Category Archives: Writing

Learning CreateSpace

My self-publishing adventure continues!

Lately I’ve been learning how to do CreateSpace so that I can put out my own print books as well as ebooks. Almost two years ago now I put together my short story Cthulhu Unbound, a satirical Lovecraftian piece, and bundled it with the prelude to Arcana in an effort to boost my ebook sales. As you can see from those sales ranks, so far it hasn’t really worked, but obviously one short story a writing career does not make. I’m more tenacious than that.

Between working with my Moonfire Publishing editor on Ipswich and Written in Blood, which are still on track to come out this summer, I have another project that I think many of you will find amusing. A few of you have seen it already, and heard me read a bit here and there. That’s what I really need CreateSpace for, since I want to release both a print version and an ebook this time around. So I’ve been learning the ins and out of page layout, designing covers, and all that good stuff. It’s fun, though it helps if you’re (A) obsessive, (B) an IT person, or (C) both, like me.

So why CreateSpace? There are other options out there that don’t support Amazon’s evil empire, but unfortunately at this point none of them really provide the same level of exposure. Amazon is now something like 40% of the entire book market, which when you think about it is pretty nuts. But the bottom line is that they do appear to have the best publish-on-demand setup, and no surprise, it integrates into their online market better than anybody else’s does. You can make an argument for going with somebody else, but let’s face it – margins in book sales are so tight these days that every little bit makes a difference.

As for that new project – consider this a bit of a teaser. Right now I’m in the process of putting the book together, and I’m not going to be announcing what it is until that’s done and I’m a little further along. Suffice it to say, it’s a great, great classy book that I’m sure you all will love to read. And I’m going to leave it at that for now.

Switch Modalities

I’ve been doing a lot of work with my editor at Moonfire Publishing lately, finishing up the remaining work on my upcoming summer releases. So that’s where my mind has been. I thought that today I would share one of the best tricks that I’ve been able to come up with for editing your work when you don’t have an editor, and are trying to get a manuscript ready to self-publish – switching modalities.

Editing books is pretty much the bane of the self-published author’s existence. One of the biggest differences between traditionally published books and self-published books is the quality of the editing. You can hire a freelance editor to work on your manuscript, but that can cost thousands of dollars. If you don’t have that kind of money, here’s a handy trick that will help you edit manuscripts on your own.

Editing your own work is so difficult because of a phenomenon called “word blindness.” If you’ve ever tried to edit a story or a novel, you’ll know what I’m talking about. You’ll go over your manuscript again and again, and you won’t find anything wrong with it. But then your work is published, and you realize that some parts of it still have typos, errors, sentences that don’t make sense, and so forth. You were sure they weren’t there when you proofed the thing.

Much of that is a product of composing your work on a computer. Some authors write by hand and then transcribe, and that does work for catching a lot of errors. But it’s also a great big pain in the butt. If you’re a poor transcription typist like I am, it takes forever. Composing on a computer is also a lot faster than writing by hand. The problem is that when you compose on a computer and do all your editing on a computer, word blindness is hard to avoid.

The simple solution is to shift modalities. First, compose and edit your manuscript on the computer until you are happy with it. Then switch modalities – print the manuscript out and edit it again, with a pen on paper. This seems kind of silly, but it really does work. When your brain reads through text on paper, the words are processed slightly differently than they are on a computer. So much of your familiarity of your manuscript is short-circuited.

Once you have your on-paper changes, and you will have some, go back into your digital manuscript and update it to reflect those changes. Then print the whole thing out again, and read the printout out loud. Yes, read the whole thing. When you run into issues, and you probably will, mark it up with a pen once again. Then, when you’re through that, update your digital master copy to fix any issues that you found reading the text.

You probably will be surprised at how much better this process will make your manuscript. It’s no substitute for a professional editor, but it should take care of the vast majority of typos, errors, and awkward sentences. It’s time-consuming, especially the reading out loud part, but you can do it yourself and it’s free. With the amount of time it takes to write a story or novel in the first place, the results make it totally worthwhile.

