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.

Page Not Found

If you’re going to publish your own novel, you’d like it to look professional, right? The “look” of an ebook is mostly irrelevant, because the user can change the font or type size, and there isn’t really anything resembling page layout. The look of an ebook is its cover art, no more than that.

A print book is a different kettle of fish. Text font, margins, leading, page headers and footers, a decorative font for the chapter heads — all sorts of elements have to be considered. (And that’s just for a novel. If you’re doing a book with graphics, the things you’ll need to worry about are a lot more complex.)

What I’m finding is that there are two basic routes. You can design your own book interior, or you can hire the print-on-demand (POD) publisher to do it for you.

They will charge for this. At bookbaby the charge is $350. This is over and above the $200 they charge for combined print and ebook publication. $350 is a chunk of change, but (assuming they know what they’re doing, which I’m willing to assume) it will save you some headaches. However, if you have several books that you want to make available, the cost will quickly mount up. I have a four-volume series, plus a separate novel, plus a story anthology, plus a reprint of a novel I wrote in 1991 that’s waiting in the wings. That’s seven books — $2,450.

Maybe I ought to try doing the formatting myself.

I understand most of the details. The right-hand pages are odd-numbered. You don’t want headers or footers on the pages of front matter (unless you have a Preface or Foreword, in which case lower-case roman numeral page numbers are the norm). You also don’t want a header at the top of the first page of a new chapter. You want to control the widows and orphans (technical terms for a short line at the end of a paragraph or a single line of paragraph at the top of the page). You want justified type. You want the type to be automatically hyphenated. You may want a wider margin in the gutter, which will be on the right of the left-hand pages and on the left of the right-hand pages.

Still with me? Good, because this is where the nightmare starts.

The POD publisher wants you to send them a PDF of the interior of the book, formatted exactly the way you want it. They’re not going to fiddle with it. Most word processors will export PDF files. But how do you convince your word processor that you don’t want headers and footers in the front matter?

I struggled for a couple of hours with OpenOffice and LibreOffice, trying to get them to do this. I failed. You’d think it would be a simple matter; these are mature programs. But they’re also freeware, and supported by a community of volunteers. Sometimes design flaws are “baked in” and would be difficult to eradicate without rewriting reams of code.

Naturally, POD publishers (one is tempted to say “POD people”) don’t offer support for these very nice free programs. They will, however, offer you some basic instructions on how to do stuff in Microsoft Word. Word is part of Office, for which you pay $99 per year. There’s a 30-day free trial, which I have now downloaded and installed. Formatting seven books within 30 days might be pushing it. Still, $99 is better than $2,450.

Bookbaby provides a free PDF called “Printed Book Design 101.” Sounds promising, doesn’t it? I searched it for the word “header” and got no results. So much for support from the POD people.

Plus, the automatic hyphenation in Word 2016 is crap. Word refused to break up compound words that I had hyphenated myself. In another paragraph ran four hyphens on four consecutive lines, which is not good publishing practice. (I’ll bet you never noticed, but that’s one of the rules. Usually, no more than two hyphenated line endings in a row are allowed.)

Somebody mentioned a freeware page layout program called Scribus, so I downloaded that. It seems designed to do, you know, 12-page church newsletters, that type of thing. Multiple columns, color photos, etc. When I tried to import a 250-page novel, it choked.

Then I noticed that Microsoft Office also includes a program called Publisher. But it’s pretty much the same thing. It doesn’t seem to be designed to do full-length text-only books. Plus — get this — Microsoft’s icon-happy menu/toolbar system is so spiffy it doesn’t even include a Help menu. How would I learn if it will do consecutive page numbers and left-vs.-right headers if there’s no Help menu?

Go ahead: Search the Web for “microsoft publisher manual”. I dare you. If there is one, my search engine can’t find it. Microsoft themselves offer a 12-page quick-start to Publisher 2013, but I don’t expect to find anything about page headers or hyphenation in that. If you want to make your mom a birthday card, it’s probably just what you’ll need.

