Monday, December 26, 2011

Memories of Christmas Stockings and Cherry Chapstick

I can still remember my most spectacular Christmas as a child, back when Santa was as real and ephemeral as newly fallen snow. It was the only time I ever dared to sneak downstairs before everyone was awake, to see what presents had been magically delivered the night before. My heart was pounding in my throat with excitement as I carefully slid down the stairs. I turned left at the bottom of the stairs and stood in awe. It was all I could do to restrain myself.

The living room was overflowing with presents!

With five kids in our family, just the family presents alone would become quite a collection over the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Adding Santa’s offerings to the mix on Christmas morning pretty well filled the corner of the room where the Christmas tree was. But this Christmas, Santa had clearly dipped deeply into the budget and overloaded his sleigh. To my eyes, the room had been filled to overflowing with presents.
One thing that stood out was the pogo stick leaning against the fireplace. It wasn’t some cheap little toy. It was the real thing. A large, red, very solidly built pogo stick.  I didn’t dare let myself guess who it might be for, lest I be disappointed later.
I quietly crept back upstairs and climbed back into bed, waiting for the dim glow in the sky to turn into actual dawn. Too excited to fall back to sleep. Yet, somehow I did.
Eventually, consciousness crept its way into the family along with the rising sun. For some reason I could never deduce, my parents were always last to rise on Christmas morning. At their rising, the stampede down the stairs could finally ensue.
Into the fray we entered.
Exited the fray much wrapping paper in shreds.
At this point, the memories of many Christmases blur together where the ripping into presents is concerned. Excitement of not quite knowing what was next going to be unveiled when wrapping paper was removed.
Of these blurred memories, there were some constants.
My mother has always been an avid knitter. She knitted the Christmas stockings for my brothers and and myself. Christmas red and white, with our names on each. Even our eye colors were reflected in each stocking. We always hung our stockings by the fireplace before Christmas and there they would dangle flaccidly until the holiday.
Christmas day, the stockings would be stuffed with small presents from Santa and be too heavy to be hung up. So they laid on the floor waiting to be handed out. One thing about knitted goods is that they stretch and stretch. So the stockings could really be packed beyond their natural volume full of goodies, much like Gurgi’s magic wallet.
The presents to be found in the stockings always took second place to the larger and more glamorous items to be found underneath the Christmas tree. However, the items in the stockings usually ended up being the more exotic and interesting presents, as well as the longest lasting. Silver dollars and pens and pencils were common in the mix. There were also super balls. My favorite was one that was clear and had glitter inside it, though, when bounced over the house, it wasn’t as easy to find as were the fluorescent ones. Another favorite of mine were those brainteaser puzzles. Sometimes it would take days. Sometimes months to figure those out. There were magic trick toys. Toy cars. Pocket-sized toys and their like. Many of these toys lasted so long, they found their way into the next generation of children in our family.
One stocking stuffer that stood out in my memory was cherry-flavored ChapStick. As a little boy, I didn’t have much use for lip balms. One use that I did have for it was when I discovered that it could be used as a protectant to keep your lips from being frozen to the sled should you hit a bump on the way down the hill. It wouldn’t be until I got into middle school that I would learn to appreciate the need for lip balms. What struck me most about the cherry ChapStick was the scent. That stuck with me over all the years and I always associated it with Christmas, almost as much as the smell of balsam fir.
Each of these memories eventually would become elements in a story for me. The Christmas tree would become a glittering metropolis, whether a space age city or a primitive culture living in a giant tree. Either makes an interesting setting for a story. Toys could represent space ships or aliens. Chocolate coins would become treasure to be found before the pirates caught me. Something could happen and each of the toys represented some element of a story.
If you ever wonder where the seeds of a story come from, that’s it. Those little bits and pieces of childhood memories. They meant something for some reason, and conveyed a feeling. With that feeling, comes a story.
Watch your children as they begin to play with their new toys after the holidays. Watch carefully. At first, they play with the toy because it is new. But then that play begins to change. It isn’t enough that they are making the toy move or whatever. You will begin to notice that they start making something happen with that toy. They start playing out an event, a scene from a story.
They aren’t just making noises and making the toy move. They are making something happen with the toy. They are making something happen to the toy. Maybe the toy is coming in for a landing, and the people inside the toy are going to explore something, only to get attacked by a tyrannosaur!
That’s a story!
A puzzle becomes a fantastic key that opens a door to another world. A letter opener becomes a sword that can cut through anything. A gyroscope becomes a space station drifting in space where unsuspecting inhabitants are about to have first contact with another race. A box of Legos can and will become anything!
Watch your children as they play with their new toys. Don’t just ask them what they are doing. They’ll tell you they are playing with their toy. Instead, ask your children what is happening to the toy. The answer you get might be entirely different than what you expected. One with surprising detail.
You may just be seeing the seeds being sown for the next great American novel to be written twenty years from now.

