Rewriting History

Getting the details right in a historical novel is always a struggle. There will always be loose threads that can’t be tucked in. But when you know a detail perfectly well and choose to ignore it, what are readers to think?

This month the book group at the local Unitarian Church is reading The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, so I took it out for a spin. It’s set in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early years of the 19th century, and it’s specifically about the evils of slavery. Personally, I prefer not to read a novel in which all of the important characters are either evil or in misery, and in which we know from the very start that there can’t possibly be a happy ending. I’d rather read a book that entertains while it inspires. But that’s just me. Others doubtless feel this novel is important and worth reading.

What disturbs me about it, from a critical perspective, is that Kidd seems quite deliberately to have avoided using the word “nigger.” I haven’t read the whole book, and I don’t plan to, but after 30 pages I did jump ahead to check later chapters. Nope. I couldn’t find the word anywhere.

This is plain cowardice. There’s no way around it. Kidd should be ashamed of herself. If you’re going to write a historical novel, you have an obligation to get it right whenever it’s practical to do so. Not only that, but the word (which was in very common use at the time) has everything to do with the theme of Kidd’s book.

Some racial epithets, such as “darkies,” I think we can safely live without. Kidd’s story is grim enough without those terms. But an author shouldn’t be too eager to (cough-cough) whitewash history.

Possibly the publishers (Viking Penguin) demanded that she get rid of the n-word. Writers sometimes face a difficult choice: Do you please the publisher by being dishonest and damaging your work, or do you destroy your career by standing up for what you know is right?

I hope it was the publisher’s dictate. And I hope she fought them tooth and nail.

Coitus Interruptus

There are so many ways to go wrong when writing a novel! One of the nastier ways to fail, I think, is to make an implicit promise to the reader and then not fulfill the promise. When the promise arises out of the emotional core of the story, the failure is all the more galling.

I’ve just finished reading Pompeii, by Robert Harris. It’s meticulously researched, beautifully written, and very suspenseful. And on the very last page, Harris fails. He pulls out without finishing what he started.

I’m pissed off.

The hero of the story is a young engineer named Attilius, who has rather unexpectedly found himself assigned to duty as the master of the aqueduct that supplies water to the towns around the Bay of Naples — Misenum, Puteoli, Naples itself, and of course Herculaneum and Pompeii. The flow of water from the aqueduct has suddenly slowed to a trickle, and it smells of sulfur. So he sets off around the flank of Vesuvius to find the problem and fix it.

You and I know what’s going to happen in less than 24 hours, but none of the characters in the story know. That’s a big part of the suspense.

And of course he meets a young woman and is attracted to her, and when the mountain blows up she’s trapped in Pompeii and he has to brave the falling pumice and clouds of incandescent gas to rescue her. You knew that was going to happen. It’s not a surprise, but Harris handles it deftly.

Along the way, we meet a couple of people and are present at a couple of incidents that are historically accurate. Pliny the Elder, who at the time was the admiral of the Roman fleet at Misenum, ventured out with a ship to try to rescue people, and died on the beach at Stabiae. That’s in the novel. Not historically documented but flawlessly accurate with respect to Roman culture is a subplot in which the young woman’s father, a rich former slave who is pretty much the boss of Pompeii, tries to bribe Attilius, fails, and decides to have him killed instead. The assassin stalks him to the peak of Vesuvius, right into the crater, and Attilius escapes only a couple of hours before Vesuvius blows its top.

Brilliant stuff, right? But here’s where it all goes south. Attilius has arrived at Stabiae with Pliny, and decides he’d rather die trying to rescue Corelia from Pompeii than live without her. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. He barely knows her, but he told her to go back to Pompeii and obey her father without knowing the whole town was about to be buried under 20 feet of pumice. So he sort of has a moral obligation.

