Discovering the Workflow

One of the interesting things about learning a new craft is discovering the workflow. In any craft you do, there’s an optimal order for performing the various subtasks. For example, in my digital renders/painting, I don’t bother setting up the lights until I have the basic scene composed in my camera view. That way, I’m casting light onto something tangible, rather than setting up lights that might or might not fall on something that isn’t there yet. Other folks might prefer it the other way, i.e. setting up the desired lighting and placing objects in the scene to conform to that lighting, but that’s their workflow, not mine.

And that’s a critical aspect to discovering the workflow. It’s not the workflow. It’s my workflow. These are the choices that work for me. Your mileage may vary.

But that also means there are very few guides to doing the whole process start to finish, and that’s been a real challenge for me as I navigate my way towards independent publishing. There are plenty of guides out there on how to do e-book formatting, or on how to design a cover, or on how to buy an ISBN, and so on, but I am yet to find a turn-key guide.

Step 1: Write the first draft.
Step 2: Let it sit.
Step 3: Print it out and buy a fresh red pen.

Step 73: Profit!!

A lot of it is obvious in retrospect, but it wasn’t ahead of time. For example, don’t design your wrap-around cover until you’ve done the formatting for your print book. Why? Because you don’t know the size of the cover until then. Even if you’d already planned on doing 8 by 5, you don’t know the thickness of the spine until you have the page count.

But yeah, I know the page count. It’s 190.

Except it isn’t. That’s 190 pages of 8.5 by 11 in Times New Roman 12-point with one inch margins.

Okay, let’s look at it as 8 by 5. Hmmm, 502 pages. That seems a little long for 90,000 words. Well, the margins look a little big. Ok, shrink those down. And pick a different font. Yeah, Book Antiqua looks nice, but the lines are a little scrunchy. Let’s space those out some.

Okay, now I know the page count. At 8 x 5, it’s 420 pages. Let’s get to that cover…

But wait, the cost is per page. How much is that going to cost to print? And how much did I want to charge for it? Okay… at 420 pages, I’m going to make about 48 cents per printed copy. While I’m not trying to make a mint on each copy, 48 cents is too low. Okay, I’ll just charge more… but no, that’s asking for too much. I know I wouldn’t pay for that much for a printed copy.

So back to the formatting. Let’s look at some books. Here’s an 8×5. That looks okay, but frankly, it’s a little smaller than I expected. Let’s look at a 9×6. Hmmm, it gets a little floppy when I hold it open with one hand. Okay, let’s split the difference and find an 8.5 by 5.5. Yeah, that looks about right, and it feels okay holding in one hand.

And back to the margins… trim them down a bit more at the top and bottom, but make the gutters larger so the text doesn’t disappear into the curve of the spine. And I don’t have to space those lines out quite as much as I thought. And let’s make sure that chapter headers have the kind of font and white space I want. And so on, and so on.

So, at 8.5 x 5.5, with these margins, in that font, that’s 320 pages total, which is about the right heft. I’ll price it at $14.95, which Amazon will discount to be some nice percentage off the cover price, and still leave me with enough to be making about as much on a print copy as I will on an e-book copy. $15 is a little pricy, but it really is in line with other print-on-demand or trade paperback books.

So now I finally know the spine thickness, and that means I can get started on my cover.

Except that I need the UPC barcode for the back, and that means I need an ISBN. Okay, so I can go get the ISBN numbers from Bowker. Yep got ten of them. Ready to go.

Except… which ISBN number of my ten will I use? All right, need to pick one and register it. Fine, I’ll take that top one at the head of the list. Enter title, check! Pick format, check! Enter product description… hmmm.

Product description? Well, it’s a story about this girl. And she’s on a spaceship. Well, not a spaceship really, more of a colony ship. And it’s one of those multi-generational ships, you see, and they’ve been at this for a long time, and…

Wait, what I’m looking for here is the blurb, the pitch, the log lines. I kind of sketched those out once for an agent pitch, but now I need the real deal. In addition to going into the ISBN registration, it’s going into the Amazon product description, the printer’s catalog, and… yep, the back cover of the book. So off I go to write the blurb.

“Maggie is a young schoolteacher on the multi-generation colony ship, God’s Chariot, bound for their promised world, New Providence. When a faster-than-light freighter crosses their path…”

Allrightee… now I’m ready to start on the cover. Right? Maybe? Or am I going to get halfway through and discover that I need just one more thing? Maybe I need to finish the e-book formatting first? Or do I need to choose the right genre in Amazon’s category tree first?

So in trying to do the art for the cover, I have gone through everything from font spacing to price analysis and marketing text, none of which really has anything to do with the art. But for me, it seems, they needed to come first.

That’s what I’m talking about when I say I’m “discovering” my workflow. I’m pushing my way through in starts and stops, backing up, and trying again. I feel a bit like a carpenter who foolishly stained and sealed the lumber too early. You mean I was supposed to sand it first?


Review: Finders Keepers, by Linnea Sinclair

I thought this one was going to be space opera, and it was… sort of:

I picked this one up some time back, and looking at the cover (the one on the left), I expected it to be space opera with perhaps a hint of military SF. You know, athletic gal, big gun, things will go boom. And yes, things did go boom.