And the pogo stick? Turned out it had my name on it!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Business of Writing: Ebooks—The End of Publishers?

If that’s not a title that says, “Troll the Internet,” then perhaps my measure is a bit off. It is a question that begs to be asked. I’ve been reading this argument numerous times for the past year or two, as many independent authors have been demonstrating remarkable successes by selling their stories directly to the public as ebooks. Even successful, traditionally published authors were turning their backs on traditional publishing channels in favor of publishing themselves via ebooks.
Is this the end of publishers? No, not by a long shot.
But it is the end of of the way the business has been conducted for many years in the publishing industry.
Digital publishing and the rapidly growing number of ebook readers in the public have given authors a new path to reach the reading public without having to go through the approval gauntlet created by the publishing industry as a whole. Traditional publishing companies are no longer the gatekeepers of the literary world. People have found a hole in the wall they can squeeze through.
Publishers still have a lot to offer a writer. Editing services. Typographical services. Production. Distribution. Promotion.
A successful author isn’t so much an excellent writer as he or she is an excellent storyteller. Grammatical errors and spelling errors still creep into the narrative. Sure, spell checkers on computers catch errors and even autocorrect them on the fly. But a misplaced homophone (They’re/Their/There) won’t trigger an error condition. Nor will an awkwardly or poorly worded passage cause an alert with a grammar checker. If you like to write stories, how often do you catch yourself going off on a tangent that steers away from the plot? This is where you need a good editor. Someone who helps you keep your story readable and enjoyable for the general public. If a reader has to struggle to understand what you are trying to say, your story will not be successful.
A well-written and well-edited story won’t be read if it is hard to actually look at the printed words on the page. If it is printed in some obscure font, the letters are sized too small to see without reading glasses, or the letters are too far apart or too close together, it is going to be unpleasant to read. If someone has to struggle to make out the words of your narrative, it is highly unlikely that they are going to even try to read your story. This is where the science and art of typography come into play. The best way I can suggest you understand this would be to copy this text, paste it into a word processing program and mess with the fonts, change the paragraph, line, word and character spacing and try and read this. You will understand very quickly just how important it is to have everything look good! If you know how, mess with the CSS settings of this web page and you’ll get a good idea of what I’m stating.
Publishers have been publishing books for a long time, and they have set up strong relationships with numerous printers. As a publisher typically orders in large volumes, printers can offer a publisher excellent volume rates. An individual author trying to break out on their own will have difficulty affording the setup costs and production costs of just a small run of a few hundred books. Regardless of how large or small the print run, the same effort must be made to prepare for the printing. Some printers are recognizing that there is a growing market in independent authors and are starting to cater to this. But, an independent author had better have their editing and typesetting done, because it isn’t a printer’s responsibility to take care of this for you. Their job is to put ink on paper and bind it into a book.
