Those Dark Thoughts

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For those of you who have followed my blog and may have expected more by way of production, I apologize.  Perhaps I should have called this an occasional blog, because that’s what it seems to have turned out to be.  I didn’t intend it to be that way of course.  I intended that I’d move very quickly through the formatting process for my eBook  and straight into publication.  Well, it hasn’t worked out quite like that.  In fact, my novel has sat untouched since my last post.  I don’t think there’s much more to do besides to build a table of contents and send it through the “meatgrinder”.  That’s what Smashwords calls their software.  Cute, egh?

I could go into some lengthy explanation about spending a long weekend visiting my granddaughter, but that would just be back story to the real issue.  So instead I’ll use the back story reference as segue from my lack of prolificacy to the subject of, well, the subject you want to write about.  As a writer of speculative fiction I like to observe people and then try to form a construct about their lives that includes all the visual, auditory, and sometimes even olfactory clues.  It may be interesting to talk to them, but I find it more valuable to see them as a ‘type’, if you will.  For instance, when I see the dumpy Goth chick in her black lacy leggings, piercings, black lipstick, and fingernail polish, I want to know why she dresses that way, what makes her who she is, what demons are invested in her.  But the problem is that the answers can’t come from her, they have to come from me.

In my construct she is much darker, perhaps an edgy sociopath whose vacuous life is given meaning only in the cruelty of her world of drugs and violence.  Her grip on reality is tenuous at best and only held fast by the connivances of her erstwhile lover, an arcane musician named Erantz who entrances his victims like some post-modern pied piper luring the weak and lonely to their empty fates.

In reality, her real name is Charlene and she is a co-ed at Amherst and comes she’s from an upper middle class family, but she gets her kicks by pretending to be bad.  Bad, but not dangerous.  Maybe there’s another story there, but I just don’t care.  I’d rather save teen angst for the Lifetime Channel (arrgh!).

In fiction, as much as you might deny it, in the end everything that is written is about you, even the dirty and violent things.  You might not think so, you might never admit it, but the only thing that separates you from your characters is actually acting out what you’ve written.  All the thoughts, all the impulses, are yours.  Your character just gives them life.  Those thoughts and impulses are always there and each of us deals with those thoughts in his, or her, own way.  Some of us rant. Some of us drink.  Some of us pray.  Others realize what their writings reveal and, when the words run dry, choose some form of the Hemingway Solution.

If you’re having trouble getting your thoughts together don’t look around for the inspiration, look inside. The answer is already there.  The next step is to apply that answer ― the thoughts and impulses that terrify you ― to something you observe, like the way the man, the one with the gaunt, drawn face, his weathered fedora pulled low, watches you in the barroom mirror, never looking at you directly, then slips his hand with intentionality beneath the lapel of his trench coat. You take it from there.  What happens next?

If you have any comments about this or any of my posts, please feel free to click the comment link and let me know what’s on your mind.
© Copyright 2011 by Kevin Fraleigh.

A Few Edits and a Funeral

It’s an unfortunate truth that even the most well thought out plan is subject to the demands and restrictions of the real world.  A few days ago I thought that all I had left to do was to create my cover art, create a .mobi format file, and submit my eBook to Kindle. Two things happened that stopped the production process cold.

The first thing was death, my wife’s Uncle Dan passed away. To honor his passing we were required to make two trips out of town, one for the viewing Thursday evening, another for the funeral Friday morning. Neither of these events happened quickly and we were left physically and emotionally spent. Even if you consciously acknowledge that the passing was “for the best” or if you weren’t part of the family forced to view the descent on a daily basis, death is never easy. It impacts everything.

I bring this up as a partial explanation for not having already submitted my novel to Kindle, but more importantly as an example of one of the many limiting factors on production. This is something I’ve posted on previously. Life happens and it always has an impact. The other reason I mention it is that death figures prominently in much of my writing. It is the natural (or unnatural, depending on the circumstances) result of everything and everyone.

