Editing – Part 2

If you’re a writer and anything like me, when you finish the first draft of your latest work you’ll type the words ‘THE END’ and feel a curious blend of euphoria and sadness. Although I know those two little words won’t make it into the published version, I type them every time; it’s a form of closure on my least favourite part of the writing process, producing that first draft.

But what then? Unless you’re unusually gifted, or have painstakingly edited as you’ve gone along, chances are that the manuscript will need some work—some spit and polish—before it’s in a fit state to be released into the world.

Whether you’re just starting out and haven’t the funds to spend on editing, or whether you intend sending the manuscript off to a professional editor, there are various steps you can take yourself to improve the work to make it more publishable or in a better state to present to an editor.

There are various methods of self-editing. I’m going to set out what I do for my longer works, which might be helpful to someone who doesn’t know where to begin. (For shorter works, especially short stories, some of the following steps might be truncated or missed out altogether.) Like writing itself, this is not the only way of doing it; it’s not the best or recommended way—it’s simply my way. Each writer must find what works best for him (or, as ever, her).

So, I’ve typed the two magic words ‘THE END’. What next?

Step 1: Let it Rest

After saving and backing up the Word document, I close it. Then I try to forget it about for a minimum of four weeks. Longer, where possible. Two months is better, three perfect, but I don’t have that much will power.

Step 2: The Bigger Picture

When I can’t stand ignoring the manuscript any longer, I’ll read it through from beginning to end. This is where the importance of Step 1 comes in—it’s as though I’m reading a novel someone else has written. Obviously, I know the story and recognise the style of writing, but I will come across entire passages I can’t recall drafting.

The main purpose of this step is to make sure the story works on the broadest level. It isn’t to make corrections, although I usually can’t stop myself changing any typing errors I come across. While I’m reading, I’ll keep at the back of my mind questions like:

  • is the opening interesting enough to draw the reader in?
  • does the plot flow?
  • do the characters act, um, in character?
  • are all sub-plots resolved?
  • does the story ever lag?
  • is the ending satisfying?
  • are there any themes that could be better developed or emphasised?

There are other questions, but that should give a flavour. Essentially, I’m looking at the bigger picture during this step.

Step 2A: Major Revisions

If I identified a need to rewrite part(s) of the work during Step 2, this is when I’ll do it. I’ve been lucky—only once have I needed to do a major rewrite after the first read-through. This was with the final instalment of the Earth Haven trilogy.

Even as I was writing the original ending, I knew it was too easy: the characters weren’t having to sacrifice much to achieve their ends and it lacked a final face-off between the two main groups of protagonists. In short, it was unsatisfying. Nevertheless, I let the manuscript sit for a few weeks before embarking on Step 2.

It confirmed what I already knew. I discarded the last few chapters and rewrote the ending, adding another chapter or two in the process. I knew immediately it was better, a much more satisfying end to a 300,000-word trilogy.

Then I returned to Step 1. After I’d let it rest for another four weeks or so, I embarked on Step 2 once more. This time, the bigger picture looked complete.

Step 3: Snagging

Now I’m happy with the overall structure, I’ll start the fine-tuning process. During this second read-through, I’m looking for passages of narrative or dialogue that don’t flow as well as they could, and correcting them as I go, or that don’t add value to the tale. This might involve rewording paragraphs or sentences to make the writing clearer, and deleting words, phrases, sentences or entire paragraphs that are superfluous.

Step 4: Eradicating Clunkiness and Repetition

During this third read-through, I’m looking at individual sentences and revising any that are awkward or contain unnecessary repetition. I find that when writing the first draft, I often use the same word repeatedly in places when there are perfectly good alternatives that freshen up the prose.

I will search for how many times words I tend to overuse appear, like ‘just’, ‘that’ and ‘the’, together with certain swear words, and either delete some instances or substitute alternatives. It’s about removing clunkiness and repetition to make the reading experience more pleasurable.

I’m looking, too, for inconsistencies such as referring to ‘Jenny’ as ‘Jill’, or (true example) saying a character comes from Hull when earlier in the novel he came from Grimsby.

Also, at this stage, I’ll check any facts or references are correct.

Step 4A: Rinse and Repeat

Whether I repeat Step 4 depends on how many alterations I made the first time around. If not many, I’ll move on to Step 5. If there were a lot of changes, I usually feel I have to repeat Step 4 in case the changes themselves have introduced more clunkiness or repetition. 

Step 5: The Nitty Gritty

The final read-through. The proofread. For this, I reformat the Word document into a mobi file and transfer it to my Kindle. It’s surprising how many simple errors I spot on the Kindle that I missed on the computer screen. Reading it in this different format seems to make typos jump out at me. I keep my laptop close at hand so I can change the master Word document as I find errors.

Step 6: Spellcheck

Having corrected all errors I noticed during the proofread, I’m almost ready to publish. Before I do, I run the manuscript through Word’s spell-checker. What I’m mainly looking for are any final spelling errors I missed during the proofread and things like double spaces, which sometimes go unnoticed, especially if they occur at the edge of the page.

These steps are broadly equivalent to the various types of editing mentioned in Part 1: Step 2 – developmental edit, Step 3 – line edit, Step 4 – copy edit, Step 5 – proofread. 

In theory, I should now be ready to publish a book filled with flowing narrative and sharp dialogue, free of spelling errors, grammatical mistakes and other blemishes, polished and shining like a new pin. In practice, of course, I’m unlikely to have caught every single tiny error in a ninety-thousand word novel. The aim is to achieve perfection, whilst recognising that I’m only human and am certain to have missed something.

It’s accepting that I’m not perfect which enables me to publish anything. Otherwise, I’d never get past Step 4. I could read through a draft novel a hundred times and find something to change on each occasion, though after a while it’s only because this time I prefer a particular sentence construction over another, or a particular word over the one I used, when either do the job perfectly well. We have to draw the line somewhere, say to ourselves, “Enough’s enough. Publish and be damned.”

