Category Archives: WRITING: CRAFT

Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Pacing

Kate got caught up by real life and asked me to post this for her. This is the second in her “Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide” posts. You can find the first one here. — Amanda

This chapter is the first of several covering various aspects of plotting and characterization technique from the extreme pantser’s perspective. The thing to remember here, is that this is stuff that matters, and if you as an extreme pantser don’t ‘get’ it free, you’re going to have to work a lot harder than a plotter would to get there – but not necessarily work in the same way.

One of the more interesting things I’ve found as I’ve developed as a writer is that I typically have a vague, not terribly clear feel for the techniques, but I’m not applying them with any sense or consistency because I don’t understand what the heck it is I’m trying to do, much less what my subconscious is throwing at me. Those unfortunate enough to have read some of my early stuff know what I mean here. You can see the shape I’m after but it’s kind of like a small child trying to color inside the lines.

I still color like that, but at least I’ve got better at writing.

So, pacing. This is what makes a story feel fast or slow. Unless you’re planning on writing literary fiction, you’re going to want a variety in your pacing – enough fast sections to drag your readers along with you, and enough slower ones that they have time to breathe. SF and Fantasy, particularly recently, tends to want to start fast, then have something of a slowdown before a series of increasingly sharper accelerations until the climax of the piece. Most – but not all – authors will give a chapter or three of wrapup after that at a nice, gentle pace. Sarah refers to this as the post-climax cigarette.

Pace is partly influenced by vocabulary: short, sharp verbs with minimal assistance from adverbs, action verbs in the sense that someone (preferably your protagonist) is acting… these tend to signal ‘fast’ to readers. Polysyllabic with lots of descriptive usually signals ‘slow’. We as readers are remarkably sensitive to these – to the extent that a particularly fast-paced scene in someone else’s book is quite capable of having me breathing heavily and feeling as though I just outran a bear.

So… read what you can about pacing, but also read fiction with known pace. L.K. Hamilton’s first three books are close to perfect examples of fast-paced. Terry Pratchett’s pacing is generally more leisurely, but again, pitch-perfect.

What tends to happen is that after immersing yourself in well-paced books, the extreme pantser builds a feel for pacing that manifests as “Something needs to happen soon” or “My character needs a break” – also, “Slowing things down here will increase tension” has been known to occur. In my case, rarely quite that explicit, but I do still operate at this level.

I know this sounds very vague and almost – horrors! – frou-frou, but it does seem to work this way at least for me. I’ve had to learn to trust in the pants, not least because the bloody things know more about how this works than I do (As a side note, this is one of the reasons why I’m bloody dangerous when I’m over-tired. It’s not just the narcolepsy, although that doesn’t help. It’s that all the ‘this is not socially acceptable’ filters stop working – which leads to unacceptable truths being aired out, often loudly).

 

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Filed under KATE PAULK, WRITING: CRAFT

Blast from the recent past — Write like the Wind

(Sarah is at TVIW this week and asked me to fill in for her. Well, in light of some of the comments we received in the various threads asking what you’d like us to write about as well as some conversations I’ve had recently with other writers, I thought this post Sarah did back in April might be appropriate. — ASG)

Write Like the Wind

There was a time I wrote a short story in six months.  I took days to write it, weeks to lovingly polish it, MONTHS of agonizing over every word.  Then I sent it out.  And it was rejected.  (All but one, which was accepted eight times, but killed magazines and/or editors. No, I don’t know why.)

Then I attended the Kris and Dean Oregon Coast Professional Writers Workshop (the first) and in those two weeks we HAD to — had to — produce five short stories and two novel proposals.  I did.  Also, at this point all of those short stories have sold.

After that I launched into a year of a short story a week (while writing two novels.)  It was a challenge of my writers’ group.

We didn’t succeed.  I think I ONLY wrote forty short stories.

The funny thing was, recently, reading over my past stories (I was transferring things from diskette) that the quality difference, after about a quarter of a story a week, more or less, was marked, visible and obvious.  I was much better after a quarter of forced production.  And from that point on, pretty much all the short stories have sold.