Rocks and ash are falling from the air. He makes it to Pompeii. He finds the girl. Survivors of the first phase of the eruption are wandering around in a daze. The girl’s father and his slaves start chasing the couple, plainly intending to kill Attilius. Attilius sees an incandescent cloud of gas rolling down the slope of Vesuvius toward the town. He and the girl run and climb into the roofed-over reservoir into which the aqueduct flows. We have seen this structure earlier in the story, so we know what’s going on. Attilius has in fact narrowly escaped being drowned in an underground portion of the aqueduct in an earlier scene, after he and his workmen went down into it through a manhole to make repairs.

A cloud of incandescent gas will roast your lungs in a flash — but if you’re in a tunnel that’s mostly full of water, you might have some chance of survival.

Are you with me so far? It’s a genuine happy ending, straight out of Hollywood. Everybody else dies, but against the greatest possible odds, in one of the most awful disasters in history, boy saves girl. Or … well, let’s find out. As we reach the very last page, we get this:

People who had fled from their homes on the eastern slopes of the mountain began to make a cautious return before nightfall, and many were the stories and rumors that circulated in the days that followed … [omitting some stories and rumors here] … Most persistent of all was the legend of a man and a woman who had emerged out of the earth itself at dusk on the day the eruption ended. They had tunneled underground like moles, it was said, for several miles, all the way from Pompeii, and had come up where the ground was clear, drenched in the life-giving waters of a subterranean river, which had given them its sacred protection. They were reported to have been seen walking together in the direction of the coast….

And that’s it. After that oblique description, the curtain falls. We don’t get to see them struggle along the underground aqueduct for miles in the dark. We don’t get to see their joy when they find a manhole cover that’s not weighed down with half a ton of pumice. We don’t get to see them smile at one another as he helps her up out of the aqueduct. We don’t get to see them holding hands as they stroll downhill toward the bay.

This is the sound of Robert Harris failing. He just had to be fucking coy about it. Satisfying the reader by actually showing the happy ending — maybe he skipped that lecture in the graduate-level course on creative writing. Or maybe some halfwit college professor convinced him that showing a happy ending would be cheap, that ambiguity is somehow a nobler goal toward which the author of great literature ought to strive. Or maybe his typewriter ribbon was running out of ink. Who knows?

If you want a gruesome lesson in how to destroy a terrific novel in a single page, buy this book and read it.

Missed Connections

Having concluded, however reluctantly, that I’m Not A Total Genius ™, I’m looking into hiring a freelance editor to do a developmental pass on my four-volume fantasy epic. One wants an editor with relevant experience. One expects to pay good money for the service.

The Editorial Freelancers Association has a nice search engine with which you can find members who specialize in developmental editing of fiction. The output is in random order, so members whose names begin with ‘A’ are not given preferential exposure.

Today I’m weeding through the list. I’ve queried a couple of editors, but that’s not what I wanted to mention. Along the way I took a look at an editor named Kelley Frodel, who provides a couple of excerpts to show off her editing chops. If you scroll down past the copy-edit example, you’ll find a “heavy line edit with substantive feedback.” This is the opening passage of a self-published fantasy novel.

Here’s why I won’t be querying Kelley Frodel: She missed the big picture.

In this action opening, the protagonist, Nickolas, is flying (with wings) across the midnight sky. Okay, that’s a lovely opening dramatic hook — no problem. But that’s just the first sentence in the first paragraph. During the remainder of the paragraph, rather than giving us a clear picture of what it’s like to fly across the midnight sky, the author introduces no less than six items of information, all of them apparently related to the end scene of the previous volume of the saga. Six items of information — six, count ’em, six — while the hero is flying across the sky, and only two mentions of wings, one mention of moonlight, and one mention of cold air. No mention of clouds or stars, no mention of the land below, no mention of straining muscles. (I’m assuming the wings are attached to his arms, though that’s not mentioned either.) The trend continues in the next couple of paragraphs.

Here’s Frodel’s comment in the margin: “In order to reorient the reader into [sic] the story, adding some extra details about people and places, reacquainting them [sic] in the reader’s mind, could help them to remember the first book better and make the transition into the second book smoother. So sprinkling brief descriptions like this throughout the opening chapter will help remind the reader what just happened in the last book.”

