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The Perils of Print-on-Demand

9 Aug

I’ve always loved reading, be it comics or novels and from a young age I could often be found lying in the corner of the lounge, head in the pages of a book. My mum was an English teacher, so Enid Blyton was strictly verboten – as in her work was not allowed in the house.  Everything on the home bookshelf was game, including my dad’s many volumes of very rude Rugby Songs, some of which my brother and I learned and then recited in public, causing much parental embarrassment. My early leaning was always towards science fiction, thanks mainly to Gerry Anderson; as a teen, I moved into fantasy, powered by the discovery of Michael Moorcock, Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. Sometime in the mid 70s, I bought the Lord of the Rings as a three volume set, having begun reading it around a friend’s house. It was the first printed book I’d ever held in my hand that totally blew me away. If you search Google for ‘LOTR book cover’ there are hundreds of images to choose from, covering many reprints in many languages. The set that I had was similar to the illustration here – simple, understated, yet profound in its symbology. When I held the book in my hand, moving my finger around the one ring and the Dark Lord’s incantation, it felt as though the novel was possessed by an arcane power.

The second novel I encountered that had a presence was Terry Pratchett’s ‘The Colour of Magic‘ and shortly afterwards ‘The Light Fantastic‘. In both cases, it was Josh Kirby’s artwork that initially hooked me. Pratchett’s writing was fresh and funny, it blew away the cobwebs of traditional fantasy, which had become trapped within its own framework of stale plots and staid characters. As I read both books, I felt as though I was holding a complete package that oozed magical charm. [As an aside, Harry Potter has never done it for me, but I have a couple of friends who had a similar experience with some of the hardback editions to the point where they couldn’t put the books down!]

When I set out to present The Ferret Files, I did so as an independent author with full control over the internal artwork, the contents and the cover. I was intent on creating something that spoke to the reader before the pages were ever turned. Why then, as a massive consumer of paperback and hardback books for most of my life, with a vision to create something truly awesome, did I opt to publish Ferret as an e-book only? That’s a question that’s not only haunted me for the early part of 2017, but it was also the most asked question by my readers. One of the primary drivers for going digital was a fear that the original artwork wouldn’t scale down for print. Richard’s full page drawings are A3, and they’re very detailed. Astonishing, in fact. Hence I shied away from producing a physical print version because I didn’t want to create an inferior product. What I didn’t know when I set out on my journey is that one of the limitations of digital is that images cannot be embedded in with the text. As a result, the e-book didn’t fully realise my dream.

Print-on-Demand

Having worked in IT for most of my life, keeping up with trends as they emerge, I decided it was time to dip my toe in the water and remedy the situation with a Print-on-Demand (PoD) version of Ferret. I mean, how difficult could it possibly be? The question was posed on a Friday afternoon three weeks ago. I now have the answer…

PoD is exactly what the title suggests. An electronic copy of your work is uploaded to a central location and when a customer presses the button to buy, a copy is printed off within the country of purchase and despatched within a few days. I figured this was likely to be expensive, but as it happens I was wrong. As a printing methodology PoD is cost effective up to around 50 copies of a book. After that, traditional print wins the day. I had a quick look around Amazon to see what other authors are doing, and two options became immediately obvious. There’s Amazon’s own offering called CreateSpace and there’s Lulu. As an Amazon subsidiary, I decided that CreateSpace must be pretty good so they made the cut. Lulu, as an independent author platform also ticked all my boxes. A comparison of the two sites suggests that Lulu is the more expensive of the two in terms of the cost to produce a book. The Lulu site has a lot of help to offer, as well as some very useful and active forums. Most importantly of all, I found and downloaded a free A5 template with instructions (go here: http://www.lulu.com/create/books and click ‘Download Template’). Once you have this piece of the jigsaw puzzle, everything else becomes so much easier. I wish I’d found this link at the beginning, rather than two weeks in.

Lulu allows you to format the book and cover, do some basic checks and then you’re off to the races. It’s very much down to you, with no human checks performed. I’m still waiting on CreateSpace to come back to me with a price for Ferret, as there is a degree of human interaction in the creative process. This prevents mistakes around the formatting of the interior and the cover, which believe me are easy to make.

I’m not going to go into massive detail about everything PoD related, but here are the basics.

