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The mechanics of self-publishing a book

I have written Ohlen’s Arrow and am finished with all editorial changes. It is now in the final proofreading stage. In fact, I hope to only have one more go-through to catch any errant spelling or grammatical errors before I call the text golden.

The cover design has been approved and is now in the hands of the illustrator for the final proof. She’ll next work on the world map that appears in the front of the book.

Meanwhile, I have purchased 10 ISBNs, enough to handle each publication channel. Initially, I intend to offer the book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple iTunes book store. There are no plans to print the book in a dead-tree edition, but I’m not opposed to that happening down the road.

I am also currently working on creating the book’s tagline and blurb. For such short pieces of text, they are remarkably difficult to create. They say you should never use a big word when a diminutive one will suffice. Well, try summarizing an entire novel in less than 10 words. Better yet, try doing it in a way that makes people want to buy the book while simultaneously not giving away the plot or the surprising twist you gave it at the end. That’s a challenge!

My goal remains to have Ohlen’s Arrow ready for purchase on-line by June 1st. So far I think that deadline is still feasible. Stay tuned.

First-person or third-person?

I’ve read numerous tweets and blog posts lately about the trend of perspective within fantasy and sci-fi. Apparently, third-person perspective has fallen out of favor. Editors think its boring and so last year. But what if your story involves many different characters and it’s confusing to jump back and forth into their heads like a squirrel with ADHD?

For an experiment, I took the opening scene from my book, Ohlen’s Arrow, and rewrote it from the first-person perspective of the main character. Read the original third-person version here:

Thwip.

The arrow sank deep into the creature’s throat and it fell backward in a spray of blood, twitching and clawing at the wooden shaft protruding from its severed windpipe. The man lowered his bow and crouched down into the bushes in case there were others. He remained still but watched and listened intently to see if he had stumbled upon a lone cru’gan or if it had been part of a patrol. At first the only sound was the wet gurgling coming from the cru’gan’s throat. Now it lay still and silent and the only thing the man could hear was the evening breeze through the pine trees.

After several minutes passed he retrieved his arrow and quickly searched the body, then rolled it under a pile of briars out of sight. He kicked the creature’s blood into the dust and pine needles to hide the evidence of the encounter, then moved silently away into the forest amidst the diminishing evening light.

Now, here’s a first-person version I wrote:

Thwip.

My arrow sank deep into the cru’gan’s throat and it fell backward in a spray of blood. It’s filthy hands frantically clawed at the wooden shaft protruding from its severed windpipe. I lowered my bow and crouched down into the bushes in case there were others. I held still while I watched and listened intently to see if it was alone or if I had stumbled upon a larger a patrol. For several seconds the only sound I heard was the wet gurgling coming from its throat. Now it lay still and silent and the only thing I could hear was the evening breeze through the pine trees.

I waited several minutes, then retrieved my arrow and quickly searched the body before rolling it under a pile of briars out of sight. I kicked its blood into the dust and pine needles to hide the evidence of the encounter, then moved silently away into the forest under cover of the diminishing evening light.

Which do you prefer?

The editing phase of a story’s lifecycle

In the life-cycle of Ohlen’s Arrow, I’m in the editing phase. I’ve hired an editor and we’ve been going through revisions one chapter at a time. I gave her the story as Word files, one per chapter. She then returns those Word files with track-changes turned on. I open up the Word file and place it next to my Scrivener screen. I review each suggested edit and make the changes in Scrivener as I go along.

At this point very few of the edits involve plot items, although I did rework a conversation my lead character has with two friends at the beginning of the story. This helps establish some key plot elements that didn’t quite fit later on in the story.

The bulk of this round of editing has been spent on sentence structure, grammar, and word choices. It’s like a musician being told how to hold their instrument. What I love about this phase of the “I’m writing a novel” process is it makes the finished product better. It also makes me a better writer.

Outside help

No writer is an island. You can’t edit your own work. These are just some of the sayings that highlight the fact that writers need outside help in their effort to write and publish their works.

For Ohlen’s Arrow, I have engaged the professional services of an illustrator to design the book’s cover and the world map inside, and an editor for the text contained within. Up to this point my outside help has entailed the reviews of nearly a dozen volunteer beta readers.

Writing a book is an exciting process, and frankly, I’m glad I don’t have to do it alone.

Technically flawed but creatively interesting?

I am perplexed. I’ve been reading works by several other recently successful new authors and I’m noticing a trend. Their stories are technically flawed yet they are demonstrating surprising levels of interest and enthusiasm from their readers. All the books and articles I read about what constitutes good writing are fairly clear and consistent in their message. Show the reader, don’t tell them; avoid excessive hyperbole; etc.

