Adventures in Self-Publishing: Editing

PeanutsEditing

Yeah, I know.  The author really shouldn’t be the editor of their own work, for many reasons.  We’re so deeply entrenched in our own stories that when it comes time to edit the story, it’s often hard (if not impossible) for us to detach ourselves.

Yes, I’m familiar with Arthur Quiller-Couch’s “murder your darlings” maxim.  But I’ve never been a big fan of the pithy writing quote (Ray Bradbury is an exception), so I usually tend to respond to those with a “yes, that’s nice” and move on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an auteur or an artiste in that respect.  I’m totally open to comments and suggestions from beta readers, and I’m perfectly willing to delete something that is in dire need of deletion.

This current editing session, which I’ve been referring to as the Final Line Edit, has been fast and furious.  I’ve deleted dozens of weak lines, removed filler dialogue, reworded sentences to make them shorter and stronger, and rearranged paragraphs to maximize the flow.  I’ve used the Find feature a handful of times to fix continuity.  This is how I work when I actually give myself a strict deadline with a specific date: I get my ass in gear.  The “I’ll fix it later” becomes “let’s fix this now”.  I become super-vigilant about anything that doesn’t feel right, and think of a way to make it better.  I’m about halfway through this edit, and I’m already seeing progress.  I’ve lost at least ten pages worth of chaff, and I’ll probably see another ten disappear by the time I’m done.

[The irony is that I was hopeless at deadlines during my school days.  My essays and term papers were decent but always late.  Go figure.]

So what have I learned this time out?

I’ve learned that self-editing can be done, if you’re up to it, know how to do it, and give yourself a plan of attack.  I’ve kinda-sorta cheated because I’ve reread the entire trilogy enough times that I’ve lost count.  It’s made me become ever so slightly detached from the story, becoming more its Reader than its Author.  And the more I read it, I become less its Reader than its Editor.  I can now see it with enough detachment that I can clearly see what needs work and what doesn’t.

That’s the trickiest part.  Does this mean I’ll never enjoy my own writing?  Far from it — just last night I just passed one of my favorite scenes and still got chills.  I was amazed that I had written this!  Me, the goofball who often trips up on his own words as he’s talking and gets brainfarts when trying to think of a word or a name.  And that’s when I realized I was doing it right, at least in my own haphazard but ultimately successful way.

I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say about this, but alas, I have editing to do before night falls!

Adventures in Self-Publishing: Cover Art

Almost-official cover, take two.
Almost-official cover, take two.

Today’s work included taking the step of buying a stock photo and finally utilizing my sort of decent art skills for future profit. I used the most basic plan on Shutterstock: $41 for five downloads, four of which I’ll use at a later time for the other two books in the trilogy, and maybe a future project or two.  That was the easy part.

The hard part was thinking three or four steps ahead before I even started. There are a few things that I had to keep in mind before I went anywhere with this.

Image Resolution. Many places like Smashwords and BookBaby require high resolution of the finished product. This is so your potential readers will see a nice clear picture on their e-reader, and won’t cause pixelation (i.e., it won’t look all blotchy and fuzzy if you blow up the picture larger than necessary).  Thus I downloaded the highest resolution, which I believe was 3400 x 3400 pixels. Much higher than necessary, but after cropping, it still looks good.

Cropping ratio.  This is something that is actually pretty important yet not too many people think about.  The most common ratio for e-book covers, I’ve read, is 1:1.33.  That is, 1.33 times taller than it is wide.  And looking at this cover take, that makes sense, because it’s roughly the same shape as most tablet and e-reader screens.  I admit I went a bit lo-fi here to figure it out:  I took a ruler and measured the picture on the screen.  In the above thumbnail here, it’s 2.5″ wide.  If you multiply that by 1.33, you’ll get 3.325″, which is very close to the height I ended with.

Fonts: color and placement.  I have to thank album covers for being able to understand this one.  For my example, the most important part of the cover, aside from the visual, is the title, right?  So in this version, instead of bannering it up on top like the previous attempt, I chose to spread it down the entire center.  The font had to be larger than the other two lines I’d be adding (the subtitle and my name).  BUT — it also had to stand out.  In this case, I asked for assistance from one of my artist friends: since I knew I’d be using this photo and that its primary color was blue, what is the opposite of blue?  [This is actually pretty easy to figure out: here’s a color wheel chart you should save for reference!]  In this case, it’s yellow, so I used a very light shade of it for the title, to make it stand out, even more than the subtitle or my name (both in standard white).  The fonts themselves were provided on the free version of PicMonkey.com…the title is Geo Sans Light and the other two are De Walpergen Pica.  All three were placed with a bit of ingenuity:  I aligned the sides of the text blocks with the sides of the picture, and had everything center-aligned.

Clarity.  My original outtake in the previous post used the Edo font on PicMonkey, but here my wife suggested a different, plainer font.  It’s a bit unexpected to be sure, because it doesn’t look like a genre font.  It’s classic and plain, but it still looks professional.  The trick here was to ensure that none of the words vanished in the white spots of the picture behind it; yellow stands out well against blue, but gets lost against white.  Everything is readable, and that’s the most important part.

