Writing Thoughts

Writing is a Struggle, Until it Isn’t

Time to get real. The writing hasn’t been going so well lately.

Getting a new book going is a struggle and it’s been harder with Book 2 of The Psychic Traveler Society—the first time I’m writing a sequel.

I somehow thought writing a series would be easier, maybe because I’ve already set up the basic world and the main characters, but there are some extra things to consider when writing a series.

Like, how much to recap? And when? How much of Book 1 will make it into Book 2? How much foreshadowing do I want to include about Book 3?

I often say that writing is like sculpting. You need the clay in your hands before you can sculpt it into something beautiful. With writing, the clay isn’t the blank page, it’s the first draft.

To start a book, you have to spew out as much clay (as many words) as you can without worrying about how it looks. Once the words are out, you can shape them. You can chip away what you don’t like and craft what’s left into a story you love.

The “clay” I’ve been creating so far hasn’t been making me happy. The words have felt heavy. Clunky. They’ve felt disconnected from the story I want to be telling. I’ve been lost on how to fix it.

Instead of spewing out more words, I stopped and have been letting the story sit.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve reorganized my office and updated my record keeping system. I’ve completed several organization projects around the house and solved countless crosswords, sudokus, etc. The whole time, Book 2 has been simmering in my subconscious.

I’ve felt horrible. Discouraged. Disheartened. Depressed.

And then, yesterday, I had an epiphany about a conversation that needs to happen earlier in the book. This morning, I realized what needs to be changed about chapter 1. And, just like that, the pieces are falling into place.

The words are flowing. The clay is being crafted into pleasing shapes. My whole self feels light and free and I find myself thinking, “Oh, yeah, this is why I love writing!”

I could spin this into a “never give up” post or a “never force inspiration” post. I could write about trusting yourself and not letting doubt get in the way of your dreams. I could write about struggle being an inevitable step on the path toward success.

But I don’t have time for that. I have to get back to Amanda and The Psychic Traveler Society. I have a book to finish.

The Possibilities of Cyberpunk Nostalgia

All Star Comic Con was this weekend. It was my first time having an author table at a con (more on that later). It was a chance to connect with other local writers/creators. And it was an unexpectedly nostalgia-provoking experience.

Maybe the nostalgia I’m feeling tonight was brought on by the 80s/90s kick-off party on Friday. Or maybe it’s from talking to so many people about my writing and reflecting on the whys and whats and hows of my writing process.

Whatever the reason, I’m thinking about a book I started writing nearly 20 years ago. It was back in the Unix era of my sysadmin days when I was glued to my Sun Ultra 10, was too cool for a GUI, and was totally enamored with the powers of grep, sed, and awk.

I was also bewitched by books like Snow Crash and Neuromancer and felt sure a dystopian cyberpunk novel was the purest expression of my true writing passion. I even wrote portions of it in vi, naturally.

But I never finished it. (Unsurprisingly.)

I fished out some drafts of it several months back, sure that it would be utter garbage, and it was (surprisingly) not awful. There are large sections (and characters) I still love and what I’d originally written as revolutionary-tech now has a retro-futuristic vibe that I kinda dig.

The holes in the plot/world that kept me from finishing it are still there, but a solution to that may have come in an oddly vivid dream… if I can merge the craziness of that dream with that earlier book idea. That’s why I dug up the drafts all those months ago and I think it could work. Maybe.

Am I going to try? I’m not sure.

I’m committed to The Psychic Traveler Society first and will keep working on that series as my main project.

But the idea for this new/retro book came back to me again tonight and its insistence is building. That makes it a prime possibility for a backburner project—something to dabble with when I need a break to switch gears and clear my head.

Maybe I’m too far removed from the tech world these days. Or maybe that doesn’t matter. Right now it’s all nostalgia and possibilities, which is a rather lovely feeling.

From Manuscript to Finished Book

Digital proof of an interior layout

As an indie author, I wear many hats. Beyond writing the books, I bring them through the publishing process, handle their release, and market them to readers.

I’m most comfortable (by far!) with writing the books. Preparing them for publishing is getting easier, book by book. Planning the release and marketing the books is my least favorite part of the job, but we’ll talk about that another time.

This post is about the publishing process; a.k.a. how I get my work from manuscripts to finished books. It isn’t a tutorial, but rather a high-level overview for those who are curious about my process.

