Poor Progress

Wow, that week went fast, and I have very little to show for it.  The blog move is still in progress, and it was a crap week for writing.  It’s day 30 of Oaths of My Fathers, and I’m really only about halfway through it, maybe even a little shy of that.

Home life with the kids has been… well, scatological.

But still, I’m plugging along.

Mid-Month Updates and Bloggy News

I tried to come up with a more generic and boring title for this and utterly failed. So be it.

Anyway, the blog has been kind of quiet the last week or two. Partly this is because I’ve been putting a lot of writing time into Oaths of My Fathers. It’s currently about 40,000 words long, but I’m behind schedule on it. I want to get it wrapped up in the next couple of weeks as I start getting beta-reader feedback for Debts of My Fathers. For the curious, it’s a continuity thing. Before I do the final edits to a book, I like to draft its sequel. That way, if there’s anything I need to set up beforehand, there’s still a chance to put it in.

Debts of My Fathers is vaguely on track for a May release, but a lot of that depends on the beta reader feedback. My insecure writer’s ego is terrified that the book actually sucks, that the beta readers will confirm it, and that it will require extensive rewrites. But I feel this way pretty much whenever my beta readers are reading one of my books, so it’s probably not a legitimate reason to worry. Still, it’s hard to nail down exact schedules until I get that feedback.

Hell Bent and the draft to Stone Killer are pretty much on hold. I’m focused on getting Debts/Oaths done, but once Debts goes to the copy editor, I’ll pick up on that series again until it’s time to format and publish Debts.

But it’s also been quiet because it’s been a rough couple of weeks with my kids. I don’t talk much about them, but they’re special needs kids, and it’s just been harder than usual lately. There’s some sign of improvement two or three months down the road, but unfortunately, it is predicted to be one of those times where it will likely get worse before it gets better. So, in the meantime I’m trying to look upon it as a plot twist aimed at upping the stakes before our protagonist ultimately emerges victorious.

I’m also taking a little time to move this blog to a new domain. That’s right. As part of my goals for the year, Making It Up As I Go is making way for something with a bit more of a plan. Specifically, I am attempting to migrate the whole thing, archives, comments, and all over to DanThompsonWrites.com. At the moment, that domain simply forwards back over to here, but when I’m all done the reverse will be true. I’m still working out a few kinks, but I’m hoping it will go live in the coming week. In the meantime, I’ve been hesitant to get a bunch of entries queued up – hence the quiet.

Once that’s done, I have a laundry list of little blog improvements to do that have been building up. I didn’t want to do them pre-move, so once that’s done, several of them should show up promptly with a few more dribbling in afterwards. As such, there might be a few bumps along the way, but in the long-run, it should be better.

Also, I do plan on being in Dallas for ConDFW next weekend (Feb 21-23), but I’m not signed up for any programming. I haven’t tried to get on any panels, but the general word is that it’s hard for indies to make that jump. Maybe later in the year when I have another 2-3 titles out. (Crossing my fingers…) Still, if you’re going to be there, look for the long-haired, red-bearded, kilt-wearing Scotsman. We’re only slightly less-common than a Slave Leia at DragonCon.

So, that’s it for now. See you all on the other side of the domain move.

Resources for Writers (February 2014 edition)

This is one of those posts that I’m mostly doing for my local writers’ group, but if you are doing anything with self/indie-publishing, you might also find them of interest. There’s no grand theme here, just a handful of links I promised.

E-book Formatting

I learned e-book formation from this series of 10 blog posts: Take Pride In Your E-Book Formatting It’s been around for a couple of years, and parts of it are showing its age. In particular, I only use Calibre to produce the EPUB file, and then I use Amazon’s Kindle Preview app to convert that version to the MOBI format.

I have been considering moving to Sigil as my main e-book production tool, and here’s a good article that talks about a few different paths for e-book production: e-Book Creation: A Guide for Writers, by Lisa Cohen. It covers some word-processor-to-Calibre approaches, but it also has a section on going direct with Sigil.