Here are some other methods I’ve heard writers say they use. I’ve tried some of them and they’re not for me. But try them and find what works best for you.

– change the font size and/or type (this is of similar effect to what I do when transferring the book onto my Kindle, and should be useful for those who don’t own an e-reader)

– print the manuscript onto paper and edit/proofread the hard copy

– read the text, particularly the dialogue, aloud

– have someone (or the voice function, if present, on your word processing program) read it to you

– read sections of the work backwards (useful, I imagine, for proofreading rather than editing)

If there are any novice writers looking in who aren’t sure where to start when it comes to self-editing, I hope you’ve found this to be of some use. Don’t forget: this isn’t ‘one size fits all’. You’ll need to try various methods and combinations until you find what works best for you.

Good luck!

A Very Merry Christmas

It’s that time of year when we wish peace and goodwill to others. When our cups of joy overflow, often in direct proportion to the flow of alcohol. When we give each other presents and spend precious time with our loved ones. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we treated each other as well throughout the year as we do in late December?

Despite the rampant commercialism and the pressures of shopping (I’m a bloke; I hate shopping), it’s my favourite time of year. Imagine winter without Christmas. What a bleak few months they would be.

It’s dreary here in Wales as I write this. The sky has been grey and drizzly for days. The ground is permanently wet—whenever we step in from outside, we bring in mud. Yet we don’t allow it to dampen our festive spirits. My daughters—both now in their twenties—and my wife still grow excited as the big day draws near. So do I. In fact, I’m probably the biggest kid of us all.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I wish you a peaceful and happy time. As we say in Wales, Iechyd da!—Good health!

The 4th Annual Sam Kates Office Party

St Mary Street decorations

Each December I take those of my nearest and dearest who have helped me throughout the year to Cardiff and treat them to a steak dinner, with perchance a bottle of wine and a cocktail or two. The day tends to involve a fair amount of beer and a visit to Winter Wonderland.

This year the guests were my brother (for the invaluable assistance he provides in IT-related matters), my elder daughter (for being my design consultant and managing my Instagram account), and my wife (for putting up with me). If I can get my younger daughter involved in some capacity or other, next year’s party might be a full family affair.

Yours truly and bruv.
In reverse order, Mrs Kates and Miss Kates the Elder.

My wife, daughter and I travelled up to Cardiff to meet my brother in Waterstones. A book shop makes a great place to meet up because, well, books. Then it was off to find a relatively quiet pub, not so easy in the centre of Cardiff on a Friday in December. We were lucky, after only a few false starts managing to find a pub with available seats, no queues at the bar and no loud music blasting. A few relaxed beers later and we made our way to this year’s venue, Steak of the Art. Suffice it to say, good steaks, wine and a few cocktails were dispatched with practised ease. Say what you like about my family, but we’re dab hands at packing away food and drink.

Steak of the Art.

My younger daughter and her boyfriend were in town Christmas shopping so we met up with them after we’d left the restaurant. Sadly, the gusting wind and frequent prolonged showers meant we had to skip Winter Wonderland this year. Never mind—there’s always beer.

Miss Kates the Younger and boyfriend join the gang. Soon there would be singing – well, six is plenty for a choir.

And so we indulged; perhaps it would be more accurate to say over-indulged, but fun was had by all and I felt I had gone a little way towards repaying the help they have given me throughout the year. Thanks, guys—luvs ya!

Yes, the beer is flowing…
St Mary Street again.
And again.

Here are some photos from previous year’s parties that were posted on my old site.

From 2017

Probably St Mary Street, yet again.
Winter Wonderland
It was a big wheel…
Miss Kates the Elder with the Millennium Stadium in background.
One of those blurs is yours truly and bruv.
The beer flowed last year, too.

From 2016

Cardiff Castle and the tree someone in the Council ordered in feet instead of metres – mustn’t snigger.
The deer that dwarfed the tree.
Winter Wonderland again.
As you can see, there was a fair amount of beer involved on this occasion, too.

From the inaugural office party in 2015

And, yep, you guessed it, bloody St Mary Street again.
Didn’t take many photos that first year, but I did snap these rather snazzy urinals.

Guest Post – Tom East

A departure from the norm this week as, for the first time, I host a guest. I’ve known Tom East—though we both use different names in our everyday lives—for around twenty years since we were members of the local writers’ circle. We hit it off immediately, sharing a fondness for good ale and rugby, and both viewing writing as more a compulsion than a hobby. But that’s enough from me. Over to Tom.

Why Write?

Leaving aside more mundane demands like shopping lists and business writing, plus shorter things like personal e-mails (not to say some of these shouldn’t be creative), it seemed to me there are three main reasons to write. In reverse order of importance, I have always considered these to be:

  1. To make money.
  2. To express your thoughts to others.
  3. Because that demon keeps jab-jab-jabbing away at us and making us write.

N years after I first wrote for publication, this is still the way I see things. I have, though, recently modified my view to an extent.

When I lived in London, back in the Dark Ages (well, it was a long time ago), I wrote a few things commercially or semi-commercially. This first period of literary activity lasted for not much more than two years before ‘life got in the way’ and my attention went in other directions. This period of comparative dormancy went on for a number of years. I did do some creative writing in this interval—I didn’t seem to have any choice in the matter—but didn’t try to get anything published.

Then, following a trip to Romania in 1988, at the time when Nicolae Ceauşescu was still dictator, I was bursting with ideas I had to express, in prose and poetry, in fiction and non-fiction. At that time the outlet most readily available was the small press, so this was where I initially concentrated my efforts. The first thing I wrote (an essay; nothing to do with Romania as it happens) appeared in Schools Poetry Review in 1989. Over the years, I have published around 200 poems, about 80 short stories and roughly the same number of commercial features. Added to this is a large number of works of reviews, essays and things I can best describe as ‘other prose’. My first book-length work appeared in 1993 and six more followed from medium-sized and small presses. You can see samples of all this activity on my website here.