There are many ways to prepare a book for self-publishing. My way may not be the best way for anyone else. It might not even be the best way for me, but it’s the best I’ve come up with so far. So, here we go…

1. Write the story

The publishing process requires a completed manuscript, so let’s make that step one. I won’t get into how to write a novel though, since that’s an entirely separate topic. For our purposes, the story is finished and reasonably polished before moving on to step two.

2. Find trusted beta readers

No matter how much time I spend polishing a story, it’s important to get feedback from other readers. I look for people who will give me honest feedback, both good and bad. Different people offer different types of feedback—and it is all useful! Typically, I have three to five beta readers for a new book, and I’m incredibly grateful for their time and effort.

3. Edit the manuscript

Professional editing is very valuable. It’s also an expense that I can’t afford with my slim profit margin. That’s a chicken or egg scenario though. Do I wait for my books to take off so I can afford to hire a professional editor? Do I hire a professional editor to improve the chances that my books will take off? So far, I’ve opted to do my own editing. That may change down the line.

Editing the manuscript involves going through the notes and other feedback I get from readers, running the chapters through various grammar checking programs, and reading it from beginning to end out loud. Reading it out loud often helps me catch typos that may have been missed. Once I’m happy with every word, I “lock in” the manuscript. This is where I stop reading and changing the text.

4. Design the cover art

I hired someone to design the cover for my first book (The Insistence of Memory). While I was happy with the result, my meager profits on the book made me reevaluate my expenses. For now, I’m opting to invest in promotions and do my own cover art/design.

The cover art is listed as step four, but, in reality, it’s something I work on while still writing the book. I typically write during the day and sketch cover ideas in my downtime. This art is not the layout of the cover, but whatever image(s) I might use when it’s time to put the cover together.

(Note: I could hire professional services for each of the following steps as well, but again it comes back to saving money, as profits are slim!)

5. Design the interior layout for the paperback

While creating the paperback layout, I try not to read the text but instead see each page as a picture. I want the blocks of text to be visually pleasing and easy to read.

Correct settings for the margin and gutter sizes keeps the text from running into the spine or out of the printable area at the edge of the page, but that can be a tricky calculation until seeing the proof. Headers and page numbering must be set up and adjusted so they appear on the proper pages.

I also like to examine each page for distracting elements, like widows and orphans—single lines of text that are separated from a paragraph over a page break. Where sections and chapters break on the page can also be problematic. Often, adjusting the character spacing on some paragraphs will change the lines just enough to create a cleaner layout, but that can take some finesse.

This is the phase when I create the front matter and back matter as well. (Copyright info, title page, acknowledgments, etc.)

Once the layout is complete, it is exported as a print-ready PDF.

6. Design the cover for the paperback

While I may draw the cover art earlier in the process, I wait until I complete the interior layout to create the cover design. It’s easier that way because I won’t actually know the width of the spine until I know the number of pages in the book. (The cover is laid out on one page showing back cover, spine, front cover from left to right.)

I use the guidelines from the printer to work within the trim line and safe space around the edges of the cover. With print-on-demand books, there may be some slight shifting when the books are printed and trimmed, so it is important to stay within those boundaries.

Once the cover is complete, it is exported as a print-ready PDF.

7. Order and review a physical proof


Original and revised proofs

After uploading the interior layout and cover files, I am able to review a digital proof of the book. This is a pretty good indication of where the content will fall within the trim/gutter, but it’s not the most accurate way to see how the colors of the cover will print or how dark the ink will be on the pages.

That is why it’s important to always order a physical proof!

With my current book (Healers and Thieves), the digital cover was lovely, but the print cover left a lot to be desired. The colors in the art were too saturated and simply didn’t print the way I expected. Since I drew the cover art digitally, I was able to make some relatively easy adjustments, and I was happier with the second physical proof.

8. Design the interior layout for the ebook

While waiting for the physical proof to arrive by mail, I move on to designing the Kindle (ebook) edition.

The ebook layout is a bit easier because it does not have fixed text. An ebook reader can change the font, which will change the layout of the text on the page. However, I do have to add an active table of contents, which can be a bit of a pain to properly format.

Amazon now offers the option to add x-ray information to Kindle books as well. That content (which is linked to specific text throughout the book) is uploaded after the book is published, but I like to have it ready to go before publishing.