Novels too started being much faster.  Honestly, if I can stabilize my health at some point, a novel a month is neither unfeasible nor unreasonable.  I once wrote two novels (Heart and Soul and Plain Jane) in a month, and finished another one, though I can’t remember which (might have been one of the Musketeer books.)  In fact the main reason I didn’t write a book a month back when I was healthy was that in traditional publishing there was nothing I could do with that many books.  (Ah, for a way to send my old-self a little note.)

One of you emailed me last week and asked me if writing that fast was some trick that could be taught.

Sort of.  I’m not sure it can be taught, but it can be learned.  It’s a frame of mind you put yourself in, a mental block you remove.  And the only way to put it firmly in place is if you PRACTICE it and set yourself deadlines and goals.

However to the extent I can help, there are some principles to keep in mind that might help break the barrier.

1- how long you take to write a story doesn’t make it better or worse.  My highest-selling book was written in two days, and the next-highest-selling in two weeks.  By the standard that counts “how many people pay out good money to read this?” my faster written books are the best.

2- nine times out of ten the things you’re agonizing about on the story aren’t really important.  No, seriously.  Things like passive voice, overuse of to-be and too many adjectives and adverbs are things editors and critics care about, but most readers don’t notice, not if your voice is confident and strong enough.

3- Keeping a strong voice is much easier if you write the story fast.

So, that’s why.  Now HOW to do it.

1- Write as fast as you can.  If you are a slow typist, try voice dictation.  Put your mind in the story and write as fast as humanly possible.

2- Don’t edit.  I can’t say that enough DO NOT EDIT.  Write to the end without editing.  If you typed teh instead of the, it will wait till you’re done.

3- To facilitate do not edit, DO NOT read back to see what you did yesterday.  For best results leave yourself a sticky note about where you are going next.  That way you don’t need to read what you wrote and be tempted into editing.

4- if you’re an outliner, have a complete outline before you start, and then mark on the outline what you’re doing tomorrow.

5- if you’re a partial outliner like me, outline what you’re doing tomorrow at the end of the work day.

6- Did I mention write as fast as you possibly can?  Short story or novel race to the end.

7- Once you’re done fix typos then let it sit for a week.  This is an excellent time to send it to your betas, unless like me your idea changed in the middle and your beginning and end don’t match.

8- Fix continuity issues.

9- Make sure all your foreshadowing points right.

10- Make sure you got all your points in.

11- Do not revise/get caught in rewrites more than three times.  Three times, and let it go.

12 – move on to the next project.

Now I can say all this till I’m blue in the face, but you HAVE to practice it.  You HAVE TO PRACTICE it.  But if you do, I guarantee you’ll get better.

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Filed under SARAH A. HOYT, WRITING: CRAFT

Hero or Superhero

Usually by this time on Tuesdays, I have an idea about what I’m going to blog about. Heck, I usually have an idea when I get up. Sometimes I even have the post written the night before. But not today. I blame yesterday for it. Between painting and taking down cabinets and an emergency plumbing repair (nothing serious, just threw off my timing on the other projects), my brain wasn’t on writing or blogging. To be honest, I needed a day like that. But, it meant this morning, I was scrambling for a topic.

So I did what I sometimes do in that situation. I went to other blogs, social media feeds, etc., and looked to see what folks were talking about. I came across a couple of different threads on different sites about what readers look for in main characters, especially in genre fiction. The phrasing was different but it all came down to one main question: do readers want heroes or superheroes for their main characters? Or, to put it a little differently, do they want flawed characters who have issues to overcome and who might grow some during the course of the book or story arc or do they want that perfect character who, like Clark Kent, swoops in to save the day and rarely has a hangnail, much less anything seriously go wrong in their life?

In one of the discussions I looked at, someone commented that they didn’t think you needed a character to have flaws or to “grow”. They pointed out characters like James Bond and Indiana Jones and asked how they “grew”. I think those two stood out to me the most and for different reasons. Ian Fleming wrote Bond, at least in my eyes, as the “perfect” man. He could get and bed any woman he wanted. He was the perfect spy. He was the man most other men wanted to be. There’s no problem with that. For the time when the books were written and for the genre involved, that’s what readers and publishers wanted. Besides, for every James Bond, you had a George Smiley. John le Carré wrote Smiley as an older man, one who had fallen from grace in the intelligence community. He was not the perfect man and he had a past to overcome. In my mind, in many ways, he was much more interesting than Bond ever could be.