Given what I said earlier about motives for writing, you’d think I should have been happy. If I hadn’t made enormous sums of money, I do know that a large number of people have read what I’ve had to say and at least I’ve managed to keep that demon and his pitchfork still. There were, though, two large flies in the ointment. Firstly, much of my writing had to be undertaken against the background of a busy and demanding job. Secondly, several years ago life got in the way again, more negatively this time, just when my literary life was showing signs of taking off.

This year, I’ve decided to bring more focus to my literary activity. Unless you’re an ‘all-purpose sleb’ or a leading footballer, the window into ‘mainstream publication’ is getting smaller. On the other hand, independent publishing is becoming a viable alternative. So this, armed with a new nom-de-plume, is the route I’ve decided to take. First will be The Eve of St Eligius with more to follow early next year.

Wish me luck! ‘Eligius’ will appear electronically on 30th November, 2018 (which happens to be the eve of the festival of St Eligius) and as a paperback in mid-December.

Tom East

Tom’s first foray into the world of independent publishing is available now in e-book on Amazon:
The Eve of St Eligius – Amazon UK
The Eve of St Eligius – Amazon US

Audiobooks

A few years ago I was approached by the same company who produced the audiobook of The Martian. They expressed interest in producing an audio version of The Cleansing. Sadly, I could not take the matter any further because I was at the time contracted to a small press publisher. But I’ve remained curious as to whether there would be any interest in my work from audiobook listeners—there’s only one way to find out, right?

It wasn’t until this summer, after I’d parted company with the publisher and all rights to my works had reverted back to me, that I was able to turn my attention to audio.

There seems a bewildering number of audiobook producers out there. Long story short, after browsing various sites and discussion forums, I eventually decided to go through Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX). And there is quite a range of options within ACX. I toyed with the idea of narrating the book myself to limit cost, but discounted it almost immediately. I don’t have professional recording equipment and I’m hopeless at doing accents. No, it would sound like an amateur production and I wanted the opposite.

I decided to offer the book for audition on a royalty-share basis. This involves making available an extract of the book of 2 or 3 pages (around 5 minutes of recording time). The royalty share would mean I wouldn’t have to pay the narrator up front, but we would share equally a percentage of each sale. Again, my prime motivation was to cut down on up-front costs. What seemed a woefully pitiful percentage share of sales would be the trade-off.

I was aware that it was highly unlikely I would attract any experienced narrators—why would they risk their time and effort for no guaranteed return on a novel written by a virtual unknown? Not only did I not attract any experienced narrators, I didn’t attract any at all. The book extract remained available for audition for a 30-day period, but I didn’t receive a single audition.

Time for a little soul searching. It boiled down to how much did I want to have an audiobook version of The Cleansing. Turned out the answer was I wanted it a great deal. Enough to bite the bullet and offer the extract for audition in return for a fee. This way, the narrator wouldn’t have to bear any risk of the book not selling and I would benefit in the long run if the book continued to sell after I’d recouped my initial outlay. I opted for exclusivity, meaning the audiobook would only be made available in three outlets—Audible, Amazon and iTunes—but I would receive a higher percentage of each sale.

I mentioned ‘recouping my initial outlay’. Here’s the thing: I don’t know how many sales it will take to do that and start to make a profit.

Firstly, I have no say whatsoever in how much the three retailers charge for the audiobook. Being accustomed to the freedom independent publishing allows me over the prices of my books, to have no say in the price asked for the audio version is a little strange to say the least. (I suppose it has to do with protecting the market for audiobooks and ensuring the price doesn’t spiral downwards like it has with e-books.)

Secondly, I understand audiobooks may be purchased in one of three different ways: directly in the normal sense; directly by members of a subscription service at a discounted price; indirectly by members of the subscripton service by using one of their monthly credits. In each case, the amount the author receives will vary.

So, bizarrely, it’s impossible to say how many sales I need to break even. I’m guessing it’s going to take at least a few hundred, but I’m stumbling about in the dark. The Cleansing is the first in a trilogy and I’d like to have the sequels also produced as audiobooks. Before I can think of making The Beacon available for audition, I have to at least recoup my outlay on the first book. It’s mildly frustrating that I have no way of estimating how long that might take.

Anyway, I offered The Cleansing for audition on a pay-for-production basis. You can set the price range of what you’re prepared to pay and I opted for one of the lower ranges. Not the lowest, because I wanted to attract narrators with some experience, but not high enough that I would bankrupt myself in the process.

Within a few hours, I had received three auditions. Within a week, I had received eight. I had been concerned that I might have priced myself out of attracting any good narrators, but I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the auditions I received. I narrowed it down to three—two men, one woman—and from there picked my favourite. That wasn’t easy; all three were excellent.

Before I made the chosen narrator an offer, I checked him out online. Not to be nosy, but to make sure he was someone I was happy to do business with. Here’s one of life’s little coincidences. He is an actor and musician, and had appeared in a stage musical I had been to see in Cardiff for my birthday last year. I’m not normally one for musicals, but I love sixties music and had thoroughly enjoyed Cilla – The Musical.

I made him an offer, which he accepted. I could now finalise the audiobook cover by including his name and upload that to ACX. The narrator recorded the first 15-minute segment for my approval, which I didn’t hesitate to give. He then recorded the whole book. It was my job to listen to the completed recording and feedback any mistakes.

It felt weird and wonderful listening to one of my novels being narrated. It made it sound like it had been written by someone else and I found myself getting caught up in the tale. I made a note of the errors—there were remarkably few, perhaps a dozen out a 90,000-word novel—and sent them to the narrator. He fixed the errors promptly, I paid him and we were done. A relatively painless operation—the narrator was excellent, easy to work with and earned every penny of his fee.

It was then down to ACX to make the book available on the three retail channels. That happened this week. I received notification on Wednesday, 14th November that it had gone on sale on Audible and would be available on Amazon and iTunes within the next few days.

The whole process was much quicker than I’d anticipated. I made the book available for audition the second time (on the pay-up-front basis) on 2nd August. I had chosen my favourite narrator and entered into an agreement with him by 10th August. From there, it has taken marginally over three months to complete the recording and make the book available for sale.

