Time to Get Serious About Your Writing Career

Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to PixelBack in the 1980s I wanted to be a writer and I didn’t know any writers or have access to any writers, so I turned to how-to books to learn how it was done. Over the years I amassed quite a collection. Most of them either angered me or depressed me. Angered me because all too often I would run across a passage that said, essentially, “Do NOT write trash like romance or science fiction or mysteries. If you do, you are defiling the Artistry of the Sacred Calling of Authorship, and that makes you a sell-out.” (This to a hardcore genre fiction junkie, shees.) Or else they depressed me because they declared: “Do it THIS WAY and you will be a success.” Only I never could seem to do it THIS WAY, which meant I must be a horrendous failure or more likely those jokers were lying to me and I was a sucker who’d shelled out money for their crap. A couple of books inspired me. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott; Wild Minds, by Natalie Goldberg; Zen and the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury. A couple helped me with craft: Story, by Robert McKee; The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogel. Only one book both inspired AND helped me with craft: Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, by Lawrence Block.

What made Writing the Novel different from so many other writing books–both inspirational and for craft–was LB himself. A serious writer who didn’t take himself seriously. A working writer who had a handle on the business of publishing–the good, the bad and the ugly sides–and who made a career out of writing fiction. (That’s a rare thing, actually, and his career is still going strong to this day.) I read that book to tatters, referring back to it time and again whenever I got discouraged or stuck. I often recommended it to other writers. I don’t know how many copies I purchased and gave as gifts over the years. (I made the mistake of loaning it to someone–breaking my own rule about never loaning a book I wanted to keep–and now I can’t remember to whom I loaned it, so if you’re reading this, please give it back.) What makes it stand out is that LB teaches you how to think as a writer. How to read as a writer. He doesn’t tell you what to write or spout cookie-cutter steps, but he’ll help you figure out what might work for you. For instance, from his chapter on outlining, one of my favorites:

     “An outline is a tool which a writer uses to simplify the task of writing a novel and to improve the ultimate quality of that novel by giving himself more of a grasp on its overall structure.

“And that’s about as specifically as one can define an outline, beyond adding that it’s almost invariably shorter than the book will turn out to be. What length it will run, what form it will take, how detailed it will be, and what sort of novel components it will or will not include, is and ought to be a wholly individual matter. Because the outline is prepared solely for the benefit of the writer himself, it quite properly varies from one author to another and from one novel to another. Some writers never use an outline. Others would be uncomfortable writing anything more ambitious than a shopping list without outlining it first. Some outlines, deemed very useful by their authors, run a scant page. Others, considered equally indispensable by their authors, run a hundred pages or more and include a detailed description of every scene that is going to take place in every chapter of the book. Neither of these extremes, nor any of the infinite gradations between the two poles, represents the right way to prepare an outline. There is no right way to do this—or, more correctly, there is no wrong way. Whatever works best for the particular writer on the particular book is demonstrably the right way.”

Now LB has updated the book and expanded it. He even expanded the title to Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel. He’s brought it out in both ebook and print. The original material is still as valid today as it was when first published in 1978; the new material is geared toward today’s publishing climate, taking into account how traditional publishing has changed and with new chapters on self-publishing.

It’s still a book I recommend. It’s posted now in the sidebar of this blog. Clicking on the image will take you to Amazon.

These past couple of years have been hell on writers. Trad pubbed writers are suffering because the industry is in flux; indie writers are running themselves ragged learning to be publishers during a time of rapid changes. The biggest frustration I keep hearing expressed is that the writing itself is suffering because of the business side of publishing. Time to remember what’s important, folks. Storytelling. The writing itself. Business goes through the crazies–that’s one aspect that never changes–but the core of who we are–storytellers–that remains true whether we’re chiseling our tales into stone tablets or tapping them out on an iPhone. Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel can help you remember what’s important: telling a good story.

Like LB says:

“…while there are far too many books in this world, there are far too few good ones.

“And I don’t ever want to run out of things to read.”


To Print (on demand) or Not Print (on demand); That is the Question

quinnzoo4I’ve been doing a lot of print-on-demand editions here of late. The majority of my clients are using CreateSpace, and a few use Lightning Source/Ingrams. I haven’t had anybody reporting huge print sales or widespread placement in bookstores (yet). I think bottom line for most (right now) is they like having the option, but moreso, there is immense satisfaction in having a tangible copy of their creation. Quite a few, I think, are looking toward the future. As indie publishers increase both their physical and financial presence, brick-and-mortar bookstores and libraries will have no choice except to look to indie publishers to find the stock their customers demand. As demand increases, the technology is going to get better and it will get cheaper. (On a personal note, I’d love a future where EVERY book is print-on-demand, because I hate waste and I hate the idea of books being pulped.)