As for Indiana Jones, he was far from perfect. While those imperfections didn’t cripple him, they were there. He was impulsive. He didn’t always think through the consequences of his actions, even when those actions might put others in danger. He had daddy issues. We see some growth, especially with regard to the daddy issues in the third film. (We won’t mention the fourth film. Please don’t mention the fourth film.)

But, where my mind went first when I saw the original discussion was my own reading and David Webber’s Honor Harrington. One of the things I loved about Honor from the very beginning was that she wasn’t perfect. Sure, because of her genetic background, she was taller and stronger than some. She was also a brilliant Naval officer. But she had her own ghosts and insecurities. Those could come close to crippling her. She had a temper and a streak of vengeance a mile wide. Both of which cost her as well, at least early into the series.

I loved seeing her shine as a Naval officer and then seeing the insecurities as a “normal” person. I’ve known people like that. They excel in the office or boardroom, in the surgical suite or at the front of a classroom. But put them into a social setting and they suddenly think they are unworthy, ugly, insecure, whatever. That was Honor. Over the course of the first three or four books, we get to see her grow as a person. She was already a strong officer but as a “woman”, she had a long way to go.

That did not make her any less of a leading character or human. Far from it. By seeing her able to put those insecurities or, in some cases, prejudices behind her in order to do her duty was refreshing. those flaws kept her from being a Mary Sue (something she has come very close to being in the later books in the series, imo).

What I noticed on each of the sites where I saw this discussion happening was that they rarely seemed to mention female main characters, focusing instead on male leads. Maybe their responses stem from the belief that men shouldn’t show weakness, maybe it came from something else. I don’t know. But, I think it comes down to a matter of degrees.

I don’t know about you, but when I say I want a character with flaws, I don’t mean I want a character who has been broken by life. Oh, there are places for that, but not every leading character has to be broken. They can be bent — hey! Get your minds out of the gutter! — or they can simply be human. Growth doesn’t have to mean a major change to their behaviors and attitudes. It can be as simple as learning to admit that they don’t know everything or that they might not be the best at something. It can be learning to let someone else into their lives, be it on a romantic scale or with regard to business.

Sometimes, we need characters with some flaws to make them believable. What is appropriate to one story or genre might not be for another. So, here’s my question to you; what books do you think do the perfect (or superhero-esque) character well and which ones do you think do the flawed character well? (Yes, this is also my way of adding to my TBR stack.)

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Filed under AMANDA, characterization, WRITING: CRAFT

A Change in Plans

A quick note before I get into today’s post. The series on formatting will continue next week. I want a little more time working with some of the programs I’m going to discuss before blogging about them. Sorry for the delay but I wanted to be comfortable with the programs before not only reviewing them but, in at least one instance, recommending them.

As for today, well, the title says it all.

Last week, I released Nocturnal Rebellion. It is the fifth book in the Nocturnal Lives series and the sixth title overall. This was the first series I started and Nocturnal Origins was the second book I published. To say this series and its characters have held a special place in my writer’s heart is to put it mildly. Because of that, I expected a few days, maybe more, of mourning after Rebellion’s release. Why? Because Rebellion brings an end to the current story arc and I’m not sure where the story will go from there — or when the next installment will happen.

Okay, that’s not quite right. I have a glimmer of a spark of an idea about where to go next but that’s it. Knowing Mac and company won’t be part of my regular writing schedule for a while is, well, odd.

Normally, I take a week or so away from writing after a book release to do some promotion and to simply get my head cleared of that book and ready for the next project. That’s when I try to catch up on my reading, reorganize my office — okay, cleaning it and getting it ready for whatever I’m about to start writing — sleeping and gaming. It is also when I catch up on those projects around the house that I put on hold while I got the last book ready for press.