After spending a whole day poking at the page design problem, I still have no idea what software I’ll be able to use to produce professional-looking pages. I feel like Basil Fawlty thrashing his car with a tree branch. If I want crap, that’s easy. I could run off a crap PDF in twenty minutes. But if I have to choose between bad page headers and bad hyphenation, I’m screwed. To continue the Fawlty analogy, it’s cold duck time.

Update: After a restless night, I rose early and found a pretty good series of video tutorials on how to use Scribus for novel layout. Feeling much more optimistic, I dove back into it. I created left and right pages with page headers — no problem. I started styling my chapter heads — no problem. I even figured out how to add a footnote. (Footnotes in a novel? Unorthodox, but Terry Pratchett used them.)

And then I hit the next speed bump. I noticed that the italic type had disappeared from the text of my novel when I imported it into Scribus. Very bad! I do not want to go through even one novel line by line, much less half a dozen novels, replacing the italic that got stripped out.

There’s supposed to be a way to do this. Instead of cutting and pasting the text from the word processor, you use the Get Text command, which imports directly from an Open Office .odt file. This command does indeed preserve the italic. But sometimes only the first page of text from the .odt file is imported … or, to be more precise, the entire text is imported, but only the first page is ever displayed in the layout. The rest is invisible. Sometimes Scribus chokes and never finishes the import.

If you get it imported properly, you then have to go through the whole thing in the Scribus text editor window (which is not the main layout window — it’s a big dialog box), adding your own paragraph styles for things like chapter heads, paragraphs with drop caps, and so forth. The difficulty that soon arises is that the text editor window was never designed for a text the length of a novel. When I apply the Chapter Head style to the head of chapter 2, the window pops back up to the start of the file. And of course the Find command doesn’t work in this window, so you have to manually scroll back to the start of chapter 2 to add the Drop Cap style to the first paragraph — and then it pops back to the start of the manuscript, so now you have to scroll down and find chapter 3. And so forth for 25 chapters.

Hey, this is free software. What do you want for free? Do you want it to actually work the way it’s supposed to? Silly goose!

Adobe InDesign is only $20 per month. That’s starting to look like a better option. Whether InDesign is any better at laying out a novel — I think I’ll need to do a little more research on that.

And Now for the Bad News

It seems NaNoWriMo is becoming a cultural tradition. Every November, hundreds of thousands of people apply seat of pants to seat of chair and write a full-length novel. It may be a less bolted-down tradition than the Christmas tree lot, but it seems to be settling in.

So this year you wrote a novel during National Novel Writing Month. Congratulations! You may have found it inspiring and fun, or it may have proved to be a bigger challenge than you expected. Either way, it’s bound to have been a learning experience. You probably learned something about both your passions and your work habits. You may have learned a bit about the painstaking process of crafting a sustained narrative.

Today, if all went well, you have a complete novel on your hard drive. And you’re quite rightly proud of and enthusiastic about your accomplishment. You’re starting to think, “Gee, maybe other people will enjoy reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it. Maybe I should publish it.”

No need to be bashful. You know you’re thinking that! So it’s time for the crusty old curmudgeon on the internet to give you some wise and thoughtful advice:

Please don’t.

Please don’t self-publish your novel. Don’t even think about it. There are literally millions of self-published novels on the Web. Yours is certainly not as bad as some of them, but that’s the extent of the good news. The probability that yours is worth reading is close to nil. By publishing it, you will be degrading the taste and undermining the intellectual acuity of untold dozens of readers. Do you really want to take responsibility for having done that?

I have tried reading a bunch of self-published novels. Really, one feels compelled to quote from Allen Ginsberg at this point: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked….” With the caveat that the writers of self-published books are not actually the best minds of any generation. Not even close.