The other thing that happened recently was that, as I was about to process my novel through Mobipocket Creator, I thought I might take a gander at the Smashwords Style Guide. The Simplified Guide to Building a Kindle Book was very easy to follow, but it was almost too simplified and left me with the feeling that there was something I had missed. I had, and I found it in the Smashwords Style Guide. The Guide is easy to follow, very detailed, and not only explains what format changes need to be made, but why. I admit I still haven’t finished fixing my formatting, but I’m not far from it.  The added benefit of following the Smashwords Style Guide is that the novel will be ready for submission to both Kindle and Smashwords.

The good news from this past weekend is that I finally decided on my cover art design, which I will post as soon as I submit to Kindle. Actually it was the cover art that got me to thinking about reviewing the Smashwords Style Guide. The image size requirements for Kindle aren’t really specific – “Minimum 500 x Maximum 1280 pixels”.  Smashwords suggests “500 pixels wide X 700 pixels tall is a good size and ratio (your height is approximately 1.4 times greater than your width)”, then goes on to provide details on how to create the image and make sure it’s the right size, without having to speak HTML.  It has been a while since I wrote HTML and I appreciate the plain English approach of the Guide.

If you have any comments about this or any of my posts, please feel free to click the comment link and let me know what’s on your mind.
© Copyright 2011 by Kevin Fraleigh.

Speculative Fiction

I am glad to say that I have finally finished editing for content.  I think I’ve caught as many dropped words, extra spaces, misused words, and problems with specialized vocabulary that I reasonably expect to.  I have also begun editing for format using the Simplified Guide to Building a Kindle Book. So far it’s been pretty easy to follow.  The guide recommends using the Mobipocket Creator rather than the Amazon’s KindleGen software to convert my Word file to eBook format.  I haven’t finished the process because I’m still mulling over my ideas for cover art, but I hope to decide by the end of this week.  I want to get these books to “press” so I can move onto other projects.

As I was writing this post I happened to think that I never even described my writing genre.  My current project is a trilogy in the genre of speculative fiction.   For anyone unfamiliar with the term, speculative fiction is a relatively new genre that includes horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and much more.  Wikipedia has a whole article (here).  A broader definition of the genre makes sense, after all, few novels are limited to a single genre.  Horror may include fantasy, and fantasy may include alternate history.

Speculative fiction addresses the question, “what if”.   What if Albert Einstein walked into a black hole as a patent clerk and emerged into a different where and when with the finished Theory of Relativity in hand?  What if the seed of life on earth did come from a random meteor striking the Earth with just the right bio-molecular ingredients to spawn sentient life?  What if my geometry teacher in high school had been attacked by a zombie and in his deathly delusions changed my final grade to a 97 instead of a 37, thus altering my GPA to allow me to enter Harvard instead of Dark Shadows Community College?  The great thing about speculative fiction is that anything is possible.

One thing I wonder though ― are the expectations for speculative fiction as high as they are for, say, “real literature”?  Is speculative fiction a diversion, while other genres have “meaning”?  It’s something I’ve wondered about, but I suspect I already know the answer.  Despite that, I’ll keep writing speculative fiction, at least so long as I am dissatisfied with the ordinariness of life as it is.

If you have any comments about this or any of my posts, please feel free to click the comment link and let me know what’s on your mind.
© Copyright 2011 by Kevin Fraleigh.

More Decisions to Make

Well, we’re almost there, just a few more pages to edit and I think I’ll be ready to begin the process of Kindlizing (is that even a word?) my eBook.  I’ll start with Kindle because I imagine that by the time I have the format down for Kindle, it will be an easy transition to Smashwords.  But before I worry about that, there are a couple of important decisions I’ve got to make.

