it’s way beyond my budget. Unless you, like my buddy, can use your work license at night to write, you’ll need to be rich or really professional to justify this one.

As stated, I use LibreOffice. When you start writing in LO, don’t get hung up on fonts and sizes. You can change all of that later. The important thing is to create the basic styles you will need and stick to them consistently as you create your text. Don’t worry about all the material at the beginning/end of the book for now, but here are some styles I use:

• Heading 1 (chapter heading)
• Part & ChapterUnderPart (styles for lines like “Part II” and “Chapter 13” — unnecessary if you only use chapters)
• Text Body (most body paragraphs)
• SceneDivider (to center the scene divider graphic)
• Unindented (first paragraph under a chapter heading or scene divider)
• InternalDialogue (character style for thoughts)
• Emphasis (bolded words character style)
• ChapterPage (page style)
• LeftPage (page style)
• RightPage (page style)
• Slang (character style without spellcheck)

I set the fonts and sizes to whatever looks nice. I don’t get hung up on them. But I’m careful to link them together:

• Heading 1 and Part start on a new RightPage
• Part is followed by ChapterUnderPart
• Heading 1 and ChapterUnderPart are followed by Unindented
• Unindented is followed by Text Body
• ChapterPage is followed by LeftPage
• LeftPage is followed by RightPage
• RightPage is followed by LeftPage

Then I can just type, and the editor will automatically change styles when I click enter.

The first 90 percent of the work is to go write that first draft. Find reviewers who you trust, and run the chapters by them as you go via Google Docs so they can easily toss up comments without having to remember everything and e-mail it back to you. Good reviewers are invaluable, so treat them right!

If you can’t find a fan who happens to be a good reviewer, try to find a writer buddy who can review your stuff in exchange for reviewing theirs. An ideal reviewer buddy:

• Produces at about the same rate as you (it’s going to stink if you have to review ten of his or her chapters just to get a review on one of yours).
• Will give you honest opinions without worrying about your feelings (“It’s great” is the most useless review you can get).
• Is at roughly the same skill/professional level as you (J.K. Rowling doesn’t need your comments, and you probably don’t have time to review fanfic that uses “U” and “UR” as words).
• Writes in a genre you like and vice-versa (I’m not going to read dreary poetry just to get comments on my scifi).

Once the draft is done, the next 90 percent of the work is editing it. I wish I were exaggerating. It takes me about as much time to edit a book as it does to write it. Also, I strongly recommend hiring a professional for the task. You may have a buddy who is great at grammar, but that doesn’t make him an editor.

A great editor can do more than tell you that this sentence is crappy or that you changed to present tense; he or she can tell you if a character’s motivation is weak or if there is not enough variety in a character’s daily activities. Does your first chapter grab readers, or will they put your book down before you get to the good stuff?

At some point around here, you’ll probably want to completely rewrite Chapter One, and you may even need to change at what point in the tale you start telling the story. That chapter really needs to pop. Don’t fall in love with the one from your first draft. If you ended up explaining almost anything in chapter one, then you probably did it wrong, and it needs to be redone.

Sorry.

Next up, you should write your blurb. Don’t put this off until you are formatting the book for printing. Do it while you’re in the writing and editing mood. Again, if you’re explaining anything in your blurb, you’re doing it wrong.

“The Lion King is the tale of a young lion who is forced to leave his pride . . .”

Wrong. That’s an elevator pitch, not a blurb.

“‘Now this looks familiar,’ Scar chuckled as he drove his claws into Simba’s paws. Simba cried out in pain but barely managed to keep his grip on the edge of the cliff. ‘This reminds me of when I killed Mufasa.’”

Right. Start your blurb with the most exciting moment in your book, and add only enough explanation to make the reader wonder how it turns out. And while you’re at it, write an “about the author” piece, too. That’s easy, and you’ll need it eventually.

Now that you’ve got the big pieces, you need to decide what formats you want to publish in. Three great options include the following:

• Physical copies printed by an on-demand publisher like CreateSpace
• Mobile version like on Kindle (Nook is basically dead about now)
• DRM-free PDFs that you can sell via your website.

Very few people buy physical copies these days, but if you sell your writing at a convention, you’ll want to be able to buy a bunch to bring with you. And who doesn’t want a copy to commemorate such a huge achievement? Kindle versions are basically the best sellers today, and if you can get anyone to PayPal you money, then selling a PDF is essentially pure profit for the effort of sending an e-mail.