But it was also something of a romance, which makes more sense when you look at the cover on the right. The prominent figures are attractive, pressed close in a tense but lovey-dovey pose. We still have the ships and explosions below to tell us that it’s a romance in space, but it definitely sends the romance signal.

So anyway, I’d picked it up, tried reading it, but flamed out in the first few pages. I couldn’t put a finger on it, but it had failed to grab me. Then my wife read it and recommended it to me, so I figured I should give it another shot.

I made it through the first couple of chapters, and by then it had hooked my interest, though I confess it was a struggle. Again, I can’t put a finger on it, but the opening didn’t grab me. It certainly began with some action, but I may have simply become spoiled by the kind of openings that Jim Butcher pulls off.

As it went on, the space opera threads built fairly strongly, but the romance was picking up as well, and it kind of annoyed me. It’s not that I’m against romance. I’m something of a romantic myself – geek romance, admittedly, but still full of all that gooey stuff. However, I think what annoyed me here was the strong emotional/physical combo. They were like two hormonal teenagers who had never felt sexual arousal before and didn’t know what to do with it. Maybe at my age I’m too jaded to remember that with compassion, but mostly it just annoyed me.

So, leaving the romance aside, it was an okay space opera but not great. I also feel that the ending pretty much fizzled. There was this great secret they were trying to track down, and I don’t feel they ever quite got it, and when finally facing off the bad guys at the end, we got a bit of an info dump on their internal factions that seemed tacked on and had not been integral to the plot.

So anyway, if romantic space opera is your thing, give it a try because I suppose the romance part of it was good as far as romance stories go. But if you’re just after some good space opera, I’d say look elsewhere.

BIG NAME (with itsy bitsy name)

Today’s essay is something of a rant. I’m angry about something, but I confess I’m also conflicted about it. I consider it a scam, an exploitation, and a great opportunity, all at the same time. I’m talking about the practice of author collaboration that ends up with the famous author’s name in two-inch tall letters on the cover with a much smaller and harder to read “with unknown author name” tucked somewhere in there.

Perhaps the most blatant one I’ve seen of this lately is Tom Clancy’s latest “Locked On”. You can see the cover here:

That light blue smudge between Tom Clancy’s bold name and the similarly bold title are the words “with Mark Greaney”. Really, click on it to see a larger picture at the Amazon page. However, given the color choice that blends his name into the background, I get the impression we’re not supposed to notice it.

Now, I get that Tom Clancy is a famous author, and his name will sell books. Mark Greaney’s name… not so much. Yes, he’s written some other books, but he’s not #1 New York Times Bestselling Author TOM CLANCY.

So, let’s get into why this got me angry. First of all, as a reader I feel like I’m being sold a false bill of goods. I’m looking for a Tom Clancy novel, and instead, I’m getting what is possibly a collaboration but my cynical heart suspects is a Tom Clancy outline and a Mark Greaney novel. Nothing against Mr. Greaney. He is, quite possibly, a better writer than Mr. Clancy. At the very least, he is likely to get better editing than Mr. Clancy.

But I feel a bit like Greaney is being taken advantage of here. I don’t know how the royalties are split, but you can bet that Tom Clancy isn’t doing this as a charitable contribution to Greaney’s career. Either way, I doubt the royalty split matches the split of the workload in writing. And yes, I understand that this is truly a huge break for Greaney. On top of the exposure he’s getting with Clancy’s vast audience, whatever royalty split he got is bound to make for a very nice payday. But still, if he did the bulk of the writing, part of me feels he should get the paycheck that goes with it.

But back to the cover and the Tom Clancy brand, if you’re going to do that kind of branding, I feel like more credit should go to the guy doing the bulk of the writing. In a similar situation in SF, Larry Niven and Edward Lerner wrote a trilogy in Niven’s Known Space universe. At least in that case, Lerner got almost as tall a font as Niven, and they didn’t try to blend his name into the cover background.

And part of me is a little annoyed at Clancy for not just writing the thing himself. Yes, I understand that readers are often more eager for stories in a beloved universe with beloved characters than an author is eager to write those stories, but I feel like this kind of collaboration is a cop out. I mean, really guys, either write your own sequels, or admit that you’re opening it up to licensed fan-fiction. A compromise on that works well in the various spin-off novels from such franchises as Star Trek, Star Wars, and even Babylon 5. The franchise was the brand, but the author still got proper recognition.

In particular, I’d like to point out how it was handled for the Babylon 5 novels. Babylon 5 was the brainchild of Joe Michael Straczynski. Not only did he outline the entire five-year series, but he wrote about two-thirds of the episodes. These spin-off novels were either filling in back stories that we didn’t get to see or tying up loose ends to let us put the characters to bed. They were clearly the stories that Straczynski wanted to tell, but he did not claim authorship on any of them. Yes, the franchise name got the big font, but the author got top billing as the author. Stracynski’s credit was always listed (notably in a smaller font) as “based on an original outline by J. Michael Stracynski”. No thunder stealing, no questionable claims of authorship, no author-branding.

Now, I wasn’t in the writing rooms of Clancy or Greaney, so I can’t say how that particular collaboration really worked.

But the way that cover is presented smacks of dishonesty, and it pisses me off.