Six Kinds of Stories

I missed this article from The Atlantic when it came out almost a year ago and only recently came across it. A group of researchers have used artificial intelligence software to determine the main arcs found in storytelling. Kurt Vonnegut famously lectured on this topic, mapping the story chronology on one axis and the experience of the protagonist on the other. This method can be employed to show the essential “shapes” of stories and compare them to one another.

Vonnegut had mapped stories by hand, but in 2016, with sophisticated computing power, natural language processing, and reams of digitized text, it’s possible to map the narrative patterns in a huge corpus of literature. It’s also possible to ask a computer to identify the shapes of stories for you.

That’s what a group of researchers, from the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide, set out to do. They collected computer-generated story arcs for nearly 2,000 works of fiction, classifying each into one of six core types of narratives (based on what happens to the protagonist):

1. Rags to Riches (rise)
2. Riches to Rags (fall)
3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
4. Icarus (rise then fall)
5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Their focus was on the emotional trajectory of a story, not merely its plot. They also analyzed which emotional structure writers used most, and how that contrasted with the ones readers liked best, then published a preprint paper of their findings on the scholarship website arXiv.org. More on that in a minute.

This is a fascinating area of research that may someday lead to computer-generated or at least computer-assisted fiction writing. For example, I can imagine a “shape tool” for writing that would take a story in progress and analyze it by chronology and character. This is necessary for longer works like novels, since for a novel to really be complete even the minor characters should have their own arc or “shape.” That’s one of the keys to deep world-building that feels real and natural.

As far as popularity goes, the team also worked on analyzing which stories were most liked by readers, which is helpful when you’re trying to decide what to write in the first place. And in fact, they may have identified a disconnect between the stories writers like to write and the stories readers like to read – though further research is probably required in order to reach anything like a definative conclusion.

“Rags to Riches” may be popular among writers, but it isn’t necessarily the emotional arc that readers reach for most. The categories that include the greatest total number of books are not the most popular, the researchers found. They examined total downloads for all books from Project Gutenberg, then divvied them up by mode. Measured this way, “Rags to Riches” is eclipsed by “Oedipus”, “Man in a Hole” and, perhaps not surprisingly, “Cinderella,” all of which were more popular.

What this suggests is that in general, while readers generally like happy endings, they also like to see the protagonist of a story overcome problems and obstacles in order to get there. And with tragedies, they like to see the protagonist succeed before he or she is eventually undone. That should be fairly obvious, as a story with a straight trajectory is relatively free of dramatic tension, but it’s still a good rule to keep in mind.

So which of these stories do you write, and why? Does the article make you think about ways you can improve the structures of your stories?

Oxford Comma

If you’re familiar with my writing, you probably are well aware that I am a fan of the Oxford or serial comma. This can be a surprisingly contentious debate among writers. For anybody who doesn’t know, the Oxford comma precedes the “and” in a list of three or more items, like so.

“I write urban fantasy, science fiction, and nonfiction books on the Western Esoteric Tradition.”

The Oxford comma shows up there after “science fiction.” Without it, the sentence would be written like this:

“I write urban fantasy, science fiction and nonfiction books on the Western Esoteric Tradition.”

Opponents of the Oxford comma find it redundant because as they see it, the “and” already provides the necessary division between items. However, depending upon the sentence, it can be ambiguous with respect to the last two items on this list being part of a whole. Here’s another example that I found online:

“Amanda found herself in the Winnebago with her ex-boyfriend, an herbalist and a pet detective.”

versus

“Amanda found herself in the Winnebago with her ex-boyfriend, an herbalist, and a pet detective.”

Without the Oxford comma, the sentence is ambiguous. Is Amanda’s ex-boyfriend the herbalist and pet detective? Or, are there four people in the camper? This recent news article got me thinking about this today. In a court ruling from the state of Maine, the absence of a serial comma, intentional or otherwise, turned out to be crucial to the case.

The serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma for its endorsement by the Oxford University Press style rulebook, is a comma used just before the coordinating conjunction (“and,” or “or,” for example) when three or more terms are listed. You’ll see it in the first sentence of this story—it’s the comma after “milk”—but you won’t find it in the Maine overtime rule at issue in the Oakhurst Dairy case. According to state law, the following types of activities are among those that don’t qualify for overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving,
freezing, drying, marketing, storing,
packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

There, in the comma-less space between the words “shipment” and “or,” the fate of Kevin O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy was argued. Is packing (for shipment or distribution) a single activity that is exempt from overtime pay? Or are packing and distributing two different activities, and both exempt?

If lawmakers had used a serial comma, it would have been clear that distribution was an overtime-exempt activity on its own. But without the comma, wrote US appeals judge David J. Barron, the law is ambiguous as to whether distribution is a separate activity, or whether the whole last clause—”packing for shipment or distribution”—is one activity, meaning only the people who pack the dairy products are exempt. The drivers do distribute, but do not pack, the perishable food.

Seeing as I don’t believe in depriving any hourly worker of overtime pay, this is a happy outcome as far as I’m concerned. But it also shows why the Oxford comma is necessary for clear communication. If it were in standard use, its absence would be meaningful and the statute would unambiguously read (packing) (for shipment or distribution) as opposed to (packing for shipment) (or distribution).

Some opponents argue that the use of the Oxford comma is somehow more ambiguous, but I just don’t see that. The point is not that you have to use it all the time regardless of context, but rather when the last two of your three or more items are distinct. You omit it when they are not. That’s how I use it when I write, and in my opinion everyone should do it that way.

Of course, there’s a lot of disagreement out there on that point, and it has somehow turned into the writing version of the “how to hang the toilet paper” argument that so many non-writers seem to get worked up about. This case shows that it is less trivial than you might think at first, and its ramifications can lead to real-world consequences.

The Truth About Writing

die_by_the_penWhile my efforts to post more articles about writing on this site have been less fruitful than I had originally hoped, I came across this article on Slate yesterday. To get to the letter I’m talking about you need to scroll down a bit. Seeing as that letter is directly relevant to the state of the writing industry today, and it seems to be alluding to misconceptions that a lot of writers and would-be writers have, I figured it was worth sharing with some comments.

While he has a full-time job, my boyfriend considers himself a writer first. He’s had shorter works published and just spent two years on his first novel. He sent the first chapter to numerous publishers only to get rejections or no response at all. He’s just gotten rejected by the one publisher who asked to read the whole novel. Each rejection is painful to him, and the whole thing has left him devastated and questioning his passion. I’m trying to be supportive but don’t know enough about the industry to offer helpful advice. Given the state of publishing nowadays, I always thought it may be a long shot even though he’s talented. He was just starting on a second novel but says he’s giving up if this first one doesn’t go anywhere — that it’s not worth the time and effort. What’s the best way for me to support him through this, and is there any advice you’d give to him?

First off, my advice is to read this from 2004, this from 2013, and this from 2015. The general trend of the industry should be evident – the money in writing has basically been going away for the last twenty or so years. These articles are all written by people more successful than I am in the writing industry, and even for those folks, it’s tough going.

My first book, Arcana, was published in 2009. It did what most new novels do – it produced a flurry of sales when it came out, and then the sales rank dropped like a stone. Mastering the Mystical Heptarchy and Mastering the Great Table have actually done better over the years, and continued to do better, despite their niche subject area. One of the things that I didn’t understand at the outset is that even though there is a much bigger market for fiction, essentially every fiction book has to compete against every other. The Enochian books do better because there aren’t many books on Enochian magick, especially compared to fiction.

Slate’s Dear Prudence recommended that the boyfriend in the letter should find an agent. I suppose that might help – if it works. The trouble with submitting work to agents is that it’s just like submitting work to publishers. Most of them will reject you, too, for frustrating but understandable reasons such as your work not really fitting market conditions at the time of submission. So there’s a good chance that submitting to agents rather than publishers will just lead to another round of rejections for this poor guy. I’ve submitted to agents myself and still don’t have one, after seven years and three published books in print.