Viewing it in different sizes.  This is another thing that sometimes gets glossed over or forgotten, but it’s actually quite important, and ties in with everything else.  Think of it this way — say you’re looking for that new book you know has just come out, but you need to scan the New Release shelves and the endcaps in order to do it.  Chances are when you see it, you’ll be at least a good ten or twenty feet away.  Same goes with e-books: when you’re browsing online, you’re not looking at the actual-size cover, you’re looking at a thumbnail cover.  This is another reason I downloaded the high-res version: the picture itself doesn’t look too sketchy, but more importantly, the fonts are still readable.  It’s okay if the subtitle is fuzzy; it’s not important.  What is important is the title and my name, so I had to make sure they were large enough to be read.  This is why I’d tweeted it right after I’d completed it:  I wanted to take a look at it on my phone, to see how it looked on a much smaller screen, plus I’d get feedback from my friends as well.

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Granted, I already own Photoshop (a birthday present from a few years back), and I’m kind of lucky that I have a lifelong interest in art and a passable ability for it, so I’m able to do most of this myself, which is exactly what I wanted to do.  Some of you may want to hire out a professional cover artist instead.  There are many out there — The Creative Penn has some good links to a few out there, for instance.  And many of them are quite affordable.

In the end, the cover still remains one of the most important parts of the book (or e-book), because it’s the first thing every reader sees.  You can let the pros take control of the cover creation, and all you’ll need to do is explain the images you’d like to see.  But if you have the ability and want to go it alone, definitely keep the above in mind.  Don’t just throw something together and call it done, either; just like musicians, save a small handful of differing takes and use the one that works best.

And One Giant Leap…

First mock-up cover, thanks to Shutterstock and a half hour on PicMonkey.
First mock-up cover, with help from a Shutterstock sample and a half hour on PicMonkey. NOT THE FINAL VERSION.

Small steps.  That’s what writing novels has been about for me.  On the surface it may look like I’m one big mess of contradictions: deep focus on ideas but extremely haphazard drafts; some really tight writing balanced out with a handful of ‘screw it, I’ll fix it later’ placeholders; things that pretty much every writer needs to go through.  We create a hell of a lot more than what ends up in the final version, and a lot of it does tend to be directionless wriggling, trying to figure out where the hell we want the story to go.  A lot of small steps.  Missteps, steps into slippery mud, and blind kicks into the air, with the hopes that the end result is instead a well-choreographed saunter down a red carpet, fans cheering at the sidelines.

And one giant leap, making the decision to publish.

Last week, I made the decision that I was going to work with one of the indie self-publishers and finally release the Bridgetown Trilogy into the big bad world.

This past week I’ve begun preparing myself for an early September drop date.  Starting one final line edit of A Division of Souls, making various business decisions, starting a detailed spreadsheet for the accounting…and everything else that goes into releasing a book on one’s own.  I’m even making my own covers, with the help and feedback from others.

The one thing I did not expect during this process?  I’m enjoying the hell out of it.

The research into what publishing services would work for me?  The images I’d want for the covers?  What kind of expenses I’d be expecting to shoulder?  That is, the business side of all of this?  I’m really enjoying this part of it.  Never thought I’d admit that.  Certainly back in my early writing days, I was that writer who was all about the creative spark and saw the economic side of it as the death knell to creativity.  [Thankfully I got rid of that mindset right quick.]  Now?  I’m finding the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work just as fascinating as the writing.

I think it’s because I’ve made myself see it similar to the music business, of which I have a decent basic knowledge and a keen interest.  Bands rarely if ever go into the studio and slap down a perfect and complete album straight out.  There’s a lot of working parts, a lot of outtakes, presales boosting, word of mouth and other bits and bobs that may not be obvious to the passive listener, but are quite important to the end result.  Writing and publishing is very similar in that respect.  I’m fascinated not just by the creative process, but the amount of work it takes to make it professional level, making all the pieces fit perfectly.  I’ve not only been actively participating in all the levels, but I’m learning from them.

Am I going to be blogging about it as I go?  Of course I am!

This is the part of the business not many writers and blog readers get to see…and more often than not, this is also part of the business that writers tend to want to ignore (often for good and legitimate reasons).  In the process I hope these upcoming posts will also help others who are thinking of following a similar path.

So yeah.  Here we go.  One Giant Leap.

Character Sketch in progress

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I’m not entirely happy with this one, though I do kind of like how it came out. I’m a bit frustrated because I wanted to draw Amna Ehramanis (Denni’s best friend), but realized the person was looking more like an adult than a teenager, and Amna is supposed to be very petite. So halfway through I made some changes and kinda sorta drew Akaina Shalei instead. Although I think I got the face close, she’s actually much more muscular, and is supposed to have the Meraladian wide face that Caren and Denni inherited.