Now all I need to do is learn how to market it. If you’ve read any of my posts on marketing, you’ll understand what a challenge that presents.

A word of warning for any writers reading this who are considering taking the plunge into audiobooks themselves. I read an online discussion in which authors who know more about the audiobook market than me (which isn’t difficult) stated that the wider audiobook market is set to explode with lots of potentially lucrative markets becoming available through various new players about to enter the audiobook game, and cautioned against entering into an exclusive deal with anyone.

I can’t recall details, but if you’re about to embark on a new audiobook project, read up on it. If you decide, like me, to go exclusive with someone like ACX, make sure it’s an informed decision that you won’t quickly come to regret.

To finish on a high note, I noticed yesterday that the audiobook was available on Amazon and that it already had a ranking in both the US and UK. That normally only happens when a book has achieved some sales, yet my ACX dashboard wasn’t showing any. Until I looked again, a little later, and discovered to my delight that the audio version of The Cleansing has already been purchased several times. I still get a buzz from the thought of a complete stranger reading, or in this case listening, to something I’ve written.

(For a peek at the book, and to listen to the opening scene, follow one of the links to the audiobook on the Earth Haven page from the ‘Books’ dropdown menu above.)

Marketing for Muppets – Part 4

Subtitle: the ongoing chronicle of one muppet’s struggle with promoting. Yes, it’s still a struggle. Yes, I’m still a muppet when it comes to marketing.

In earlier instalments, I said I was going to try giving away one of my books as a means of building my mailing list. Well, this is what happened.

On 7th November 2017, I submitted my short dark fantasy novel The Elevator to Instafreebie. I had intended to make joining my mailing list mandatory in return for downloading the book, but Instafreebie cautioned against doing so and I listened. Readers could download the book and had the option, not requirement, of subscribing to my list. I mentioned the availability of the freebie on social media and sat back to see what happened.

You can probably guess. By 17th November, 16 people had taken advantage of the free book, but only two of them elected to join my mailing list (and one of them was already on it).

Hmm. My mailing list numbers, already pitifully low (as in, fewer than 20 subscribers—bless each and every one), had swollen by a grand total of one. I know that I hadn’t given it long, but clearly I already needed to rethink.

I changed the terms of the giveaway on Instafreebie to make it mandatory for readers to subscribe to my mailing list. This meant upgrading my account to the paid version. $20 a month was $20 more than I wanted to spend on building my mailing list, but I figured that it would be worth it, provided the tactic worked—I was still hung up on the idea that an independent author needs a large mailing list to stand any chance of being successful. Then I looked out for cross-promotions I could join.

When readers join my mailing list, I promise that I won’t share their e-mail addresses with anybody else; by the same token, I’m not interested in receiving e-mail addresses of people who haven’t specifically opted to subscribe to my list. So any promotion that involved authors exchanging lists was out.

I applied to join a promotion that ran in December. It consisted of a landing page containing details of all contributing authors’ books and links to where readers could obtain a free copy. I offered The Elevator and included the Instafreebie link. It worked quite well—I gained over 200 new subscribers.

Then I hit a slight snag. One of the conditions of taking part in the promotion was to send an e-mail to my list with details of the promotion. Fair enough, but I didn’t send the e-mail until quite a few days into the promotion, by which time my list had grown appreciably. So I sent an e-mail to readers who, in the main, had joined my list through a giveaway, to tell them about that giveaway. No wonder some readers promptly unsubscribed. Yeah, I’m a muppet with a capital M.

In January, I was ready to publish Jack’s Tale, the sequel to The Elevator. Seemed like a good time to test the value of having a mailing list. I uploaded the book for preorder and discounted the preorder price to $0.99. Then I sent an e-mail to my list with a link to the preorder. My list by then had 272 subscribers, of which 13 promptly unsubscribed. By the time Jack’s Tale was published a week later, it had a total of 17 preorders.

A month later, I was ready to publish the final book in The Elevator trilogy, The Lord of the Dance. I again discounted the preorder to $0.99 and e-mailed my list. The number of subscribers had by that point crept back up to 274. A week or so later, when the book was published, it had a grand total of 7 preorders.

Hmmm (once more with feeling). Quite honestly, I would have been disappointed with those numbers without a mailing list.

I persevered and joined a few more cross-promotions. As of now (early November 2018), my list has 589 subscribers. That’s a massive improvement on a year ago, but I’m nevertheless a little despondent. I can’t help but wonder whether giving away all those books and paying those monthly fees were worth it. The last promotion I joined was in September and I’ve resolved, for now, not to take part in another.

Around 750 copies of The Elevator were downloaded through these cross-promotions, but I have grown heartily fed up of giving the book away. Although the promotions have been useful in swelling the numbers on my list, which was the main reason for taking part, they seem to have done nothing at all for the book or sequels, which was the secondary reason. No reviews, little sell-through, no messages on Facebook or elsewhere from excited readers.

Of course, as I fully recognise, this could be because the first book isn’t grabbing readers sufficiently that they want to read the sequels. It’s certainly an unusual tale, not exactly mainstream, not a lot like anything else that’s out there. While some might view that as a book’s strength, perhaps it’s more likely to be its downfall.

It could also mean that since they acquired it for nothing, the book is sitting lost amidst hundreds of other books these readers acquired through other giveaways. Many of them might never get around to reading it. Gifting books as a promotional tactic, it seems to me, has reached saturation point.

This leads me to a proposition, an extremely subjective one, it has to be acknowledged:

Proposition 4: In my experience, the value of giving away books has diminished to the point where its worth as a marketing tool is, at best, doubtful.

I haven’t mailed my list about a new release since February. Mainly because I parted company with my publisher in March and spent the next few months revising and producing and releasing my own versions of my e-books and paperbacks, writing new stuff was forced to take a back seat. I’m also in the process of producing my first audiobook and starting up a proofreading business. It might be another few months before I’m ready to release something new.

