Paper

Now that Book 1 is available on Amazon as an ebook, I’m mentioning it to a few people. (Book 2 may be out as early as next week.) Today it developed that one of my cello students (or actually, her mother) doesn’t do ebooks. Could be a lifestyle thing, as they’re quite religious, but that’s none of my business. They want to wait for the paperback. So now I’m thinking, how quickly should I move to add print-on-demand to my lineup?

I was planning to wait for a few months. Maybe that’s a mistake.

The difficulty is how to get a good-looking interior design. Looking around online, I didn’t immediately spot any services that give the author detailed control over the design. For $450 or so, I can get a PDF that may or may not look the way I want it to look, and from their website’s description of their services, it’s really impossible to tell what the finished product will look like.

Or I can rent Adobe InDesign for $20 a month and do it myself. Formatting four or five books in one year for a total outlay of $240 sounds like a great idea, certainly better than a couple of thousand dollars for a four-book series — but a lot of fussy detail work will be involved.

Also, I’m not really a professional book designer. I can do margins and drop-caps and running heads. I know how to track paragraphs in and out to prevent widows and orphans. I know how to check the hyphenation. But if I want a nice stylish graphic for a chapter head, how will I avoid going astray?

I’d probably be willing to hire it done if I knew of a service that actually seemed responsive to an author’s needs. Frankly, a lot of self-publishing services seem to cater to authors who wouldn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. “We’ll do everything for you! No worries!” Yeah, well, what if I want to worry?

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Slow-and-Go

Congested freeway traffic is not really a lot like writing a novel, but the simile will serve. Sometimes you’re zipping along in high gear, and sometimes the process slows to a crawl or comes to a screeching halt. Sometimes you can see miles ahead to where four lanes are crawling up the grade, and other times you’re down in the thick of it, wondering whether you’re not moving because there’s a fatal accident up ahead.

Twice in the past couple of months I’ve had to take a few days off from writing, because I felt completely stuck. This was not due to writer’s block, at least not as I understand the term. It wasn’t an emotional problem (although it certainly caused frustration). It was a technical problem with the material. Like, where am I going with this? Something — and it’s always something specific — isn’t working. My unconscious mind has to chew on it for a few days before I can lurch forward again.

At the moment I’m sailing along, making good time. The Leafstone Shield, which is Book 1 of my four-volume epic, is now up on Amazon! Yay! Ebook only for now — paperback maybe toward the middle of next year. I’m impressed enough with myself not to offer Book 1 for free; it’s $3.99, and going to stay that way. To find it (hint, hint) all you have to do is spell my name right. Or spell the title right, that will work too.

Book 2, The Rainbow Tree, is ready to go. All I have to do is read through it once more to do a little spot-checking, and then turn it into a .mobi file. It should be out by the end of next week. I’m still doing rewrites on Book 3, The Heartsong Fountain, and I’ve been thinking, “Oh, it will be ready by January.” But the rewrites are going well. It may be out before Christmas too. Book 4 still needs some work; I don’t have a firm prediction on when it will be out, but March is a safe guess.

The marketing and promotion? Don’t ask. I haven’t started on that yet. I know I’ve sold two copies so far, because a couple of friends told me. Some nice reviews on the Amazon page would be good (hint, hint). Eventually I may upload for Nook and iBook; we’ll see.

The Amazon Look Inside is surprisingly fat. Possibly they compute its length as a percentage of the whole book, which is also rather chubby. If you want a slightly different preview, one that jumps forward to Chapters 10 and 11 so you can meet the third of my three main characters, you’ll find a link to it on my website (musicwords.net).

It’s always nice when things go well. Once I get this series out the door and figure out how to promote it, I have another novel, also fantasy but not part of the series, that’s complete but still awaits some rewrites. After that, there will be a short story collection, quite likely a reprint of The Wall at the Edge of the World, and maybe even one or two unpublished novels that I wrote years ago, both of which I have some affection for but which still need a little TLC. Or maybe a lot.

Gas in the tank. Pedal to the metal! (Or possibly peddle to the mettle. I’ll have to think about what that might mean.)

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Building It Up, Tearing It Down

Thirty years or so ago, I was a member of an active writers’ critique group called the Over The Hill Gang. This was before the Internet, you’ll understand. We met face to face, seven or eight of us every month, in somebody’s living room. The late Kevin O’Donnell, Jr., was the star of the group, but a couple of others (including myself) were also published authors. At each meeting, people would pass out copies of a story. We would take the stories home, scribble in the margins, and bring them back to the next meeting.