Still, as the first article there from 2004 shows, the problem with agents, especially today, is that they take a cut of the already not-very-much-money that you make writing. Unless you’re sure that you have a real bestseller on your hands, it may not turn out to be worth it. No matter how sure you are, and – this is important – no matter how good a writer you are, that’s hard to predict. Most readers have trouble distinguishing good writing from great writing, and many even have trouble telling good writing from mediocre writing. A survey of popular books from the last ten years will show you that quality is really not the deciding factor. Market forces are.

So why write? You have to do it because you love it, full stop. And yes, you have to have a full-time job unless you are unbelievably lucky or independently wealthy. And luck is what sales are about – it’s very difficult to predict how the market will react to a book, if not impossible. Dan Brown’s first three novels didn’t even sell 10,000 copies, but then his fourth was The Da Vinci Code, which sold 81 million copies making it one of the most popular books of all time. Brown’s work is hacky, kind of cliche, and not particularly literary – but now that he’s hit the jackpot, everything he writes (of course) sells very well.

The big secret about publishers now is that they basically do no promotion for your work – besides some straightforward online stuff you can do yourself – unless you’ve proven yourself successful enough to warrant it. And that’s a big chicken-and-egg problem, because you essentially only get promotional resources once you no longer need them. That’s a big problem for authors who are just starting out, and it was already a big problem seven years ago. Sometimes I wish I would have gotten off my butt and finished Arcana sooner (it was a rewrite of a novel that I first completed in 1989) because at that time, publishers were more engaged with promotion. But still, all that depended on getting the book accepted in the first place.

I don’t know if this is where the boyfriend in the letter is coming from – it’s hard to say from a secondhand account, edited into an article. But if he is working on writing novels with the goal of “making it” as a writer and being able to do it full time, he probably is doing it for the wrong reasons – especially in this day and age. I can only think of a couple writers who are able to do it full time without holding another job, and none of them are rich or even that well-off. Once I realized this, I was very happy to have done as well as I have as a software developer. The writing helps too, since being a developer who can also write has opened a lot of doors.

My advice is pretty simple. You have to love what you write, because otherwise it’s usually not worth doing from a strictly financial point of view. Statistically speaking, you’re not going to be the next J. K. Rowling or Dan Brown regardless of how well you write. And unless you break into that upper upper tier, you are probably going to be able to make better money doing something else. It used to be that mid-list writers with established fan bases, coming out with a book a year, could make maybe $20,000 per year. These days, it’s more like $10,000 – not even minimum wage.

Second, look into small indie presses and consider self-publishing. Indie presses will give you a bigger royalty cut than the big publishers will, it’s easier to get your work accepted, and big publishers won’t do much promotion for you anyway. Self-publishing requires you to learn a few more skills like formatting ebooks and putting everything together for printing, but you get all the profits – and I will point out that popular self-published books do sometimes get picked up by big publishers if they do well.

Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fanfiction, then was self-published with “Edward” and “Bella” changed to “Christian” and “Anastasia,” and “vampire” changed to “billionaire,” and after that was picked up by a big publisher. Now there are movies. So it can happen, even with a book that by traditional writing standards is just plain awful. But it’s highly luck-based and very hit-or-miss. If the right people happen to get ahold of your book, and they happen to like it, even a self-published title can do very well.

Me, I’m still writing in the Indie-publishing space. Ipswich, the second novel in my Guild series, is going to be released by Moonfire Publishing, a new publishing startup here in the Twin Cities, sometime this next spring. We’ll see if it does better than Arcana. It’s always possible that it might go through the roof, and all of a sudden turn Arcana into the bestseller it never was when it was originally released – but I’m not holding my breath.