Both of these lay out the simple fact that both E-book formats are essentially simplified HMTL web pages wrapped up in a zip file. Depending on how comfortable you are with HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), you can find a production path that works for you. For me, the key was to work through several iterations of a small file, something with four chapters of a few pages each. That let me work through the errors without dealing with a 90,000-word document.

I know a couple of guys (Jefferson Smith and Nathan Lowell) who seem to have super-streamlined processes for this, but I’m not quite there yet.

Print-book Formatting

I’m the middle of a stalled 3-4 post series on this. The first of which mostly talks about page size and margins and can be found here: Print Formatting: Page Size and Margins

In due time, I mean to write one on paragraph-formatting and font choice, another on some stylistic matters like chapter headers, quotes, etc., a third on header/footer stuff and the magic trick to get MS Word to do that, and finally one more on front and back matter. I’m not sure if I’ll get all those links back into this post or if they’ll just link one to another in a series.

In the meantime, I urge you to check out the archives of The Book Designer and his MS Word templates at Book Design Templates.

Self-publishing Sales Data

There have been several self-publishing surveys and reports lately. Some of them are almost worthless due to bad sampling and faulty conclusions. Some have been better. Here’s a good summary of several of them: All about the Money

But just in the last 24 hours, a new study has come out that has relied on doing some data-mining on the Amazon servers along with other reports that pieced together reasonable conversions from Amazon’s Sales Rank number to the actual rate of sales, i.e. how many books you’re selling.

Early analysis of the report looks fairly good, though it is upfront that it is looking only at Amazon data and only at the top few thousand books. (One set of data looks at the top 7000, while another expanded it to look at the top 50,000.) It was spearheaded and funded by self-pub success story Hugh Howey and can be found here: Author Earnings – The Report.

Book recommendation: I’ve also been recommending a great book on the no-luck strategy for self-publishing success called Write Publish Repeat. My review is here along with a link to the book.

That’s it for now. There may be more of these in the future.

Oaths of My Fathers, Day 10

Alas, I fell woefully behind over the weekend. It was a packed weekend, and with my kids, I don’t get a lot of sane time on the weekends. I actually did get some writing done, but it was for a completely different project – I was presenting something of an award on Saturday night and wrote up a couple of pages for it. But other than that, zero new words on Oaths. I did hit the word mines again today, and while my numbers were not earth-shattering, they were almost respectable. Well, no, they weren’t actually, but they were better than the weekend.

However, in a flash of inspiration, I did work out a problem for the end of book 5. I don’t exactly have these planned out in detail, but I knew mostly how I wanted the climax to go down. No spoilers here, but it was of the form: after A happens, we get to do The Big Thing. The only problem was that I had never quite worked out how A was going to happen in such a way that The Big Thing was not only possible but not a leap of incredulity. Well, now I know how it’s going to happen, and I was able to jot down about 750 words to help me remember it when the time comes at last.

It’s time to head for bed, but I might manage a bit more on my laptop before lights-out. I’ve got a plumber coming in the morning, so I might not be in full swing until the afternoon, but I am making progress.

One distraction, though, is that my upper back is really hurting these days.  And by “really hurting”, I mean screw-my-eyes-shut-and-cry hurting.  I suspect it’s partly from poor sitting posture at my desk, but I think I also strained something wrestling with the eldest boy last week. This isn’t the part of the back that the treadmill seems to help much, but I’ll at least be giving it a shot tomorrow.

End of January Update

CalendarObliqueI hope to be doing monthly status updates on my big goals throughout the year, both to let folks know how I’m doing and to give myself a good kick in the ass. This is the first of those updates.

First, the numbers. In January, I wrote 42,906 words, of which 10,425 saw the light of day and hence fall into my “published” category. That’s roughly half as many as I should have written and about a quarter as many as I should have published. Hmm, trying to get those to 1,000,000 and 500,000 for the year. Am I worried? Not much. The justification is in the details, so here’s the breakdown:

Email/journaling/other-private: 7344 words. Much of this is just the overhead of being engaged with life and community. Nothing much to see here. Still, that’s only about 70% the rate I predicted in my planning calculations. I don’t plan on trying to increase this artificially. These are words I kind of get for free.