The Interior

  • The cost of a printed book is determined by the number of pages it contains. If it’s in colour, then it costs more than black and white. The addition of b/w images takes up page space but doesn’t affect the overall cost.
  • A page must have margins top & bottom and left & right. There’s also a gutter margin, which is where the spine is located. The Lulu template shows pages side by side, with mirror margin set. This is very useful when determining what a book will look like. The minimum margins all around are 0.25″ (6.33mm), but it’s usual to use 0.5″ (12.66mm). This is what I settled on. The size of the gutter margin is determined by the total number of pages in the book – the more pages, the thicker the spine overall, the larger the gutter.
  • It appears that different countries have different standards for retail book sizes, so your template will be determined by where you live in the world. CreateSpace likes a 6″ by 9″ template, which is standard for the USA but also applies to the UK and Europe. Lulu also operates in these countries but wants me to print using an A5 template (5.9″ by 8.51″). Fortunately, the Lulu template allows the page size to be changed with ease, and the book insides adjust accordingly.
  • As a tip, always use a page break to break between pages, and not hard returns – otherwise changing the page size may catch you out. Page Break Odd / Page Break Even proved very useful with the large illustrations.
  • The choice of font is down to you. Times New Roman is a favourite, but anything that’s San Serif will do (Lulu lists the standard options). Ideally, the text should be set to 11 or 12 point. The smaller the text, the less pages you’ll have and the cheaper your book will be to produce. However, going down to 10 point will make the finished article very difficult for seniors to read. As an example, A5 format Ferret with 12 point Times New Roman clocks in at 420 pages. Cutting the text size down to 11 point results in a novel that’s 356 pages. The difference in Lulu production costs between the two is £1, or £6.79 vs £7.80 to me. CreateSpace uses a 6″ by 9″ template, which is slightly larger than A5. Here, 12 point Times New Roman produces a book with 356 pages.
  • Images can be added onto a page and embedded in the text, but they must be 300dpi. For Ferret I embedded the 9 x vignettes in with the text and then set each of the 4 x large illustration on a page on their own, with a blank side on the rear. The large illustrations have the margins set to 0.25″, which allowed me to scale them as large as possible.
  • Both Lulu and CreateSpace require the interior to be in PDF format. Both sites accept Microsoft Word and will happily do the conversion for you. However, as I soon discovered, not all PDF convertors are created equal. I messed about for a couple of days experimenting with Lulu and finally concluded that the optimum results with embedded images are obtained by using the Word ‘Save As’ function, and selecting PDF. The fonts must be embedded in the document, which is an ISO save option. Allowing Lulu to do the conversion results in the large single page illustrations being rendered unviewable.
  • Finally, as part of the distribution data you’ll need an ISBN number. You can obtain one yourself which costs $$$, or allow Lulu / CreateSpace to allocate one for you. Either way it needs to appear on the inside cover, on the copyright page. The ISBN number is format dependent, which means you’ll need a separate one for print and digital.

The Cover

  • Both CreateSpace and Lulu have the capability to create covers for you. As I already have some rather nifty artwork for the front cover, I opted to upload it. I messed about for a couple of days trying various settings – initially I tried to upload just the front cover and use Lulu’s inbuilt templates for the back cover and spine, but matching the colours proved to be impossible. In the end I had to download an evaluation copy of Adobe PhotoShop and edit together a full wraparound cover. The end result is very pleasing, but if maths makes your brain hurt I suggest you either: a) get someone else to do it for you; or b) use the auto-build templates as provided. The CreateSpace editor looks very snazzy, but I didn’t go there on the grounds that I’d already taken the decision to make a full A5 jacket.
  • If you’re using your own artwork for the cover, it needs to be slightly larger than the printed page by 3.3mm per side (this is called the bleed and will be cut off in the manufacturing process). The full wraparound cover for Lulu’s A5 (148mm wide by 210mm high) version of Ferret is (151.3mm + spine + 151.3mm) by 216.6mm. The width of the spine is based on the number of pages the completed work contains, so cannot be accurately calculated until the page count is known. For Ferret this works out at 20.4mm.
  • The spine is intended to bend where the covers meet, so has an area each side of the fold that should not be printed on. A gap of 0.0625″ (0.15875mm) either side of the spine must be left blank. This caught me out with CreateSpace, who flagged up the Ferret logo as being too large. As I was unaware of this potential issue until it was brought up, I’m pretty sure that the proof copy I ordered from Lulu is going to be wrong (update – it’s out by about 0.5mm, which I can live with – yippee!).
  • If you intend your work to be available to resellers, then it requires a barcode on the back cover, which contains the ISBN number. CreateSpace will helpfully add this for you when you upload the artwork or use their cover creator. With Lulu and a full wraparound cover, you have to follow the links to create a barcode which must then be cut & pasted onto the back cover.