To which my response is, “No, no, no, no, no! Do not do this!”

Amateur writers are often instructed that the dreaded “info-dump” is a Bad Thing. In order to avoid writing a paragraph or two of exposition in order to give the reader the big picture, they will labor to shoehorn the important bits into the middle of an action sequence. This, however, is a mistake. What it does is, it destroys the immediacy and concrete impact of the action, while simultaneously forcing the reader to keep track of two things at once — the present action and also a variety of other stuff. And of necessity, the other stuff is not organized in a coherent way; it’s just jammed in.

I have seen this problem over and over again, in one form or another, in self-published novels. And here we have a self-styled (and presumably paid) professional editor advising her client to do more of it.

God bless the info-dump. What the world of fiction needs are MORE info-dumps. Put all of the relevant information into a single paragraph or a sequence of paragraphs. Articulate the points of connection among the items of information — don’t just blast them at us higgledy-piggledy. And above all, get the information out of the action scene! Put it after the action scene (if the action scene is your novel opener) or before the action scene. But do not mix meat and milk on the same dish, damn it.

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate

As foreshadowed in yesterday’s blog entry, I have now identified a couple of small presses that seem legit, and sent them both queries for my YA fantasy series. I’m not going to say which ones I chose, because I’m about to be less than flattering.

One of the bits of advice I read this week was, when evaluating a small press, buy and read a couple of their books. This will tell you if their editors are competent, for one thing. It may also give you a hint about the sorts of things they like to publish.

So I did. The Kindle app is super for chores like this: Click, click, put a couple of bucks on my credit card, and I can start reading.

In the first novel I opened up, the copy-editing is mostly good. The story — well, let’s say I would have wanted to tinker fairly extensively with the concept to beef it up before I even started writing a rough draft. Writers of speculative fiction sometimes fall into the trap of making their made-up worlds too simple. Legions of creatures that are entirely evil and devoted to causing suffering, that type of thing.

Oops — that describes Tolkien’s orcs, doesn’t it? Well, you get the idea.

At the level of sentences and paragraphs, this small press author’s writing just wasn’t taut. Ideas jumped around like beans in a skillet. Excess words could have been deleted to smooth the flow. And in the opening incident, there was a piece of blocking — the theater director’s term for where the characters go on the stage — that made not a lick of sense. It was not remotely plausible. The author inserted a character into a scene in order to be able to include a certain conversation, when the character could not plausibly have been there.

Oh, dear. Let’s set this novel aside for now and look at the other one.

In the other one, I screeched to a halt before I even got to Chapter 1. The drop-cap at the beginning of the epigraph is screwed up. Let’s scroll down. Yes, the drop-caps that start all of the chapters are screwed up. And this is not a newly uploaded file: The copyright date on the book is a couple of years ago. Somehow this publisher, who seems to be one of the standouts, has for two years failed to upload a corrected file. I can think of several reasons for this, none of them entirely innocent. Maybe the entire publishing company uses Macs, and they never thought to check the file on a Windows Kindle app. Any other explanation would, I think, be worse than that.

Before I slink quietly away into the night, I’ll bet you want to know about the title of this blog entry. It’s a quote from Dante. It’s the inscription he describes as carved over the gates of Hell. In English, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Amazon and the Death of the LP

The book cover problem is driving me crazy. The rest of the self-publishing process I can do myself, but I’m not a competent visual artist, nor am I up to speed with the latest version of Photoshop. I wouldn’t mind learning Photoshop, but doing so wouldn’t make me a competent cover designer. And even if I were a competent designer, that wouldn’t solve the problem — not really.

Right now I have a fellow working on a set of covers for my four-volume series. He’s giving me a great deal because he’s just now trying to break into the cover design business. I like what he’s doing, but I’m starting to have second thoughts, and it’s taking a long time. We’re still floundering around discussing what objects to put on the cover of Book 3. A friend of mine, a professional designer, looked at the roughs and said, “They’re better than most self-designed covers, but they don’t look professional.” I’m afraid he’s right.