It’s unlikely that much interest will be generated by my e-mail notifying subscribers of the new release. If anything, the unsubscribe rate will probably rocket since many subscribers will have forgotten they signed up and will have no idea who this strange person is e-mailing them. The experts say that it’s a good thing to have people unsubscribe if they were only there in the first place in expectation of receiving further free books. They say a list should be nurtured, meaning informative e-mails should be sent regularly so that you remain, if not at the forefront of your subscribers’ thoughts, at least visible to them. This comes back to the sort of person you are. If, like me, you can’t stand the thought of sending people e-mails unless it’s to tell them about a promotion or new release, not a lot of nurturing is likely to occur.

I’m well aware the vast majority of subscribers to my list are there because I offered them a free book. Most will have little or no knowledge of my work; most will be, at best, indifferent to my work because they’ve never read anything I’ve written. I’ve given them the expectation of receiving free books from me. Why the heck should I now expect them to part with a dollar to preorder my new release?

Okay, that question was largely rhetorical, but I’ll answer it anyway. I don’t expect them to buy my work. If most of them remain on my list on receiving my next e-mail, I’ll be grateful. Of course, that won’t stop me from hoping they’ll head on over to Amazon and put in their preorder, but I shan’t hold my breath. And that’s not a criticism of the subscribers who joined up through the promotions. I’m glad to have them on my list—it would remain pitifully small without them. It’s merely a recognition of the reality of the situation. And confirms my constant assertion.

When it comes to marketing, I’m a complete muppet.

That’s enough about mailing lists. Next time, I’ll talk about some other area of marketing I’m hopeless at. Or, who knows, there might be mention of something that actually seems to be working. Till Part 5…

Editing – Part 1

Any aspiring author considering self-publishing their work who seeks guidance online is likely to be furnished with three stock pieces of advice:

1. Obtain a professional-looking, genre-specific cover;
2. Write an enticing blurb*;
3. Have the book professionally edited before publishing.

This won’t be the only advice offered, but is probably the most common. It’s also sound advice—not something that can be said about every pearl of wisdom bandied about on the net.

It’s that third item I want to talk a little about: the advice to have the work professionally edited before letting it loose on the reading public.

The word ‘editing’ is often thrown about with gay abandon as a catch-all term for polishing a raw manuscript until it shines, but there are various types of editing, requiring different degrees of skill and coming with varying price tags.

Generally speaking, editing can range from in-depth analysis of a novel’s structure (developmental editing), to a final proofread to eliminate any spelling mistakes or punctuation errors remaining from previous editing passes. The various intermediate stages may be called substantive editing, mechanical editing, line editing and copy editing—there is often overlap between these terms, or they are used interchangably, or given different meanings by different editors.

And cost will range widely, perhaps from a few thousand dollars or more for a developmental edit, to less than fifty dollars for a proofread from someone who will run it through a spellchecker and little else.

That’s the thing: anyone with a computer and internet connection can set themselves up online as an editor. While there are experienced and skilled editors and proofreaders out there who fully justify their fees, there are also people claiming to be editors who I wouldn’t trust to check my shopping list. Such is the internet.

There are two main issues I see facing the new author who wants to follow the advice and have their work professionally edited. The first is cost—not many new authors are likely to have a few thousand dollars to spend on an editor. The second is finding a knowledgable, reliable editor who’s a good fit—that’s when recommendations from other authors become important, but many newbies might not have the necessary contacts. They will need to poke about online until they find a forum or group that fits their genre and personality; they’ll need to join in, get to know people (in as much as that’s possible on social media) and learn whose recommendations they can trust.

What of the new author who genuinely can’t afford to hire an editor? I’ve seen authors advised to go without whatever it takes in order to save funds for an editor. The advice I’ve seen hasn’t gone as far as to recommend selling a kidney; at least, not yet.

No matter how sincerely the well-meaning advisor believes that the newbie can find a way to raise the funds, the fact remains that for some this will simply not be possible. For some, self-editing might be the only option.

I’ll talk a little more about self-editing methods in my next post on this topic—not, I hasten to add, that I’m an expert, but I can at least talk about what I do. To someone who doesn’t know where to start, it might be useful.

Before I end, there’s one important thing to add: even if self-editing, try to get at least one other pair of eyes on your work before you publish it. Look around on Facebook and other social media for critiquing groups you might be able to join, or suggest to other writers at a similar stage as you that you get together to set one up. If all else fails, it could be a friend or family member whose opinion you trust and who, preferably, has a reasonably high standard of written English. Ask them to read through your final manuscript and note any spelling errors or other mistakes. Though not everyone on the forums will agree with me, I appreciate that in some cases this might the best a novice writer can do.

* I know that historically the word ‘blurb’ referred to a catchy phrase about the book, often by a famous author, used to promote the work, but language evolves and the word is often used nowadays to refer to the book description, and that is the sense in which I’m using it. So there.

This is the Way the World Ends

If pushed to name a favourite genre, post-apocalyptic would come close. Depending on my mood, it would often be top. That’s the thing with naming your favourite anything, from food to film to song to book: it depends how you are feeling when deliberating. I’ve talked in a previous post about my love for this genre and how I first became attracted to it by watching the film The Omega Man when I was a child, and I’m not going to rehash that. Instead, I want to mention some of my favourite apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels. (I’m not going to discuss dystopian books where there hasn’t been an apocalyptic event, or there has but it isn’t key to the story—dystopia has its own post.)

This is a category crammed with excellent novels. Harder to know what to leave out than include, but what follows is a mention of many of my favourites (which, of course, on another day might have included one or more of the books I’ve today omitted).

Let’s start with one of my favourite authors. If you know me, you’ll realise I refer to Stephen King. Can’t recall how old I was when I first read The Stand, but I’m guessing I was around seventeen. The tale of civilisation coming to an end through the accidental release of a lab-engineered strain of influenza blew me away and cemented SK as my go-to author. (As an aside, one or two reviewers of my own apocalyptic novel, The Cleansing, commented that it reminded them of The Stand. True, my tale also involves a manufactured virus which virtually wipes out humankind, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Tenuous though the comparison is, I usually shrug and take it as a compliment, even where it’s clear it’s not intended as one.)