Blogging/Social-Media: 12,072 words. This is split pretty much evenly between my blog here and my activity on Google+. I don’t necessarily publish much original content over there, but I tend to post a lot of long comments. This one hit my original estimates pretty much even, though I’m heavier on the social media than I originally estimated.

Fiction: 23,490 words. The bulk of this was on Oaths of My Fathers during the last week or so, currently at about 17,500, and the rest was some back-and-fill on Debts of My Fathers before it went out to beta readers. Here, I’m only at about 40%, but I knew January was going to be a slow month for new words of fiction. My initial focus was to get Debts of My Fathers out the door to beta readers, and while editing can take a lot of time, it does not add many words. In many cases, it actually cuts them down. So, while I did get to add a few words to the total during my edits to Debts, the words-per-hour was abysmal. Still, I’m ripping along through Oaths at a pretty good clip, and if I can keep to the schedule, I will actually wrap it up late in February, and that will put me pretty much on target for new fiction written.

Published: This is the 10,425 words mentioned up top, and it’s woefully lagging behind the pace at about 25% what it should be. But this one is always going to move in ragged jumps with the publication of books. I’ve pushed Debts of My Fathers one step closer to publication, so I feel pretty good here.

WinterSnowAs for the other smaller goals, here’s a quick look…

Meet up with other writers I know online: I haven’t done much here yet, but I have mostly laid out my convention schedule of the year. ConDFW in February is likely but not yet certain. AggieCon is a possibility for the first time in years, though I still have to deal with a conflicting engagement. ApolloCon is proving difficult due to child-care issues, but I think I’ve got that sorted out. ArmadilloCon should be fairly easy, but due to some other conflicts, I may only be able to do one day. FenCon is also pretty much certain but not yet nailed down. I confess that DragonCon is tempting, but I have to wait for a few other things to settle down before I can even seriously contemplate it.

Beef up the website: Nothing is visible yet, but I’ve actually been making good progress here. I will almost certainly be moving the blog within the next month to a new URL. MakingItUpAsIGo.com will forward you to the new one once it’s up and running. I already have the new URL, and I’m looking at a couple of other hosting services to see if I want to switch service providers at the same time as the move.

Improve my health: Meh, this one has gone nowhere. On the other hand, I haven’t exactly backslid either. January was a month of rolling crises here at my house, and I’m afraid to say that self-care like exercise is one of the first things that goes out the door when things get tight. Note to self and others: that’s not a particularly good strategy.

GroundHogSo that’s it for January. Let’s hope the good things continue in February and the bad things disappear like this nasty winter. So someone, please, put a shade structure over that damn groundhog tomorrow. He really needs to not see his shadow.


Day 5 of Oaths of My Fathers

Just a quick progress report.  I’m five days into drafting Oaths of My Fathers, and I’m currently about 11,000 words in, trying to reach 13,500 today.  I’m sort of behind because I started by Day 1 at about 9pm and only got a few hundred words in rather than the 3000 words-per-day target.  However, each day since then, I’ve hit well over 3000, so I am definitely on track to catch up.  Then again, weekends with the kids at home is tough.

But it is underway, and I’ve got a pretty good feel for the plot route I’m taking.  The target size is 90,000 to 100,000 words.  Ships came out to about 86,000, and Debts is currently much longer at 107,000.  My drafts tend to grow during edits as I see things that I left out the first time through, so even if I wrap up at 90,000, Oaths may very well top 100,000 before it goes out the door.

Debts of My Fathers goes to Beta

I sent Debts of My Fathers out to my beta readers today.  I’m poking a few other folks to try to line up one additional reader, but it’s in motion.  I’ve asked them for a quick turnaround and hope to be fixing any problems they found in late February.

Which means, in theory at least, I should get started on the sequel tomorrow.  I like to get the N+1 book drafted before the Nth book is finalized, so that means getting it written during the beta-read period.  Of course, since I’ve asked for a fast beta-read turnaround, that means I have to get this next one written fast. For what it’s worth, it’s tentatively titled Oaths of My Fathers and will be the midpoint of the Father Chessman saga.