The group worked well, because everybody understood the rules. There was to be no criticism of the writer, but the criticism of the story was pretty free-wheeling. I can picture Kevin throwing his hands in the air, chortling gleefully, and saying, “This makes no sense at all!”

The author had to sit and listen to the critiques without interrupting.

Comments of that sort are, I’m sure, more palatable in person, among friends, than over the Internet — and Kevin would certainly have gone on to explain exactly why the passage didn’t make sense. He wouldn’t have flung the accusation and then sat back in smug silence, daring anyone to argue with him. If nothing else, he would have wanted to show off how smart he was. We all wanted to show off about that, I would guess. That’s part of the fun of being in a critique group!

I learned a lot from that group. At one meeting I presented a novella, and at the next meeting everyone said, “It isn’t finished! You have to finish it!” I turned it into a novel, Kevin arranged for me to meet his agent, the agent found a publisher, and that’s how The Wall at the Edge of the World came to be.

I also learned a lot by reading other people’s stories — and if I can say this without sounding snobbish, I learned from their mistakes. When you’ve written something yourself, it’s easy to be too enamored of it. But when you see someone else make an awful blunder, it’s an “aha!” moment. Now that I’ve seen that mistake down on paper in glorious black-and-white, I know not to make it myself.

One good habit in the group (I don’t recall that it was ever part of the rules) was to find something good to say about a story wherever you could. Mildly exaggerating your enthusiasm for the good bits would not have been frowned upon. It’s good for an aspiring author to know when she’s doing something that works; and quite aside from its actual literary utility, praise is also beneficial in maintaining decent social relations.

It has to be said that not all of the criticism heard in the group was constructive. One young woman sometimes cried, “I don’t get it!” That could hardly be called constructive, but it was useful nonetheless. We all need to be reminded to write clearly, bearing in mind that not all of our readers will have the same technical background we have, or will have read our story with the degree of meticulous attention we devoted to it while writing it.

Humans have a natural, innate tendency to be optimistic. This is an instinct. It’s safe to say that very few of us are quite as good writers as we think we are: We’re optimistic about our abilities. Because of this, criticism of our work can be painful. Criticism can undermine our self-esteem. But this is not a reason to avoid or reject criticism!

Today I got into a wrangle with an author in the Facebook writers’ group where I hang out. This individual posted the opening chapter of his upcoming novel and asked for “constructive criticism.” I went into considerable detail — exactly the kind of thing I would have done for Kevin, Lisa, Marina, Bob, Sasha, Donald, and the others in the Over The Hill Gang.

And wouldn’t you know it, the author got defensive. He plainly felt I was out to tear him down. But when you present a weak story, a story with major problems, and ask for criticism, you pretty much have to sit there and take it. The critique may be right, or it may be wrong. If it’s wrong, the thing to do is just smile politely, say, “Thank you,” and move on.

I could go into detail about the problems I had with this fellow’s chapter, but what would be the point? I can’t copy and paste his work here, because he owns the copyright, and without the original to refer to, you would have to take my word for it that my criticisms were accurate. Or maybe they weren’t. But whether or not they were accurate or useful, his hostile, defensive reaction is not going to help him as he struggles to become a better writer.

Let’s take an extreme case. Let’s suppose somebody reads your story and then simply says, “This sucks!” That’s certainly not constructive criticism — but the way to respond to it is not, “Well, fuck you too!” The way to respond is to say, “Can you help me understand exactly what it was about it that you didn’t like?” The answer you get might very well be constructive. Maybe your story really does suck. If you can get some details, you may be able to figure out how to make constructive use of them.

On the other hand, if the person who says it sucks is unable or unwilling to articulate the reasons for their negative judgment, their comment can safely be ignored. There’s no percentage in trying to learn from an idiot.

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Stranger Than Fiction

The trouble with being a white, middle-class writer in the 21st century, and specifically a writer of fantasy or science fiction, is that human culture is a lot stranger than we’re inclined to think it is. We tend to make the far-flung cultures of our imagination look a lot more like middle-class European/American civilization than we ought to.

I’m as guilty of this as anybody else. I recently had to revise an action sequence in which the head of state of a principality rushes off on short notice (in a flying vehicle) to a foreign city. As I had originally drafted it, he hopped in the flying vehicle and headed out all alone, just as if he were a California suburbanite hopping in his Lexus and driving off to Lake Tahoe. Fortunately, it hit me that that was stupidly wrong. A head of state would never do that. He would travel with servants, subordinates, and retainers! So I had to redraft that chapter.