The stories I’m reading fly in the face of those Good Writing Maxims. I won’t name names because I’m truly happy that these authors have landed publishing deals. I’m even happier for them that their books are doing well. Ultimately that’s what makes a good book: people enjoy it and show that support with their pocketbooks.

In my own effort to write and refine Ohlen’s Arrow — and ultimately my goal to get it published — I have spent a great deal of effort and time following the rules of what constitutes good writing. After reading other works, I’ve also gone back and made sure my characters were interesting. Something can be technically flawless but if it’s not interesting, who cares?

Consider a musical analogy: Credence Clearwater Revival. They were, and still are, a hugely popular band yet their musical chops are rudimentary at best.

As a reader, can you overlook technically flawed writing if the characters and situations are unusual and interesting? Or can that get in the way, preventing it from being what would otherwise be a good book?

When to stop plot expansion

My book, Ohlen’s Arrow, is now dwelling in a state of revision. I wrote the first draft and sent it out to several beta readers for feedback. After receiving that feedback, I spent two weeks revising the book and another week proofreading it.

The problem is that my brain won’t let it stay where it is. I keep coming up with ideas for plot expansion. Part of this results from realizing I’ve neglected certain foreshadowing opportunities within the book as well as links to the two books I have planned as sequels in what will probably turn into a trilogy.

I also realize that I mention certain plot elements within the story but don’t expand on them as much as I could. I’m sure sharp readers will finish the book and say, “Hey, what about that dagger you mentioned in chapter 3?” or “Why are the cru’gan so tribal and not more cooperative?”

Questions from readers like this are to a certain extent unavoidable. I can’t answer every possible question; it’s not feasible, and I don’t think the book would be very interesting if I did. Everyone needs a little mystery left over once the last page has been turned.

The challenge as an author is knowing when to stop. At what point do I allow the book to exist as it stands? When do I determine I’ve done enough?

If Ohlen’s Arrow becomes a New York Times best seller and gets a three-movie treatment from Peter Jackson, no doubt I’d walk away from the bank after cashing my royalty checks still harboring thoughts that it could use just a little more work.

You can’t be a writer if you don’t write

After adopting the idea of a plot event list, my productivity on Ohlen’s Arrow has been much improved. I write on weekends and have been cranking out 2,000-5,000 words per day. I’ve tried to get some writing in on weekday evenings but by the time I get home from a long day at the office, my brain doesn’t fire on all its creative cylinders, so I use that time for proofreading or just relaxing.

Going for long periods of time without writing is inefficient. I have to read over several chapters just to get back into the groove of the story before I can write a single new word. Maintaining momentum, however, is actually much easier. I can add a page or two, or even a single paragraph, without much prep time at all. I’ve also been making a conscious effort to avoid other projects lately, devoting my weekend time to the book. Avoiding fragmentation has added to my productivity.

Whether my book gets published or sells a single copy is irrelevant. I’m writing, and that’s what’s most important. There’s time enough for that publishing and money stuff later.

The method of John Irving

Through iTunes U, I watched a brief lecture given by John Irving where he talks about knowing the ending of his books before he begins them. Something about that talk inspired me to take a new approach to how I write my stories, and after using this approach to crank out a short story in two days, it has proven to be amazingly effective. I feel stupid not having used it before, it’s that simple.

Elevator Speech

In a single paragraph, write what the story is about. This paragraph is called the High Concept. This kind of text could easily go on the back cover of the paperback novel or even as a teaser on the DVD jacket when your story is optioned by Steven Spielberg and goes blockbuster. It’s also referred to as an Elevator Speech and for good reason.

Let’s say you are standing on the ground floor of a New York skyscraper, waiting for an elevator to the top floor. Standing next to you is some guy in a tailored business suit. The two of you begin idle chit chat and at some point you mention you are writing a novel. As the elevator doors open and you both step inside, the guy says, “What’s your book about?”

You must convey the gist of your story in the amount of time it takes the elevator to reach the top floor in a way that makes the guy in the tailored business suit — who just happens to be the CEO of Random House — want to write you a six-figure advance check on that book plus sign a contract for your next four novels.

Create Character Bios

I create simple biographies for each of my main characters. These bios are usually 1-3 paragraphs long, depending on how important that character is to the story. Each bio will contain a brief description of the character’s physical appearance followed by any details germane to the story.

