Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rules that are written and those that are real

Highway speed limits were the topic on the call-in radio show a few days ago in my home town. The show asked, since people routinely drive 20 kilometres an hour (at about 75 miles an hour for American readers) above the posted speed limit, maybe the province should just raise the posted speed limit to 120 km/h.

It's an interesting debate. On one hand, the law would acknowledge what people, drivers as well as police, are actually doing, anyway; on the other, raising the speed limit may encourage people to drive even faster.

Would someone who exceeds the speed limit—breaks the law, in other words—persist in unlawful behavior and drive 140 kilometres an hour?

The debate illustrates the difference between what people say and what they do, and between the stated laws and the rules that people really obey. John Irving explored this idea in his novel The Cider House Rules. Much of it is set on an orchard farm, whose owners post rules for the pickers who stay during the season in the “cider house.” Rules like "Please don't go up on the roof if you've been drinking—especially at night."

Of course, all the orchard pickers went up on the roof at night, with beer, because it was cooler.

The pickers disobeyed nearly all the written rules, but they obeyed very firm rules. Mr. Rose, the head picker, made the real rules that governed the cider house, rules that were clear and understood, if unwritten.

I think John Irving got it right: the real rules are unstated but clear.

We can see this phenomenon playing out all around us. The written rules say "no bullying tolerated," but bullies always have ruled every playground.

Writ large, we see this in eastern Ukraine today. The United Nations' rules proclaim the sovereignty of states, yet Russia supports its proxies in prosecuting a rebellion. Then official Russian government sources deny this, in writing, and decry Ukraine's use of force.

The written rules tell us not to commit adultery; in former centuries, the penalties were fierce. Yet there was probably as much sex unauthorized by religion or society going on in previous centuries as there is today.

Why the conflict?

The phrase "put it in writing" supposedly means that written communications is more credible, more reliable, more likely to be true. “Unwritten rules” is a cliché in itself. But the unwritten rules are more accurate.

The written rules tell us what we should do.

To me, the bigger question is not why we don’t follow the written rules, but rather, why we feel compelled to write down rules that go against what we normally do.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Do we need a new category?

Photo by jsorbieus via Flickr Creative Commons.
Last month, I wrote in this blog that I did not consider my books to be self-published because I did not do the work myself. In fact, a number of talented, creative and generous people made critical contributions to the development of all my books, as
  •           pre-publication readers (“beta readers”)
  •           editors
  •           proofreaders
  •           a cover designer
  •           marketing consultants.

I have said before, in this blog and elsewhere, that commercial publishers, big or small, hold no monopoly on quality books, electronic or print. Authors have more than one skill, and by collaborating, they can help each other publish books that meet or exceed the standards of Little, Brown, MacMillan or Knopf.

Exceeding their marketing and distribution might is another story, of course.

To me, a better term than “self-published author” is “independent author,” because I am independent of the control of any publishing company. No one tells me what to write, what to include, or what kind of cover to have.

But as readers of this blog will know, blogger, author and teacher Joshua Isard wrote that the term “independent publisher” is already taken. (I won’t quibble that I didn’t call myself an independent publisher, but rather an independent author. Oops, I guess I just did.)

The publishing landscape is changing fast.

Author and blogger Anne R. Allen wrote in her blog about the blurring lines between traditional, commercial and self-publishing. Not only is Amazon becoming a publisher, but the Big 5 have been adding self-publishing services as well as buying vanity presses—companies that charge authors (often thousands of dollars) to help them format, print and produce e-books.
(I will give you some free advice if you want some, or you can read this blog regularly).

As Anne concludes, the lines have always been blurry and they’re not getting any clearer.

But maybe “independent publisher” is the wrong term, simply because it doesn’t describe an idea clearly. Maybe we do need another term.

How about “collaborative publishing,” or “cooperative publishing”? Do either of those work better?

What do you think?

Friday, July 18, 2014

My print adventures

Publishing a printed book is much less forgiving than producing an e-book. I have known that since I started working with electronic publishing, lo many years ago. But I really felt it with the production of my third book, Army of Worn Soles.

I have printed books before, and I thought getting a print version of my third would be a piece of cake. And it was—until I made my own life my difficult by making the books itself more complex and using photographs within. No, it’s not hard to do, but getting the results you want means you have to follow some pretty strict guidelines. 