This time, however, it didn’t happen like that. I took a day. A single day. Then I dug into my office, clearing away all the notes and research used during Rebellion’s writing. Once that was accomplished, I sat down and over the course of the next two days, made notes on the projects that have been floating around in my mind, those I knew I needed to get done in the next six months or so as well as others that, it seemed, had been lurking just below the surface until I finished Rebellion.

By the time I was finished, I had notes on 12 separate titles. 12. What the bleep?!? Fortunately for my sanity, not all of them are novels. More fortunately, some were for titles I’d already planned and, in a couple of occasions, are projects I’ve already gotten very rough drafts completed for — the next in the Honor and Duty series as well as the next in the Sword of the Gods series. What I hadn’t expected doing this were the several standalone titles that cropped up or the additional titles I hadn’t planned in the Eerie Side of the Tracks, including a novel that hit me out of nowhere but that I’m very excited to write.

So what’s the change, you ask.

First, and least important, is the fact I sat down and actually made notes on more than the current work in progress. I very rarely do that. While I’m not a pantser, I most definitely am not a plotter either. I’ve always fallen somewhere in-between. Whether this indicates a change in my process or not, I don’t know. I’ll admit, the prospect of my process changing is a bit scary. But it’s happened before and I adapted. I’ll do so again.

The second change is in the publishing schedule. Again, it’s no biggie. That is the joy of being an indie. I can shuffle my schedule as needed. But, in this case, there is no shuffling needed. I simply added more titles to it. In a way, that’s reassuring. It is also daunting because it means I can’t goof off and say “I don’t know what to write”. And yes, there was a teen-like whine with that quote.

The change is the obvious one. For the first time in more than five years, I don’t have a story with Mac in the hopper. Part of me mourns that. But it was time for this particular story arc to come to an end. Yet, even as I write this post, I know Myrtle the Evil Muse is thinking about what to do with our band of heroes next. She’s already teased (okay, tormented) me with a scene with a panicked Mac discovering she’s pregnant and wondering the best way to potty train the baby of two people who shift into jaguars. Do you buy stock in diapers or kitty litter? Do you buy teething rings or scratching posts?

You see why I call my muse evil?

Crap!

Even as I sit here typing in this post, I hear Myrtle cackling madly. It’s not enough that she inflicted me with a book that wants to be written NOW! I feel a new series coming on. In case you’re wondering, it’s a bit like feeling a headache coming on. Why? Because Myrtle isn’t subtle. She comes racing in with her combat boots and bullhorn.

Seriously, the change I refer to in the title is more of a mental change than anything else. I noticed something as I wrote my last couple of books. I was allowing myself to be distracted by the internet, by gaming, etc. I know the reasons why but knowing them doesn’t always mean I do anything about them. So, I made the decision to change one very basic and yet important part of my writing. I have switched machines. My PC laptop no longer is my work machine. I’ll still use it for a couple of post-edit functions because it has a larger screen and some of the programs I use after I finish a manuscript. But the actual writing now happens on the MacBook Air. So far, it has been a very positive change. It is as though my subconscious understand that when I’m on the Mac, it is “work”. the PC is “play”. We’ll see how long that lasts.

I’m not recommending everyone go out and buy a laptop or desktop that is a totally different OS from what you have now. What I do recommend is that you review how you write and be honest with yourself about whether you are allowing yourself to become distracted too easily. I know authors who have machines without internet connectivity that they use to write on. Others don’t put games or social media apps on their work machines. I finally am starting to understand why.

The other thing I’ve done is blocked off several hours in the morning and then in the afternoon where I don’t go online. I don’t check email and I don’t go to Facebook or similar sites. This is “work” time. That has helped as well.

In other words, I am practicing what I preach — I am treating my writing like my business. I’m still looking at ways to get better, both with time management and with promotion. Boy do I need to get better at promotion. How about you? What can you do to improve your productivity? What techniques are you using that seem to help?

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Filed under AMANDA, WRITING: CRAFT, WRITING: LIFE

Random crumbly bits of author stuff

In no particular order. Your mileage may vary.