Publishers already have many connections with distributors, the very stores that would sell your book. The publishers also have the resources to absorb what product the distributors could not sell. When a book doesn’t sell well, the publisher has to buy back the copies that the distributor could not sell. An independent author is going to have to negotiate terms with the bookseller concerning how many copies are available for sale, and be prepared financially to absorb the copies that don’t sell. If your book is popular, not having enough copies might be a blessing. The printer will sure love you for coming back with more and more orders for printing! But, if your book is not popular and doesn’t sell well, you might find yourself with a house full of boxed books and no money left in your bank accounts because you had to buy all the surplus merchandise.
And last, once the book is cleaned up, printed and sent out for sale, it needs to be promoted. There is an old saying in sales, “A man who doesn’t advertise is like a man winking in the dark. He knows what he is doing, but nobody else does.” You may have written the next great American novel, but if no one knows that it exists, then no one is likely to know to buy it. For the most part, a writer is an introvert, happiest to sit before the keyboard and crank out the story that is in their mind. At a party, most would end up standing along the sides of the room watching, not engaging people at random to talk. Not many are comfortable with standing up in the middle of a room of strangers and shouting, “HEY EVERYBODY! I WROTE A BOOK! BUY IT!”
Step into an elevator? Strike up a conversation. In a bookstore? Pull your book off the shelf and tell someone you wrote it. To an introvert, this is shameless behavior. But these are exactly the kind of things one must do to sell a book. This is exactly what publishers have salespeople to do.
For all these reasons, publishers will not be going away any time soon! The above are all vital services that a publisher can offer to a writer.
The sudden rise of independent writers due to the explosion of the ebook market is creating a paradigm shift for the publishing industry. The very subcontractors that publishers turn to for various editing services are now poised to become their competitors. These contractors—editors for hire, typesetters, printers, etc.—are waking up to the fact that there is a market of independent writers that need their services, and they are starting to make themselves known and available. Now there is an opportunity for all the small, independent presses to gain a stronger foothold in the publishing market, because they can adapt faster and more efficiently to the new opportunities than the large juggernaut corporations that the large publishers have become.
Then there are the writers themselves, the very resource from which the publishing industry exists. Writers are waking up to the fact that they no longer have to kowtow to the draconian conditions that publishers have pushed on them in contracts. If a publisher is interested but won’t negotiate more reasonable conditions, the writer now has the option to just walk away and go it alone.
Of course, the other side of this is that the big publishers can now watch the sales figures on independent authors in the ebook markets, and pick and choose who to offer a lucrative contract in exchange for becoming the author’s publisher. A title that is rocketing up the best-sellers lists is likely to be a good moneymaker for the publisher. This, in my opinion, is likely to become the new paradigm of big-house publishing. Amanda Hocking, wunderkind and poster child of independent authors, had made a fortune publishing herself independently via ebooks. She just signed a deal with St. Martin’s worth a couple million in her pocket.
Why would she do that if she was already wildly successful without a publisher? Because of the above-listed reasons. Doing all that yourself is difficult and tiring. It takes away from the time a writer would rather be writing. Why would St. Martin’s sign her? Because she is already a proven writer. Her stories sell and sell well. So, it is a safe bet that they will make a considerable sum of money on the sales of her stories and through other deals, such as movie rights. An unknown writer is a much bigger gamble.
Publishers will not be going away any time soon. They offer way too many services that are vital for a writer to be successful. But the way publishing business is done is going to change. How and how much it is going to change is anyone’s best guess.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rise of the Indies