9. Design the cover for the ebook

The cover file for the paperback won’t work for the ebook. The Kindle edition has its own size requirements for its cover—which is a skinnier rectangle than the size of my paperbacks. That means creating a second cover using the same elements from the paperback edition.

This is fairly easy, but it can be tedious and tricky to arrange the same design in an attractive way on a cover with a different aspect ratio.

10. Review the ebook

The ebook can be downloaded for review on a Kindle device and in a special app that shows how the book will appear on a phone, tablet, or Kindle. It’s always worth downloading and reviewing, though I’ve found some elements may not be exactly the same when the ebook goes live.

After making it through those steps, I then have paperback and Kindle versions of my book ready to be published. The rest of the process is simply uploading the files and filling out the listing information.

And that’s the very high-level look at how I get from manuscript to finished book.

If you have questions, feel free to ask in the comments. While I don’t have time to create detailed tutorials on these steps, there are many sites online that offer that level of advice. I am happy to answer more simple questions about my experiences with self-publishing.

Someday, I hope to hire professionals to help with this process. For now, I’m a staff of one and I keep learning new techniques to help me offer my stories in the best format I can manage. It’s all part of the indie author experience!


Lucid Dreams and a Nearly Finished Book

Half awake. Need more coffee. Which is only helpful in theory, given that I drink decaf. But there is some caffeine in there and enough cups will eventually equal one cup of regular joe. (ha!)

I’m currently wrapping up my third (!) book. What I’ve learned with each project is that, for me, the home stretch is more of a roller coaster than the last leg of a marathon.

Some days I’m excited and confident. I can’t wait for people to read this!!! Others I’m overwhelmed with self-doubt. I will never finish this book and no one will like it anyway.

However, my writing style is to revise and polish as I go, so I’m nearing the finish line. At this point, my early and middle chapters are just about publish-ready, the last few chapters need a bit more revision, and the final chapter is the only one left to be written.

(In other words, I’m on track for a spring release!! – More on that soon!!)

Back to my restless night sleep…

My dreams tend to be vivid and I often interact with them. It’s a phenomenon known as lucid dreaming. I know they are dreams, but they also feel like a different form of reality. As if there’s an actual dream world where the rules are similar but not quite like my waking world.

Despite knowing I’m in a dream, it can be hard to separate truth from fiction. Some elements of the dream are “correct,” while others are not strictly true but perhaps symbolically true. I might know that I am in my house, but the house looks nothing like my house in the real world. It may have fantastic features that seem entirely normal in the dream state, like a massive waterfall in the living room or a glass-walled bedroom that is suspended above the house.

Last night, I dreamed I was editing my new book. (Not surprising since I was up late adding in some dialog that occurred to me just before bed.) The trouble was that part of the plot suddenly made no sense. The entire story of one character just didn’t fit in with the rest of the book.

I don’t know how long I was dreaming, but I went over and over that part of the story in minute detail. For part of the dream, I was writing it out on my laptop. In another part, I was talking it through with someone (not sure who). Finally, I went inside the book to talk to the characters and try to understand what they were thinking.

Eventually, I woke up in a panic, convinced that I had my work cut out for me and terrified that I wouldn’t be able to make this vital part of the book make sense. I was up worrying for ages, then tossed and turned until morning.

When I properly woke up, it was with a lingering sense of dread. Until I tried to think over that part of the book with a clear head. That’s when I realized the real problem with my dream: that part of the story didn’t fit because it actually does not exist in my book. It was a story only included in the dream edition.


Thank you, brain, for keeping me up half the night. Now I’m off to continue editing and look for any symbolic truth in that wacky dream.

Note: if you like this topic, my lifetime of lucid dreaming may have influenced the premise of my next book. Follow me here or on Facebook (SusanQuilty.Writer) to learn more soon!

Advice For a Young Writer

I was recently invited to a local book club where they were discussing The Insistence of Memory. It was a fun night and they had great questions about the book and about writing in general. One of those questions was:

If you could go back in time and tell your young writer self anything, what would it be?

That’s an interesting thought. There are a lot of things I’d wished I’d known when I was younger, but I’m not sure they were things I could have been told. Sometimes you have to learn things for yourself before you really know them.

That being said, I would tell my young writer self (and other young writers) to stop worrying so much.