1) If you’re wondering about going indie, consider your lifetime fiction output. General rule of thumb — from a man I trust to know his business — is that “entry level” competency is reached when you have at least 500,000 words of books and stories in your trunk, and/or have several personalized rejections from trad pub editors. Prior to that, you may not have done enough “homework” to have your storytelling muscles up to the task of surviving in the indie marketplace. I know plenty of people immediately publish everything they’ve ever written, ever. I sometimes think that’s a mistake. I know I will get beat up for saying this.

2) If you’re wondering about going trad, consider your ability to withstand rejection. How long are you willing to wait for the editors/agents to decide you’re good enough? Keep in mind: waiting is not necessarily a bad thing. In my experience, breaking into trad pub print was one of the most satisfying events of my life. But I am from the old days, when the two options for authors were: outlast the gatekeepers, or shame yourself with vanity print. Anyone who has been through any kind of selection process — in any arena — will understand the joy of passing a tough bar. Just because it’s tough, doesn’t make it irrelevant. Although the tastes of many agents and editors can often seem wildly out of sync with the marketplace.

3) Editors and agents are not mind-readers. They cannot see into the future. There is no guarantee what will be a hit, or a dud, until it’s either a hit, or a dud. Some agents and editors develop reputations for “making” big-market talent, but this is akin to panning for gold: you have to devote a lot of time to sifting through silt, sand, and mud, just to get the little flecks and small nuggets of gold. In the words of one Hollywood producer, nobody knows anything. Ergo, the hits and the duds happen as they happen — and the one who ought to be a hit, isn’t, while the one who ought to be a dud, also isn’t. “Failure” in trad pub may have nothing whatsoever to do with the author or the stor(ies) and everything to do with events beyond an author’s control. Which is perhaps the #1 glaring flaw of trad pub that drives so many people to indie in the first place.

4) But indie isn’t an instant road to cash and fame, because now the slush pile is the whole world. Millions upon millions of books and stories being shoved at the audience, with fire-hose force. Standing out in that torrent, can be just as much of a chore as waiting in line at the gatekeepers’ transoms. You aren’t guaranteed anything. No matter how zealous you may be about the mode of delivery. Yes, indie grants the author full and total control, from start to finish. As well as the lion’s share of the take. But this also imposes the lion’s share of the responsibility. And if you thought it was painful waiting on editors and agents, it can be equally painful waiting on the audience at large. If you publish an indie book in the forest . . .

5) Don’t go cheap on covers. I know I am cutting against the grain with this. But seriously, don’t go cheap on covers. You want your cover to look like the trad pub covers that caught your eye when you were just a reader. Most artists will license an extant piece of artwork. May cost you anywhere from $200 to $500 dollars, which is stunningly inexpensive, considering that some of these men and women have done posters for Hollywood and done famous works which are known across the industry. I know many indie authors are poor as church mice, but still, don’t go cheap on your covers. You have a vanishingly short period of time in which to capture a prospective buyer’s attention. Pouring your heart and soul into a manuscript, then spending an hour on a free, terrible cover that you kludged yourself — with poor photoshop skills — is like devoting months of hard work to your diet and the weights at the gym, then going to the beach in dingy, grease-covered auto shop coveralls.

6) You can do everything right — according to the pattern established by your successful friend(s) — and still get bupkus. This is because the market is not a science. 1 + 2 does not necessary equal 3. It can equal 10,000 or it can equal zero. Consumers are legion, but they are fickle. They want a “sure thing” and herd dynamics dominate in every corner. Mountains of marketing advice is put forth, regarding ways to “game” the herd dynamic: get your product viral, so that the inertia of talk is on your side. When people are buzzing over your novel, especially if this buzz tends to self-reinforce as buzz-about-the-buzz, you can rake in wads. But there are still no guarantees. Like fishing. You can have the same type and kind of lure as your buddy next to you in the boat, with the same rod, same reel, same everything, and he will catch a dozen, while you reel in just one or two. Or none. And you have to be prepared to live with this. Pick yourself up off the hot pavement. Go wash your face and your hands. Then try again. And again. And again. And if this sounds way too hard for way too little return, there are 101 careers which serve as far easier paths to far better money.