Most self-published fiction is appalling, dreadful stuff. Naturally, you feel sure your book is the exception! And maybe it is, but probably it isn’t. The Dead Sea of mistakes into which amateur writers wade and in which they then splash and thrash is wide and deep. And they don’t know they’re wading ever deeper. They think they’re walking on water.

Yes, you can spend a couple of thousand bucks hiring an editor. I can’t honestly recommend it, for two reasons. First, anybody can hang out a shingle and call themselves an editor. There are no licensing requirements. Some freelance editors are, I’m sure, quite good. But some will actively make your writing worse rather than better. And how will you know the difference? Second, in my experience aspiring writers quite generally ignore good advice when they hear it. Having poured heart and soul into their literary effort, they don’t want to be told that it’s in dire need of an overhaul (or a quick trip to the wastebasket). They tend to take any such observation as a personal attack.

Is there a solution? Sure. The solution is, don’t publish your novel. Not until you’ve learned how to write.

Want to learn how to write? Buy a bunch of how-to-write books. Read them. Underline salient passages. Work the suggested exercises. And learn to read the published work of other writers analytically. Pick up a few of your favorite novels and study how the scenes are constructed. Study how the characters are developed. Study the way sentences are nailed into paragraphs. Study how emotion is conveyed. Study conflict and theme.

And then, next November, or even sooner if you feel so inclined, write a better novel.

I’ve thought many times about writing a book called How NOT to Write a Novel. But there are two difficulties. First, somebody already wrote a book with that title. It isn’t very good, in that it doesn’t do what it ought to do. But it’s okay as a how-to-write book. Put it on your list. The second, and truly insurmountable, difficulty is that I would want to provide extended examples of bad writing drawn from actual self-published novels.

I would then get sued for copyright infringement, for libel, or both. Nobody would want to have their cherished work, the child of their soul, singled out for its awfulness, laid out on the dissecting table and sliced open for all to view in amazement its innumerable gruesome failures. But I don’t think I could produce the right book by trying to generalize about the problems in bad fiction. That would just be another how-to-write book. The point of studying bad fiction line by line is that every piece of bad fiction is unique. Every bad author finds new and awe-inspiring ways, in paragraph after paragraph, to go astray. It may not be true, to paraphrase Tolstoy, that all good fiction is alike but every work of bad fiction is bad in its own way. There are many ways to write good fiction! But the badness of bad fiction — being told what’s bad is one thing. Being shown what’s bad is a different thing entirely, and much more likely to be useful as a learning experience.

If you’d like to know more about what’s bad, send me an email. I’ll send you links to a couple of Look Inside novel openings on Amazon, and we can have a personal discussion, not for publication, about what exactly qualifies them as bad.

If you ask nicely, I might even do it for free.

NaNoPubMo: Wrap-Up

It’s harder to publish a novel than to write one. That’s my experience, anyway. After more than 30 days — my NaNoPubMo exercise started in late October — I still don’t have book covers for my series, and nothing else is going to happen until I have covers.

I’m not blaming the cover artist! Just saying, these things take time. I did get a portrait photo done, and I’ve learned a fair amount about website creation. I’ve written the copy for my website, but haven’t yet hired anyone to design it. I’ve talked to a couple of friends about doing some low-budget video for the site, and I have a concept for the video. I’ve pretty much settled on Bookbaby for the ebook distribution and print-on-demand books, but haven’t yet signed on with them, because there’s no point until I have the covers.

Bookbaby charges $200 up front for a book, so my four-book series will set me back $800. That’s okay. I can afford it. Publishing is a business, that’s all. There are setup costs.

I’m still hoping to have the series out in January. But I still have unanswered questions, especially about website creation. It smells to me like the people who offer this service are over-charging. $2,500 for a WordPress site using parts that can be snapped together like Legos? Really? That seems excessive. Granted, they have the expertise. I don’t.