Since this blog is no longer about religion, there’s no need for us to dwell on the peculiar and distressing fact that modern Christians still revere a book in which the Lord commands the Jews to “kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves” (Numbers 31:17-18). Some Christian apologists will assure you, with apparent sincerity, that the Old Testament is full of myths, and that these blood-soaked tales are not to be taken as historically accurate. But whether or not the details are accurate, it’s clear that the Jews 2,500 years ago felt that this sort of thing was exactly what the Lord would approve of. In researching this bit, I also stumbled upon a Christian apologist web page that assures believers, apparently with a straight face, that the virgin women weren’t raped by the soldiers, because the Lord would have punished them for rape. No, the Jews were permitted to marry the women they had taken captive. Cleverly skirted in this ridiculous interpretation is the question of how the women would have felt about marrying soldiers who had just butchered all of their relatives.

But let’s not dwell on that. What’s interesting is not the naked hypocrisy and willful blindness of religious believers. What’s interesting is the context provided for this story by an article in this month’s Scientific American. As archaeologist Catherine M. Cameron makes clear, what those bronze-age Jews were doing was normal. They were raiding villages and towns, massacring the men, and stealing the women. Not to marry them, of course, but to use them as slaves and concubines. Duh.

This custom is found throughout the pre-modern world, and indeed right up to the present day. The Native Americans did it. The Southeast Asians did it. The Vikings did it. Isis is still doing it.

The article provides an interpretation of this pattern. Whatever the men of this tribe or that one may say about their motivations, it’s purely a primate instinct. Males of high status have a better chance of producing offspring. Males of  lower status tend not to reproduce with as great frequency or reliability. Because of this, evolution has programmed the male of our species to seek high status.

And how do you do that? You do it by winning battles and taking prisoners to be your slaves. A man with slaves is prosperous. He’s respected. He has workers to tend his crops, and probably several wives. Human males will take insane risks in raiding other villages or towns, and will quite often die, because the reward (the opportunity to father more children) outweighs the risk.

This same instinct — to maintain one’s status at any cost — underlies the importance of honor. If you write Medieval fantasy, doubtless you’re aware that men in such cultures, and especially the knights and noblemen, are obsessively concerned with maintaining their honor. They will fight to the death rather than be dishonored, even by a trivial insult. But you may never have thought about why honor is important. A man who maintains his honor has high status, and thus can reasonably hope to produce offspring. A man who has been dishonored will find himself shunned by honorable (higher-status) men. He will be at an economic disadvantage. He may be ostracized. More powerful men may steal his wives and concubines, because they don’t fear him.

The way evolution works, the male doesn’t even need to know that that’s why he’s defending his honor. His emotions take charge, and he draws his sword.

I’ve never been very concerned with honor, at least not consciously. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that. Honor is less at stake in the modern Western world because we’re more mobile. Honor was important during the millenia when our ancestors lived among one smallish group for their entire lives. If you were dishonored, everybody would know it before sunset. In a highly mobile society, that’s no longer the case. Most of the people we meet from week to week are strangers. We have no idea whether they’re honorable, or whether they’re freshly dishonored. Today, high status depends more on wealth than on honor. But the underlying drive hasn’t changed. It’s still about maintaining high status, because high status improves men’s chances of reproductive success.

At an unconscious gut level, everybody knows that, however loudly they would prefer to deny it. But self-deception is a topic for another time.

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NaNoPubMo: The Sandbox

For a few days, I thought I was going to use draft2digital to upload my novel(s) in ebook format to all of the leading online retailers. No up-front fees, I can use my own ISBN, and they do the file conversion straight from my .rtf to epub, mobi, and so forth. They even convert to PDF, so you can send the book to the print-on-demand company of your choice, no muss and no fuss. What’s not to like?

Several things, as it turns out. My first discovery was that their PDF conversion stinks. Their software placed the first page of Chapter 1 on a left-hand page, and that’s just not done. Also, the page numbering started with the epigraph page. I asked them how this could be fixed. They weren’t interested. Their email reported, “…we don’t have a way to edit that file (because it is currently not being used by us).”

So okay, let’s talk about the mobi and epub files. My front matter contains a copyright page and a page listing other books I’ve written. I had placed empty line spaces between certain chunks of text there, but those line spaces disappeared during the draft2digital conversion. When I asked if they could fix this, their “support” person replied, “That’s just a limitation with our conversion. A single empty paragraph return is ignored and that isn’t something we can change.”

