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!