The first decision is how to stop a story that is hardly begun.  Do I just put a note on the last page saying that there is more coming in Book 2? Maybe I should write an epilogue sort of wrapping up the story so far with a tease about the future?  I don’t know.  One of the problems may be that the story doesn’t have a strictly linear construct.  It’s more like building a tower.  Four stories provide the base for the tower.  Three of those stories are in Book 1.  The fourth story begins Book 2 with the tower itself (a more traditional linear construct) completing the reminder of Book 2 and Book 3.  However I decide to wrap-up Book 1, it should be completed by Thursday.  If you have any ideas, for a smooth wrap-up for action in progress, I’d certainly be interested in hearing them.

And that reminds me, since I’m breaking the action, I’ll have to generate a transitional introduction for Book 2. But that’s after I get my  Book 1 out there, so I have some time before I have to worry about that.

The other important decision I have to make is about cover art.  Professional, but not something that will take hours and hours to complete.  It should be catchy, but not over the top, something appropriate.  Whatever design I decide on should have a theme that can be extended over all three volumes.  And the cover art, of course, has to meet the specific guidance provided by Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and Smashwords. If you’ve got experience designing cover art and feel like sharing some pointers, please do.  I’d appreciate it and so would my readers.

If you have any comments about this or any of my posts, please feel free to click the comment link and let me know what’s on your mind.
© Copyright 2011 by Kevin Fraleigh.

A Step Closer

As I work my way through this writing and editing process, I am constantly amazed by the all the changes I’ve experienced. For instance, I’ve finally decided that my novel will now be a trilogy.  It started out as a thought, then grew and grew as plots and subplots developed and characters were added.  It started out as a single novel, but I thought as it grew larger and more complex that it was too complicated, so I rearranged it into eleven sections.  Then I merged it into a single novel again.  And now it will be a trilogy.  Yes, this is my final answer.

My book has gone through several incarnations over the course of several years.  Each time it would become too intense I would set it aside for a few months, then rediscover it, edit it, and let it grow again.  As it stands today, I have the first volume almost half edited at around 97,000 words.  And I’ve noticed that even after so many edits, I still find lots of dropped words and even a few misused words, like “rational” instead of “rationale”. Thank goodness for the OED, without it I’d be lost. The mind has this wonderful, if frustrating, capability of seeing the the wrong thing, like a dropped word, and filling in the blank with the right thing as you read the sentence so that it makes sense.  You’ve got to be really careful if you choose to self-edit.

I don’t know if you’ve experienced this after picking up something you’ve set aside for a while, but I have.  What I’m talking about is seeing parts of your writing as if you’re seeing it for the first time.  It’s kind of a weird experience, especially if it’s good.  You encounter the words and it’s like, “Wow, I don’t remember this, but it’s pretty good”.  And you know that you must have written it, but it still pulls you in and makes you want to know what happens next.  Maybe it’s just me, but I certainly hope not.  I hope your writing can seem freshly discovered to you even years after you originally wrote it.

If you have any comments about this or any of my posts, please feel free to click the comment link and let me know what’s on your mind.
© Copyright 2011 by Kevin Fraleigh.

Editing, Reviewing, and Revising (continued)

Everyone wants their novel to be perfect, but how many novels have you read that contain absolutely no errors? Even novels by well known authors published by major publishing houses contain errors. Nothing major, perhaps a small typo, a transposed letter, or word. It does happen. Human error is inevitable. We just have to do the best we can.  As a technical writer, I can speak of that first hand.

Although we would like technical manuals we produce to be perfect grammatically, as well as technically, it’s never going to happen. Our customers understand that in several volumes of text consisting of hundreds of pages each, errors will occur. Our job is to get the manuals to the point that they are good enough, not necessarily perfect, but good enough. The process for writing a technical manual is little different than that for writing a novel. An author writes text, the text is edited, and then it is reviewed, and revised. The cycle of editing, review, and revision continues until the text is good enough for sell off (customer acceptance). No matter how complex, the text only gets so many cycles of editing, review, and revision.  If the text gets caught in an endless cycle of editing, review, and revision either the very life will be edited out of it or it will simply die in the cycle, judged as unpublishable. So care must be taken as we try to achieve perfection.