There are places that let you build your own site for free, but the results may not look professional. A website is like a book cover — you only get one chance to make a good first impression. You want the people who visit to say immediately, “Oh, cool! This looks like an author I’ll want to get to know better!”

Yesterday a friend mentioned that she has a site that her husband designed for her. I took a look. She says it looks fine on her Mac, but on Firefox on Windows there’s a problem with the banner. Her name is partly blocked by a band of color. Her husband evidently didn’t check the site on Windows. That’s one of the things experts know to do. (In theory, anyway.)

Some site creation service providers use their own content management system (CMS) rather than WordPress. Should I trust them, or should I run the other way really fast? I have no idea. I suspect that in the fast-paced Internet world, some companies are sure to become flaky or even die. A site based on their own private CMS would, in that case, become unmanageable. These are the kinds of things one has to think about.

Promotion and marketing? I haven’t yet started thinking about all that in any serious way. Once the books are available and the website is done, it will be time to put my brains in a vise and start cranking until promotion ideas pop out. Or dribble out.

I’m confident that I’m a good writer. (That’s a topic for another day.) But good writing doesn’t matter if nobody knows about your book, or if they can’t find it. That’s what the NaNoPubMo experiment has been about. If you’re following this blog, keep comin’ back (as they say in AA). More will be revealed.

Sometimes that cliche is altered to, “More will be required.” That too.

NaNoPubMo Day 27: Got You Covered

Spending money on a website and more money on book covers — I know how to do that. And I can afford it. But if that’s all I do, what’s the point? Good-looking covers and a nice-looking website are NOT a marketing plan. They’re just tools that you use in your marketing plan.

Once I have a website, and books that are available on Amazon, what then? If I sell half a dozen copies to my friends and that’s the end of it, there’s no point in spending the big bucks. I might just as well upload free PDFs.

It’s a discouraging question, and I have no answers. What’s more, I’m aware (from chatter in the Facebook authors’ groups) that it’s a question that perplexes a lot of self-publishing writers. I’m not alone. That’s small comfort, however.

No sooner am I ready to throw up my hands and say, “The hell with it,” than the guy who has been working on my covers sends me a rough. Many of the details you’re about to see will change. Those wings on Book 4, for instance, look like a bat, and they’re supposed to be dragon wings. (Finding good stock photos of a dragon poses certain challenges.) But as a boost to the old psyche, you could hardly beat this:


This is a clever 3D artist’s mock-up, of course. There are no print books. Unless I can generate some actual reader excitement, there never will be. But there’s a big difference emotionally between knowing you’ve written a series (actually it’s one long novel) and actually seeing it. Hey, there are my books! Yowza!

Also, I think I’ll give myself a pat on the back for the titles. They tie together pretty well, don’t they? And with a shield, a tree, a fountain, and chalice, you might not be too far wrong in guessing that one of the themes of the story is healing. It’s not grim, that’s for sure: This is no feast for crows. “Ribbonglass” is a bit of a stretch linguistically, it’s true. For a while I was going to use “Shimmerglass,” but I decided ribbons were more tactile.

Curious about the story? Oh, good — I hoped you would be! A couple of days ago I sat down and wrote the text that will go on the various pages of the new website. On the page for the Leafstone Series, here’s what you’ll read:

At seventeen, Kyura thinks she’s nobody special. She works hard in her Uncle Dulan’s inn, serving the dinner guests and sweeping the floors. But then a family of elves arrives from the distant land where she was born, bringing with them a broken piece of a powerful magical amulet known as the Leafstone Shield. Kyura has another piece of the Shield, which she thought was only a keepsake given to her by her mother before her mother disappeared.

And then, one by one, the other pieces find their way to her, brought by people who don’t know her and don’t know one another.