Here are some of the lessons that I had to re-learn.

Use them when you prepare your own books for printing through CreateSpace, Lightning Source or any other printing service.

Word perspective

There are some things about document design and layout that I knew about even before I started writing. 
  • Use proper opening and closing quotation marks, not straight quotes/inch marks. 
  • Use real, curvy apostrophes, not inch marks instead of apostrophes.
  • Double-check to make sure you’re using a real open quote ‘ instead of apostrophe ’. Most modern word processors like Microsoft Word and Pages automatically format these for you. If you’re not getting quotation marks at the beginning of the quote that point in the opposite direction from the marks at the end, go to your Preferences or Options menu and select “smart quotes.”
  • Use the Ruler in your word processor, or the Styles menu, to indent the first line of paragraphs.   —but remember not to indent the first paragraph after any heading or subheading. Don’t double-space paragraphs unless you’re writing a business guide or something similar. Definitely do not double-space paragraphs in fiction.
  • Learn the differences between hyphens, en-dashes and em-dashes. 
    • Use the hyphen to join compound words, like “north-west.” 
    • En dashes are twice as long as hyphens. Use them to indicate a range in numbers, like “August 3–4.” You’ll enter it by typing Ctrl-hyphen or, on a Mac, Option-hyphen. 
    • An em-dash is twice as wide as the en-dash. Use it to break a sentence to indicate a new idea or a brief break in the logical flow—like this. Enter it with Shif-Alt-Hyphen, or on a Mac, Shift-Option-Hyphen. Decide whether you want to have spaces on either side of your em-dashes — like this — or not—like this—and use them consistently.

Come up to the page

When I got my first job at a subsidiary of one of the Big Five publishing companies, I learned to think about book layout in terms of the two-page spread. When readers look at a book, usually they see a left, or verso page, next to a right, or recto. In the West, where we read left to right, we tend to start with a right-hand page, so the left is the back, or verso, of the right-hand page.

Left hand pages have even numbers, right pages have odd numbers, because we start page 1 on the right-hand side, then turn it over. Word allows “mirroring margins,” so that you have opposite left and right margins, and a different setting for the “gutter.”
Image courtesy Knite Writes

Depending on whom you talk to, the outside margin—left on the verso (left) page, right on the recto—should be either wider or narrower than when laying out pages that are to be printed on one side only.

Createspace asks for a wider gutter—right margin on the left page, opposite on the other side— because of the perfect binding—the flat, glued spine of the book. With a thick, perfect-bound book, text too close to the spine is harder to read. Createspace offers a Word template that has a suggested width for left, right and gutter margins.

Headers and footers

With opposite pages, you can have opposite formats for headers and footers.
The first thing to realize here is that the first page of every document and every chapter has a different format. In Word, choose “Different first page” from the Layout menu. In Apple’s Pages, select Setup—Section—“Hide (Headers and footers) on first page of section.”

The second thing to remember is that left and right pages necessarily have opposite treatments of page numbering.

Traditionally, when it comes to fiction, publishers have not done much about this. Looking at some old books I have, I notice that typically, the verso page has the author’s name, while the recto bears the title of the book. Page numbers are centred on the bottom, or the footer.

With textbooks, on the other hand, the page number (folio, in publishing jargon) is on the outside corner —that is, on the far left of the header or footer of the left-hand/verso page, and on the far right of the recto. 

Personally, I think it’s much better. Think about how you use a book. Pick up a print book, the one closest to you right now. Turn to page 96. How do you do that? You hold the book’s spine in one hand, and use the opposite thumb to flip through the pages. How much more difficult it will be to find page 96 if the folio were in the gutter, instead of on the outside? 

Sometimes for very long books or anthologies, one header may have the name of the author of that chapter, while the other page has the title of the whole anthology, or sometimes the theme of the current section.

For example, my 1999 edition of Lord of the Rings, three-volume set has the book title (eg. The Fellowship of the Ring) on the left/verso, and the chapter title, eg. “A Short Cut to Mushrooms,” on the right/recto. The page numbers are on the outside corners of the header, and the footers are blank.

The textbooks that I worked on had a much more complex treatment. Headers or footers would show the part and chapter titles, along with the page number, in the outside corner.