So, the next four weeks or so are going to be like a double-time NaNoWriMo.  I’ll have about four weeks to write about 80-100,000 words.  Crossing my fingers…  No, that’s not for luck.  I’m just saying that typing that much that fast… well, I’m bound to get my fingers jammed up somewhere along the way.

Print Formatting: Page Size and Margins

Some folks from my local writers’ group have asked me about some of my print formatting decisions, so I thought I would write up a few posts about it. I realize that most of my sales are e-book, but I wanted to have some nice-looking print editions. If nothing else, they look good on my bookshelf.

I should also point you towards The Book Designer, which is where I learned most of what I know about print formatting. He also made several MS Word templates for formatting a print novel, available at Book Design Templates.  I have heard good things about them, but I’m something of a DIY guy for this kind of thing.

So today I’m talking about page size and margins. I’ll put a summary of the numbers at the bottom, but first I’d like to say a little about how I chose them.

First of all, I print my books at 5.5 x 8.5 inches, and right off the bat, I’ll tell you it’s a compromise. I started off wanting to do the tight little mass-market paperback size of 4.125 x 6.75 inches, but I couldn’t. For starters, that size was not offered by my printer, and even if it was, it would be problematic. I would either have to shrink the margins and font quite a bit or have it be so thick as to be unrealistically expensive. Print-on-Demand charges per page, not per square inch of paper, so a 200 page book at 5 x 8 is about twice as expensive as a 100 page book at 8 x 10, even though they have the same amount of actual paper. So, bigger is cheaper. But is it better?

I went through my library and grabbed a dozen trade paperbacks of various sizes and thicknesses. I recommend you do the same if you can. Handle them. Flip through them. Hold them open with one hand, particularly at odd angles like you might in bed or flopped down in a recliner. Of all of those, the 5 x 8 felt the best in my hand. Anything 6 x 9 and up flopped around too much – the paper and cover wasn’t stiff enough to hold itself up across such a distance.

But once I started playing with fonts and margins, the 5 x 8 page-size simply required too many pages for the 80,000-100,000-word novels I intended to write. So, I compromised at 5.5 x 8.5. My sample books of that size held up fairly well, so that’s what I went with. I squeezed my margins just a tad (but far less than I’ve seen elsewhere), and that got the price down to the right range. It also made for a nice aspect ratio for the cover image:

ShipsOfMyFathers_FrontCover_600pxAs for the margins, it would nice to say something simple like, “Yeah, three-quarters of an inch all the way around.” Alas, it’s not quite so simple. Let’s take a look at a sample page from Ships of My Fathers.

MarginDiagramFullSize(click to see at full resolution)

There are four main margins and two more annotational distances. The top margin and bottom margin are fairly self-explanatory, but do note that these are the distance from the edge of the page to the main body of text, not the distance to header or footer. I chose 0.8 inches for both of these margins. I have seen a number of other folks recommend anywhere from 0.5 to 0.75 inches for that, but when I held various books in my hand, I found that my thumbs or fingers tended to push up through those shorter distances. So, if my print books seem to have more white space than the norm, blame my big hands.

The side margins are a little trickier because of their asymmetry. Note that this sample page includes a bit of the facing page to put it into context. Also adding to the confusion, there are two ways to specify them. I usually deal with them as “inside margin” and “outside margin”. The other way to go is to specify right and left margins and then add in a special “gutter” margin that will be added to the right margin on lefthand pages and to the left margin on righthand pages. I found it simpler to fold it in and deal explicitly with inside and outside margins.

I set my outside margin to 0.65 inches. My big thumbs would have preferred something closer to an inch, but that pushed the page count up too much. Besides, given how many books I saw with half-inch margins, I figured I was being fairly generous here.