This morning, USA Today ran a motivating article about the rise of independent authors publishing themselves via ebooks. If you are toying with the idea of writing a book yourself, read this article. If it doesn’t excite you enough to start tapping out a bunch of words, you probably aren’t interested in actually writing a book. If it does light your fire and bring your creative juices to a boil, keep this thought in mind: on any given day in the U.S., there are probably twenty thousand people sitting down in front of a keyboard saying, “Today I will write the next great American Novel– ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’
That article touts some enticing sales figures. Indeed, they are quite intoxicating! But, there is a far more important set of numbers in this article. These numbers are quite minuscule in the face of the number of copies each of the cited authors have sold. These small numbers eclipse the sales figures.
That is to say, the number of times each of these authors was rejected.
Darcie Chan in particular stood out in my mind. Her manuscript for The Mill River Recluse had been rejected 100 times by literary agents! Her book never made it as far as a publisher. God bless her for the effort! I would have given up long before that, stuffed my manuscript into the sock drawer and turned my talents to other professional endeavors (“Wouldst thou like fries with that, Good Sir?”).
Now she is sitting pretty with her debut novel as an ebook in USA Today’s Bestsellers List.
The publishing industry has evolved the way it has over a number of centuries. It was in the twentieth century that mass-production of books ramped up. When the pocket book format (aka “paperback”) was created, the cost of buying a book plummeted. This brought affordable books to the masses and resulted in an unprecedented literary explosion. Whether it was high literature, dime store novels, pulp fiction, adventure stories, mysteries, romances, or whatever—suddenly books were cheap and could be bought everywhere.
With this growth came the demand for writers. With that demand, came those looking to become the next big name in writing. The more writers appeared, the more people came running their manuscripts vying for the chance to be published.
Publishing companies were becoming swamped with submissions. As one would expect, not all of them were all that good.
From this, the publishing industry became well known for one thing. Not the successes, not so much the name of famous authors, but for the rejections. Rejection became legendary. People talked about how many times an author was rejected before having that first book published.
Perhaps as a way of quality control, the publishing industry seemed to feed that legend as a way of discouraging all but the most tenacious writers from submitting a manuscript.
J.K. Rowling’s submission for the first Harry Potter book was rejected by eight publishers before one saw the potential in her story. The grand master of science fiction, Robert Heinlein, even had manuscripts rejected even while he was at the top of his game. Variable Star—eventually completed by Spider Robinson—was Heinlein’s last novel, published posthumously because the publisher refused to touch it because the story dealt with the possible end of the human race instead of its triumph.
Still, publishers were swamped with more manuscripts than they could handle. Larger publishers began to turn more and more to literary agents as a filter, to sift through the lot to find the best manuscripts for submission. Today, most of the big publishing houses won’t even glance at a manuscript unless it came to them through certain agents.
The legend of rejection is a double-edged sword for the publishing industry. Sure, it can help cut down on the number of submissions, but it also forces new writers to turn elsewhere to find new ways to be read.
When a book has been rejected so many times that the author can’t find any new publishers to look at it, the last bastion was to turn to self-publishing. Self-publishing had long held a bad stigma. It was usually viewed that the book was so bad, the author had to print it himself in order to get it published. Most periodicals refused to look at a self-published book for review. Distributors had difficult times with self-published books, because often the authors could not afford to produce the books in sufficient quantity for distribution and successful sales.
To self-publish was synonymous with admitting that one’s book would never sell.
The ebook has changed that.
Many first-time authors have decided to forgo submitting to a publisher and try it on their own. Why—after spending so much time to write the story in the first place—waste one’s time going from publisher/agent to publisher/agent only to be rejected? Why not publish digitally?
Publishing your story digitally means no production costs associated with creating a paper book. No distribution costs because you don’t have to ship a physical object*. No coughing up a percentage to an agent. No ridiculously low royalty that gets paid sometimes months late by an inattentive publisher. Seventy percent of your digital sale for each ebook sold goes right into your pocket! (*–Actually, this isn’t true. You pay a 30% royalty to Amazon, Apple, or Barnes & Noble as their slice of the pie for maintaining the web store front where your book is sold.)
The ebook revolution has opened the gates that were normally controlled by the publishers. Now, anyone can take a shot at being an author. Right now there is a virtual gold rush for anyone who wants to be an author!
But like the gold rushes of history, not everyone will be successful. You might not have to face the frustration of being rejected by a publisher, but you might have to face the heartbreak of being rejected by the readers.
I chose to self-publish my own story because I felt I didn’t have a chance going to a publisher. My story is a fantasy, and it doesn’t involve vampires or werewolves. That doesn’t make it a product of interest to a business that wants to ride the current wave of emo parasites and shaggy hunks. I do have a story in the wings about a teenaged wizard of modern times who can fly a broom at insanely fast speeds, but he doesn’t have much else in magic talent, so he has to make due with what he has and his wits. There aren’t any school scenes until he gets into college and meets the girl of his dreams (& nightmares!). But, that’s another story…
The other reason I chose to self-publish is I decided at this point in my life, I can’t afford to deal with the bullshit of dealing with trying to squeeze money out of a publisher. I don’t want to have to put up with a business (and it ain’t just publishers!) that feels that ‘Net-15’ means Net-30/60/90. Sure, you have to wait 60 days for a retailer to send you your first net from selling an ebook. But the retailers have to wait for transactions to clear within the banking system before they can cough up the cash to you the author. But once the checks start coming, it’s pretty much a regular thing. So long as your ebook is still selling.
Ebooks have given independent authors a channel by which they can get their stories out to the readers without having to deal with the middleman. It is important to remember, however, that this means there is no middleman to get your book out to the readers. It is up to you as the author to get your book to the readers, and to get the readers to your book!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Pricing an eBook