7) So don’t quit your damned day job. Seriously. Do. Not. Quit. Your. Day. Job. It sucks trying to write full-time and work full-time. It sucks more not paying bills and being forced out of your house or your apartment. It sucks even more depending on the good will of your relatives, or your church, or government programs. If I had $10 for every embarrassed pauper author who proudly proclaimed, “I am a full-time writer, so fuck you,” and then (s)he went back to begging for lunch money, I wouldn’t have to work anymore. Starving artistry is not a holy calling. Really, it’s not. I know I am gonna get burned at the stake for saying it. But seriously, do not check out of the “mundane” work force. Not unless you’ve got a metric ton of dough in the bank, or you’ve got a spouse who eagerly volunteers to carry the mundane load — while you labor at the desk in the attic. But if you’ve got responsibilities to meet, and mouths to feed, please, meet them and feed them. As Steven Barnes said at Norwescon ’07, suffering for your art may be noble, but making your family suffer for your art, just means you’re an asshole.

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Filed under BRAD R. TORGERSEN, WRITING: ART, WRITING: CRAFT, WRITING: LIFE, WRITING: PUBLISHING

A Thread Run Through It

There is always more than one twist.

 

In order to make a strong thread, you have to make many, many twists. In order to sew pieces together, you need a thread run through them.

 

When I was a much younger woman, I spent a couple of years serving as an apprentice shepherdess. In practice, this meant I helped move sheep, feed sheep, clean fleeces, pitch hay and in general do scutwork. But I didn’t mind, because sheep are amiable companions when they aren’t being rockheaded dolts, and best of all, it was mostly outdoor work. One of the things I learned while I was doing this was how to spin a fleece into thread, and then the many ways a thread can be made into something else entirely, be that a garment, a blanket, or macramé. I never did learn how to knit, and I’m a clumsy spinner (not enough practice) but I can clean a fleece pretty darn quick and I know the basics of natural dyes and mordants. I do know how to crochet, and weave, but mostly I lack the patience to do that as anything but a whimsical amigurumi from time to time.

 

I’m talking about fleeces, but really I’m talking about writing, because what I learned about spinning forms a metaphor for creating a plot that runs through the disparate pieces of a book and ties them all together into a unified whole. Just like sewing up a garment, you take bits and scraps of cloth, and make them into something beautiful and richly colored. It’s not easy, by any means. For one thing, while I have done quilting, I ran around the Grange Hall as a tiny girl while the women sat and stitched, and I know how incredible the work can be when done by a master. My patchwork attempts are passable, but could be better. I’ll keep practicing.

 

A fleece from a sheep is, in essence, a lot of soft, fluffy hair. It’s hair, not fur: it will keep growing and growing until it’s cut. If you don’t shear a sheep every so often, it’ll die. Now, obviously this isn’t biologically premium, but a modern sheep is bred to hold onto it’s hair and not shed it, which is what wild-type sheep (and some goats) do. Once upon a time, gathering fleece to spin was a laborious process of gathering clumps of shed hair off bushes and thorny weeds, then cleaning it and carding it. Carding is the process of combing the hairs until they are all running in one direction. They still, if you take a clump and pull in opposite directions with both hands, will come apart. You’ll wind up with a tuft in each hand. But if you take that bit of fleece, and give it a twist, it’s harder to pull apart. Give it more twists, and suddenly you have yarn. Twist it tighter, with less fleece strands going into the spin, and you have thread.

 

Linen is a similar process, but the prep to yield strands is a lot more labor intensive. I’m not getting into that – I’ve never done it, although I’m familiar with the theory. And I’ve gotten sidetracked already from my thought.

 

A good plot has some twists in it. Readers who find the path smooth and easy to follow from opening to conclusion might bother to walk all the way to the end, or they may get bored and wander off, to leave the book unfinished forever. Throw in a few left turns, and suddenly they are wondering what will come next, and they will keep reading, compelled to find out what happens. In thread, the idea is to be as smooth and even as possible. In writing, you want slubs. Slubs are the funny little bumps and clumps that give raw silk, for instance, it’s characteristic ‘nubbly’ look. In a book, you want that sort of unpredictable thing in the plot. It’s still got the strong thread, but there are unique elements readers will only find in this story – it’s the slubs that will make your work memorable.