The opposite side of good enough is style slavery.  When I was a grad student, one of the requirements for my master’s thesis was that it strictly complied with the APA Style guide and other requirements from the university.  In this case, good enough was not good enough.  Good enough had to be perfect.  Any misspellings, poor grammar, or format issues resulted in not graduating, so the stakes were very high. The stakes for your novel may also be high if you want writing to be your primary source of income.

Those stakes can be raised once your novel is formally reviewed. What effect the reviewer has on your perception of the stakes depends on two things, who the reviewer is and how important the review is to you.  It should go without saying that, especially on the internet, all reviewers are not equal. There are professional, credentialed reviewers, self-appointed reviewers, and customer reviews.  Furthermore, there are those who review your novel using very ridged grammatical and format criteria (like my professors), while others reviewers put the reading experience (plot, character development) first.  No matter what, the potential impact of reviews (assuming they are read) shouldn’t be underestimated. I don’t know if bad reviews can break a novel or not. The default assumption is that they matter. Personally, the only reviews I place stock in are reviews of hardware and software, because those are technical reviews, either the thing reviewed works or it doesn’t.

Reviews of books, like movies, are subjective. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to see some movie panned by reviewers, only to find it was really enjoyable. Books are no different.  Typically the criteria I use for a good book or movie doesn’t match the criteria of the reviewer. So does a bad review, either formal or informal, justify a revision?  Maybe.  We’ll have to consider that on a case by case, review by review basis.  Take what you can from the reviews, learn from them and do better next time. Just don’t stop writing.

Speaking of revisions, here’s something else that you may find useful, versioning your manuscript. Versioning your manuscript is easy.  Every day when you open your manuscript to work on it, immediately do a “Save As”, renaming the file with the current date (i.e., mynovel_032911). After you save the file, move the older file to an archive file. The archive provides you with a history of the development of your novel and an earlier version to access in case the most recent version gets corrupted and can’t be recovered. It’s also a very good idea to have a backup drive to store your data on, not just a USB flash drive. Nothing could be more disheartening than having your hard drive crash and losing several years work in a moment.

If you have any comments about this or any of my posts, please feel free to click the comment link and let me know what’s on your mind.
© Copyright 2011 by Kevin Fraleigh.

Editing, Reviewing, and Revising

Having decided on a publication strategy, morphing my 330,000 word novel into a trilogy, I am once again in the throes of editing, reviewing, and revising. I have three main goals in this process. My first goal is to wind up with tight, concise, well crafted story. My second goal is to ensure my text is grammatically correct and technically accurate. This second goal includes making sure historical references are consistent and the science is good.  My third goal is to end up with a word count in the neighborhood of 80,000 words.

Editing is essential to the production of a quality product. Dropped words, misspellings, poor grammar are unacceptable, but are also inevitable. Spell check will catch most common misspellings.  Grammar check will catch many of the common grammatical errors. The problem is that neither is particularly reliable in terms of context.  That is, when words or phrases are used in a particular way.  Another problem checkers have is with foreign words and new or newly made-up words. Someday there may be an automated contextually-sensitive discovery-focused checker, but it’s not here yet. Or is it?

Well, the checker isn’t automated, but most sites and books about writing say you’ve got to have one, a professional editor. I agree, but the problem is that an editor, unless you can either afford to hire one or have some other source of editorial support, is, for the first novel at least, an asset I’ll have to put in the same category as other support staff such as a research assistant, a gardener, a cook, or a maid. In their own way any or all of these would be essential to supporting the writing effort by relieving the writer of the day to day tasks that separate him/her from the most essential task, writing.