When growing up, my parents tried different techniques at giving us allowances. It was an on-again/off-again kind of affair. My mother created a working list of jobs that got checked off each week. These jobs were the teach the basic skills of survival kind of jobs: brushing teeth, picking up clothes, putting the toys away, etc. Some of it worked. Some of it didn’t. It works great for very young children. Not so great when they get older.
Allowance wasn’t an automatic affair. As we got older, the policy became, “If you want money, you work for it.” My father figured five dollars an hour was a fair rate for working around the house. That worked pretty well.
I gravitated to the things that kept me outdoors. Washing the cars, raking the leaves, etc. Mowing the lawn took between two and three hours. Fifteen dollars in my pocket for that. We had a large yard, so mowing the lawn involved riding the tractor. That made it the most lucrative and easiest job to do. The downside to it, unless there was a lot of rain, grass only grew so much in the heat of the summer.
I started buying books when I was around twelve-years-old. I had pretty much been through the entire science fiction section at the library. The Lincoln Mall had opened about the same time my family moved to Massachusetts, and in the mall was Walden Books. They had a huge section of science fiction, and I was looking for something new to read.
I averaged buying about three books each time I went into the bookstore.
When I first started buying books, the average price seemed to be between $1.50 per paperback book of maybe 200 pages in length. Just the right price for an adolescent with a penchant for reading. As with anything, that eventually had to change. Even as a young child, I understood that gas prices were going up. Food and clothing was getting more expensive. Heating a house was expensive. But, the price of a book was my first true lesson in the concept of inflation.
The first time it began changing was subtle enough I didn’t take much notice of it. Sure, a longer, larger book is going to cost more than an average-sized book. So when the price on the book was showing $1.99 when I expected it to be around $1.50, I didn’t think much of it. I don’t remember the date or the book. I just remember the thought and mild surprise that I had misjudged the price of the book. It was a somewhat longer book, so I dismissed the thought and went on with my business.
Much in the way a deer goes back to foraging after hearing the snap of a twig.
A while after that moment when I realized the average price on the books I was buying was around $2.50 per book. And it wasn’t because I was buying larger books. In fairly short order, prices on the books rose to $2.95.
I looked at a title I had purchased a couple years prior, and the price was now $2.95. I originally bought it for $1.50. In that time, the prices on books had pretty much doubled! My book purchasing slowed down. Where before I could buy over ten books with my allowance, I could now only afford four or five.
By the time I graduated from high school, the average price for a paperback was over $5 per title. At that point, books were moved to the luxury item category in my budget.
When I bought a paperback of Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy in the early 80’s, it cost me $2.95. Today it lists for over $15! (Even on clearance at Borders, they still wanted $8 for it!)
This history is necessary because it plays heavily in my choices on how to price my books.
The first question I asked myself was what price did I think was fair for an ebook? A quick look online revealed many ebooks being sold for the same price as the hardcover edition of the title. I immediately rejected that.
The cost of preproduction for a completed book is the same, whether it will be electronic or hard copy. Once the editing and typography are done, all a publisher need do is press the “Save” button and the ePub file is created. While producing a physical book entails many further steps and consumables per each book manufactured, an ebook is merely a file on a server, costing almost nothing out of the server operating cost, and is copied to the customer when a purchase is made. The savings over the cost of production per book for the hard copy version becomes pure profit for the publisher.
With that brought to light, to charge the same amount for an ebook as for the hard cover edition strikes me as gouging the customer.
A rule of business says one should charge what the market will bear. In my mind, an ebook should not cost more than the paperback version of the title. I’ve noticed a lot of ebooks on the market seem to match the price of the cost of a paperback version, so it seems I was not too far off the mark with my opinion. I would go a step further and suggest an ebook should be roughly 75% the price of the paperback version.
There are a number of arguments over just how much—or how little—an independent or unknown author should charge for an ebook.
One opinion says to go for the 99¢ price. The argument goes, if you are an unknown author, people will be more likely to take a chance and make an impulse purchase of your book at that price. The flaw in that argument is the failure to consider that people have been impulse buying paperback books for years at three times that price.
There is also the argument that if you devalue your work like that, people may pass it by, judging the book by its price instead of the cover.
The flaw with choosing 99¢ is that often people will buy a paperback book from the store on impulse for three dollars. So, why limit yourself to 99¢ when you can collect at least $3?
Charge too much, and the customer may think twice, or thrice, about buying your title. I think they only time an author can get away with charging more than $10 or an ebook title is if that author is pretty much at the top of the market and everyone wants to read their next title. Again, that old business axiom of charging what the market will bear.
Ultimately, I approached pricing my ebooks this way:
The average price of an ebook is about $6.50. If I printed my book as a paperback and charged 1¢ per page, it would be between $6.50 and $7 in price. Some of the online stores demand that the price end in “.99”. (There are a number of reasons for this, but that’s for another discussion.) So the $6.50 would become $6.99 for that reason.
I’m a new author, untried and unknown. I need to compel people to want to purchase my book. $6.99 is a bit rich for buying an untried title. So, I need to compromise.
It’s too low at 99¢, and too high at $6.99 for an untried author. The middle is $3.99.
My goal is to sell a minimum of 10,000 copies in the first year after release of my book. The three top ebook sellers—Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble—all collect a 30% commission from each sale, leaving me with 70%.
That is not money in the bank! While writing, I’ve had no income. I have some pretty serious debt to pay off to family, friends and the banks. And myself, for that matter, as I’ve drained off my nest eggs to keep the bills paid during this process and to cover the expenses that go with publishing a book.
At $3.99 a copy, I would be out of debt and have a lot less financial distress, but I would also have nothing left. I still need a bit more so I’ll have enough to survive until the second book is out.
I decided to up the price just a bit to $4.99. Just that single dollar difference can result in enough proceeds from sales to leave me something to live off over the next year while book two is completed. (I’m hoping I get faster at this once I’m done tripping over the process of writing book one.)
That’s why I chose $4.99. It does seem a number of other authors agree with me on that point. That price seems like the sweet spot for being not too expensive so people are willing to give it a try, and not so cheap that they question the quality of the writing without giving it a look. And it will yield me enough income to make a living at writing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tools of the Trade