On the practical side, is it a good idea for YOU to issue a print-on-demand version of YOUR book?

  1. Is it difficult?
    Not at all. You give two pdf files to your printer. (Two most popular right now: CreateSpace, an Amazon company; and Lightning Source/Ingrams.). One pdf is for the interior; the other is for the cover flat. Spend an hour reading the FAQs and specs at your printer’s website, and you’ll have all the information you need for your project. Both CS and LS offer templates for cover creation. They’re easy to use. Once you have your files, you upload them, go through the review process, take care of any little issues that might arise, order a proof copy, make sure it’s just right, then publish. It takes a little longer than does digital publishing, but it’s no more difficult.
  2. Is it expensive?
    It can be. You could spend thousands if you choose. You can also do it yourself and spend nothing at all, except time. If you use CreateSpace, you can layout your interior file in Word and generate your pdf from that. (Lightning Source will not accept those). There are book design templates available. Joel Friedlander (thebookdesigner.com) offers a wide range of templates specifically for Word. They are inexpensive yet beautiful. If you don’t have the time or inclination to do it yourself, you can hire a professional. For most fiction projects the price will range from around $.25 to $1.00 per finished page.
  3. Do I need an ISBN?
    If you use CreateSpace they will give you an ISBN at no cost or low cost (but it’s not free, so read the terms and conditions). Lightning Source requires you purchase your own. In the US ISBNs are provided by Bowkers. They are expensive. (My biggest gripe with Bowkers is that they’ve recognized that the more clueless an author is, the bigger a cash cow he/she becomes–DO YOUR RESEARCH!)
  4. Can I use my ebook cover?
    A well-done ebook cover can be modified for a print cover. Your cover designer is probably adept at that type of work. If you did your own cover or want to do it yourself, as I mentioned above, both CS and LS offer templates.

    Ebook Cover

    Ebook Cover

    Same cover modified for print.

    Same cover modified for print.

  5. What about distribution?
    This ranges from no muss/no fuss to pounding the pavement one bookstore at a time. Being an Amazon company, Createspace will automatically list your POD edition on Amazon. They also have expanded distribution. Lightning Source uses Ingrams and there are some costs involved. You are free to order copies in any quantity you desire and sell direct. Unlike vanity presses, the books belong to you. You set the price, you control the distribution channels.

The thing to remember is that print-on-demand is in its infancy–in technology, in acceptance, and in price. Even if it’s not a huge revenue stream for most writers right now, that could easily change in the very near future. With production costs as low as they are–especially if you are a Do-It-Yourselfer–there is no real reason to NOT create print-on-demand editions of your books.

What about you, readers? Do you have POD editions? Do you think the effort and added expense is worth it?

Boast Post: Thomas Pluck and Co-Op Publishing

Practice makes perfect. And, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers, it takes a lot of practice, at least 10,000 hours worth.

“The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert–in anything,” writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin. “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, … this number comes up again and again. … no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. …”

coverPractice is what I do. When I’m trying new techniques and work flows, when I need to practice, I pester my friends for projects. (My friends are wonderfully prolific and quite tolerant, or perhaps amused by my obsessions.) If my friends don’t have anything for me, I go hunting. I look for writers whose writing speaks to me and who could use my services to make their ebooks better.

Which leads to Thomas Pluck. He writes crime fiction–“Unflinching fiction with heart.” For the past year or so I’ve been bouncing all over the internet and buying short story collections in order to read Tom’s short stories. I’ve been bugging him to put his own collection together. Finally, I sez, “I’ll produce the ebook. You provide the stories and get a cover.” He said yes.

Which leads to co-op publishing. (Along with the boast part of this post) With Tom the writer, Sarah Pluck the artist, and me the editor/producer, we were a machine. A muscle machine, I tells ya. We pulled it all together, without any hitches or glitches, in about ten days.

(I have this dream of someday having a publishing company of my own–a co-op publishing company. I don’t know how yet and I sure don’t know all the aspects and ins and outs, but that’s what practice is for. Getting my 10,000 hours in.)

We did have a big advantage going in. All of Tom’s stories had been previously published and professionally edited. So the line-editing I did was little more than fine-tuning. That saved a lot of time. The real key to our success was two-fold: Dropbox and communication. For those who don’t know, Dropbox is a cloud storage service. People can share folders and files. When working with big files or folders, it’s essential. It keeps files organized, there are no worries about missing an attachment in an email, and no worries about translation hiccups that sometimes happens with word processor files.