Once the uploads are completed, all that remains is to order a proof copy of your work and wait for it to arrive. Mine turned up yesterday and there are a couple of small amendments that need to be made (my name is ever-so-slightly wonky on the spine and I discovered a missing ‘‘ in one of the later chapters), but otherwise we’re good to go. All in all, my experience of PoD has been really good if somewhat drawn out, but then I enjoy learning new things so it’s not a hardship. Plus I have a genuine enthusiasm for creating printed works, so the roadblocks thrown up in front of me were only ever going to be driven over. I’m really pleased with the results and unless an earthquake strikes Ferret will be out as a POD novel by the middle of August.

If you have a project that’s underway and you need any encouragement I’m happy to hear from you…

 

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How to Launch a Successful e-book in 10 Easy Steps (parody)

13 Jan

dollar-signsI’ve recently been engaged in launching an e-book and despite reading many useful tips and techniques, I’ve still managed to write the manual on how not to do it properly. In order to assist those who wish to follow in my footsteps, I present how to launch a successful e-book in 10 easy steps.

  1. The starting point for our e-book is an accumulation of text we’ve written. The objective is to make $$$, so under no circumstances will we employ a proof-reader or an editor. Our time is the most precious commodity we have, so we’re not going to edit the text ourselves, we’ll simply go with what we’ve got. If in doubt about the readability of our manuscript, we’ll sprinkle it with random, additional commas. It’s impossible to have too many. There’s no need to bother with character arcs, a killer first chapter or a killer ending, as around 20% of downloaded e-books are never even opened. Of those that are opened, around 70% are abandoned before the end. Our e-book must be priced enticingly, so we’ll set the price at $0.49. We’re in the quantity box-shifting game, but at the same time we have no interest in people actually reading the book. In my experience this price break nets us some $$$ whilst asking for minimal commitment from the easily distracted reader. If writer’s block is an issue, we’ll have to think about plagiarizing someone else’s work. We’ll borrow from the bowels of the Interweb as we don’t want to make the same mistake that The Verve made with their hit single Bitter Suite Symphony. They leased the melody from a little-known instrumental track by The Rolling Stones and they thought no-one would notice. Bands like the Stones have armies of lawyers and they’ll pursue you to the ends of the earth for fifty cents.
  2. We need a title that’s short, snappy and attention grabbing. We can’t use Short and Snappy, that’s been done. For this exercise we’ll use Jizz! Books by well-known authors feature their names in huge letters on the cover, with the book title in slightly smaller script. In our case, as an unknown author, the title will be huge and our name relatively small. One of the reasons why the title needs to be short and sweet is that it must fit on a single line. In the world of reduced attention spans, calling our e-book My Viral e-book that will Take-over the World is a no-no. Most people will get bored before they even reach the third word. One additional piece of advice: we don’t want our book title to contain a word which is spelt differently in the US and the UK. This will simply wind up the Grammar Nazis, and they’re harder to shake off than Rolling Stones’ lawyers.
  3. Next, we require a pseudonym. This is our fake name, or if you want to get all author-y, it’s our pen-name. This is important, because should the crap hit the rotating device big time, we’ll need to vanish sharpish. We’re not going to use our real name, even if it’s Steve Smith. Instead, we’ll choose a name that sounds female, implausible and slightly offensive. Lady Bigflaps and Titty McMammogram are both taken, but Victoria BJ is free. As the ultimate objective of the campaign is to turn our e-book into a viral sensation, we’re not going to use the name of our worst enemy (even if they’re called Foxy Cox). Sure, they’ll get their 15 seconds of infamy, but they’ll also boast about it for the rest of their life and that’s intolerable.
  4. Our e-book needs a cover. We could spend hours fretting about look and feel, but honestly who cares? What’s your favorite jizzcolor? Sorted. There’s over 6 billion people on the planet and a good proportion of them will like our choice. Next, fire up Google, type in ‘free book cover’ and we’re off. We won’t waste too much time choosing the background as the title will take up most of the cover space. The title font is our most important sales tool. It has to lodge in the brain of the casual browser and give them a screaming headache. Once it’s jammed in the grey matter, they’ll be compelled to buy our book just to stop the pain.
  5. A blog is a must. We can set one up for free at WordPress.com. It doesn’t really matter whether we blog using our author name or our book title. All of the functionality we’ll need is built-in for free and it’s easy to configure a good looking website. Don’t buy a funky custom template or a custom domain name. Both cost money. It might look professional, but the only people who pay attention to such trivia are other authors and techies. We want to make sure it’s possible for other bloggers to follow us. Also, we need the subscribe button enabled, to allow non-Wordpress users to receive email updates. Our customer list is our most important sales tool – it’s our funnel to our followers and we need to collect as many as possible. This way we can annoy them remotely with incessant posts and emails until they eventually give in and buy the damn book. Remember: it’s only $0.49 and it’s a life-changer.
  6. We need an Amazon account. Once we’ve created one, we can upload our manuscript and Amazon will convert it for free. We’re not going to bother checking the formatting, because if we find a mistake we might fret about getting it right, and that costs time. See how I’m saving us money. Every expense is spared. Once we’ve uploaded the cover art, we’re nearly ready to go – all that’s missing is a description of the book. They say that sex sells, so let’s make sure that the description is liberally peppered with the word sex. Let’s settle on: Sex on a bus. Sex on a plane. Sex… sex… sex… Want some? Read Jizz! now! Get all the sex… sex… sex you deserve! Blimey. I want to read it already.
  7. We now need a pair of Twitter accounts – one configured as the title of the book and one that matches our author name. In the book account profile, we’ll use the c