It’s important to put the folio in the outside corner. 

How to accomplish this

In Word or Pages, you can change the header and footer from one page to the next this way:
  • Go to the Header and Footer or Page Layout menu and select “different first page.” 
  • Inserting a Section Break at the end of each chapter and deselect the “Continue from previous” button in the Header/Footer menu.
This gives you four areas to put four different kinds of information:
  • book title
  • part title
  • chapter title
  • author.
When I was writing my first novel, I sent a preliminary draft to a beta reader who had pretensions to being a publisher. I thought I would send something that would imitate a professionally printed book, as far as possible with the technology and my experience at the time, so I did those very things:
  • set up facing pages
  • put the folios (page numbers) on the outside corners
  • put the name of the series of the book (The Dark Age) on the left (verso) footer
  • put the name of the book (The Bones of the Earth) on the recto footer
  • put the part title (Part 1, Initiation Rites; Part 2: Tests; Part 3: The Mission) on the left header
  • put the chapter title in the right header.

The beta reader went ballistic on this. “What are you doing! A publisher just wants to see the page numbers in the header or the footer. This is way too fancy.” But why? It’s information that adds to the experience for the reader. If you don’t want to see it, don’t look—in fact, when we read a book, this fades into the background.

While Word makes this pretty straightforward, Apple’s Pages word processing program has no facing pages option, so this is very frustrating.

Take care with photographs

The photo of the author (me) in the print version of my first two books didn’t turn out so well. They looked great in the e-book, but muddy in physical form. 
Turns out I made a rookie mistake, one I should have known better than to commit. I have worked for years in print, after all, and I remember telling other people to do this very thing: don’t print .jpg-format images.

If you have a photograph or any other image to print, you have to make sure that you’re sending the printer a file that will print well. Make sure you do at least these things:
  • In your photo editor program, change the colour space to either Grayscale for black-and-white, or CMYK if you’re printing in colour.
  • Set the resolution to at least 300 dpi. More isn’t really necessary, but less will look terrible.
  • Save the image as a .TIFF or .EPS format file.
  • Import the high-resolution .TIFF file into your word processor or page layout program.
  • If you have to send the printer a PDF, make sure your resolution and colour space match the printer’s requirements. Make sure that the page layout program’s resolution for images is also set to at least 300 dpi, CMYK.

Lightning Source requires a PDF (Acrobat) format file. Here are some other settings to check before you upload your file:

  • Page size—the default for your .pdf output is probably 8 ½ by 11 inches. This will not produce a book. Change the page dimensions, margins, bleed and trim settings to Lightning Source’s (or whichever printer you’re using) specifications.
  • Page orientation—again, check whether the output will give you the results you expect. Test it on your own printer first.
  • Fonts—if you’re using a special font, you will have to embed them in the .pdf. You can do this with the Printer settings.
Producing your printed cover is even more complex by a factor of magnitude. I’ll cover that in a future post.

For now, for those working on formatting their print books, this is just a place to start. But following these tips will get you past the initial errors that a lot of people make.

Tell me about your experiences in print.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

I can't stop writing

Wikimedia Commons
I don't appear to have an "off" switch. I do have a "distract" switch, a "sex" switch and others, but somehow, I don't seem to be able to stop writing.

Right now, I'm sitting on the back patio of a fancy restaurant in Ottawa, waiting for my wife to arrive. I've ridden my bicycle here from work, about 10 kilometres or so; she's coming in from home, about another 14 kilometres, by car. I hope she's brought the SUV, so I can put my bike into the back. Sure, I can ride that distance—I do it regularly, and the restaurant is on my regular path from work to home. But I don't look forward, somehow, to the prospect of carrying this meal plus a couple of glasses of wine back. 

But here I am, on a fancy patio shaded by beautiful leafy trees, sipping a Heineken while I wait for my lovely wife to arrive. I couldn't help myself. I had to take out my iPad and start writing a blog post.

It's a strange compulsion, but I suppose it accounts for my career. I have been writing something as long as I can remember: bits of stories, beginnings of novels, poems, essays. I was a journalist for over 20 years, and in the past four years I have finally managed to complete and publish three novels.