Another PA novel I read in my teens was On the Beach by Nevil Shute. Set in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, it tells of the last days of humanity while the survivors wait for the fallout to reach them. It was published in 1957, which perhaps explains why I felt in some ways it was a little unrealistic. I mean, for people awaiting certain death, they behave in an awfully civilised manner—stiff upper lip and all that. Still, it’s a sombre evocation of how the world might end (‘not with a bang but a whimper’*), with the government doling out suicide capsules so the people might be spared the slow, lingering end of radiation poisoning, and entire families popping them together.


On The Beach

Another favourite of my younger days was Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. The apocalyptic event doesn’t take place until towards the end of the tale, but when it does, it’s about as life-ending as it’s possible to imagine. And that’s all life, not only human.

A couple of books I’d describe as curious, both disturbing in their own ways. The Death of Grass by John Christopher presents a grim (grim? It’s PA—of course it’s bloody grim) look at how humankind might react in the event suggested by the title, with the British government responding to the crisis in a dramatic and overly drastic way, and what is left of society descending almost instantly into mob rule. And Night Work by Thomas Glavinic. It’s not giving anything away to say that it’s about a man who wakes up one day to find that he appears to be the only person left alive on the entire planet. Can’t say more because spoilers, but it’s a dark and intriguing read.


Night Work

The next two books have something in common: they both involve a form of vampirism. In Justin Cronin’s The Passage, we see the event unfold. The story continues in two sequels and it’s a fine trilogy indeed. In Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (the book upon which the film The Omega Man is loosely based), the event has already taken place and we witness the aftermath. Unlike the film versions, the book’s ending is deliciously dark; pity the film makers didn’t have the courage to stick with it.


I Am Legend

Next, a Marmite novel: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp (that’s the book, not Marmite). It’s unremittingly bleak and utterly gripping. They didn’t do a bad job with the film version, either.

A few more crackers (most of the books included in this post are crackers). Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel.  Both captivated me for different reasons: Atwood’s for its sense of lyricism and surrealism mixed with a scenario all too realistic, Mandel’s due mainly to the intrigue I felt as to how the present would tie-in with the back story, though this is beautifully written as well. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller is a classic PA novel, though it reads more like three long short stories, which is how they were originally written.


Oryx And Crake

For someone who’s a huge fan of TV’s The Walking Dead, strange that I’m not really one for novels about zombies. They simply don’t interest me. The exception is World War Z by Max Brooks. I bought it as one of my books to take on holiday to Greece a few years ago. It took me a while to grow used to the style of the novel—it has no central narrative, as such, but is told after the event through a series of interviews with characters who played a central role in the ‘war’—but once I had, Wow! A rip-roaring read that I didn’t want to end.


World War Z

To finish, a novel that haunted me for weeks after I’d finished it and one that I want to read again: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. The story is set in the south-east of England, far into the future, hundreds of years after the apocalyptic event. I’m hazy on the details because it’s been more than five years since I read it, but I still recall how the tale resonated with me. The author developed a form of pidgin English in which his characters speak and, due mainly to that, it’s a difficult book to get into. But, boy, was it worth persevering. If you enjoy works of apocalyptic fiction, I’d strongly recommend this, and every other book mentioned in this post.


Riddley Walker

Happy reading!

* this is a line from a poem by T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, the same poem from which Shute took the title of his novel, and I took the title of this piece.

A Baltic Odyssey

According to our local guide, Alexander Pushkin is to the Russian people what William Shakespeare is to us Brits. Although born in Moscow, he has strong associations with St Petersburg, which happened to be one of the ports of call on our cruise around the Baltic Sea.

We enjoy cruising and usually choose the Mediterranean for the sunshine. Occasionally, though, we opt to go north and have cruised to the Norwegian fjords and the Arctic Circle. This Baltic trip attracted us for the variety of ports in six countries we’d never before visited.

This isn’t going to be a lengthy post; it’s more an excuse to say a little bit about the cruise and show a few photos. But, to obey my self-imposed rules about what I post on this site, I have to include a link, no matter how tenuous, to reading or writing. Thus, Pushkin. I regret to admit that I haven’t read anything by him and, honestly, will probably never do, though at least he is now on my reading radar.

Anyway, the ports. My favourite? Based on what we did there and the sheer beauty of the place, it has to be Tallinn in Estonia. Here’s a view of the city—the black-domed church above is also in Tallinn.

Copenhagen is probably a close second. Once home, of course, to Hans Christian Andersen (another writing link; go, me), whose association is commemorated, amongst other things, by the statue of the Little Mermaid.

Riga (Latvia) is also beautiful; Skagen (Denmark) is chocolate-box quaint; Helsinki (Finland) gave the impression of being unfinished, there was so much construction work going on, though is still lovely; Kiel (Germany) is interesting, though a little strange (they have a park called Hiroshima Park, which contains a statue of Bismark). The port that made the deepest impression, for not necessarily all the right reasons, was St Petersburg, the city of many names.

Our first sight of Russia was underwhelming, sinister almost: row upon row of ugly concrete apartment blocks poking from the mist. We passed many more on our coach ride into the city centre, a lot of them in a state of disrepair. It was grim, a dystopia, Orwell’s vision of the future brought to life.

Then the sun burned away the fog and revealed a city of stunning contrasts. Fairytale churches and cathedrals; glistening gold-domed towers and spires; forbidding, official-looking buildings; imposing monuments. The square behind the Winter Palace, said our guide, is larger than Red Square in Moscow.

If you ever visit St Petersburg, take a tour around the Hermitage Museum. Formerly a palace complex of the Tsars, it has been preserved in much the same state as it was in 1917 when the city was known as Petrograd, the Romanovs held power (until the abdication of Nicholas II in February) and the October Revolution was signalled by a blank shot from the battle cruiser Aurora (coincidentally, the same name as the ship in which we had cruised into St Petersburg). Here are snaps of them both.