The absolute best word processor you can use for writing is __________!
You can fill in the above blank.
What works for one person, doesn’t necessarily work for another. Some word processors are optimized for one type of writing; other word processors are optimized for another type of writing. There are some word processors that do very well for short documents and very strong page formatting, ideal for creating a personalized card or brochure for printing. There are others that do well for writing very long streams of text that work for generating ebooks. But, neither can really do the job of the other very well.
Microsoft Word is an excellent all-around writing program. I had an older copy which, after subsequent computer and operating system upgrades, became increasingly uncooperative. With a limited budget and finding the need for a word processor that could handle the size of the documents I was creating, I decided to pass on the cost of upgrading Word and went seeking for a writing program that would serve my needs.
And search I did!
On the command line were those old Unix relics, Pine and vi/vim. If you like pain, there is Emacs. Emacs is best suited for program writing over creative writing. I liked using vim (“vi improved”) with syntax mode on. I still frequently use vim for programming, creating web pages, and tweaking ePub files.
Obviously, these command line programs were not written for writing massive tomes. They were created for writing programs and short notes or emails. Using one of these to write a novel is akin to handing a hammer and chisel to someone and telling him to dig a tunnel through a mountain.
Moving on up to the desktop level programs, I tried about a dozen writing applications, up to and including OpenOffice, Nisus Writer Pro and a few others.
I even gave Google Docs a good try, but I couldn't use it unless I had an internet connection.
I eventually found applications that worked for me. Are they perfect? Not even close, but they get the job done. If any were perfect, they would have been listed in that first line above. Still, I always came across one thing or another that I didn't care for when looking at each program.
In the end, I chose Mellel for my creative writing.
Mellel was written specifically to handle extremely large documents, such as a complete novel. It also saves to a format that is easily human readable. I had used programs where the company either went out of business or changed their file format. When the program became incompatable because of operating system changes, the previously generated files would become unusable. To protect my work, I wanted a program that would save to a format from which I could easily recover my writing. Add to the fact that Mellel is also very cheap (relative to other writing applications of equivalent caliber) at $40, it became the clear winner for my choice of writing program. One of the ways I feel Mellel fails me is it doesn’t save directly to the ePub format. (Rumor has it the programming team is working on it.)
I also use Apple’s TextEdit quite a lot. Brain-dead simple to use and good basic editing capabilities make it an excellent choice for basic writing. I use it when I’m writing short essays such as this one. I did try it for writing when I began having the above mentioned problems with Word, but the TextEdit version at that time also couldn’t handle the long documents. One of the things I really like about the version of TextEdit that is included with Mac OS X Lion is the automatic spelling correction done by the OS while I’m writing. It gets 99% of the typo errors that invariably crop up while typing quickly.
Sadly, I have yet for it to generate one of those gems that one finds on I keep hoping…
Last, I use Apple’s Pages for generating ePub files. It’s the only program I have that generates an ePub file acceptable to both the iOS devices and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. I haven’t put Pages through its paces, so I really can’t comment on how well it does. It is Apple’s answer to Microsoft Word. Like Word, it seems best suited for business-style document creation.
I rely on spell checking a lot. Whether an error was due to a typo or simply because I didn't know the proper spelling of the word, it's good that there is something there to catch it. There are times it can get in the way when writing fiction because I'm using made up names. I occasionally remind myself at a later date to locate the user dictionary file and remove any oddball thing I added to it while writing a given story. When using spell checking, it is important to remind yourself that it doesn't always catch everything. Such as “They’re”, “Their”, and “There” or “Loose” vs. “Lose”. You do have to be on top of yourself and read through what you've written to avoid stupid mistakes like those.
I use Grammarian to spot check my grammar. I don't rely on it too heavily; I'm more interested in catching any really gross grammatical errors than generating an absolutely perfect document.