I found a great design team, Deranged Doctor Design, and exchanged a few emails with them. Their covers are high-impact and fully professional. But when I had articulated my desire for a non-traditional, non-generic cover, they punted. They suggested that I go hire an illustrator instead.

I’ve concluded that the elephant in the room is Amazon.

Amazon ebooks are the primary sales outlet for self-publishing novelists, so of course your book cover must look good on Amazon. If it doesn’t, you won’t attract readers. The thumbnail images of book covers on Amazon are one inch wide by 1-1/2 inches tall. That is the amount of space within which you must entice the prospective reader to take a closer look at your book.

This is why today’s book covers, specifically in the fantasy and science fiction area but I’m sure in other genres too, are designed the way they are. You just can’t shoehorn much information about the book into a space the size of a jumbo postage stamp. You got your Big Girl Face and maybe a lightning bolt, and you’re done.

My story (it’s a four-volume series that tells a single long story) is complex. There are about 20 viewpoint characters at one point or another! There are four evil wizards and two other villains (each of whom is the viewpoint character in at least one scene). There’s humor and tragedy. There are dragons, a ghost, an ogre, elves, railroad trains, burglaries, a talking statue, good wizards, a magical flying machine called an aerosphere, people getting killed, a magic wand that turns into a serpent, gods, traitors, healing spells, a woman who turns into a tree, three different girls (the primary characters) all of whom fall in love along the way, the girls’ strange boyfriends — and I’m supposed to convey the essence of this story on a postage stamp. Well, on four postage stamps, but still…

The advice sometimes given to authors who are about to hire a cover designer is exactly that: Boil your story down to its emotional core. That core, that essence, is what we’ll put on the cover.

Well, that list above IS the essence. Deal with it.

Another stock bit of advice is, “Go look at a bunch of book covers online, and tell us which ones you like.” I don’t like any of them. I mean, I like some of them graphically. They’re beautiful. But none of them is even remotely right for my books.

Once upon a time, children, there used to be record stores. You could go into a record store, paw through the bins, and find a record that looked interesting. The cover of an LP was 12 inches wide and 12 inches high. Some covers were simple and elegant, to be sure, but others were quite detailed. One thinks, for instance, of the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Staring at that complex collage and trying to figure out who was in the collage was a fun thing to do while you were stoned. Or so they tell me.

Then the CD came along. LPs died. A CD cover is 4-3/4 inches square — less than a fifth as much space for graphics as the cover of an LP. I haven’t done a systematic survey, but I’ll bet the graphics got simpler. Because how could they not?

Just for fun, you might want to take a look at the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s as it’s displayed on Amazon, at 1-1/2 inches square. You can’t even read the name of the album. (It’s on the drum head.) If this were a new product whose cover was being designed today, that cover design would be a 100% failure. No competent designer would produce anything like it.

I want a 12″ book cover, damn it. I need a 12″ book cover!

I didn’t put it to Deranged Doctor Design in quite that way. What I said was, “How do you convey complexity in a simple image? You’re the experts — you tell me.” That was when they said they didn’t want the job. And I can understand why. They perceived, correctly, that I was going to be hard to please. Trying to do my covers would not be cost-effective for them as professionals; it would take too much time.

What’s the solution? I have no idea. Maybe I should have the Deranged Doctors do a set of generic high-impact wonderful-looking covers that completely misrepresent what’s in the books. That feels dishonest, and I wouldn’t be proud to wave the physical books around at a personal appearance — I’d find myself apologizing, over and over, for the preposterous, misleading, embarrassingly generic covers.

Maybe I’d be happy with a book cover that’s an animated collage. But the technology isn’t quite there yet. There are animated .gifs, but I doubt Amazon wants to display them in the postage-stamp size, and they wouldn’t do well as print covers. (Speaking of which, the Rolling Stones did once do an LP cover that included an image that shifted if you tilted the cover. That was in the ’60s.)

I hate this problem.

Yardstick? What Yardstick?