 

The more twists, the stronger the plot thread. But watch out! If you overspin thread, it starts to coild back up on itself – in DNA, that’s called supercoiling, and it’s part of how 6 meters of DNA can be packed into every single nucleated cell in your body (not every single cell – red blood cells have enucleated, and don’t have DNA) but it is considered less than ideal in spinning thread. It’s less than ideal in a book, too. Once that path has become so convoluted the reader loses track of what is happening, why, and to who, they start getting a headache and vowing to never read another of your books. I have a few authors I avoid for just this reason, personally. I’m sure some of you do, too.

Upcoming

Next week, if I can get enough data crunched (Since as you read this I am flying from Ohio to Oregon to move kids back and forth between Mom’s house and mine) I will be presenting a summary of a guided promo push I’m doing with a free book, and 6 paid outlets for book promotion (Fussy Librarian, Ebookhounds, and more). It should generate some interesting results. On the first day alone, featured in Fussy Librarian, I gave away about 350 730 copies, and on the second day, a whopping 2600. The idea is to break into some new market areas by giving away the first book of a series. If you want to get in on the action, Pixie Noir is free from Aug. 3-7!

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Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, WRITING: CRAFT

Formatting revisited

Before I get started, I want to thank everyone for answering my questions last week. I’ll be pulling your responses together and posting the results in the next few weeks (assuming real life settles down. It has been “interesting” of late).

Recently, formatting has been a topic of discussion with some of my writer friends. I knew I’d written about it before but was surprised to realize it’s been more than 2 years. So I thought I’d revisit the topic. Much of what I wrote before still holds but, as with anything, there are a few tweaks to the articles I’d like to make.

I’ll start out by saying I’m lazy. When I start a new project, I set up the document so that I have to make minimal formatting changes when it comes to converting it for either print or digital formats. The only real change I have to make is in line spacing. When I write, I have line spacing set at 1.5 o 2 lines. When I convert to digital that gets changed to 1.15 line and print depends on several factors but it, too, is usually around 1.15. But more on that later.

I also write in Word. No, I’m not going to get into a debate about what word processor program is best. I use Word for several reasons. First, it is the one I’m most familiar with. Second, it’s review function is, in my opinion, the best one of the major word processing programs available. Third, old Word Perfect (which rocked) does not convert well into e-books. Yes, there are issues with Word but the advantages outweigh them. But that doesn’t mean you have to use it. My only caveat is that you need to do two things with regard to any program you use. First, you have to make sure you understand the licensing you are agreeing to. Some licenses do not allow you to use the program for commercial purposes. Others restrict where you can use that file for commercial purposes (Apple). You also have to know what sort of licensing you are getting when it comes to the fonts included with the program. So read the boilerplate, even if your eyes start to glaze over.

The second issue is you have to understand that each of these programs have junk code written into them. That code can cause problems when your files are being converted into e-books. There are ways around it, ways that don’t require going old school and hand-coding the html. More on that later.

I’m not going to completely recreate my original post on formatting your document at the writing level. You can find it here. When you are getting started, here are a couple of things to remember. Don’t ever, EVER use “tab” when you start a new paragraph. Set first line indent in your paragraph formatting box. Don’t use two spaces at the end of a sentence. (It is no longer taught in keyboarding classes, so it is an indication you are not “young”. Yes, it can matter.)

Now, another general comment. Most of the online outlets require a table of contents for e-books. Don’t panic. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to manually create one. In fact, I haven’t included a ToC page in a work of fiction in the last five years. Instead, I use what’s called an “Active Table of Contents”. If you use the Headings options in your word processing program, the Active Table of Contents will be automatically generated. That will satisfy Amazon and the other major players. More importantly, it means you don’t have to worry about whether you have put the ToC in the proper place in your book. (Remember, Amazon has now forbidden placement of the ToC at the back of a book because less than ethical authors were doing so to work the system of page turns in Kindle Unlimited.)