The Ideal Writing Application Should…
  • …Be optimized for writing a book. Books have a definitive structure to them. When opening a document, I should be able to specify it is a book, and then check off what pieces I’ll need or want. Title Page, Copyright notice, Table of Contents, and Chapters, etc. It should then create the collection of pieces I need, of which I can select and begin writing. When I save, this collection of document pieces should be placed into a collective container and stored as one object. The application, Scrivener, comes close to doing this, but only in displaying the files while the program is running. The program should know to keep these in order when being output for printing or generating an ePub file. Indeed, what I just described is pretty much the structure of an ePub file: the various sections or chapters are all separate files stored together in a zip archive file with the file suffix “.epub ” added to the name.
  • …Be able to handle over a thousand pages of text without choking or bogging down on me.
  • …Have a native format to save to where I can still extract my work should something go horribly wrong with the application.
  • …Have a simple graphic window where I can easily define the structure of the page layout. Select the page size whether it is absolute (5"x7") or a predefined format (A5, Digest, Pocket Book, etc.) and set the margins graphically with the option to fine tune them with exact values. Additional to this, it should recognize that the first page in a document (chapter) could allow for starting the text with a lower offset from the top margin on the page. (Okay, I can do this manually just by punching a few extra lines at the beginning of a chapter. It would be nice if the program could recognize this and just do it for me.) (Yeah, some writers are lazy.)
  • …In addition to setting the page setup, create an easy system for footnoting and headers. Set page number locations intelligently. This is the one place where I feel Mellel really fails in that when I tell it to give me page numbers, it can’t just place them at the upper or lower corners that I specify. This really isn’t needed for ePub files when creating ebooks, but when going for print, I want to be able to easily tell the program, “set the page numbers on the lower/upper corners” or “center the page numbers at the top/bottom of the page.” Digging through the documentation pretty much yields nothing on how to get the program to do this easily.
  • …And of course, my primary need: save to an ePub file! While I can create an ePub file with my current toolset, the result is a kludge at best.