Communication and delegation of responsibilities were the biggest factors in our success. Tom was in charge of selecting the stories. Sarah was in charge of the cover. I was in charge of the ebook formatting. I think it’s necessary in any co-op endeavor to establish who is in charge of what and thus has final say. That prevents elements from being nibbled to death by duck committees.

Work flow:

  • Tom placed the stories he selected in the dropbox folder.
  • Sarah worked on the cover.
  • I line-edited the stories, and placed my edited versions in the dropbox.
  • Tom accepted or rejected my editorial input as he saw fit, then placed FINAL versions in the dropbox.
  • Sarah provided me with images and fonts from the cover (I wanted full package cohesiveness in the ebook).
  • Tom and I went back and forth on story order and layout of the front and back matter.
  • I created the internal graphics, then we did some more back and forth to get them just right.

BOAST ALERT: I figured out how to make an image look like stamped metal! I am absurdly proud of myself.


  • I formatted the book. Tom and I had done such a good job of communicating about the layout that no changes were deemed necessary.
  • I proofed the ebook then sent it to Tom for the second round. (Experience has taught me, one proofreader at a time. No sense stumbling over each and catching the same errors.)
  • By then Sarah was done with the cover. I slipped it into the ebook.
  • Tom returned the corrections and changes he wanted.
  • I inputted the corrections, made up the various ebook formats necessary for distribution.
  • Tom wrote the listing description copy.

We had a book.

In about ten days.

Polished, professional, an A+ ebook I’d put up against any big NY publishing house with the quality of the stories–and it would blow them out of the water in terms of production.

Let’s talk a moment about co-op publishing. Way I see it, it’s all about equal risk, sweat equity and equal benefits. Some books take off, some don’t, some hit the middle ground, and nobody can predict going in where any particular book is going to land–or when. I don’t normally charge for my special projects. I take my pay in practice and leeway in trying out new techniques (and occasionally, wild and crazy ideas). Tom thinks my service is valuable and wanted to pay. Well. So we agreed to a co-op, but with a twist. He’s a major supporter of PROTECT: The National Organization to Protect Children. I’m a supporter, too. Now 10% of all the earnings of this book will be donated to PROTECT. The better Steel Heart: 10 Tales of Crime and Suspense does sales-wise, the more PROTECT benefits. (hint hint, go buy the book)

Big take-away message for you, folks. Indie publishers need to be creative, not just in crafting the stories but in how you produce the books. Even if you’re low on cash, you don’t have to settle for second-rate productions. Build your networks, develop your side skills (design, editing, promotion, copy writing–all valuable), horse trade and barter, and most of all practice, practice, practice.

Addendum: Great minds think alike. Tom posted on his blog today, too. You can read more about the stories in Steel Heart here.

Source Files Update

So last week I talked about the importance of writers shifting their mindset from thinking “Print Documents” to thinking  “Electronic Files.” Judging by the responses I got, I’d say I’m not the only one concerned with this subject. One of the problems is that the tools we use–namely word processors–are superb for producing printed documents, but frustrating, maddening and over-powered when creating electronic files.

Currently, I’m in the process of creating a booklet/cheat sheet to help fiction writers who are NOT computer programmers to painlessly use the tools they have–and are comfortable using–to create electronic files suitable for e-queries, e-submissions and ebooks. You’d think this would be simple, but it’s not. For one thing, there’s a language problem. I’m a fiction writer, not a programmer. I think in terms of print. Adjusting my way of looking at the subject is difficult and I backslide worse than a dieter at a chocolate fountain. I’ve been talking to William Ockham and he thinks my efforts are on the right track, but kind of sad, too, because he is a computer programmer and he is frustrated by how out-of-synch users and developers are. He is currently working on a program for ebook producers. Essentially he wants a program similar to what blogging sites use. The user selects a “theme” for how he/she wants the ebook to look, then loads in their text and images and the program takes care of all the formatting. If William succeeds, I’ll be his first customer.

In the meantime, I’d thought I’d show you what we’re up against.

First, here is a document provided by a writer for whom I’m producing an ebook. Those little marks you see in the image indicate spaces and paragraph returns.

The writer has created a document suitable for print. Everything is nicely laid out on the screen and without the Show/Hide feature toggled, one would look at it and think, “Beautiful.” Here’s how it looks if I convert this and load it on my Kindle.

Because the writer used paragraph returns to make a new page (instead of inserted page breaks) this is what the start of chapter two looks like:

Now here is the same document with all the extra paragraph returns and spaces removed, and the special formatting and paragraph returns tagged.