I won’t walk you through using CreateSpace’s website. It is really pretty simple. I’d go with the 5- x 8-inch paperback. It’s a tad larger than I’d like (a traditional paperback is more like 4.5- x 7-inch), but that’s the best option they have for now.

The hard parts are designing the cover and creating the PDF to upload. CreateSpace does have a cover creator tool. I haven’t used it, but I recommend that if you do, hire someone to help. It’s hoped you know someone who has some graphic design skills. Just because you can pick your images, fonts, colors, and text doesn’t mean you should. Graphic designers have a knack for this, and it will be worth the money you spend.

Be sure to leave some space on the back cover for the barcode, or CreateSpace could end up covering up something you feel is important. They don’t let you control where the barcode goes. They just pick the spot that looks most logical.

If you have someone design the cover image, use a resolution of 200 – 300 DPI, calculate the book thickness based on your page count, and add the bleeds that the CreateSpace website recommends. Do not trust graphic designers to do this right, as most of them (sorry for the generalization) suck at math. Create a template for them. Check it along the way and as well as when they are finished to ensure it comes out right. The front cover will be on the right side of the image, the back cover will be on the left, and the spine will be in the middle.

Creating the PDF will not take another 90 percent of your time; it will just feel as if it has. Here are some specifics that I used for my 5- x 8-inch physical copy:

• 5- x 8-inch page, 0.2-inch header and footer
• Heading 1: Centered 14-point Maiandra GD, 2.1-inch above, 0.2-inch below
• Part: Centered 16- point Maiandra GD, 2.1-inch above, 0-inch below
• ChapterUnderPart: Centered 14-point Maiandra GD, 0-inch above, 0.2-inch below
• Text Body: 11.5-point Garamond Normal, 0.2-inch indent
• Author’s name centered at top of left pages in 9-point Maiandra GD
• Book name centered at top of right pages in 9-point Maiandra GD
• Page numbers in 9-point Maiandra GD left and right justified on left and right pages, respectively
• SceneDivider: centered
• Unindented: based on Text Body but without the 0.2-inch indent
• InternalDialogue: bold italics
• Emphasis: bold italics
• ChapterPage: No header, no footer, inherits from RightPage
• LeftPage: margins 0.35-inch, 0.85-inch, 0.35-inch, 0.35-inch
• RightPage: margins 0.85-inch, 0.35-inch, 0.35-inch, 0.35-inch

An image for a scene separator is not necessary. You could use “* * *” or “# # #” if you like, but I prefer a horizontal line, a “§,” and another horizontal line. You can fashion this sort of thing out of a table, but it won’t convert into a Kindle document, so create an image for it.

If you have large images you plan to include (such as a map of the world), don’t add them until the end. Keep the document as image-free as you can until then. When you are ready to add your images, make sure they are at least 200 DPI, and try to insert them as a character. If you must flow text around the image or use full-page images, you should consider paying a professional to handle this for you. Both of these situations are a major pain and are easily messed up. If you do it yourself, recheck the images after each time you generate a PDF.

Export the image as a PDF with PDF/A-1a selected and export automatically inserted blank pages. Due to a bug in the current version of LO, full-page images that immediately follow an automatically inserted blank page can get duplicated. If this happens, you may have to insert some manual page breaks. Bleah. If you insert manual page breaks, be sure to check them each time you create a PDF.

One major problem with sending a PDF to CreateSpace is that the “black” generated by desktop applications like Word and LibreOffice may not be the “pure black” expected by their on-demand publishing code. I have received a proof copy where the text was not black, it was only dark grey (imagine a 95-percent halftone).

Sadly, I haven’t been able to find a free way to fix this problem, but I do have one that won’t break the bank. If you go to Adobe’s website, you can license the use of Acrobat Pro DC for 27 dollars a month. That should give you plenty of time to iterate over a few proof copies and make sure it is going to come out right.

Load the PDF created by LO and use the color adjuster tool on the entire document’s text to +20% dot gain. That should fix the dark grey text and make it black. Upload this PDF, and review again. Buy a proof copy, and check it closely!

If you want to sell a PDF version on your website, add the front and back cover images to the PDF at this time, and generate a new PDF file. Anchor the images to the page, and set the image dimensions to 5-inch x 8-inch. Make sure your cover images have that precise ratio, or you will be changing their aspect ratio — and that looks bad.