Digital publishing has created an entirely new way of creating a book for a writer. Instead of writing for printing on paper, an author can now generate the text for an ebook and push this up directly for distribution online.
To date, no word processing program is optimized for creating digital books. Right now, they are mostly targeted towards creating business letters and reports for printing onto paper via the office printer.
To create an ePub file acceptable for digital book readers, the author either has to turn to very expensive page layout programs, hire a contractor who is skilled with working with those very expensive page layout programs, or do as I do and work with a bunch of separate programs to get a fairly acceptable file.
Considering how many thousands of people out there who are aspiring writers hoping to jump onto the digital publishing bandwagon, one would think there would be a pretty good market for a writing application optimized for creating an ebook.
I'd be one of the first in line to give it a try!

Friday, November 25, 2011

In the Beginning…

After threatening to do this for months, I've finally forged ahead and created my blog for my web site. It does beg the question, why would a professional writer want to write a blog on the side as well? I have a number of reasons for this.
First, it acts as a mental warmup. Just as an athlete will stretch and exercise before the actual athletic event, this gives me the opportunity to get my mind into the right state or writing. My morning routine is to read the morning news on a number of web sites; this includes following on to related reading on other web sites.. Go through email and respond when necessary. When I'm reading a book, morning is usually the time I'll get any reading done. My routine goes through a progression that leads eventually to writing activities.
In reading through various articles, blogs, and essays, often I will want to have some kind of response to the ideas I've come across. Or, I may have an opinion of my own on a given subject that I want to express. These ideas can often get in the way of my fiction writing, because I really do want to work them out. This often distracts me from writing the story. I have a few essays written on a number of topics—some relating to writing, some not—and a number of others still floating in my head that I'd like to write.
This all makes for a good discipline to write when I can't get myself writing creatively.


The next reason for creating a blog was to create the appropriate vehicle for posting an essay. My web site is for promoting my books and myself as an author. Readers will want to visit my site for the latest news on books and stories and events I may be attending. They will not want to be seeing me expound on subjects that have little or nothing to do with my stories.
Social networking sites are good for marketing and promoting, but only in quick snippets. Also, one must consider the audience one is addressing on various social sites:
  • Google+ = "I just read a fascinating dissertation that got me thinking about…"
  • Facebook = "I haven't partied like that since high school! I puked on my new shoes…"
  • Twitter = "Dudes! I just took the most amazing dump…"
As my friends and family can certainly attest, I'm not known for writing short notes when emailing or writing letters. Google+ does let one write out a fairly lengthy discourse when posting. Facebook on the other hand has a length limit that I have hit several times. And Twitter—at a 140-character limit—just doesn't show up on the radar for writing missives.
For G+ and FB, I also wouldn't want to be dumping huge posts into the streams and walls of my friends. That would be a good way to get my posts ignored. Not to mention buried in the flood of messages from everyone else connected to those to whom I am connected. They are a good medium for posting quick announcements, but I needed something more robust.
That meant I needed to create the blog. A place where I can shovel out the various ideas in my head and place them into nice, neat piles (usually still steaming). Write the essays on various subjects that I want to comment on and get myself warmed up for getting to my writing stories.
In that way, the distraction becomes a tool for focusing on the task to be done.
Now that I've got the blog working, I need to tweak the typography of it. Having a good narrative is one thing, making the text pleasing to read is another. I would ask readers to bear with me over the next few weeks while I work out the particulars so I can present the blog in the way I wish it to be seen and make it easy on the eyes at the same time. Bad typesetting can destroy the chances of a good book to make it. The same can be said for a blog. If it isn't easy on the reader's eyes, that reader won't bother returning.