How do you measure success? If you’re a writer, or in fact an artist of any kind, this is a treacherous question.

Tonight I glanced at a blog post by Derek Murphy. Derek is a very bright guy and a tireless self-promoter. He designs book covers, he writes his own fiction, he builds websites. I’m sure he does lots of other stuff too. I wish I had his energy! But I’m not sure I agree with his view of success.

Let’s look at a few quotes from his essay.

“If you can’t understand why a book was successful, you’ll never come close to matching its sales.”

“If you covet an author’s success, you need to understand and mimic their book enough to please the same audience.”

“They [authors who “made a product based completely on their assumptions about an ill-defined audience that doesn’t really want it”] won’t be able to get any reviews or even give it away for free. Nobody will ‘get it.’ Much of this could have been solved with excellent cover design and some basic research and author platform set up: but some authors eschew all advice and do it the way they want to. Because they think they know best. If you’re making gut decisions for your book about what you like, you’re probably doing something wrong. You need to focus on what sells….”

“There’s a lot of room at the top: you can make a lot of money with your writing. But you need to learn the rules of the game first.”

The assumption Derek is making here, and what got my hackles up, is the idea that success is measured by how many books you sell. I’m sure a lot of people think of it that way — but it’s wrong.

He’s certainly right that a lot of aspiring writers don’t want to hear suggestions about how they could improve their writing, but that’s a different topic altogether.

I dislike the word “spiritual,” and never use it, so I’m going to grope for an alternative here. Success is measured, or at least defined, internally — not on a spreadsheet. It’s defined by the feeling that you’ve done your best. That you’ve lived up to and perhaps exceeded your own expectations for yourself. That you have been skillful at each and every point in the work you’ve just completed. That you have accomplished what you set out to accomplish. That you have reached or perhaps surpassed the goals that you set for yourself when you began.

Success is when you feel good about your work. When you look at your work and judge that it is good — that it does what you want it to do. Everything else is just dust in the wind.

The danger in focusing on sales figures as a measure of success is that it warps the creative process. If you’re trying, as you write or paint or sing, to sell your work to the greatest number of people, you will make bad decisions. You will harm yourself, and you will harm your readers, viewers, or listeners. You will deprive them, and deprive yourself, of an entire dimension of experience that would otherwise be available. If you’re writing or painting with an invisible audience looking over your shoulder and judging your work, you’re in big trouble.

Of course, most people need to earn a living one way or another, and a great many artists would like to make a living by selling their art. Having a day job is no fun at all, and having to work full-time or even part-time at some menial or demeaning job will wreak havoc with your creativity too! Nobody said living on this planet would be easy. (Actually, Ira Gershwin did say that: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.” But you can’t trust a songwriter.)

I keep coming back to something that Ram Dass said in one of his books. Quoting from memory here, “The only thing you can really contribute to the world is the quality of your own consciousness at any given moment.” If your consciousness is polluted, whether by the need for money or by the fear that your self-esteem will be crushed if not enough people admire you, then that pollution will surely show up in your creative work.

There’s a Zen story — I think it’s a Zen story, anyway, it sounds like one. The young painter goes to the master painter and says, “Please, master — tell me how to paint the perfect painting.” The master replies, “Oh, that’s easy. Just become perfect, and then paint naturally.”

Becoming perfect — well, that’s not going to happen. But getting better can and does happen. Getting better is something that happens inside of you. You can’t measure it, you can only feel it and know it. What’s more, you get to define for yourself what “better” means.

My wish for you is that you become better; that, as you continually get better, you continue to write as well as you can; and that you find, as you do so, an inner reward that deeply satisfies you.

When Magic Fails

When you have a 450,000-word epic waiting to be published, there are a lot of details to keep track of! For months now, a minor problem has been bugging me. My lead character, 17-year-old Kyura, has been taught a magic spell. It’s the only spell she knows. She can utter an incantation and wave her hand in a certain way, and thereby throw force at something. Like, knock it down without touching it. Useful spell.

