Indie Publishing on a shoestring

When I started writing my first novel, I knew exactly what I was letting myself in for. During my career as an accountant, I had published a number of books albeit of a technical nature. I knew it took perseverance to produce the first draft of any book. But it doesn’t stop there. It can take as long again to edit and re-write the manuscript until you know that the book’s structure works, and then there’s the checking of the formatting, consistency, and accuracy of the galley proofs until you have something worthy of publication. In those days, I had the benefit of professional editors and a host of technical people and resources I could turn to for help. On your own it’s a whole new ball-game.

I also knew that to publish a novel through a traditional publisher, I would need an agent and a publishing contract, which could perhaps take another two or three years if I was successful at all. And that the likelihood of being published first time was about as likely as winning the lottery. Even great writers, like Stephen King, spent years of receiving rejection notices before being accepted. I wasn’t prepared to wait that long.

The alternative was to self-publish. I did my research. There were lots of companies offering to help authors publish novels, but at the cost of thousands of dollars. Fortunately for me, I ignored them all; I wasn’t prepared to make that kind of investment for the kind of support they were offering, most of which related to activities I could do myself, or outsource for a fraction of that cost. I decided I would initially self-publish an e-book on Amazon, and would perhaps think of a print edition at a later point.

I realised I would need to outsource the preparation of the e-book cover to a graphics designer; but most of everything else I could do myself with a little bit of help from my wife on the editing front. The cost of preparing a reasonable e-book cover can range from $30-$3000. I was lucky I found an excellent designer through Fiverr on the internet for $55 and was very happy with her design.

The next issue was formatting the file for Amazon submission. This was something I thought would be technically difficult, but proved to be just the opposite. You don’t need to be a technical wiz kid to publish an e-book on Amazon. There are different ways of doing it, but I chose to use a software tool that I used to produce by manuscript, called Scrivener. It’s an amazing piece of software designed for authors. And it has the ability to ‘compile’ your manuscript into a variety of different formats, including mobi, e-pub, pdf , as well as Word and rtf files.

To ensure you are using the latest Amazon software you have to download a free file from Kindlepublishing called Kindlegen and tell Scrivener where the file is on your computer system. Then all you have to do is pull the graphics file for your cover into Scrivener and select compile function. The result is a mobi file that you can test out on your own Kindle, or on the PC or Mac using the free Kindle software for your Mac or PC.

The first time I tested the file on my Kindle I was elated. Once you’re happy with the file then it’s time to upload it onto Amazon. The whole process of setting up your account and uploading the file will probably only take 30 minutes, most of which is simple account administration.

Amazon has about 85% of the E-book market. To reach the other 15% I decided to use an aggregator: a company that deals with the retailers such as Barnes & Noble. My choice was BookBaby. Again I used Scrivener to compile this time an Epub file. I then used Calibre, a free open source e-book library management application, to check the Epub file worked as expected. Then it was a simple process to open an account with BookBaby and upload the file. Simple.

The last step on my the road to becoming an Indie author was to produce a print book of my first novel. Initially, I never expected to delve into print books at all. But this month I released the print version of my novel, “Collision – A Sci-Fi Romance” on Amazon and other retail outlets using CreateSpace, Amazon’s own print on demand company. The only additional cost in this process was to commission my graphics designer to produce a front/spine/back cover and the cost of a proof book.

The process is a little more complex than producing an e-book. Broadly, I used Scrivener to produce a PDF file with the right paperback size and margins as required by CreateSpace. And then uploaded the PDF of the content and a PDF of the cover onto CreateSpace system. The whole process took about two days to get the formatting absolutely right in Scrivener. Chapters have to start on an odd page numbers, and this means including blank pages where necessary in the Scrivener file. Page numbering and headers have to be turned off on pages containing front-matter, chapter starts and blank pages; and getting the gutter and outer margins right can be fiddly. I found a number of clips on YouTube dealing with Scrivener and CreateSpace that will walk you through the process, and CreateSpace’s own guidance on their website is also very helpful, particularly on margins and cover specifications for different numbers of pages.

Once the PDFs are uploaded they can be reviewed on CreateSpace’s online galley proof, which shows how the book will be printed. A number of iterations may be necessary before you get the formatting just right. Then you can order a proof copy of the book from CreateSpace to see what the final product looks like.

To sum up, the hardest part of becoming an Indie author is actually writing and editing a good novel to a professionally high standard. Good editing is important and it’s difficult to edit your own material entirely on your own. Fortunately, I have a very patient wife with a good eye for finding mistakes. A good cover design is also a must. The technical aspects of E-book and print book production by comparison are not daunting. It is simply a matter of working through the process. After you’ve done it once you’ll realise that actually it’s quite easy. The hard bit is writing your opus.