    [Rude sofa]

    over picture with a description: Sex… sex… sex… For the author account we require an out-of-focus picture that’s vaguely rude. This will make our punters curious. We must embed the Amazon URL in both profiles. Next, we’ll spend 24 hours a day following everyone under the sun from both accounts. We’ll need a big jar of coffee and a packet of strong caffeine tablets. From the book account, we’ll like random posts and retweet random tweets often, until we have 10,000 followers. At this point, we’ll switch into promote-the-book mode. We must be ruthless and dedicated to the cause. We’ll use a service such as buffer.com to schedule our tweets for free. Ten an hour is about right. Every tweet should claim our book is a 5 star read and contain the hashtags #ebook and #sex. We’re looking to wear the b’stards down through repetition. We don’t tweet a thing from the author account. This gives the appearance that we’re one of those ladies of ill repute who want to get down and funky before formal introductions. This is our secret stealth sales tactic. Guys will follow back under the assumption that we have a webcam loaded with extreme filth, ready to be streamed straight into their porn parlor. When guys follow, we’re going to send a Direct Message (DM) plus URL to promote Jizz! They’ll immediately think we’re a cunning little vixen and download the book, anticipating tons of sexy pictures. Job done. In the worst case scenario, they’ll complain loudly and often via Twitter. That’s what the BLOCK function is for – we don’t need that kind of negativity in our lives. We must avoid any protracted conversations once we’ve got a sale, as we don’t want to end up on the TV show Catfish.
  8. Facebook is invaluable, which is why we’re going to create a pair of Facebook pages that are managed from our regular Facebook account. It’s important to use a page as this gives us more functionality and management capabilities than a standard account (such as promoting posts and paid advertising, which BTW we’re never going to use). We’ll call our first page Jizz! the book.  For the sake of legitimacy, we’ll call the second page: Victoria BJ Author. This stops anyone else pretending to be us, which is important for the scheme to work. We don’t want to accidentally appear on any TV shows before we’re ready, especially if the manuscript is plagiarized. We’ll link each of the Facebook pages to the respective Twitter account, so that anything we write of Facebook is auto-tweeted. Now we’re ready to start boasting about how successful our book sales are. We’re going to make stuff up. We’ll tell the world how many copies we’ve sold in the last hour. It’s important that everyone thinks we’re doing great. More importantly, we need to convince ourselves we’re doing great, as this is the key to being a successful author. How we feel about ourselves is far more important than actual sales.
  9. While we’re getting up to speed on Twitter and Facebook, we’ll take some time to get reviewed on Amazon. If we’re going to spend any $$$ on the campaign, then paid for reviews are the way to go. five-starGoogle is our best friend here. With a bit of effort, we should be able to get 100 x 5 star reviews for $25. Amazon is trying to clamp down on this kind of activity, so we may need to make our book free for a day and then get our friends to download it. Once they’ve registered as a customer they can add a 5 star review. It’s worth making sure there’s at least one 4 star review, so as not to raise suspicions. The 4 star review can say: cracking read, but a bit too much sex for me. See how we’ve turned a negative into a positive. If we manage to get Amazon on our case for posting fake reviews, we’ll resist loudly and tweet our indignation and disgust, as well as letting Amazon have both barrels on Facebook. We’re after total attention, because attention equals sales and sales = $$$.
  10. The final piece of the puzzle is to accumulate Facebook likes. This is where our friends come in again. We’re going to like both of our pages as ourselves and then encourage our trustworthy friends to like those pages too.  The objective is to legitimize our activity. We have to impose on our trustworthy friends and ask them to share our Facebook page with messages of support – we must make that sucker move. Without paid advertising, it can be slow to gain traction on Facebook, so what we’re going to do is to borrow some tasty cat videos from around the web. We’ll post them on our Facebook e-book page with the comment: Want some pu$$y? Read Jizz! and provide a handy link to Amazon. Let’s not be shy and stop at one cat video. People love cats, so we’ll spread that cat love far and wide.  To ice our cake we’ll follow some ‘C’ class celebs and bombard them until they give us repeat tweets. Remember: persistence always pays off eventually.