A god wants her to use the magic of the Shield to free her once-beautiful homeland from the iron grip of the Lord Dahilio Rundel, his unstoppable wizard Posthilnueze, and Kyura’s unstable and bloodthirsty cousin Tornibrac. She and her friends Meery and Alixia face impossible odds — and their allies? A burglar, a not-very-bright ghost, an egotistical and unreliable concert pianist, an ox-tender (who happens to be the Emperor, but don’t get your hopes up), a half-breed demon, Alixia’s disapproving governess, an unlicensed back-alley wizard, an old and bedridden blind woman, and an ogre with an attitude.

The story begins with The Leafstone Shield and continues through The Ribbonglass Tree, The Heartsong Fountain, and The Firepearl Chalice. In The Leafstone Shield, Kyura and her friends right a terrible wrong and then run for the railway station half a step ahead of their enemies. In The Ribbonglass Tree, they discover that getting from Lorvondes to Sa’akna is a lot more complicated than just buying railway tickets. In The Heartsong Fountain, Kyura learns what happened to her mother and struggles to seize power in Sa’akna without wholesale bloodshed. In The Firepearl Chalice we finally learn what happened to Arik, and Kyura finds that keeping the crown is even harder than acquiring it!

Along the way you’ll meet a dozen memorable characters — some noble, some despicable, and one or two who are simply hapless and doomed. You’ll live through three uncertain love affairs and more than a few desperate hand-to-hand battles, swept up in a whirlwind of political intrigue, treachery, murder, ancient legends, heartbreak, and exotic magic as you discover a world that’s not quite modern but certainly not Medieval. Imps, dragons, horseless carriages, prophecies, pistols, and railroad trains — it’s a mad scramble as three ordinary (or not so ordinary) girls set out to change the world or die trying.


NaNoPubMo: Day 24

Thinking about how to spiff up the author website I don’t yet have. Yesterday I sat down and designed the site content, complete with most of the text. Marketing copy is not my favorite thing to write, but thinking of the content that way is a dandy idea. Starting off by being self-conscious — “Gosh, it’s my new website! Welcome, friends and future friends!” — would be a disaster. We want professional polish.

As I was describing this enterprise to a friend, he surprised me by suggesting that I add video to the site. He’s a video fiend. He has, you know, cameras and tripods and video editing software. I hadn’t considered it, but it’s obviously an idea that’s worth taking seriously. Not just because this is the Age of the Internet and everybody loves eye candy, but because it would help the site appear classy. High-budget. Uptown, not a do-it-yourself production.

But what to put in the video? The easy thing would be to shoot a few minutes of me reading aloud from one of the novels. From a marketing standpoint, though, this idea falls flat. The primary intended audience for the Leafstone series is teenage girls. I’m not sure it’s strictly a YA story, because it’s an epic adventure. It’s not about the travails of growing up, that’s for sure. I hope adults will enjoy the story just as much as younger readers! Even so, a video of a 68-year-old man with jowls reading aloud is just not the right image to entice that readership.

Here’s a better idea: Have a teenage girl interview me about the book(s). The video would show her smilin’ face alternating with mine. Also, I’m more animated when I talk about stuff than when I’m reading aloud, and animated facial expressions are good video. I happen to know a couple of girls; they’re my cello students. Whether they would be willing to do it — we’ll see.

Video production is not something I know much about. My friend doesn’t have lights, because his camera work has for some years been devoted to documenting orchestra concerts. So I phone another friend who is into video — a guy I played in a rock band with back in the Dark Ages. He has lights, editing software, and a green screen. He suggests that my living room isn’t large enough to set up a two-person shoot. He recommends doing the shoot in front of the green screen and then adding the living-room background during editing.

I’m starting to see how complicated this could get. Oh, and I dare not forget the legal details. If a girl appears in the video, her parent or guardian has to sign a release form.

I think I need to get the website designed and built first, before I add video. Trying to do everything at once is a recipe for confusion. And whether anyone will ever see the video … how exactly am I going to entice folks to visit the website? I haven’t thought about that yet.