The Style Rules of Writing Fiction

After spending so much of my business career writing reports, books and letters in a plain style of English, writing fiction for the first time was quite a challenge for me. If you’re contemplating writing your own novel for the first time, you might be struggling with the same kind of issues. Below I’ve set out some of the principal style rules of writing fiction. They’re not exactly rules; as Barbossa said in Pirates of the Caribbean said, they’re “more what you’d call guidelines”. But if you don’t understand the guidelines, and why they are there, you won’t get very far.

Point of view.

When writing a novel, a writer needs to choose a point of view and normally stick to it. I touched on point of view in my last blog. It’s probably one of the main differences between writing fiction and non fiction. A fiction writer has a choice to narrate a story from perspective of a number of different points of view, and the choice that he/she makes will have a profound effect on the way the story is told. The key question is ‘who is telling the story?’ Is it written from the perspective of the author themselves as an objective narrator, or is the story being told from the perspective of one or more main characters in the story? Where the story is written in the first person (I/we) it will always be told through the eyes of the main character narrating the story. This is useful when the author wants to reveal the inner dialogue and feelings of the main character and build empathy for the character; but it is restrictive in that the writer cannot reveal what the main character does not see or experience themselves. Therefore, the main character has to be present in every scene. When the story is written in the third person (he/she), it is still possible for the writer to reveal the thoughts and inner dialogue of the main character in a scene if that’s what the writer wants to do. This is called limited third party point of view, or sometimes third party subjective point of view . Each scene could have a different point of view character depending on who was the main character in that scene. But the scene could also be written from the perspective of some detached objective observer without looking intot the heads of any of the characters. This latter objective third party point of view is a kind of cinematic viewpoint where the reader is given a cold objective view of characters and the reader has to make their own mind up about what the characters might be thinking. Lastly, there is an omniscient third party point of view, less common among fiction today, where the point of view expressed is some invisible god-like all-knowing narrator who can see into the minds of all the characters and comment on their behaviour. No particular point of view is necessary right or wrong. But the choice the writer makes will have a profound effect on the way the story is told.

Dialogue.

A writer should use concise and effective dialogue. Good dialogue should have the purpose of advancing the story, developing character, or creating dramatic tension; it shouldn’t be used as an information dump. Good dialogue has been described as conversational English, but with the boring parts removed. The normal convention is to start each piece of new dialogue as a new paragraph, so it is obvious when someone new is speaking. Dialogue tags (he/she said) should be used to distinguish who is speaking. Avoid descriptive tags such as ‘shrieked’, ‘shouted’, ‘exclaimed’, ‘groaned’, ‘whimpered’ and other similar sounding words. A simple tag such as ‘said’ will normally suffice. The reason is that even when ‘said’ is repeated, it is relatively invisible to the reader’s eye. Other speech tags tend to stand out too much, and duplicate what should be obvious from the dialogue. Where a paragraph starts with a character action (or beat) (e.g. ‘He turned towards her.’), it is presumed the following dialogue relates to the same character and a dialogue tag is not necessary. Good use of beats is therefore a way reducing the number of speech tags. Also if there are only two characters present and it is obvious which character is peaking a speech tag is unnecessary.

Contractions.

In fiction contractions such as shouldn’t, it’s, I’ll etc are all quite acceptable. In the business world it would be unusual to see them at all. Similar, certain grammatical constructions normally avoided in business English can be relaxed in writing fiction, when it is seems natural to do so. So starting a sentence with a conjunction such as and or but or ending a sentence with a preposition such as on is acceptable. But don’t over do it.

Adverbs

Good fiction writers tend to minimise the use of adverbs (words generally ending –ly). Why? Because there is usually a stronger verb that is more effective. For example, ‘The man ran quickly’ could be written ‘The man sprinted, or darted’. Also when used as part of speech tags, adverbs can overstate the obvious. For example: ‘Well so what if I did!’ he shouted loudly. He said would suffice; the adverb loudly adds nothing to the meaning.

Punctuation

Good punctuation and good grammar are much the same in fiction and non-fiction. But don’t be tempted to use punctuation for dramatic effect. Exclamation marks should be used sparingly and multiple exclamation marks should never be used.
That’s the end of my list of style ‘rules’ that are different from business English. I am sure there are more. Feel free to comment.

What a novelist can learn from the movies

It’s almost eight months since I published my first novel and I’ve only just written the opening scene of my second novel.  It might seem a long time in planning, but I haven’t been working on it full time and I wanted to make sure that I had the right story and I understood my plotline and characters before I got started.  Knowing how I would start the story was easy; figuring out how it would end was much more complex.