If we implement each of these steps with panache and a sense of humor, the $$$ will roll in.  Experienced authors might complain that we need to get registered on sites like goodreads.com, but that’s the last thing we want to do, as someone might actually read the damn book. The ultimate objective of the game is to push the boundaries as far as possible until something snaps and we get found out. This is where fame and fortune lie. In the process of following the 10 steps, whether we like it or not, we’ve become expert bloggers and social media whizzes. Once we’re outed, we can either fess up (play the hero) or be fudick_dll of spite and indignation (play the villain). Whichever role we choose, we’re going to make a lot of noise and that means exploiting our new found social media skills to the full, and with the help of local news channels and podcasts we’ll become the great author we already know we are. With enough badgering, someone somewhere will give us a nice little paycheck to tell our story, and that’s when we get to publish our real best seller: Jizz! The Fairytale, which is all about how we tricked the world into buying a $0.49 book that no-one actually read. Naturally, we’re going to employ a ghost writer as we’re going to be far too busy with the partying and fast cars to do it ourselves.

Disclaimer: this article is obviously tongue-in-cheek and there is no way that I as a professional author condone plagiarizing the work of others. May you burn in the bad place stipulated by your religion of choice if you do so…

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Shovels for Sale

21 Dec

snow-woveI’m busy learning how to market e-books, having done very little research into the subject prior to publishing my first novel. I have a very curious nature, so reading and learning new things is not something I run away from – rather I run towards the opportunity. Having spent around ten days investigating how the e-book / online publishing business works, I’m reminded of something that Mark Twain once said:

During the gold rush it’s a good time to be in the pick and shovel business.

Although the odd person struck it rich during the California gold rush of the 1840s & 50s, those who made a ton of money were the people selling the tools with which to locate, extract and refine gold. I’m guessing approx 1:10,000 struck it rich, whereas all 10,000 required a shovel.

The prospecting business model can be applied to many areas of life. Back in the early days of the Internet, there was a rush for dot.com domain names. Everyone was busy registering everything in sight, in the hope of striking it lucky and selling their domain name on to a big company that was slow off the mark, thus pocketing $million$. There were one or two notable sales made before the rules were changed to make domain squatting an offense, but when the dust cleared the folks that made a mint out of the domain name gold rush were the registrars not the squatters.

What I’ve discovered in my foray into online publishing is that there are a heck of a lot of peeps out there in internet land flogging shovels of every shape and size. Naturally, they’re not called shovels, but that’s definitely what they are. For instance:

  • A WordPress blog is free. However, if I want a snazzy domain name rather than domain.wordpress, that’s $20 a year please.
  • If I want to make any mods to the standard WordPress code, I have to move to a dedicated server (for security reasons). That’s about $5 a month. I’m thinking of doing this anyway, as WordPress won’t allow me to host a shop.
  • The mods in question are PHP code extensions such as email address sign-up. WordPress does the sign-up basics for free, but it’s not possible to push the option at the casual reader. Whilst I can get a basic slab of pop-up code for free, I can’t install it. If I move the website, then the pop-up will contain ads from the creator. In order to get rid of these and have full control over page placement that’s more $$$ please. The full service from a reputable email list provider BTW is $10+ a month, depending on numbers, so the free option is attractive cost wise, it just looks a bit cheap.
  • salesfunnelWhy do I want to create an email list? Well… according to research, most people visit a website once and don’t go back. Getting their email address is a means to continually poke them remotely with super offers until they cave in. Get my other novel for free. Get the first book in the trilogy for free. Blah, blah. An email list is your list of valued customers, and as an author it’s your most valuable asset next to your published works(s). I’ve visited the blogs of other authors to see what they’re doing, and indeed the successful ones are prompting visitors to sign-on to the mailing list. In sales terms, this is known as the ‘Sales Funnel’ and it’s the modern equivalent of making sure you get a prospective customer’s phone number before they leave the shop. After that, it’s simply a case of hassling them in the nicest possible way until they eventually surrender to your charms.
  • Next we get onto likes and reviews.  Just like with Twitter followers, I can go to a dodgy site and buy tranches of likes for a Facebook page. Personally, I think that’s cheating. The Ferret Files Facebook page has quite a few likes, which were accrued via Facebook paid advertising. It’s working out at $15 per 1,000 likes, but the likes are real not made up. Reviews are more tricky. I can buy 100+ 5***** reviews on Amazon fairly cheaply. Or, I can go for free reviews which take an age to get back and in truth could be only ** or ***. Again, I think that buying reviews is cheating, although it’s very tempting. Certainly better than no reviews. As you probably realise by now, it’s impossible to trust Twitter followers, Facebook likes and Amazon reviews, but customers do (including me).
  • There are a multitude of self-help books that detail what I’ve described above and how to do it. Everything I’ve written about can be discovered for free, but that takes time and time is $$$. Buying someone else’s experiences is yet more $$$ please.

nice-shovelI haven’t even covered  the shovels that are for sale prior to writing a novel. You can buy advice on: better writing, better structure, how to develop characters, killer beginnings, killer endings, pace, etc. In fact, it looks to me like there are vastly more people out there selling shovels for writing and publishing than there are authors successfully selling golden novels. Perhaps that what I should do next: create another shovel.  It’ll have to be a very pretty shovel that no one else has yet made, full of fantastic new ideas on how to do all of the above at very little expense.

What do you think? Does the world of online publishing need more shovels, or is there not enough gold out there to warrant it?

 

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Those Final Tweeks

23 Nov

epub-logoI recently received The Ferret Files back from my lovely packaging pals in XML format, so we’re nearly there now. The only thing I’m not 100% happy with is the rendering of the artwork. When it comes to physical print, which I fully intend to follow through on, the 8 x vignettes will be in with the text. For e-book, this isn’t possible if I want reflowing text enabled (the text has to sit top/bottom of the illustrations). I don’t really see this as an issue. Or didn’t…

The pics as submitted were trimmed to size, for wraparound text. As soon as they’re used in the e-book at this size, various readers try to adjust the pics for best fit. The result is best described as ‘a hall of mirrors’, with an end result that being a stickler for detail, I can’t live with. We’re currently working through getting this right. In the process of checking that the e-book is typeset correctly, I discovered a handful of errors with the text.

*Shock*

*Horror!*

superhero-dry-cleanersNot that I’m obsessive, but I’m going to have to read the damn thing again now, from cover to cover, to make sure there’s nothing else I’ve missed.  Unless I trust in my one proven superpower.  When it comes to testing IT, I have this ability to zero in on any problem straightaway. I discovered it one lunchtime back in the day, when a pal of mine, who’d just been intensively testing an identikit program for the previous few weeks gave it to me to play with.  Within 10 seconds I’d broken it. If I recall, there were 8 x face shapes, 8 x noses, 8 x ears, 8 x eyes, 8 x mouths and 8 x hairstyles to choose from. That’s 262,000 combinations. Only one combination didn’t work and I found it with 6 button presses.

Here’s the question: do I trust in my superpower to have found the only 3 errors in the manuscript, or do I read Ferret again? What would you do?

(Seriously, who’d be an indie author…)

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Get Back in the Box

15 Nov

cat1Creating characters is not something I’ve ever had a problem with. If anything, it’s the opposite – I’ve got far too many good characters screaming to be let loose who simply don’t fit in with the story I’m writing. If you try and cram them all in, then proceedings becomes overloaded. The only logical thing to do is park them in the box marked ‘spare characters’ and slam the lid tight to muffle their screams.  I’ll give you an example relating to The Ferret Files. Bob Bobson has been with me for a very long time. In a way, he’s Ferret’s surrogate dad, or at least his older brother. Either way, he was always there for Ferret when the boy was growing up. I’ve written pages of their adventures together. Bob is a good, solid character who I know like the back of my hand. As The Ferret Files progressed and I came to know the rest of the cast, they jostled for position, demanding more screen time and poor old Bob, who’s hard done to and takes things in his stride was steadily pushed out to the periphery. I’d intended to write four chapters from Bob’s POV, but once the pace of the story picked up, whenever Bob made an appearance, it slowed things back down again. One of the other characters would whisper in my ear that they belonged in such-and-such a scene, not Bob. I’d listen, give it try, and lo and behold, the pacing was back on the mark. Bob ended up as a minor character who we meet at the beginning of the book and is mentioned in passing a couple of times. His best scenes are all on the cutting room floor. He will make an appearance in book three, as he has an input into the plot. At the moment I’ve told him he’ll have his own Ferret short story (Curses) and being Bob, he’s happy with that.