She also has a potent magic amulet called the Leafstone Shield. One part of my brain said, “She can only throw force while wearing the Shield.” But when I skimmed through Book 4, there was a scene where she was clearly using the spell even though she wasn’t wearing the Shield. So my brain had short-circuited on that detail, right?

Wrong. There’s also a scene (in Book 3) where she’s locked in a cell in a dungeon and can’t get out until her friend slides the Shield to her under the door. I didn’t remember where the have-to-be-wearing-the-Shield scene was, so I shrugged it off. I mean, are you going to reread the whole story to find that one bit?

Last night, while writing an email to somebody describing the story, I remembered! Aha! So today I was able to tidy it up.

I like to get the details right. I’m kind of a maniac about it, actually. I don’t know if it’s any consolation, but Agatha Christie once remarked that after her mysteries were published she would usually get a letter from some reader or other pointing out a horrible logical flaw in her plot.

As Joe E. Lewis says at the end of Some Like It Hot, “Nobody’s perfect.”

The Fat Lady Has Not Yet Sung

In August and September I wrote a novel. I thought it was pretty good. I still think that. I also thought it was finished. I was dead wrong.

As I started to do the interior design of the novel in InDesign (yes, I’m planning to publish it in print as well as as an ebook), I started reading bits and pieces, and my subconscious started tickling me. Maybe there were a few little things I could polish or fluff up. Not the prose; my prose is okay; I mean details of the plot.

So I opened up the Scrivener file, started a new page of notes, and in no time at all I had listed ten things that the story needed, things that ought to be there but that just plain weren’t. Things like, get the villain onstage earlier! Build up the suspects rather than letting the reader focus too quickly on the real murderer! (It’s a mystery as well as a YA fantasy.) More magic!

After working my way through the first eight chapters (out of 30), I can already see it’s going to be a much better book. Here’s a quick example. In the I-thought-it-was-finished draft, I had this sentence: “The police returned, asked a few more questions, and went away again.” Be honest, now: Is that or is that not the lamest excuse for a sentence you have ever seen in a work of fiction?

The reason I wrote it that way, or at least the reason I convinced myself I could get away with it, is that the heroine is in kind of a daze or a blur owing to an extremely traumatic event — the murder, which the police are investigating. I didn’t see that the police were going to accomplish much in that scene, so I skated right past it.

That sentence has now blossomed into a 700-word scene. The police detective knows something, and the heroine is forced to tell him part of the truth she has been hiding, while carefully not telling him the most important thing. One of my notes when I started the rewrite was, “Make the police more active. They’re cardboard.” So there you are.

My new scene is still inconclusive, and may have no plot consequences further down the line. But that may not matter. This is a trick I learned once upon a time by outlining, chapter by chapter, an entire Perry Mason mystery. Erle Stanley Gardner was a dreadful writer — yet he sold more than 300 million books. What I discovered by outlining that book was that every single scene cranked up the tension in the plot. Some of the tension points were pointless; the tension was fake, because the events referred to in the scene had no later repercussions in the plot. But by golly, Gardner knew how to keep you turning the page.

The lesson here, if you’re a writer, is this: Don’t take any of those tempting shortcuts. Or rather, do go ahead and write a sentence like, “The police returned, asked a few more questions, and went away again,” if you feel so inclined, in order to get on with the story. But then go back and fix it!

I suspect most writers, even published authors, are a bit lazy. Filling in the details is hard work, because some of the details do have consequences elsewhere in the plot. A novel is read linearly, one sentence at a time, but in truth it’s a multidimensional machine, with gears grinding together at lots of different angles. Sometimes, to get the gears to mesh, you have to bang your head on the desktop for an hour or so.

But you do want your book to be amazing, don’t you? If, at the end of the day, your feeling is that you’ve written a pretty good book, be very suspicious. Set it aside for a couple of months and then go back through it. Better still, make a list of ten things that could improve it and then go back through it, wielding hammer and tongs. You’ll be glad you did — and so will your readers.