Imagine that you were asked to plot the end scene of Star Wars, without knowing the detail of what came before.  You know the good guys are going to win and the death star will be destroyed, but how will they do it? Or if you’re writing a romance, you know the hero and heroine will get together, but how will it happen?  Endings are perhaps the most difficult to plan-ahead and outline.  Yet without some idea of the ending it is impossible to prepare a workable plot outline.  Of course, we could always write the end scenes first; there is no reason why any novel should be written chronologically.  But I suspect there are few authors that actually do it that way in practice.  (Let me know if you do!)

Recently, I read about a famous crime fiction author who said he never knew which character was the murderer until he had finished his first draft.  That’s real organic writing or ‘pantsing’.  And he’s not the only famous writer who has confessed to not knowing his ending before starting their first draft.  Of course, there are many writers, who don’t outline their work because they see it as unnecessary or too restrictive.  To them story telling may be as instinctive as riding a bike.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that these master storytellers haven’t prepared, or haven’t thought deeply about their characters and story idea before they start; or for that matter that they don’t consider story structure when editing the next draft.  For lesser mortals that are still learning the craft of storytelling, some form of outline plan or story structure is helpful.

One of the fun ways of understanding story structure, oddly enough,  is by watching movies. Yes, it’s a very different  medium from writing, but movies are all about storytelling; and a novelist has to become a good storyteller.  Much like a novel, a movie is an emotional rollercoaster where for a short time we grow to empathise with the hero or heroine as they face the trials and tribulations of their story and at the end, if the movie is any good, we will end on an emotional high. How they produce this magic in 90-120 minutes of film-time, requires a great screenplay, great acting and direction, plus the odd $100 million or so.

It’s therefore not surprising that many of the great books on storytelling are directed at screenwriters and not at authors.  But many of those same books are just as relevant to authors of fiction.  Two of my favourites are ‘Save the Cat’ and ‘Save the Cat Goes to the Movies’ by the late Blake Snyder.  The latter book analyses the stories of many of the great blockbuster movies into their components or beats.  It’s a great read and if you haven’t already come across Blake Synder’s Beat Sheet before you will find it fascinating.  It will also change the way you look at movies.  Another great book is John Truby’s ‘The Anatomy of Story’, which takes a slightly different approach. Truby sets out a twenty-two step story structure that sets out the most dramatic way to tell your story.  Again a fascinating book and a lesson in story structure.

There are also some books aimed directly at authors of fiction that take ideas from the screen and apply them to the novel. Three  good examples are Alfie Thompson’s , ‘Lights! Camera! Fiction! A Movie Lovers Guide to Writing  a Novel’, and Alexandra Sokoloff’s  ‘Screenwriting Tricks for author’s’  and ‘Writing Love; Screenwriting Tricks for Authors’.  Each book does exactly what the titles suggest.

Now it’s time that I got back to writing that novel.

Authors’ software

As a newbie author, I’m always on the lookout for new software that might make the task of writing easier. I have always wondered if there was that killer application lurking out there that would make life simpler, if only I could just find it. Other newbie authors might be thinking the same way. Therefore I thought it would be helpful to run-down of the software that I find useful. It’s not necessarily the best, but it’s what works for me.

Firstly, it is important not to forget that many great authors in the last century managed to publish their great works of fiction without much more than pen, ink and paper. The most important ingredient is therefore, and will always be, that piece of software between your two ears. But it would be silly not to recognise the power of personal computers, laptops, pads and even phones to make life easier.

The most obvious application is of course the word processor, and I have seen quite a few during the course of my business career. Today Microsoft Word clearly dominates the business market and has become virtually a de facto standard both in the business and publishing worlds. I have used it for over two decades and it is still my word processor of choice for general word-processing , spellchecking and editing. But it is not what I use for drafting or publishing fiction.

For most of my business career I was a Windows user. When I retired two years ago, I was looking for something new to do and I took a look at the Apple Mac. I had also heard great things about an application called Scrivener that then ran only on the Mac (A version is now available on Windows, but lacks some of the functionality of its Mac counterpart). I purchased a MacBookPro and Scrivener and started to write. I used Scrivener to write and publish my first book ‘Collision – a Sci-Fi Romance’. Scrivener is an amazing piece of software, so much more than a word processor that it’s difficult to describe. It allows you to write scenes and chapters in any order you like, move them about without cutting and pasting; and you can visualise the structure in either an outline format or as cards on a corkboard. And you can review your notes while writing on a split screen. It also allows you to compile your manuscript into a variety of formats including DOC, RTF, EPUB and Amazon’s MOBI and more. For an excellent review of the software see http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2012/02/04/scrivener/ or go to Literature and Latte’s site at http://literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

The other software I tend to use is a mixture of tools some of which run on the Mac others are Windows. For outlining before I start a project I tend to use OmniOutliner. This is a simple outliner for the Mac, which I use to map out the scene structure. It’s quick and efficient. You can also export files from to Scrivener into OmniOutliner and import OmniOuliner reports into Scrivener.