Apparently, if you were to spend 30 seconds viewing every single exhibit the museum holds, it would take you around eleven years to see them all.

We spent a few hours there and barely scratched the surface.

It was a jaw-dropping tour, marvelling at the lavish opulence—I’ve never seen so many grand chandeliers and ornately decorated ceilings, so many paintings outside of a specialist gallery by masters like Da Vinci and Rembrandt, more gold (I imagine) than even the Vatican—while privately thinking it was little wonder there was so much discontent among the masses to have such riches in the midst of what must have been at that time severe deprivation.

St Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) is also famous for the failed siege by Germany in World War II. This is the hotel where Hitler planned to host a dinner to celebrate his conquest. He apparently even went as far as having invitations printed with only the date left blank.

We only spent hours at a stretch in these ports, enough to gain a flavour. But, without exception, the places we visited were captivating. If you’re ever wondering whether a trip to the Baltics is worthwhile, I’d say, resoundingly, yes.

To finish, a snap of me supping a stein of locally brewed beer in Kiel. These things have to be done. Cheers!

 

(Mis)Adventures in Publishing Paperbacks

This is going to be a lengthy post. It’s primarily aimed at writers considering publishing their own paperbacks, who don’t know where to start. I thought about cutting it into two or three smaller posts, but that wouldn’t be so helpful if you have to wait weeks for the next part and have to scroll between posts to get all the information you might need. (You can, though, skip this introductory bit by scrolling down to the sub-headings—I won’t be cross.)

In late March 2018, I parted company with the small press publisher I’d been with since April 2013. Although I’d been wanting to go my own way for a while, it happened a little unexpectedly.

The publisher had taken care of the paperback editions of my books—it was one of the main reasons I’d signed with it in the first place—so I’d never had to worry about learning how to produce my own.

Before worrying now, I concentrated on publishing my own versions of my e-books, taking the opportunity to revise each book and using Canva for my covers. (Canva is a website where you can design your own banners, ads and book covers at little or no cost. It’s fine for e-book covers; not so much for the greater complexities and resolution required for paperbacks.)

By the end of April, that was done and I could turn my attention to the paperbacks. That was when it hit me that, although I knew enough to have a general idea of what I needed to do, I was completely clueless about the detail. There were various issues to consider.

For the benefit of anyone who might be considering publishing their own paperbacks, who is as bewildered as I was, I’ll summarise these issues under sub-headings for ease of reference. And this is the potted version—over the ensuing weeks, I was to negotiate learning curves so steep I could have done with grappling hooks. Some of these things took me days to work out.

By the way, I’m not claiming this is the only or best or recommended way to publish paperbacks. It’s merely what I did—your mileage may vary.

Who to publish with?
There’s a growing school of thought that CreateSpace, much loved by the indie community, is being deliberately wound down by Amazon in favour of its in-house kdp. kdp was, and I believe still is, in beta and did not, when I was making these deliberations, offer wide distribution (though it does now). Anyway, I decided to publish with kdp for distribution through Amazon only and Ingram Spark for wide distribution, i.e. everywhere else.

Having made that decision, I needed to move quickly. Ingram charges a fee ($49 last I looked) for each title uploaded, but was running a free promotion until the end of June. Since I had six paperbacks to publish, that would mean a saving of almost $300, provided I got my skates on.

ISBNs
International Standard Book Numbers—a unique identifying number for each edition of a book. Exceptionally, an e-book edition doesn’t normally require its own ISBN, although some retailers (such as Google Play) assign their own to any e-book published through them that doesn’t have one.

I believe that kdp, like CreateSpace, will assign an ISBN for paperbacks published on its platform, but that ISBN can’t be used elsewhere so it would have been necessary to pay for Ingram to assign one.

Since I was going to have to pay for ISBNs no matter what, and I didn’t particularly want two versions of the same book with different ISBNs, I decided I would obtain my own.

A little research informed me that ISBNs can only be acquired in your native country by the agency charged with (and gleefully charging for) being guardians of the sacred numbers. In the UK, that’s Nielsen. (In the US, the agency is called Bowker. Not sure about elsewhere.) I have heard that in Canada ISBNs can be acquired free by Canadian citizens. Lucky them. In the UK, you have to buy them and they come at a fairly hefty price.

They can be purchased in the UK singly or in batches of ten or a hundred. Hmm. I had six paperbacks to publish by the end of June. I have many more novels I want to write. I knew I would be looking into audiobooks when the paperbacks were done. I would definitely need more than ten.

I worked out the unit prices. The price for each ISBN drops significantly when purchased in bulk. On impulse, my focus more on the unit price than, as it should have been, on the total outlay, I ordered a batch of one hundred. One hundred? What was I thinking? Safe to say, I now own enough ISBNs to write and publish a couple of novels each year until I’m a hundred.

Book size.
The small press did a great job of publishing the paperback editions of my books. My only reservation was the size of the books. The publisher chose 9 inches by 6 inches, which I’m led to believe is a popular size for novels in the States. Well, it isn’t in the UK. Novels here tend to be around 7″ by 4-and-a-bit”, rising to 8″ by 5″. 9 x 6 is unusual, a fact brought home to me when a local independent bookshop agreed to stock my paperbacks. When I visited the shop a few weeks later, I couldn’t see my books anywhere. I eventually spotted them, lying on their sides on a top shelf where their visibility was, to put it mildly, limited. The owner told me that my books were too tall to fit onto the regular shelves, adding that at that size they looked like self-published books, even though they weren’t.

Needless to say, I hadn’t moved many copies by the time the bookshop closed down. To add insult to injury, I didn’t get paid for the few copies that had sold.

Live and learn. When it came to publishing my own paperbacks, I was determined they would be at a size more in keeping with the size of novels found in British bookshops. I opted for 8″ by 5″; there are plenty of other options.