I suppose that's the difference between the hobbyist and the author: actually completing the story. I find it easy to come up with the beginnings of stories, of dramatic situations and unique characters. Figuring out a story arc that someone wants to read is much harder.

Story arcs make me thirsty.

Creative Commons

A sip of beer

Much better. A rabbit hops past a corner of the patio, unnoticed by the serving staff. For some reason, it makes me think of some of those unfinished ideas.

Back in my university days, I began a science-fiction novel. I created another world, colonized by different nations from Earth, much like different European nations started adjoining colonies in Africa, but which for some reason has been cut off from Earth for decades. I decided that the best way for getting around on this planet was by dirigible, probably because I had been reading Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld around then. And also, there was an alien race from yet another planet who were meddling in the colonists' affairs. 

I created a main character who more or less played at being a spy, collecting a salary and expenses but never accomplishing much, and a thief, and an assassin. But I couldn't figure out where to take it from there.

There's The Doctor's In-Laws, a story inspired one summer many years ago, when I was staying at a very cheap summer resort when my mighty boys were babies. The central characters were a married couple, both working at low-end jobs and struggling to stretch their incomes over the demands of modern social life. Her sister, though, has married a doctor who loves conspicuous consumption, and the protagonists feel pressure to keep up.

Okay, but where do you go from there? And to what end? I never figured that out. Maybe I will one day.

Another idea I had on a beach a couple of years ago (I seem to get ideas on vacation) was about another couple, Neal and Karen. Neal is a kind of short guy, while Karen is clinically a giant. They fall in love. 

Again, I don't know where to go from there. Short guy married to a giant.

The server brings a basket of bread

Excuse me while I put spread butter on this. I know, it's more fashionable to dip it into olive oil, but I love butter. It's okay, I rode 30 kilometres already today.

Then there are novels that I have developed a lot more fully, but have not completed. Not yet, but I will. 

The Last Tiger, about Siberian tiger cubs in the Russian Far East, through their perspective. I've worked out the plot, but it's a difficult book to write without getting really silly.

I have done most of the work on the sequel to Army of Worn Soles and plan to publish it before the end of the autumn of 2014. I'm debating between two titles: Freedom Fighter and Four-Sided War. What do you think?

I have worked out most of the plot of the sequel to The Bones of the Earth, as well, and have the rough, basic idea for the plot of book three of the Dark Age trilogy. I don't know what the title of the second book will be, but I've settled on Seventh Son as the title of the third.

Let me know what you think of all those ideas.

Ah, there's my lovely wife now. Talk to you later.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Microsoft Word versus Apple Pages—A comparative review

Creative Commons
Occasionally, you have to hand it to the dark side. For years, over a decade, in fact, I’ve known and acknowledged that Microsoft Word is the best word processor.

I did not want to acknowledge that, though. I wanted there to be something better than the market leader and de facto standard. But my latest experience in publishing my latest book has only reinforced that conclusion.

I used OpenOffice's word processor and then Pages to write the book, which were fine when the goal was producing an e-book. I found Pages especially useful in that I could use it on both my desktop Macintosh and my iPad.

But when it came to formatting the book for print, well, using OpenOffice is downright aggravating, and Pages lacks some of the feature essential to producing a professional grade printed book.

My reaction to Pages

Pages is a light and easy to use application. It only costs $19.99 from the App store, and the iPad version is only ten bucks. On the other hand, Word for the Mac can only be had as part of the Microsoft Office, which costs $139 for the Home version, or $99 per year for the Web-based subscription.

One of Pages' productive feature is the way that it automatically saves your new files and updates in iCloud. This made it simple to switch between using my desktop computer in my office and my iPad while mobile. 

Pages’ user interface is characteristically clean and inviting on the desktop computer. The iPad version, though, features a shade of orange that I, personally, don’t like.

I reached the iPad version's limits quickly. It’s almost impossible to format paragraphs using the ruler at the top of the screen. I don’t know if my fingers are too thick and blunt or what, but the only way I could change the paragraph indents was to enlarge the view to at least 200 percent, and even then, it difficult to select the icons to move the margins.

Also, there doesn’t seem to be a Styles feature in the iPad version, where I can set the typeface, font size, paragraph spacing and other typographical features for blocks of text and headlines and change them with one command. This is standard in full featured word processors.