I set my inside margin to 0.9 inches. In terms of the gutter, that’s adding a quarter of an inch. How much you add here depends a lot on how thick the book is. Hardcover books that stitch their pages to the spine have more flexibility here, but with a glued or “perfect” binding, thicker books don’t open as wide. Here it was not just how far I could jam my thick thumb into the page-fold, it was a matter of reading the text that was curving into the spine of the book. It doesn’t become illegible, but I found it to be annoying if it went in too far. How far was too far? Again, it’s a matter of personal taste, but after looking at several other books in the 300-page neighborhood, I found the comfort zone between 0.8 and a full inch.

(A note on measuring the inside margin on sample books: do not try to jam a ruler in there. You won’t get an accurate measurement. Measure the cover width and measure the distance from the inside-most text to the outside of the page. That difference will give you the proper inside margin measurement.)

Finally, the header and footer. I could have gotten by with just a header, putting my page numbers up top in the corners, but I liked the look of them at the bottom. It was also the more common location in trade paperbacks. (Mass-market paperbacks tend to use the corners.) For these, I pushed them 0.4 inches from the top and bottom of the page. Note however, if you avoid the footer, don’t think you can skimp on the bottom margin. It’s fine if the readers’ hands and fingers obscure the footer, but not the bottom line of the text.

So, to wrap up:
Page size: 5.5 x 8.5 inches
Top/bottom margins: 0.8 inches
Inside margin: 0.9 inches
Outside margin: 0.65 inches
Header/footer distance: 0.4 inches from edge

Next time I’ll talk about font choice and size as well as some of the other paragraph-level formatting choces.

Writing my way to the next plateau?

In my New Year’s post on my writing goals for 2014, I asked whether my goals met the Attainable part of SMART goals. That’s a very good question given that I’ve failed to meet my “write two, publish two” goals each of the last two years. Those goals were the equivalent of “write 200,000 words, publish 200,000 words,” and I hit about half that. How do I think I can now jump to a million new words written and half that much published? The betting alien would say I’ve got a comet’s chance in a supernova, and on most days, I would agree with him. But not now, and to explain why, I have to go down the rabbit hole of “mastery” for a bit first.

There’s a book called Masteryby George Leonard that talks about learning a new skill. It describes the path from novice to master. It frequently falls back on the metaphor of sports (aikido and tennis specifically), but I have found that the broader topics are applicable across a wide variety of skills. This is also somewhat related to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, where he states that it typically takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly master a new skill.

Anyway, on this path towards Mastery, Leonard talks about how we spend most of our time on a plateau. We’re not really getting any better, despite all our efforts. In fact, some days we almost feel like we’re getting worse at it. Then, out of the blue, we suddenly jump up to a new level of skill. It’s that breakthrough moment when you suddenly “get it.” It’s wonderful. You gain a lot of understanding and apparent skill very quickly. It’s that time when you feel the most fulfilled for learning this new skill.

Aaaand then you’re back on the plateau. It’s a higher plateau, and you are better than you were before, but that flash of sudden insight has passed. You have to learn to love those plateaus, because that is where brand new skills go from something you think about to something you do automatically.

I have been on something of a plateau for the last year or so. I have learned how to write a good novel, how to edit it and polish it and how to get it out the door to readers… eventually. Still, I spend a lot of time struggling through that edit period, but in the last month or so, I’ve begun to see why I’m struggling and how to fix it. It feels a bit like I’m on the verge of making that breakthrough to the next plateau of smoother edits and significantly faster production.

So I feel like challenging myself to do what had previously seemed impossible.

The last time I did that was in 2004 when I first attempted NaNoWriMo. I had never written a novel before. In fact, my total short-story fiction to-date was only then getting up to novel length. My previous three attempts at writing a novel had gone from bad to worse and ultimately ended in a six-year period of not writing fiction at all. But I felt like I’d worked through what was going on with that. I felt poised to make that leap.

And sure enough, I did. I pounded through that NaNoWriMo with relative ease, and I did one again the next year. In fact, I’ve completed four NaNoWriMo’s in the last decade. I’ve also ground through two complete edit/publish cycles and most of two others. And it feels like I’ve worked it out, that I’m no longer groping my way forward through the dark.