In a nutshell, they just want to run their auto-conversion software and then sit back and collect a percentage of my royalties. They’re not interested in helping clients produce books that actually look good.

Their “terms of service” make me a little nervous too. The deal is, they can change the terms of service at any time. (You can’t. This is a one-way street.) They will notify you of any changes, and if you don’t like the changes you can terminate the business relationship. That may look reasonable at first glance, but if I understand the process correctly, what happens next is, they pull your book(s) off of Amazon. You can then put the books back up on Amazon yourself (using the same draft2digital files, if you like), but at that point I’ll bet you a nickel Amazon will see the book as a new title. Your reviews and your sales ranking will be lost. I could be wrong about this, but even if an Amazon representative assured me it wouldn’t happen … oh, wait. How am I going to arrange to talk to an actual Amazon representative? Never mind.

Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, as my grandmother used to say. The online universe is jam-packed with people who would love to help you self-publish your book. Several factors need to be weighed in choosing a route through the maze.

  • How much do you want to pay?
  • How good do you want your book to look?
  • How comfortable are you learning new technology?
  • What sort of contractual relationship are you comfortable with?

For $20 a month, I can design my own book in Adobe InDesign. The PDF will look great! I’ll have to do a lot of work by hand, but I’m experienced in page layout software; I can learn all that stuff. InDesign will export to epub, in theory, though when I tried it just now it crashed. The export dialog doesn’t include mobi. InDesign is a complex program, so there’s a learning curve — and that $20 per month is for a yearly subscription.

Scrivener, which I already own and use, will export to mobi, epub, and PDF. The results in mobi and epub look nice enough, but the PDF doesn’t put enough space between the page heads (where it says “Aikin / Leafstone Shield”) and the body copy. Nor does it use left and right page headers. I haven’t tried adding my front matter yet, but I’ll bet it will put page numbers on those pages, which would not be desirable.

I can fix some of that by editing the PDF in Adobe Acrobat Pro, which is only $15 per month. Not much savings, and probably not as much power either, but probably easier to use. On the whole, going straight to InDesign for the PDF seems a better choice. I can add drop-caps, adjust the size of the margins, and so on.

If you don’t want to do it yourself, there are numerous online services that will be happy to take away the pain. I found a list at the Alliance of Independent Authors, and looked at a bunch of websites. Some of them claim to let you make unlimited changes in your files; others are “send us your file and we’ll convert it and upload it — it’s easy!!!” Some charge up-front, and others collect a percentage of your royalties. Some are high-priced, others are bargain-basement. Some are large companies, some are small. Some have their own bookshops, some don’t. Some tell you their pricing up front, others say, “We only do custom work. Contact us for a quote.”

Finding the right mix of ingredients may not be easy.

My intention at the moment is to use the Scrivener ebook conversion and put off the PDF print-on-demand vector for a few months. But there are still a few things I need to test in the conversion process. There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.

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A Site for Sore Eyes

Every indie author would love to make oodles of money. Put your books up on Amazon and wait for the dough to roll in! And wait, and wait, and wait…. Marketing is not something most authors are proficient in, and I’m no exception. But I know I need a nice-looking website. And since the income stream is not guaranteed, I’d rather not pay a lot of money to set it up.

So I typed “affordable author website” into my favorite search engine (which happens not to be google, but whatever). The first company I looked at offered to schedule a free consultation, and calling it that is really quite silly. Every company should give you information about their services without charging for the information. Less silly — the form that I’m expected to fill out in order to schedule the free consultation has required fields for my home address. I have to tell them where I live in order to schedule the consultation? Why? Any company that engages in predatory data mining gets crossed off my list immediately.

The second company I looked at seems to have only three WordPress templates to choose from. Other companies offer tons, so this is a little weird. Their pricing starts at $1,500, and every additional book you want to put on the site is going to set you back an extra $250. Nope, not gonna hire you guys.

The third one looks better. I’m going to email them and ask a few questions. I have some specific requirements. Later I might want to upload a PDF, a teaser containing the first couple of chapters of a new book. I need to be able to upload it and also link to the upload, and I don’t want to have to pay some technician $75 per hour to do it. Also, if I’m going to transfer my domain name to a new server, I need a few gigabytes of file space in a public folder called /music. This is a make-or-break requirement for me.