NaNoPubMo: Day 22

Trying to do things in a sensible order. Before I plunk down the big bucks to have someone build me a nice-looking website, I’ll need to have the raw materials in hand. Not just a book cover (that’s in the works) but a smilin’ portrait photo of the author.

This is a bigger challenge for some of us than for others. The camera has never liked me much; I tend to look like either a wax dummy or an inmate in a ward for the chronically depressed. So I picked a local photographer by looking at his website, and he did a fantastic job! Quickly, too. Tip of the hat to Adam Clark right here in Livermore.

I offer the results for your perusal not as a paean to my own inflated ego, but for their (marginal) educational value. If you’re in the process of publishing your own novel (I recommend against it, but that’s another story entirely) or indeed doing any sort of website that promotes your business, spend a little money on a photographer. You’ll be glad you did.

Adam took about 60 shots, and offered me a choice of 15. Of those 15, one seemed actually usable. (The hat and turtleneck were a suggestion by another photographer, Lauri Stephens, who ended up having to cancel the shoot because she hurt her back.) And then he did a little computer magic with it. For comparison, here’s the raw photo (in low-res). This is what I actually look like, about 1/60th of the time:


The hair is starting to get a little out of hand — it would have been better a week earlier at the shoot that had to be cancelled.

In processing the photo, Adam got rid of a few wrinkles. He also warmed up my facial tones. The warmer color made my face pop out more, and that left the rest of the image seeming kind of stark. I said, “Hey, can you turn the sweater green?” Here’s the final image:


Not too shabby. Heck, I’d buy a book from this guy, whoever he is.

NaNoPubMo: Day 18

Had to take a few days off after the election to recover my equilibrium. Today I’m getting back to National Novel Publishing Month, my personal (unofficial) project to wrestle with the self-publishing serpents during the month of November.


Right now my main concern is cover art. I’ve been engaged in extensive dialog with one artist, and I like his ideas. I’ll pay him no matter what. But dang, there are some other artists out there who are doing very dramatic, eye-catching work. I might even hire two different artists, start with one set of covers for the series, and then try switching to the other set to see which covers boost the nearly nonexistent sales that I’m anticipating.

One of the challenges in choosing cover art, or even giving guidance to an artist, is that the story is complex. Capturing the essence of the story, even in a set of four images, would be impossible. What one wants to do, I think, is convey some of the energy of the story in an intriguing way.

The four titles are the names of objects — the first title is The Leafstone Shield. One approach would be to put these objects themselves on the cover. But a closeup of a green disk seems to me not energetic or intriguing enough.

Many cover artists use stock photos as elements in their cover designs. This saves them work and gives the author a nice crisp cover image at a reasonable cost — but I’m not sure how to show much of anything in my story using stock photos. Okay, the heroine is a 17-year-old girl, but how many thousands of self-published stock-photo-based covers use closeups of beautiful girls? That may not be the most distinctive route I could choose.

Cogitations are ongoing.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Taking a little break here from blogging about writing — the election this week has kind of thrown me for a loop, emotionally. Being a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-take-care-of-business kind of guy, I asked myself, “What can I actually do to maybe improve the dreadful situation a tiny bit?”

Well, there’s the Green Party. They’re pretty much a joke, unfortunately. But I agree with most of their policy ideas. I have a lot more sympathy for them than for the hawkish, Wall-Street-crony Democrats. Is there any way I might be able to put some energy into the Green Party of California (GPCA) so that they have a chance to actually influence future elections or get bits of their agenda enacted into law?

On exploring the website of the California Greens, I sensed what I feel is a basic problem: There’s no leadership. Ordinary people don’t vote for policies or ideas so much — they vote for charismatic leaders. A political party needs dynamic leaders. The Greens’ shortage of leaders is, I think, by design. It’s a result of their guiding philosophy. They love the idea of “grassroots democracy.” They want everybody to have a voice in the decision-making process. While this is a noble ideal, it tends not to produce high-profile leaders.