Hiring anyone as support also has to pass the “mom test”, you know, it’s what your mom said when you just had to have that guitar and just couldn’t live without it because you and your friends were going to start that band. When your mom asked if you were going to keep with it and really practice you assured her that you would and the guitar was really an investment in the future? But when you began taking lessons and the instructor started you on “Mary Had a Little Lamb” instead of “Stairway to Heaven” and there was all that practice instead of just performing and writing songs, the guitar went into the closet and then into the attic.

For the “mom test” you can substitute the “wife test” or whatever. Hopefully there is someone who can see up the road a bit when enthusiasm over rides the cold logic of a cost benefit analysis. I’ve been there and done that on all counts and know myself too well to think that publication, much less success, is a sure thing. Even this late in the process it could turn out to be just another fantasy. Gosh, just writing for the blog takes up so much time, but it is a creative outlet and I enjoy it. Maybe the blog is enough to keep me satisfied. It’s easy to get distracted.

Okay so, if not an editor, then what. Just reading over stuff doesn’t work. Typically you’re too close to it. It does help to set the work aside for six months. By then, if you’ve continued to write other stories or at least have a life in the meantime, upon reading it again the work may take on new meaning. My technique for self-editing is to slowly, carefully read every sentence aloud. Hearing the words helps. It also makes it easier to detect the flow and cadence of the writing. Hearing also helps to break the mind’s natural instinct to automatically fill in a missing word or correct a misspelling. See it, speak it, hear it, and fix it.

To help with consistency, I maintain a rather detailed Excel workbook which consists of several spreadsheets. For instance, one spreadsheet lists all the characters and a description of how they fit into the plot. Another spreadsheet lists all the geographic locations mentioned and what events occurred there. A third spreadsheet is a timeline of events to make sure everything remains in sequence. A fourth spreadsheet lists unique or unusual vocabulary, such as historical/scientific terms, regional patois, foreign words, or newly made-up words.

Finally, location, location, location. You need to find somewhere isolated and without distractions.  The ideal location is an office with a closed door, no TV, no radio. I’d like to say no internet, but the internet has become an essential research tool. I just can’t bring myself to page through an outdated dictionary when the OED is only a click away. The problem is that everything else is also only a click away. Only self-discipline and focus will keep you on task. The other thing I like to do is to put on headphones and listen to music I am so completely familiar and comfortable with that I can tune it out and it only acts either as inspiration or white noise. As much as I like it, I can’t listen to Pandora because new music will be presented and I end up listening to that rather than concentrating on my editing.

Well, this post has turned out to be a little lengthier than I originally intended, but I hope you’ve kept with me and you’ve found some of my thoughts useful. In my next post, I’ll continue with some more thoughts about editing, reviewing, and revising as we continue this fascinating process of getting published.

If you have any comments about this or any of my posts, please feel free to click the comment link and let me know what’s on your mind.
© Copyright 2011 by Kevin Fraleigh.

The eBook paradigm

Yesterday I made the observation that the publishing industry still seems driven by the paper paradigm and I can understand why. I have friends that go on and on about how they will never give up their stocks of paper books. They like the feel of them. They like the smell of them. Books comfort them like an old sweater. We’ve all been brought up with paper books and we’re comfortable with them.

When I first started writing back in high school, paper books were essential not only to my academics, but to my world view. In those dark days before the internet, before computers, books were knowledge. To my young mind nothing in life was more important than acquiring a good solid library of classic books. The ideal future I envisioned was one where I could spend my days completely occupied with nothing more than reading the works of the learned ancients and gathering their secret wisdom – and writing about it. I wanted to be an author.

Okay, then I went to college and found out that there were many things beyond books. There was beer, girls, whiskey, girls, and music – and girls. I also discovered that one of the objectives of education was to question conventional wisdom and not just accept it blindly. Just because someone was lauded as an expert, it didn’t mean he was beyond examination. And so my ivory tower of learned books crumbled and fell away. The college experience presented me with a new paradigm about the world, one that I could not ignore. That paradigm challenged my view of everything, but most specifically about books and the “wisdom” contained in them. The new paradigm shook my world view to the core and made me question what the very nature of a book is.