My writing style is best described as ‘organic’, in that I framework the entire story before I begin, but once the gloves are off, I’m open to cosmetic changes. The major scenes remain the same but how the characters arrive at their destinations can alter. Really, it’s the difference between arriving at a posh club by cab, wearing a suit or arriving dressed as a clown, riding a unicycle. Cyrano, the elegant Frenchman would never arrive in anything but a cab, whereas Ferret might start out in a cab and end up arriving late on a unicycle…

clownTo begin with, I couldn’t tell the difference between a character leading me off down a rabbit hole for their own gratification, and a change of direction by a character that made the story better. In the unicycle example, Ferret might meet a really interesting street entertainer called Prince Regent. Now I’ve done it. The street entertainer, who was an extra with no lines now has a name. You don’t get called Prince Regent unless you have an engaging back story. So now Prince Regent has a speaking part. Before long he’ll be demanding I promote him to minor character, then if I don’t watch it he’ll want a show of his own. This is a distraction. Prince Regent – it’s off to the box with you, to keep Bob company.

After all the jostling and maneuvering, we end up with a big scene where all the main characters arrive on time, exactly as they should. It’s then that I realise that someone is missing. Bob was supposed to be there as Ferret’s foil and there’s now a gap. Bob pokes his head out of the box and shuffles along, ready to play his part. Except I’d need to bring him back in earlier scenes, otherwise the continuity is shot. And there’s no room for him in the other scenes, because the characters with the massive egos have stolen the show. Prince Regent says he’ll do it. On his unicycle, eating french fries. No, no, no! Both of you, get back in the box! Ferret will have to use a random, incidental character as his foil. It won’t be as funny as Bob being there, but it requires less of a rewrite. One of the waiters steps up. He has a name, you know. Alberto. Except he’s not Italian, he’s from Romania. He speaks English like an Italian because an Italian taught him English. And there you go. Suddenly, Alberto has a speaking part and an interesting back story. It won’t be long before he too wants to be a minor character, and after that he’ll want his own restaurant and TV show. Sorry Alberto, it’s off to the box for you too…

Interestingly, the major villain of Ferret book two is a character who’s been in the box for twenty years. I wrote a couple of unpublished short stories featuring him that long ago. He always wanted more. And now he’s getting it. His gang has changed, as in one of them didn’t make the cut. So it’s back in the box for him. The box has an infinite capacity and a life as long as yours. It doesn’t have to be emptied immediately or topped up forever. It’s your box, to do with as you please.

cartoon-waiter-009NOTE: If you’re stuck for characters and you have a story that requires a unicycle riding clown called Prince Regent who juggles French fries, or a Romanian waiter called Alberto who speaks English with an Italian accent, feel free to give them a good home. Prince Regent may well turn out to be a killer on the run. Alberto is more likely to be threatened by the mob for refusing to pay protection $$$. Bob stays in the box. He’s not for sale or rent. Unless he gets written out of book three, in which case he’s up for grabs. IN the meantime, if the Irish band he sings in makes it big, he’s off on tour to have a few adventures of his own…

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Pre-publishing Purgatory

7 Nov

PurgatorySometime back in April I thought I was ready to publish The Ferret Files. That is, until I submitted the manuscript for a copy edit. This was supposed to be the final step in the rewrite/edit/rewrite wash cycle, but what came back had very little red ink on the page. Most people would think “Hey, great – I’ve done a fantastic job.” But not me. Having run a documentation team, I know what a thorough copy edit looks like, and when there’s not enough red ink it makes me think that the editor has performed a half-a$$ed job. So I took the liberty of seeking a second opinion. As it turns out, I was right to do so. The first editor had done a half-a$$ed job. There was so much he missed, I could easily write a novel on how not to perform a copy edit. Rather than dig up the drains, I chose to move on and finish what I started.