Plot Event List

Once you have decided upon the overall plot of your book and written it out in the form of an Elevator Speech, you must then figure out what actually happens in your story. This is the fastest part of the process. With a blank sheet of paper or document on your computer, write out a series of short, simple sentences, one per line, that describe the chronological events or scenes that take place. Try to keep each sentence short enough that it fits onto a single line. Brief is good. Don’t worry too much about the actual order of the events because you can rearrange them later if necessary. Here’s an example:

  • Alice meets John while standing in line at the coffee shop.
  • John takes Alice out to dinner.
  • Alice and John wreck their car while driving home.
  • John wakes up a month later in the hospital, confused.
  • A nurse tells John that Alice was killed in the car wreck.
  • John’s doctors discuss his prognosis.
  • John is told he’ll never walk again.
  • John thinks he sees Alice standing in his room.
  • Alice’s ghost visits John during his rehabilitation.
  • etc.

You get the point. Each sentence represents a single scene in your story.

Create characters and scenes in Scrivener

I’m a huge fan of Scrivener. It is a fantastic writing tool and it’s ability to help me stay organized really jumps my writing effort ahead. Part of Scrivener’s usefulness is it’s ability to help keep my story research organized and at easy reach. One way I do this is create character bios in Scrivener. As I’m writing, I can reference these notes with a single click, then jump back to my story, all within the same program.

I then create empty text blocks called scenes and then arrange them in any order I wish with a simple drag-n-drop operation. I can organize them into chapters, too. Using my plot event list, I create a new scene within Scrivener for each line on my plot event list. I use the scene description to label the scenes within Scrivener, so I can tell at a glance which scene I want to work on.

Write out each scene

Once I have created a scene for each item in my plot event list, I can now write the text for each one in any order I choose. Because I’ve broken down my entire story into manageable, discrete chunks, it’s very easy for me to focus my mind on the creative task at hand without worrying about plot holes and other details.

The plot event list is like framing a house. All the dimensions and layout of the rooms is decided here. Writing out each scene is like putting in the floors, drywall, fixtures, and even the furniture, one room at a time. Since the room itself is already defined, I can focus and flesh it out completely. Since all the other rooms have also been framed, I don’t have to worry about how this room will fit into the overall structure.

Mental Benefit

Since writing a novel is a very large undertaking (described as eating an elephant one spoonful at a time) this approach breaks it into manageable chunks. This helps my brain work more efficiently. I start with the high concept first, followed by brief descriptions of my main characters. Next, I create simple descriptions of scenes and key events in the story. This is an entirely creative process and it goes rather quickly. Finally, I flesh out each scene. Since I’m only having to creatively focus on one scene at a time, I don’t have writer’s block caused by feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the overall effort. It’s like walking around the world but only thinking about the journey 100 yards at a time, yet knowing you’ll reach your final destination because you have the entire route planned in advance.

How do mystery writers compose and solve their crimes?

I am starting on a new writing effort, this time it’s a series of short stories about two brothers that solve crimes. One is free and easy and very creative while the other is analytical, left-brained, literal, and very socially awkward. They sort of dove-tail their skills and perspectives into a unique relationship that is greater than the sum of their parts.

Since it is their mission to solve crimes, as a writer I need to create those crimes. Therein lies the problem. I’ve never written a crime story. Ever. I love shows like CSI and Criminal Minds and have always wondered how the writers contrive their stories. Do they concoct the crime first and then figure out how the good guys solve it? Or do they focus entirely upon the good guys and unravel the mysteries of the crime as it unfolds without any internal prior knowledge of how the dastardly deed was perpetrated?

Are you a writer or an actor?

Over the years I have written many stories that included characters with personalities I couldn’t personally relate to, doing things I would never do. The reasons for this are as varied as the characters themselves, but ultimately it came down to one goal: serving the desires of my readers.

When writing fiction, I am often tasked with the need to step outside of myself and write about things that I may not directly understand or care for. Every character is my creation and I take pride in how I present them, but in order to serve the needs of the story I sometimes have my characters behave in ways that I personally find distasteful. Some characters I actually despise. But that’s kind of the point. That’s what those characters are supposed to do. Their actions and personality serve the needs of the story.

As I get into the minds of these nefarious fictional people, I find myself feeling more like an actor than a writer. Mentally I am portraying someone I’m not. As I write I play out different ideas in my head and experiment with scenarios and dialogue to get a rough idea of what I’m trying to achieve before actually writing it down. This is an uncomfortable feeling sometimes, because I am forced to role-play things in my mind that I would never contemplate otherwise.

I doubt all fiction writers feel this way, but for me I think it helps to have some acting skills. To get inside the heads of my characters and understand their motivations helps me give them life in my stories. If I write about them in the abstract, keeping a mental and emotional distance between the real me and the fictional them, how can they have any life or energy that will engage the reader?