It also tends to get in the way of effective organization. Getting progressives to work toward a common goal is like herding cats. They just want to stay home and grow organic vegetables. The right wing is better organized because their ideals call for regimentation. (Well, except for the ideal of “freedom.” But don’t ask them if that means being free to be an atheist, a homosexual, or an undocumented immigrant.) As I like to put it, “The fascists have all the good marching songs.” Sitting in a circle and singing “We Shall Overcome” is not, on the whole, very effective as an organizing strategy.

I emailed a couple of the — what shall we call them, functionaries? — on the GPCA website. In the email I said, “It seems to me that this would be an ideal time for the Green Party to get into high gear. The outrage is palpable! Recruiting new party registration and putting forward a progressive agenda — the time is now. Is the GPCA doing anything to mobilize, recruit, and start running qualified candidates for statewide office? Are there plans in the works? … If there’s to be any hope for the party in the future, the time to seize the initiative is now. Where can I learn about a Green Party power plan for 2017 and beyond?”

I got a prompt response from Mike Feinstein, one of the three spokespeople listed on the website. He asked if I’d like to talk on the phone. I said sure. This afternoon we had a nice 15-minute conversation.

The first thing to remark on, I suppose, is that one of the three spokespeople for the statewide party had time for a 15-minute chat with a total stranger who confessed (as I did) to being a former registered Green who had re-registered some years ago as a Democrat. I’m not sure whether this means he doesn’t have many duties, or whether it means they’re desperate to register anybody who shows the slightest interest. Or maybe he’s just extremely courteous and not many people ever get in touch with him about Party business. Take your pick.

He never addressed in any way the substance of the question I had asked in the email. I didn’t push him on it — I was just curious to hear what he had to say. What he did, primarily, was give me some insight into how difficult it is for the Green Party to get any electoral traction.

He pointed out that in places like Germany, where the Green Party does better, election results lead to what’s called proportional representation. That is, if a small party gets 5% of the vote, they get 5% of the seats in Parliament. This is quite different from the district-based winner-take-all system in the U.S.

He also mentioned that the Democratic Party views the Green Party as the enemy. They do things to push the Greens aside. I didn’t ask for specifics, but he did mention the 2003 mayor’s race in San Francisco, when Matt Gonzalez (Green) was narrowly defeated by Gavin Newsom (Democrat). Newsom is now, of course, our Lieutenant Governor. Winning the mayor’s race was an important stepping-stone for him. Feinstein (Mike, remember, not Dianne — probably no relation, though I didn’t ask) told me Bill Clinton was involved somehow in supporting Newsom. That doesn’t surprise me. That’s how big league politics works.

Today the Green Party boasts one mayor in California. He’s the mayor of a town called Marina, which has a population of about 20,000. That and half a dozen city council seats, also in marginal locations, are the Greens’ big electoral accomplishments. Also, their registered membership has declined steadily over the past 15 years, from 150,000 in 2003 to about 110,000 today. You’d think recruiting a few thousand disappointed and distressed Democrats would be a priority this week, but apparently it’s not.

At the end of the conversation, I was left with the impression that Mike was being defensive rather than proactive. He blamed the electoral system and the Democrats for the Green Party’s threadbare accomplishments. Of course these are huge factors — he’s not wrong — but blaming the system for your failures is not smart and it’s not effective. It’s a way of remaining a victim.

Another huge factor is the fact that the Greens don’t attract much in the way of financial support. They can’t run an efficient party organization, because it’s all volunteers. There’s no paid staff, and certainly no money for TV ads. This is probably an inevitable problem — but what are you going to do about it?

No fund-raising efforts are mentioned on the GPCA website, not even on the page describing the Finance Committee.

Those are our options, sports fans — a Democratic Party too mired in dysfunction to mount an effective challenge to a preposterous and dangerous demagogue, or a marginal party that entirely lacks leadership, vision, and money.

Color me disgusted.