Now, for the nitty gritty of formatting. This is all general information and can be tweaked to fit what you like the best. Remember, this is initially for writing the manuscript and for digital conversion.  (Note: I tend to increase the font size on Heading 1. I haven’t done so here because some sites like Smashwords have a font size limit and I can’t remember it off the top of my head.) One other thing to consider. You want your e-book or print book to look as “professional” or “traditional” as what readers are used to. That means you have to do your homework and discover what is standard for your genre. The information below is a starting point and can — and should — be tweaked to make it look the best for your genre and length.

Heading 1 (for section titles or chapter titles)

  • Font — Georgia
  • Size — 14 (you can go to 16 if you want but I wouldn’t recommend going any larger. Remember that a lot of folks read on their phones and a larger font will do odd things on their screen)
  • Special characteristics — Bold Italic
  • Alignment — Centered (Check to make sure first line indent has not be applied.)
  • Spacing — will correspond with what I use for the rest of the book.

Heading 2 (used only if I am using Heading 1 for anything other than chapter headings)

  • Font — Georgia
  • Size — 14
  • Special characteristics — Bold
  • Alignment — Centered (Check to make sure first line indent has not been applied.)
  • Spacing — will correspond with what I use for the rest of the book.

Normal (used for the body of the text)

  • Font — Georgia (This is my personal preference, but you can use Times New Roman, Garamond or others. My recommendation is to check to see what other books in your genre use.)
  • Size — 12
  • Special characteristics — None
  • Alignment — left
    • First line indent of 0.3 to 0.33
  • Spacing — 1.15

Here are a couple of things to remember:

  • No tabs.
  • No spacing before or after paragraphs.
  • When you have section breaks within a paragraph, use something to denote the break. I use *   *   * to do so. It is centered and, using the paragraph options dialog box, I remove the first line indent. You can use other indicators but, if you use special characters, make sure you have the license to do so.
  • Also in the paragraph dialog box, be sure you turn off the widows and orphan option.
  • Have a “page break” at the end of each chapter. This will make your reader have to “turn the page” to begin the next chapter, thereby making your e-book more like a “real” book. To insert a page break, you can either go to “Insert” at the top of your page and then click on page break or your can simply hit CTRL and Enter at the same time.
  • When showing internal thoughts, most authors use italics. That is what the reader is used to, at least here in the States.
  • I keep my margins and paper size — at this point — at 1 inch all the way around and at 8 1/2 by 11.

Something else I have been doing for some time now is not indenting the first paragraph of each new chapter. That first line is left justified. I then capitalize and italicize the first word to three words. I don’t tend to do more than that because of the varied font sized readers can select on their own. The last thing I want is to cap a long phrase or the entire line and then have it looking weird to my reader because they have increased the font size and the flow of what looked find on my screen now takes up several lines.

They key is that our e-books needs to look as professional and “traditional” as anything our readers might buy. The second key we have to keep in mind is that not everyone reads our e-books on their phones or tablets. Some read on dedicated e-book readers. Despite what some of the so-called studies say, dedicated e-book readers are still popular and will continue to be as the population ages. Why? Because an e-ink screen is better for the eye. There is less reflection off the screen than there is from a tablet screen or even the printed page.

But that means we have to keep in mind that some of the fancy font work we can do for print or for files read on a tablet can’t be done for an e-ink reader. So, if you want that fancy first letter in a chapter, you need to consider doing it as an image instead of font. Why? Because it won’t translate properly to e-ink and your reader can be left with something that looks not only odd but might not even appear. Of course, the downside to using an image is that Amazon charges a transmission fee and the more images you have in a file, the larger the file size and the more that transmission fee will be. So, you find other ways to make the first line to “special”. That’s why I cap and italicize the first few words. I can get fancier with the print version.

If you do all this while writing, you have set yourself up for a very easy road to conversion for your e-book. Better yet, you have very little you will have to change for your print version. Most of those changes will be global search and replace, a few minutes at best.

I know I haven’t gotten into the nitty gritty of the conversion process yet. I’ll save that for next week. In the meantime, if you want to jump ahead, here’s a link to the earlier post about it. Yes, things have changed. But it is a good place to start. Otherwise, I’ll be back next week with an updated version.

Until then, ask any questions you might have, either about today’s post or about what you’d like me to cover next week.

Later!

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