Here is what the same document looks like loaded into a text editor for HTML formatting:

Here is what the same document looks like when I upload a cleaned up copy into Scrivener for ebook formatting:

Here is what it looks like if I format it for an ebook in Word (for uploading to Smashwords):

Here is an end product I’m going for (still some tinkering left to do, but you get the idea):

I had thought (foolishly) that all my problems were solved by getting away from Word (except to use its turbo-charged Find/Replace feature to clean up files) and using Scrivener to produce ebooks. It does a great job and it’s relatively painless. Last week I learned there is a problem with one of the books I produced. The problem occurred because Amazon updated older model Kindles and now some people will find that some ebooks–not all!–are compressed and they will have to manually enlarge the screens. Why? I think it’s something Amazon did, but hey, I’m a fiction writer, not a programmer. I do not know why.

Until I do know why and can figure out how to prevent that from happening, I’m now leery of Scrivener. So, damn it, I’m doing what I told myself I really didn’t want to do, and am learning HTML in order to produce ebooks. Come to find out, there are different languages and coding for HTML, too! Ay yi yi. My eyes aren’t red just from the Colorado wildfires, but from spending hours trying to figure this shit out.

It shouldn’t be this hard. Electronic files should not be filled with tiger traps and landmines waiting to turn our lovely words into gibberish marching all over a user’s screen. Those e-queries and e-submissions we labor over until they are perfect should not turn into funhouse mirror words the moment we hit SEND. Creating an ebook should not require a degree in Computer Science and fluency in programming languages. There shouldn’t be different formats requiring different source file layouts and conversion programs and different requirements from every single e-distributor.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda…

The reality is, this Tower of Cyber-Babel and the Facebook Effect (taking something that works fine, and people enjoy using, and tinkering and “fixing” it until everybody loathes it) are what we have to deal with right now. It is more important than ever for writers to change the way they think about the files they create and how they will be used (e-queries, e-submissions, ebooks, print) and adjust the way they use their favored word processors.

Watch this space. The cheat sheet is slowly becoming a reality and I’ll let you know when it’s ready to go.


Boast Post #2–And A Word About Prejudice

This week I helped launch an indie novel. The writer did the hard part: she wrote the novel. I did the fun part:  editorial, badgering her with a zillion questions, making her write a bunch of additional material, asking more questions, and formatting the ebook. She contracted with a talented designer to create a cover. Indie authors have their work cut out for them when it comes to covers, too, even if they hire out. The author serves as the de facto art department, doing the research, finding the artwork, making suggestions and approvals, but most of all trusting in the wisdom and skill of the designer she’s chosen.

Then, yesterday, I was reading The Passive Voice blog and saw a few comments that made me realize the old prejudices against self-publishing are still alive and kicking. Nothing big, nothing I haven’t seen before, and even (I am so ashamed) thought myself at a point in my past.

The prejudice is that self-published novels, and their writers, are lesser things.

I’m here to tell you, I have evidence in my hot little Kindle, that is not so. In fact, I would gladly, and with utter confidence, put the novel Julia Barrett wrote, I produced and Winterheart Design designed a cover for up against any romance novel coming out of New York.

That’s not bias, it’s experience. I’ve published 17 novels with a traditional publisher, plus a lot of other stuff. I’ve worked with three publishing houses, quite a few editors, agents, art departments and booksellers. More importantly, I’m a reader. I’ve read thousands of books in every genre, and from across the ages. I know the difference between good and bad writing. I know when a book has quality production. I am confident you could blind test our novel against any produced by the Big 6 or Harlequin, and no reader could pick Beauty and the Feast out as the self-published entry. (Well, okay, if they looked at the formatting and realized it’s far superior to what many of the traditional publishers are producing–and charging a premium price for. Are you listening, HarperCollins? Formatting is not that hard. Really. Trust me.)

Look at number one, Beauty and the Feast. Readers are recognizing quality, too.

Here’s the thing about prejudice. It isn’t evil. It’s lazy. It’s a way to not have to think about our fears. Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I don’t like black people. They’re all shiftless,” then it is to actually get over your fear of strangers? Isn’t it easier to think, “Rich people are cheating, evil, power hungry scum,” then it is to beat oneself up over our own failure to put in the hard work, sacrifice, and long hours it takes to become rich? Isn’t it easier to utterly dismiss self-publishers as hacks who lack the patience (and talent) to get a NY contract than it is to examine our own failings and fears about our publishing careers?