By all means, take your writing seriously, but here are some things to not stress over:

  • Writing something that everyone will like – It’s impossible to please everyone and when you try, you often end up weakening your own unique perspective. You don’t like every book you’ve ever read, yet there are plenty of people who do like the books that you don’t (and vice versa). If you love your writing, someone else will, too. People who don’t like it just aren’t your audience—and that’s okay!
  • Writing something that is unlike anything else – When I was younger, it was demoralizing to talk about something I was working on and hear, “Oh that sounds like _____!” I’d be so upset because what I’d thought was an original idea was actually derivative of something else. But here’s the thing: something can be original and still a bit derivative or similar to something else. It’s the spin you put on it and the way you put it all together that makes your writing an original work. 
  • Writing fiction that readers will think is about your real life – There’s no reason to worry about this because it is going to happen. You cannot stop it. No matter what disclaimers are in the front of your book, some readers will assume that parts of your story are based on your life or that characters are based on you or people you know. It can be uncomfortable—and frustrating to have your research and imagination dismissed—but it happens to every writer. While your own experiences may shade whatever you write, you know there’s a separation between your fiction and your personal life. You can’t control others’ assumptions, so let it go.
  • Writing drafts that will never see the light of day – Writing is hard work. One of the hardest parts is leaving pieces of your draft (or your entire draft) on the proverbial cutting room floor, but it has to happen. Remember this maxim: Writing is rewriting. The time you spend writing something that gets cut is not wasted time. Forget daily word counts as the only way to track progress. Some of my most productive writing days have daily word counts in the negative. You learn from what gets cut and you rewrite something stronger.  
I’m sure there are a lot of other things that aren’t worth the worry as well, but you get the idea. 
Write more, worry less. 

Spinning Plates That Crash in Silence

I don’t spend enough time writing.

Writing is meant to be my main job (with time out for teaching yoga). Yet, somehow, it ends up slipping down on my to-do list. Instead of writing 5 or 6 hours a day, I’m lucky to squeeze in 1-2 hours. If any hours at all.

I’m not entirely sure how that happens. But I have a theory.

Have you ever watched a plate spinning routine? The kind where the performer gets one plate spinning atop a pole, then adds another plate to another pole, then another, and so on? If so, it’s clear to see why it’s a common analogy for over-scheduling and anxiety.

The plate spinner runs from plate to plate, giving each a spin to keep it from falling. Whenever plates aren’t given enough attention, their motion stops, and they crash to the ground.

Plate spinning comes to mind when I think of all the things I’m managing: personal care and fitness, housework and bills, teaching yoga, marketing and selling books, writing books, etc.

But that’s actually not a very apt analogy, because there’s a key difference between my fiction writing and my other responsibilities.

When my writing plate crashes to the ground, it falls in silence.

Every other plate in my life is noisy when it hits the ground. They’re all squeaky wheels, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, and we all know how squeaky plates get the most spins…. Er… uh… This is why we don’t mix metaphors. But the point is there are rather immediate consequences for other areas of my life.

If I don’t show up to teach a yoga class, my students will be disappointed and I’ll likely lose that job.

If I don’t go to the grocery store or do laundry, there’s soon no food to eat or clean clothes to wear.

If I don’t take care of my health, bad things happen, like fainting and breaking my foot. (Sigh)

But when my writing doesn’t happen? Silence.

Eventually someone may say, “Hey, how’s your next book coming along?” And I can sheepishly say that I’m “a little behind schedule.” Then we can nod together about how “life gets in the way.”

But what if I don’t want life to get in the way?

I want my writing plate to be as loud as the other plates. Louder even. I want it to squeak, and whine, and crash with ear-splitting alarm bells. Bells so loud that I’ll never want to stop spinning them. Uh… I’ve entirely lost track of these metaphors now. Anyway…

Writing wasn’t a silent plate when I worked freelance jobs, because there were deadlines and articles to be handed over for payment. If I didn’t write them, I wouldn’t get paid. And I’d likely lose that client.

That’s the difference I guess. I’m both the writer and the client now, and client-me may be too easy on writer-me. Always knowing that the deadlines are soft. What’s client-me going to do? Fire writer-me? Huh.

I have a feeling other people have silent plates in their lives, too. And it’s pretty likely those silent plates are the ones that represent their deepest, most personal goals. Because personal goals are easy to downplay and set aside when taking care of more pressing basic needs, like food and bills.

But maybe personal goals are the ones that should be loud. Because their crashes may be silent, but when they break, they often cut the deepest.