DIY: The Outer Limits

If you’ve written a book and are planning to publish it yourself, you’re well advised to get professional help. Hire an editor; hire a cover designer; for print books, hire an interior book designer; and by all means, hire someone to build you a good-looking website.

I’m hoping to bring out six or seven books during 2017, so I’m in a slightly different position. I kind of don’t want to shell out $10,000 for the privilege, since it’s not too likely I’ll ever see a return on that investment.

Plus, I have a basic level of technical competence in several areas. Having been a professional editor for many years, I have no hesitation in skipping the “hire an editor” step. Designing a book interior is not that difficult; after a few days with the free 7-day trial of Adobe InDesign, I’m confident that I can do the job, so tonight I purchased the one-year subscription to InDesign.

Cover design and website design, though — how far can I push the river? What are the outer limits?

I have been sternly advised by several people in a Facebook writers’ group where I hang out NOT to try to design my own covers. They have good reasons for urging caution! The skills used in writing are quite different from the skills used in graphic design. You can be a whiz at one and a complete dud at the other. In fact, that would be true of most of us.

On the other hand, my father was a professional artist and illustrator, and my mother was a talented amateur. Also, I have some previous experience with Photoshop. So I’m not a complete babe in the woods. I’ve hired someone to do a series of four covers for my four-volume fantasy epic, but I haven’t heard from him for a few days. I honestly don’t know what’s going on. And even when he sends me finished covers, I’ll still have two or three more books to do. Maybe if I hop in the car, drive down to Barnes & Noble, and spend a few hours taking detailed notes about how covers are designed, I can avoid embarrassing myself too badly.

I would never attempt to do an illustration, needless to say. I can draw stick figures if you let me use a ruler; beyond that, I’m hopeless. But many covers are produced using stock photos. Maybe I can produce adequate covers myself.

I’ve been talking to a guy about doing a website design for me, but he made the mistake of mentioning that he wants to use Divi. So I had a look at Divi. It’s a new system for designing WordPress sites. Costs $89 per year — and once you have the site, you don’t even have to keep up your subscription, unlike the Adobe stuff. So that $89 can be the total cost, if you don’t plan to upgrade your site on a regular basis. It really is a slick system, and the documentation is very good.

Hmm — should I pay the guy $1,000 to do a Divi-based site for me, or should I pay less than a tenth of that and do it myself?

Subsidiary questions have arisen about the design of book covers for specific genres. Those are marketing questions. I can certainly understand that a younger person who hopes to have a career as a writer may rightly be concerned about making effective marketing decisions. I’m not in that position. The more I go on, the more I see the process of making books — and, for that matter, websites — as an art. Art and business don’t mix well, except by accident.

I think I’m about to invest in Photoshop too. Of course I’m assigning myself a lot of work! But I’m a retired guy. I have plenty of time, and I’m not frightened of work.

I’ve already discovered one advantage of DIY book production. I wrote a fantasy novel this fall called Woven of Death and Starlight. I thought it was finished, ready to go. But as I started laying it out in InDesign, I started re-reading bits and pieces. The sensation began to creep up on me that, no, it’s not finished at all. What I did this fall was only the first draft. More needs to be done to make the story work.

If I hadn’t tried using InDesign, I might not have discovered that. It’s possible something similar might happen with cover design. In trying to discover the best possible focus, image, and tone for a cover, I might learn something about the story that would prod me to return to the writing stage.

This is called synergy. You don’t get synergy on an assembly line. A cover designer, no matter how professional, would be unlikely to nudge the writer into that sort of revelation. Hell, my fantasy epic is 450,000 words long. No cover designer is ever going to read the silly thing. I’m supposed to come up with ideas, which they will then execute. So really, I’m the cover designer already.

I take refuge in a reminder that I used to have on a 3×5 card that was thumb-tacked to the wall above my synthesizer and tape deck, back in the days when I had a reel-to-reel tape deck: “There are no rules for how to play with the toys.”