When I am developing ideas I sometimes use mind maps. There are many free applications available on the Internet. The one I used recently was MindMeister, which does pretty much everything I need. More recently, I have used the beta version of Scapple from Literature and Latte. It’s not really a mind map, but an application that mimics a large whiteboard. It’s great for putting down ideas in free-form as though you were using a big whiteboard. When it appears in the Apple Store I will be one of the first to buy it.

I use Microsoft Excel for analysing scene structure and all kinds of analysis. This might seem strange for an author, but for someone that has used spread sheets in the business world for over two decades it is the most obvious software for me to use. I’m simply used to it. If you don’t already have Excel, for other reasons, then I would suggest a simpler spreadsheet would suffice. There are many available on the internet, some of which are open source and free.

For general note taking, I find Microsoft’s OneNote is the best for jotting down ideas and thoughts. I’ve looked at Mac note taking software, but haven’t yet found anything quite as powerful as OneNote. However, for project specific notes, outlines, character sketches and the like I put directly into one of my Scrivener folders for access when I am writing.

There are also a variety of software products that claim to provide authors with a framework or structure for novel building. Some are very structured – a kind of novel building by numbers. This type of software doesn’t interest me. Others like StoryWeaver, Novel Writer and Contour have some merit as structured learning tools, but have limited value to me personally. The remainder seem to duplicate some of the functionality of Scrivener. The one exception I came across was StorybookPro. This is a story boarding application that has some useful visual features for viewing the different strands of a plot and for tracking the time line. I found its Book Summary and Character List reports useful. In my case I exported the reports as RTF files and imported them into a Scrivener folder for access for when I am writing.

Lastly, there are lots of software products that are aimed at helping the author with the editing, and grammar checking process . Most of this software seems to me to be over-hyped and expensive and the ones I’ve looked at didn’t provide any noticeable improvement over Microsoft Word’s own spellchecker and grammar checker, which I already use. Personally, I think it is impossible to produce a grammar checker that is totally reliable, because of the complexity of English grammar. Accordingly this type of software will always produce ‘false-positives’ to confuse the author. A writer needs to have a good grasp of grammar. And if he/she doesn’t then they’re in the wrong business.

There is one exception I would make to editing software and that is software that analyses word count and over-used words in your work. I use a software product called MasterEdit (Windows) which is simple and efficient and inexpensive. And if you’re interesting in analysing your writing style you might like to look at the free online sites http://prowritingaid.com/free-editing-software.aspx and http://editminion.com/

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned any software relating to social media. This is because when it comes to social media I am a bit of dinosaur. For example, I only use my cell phone for telephoning and I have never sent a text in my life. But perhaps I’ll summon up the courage to dip into the social media in the near future. I never thought I would blog; and here I am.

That’s it. This was never intended to be a comprehensive review of all the software available to an author; only a list of those software products that work for me. If anyone out there believes, there is a killer-application that I have missed please let me know.

Finally published!

On the 29 October 2012, and after nearly two years in development, I published my novel, “Collision – A Sci Fi Romance”. It took less than an hour to actually publish the book on Amazon. Even for a technophobe like me, the process was simplicity itself. I simply followed the input screens on Amazon and uploaded the file and cover. The following day I got an e-mail from Amazon telling me it had been published. I went onto the site, and there it was. Amazing.

Does this mean anyone can self publish a novel on Amazon Kindle? The answer is ‘yes’; but of course there is the small matter of actually writing the book in the first place. That means you need an idea for a book and a great deal of will and determination to follow it through. Many, of course, start to write with good intentions, but after a few thousand words give up in despair. It is not as easy as it seems. Some might even finish the first draft and then despair at the thought of editing the draft; a process that can be as long as the process of writing itself.

In my case, I had a slight advantage; I had written two non-fiction books before, one of which went through six editions, and I had acted as editor of a technical newsletter for one of the largest firms of accountants in the world. I had also contributed chapters to a number of other publications and published a lot of articles. I knew I had the basic writing skills; but could I write fiction? As I was to discover the world of fiction was a totally new experience for me.

At about 25,000 words I started to falter; I had concerns about the plot, about the characters, about dialogue, and about virtually everything.  And I realised that I needed to do much more research about how to write fiction. So I did, what I suspect most newbie writers do; I read dozens of ‘how to write fiction’ books. I have quite a library of them now. Most of them are very good, and will help you identify what you are doing wrong. But don’t expect them to turn you into a Stephen King or a Dan Brown. They won’t. At best they will get you to look at the way an author is telling a story in a different way.

I said earlier that it had taken almost two years to produce the book. It’s taken longer than I expected; but there was a lot to learn during the process and I am still learning. Perhaps the next will take far less.