With the advent of the information revolution and all the technological innovations it’s brought, what actually is a book anyway? Whether it’s a novel or an encyclopedia, the nature of the book is changing. Tomes have been transformed into digital files and a backpack full of textbooks into a single e-reader. As a digital file a novel can contain links to web sites, video, audio, and reference materials. Writing is limited to ink and paper. A book can now contain virtually anything the writer wants to include to enhance the reading experience. Furthermore, with the advent of eBook self-publishing, authors are no longer confined by the opinions and prejudices of the agents or publishers who would have formerly controlled their ability to get published.

Writing at its very essence is about the creative experience and the desire to share that experience with others. Those others may be listeners or readers, some will be paying customers while others will share the experience through other means. (File sharing is another topic entirely.) From what I’ve read, eBooks still represent only a fraction of publishing world wide, and I doubt paper books will ever go away entirely. There’s a lot more to be said about the permanence of paper versus the impermanence of digital, but that will have to wait for another post.

I guess the bottom line in my mind is that digital files open a myriad of possibilities for authors. They present the possibility for writers to become something more, and for their works to enhance the beauty of the written word. eBooks present the author and the publishing industry with a new paradigm that challenges those of us grown up with the written word trapped in paper to embrace the new technologies of the information age and let our craft flourish.
© Copyright 2011 by Kevin Fraleigh.

Final answer? Well, maybe not…

Okay, so it may sound like I’m back peddling, but comments by Catana to yesterday’s post gave me reasons to reconsider my plan for a whole series of books from my original novel.  She provided links to a couple of blogs that suggested that the ideal length for a novel is more like 80K to 110K words.  Those are reasonable figures and I could certainly split my novel into a trilogy.  Based on my novel’s current word count, if I combine the Books 1-5 I’ll have 78,730 words. A minimum of 80K seems doable. It just so happens that there is a natural break at the end of Book 5.

The publishing industry still seems to be driven by the paper paradigm.  The other thing I noticed in links (here and here) Catana provided was that while the ideal length for a novel may be 80K to 110K words, there don’t really seem to be hard industry definitions, except what the market seems to decide based on sales.  And when it comes to novels that will only be eBooks, the maximum figure is sort of out the window since the price of paper is no longer a concern.

I guess that’s one of the main reasons I’m going eBook.  I’m tired of having someone tell me that they won’t consider my novel because it’s not what’s selling today.  Of course, I may get the same message when my number of sales for the Kindle is zero, but that’s a message from the readers.  The readers are who you write for, not for an agent or publisher. If it’s a sign of rebellion against authority, so be it.

By the way, my trusted companion, the OED online, defined “novel” as: a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism. The Merriam-Webster dictionary online was more specific: an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events. Neither one actually defined a novel’s required length. “Book length” and “long” would not stand up as metrics.

Does the label (novel, novelette, novella, short story, or flash fiction) matter?  Sure it does. We like things in boxes, prepackaged, and shrink wrapped so we can be sure we get our money’s worth.  Whether you let someone else set your requirements or if you decide for yourself, the bottom line is that you need to meet your reader’s expectations for content and value while remaining true to the story you want to tell.
© Copyright 2014 by Kevin Fraleigh.

The first step

Somewhere in my closet there is a notebook with dozens of yellowed, worn pages of prose and poetry I wrote in the late 60’s and early 70’s, back in a time when I still believed the pinnacle of the writer’s craft was to have his work captured on paper and hard bound. While there is a part of me that still clings to that belief, I have resolved myself to the realities of electronic publishing. In this blog I hope to document the journey to get my new work published as an ebook, but it’s late now and I have many things to do to make this blog my own.
© Copyright 2011 by Kevin Fraleigh