Fun with Drop Caps

I seem to have found the right way to do the interior design of my novels — a necessary precursor to print publication. After thrashing around for a couple of days, I downloaded the 7-day trial version of Adobe InDesign. It’s a complex program, and I’ve gotten more than a bit frustrated at least three times over the past couple of days trying to arm-wrestle it into compliance with my evil schemes. But it does the job, and very nicely. Learning how to use it takes a little time, that’s all.

I’m always a little reluctant to spend money, and Adobe magnifies my reluctance with their subscription-purchasing setup. InDesign is $20 per month for as long as I have it, or until I cancel. (And I don’t think I can cancel for the first year. That’s a discounted price if you subscribe for a year.) But that’s only $240 for the year. Buying interior design for half a dozen books at $350 each — no, InDesign is a bargain.

Fortunately, I have some vague background with page layout software. I never actually laid out a page in QuarkXpress, but during my years at Keyboard I spent many, many hours doing page proof corrections in Quark. I understand the basic concepts — things like tracking a paragraph in slightly to remove a line or tracking it out to add a line so that the chapter doesn’t end with a single line of type on a page by itself.

The keys to InDesign happiness seem to be Master Pages, paragraph styles, and character styles. Also the object inheritance model. These are not things most writers think about. When you’re writing a book, you just write. If you want your chapter heads to be bigger, you just select that line of text and make it bigger using the point size drop-down on the toolbar.

This is exactly the wrong way to work in InDesign. You can do it that way, but you’ll live to regret it. In a nutshell, the correct method is to define a paragraph style with the larger-than-normal type (and possibly centered or with no indent, and with extra space above and below). Then you use that paragraph style on all of your chapter heads. Having done this, if you later decide you want a different font for your chapter heads, or a larger point size, or flush left rather than centered, you only need to make the change in one place (in the paragraph style definition window) and it will propagate through your entire book. This not only saves lots of time, it reduces the chance that you’ll introduce errors (such as putting too much space below one chapter head, or getting the type too small on one).

Pretty much everything in InDesign benefits from this idea. You define your margins, for example, in your Master Pages. You can have multiple master pages and apply any of them as needed to any individual page in the book, but if your other master pages are derived from the primary master, they’ll all have the same margins. Change the primary master, and all of the pages that are based on its children will also change.

When it comes to running heads at the tops of pages, drop caps on the first lines of chapters, and various other niceties of design, InDesign does the job. Your word processor just won’t. Don’t even think about trying to design your book in Word or OpenOffice, that’s my advice.

One tricky bit of workflow was starting to trip me up, until I noticed it. I was making a few tweaks in the text of the novel directly in InDesign. If you assume you’re never going to go back, this is sensible enough — but I’m not sure InDesign is the best choice for ebook formatting. There’s a risk that some of my edits might appear in the print book but not the ebook! Like, oh, correcting a misspelling of the main character’s name, trivial stuff like that.

After realizing what I was starting to do, I took a step back. I copied the entire text out of InDesign and saved it as a .txt file. Then I did the same with the two most recent .rtf drafts (which were already not quite identical) and used a handy program called WinMerge to compare the two .txt files. WinMerge highlights all of the differences, making it quite a simple matter to reconcile the texts.

Moving forward, I’ll have to make a point of editing the .rtf draft whenever I tweak the text in InDesign. Going back and adjusting the Scrivener version, though — I don’t think I’ll bother. Scrivener is wonderful for writing, but when the book is complete it’s time to move on to other tools.

While working on the book design, I whipped out a ruler to check the margins of a couple of 5.25″ x 8″ paperbacks on my shelf. My margins were too narrow, and the type was too large. I reduced the type size by a point and boosted the leading a bit. Now the book looks more professional. Of course, that change meant that my chapter head master pages were now on the wrong pages. I’m still learning to do things in the right order. Next time, I’ll know to figure out the big picture first and then fill in the details.

I’m not going to bore you by listing all of the tweaky little things I’ve learned about InDesign in the past few days. Suffice it to say, I’m making progress slowly but surely, and soon I’m going to have some nice-looking books.