Finally, the major limitation on both the mobile and desktop versions of Pages is the lack of a facing pages feature. It just doesn’t seem to have entered the programmers’ minds.

What I need for print layout

Formatting an e-book is relatively simple compared to print output , because much of the format of the e-book is determined by the e-reader device. Sure, you can choose typeface and whether paragraphs are double-spaced or indented on the first line. But when you go to print, there are many aspects beyond those that you have to control.

When laying out a printed book, you have to consider the page spread—two facing pages, left and right. If you look at a professionally produced book, especially a textbook, you’ll see that the page layout elements are mirrors of each other. For example, if the page number (“folio” in old book layout parlance) is on top right corner of the right-hand page, it will be in the left corner of the left-hand (even-numbered, if you do it right) page.
The page spread. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Word has a simple means of allowing this: you just check “Different Odd & Even Pages” when formatting the Header or Footer.

Without this, you could put your page numbers in the centre of the header (top) or footer (bottom) of the page. But you cannot set your document to have the book title on the right hand pages and your name as the author on the left. There’s just no way to do that in Pages.

What I like about Word

Word offers everything you could ask for in a word processor: typing aids, a fully featured Styles menu, control over every aspect of not just wording, character style and page layouts, but also output to .pdf and e-pub format.

I can use Pages, but I have to use work-arounds. For instance, if I want to save the document in a format (like .doc) so that a non-Mac user can share it, I can’t just Save As a .doc. Instead, I have to Export a copy of the file. That means I now have two separate files, which leads to version control problems.

Just use the .doc version from then on, you say? Easy enough with Word, or most other programs. But the people at Apple have taken a bizarre approach. It will open the files with the .doc filename extension, but convert it on the spot to .pages format. Saving it in Word format requires saving it first as a .pages document, then Exporting it again to Word format. It’s not a big deal, but it is an extra step that gets annoying.
Workarounds. Image Creative Commons

Word is a big, expensive program with more features than any one person will ever use. But it does give me all the tools that I need for electronic and print publishing. For that reason, it will have to remain my word processing choice.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Detail and action add up to a riveting read—An independent novel review

Gray Retribution, by Alan McDermott

No one writes action like McDermott.

From the first sentence, Gray Retribution delivers that combination of action and detail that few writers can manage. Not only does McDermott put us eye-to-eye with his characters, he gets the little things right, like the types of weapons and the way they all work, and the tactics that makes the difference between experienced soldiers and fighters who die on their first time.

Gray Retribution continues the saga of Tom Gray, the character that McDermott created for his first novel, Gray Justice. The initial trilogy told a complete, if complex saga about an ex-special forces soldier who sets up a private security company. Gray uses his arcane skills to seek tough justice against repeat criminals after his son is accidentally killed by one such repeat offender driving a stolen car, and Gray’s wife kills herself in depression.

The next two books sent Gray literally around the world and finally back to his home in the UK, rehabilitated socially if not fully psychologically. The fourth book, Gray Retribution, finds Gray back in charge of his company, struggling against the usual challenges facing any small business—plus clients nervous about being associated with someone as notorious as Tom Gray.

Once again, McDermott skillfully blends a personal and a global plot. Organized criminals threaten Gray’s new family, while in Africa, his friends and employees are caught in a war zone in Africa with scanty ammunition and supplies and a huge number of refugees to protect.

It’s a testament to the author’s skill at plotting that he manages to drive both plots simultaneously at his trademark breathtaking pace, without straining the readers’ credulity too much. The good guys are all crack shots and almost never make mistakes, but that’s part of the action genre. But I found myself identifying with Tom Gray—not because I am a crack soldier, but because I have found myself in those situations with two priorities clamouring for undivided attention because of huge, looming consequences coming up fast. I really felt for Gray as he tried to protect his family, rescue his friends and keep his business afloat, all at the same time.

McDermott’s attention to detail really brings the action to life. While he is never gratuitous with depicting violence, he doesn’t flinch when it comes to the more gruesome aspects of war. 

It all adds up to a book I could not put down.

I read a preliminary version of the book in manuscript form, and I’m looking forward to the final version sitting on my shelf.

Gray Retribution will be available on Amazon on July 8.