In a previous article, I reckoned I’d be finished by v13. I was wrong by 2 versions. There were some minor changes needed before I sent the finished manuscript off for proof reading, and a whole bunch more once it came back.

off-to-the-racesI’m now out of Edit Hell and in Pre-publishing Purgatory. This is when the novel plus artwork is turned into an e-book or hard copy. After that, it comes back for sign-off and then we’re off to the races. Being of sound mind but somewhat compulsive when it comes to formatting, it’ll take me a couple of days to check everything off. Once that’s done, Ferret will be out there and I can go lie down in a darkened room with a vodka drip feed and say ‘wibble’ a lot.

Who’d be an author, eh? There must be more efficient ways of torturing oneself (he says, whilst plotting the 2nd and 3rd novels in the Ferret trilogy).

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Version 1.0

14 Sep

Here’s a question for yoversion-1u: how many versions of a document / manuscript does it take to create a Version 1.0?

To clarify, V1.0 is something that you the author are happy to publish and distribute to the world. On the cover, after the title, in large, friendly letters, it says:

 

Document Name

Author: YOU

You will be judged on the content, the grammar, the spelling and the layout. If it’s a work of fiction, add the plot and characters too.

halberdPart of my day job is authoring design documents, which are subject to internal review prior to being published. Hence I’m used to criticism. The most complex design doc is the High Level Design, or HLD. I reckon on 4-5 iterations by the time v0.1 goes out for comment. I then expect to go through another 2-3 versions before final publication. I’m really happy if v0.3 is the final version before v1.0, which gives 8 versions in total. If a document reaches v0.5, I start minor increments (v0.51). Once we get to 15 versions (v0.56) , I’m chomping at the bit to get the damn thing out the door. At this point, between me and success there’s always a pedant who won’t be moved because he/she doesn’t like a particular paragraph or requirement definition. All the time I’m boiling away inside, feeling personally slighted and wishing for a medieval weapon.

For The Ferret Files, I tried to follow my tried and tested methodology. It took six revisions to create v0.1. I figured v0.3 should be it. I was wrong. We’re finishing up on v0.53. Where I went astray was my estimation for how long it would take. I thought perhaps weeks. Try two people full time for four months. The final version of Ferret is revision 13. I was not happy with this figure to begin with. Recently, I saw Jeffrey Archer being interviewed on TV. He said that on average it takes him 17 revisions to get a manuscript right, all hand written then typed up. He neglected to mention that he has a secretary to do the dirty work. So by his estimation it takes two people full time for nearly a year to produce a best seller.  Suddenly, I’m feeling much happier.

My copy editor asked me why I was on v0.53 and not v0.8. Well, it all harks back to my first serious job, working for Commodore computers, who made the C64 and Amiga. One day, I met Frankie, a big shot engineer over from California, who was auditing the UK’s manufacturing processes. We got on rather well – he was a solid, no crap kinda guy at work, a hoot down the pub., which is where he told me about a recent chip manufacturing saga.

chip-03“Have you ever looked at what’s stamped on the top of a chip?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s the chip catalogue number.”

“And after the serial number?”

I’d never paid much attention to the last set of figures, which on most chips was ‘-01’ or ‘-02’. Occasionally, there was a ‘-03’. Frankie explained that in order to blow a chip, the engineer must first create a mask. The final set of figures was the mask number. Given that each mask cost $100,000 (in 1982), the engineering department obviously preferred a ‘-01’. Frankie then pointed me to a chip that had ‘-05’ on it, which, I remarked, had  presumably cost a cool half a million dollars to get right. Frankie laughed. The engineer who been tasked with making the mask didn’t know his ass from his elbow. By the time he’d reached ‘-07’, this was obvious to all and sundry. Except nobody stopped him, so on he went creating new masks and muffing it up. Each time, his boss figured he’ll get it right soon… if I just give him one more chance… And so on. Eventually a working chip appeared with the suffix ‘-33’.  It had cost months of messing about and $3.3m to make.  To avoid public humiliation, the suffix was immediately changed to ‘-05’. This was followed by an enquiry, during which the engineer responsible was reassigned and told never to work on chip masks again, and his boss was fired. Presumably into orbit.

The moral of the story for me is quite simple: keep your version numbers low, preferably below 0.5. If you get to 0.5, panic and start the cover up. Management can’t tell the difference between 0.5 and 0.54. They can. however, tell the difference between 0.5 and 0.9. If you’re covering up, don’t leave it until 0.7, as this grabs too much attention. Finally, if it takes 33 revisions to get something out the door, perhaps you’re in the wrong job…

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