This post isn’t an invitation to start a pissing contest about the merits of self-publishing versus traditional publishing. I’ve heard it all, trust me. There’s crap on both sides of the street. I get it. Because I’m old and actually pay attention to things, here’s a head’s up for you young’uns. There will always be crap in the street. That’s life. Deal with it.

This post is a reminder that the person truly harmed by prejudice is the person with the prejudice. Prejudice narrows your life.

And writers? Prejudice is lazy thinking and lazy thinking produces bad fiction. At its core, good fiction is all about using made-up shit in order to tell the truth. You have to be able to think in order to accomplish that.




Professional Pride

Over at the Passive Voice blog, I read this little gem of an exchange in the comments:

LP King: That “Request Deletion” button is new since I last posted here. I like it, I like it!

PG: LP – I’ve been surprised at how often that button has been used, usually because of typos. I guess I should have expected that with writers.

Me, not surprised. Most writers I know drive themselves nuts trying to get the words right.

Like me. I’m a lousy speller. Some words, quite frankly, look wrong no matter how I shift the letters around. Many times spell check is no help. Oh sure, it highlights the word in red, but if I’m so far off the mark the computer’s dictionary can’t figure out what I’m trying to spell, then I’m stuck with an evil red glow and a rising sense of panic. Is it even a real word I’m trying to use? Or some made up, half-heard pretend word I’m trying to pass off as English? My poor old Webster’s 9th New Collegiate is so tattered and worn from hard usage every time I reach for it I expect pages to disintegrate into dust. After searching, searching, searching for the proper spelling, I sometimes discover it’s not the right word after all. So begins the bunny hop through the dictionary with side trips into my Rodale’s Synonym Finder and occasional forays into Glazier’s Word Menu.

No surprise I’m a slow writer.

Thing is, it’s a point of pride. I’m a professional writer. Getting the words right is my job. Proper spelling is not just for fiction either. It extends to blogs, emails, grocery lists and even IM conversations. I don’t know if anyone else notices when I goof, but I do. It pains me because I know I can do better. I try to be more forgiving when others goof. I don’t point out errors because it’s an obnoxious habit and it intimidates some people, but occasionally I’m tempted. (For the people who keep bugging me to learn text messaging– No. Texting shorthand, absurd grammatical structures and misspellings make blood shoot out of my eyeballs. So, no.)

Today, Joel Friedlander, The Book Designer, wrote an interesting article, There’s Something Odd About Self-Publishing Books. In it he discusses how ugly and poorly designed many titles about how-to self-publish books are. One thing he wrote jumped out at me:

I’ve often said that it doesn’t cost any more to produce a good-looking book than it does to produce a bad-looking one, but people aren’t listening.

They aren’t listening because they have no pride. Anyone can self-publish. Anyone. Just as anyone can write a novel. What separates the true professionals from the dilettantes, dabblers, get-rich-quick schemers and rank amateurs is pride. Pros care not only about the things that show on the surface, they care about what’s underneath. I know of writers who’ve pulled manuscripts out of editors’ hands because the writer suddenly realized there’s a mistake and it must be fixed. An editor I used to work with gave another writer incredibly short deadlines because the editor knew, without fail, the writer would require extensions because she had to keep fixing things until she got them right.

It sounds crazy or neurotic or nitpicky or even a waste of time. Except it’s not. Great writers care about their work to the point of obsession. I’ve never met any truly great writers who’re satisfied with their work. At a conference, I handed a book to a writer I greatly admired. She said, “Are you sure you want me to autograph this one?” She flipped through pages, pointing out typos and less than stellar sentences. She handed me another book and said, with all seriousness, “This one doesn’t have so many errors in it.” Okay, that was a tad extreme, but I do understand the sentiment.

Who benefits from the craziness? Readers. I don’t know about the rest of you, but if I’m reading a novel and all I can think about is whipping out my red pencil, chances are I’m not going to finish the story. I’ll probably never buy anything from that writer (or publisher) again. There’s true pleasure in reading carefully crafted prose presented in an attractive package. It makes me, the reader, feel comfortable, even cared about. I might not consciously notice all the little details that go into making the total package. I do notice when the producer doesn’t care enough about the details to attempt to get them right.

Now I know sometimes I have to let a piece of writing go. I make mistakes. They pain me. Sometimes they embarrass me. It’s not for lack of trying. One thing that really excites me about self-publishing is if I do find a mistake, I can go back and fix it. Or it could turn into a real nightmare of chronic unpublishing and republishing.

Anyhow, it’s all about pride. It’s all about not settling for second-best or good enough. Better to be a little bit nuts than sloppy and uncaring.