At least that’s what it feels like. Who knows? But anyway, it feels like the time to make the attempt to leap up to that next plateau. I’d say I’m going to try, but Yoda instructs otherwise.

So I guess I will.

2014: The Next Step

It’s goal-setting time again! I avoid resolutions because they tend to take the form of “exercise every day” and crumble into disappointment by February. I aim for SMART goals. That’s one bit of corporate wisdom I’ve actually hung onto. The SMART acronym has a bunch of different expansions, but for me it means that goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Not all good goals fall into this, such as my goal of making friends with more writers last year, but I still think it’s good to think about those criteria when setting goals.

It’s also important at times like this to think about goals instead of dreams. Goals are results that can be achieved through a series of my own actions without requiring the actions of others. Writing a novel is a good goal. Winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel is not a good goal, because it requires the actions of a lot of WorldCon voters. That, instead, falls into the category of dreams. The best I can do is to set goals that I believe will make my dreams more likely.

So, with that in mind, here are my big goals for 2014:

1. Write one million words.
2. Get 500,000 words out there (blog/publish/etc).

Crazy? Well, let me give you a little background. I honed my skills early on with NaNoWriMo, writing 50,000 words of a novel during Novembers over the years. 50,000 words never completed the actual story, but it was a good start, and I could finish it off in the weeks/months/years that followed. I skipped NaNoWriMo this most recent year to focus on the edits to Debts of My Fathers, and I really missed it.

Then I caught wind of another group challenge amongst my writer friends on Google+. The idea was to write one million words in 2014. The insane pace of it appealed to me – it’s like one and a half NaNoWriMo’s, twelve months in a row. In fact, it appealed to me a in a way that scared the crap out of me, the same way NaNoWriMo did a decade ago.

But to be honest, drafting new fiction has not been my biggest problem. It’s been editing it, polishing it off, and getting it out there door where readers can actually see it. At the moment, there are about 230,000 words sitting in my edit queue. (Closer to 270,000 if you count the work already done on Stone Killer.) If I were to simply crank out a million words… I shudder to think what my edit queue would look like then. It’s the very reason I did not do NaNoWriMo in 2013.

So, I added the goal of getting 500,000 words out there. That would clear out my current queue, plus some. Now, if I count some blog posts, social media, etc. – in short, anything relatively public – I’m really only looking at 350,000 words of fiction to get out there. That 350,000 doesn’t have to come entirely from fiction I write this year, so I’m already most of the way there with the three and a half novels in my edit queue. Still, I will have to get them out the door, plus one more that I write from scratch. So that’s four to five novels to publish, as one of them is quite short. As a stretch goal, though, I’d like to make that 500,000 words of published novels, or about six or seven novels. Otherwise, I’m going to end the year with an edit queue double the size I have now.

Are these SMART goals? I think they’re clearly Specific, Measurable, and Time-bound. I also think they’re fairly Relevant to achieving my long-term goals of getting more books out there. The real question is whether they’re Attainable. I will say more about that next week in my next writing column. It’s a little too long and philosophical to include here.

So those are the big goals. I do have a few other smaller goals that are only tangentially related to writing.

3) I’ve become friends with a number of other writers and editors online, and now I’d like to actually meet some of them face to face. I’m not about to go stalking their neighborhoods or anything. Mostly I’m just going to start paying attention to which conventions they are going to and seeing whether or not they fit with my convention schedule. This might not happen until the 2015 WorldCon for some of the ones further afield, but I would like to meet up with some other south-central ones sooner than that.

4) I want to beef up this website quite a bit. In fact, it might even be changing names or URLs, but I will make sure everything forwards over properly. I also want to set up a mailing list for any interested parties, and if you’ve been commenting regularly on the blog or inquiring after future releases, I’ll try to get you onto it from the beginning.

5) Again, I want to improve my health. It’s been fairly poor this year, but I am taking steps to improve it. If nothing else, this most recent sinus surgery should help knock down the 4-5 sinus infections I’ve been getting every year.

That’s it for now. A modest share of those million words will end up here, so look for more content. I’m also fairly active over on Google+, so you can check me out there.