[Short version: Akaina Shalei is one of two Mendaihu adepts who offer assistance to Caren and Poe, right after the Awakening ritual. She and her brother Ashyntoya have worked together as adepts for years and are highly respected. I will most likely redraw her and add Ashyntoya as a double sketch next time out.  Also, the patch you see on her right arm is the Shalei clan sigil of two intersecting circles, which is also used by the Mendaihu to signify Lightwalking, or dual realities.]

On Writing: Mental Playgrounds

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been utilizing the daily word website 750 Words off and on over the last few years, and using it as a sort of ‘mental playground’ where I can have fun playing with ideas that happen to pop into my head.  In short, it’s a simple site where you log on and crank out at least 750 words for the day.  It doesn’t matter what it is…poetry, prose, automatic writing, it doesn’t judge as long as you hit the goal.  It’s a perfect place if you have trouble getting yourself started, but it’s also a great place for training yourself to write something without Editor Brain (or Revision Brain, for that matter) getting in the way.  I’ve used it for both, and it’s definitely helped get the writing juices flowing.

Now?  I use it as a testing ground for new ideas.  I’ve come up with at least three solid novel ideas this way, which will become future projects a little further down the road.  A half hour’s riffing on an idea really can go a long way, and with a few weeks’ worth of consistent work, one can have the makings of a complete outline, or at least a very rough draft.

Lately, I’ve been using it to try out different ideas for this new Mendaihu Universe story.  The first few chapters of any new project often end up sounding very disjointed and lacking continuity, and it’s very obvious that I’m still trying to figure out where the hell I’m going with it.  [Case in point, during my transcription from longhand to Word document yesterday, I noticed a scene starting midday, but changing to evening within a page.]  Which is fine, considering the first draft is always the roughest, but at some point before I get too far, I have to lay some ground rules.  I have to say, okay — enough floundering, time to give this story meaning and direction.

This is where the 750 can come in handy for me:  it’s what I call the outtake reel.  I’ll come up with a specific scene and riff on it, see how it fits in the context of the overall story, if it’s true to the characters, and above all, if the idea will be useful down the line.  Sometimes it’ll work, sometimes it won’t.  It won’t be the final take, but it’ll at least give me something to shoot for.  And with this week’s exercises, I found myself rewriting the same scene that I’d come up with way back in 1993 for the first Vigil outtake, only updated and with different characters.  I hadn’t planned on using the scene ever again, but it seemed to fit so naturally here that I ran with it.  It’ll most likely be somewhere in Act 2 of this current book.  In the process, it also clarified a number of plot ideas I’d had for this project, so I won’t be floundering nearly as much anymore.

 

Having a mental playground for your novel ideas is always a good thing.  You may have to train yourself (like I did) to realize that these are only rehearsals and rough outtakes and not part of the final version, but the outcome of these exercises is almost always fruitful.  By letting your characters run around freely, you end up learning a bit more about them, and in the process you’ll know how they’ll react within the scenes you place them in.   By letting yourself riff on an idea that may or may not even be a part of the current story, you might even come up with a much clearer idea of what you do need to work on.

You don’t necessarily need a site like 750 Words; it might be an ‘outtake’ document on your PC, a dedicated notebook, or a handful of scrap paper.  Whatever works for you.  Like I said, this is the rehearsal stage…it’s where you work out the idea, get rid of the stuff that doesn’t work, and work on strengthening the stuff that does.  And above all, it’s where you have fun with it, with Editor and Revision Brains off having a cocktail somewhere else.

A Division of Souls: More Character Sketches

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Two more characters to add to the gang. These two ladies are good examples of what happens when you don’t have nearly as much faith in your home team as you wish you did…or are expected to have.

Saone Lehanna (aka Sonia Lehane) also has the luck of being the youngest daughter of an extremely important man, Natianos Lehanna, a very wealthy CEO who just happens to be the high leader of the Shenaihu faction here in Bridgetown.  Her older sisters are all shadow agents under Natianos and are already well integrated into his corporation.  High expectations to live up to, for sure.

There’s just one problem — she’s no longer a full-blooded Shenaihu anymore.  By mere chance, she happened to be at ground zero when Nehalé Usarai performed his Awakening ritual, which forced Saone to become a cho-nyhndah (an equal balance of Mendaihu and Shenaihu).

 

Kryssyna Piramados (aka Kristan Leguire), on the other hand, is from a regular blue-collar family o Shenaihu with a long history of agents in the Alien Relations Unit, and she’s just joined the Branden Hill HQ.  She willingly went through the ritual of becoming cho-nyhndah soon after Saone’s forced awakening, which has pretty much made her the black sheep of her own family.

She met Saone in college, and they soon became ch0-shadhisi (that is, lovers and bound by spirit).  Natianos dislikes Kryssyna, pretty much seeing her as a traitor, but to be honest, Kryss doesn’t give a shit about that at all.  As long as she and Saone remain together, that’s all that matters.