If you’re an indie author, the thing to be wary of is that there are lots and lots of people who would love to take your money. They’re monetizing your dreams of success. Whether you succeed or tank, they don’t care — you already paid them. Some of them make vague promises, confident that authors will nod like bobble-heads and not know what’s up with that. Some of them mean well, and some are just out to con you. It’s up to you to be vigilant. Ask lots of questions. Assume the worst.

I found a guy who offers to create your website (from a template) and then show you how to manage it. His price is $500. That sounds much better than the competition, which will rake you over the coals for as much as $2,500. But essentially he’s offering a one-hour Skype lesson for $500. That’s not really such a good deal, is it?

Somewhere along the line someone mentioned Divi, which I had tried out last year, just to see what they were up to. It’s a very slick, user-friendly design engine, and it’s $250. That’s more my style. I would need a web host company that was compatible with the Divi WordPress setup, and the online chat person at Divi recommended four hosts, including Dreamhost. So I had a look at Dreamhost. Their monthly fee for hosting is $8 (currently I pay $7) — and they apparently have a free template-based site design setup. Doubtless it’s not as slick as Divi, but do I need $250 worth of slick?

My next stop is to ask some questions of a Dreamhost person. Maybe I won’t have to take out a home loan after all.

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The Trouble with Browsers

If you want to sell books, you need a website. I get that. I’ve had a personal website for close to 20 years now. It’s hand-coded and quirky, but that’s all right, because nobody ever visits it unless they’re looking for cello lessons. In anticipation of the impending release of my first new novel in many years (more than 20 years), today I sat down and did some redesign on my site. We’re not talking about this blog — I mean my actual website, musicwords.net.

I positioned the graphics showing my new book covers. Uploaded a bunch of files. Hooray, I’m a web champ!

Well, no, not quite. Tonight a friend took a look at the new pages on his phone, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a technical problem. HTML on a phone’s browser is apparently not the same as HTML on a desktop browser. Oh, dear.

On doing a little checking, I find that the situation is even worse than that. Forget phone displays; the book covers on my nice hand-coded Books page do not show up in the same alignment in Firefox, Chrome, and Internet Explorer, all of which are running here on the same identical Windows machine. If you’re curious, you can jet over to the Books page and compare your results to the following screenshots. I grabbed only a small section of the page, right at the top of the Non-Fiction header. What’s of interest is the positioning of the book covers that’s visible to the right of the text.

First, here’s how it looks in Firefox:

firefox_posiiton

Next, here’s Chrome:

chrome_position

And finally, in IE:

ie_position

What the actual fuck? This is the same HTML code in all three browsers. The code is set up with HTML style tags that have position:absolute and values for the top of the image in pixels. But somehow each browser has its own idea about the vertical height of a pixel. And of course the alignment is far worse in my iPhone, but I’ve never learned to take screen grabs with it, and it’s an old phone, so let’s not worry about that.

And do you notice the difference in the type font? In Firefox it’s blurry, because the anti-aliasing is more aggressive. In Chrome and IE it’s crisp.

On further reflection, though, that’s the clue to the mystery. The graphics are positioned exactly the same in every browser (including a phone). What’s different is the vertical spacing of the type! And that’s not something that HTML can control. This is, I’m sure, one of the reasons why modern websites have a very modular look, with little blocks of stuff. Getting the stuff in the left column to align with stuff in the right column is not gonna happen.

So please forgive me — I’m going to whine now. HTML is supposed to be a standard, but it never was, and as the years roll on it plainly becomes less and less reliable. This is why people hire professionals to design their websites. The professionals know lots of tricks to get reliable results across many platforms. Or at least you hope they do.

This week I spent $295 on a block of ten ISBNs. I spent $315 on a redo of the cover for Book 2. And tonight I dropped $139 plus tax and shipping on a Kindle, precisely so I can check how my books look on that device. And now it appears I’m going to have to drop a couple of grand on a properly coded website, even though I already know how to write HTML and javascript! And this is on top of the $5,000 I spent back in February on a developmental edit.

As my father used to say, “It’s only money.” But he was an artist. My mother kept the household accounts. When he said that, it made her a little crazy. What truly scares me is not spending the money. What scares me is that my tax return for 2017 is going to show a huge operating loss on my writing business — and that may trigger an audit. I’ve never had an audit. Maybe I should just eat the loss and not claim it. I asked a friend who is a CPA if she’d like to do my return this year. She charges $200 an hour. It’s only money, but I’m gonna have to think about that.

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