It does take longer to get books written when writing is essentially a second job, but these days it’s pretty much unavoidable unless you hit it big. The first draft of Ipswich was written back in 2011, five years ago. I’ve been tinkering with it ever since. Mastering the Thirty Aires, the final book in my Enochian trilogy, is still not finished, even though Pendraig would be happy to publish it as soon as it’s done. That’s kind of frustrating, I won’t lie, but it’s necessary. There are only so many hours in the day.

To some extent, I would say that my feelings about writing are like filmmaker Werner Herzog’s famous quote about the jungle – “I love it, but I love it against my better judgment.” At the same time, there are other hobbies I could be pursuing that would make me no money at all, and even incur significant expenses. Really, that’s what it usually has to be – more of a hobby than a vocation. And I don’t know what would have to happen in order to fix the industry and make it a place where you could earn a living by writing books. The current trend has been in place for a long time, and shows no signs of abating.

Write Every Day

writingAs I mentioned a while back, one of the things I am looking to do going forward is to make more posts on this site about writing and some of the techniques that I have found beneficial over the years.

A friend asked me today if I had any advice on how to start writing. The best advice I can give is to commit some time to it every day, like, say, ten minutes. One of the myths that people believe about writers is that we are just inspired to write all the time and let that inspiration motivate us. That might be true for a few rare talents, but not for the rest of us.

I wrote semi-compulsively all through elementary school and high school. I started two novels and finished a draft of one of them while I was still in college. But you know what got me to the point of actually publishing a novel? It wasn’t inspiration or compulsion. It was sitting down and writing for at least ten minutes a day, whether I felt like it or not. Inspiration is a trap, and waiting for it is a pretty reliable recipe for writer’s block.

When you do your daily writing, you don’t need to work on a particular project. You can spend that time writing anything. Poems, scenes, bits of dialogue – it’s all writing, and it all counts. It’s not unlikely that at some point you will settle on a project, but you should let that happen organically. The important thing is just to get your time in, writing something – writing anything.

Of course, you don’t need to limit yourself to ten minutes. If you find yourself on a roll, by all means keep going. Just make sure that you spend that ten minutes every day. Don’t tell yourself, “I did 30 minutes yesterday, so I can take a break for a couple days.” The regularity of it, not necessarily the time spent, is what’s most important. In that way it’s just like magical practice.

The key is that you need to build up habit energy. Some studies have suggested it takes something like sixty repetitions to ingrain a habit, so that suggests when starting out you should try to do your ten minutes of writing every day without fail for the first two months. After that, you can skip a day every so often. But you want to maintain a routine that helps you sit down and do the work.

That’s about where I’m at these days. I write most days, and when I do it I spend longer than ten minutes at it. Blogging is a big help in that department, especially when you have an audience who expects posting at a certain frequency. I try to put up a new post every other day or so on Augoeides, so I post fifteen or sixteen articles during a usual month. I’m adding posting here, so that will be at least a few more depending on how it goes and what I decide to do.

The key skill is in developing the ability to write when you don’t feel like it. On a longer project like a novel or non-fiction reference book, there are always going to be some parts that you find boring, but which are necessary to get to the next plot point or more interesting patch of exposition. That’s where writers get stuck a lot of the time. “I want to work on my novel, but where I’m at in it is really dull.”

Push through it and get it done. I’ve experimented with trying to jump around and start by writing the fun parts, but that leaves a bunch of boring stuff to do at the end and it starts to feel overwhelming. The only novels that I’ve finished were written from start to finish for the most part. It helps you keep the plot points straight, and it means that you don’t reach a point where there’s nothing left but scenes you will never get around to writing.

Now this article does offer a counterpoint. I do think that relying on word quotas is a problem – some days you’ll write more, some days you’ll write less – and I also agree that trying to set up an excessive routine is likely to fail. But ten minutes? Without a hard quota? I think just about anybody can stick to that. And that really is all it takes.

So those are few suggestions that I hope aspiring writers will find useful. If you give the ten minute practice a try, I think you will be surprised at how powerful the technique really is.