Formatting
I had set up accounts with Ingram Spark and Nielsen (you don’t need a separate account with kdp, provided you already have e-books published through Amazon), and was awash with ISBNs. Next, to begin formatting a manuscript.

I began with the shortest work I was going to turn into a paperback: my first novel, 64,000 words long. I turned to the formatting guidance I’d downloaded from Ingram.

My heart sank. (During the weeks this entire process took, my heart was to bob up and down more than an adrift dinghy.) It seemed, at first (second and third, too) glance like utter gibberish.

Feeling I may have bitten off more than I could chew, I hunted down kdp’s formatting guidance. This I found a little more user-friendly. (For anyone who’s interested, it can be found here. It’s been updated since I last used it and looks to be more comprehensive now.)

I use Word, and came to learn more about it during the next few weeks than I had learned in the previous ten years. Mirror margins; unusual line spacing (1.15 is perfect); section breaks; justification; headers and footers, and (aargh!) page numbering; kerning (a word I’d not even heard of before); tracking; font sizes and types and licences (who knew you needed a licence to use certain fonts?—not me); embedding fonts; converting to print-ready pdf.

After days, probably a week or more, of running up blind alleys and cursing and threatening to throw my laptop out of the window, I produced a pdf that kdp’s automated system seemed to like.

It was then I returned to Ingram’s specifications, better equipped to understand them, and realised their requirements were not the same as kdp’s, were more stringent and I would need a differently formatted file to upload to Ingram. Bugger!

After more fiddling and fussing, more trial and error, more turning the air blue, I settled on a template for all my paperbacks that satisfies the requirements of both kdp and Ingram. (Tip: follow Ingram’s guidelines—they work for kdp, but that doesn’t hold true the other way around.) The dimensions are noted for future use in a notebook I keep handy because you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll have forgotten how to do it next time I need to format for paperback.

Covers
Probably the steepest learning curve of all, and one where I’ve yet to attain the summit and start down the other side. For my e-books, I’ve either purchased premade covers, designed basic covers myself (using Canva) or, for a more professional look, my brother has helped me out by designing them for me in Photoshop. However, I wanted to go the whole hog and become completely self-sufficient. This meant not having to rely on the goodwill of my brother (who is always willing to help, but is himself a busy man) and not having to buy covers elsewhere.

Clearly, I needed to acquire a photo manipulation program and learn how to use it. (This is someone who has never used Photoshop or anything similar, ever.)

Photoshop was a non-starter—it seemed I would have to pay an annual subscription to use it. No, thanks. I wanted something I could pay for once and would do the job. It didn’t matter that I wouldn’t receive fancy upgrades; chances are, I wouldn’t know how to use the new features anyway.

Over to my brother, who recommended a reasonably priced (around £50) program—Affinity—that should do what I needed it to and, more importantly for me, only required that one-off payment.

Then I began to try to work out manually the required size of the covers; more particularly, the spine widths—different requirements, again, for kdp and Ingram. Oh, boy. I still have the workings; they look like the jottings of some maths genius devising a formula for proving homological conjectures in commutative algebra*.

I began to despair—I was running out of enthusiasm and hadn’t even opened my new program—and vented to bruv, who again came to the rescue. “Why don’t you download a cover template?” he enquired. A what? There are templates? Of course there are. Both Amazon and Ingram provide templates. You merely insert the dimensions of the book and number of pages—Ingram also needs the ISBN to produce a template.

So I was up and running. All I needed to do now was learn how to use the new program. Again, oh, boy. Probably another post’s worth in itself. Suffice it to say here, I managed to produce six covers in time to meet the end-of-June deadline. I’ve included photos of them—they are the kdp proof copies, thus the stupid ‘not for resale’ band around them. They’re not the greatest (due solely to my limitations, not Affinity’s) and a few of them are in dire need of improvement. Trouble is, Ingram also charges for making changes to covers and manuscripts so I’m going to wait until it next runs a free promotion before swapping the covers for improved versions.

Barcodes
At one point, I was stressing about how to produce the barcode that appears on the back of paperback books. There was no need to worry—the Ingram cover template includes the necessary barcode; kdp adds it following submission of the final cover.

Pricing
The final conundrum, and one which I’m not convinced I’ve solved. I was ready to publish my paperbacks, but had no idea how much to charge for them. And Ingram’s guidance rabbited on about retailer discounts and returns and other stuff I didn’t understand. I ended up asking about pricing in the Writers’ Café on kboards and was pointed to the blog post of a knowledgeable and well-respected member of the kboards community. I can do no better than share the link to her post: here.

I was running out of time to publish the books before the Ingram free promotion deadline, so I hastened to the blog, read her advice and decided to follow it.

It seems to me that what the prevailing wisdom boils down to is this. We indies don’t enjoy the economies of scale of print runs of ten thousand copies at a time—our books are printed on demand, which is a significantly higher cost per unit. We don’t have the distribution networks and goodwill that see traditionally published books on sale in all the major bookshops. No matter what we do, the chances of having our books stocked by any bricks and mortar bookshops are minuscule. If we don’t price our paperbacks correctly, we are unlikely to make much, if any, profit from selling them; it’s even possible to end up operating at a loss.

Essentially, we cannot compete on price with the big boys when it comes to selling paperbacks and so shouldn’t try to. (It’s been a while since I looked into pricing and I’m not sure I fully understood all the ins and outs when I did. If there are errors in the above summation, they are mine alone.)

My paperbacks are priced between $13.95 and $15.95 (that’s £9.99 – £11.99). I might not sell many at these prices, but at least I’ll make a few pounds profit on any that do sell. Heck, what would be the point otherwise?

Marketing
If you’ve read any of the posts about my efforts at marketing, you’ll know that I’m hopeless. A complete muppet. But I’m trying to improve. How I’m going to attempt to market my paperbacks, I have no clue right now. It’s something I need to think about and research. But it can wait: I don’t want to spend a penny marketing them until I’ve been able to upload the improved covers. A topic for a future ‘Marketing for Muppets’ post, I think.

[ * there is such a thing—Google it, like I did]