For the Kindle version, I saved the document under another name and modified the chapter styles so that they all used the HTML page style. Make sure the entire document uses the HTML page style, and merge up all header stuff (title, dedication, special thanks, etc.) onto a single page. On this header material, I used a single blank line to add space between items and two blank lines between types of content. Settings like space above and space after will be lost when you convert to an epub.

I also had to tweak some of my chapter headings, as epub files really want each chapter to start with the chapter name and for them to have all the same style (i.e. Header 1 and not Part + ChapterAfterPart). When the content looked okay, I changed the HTML page style to be 11-inch x 99-inch to make sure each chapter fit on a page. The plug-in I use likes to break up files based on page breaks, and that looks bad in a Kindle book.

Next, I exported the document to .epub format with the free Writer to Pub plug-in I installed in LibreOffice. Then I used the free Kindle Previewer to convert .epub to .mobi and view the results. I iterated again until I was content with the look.

The Kindle store will accept files in a few different formats. Use the .mobi file generated by the Kindle previewer for best results. I have no idea why the conversion process would be any different, but it is.

The rest of the Kindle submission process was pretty easy.

Congratulations, you’re now self-published. Go out and peddle that book!

Handy links:

https://www.libreoffice.org/download/libreoffice-fresh/
http://writer2epub.it/en/
https://acrobat.adobe.com/us/en/pricing/pricing.html
http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?docId=1000765261
http://gre7g.com/sc

Visit Gre7g at gre7g.com.

What Bad Movies Can Teach You About Writing: Part Three

riddick2In my last two posts, I talked about how terrible movies can teach you much about how not to write. This week, I’ll wrap up this three-parter with an analysis of the character of Riddick (the always-wooden Vin Diesel) in the fourth movie of the Riddick series, released in 2013 and named simply Riddick.

First, a synopsis of this epic tale. In the previous Riddick film, Riddick had been heading for his home planet, Furya, with an escort provided by his nemesis, Vaako. Naturally, this was a ruse to kill Riddick on an unknown planet; of course, the escort doesn’t double-tap, so this installment thus opens with Riddick waking up after having been left for dead.

Riddick gets himself together and ekes out an existence for an unspecified amount of time before discovering a mercenary station. He sets off a beacon, bringing two competing ships full of bounty hunters to catch him. Naturally, Riddick kills all but a few, all the while fighting escapees from the Tremors series. Of course, in the end, he escapes the planet with the help of the three surviving bounty hunters, including a lesbian mercenary (Dahl, played by the fabulous Katee Sackhoff) whom he manages to turn straight (at least briefly) with his manly charms.

He just keeps going and going and going.

He just keeps going and going and going.

Now what’s going on with our hero in this movie? The writers have presented us with a seemingly tough-as-nails antihero who’s immune to all pain. You can stab him, tranquilize him, poison him, and leave him for dead, but like the Energizer Bunny, he just keeps going.

Riddick appears to have no heart; after all, doesn’t he kill almost all the bounty hunters while betraying no emotion? Oh, no, Riddick does have a heart, see, because he saves a dingo puppy, which then becomes his best friend. And when the vile Santana (a bounty hunter) kills that dog, well, all bets are off. Santana just pissed off the wrong guy!

Additionally, you wouldn’t expect a guy like this to live by any conventional moral code, but that doesn’t mean he’s amoral. Of course not! For he rescues Dahl when she is attacked by Santana (because a damsel can’t save herself); later, Riddick reveals that he previously killed the son of one of the bounty hunters to save a child. So he he does have a code – it’s just of his own devising.

Yes, Riddick is one manly man. Throughout the movie, he overcomes all odds, but, the writers hope we’ll surmise, what is he really fighting for? Sure, he wants to go home, but what is there for him on his home planet? He’s driven only be nostalgia for his mostly depopulated homeworld, as well as revenge against Vaako. Ah, such an empty, ultimately pointless life! (This, of course, is left unresolved so that the filmmakers can inflict yet another Riddick movie on the public.)

Variations exist on this theme: the bad girl with a heart of gold (Pretty Woman); beware the good man who goes to war (Braveheart); and, my absolute favorite awful theme, the bad guy who just needs the love of a good woman (Beauty and the Beast).

What lovely eyes you have.

What lovely eyes you have.

Now, what can you learn about what not to do in fiction from this movie? Just about everything. The movie is riddled with character clichés. Riddick himself is a walking caricature: from carrying secret emotional pain disguised by a brutish exterior to his preternatural ability to escape death. This is just silly and unbelievable. With a few notable exceptions, such as the historical “mad monk” Rasputin, no one is actually this slippery. Yes, this is a movie, and we can suspend some disbelief, but readers of modern fiction are simply too sophisticated for this (unless your character actually has preternatural abilities, but even Superman had his Kryptonite).

It is possible to create an antihero with depth – for example, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) in The Walking Dead. The key, which the writers of Riddick seem to have dropped down the Port-A-Potty, is to make your antihero a thoroughly complex character, with good and bad points and internal conflict more pronounced than an immunity to all pain but his emotional pain. Resorting to the “emotional pain” trope or the unkillable superman may be easy, but it isn’t believable – and it doesn’t make for a story that stands the test of time.

What Bad Movies Can Teach You About Writing: Part Two

As I wrote in my last post, bad movies can teach you a lot about how not to write. This week, we’ll look at one of the most awful movies of all time – The Evil Dead. Long before the Syfy channel cashed in on the “movies that are so bad they’re good” genre, film buffs were enjoying this 1981 cult classic from Sam Raimi.

Just in case you actually don’t know the plot of this wretched bit of cinema, it unfolds like so: A group of college friends, intending to spend a weekend relaxing in a cabin in the woods, discover a strange book in the cabin’s cellar. They then play back a tape recording on which the previous tenant muses on the book. It’s through this recording that the group discovers that the book is bound in human skin and written in human blood.

Strangely, this is not enough to make them flee; instead, they continue listening to the tape. The voice on the recording pronounces incantations from the book, then reports that this has raised the demons mentioned in the book. These demons have possessed his wife, whom he must now dismember. Naturally, this recording raises the same demons, who possess several of the group; the possessed then do away with all but one of the group (the ever-entertaining Bruce Campbell, playing Ash).

Quite apart from its entertainment value (which, if you have not seen it, you really must), The Evil Dead can teach writers much about giving characters consistent and believable motivation for their actions. Examples of poor decision-making abound in this film, but I’ll give you three.

  1. The tape recording drives Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) to hysteria. Then, when a storm drives a tree through the cabin window, she begins to hear strange voices in the woods. Naturally, as anyone would, she goes outside alone and unarmed, calling out, “Who’s there?” Then, clad in a nightgown and slippers, she begins to wander in the woods. Why this action has no rational motivation: Do I even need to explain it? No reasonable person would wander around in the woods at night, alone, unarmed, and in slippers, especially after hearing mysterious voices in those woods.
  2. As Cheryl wanders in the woods, the trees come to life and attack and rape her. When she escapes and returns to the cabin, once again hysterical and clearly having been attacked, the group pooh-poohs her story. Even more ridiculous, Ash must be convinced to drive Cheryl – who is actually his sister – into town to stay at a hotel (although this plan falls through). Why this action has no rational motivation: True, generally when someone claims to have been attacked by trees, the first impulse is to consider the person nuts – but Cheryl has clearly been attacked by something. This should have been reason enough for the group to abandon their vacation plans. But the incoherent motivation is compounded when Ash is reluctant to drive his own sister into town – if not because she is hysterical, then for medical attention.
  3. When Ash does attempt to drive Cheryl into town, they discover that the bridge connecting their part of the woods with town has been destroyed. Ash thus return with Cheryl to the cabin, where the other two women, Linda (Ash’s girlfriend, played by Betsy Baker) and Shelly (Sarah York) have a great time playing psychic games with cards. Why this action has no rational motivation: No one is troubled by the destruction of their route back to civilization, especially when they have obvious evidence that at the very least, wild animals lurk outside. This bizarre reaction is aggravated by the smashed cabin window, which provides easy entry for those wild animals. What’s more, why are the other two women settling down to an enjoyable game of cards, instead of comforting their companion, who has been attacked?

Almost none of the characters’ behavior in The Evil Dead is rooted in believable motivations. The characters’ failure to take a single reasonable action throughout this film is so egregious that it will cure even the most inobservant writer of the habit of forgetting to consider motivation when crafting a story.

So if you’ve never watched it, do so. Not only is the movie fun for playing Mystery Science Theater 3000, it’s a valuable lesson in what not to do in your fiction.