Sunday, September 22, 2013

An Author's Tools

It hadn't occurred to me, till I walked into the Memphis writers Meetup group last night, that I might at some point be the most experienced guy in the room.  Not experienced with writing, certainly; there are people everywhere who've been writing for years and years, who've earned entire college degrees on the topic, whose knowledge of the craft dwarfs my own.  No, I'm talking about the processes involved with commercial writing: getting a novel done, getting it out there, getting people to buy it. 

See, at this point this blog has a total of well over 35,000 hits, and I have over 800 Twitter followers, and I've had over 10,000 copies of my works leave the "shelves" at Amazon and enter a reader's Kindle.  I got nuthin' on, say, Kevin Anderson (just picking somebody at random out of the fairly large group of commercial giants whose circles I'm trying to join), but sometimes--often--the groups I find myself in don't have them in there. 

Those times, I find myself repeating a lot, in quite a repetitive fashion.  It struck me last night as the thing to do to make a blog post in which I list out the tools I've had luck with so that in the future I can point to it and then go on with conversations. 

Standard disclaimer: Your mileage may vary.  I am not in line to gain anything financially from any of the links provided herein, unless, say, somebody at one of the companies just feels jolly enough to toss a few coins my way, and I'll happily accept those.  Technology changes nearly as fast as the algorithms at Amazon, and so what I say may not hold water about three point two seconds after I click on "Publish."  Items that have been in the microwave are hot.  One side of the duct tape is very, very sticky and will therefore stick to things, like hair.  And so on.

First: Build A Network

No, I'm not talking about marketing your book to people.  I'm talking about wrapping yourself into like-minded writers who can help you over rough spots and give you advice.  There are some great writers groups on the ground out there--if you're anywhere near Richmond, VA, I highly recommend James River Writers for the personality as well as the activity level of the club.  Try several groups.  Online there are even more: on Facebook I'm a member of Indie Author Group, as well as a few other, smaller groups.  Join some and try them out.  Remember that you're not looking for somewhere to sell your book! 

Writing Tools

There are two kinds of novelists out there: pantsers and outliners.  I'm a pantser, and as a result I love, love, love my Scrivener.  Why, you ask?  I started on MS Word, for one thing.  Now, I'm a fan of Word, also, but only for short documents.  As the document gets longer, Word handles it less efficiently, and so you get memory issues and glitches all 'round.  Plus, once you get over about 25K words scrolling backwards becomes a royal pain in the tuckus, and that's one thing we pantsers do a lot of a lot of.  The Find feature in Word is nice and advanced, but believe it or not the Find feature in Scrivener is even better.

Scrivener takes care of the scrolling problem by putting each chapter in its own page.  You start a new chapter just by putting a new Text in, and you title it, and then you sally forth with writing.  If you need to go back in the story you just click on that chapter in the window on the left side and there you are.  Plus Scrivener has places on the left to organize not just the chapters but also your character information as well as references to outside resources you're using. 

What sold me on Scrivener was the little pictures of 3x5 cards that you get when you ask for it.  Each chapter is a card, and there you can delete a chapter (no!  don't!) or just mark it for exclusion from the book, or rearrange the chapters to your heart's content.  Hey, who wouldn't want Cinderella kissed by the prince before she goes to the ball, right?

There are plenty of other features, like this little word count tracker that on one screen gives you not only total word count but also whatever you've done that day, but I'm already at "too long" length.  

If you want to check out Scrivener without the financial commitment, wait till November.  That company is generally a major supporter of an excellent exercise of excellence known as NaNoWriMo, and during the month itself you can generally download a free copy that works till the third or fourth day of December.  Once you've participated in the month's activities, you can get an official copy for 20% off if you crash and burn fail prove yourself unworthy don't complete the 50K words, or if you do, for an unbelievable 50% off (so, twenty bucks) if you "win" (another term for finishing 50K words in that one special month). 

It's not like it's competitive or nuthin.  Just--well, just win.  Okay? 

Oh, and if you do decide to go with Scrivener, for goodness sake, go through the tutorials first.  Not only will that teach you the terminology the software uses, but it'll also get your whistle wetter'n hell to get started rockin' the word count. 

If you're an outliner, you'll probably like Scrivener as well, but you should also check out yWriter.  Why?  Well, for one thing, it's the right price to check out (it's free).  Second, and more conclusively to me, the fact that I absolutely cannot use it probably means you'll think it's the bee's knees, whatever that means.  The reason I can't use it, by the way, is that it expects you to start from the outline of the work, which, well, I ain't got but I'm sure you do, and you can just take it from there.

Editing Tools

There aren't any.  If you trust your authoring career to the little green squigglies that MS Word gives you, you're doomed to fail.  The only reliable editing tool out there is the combination of two eyeballs and one brain that you and the professional (more or less, in varying degrees) editors have. 

You shouldn't get to the point in your novel where you're ready for an editor without knowing which editor you're going to use, anyway.  It takes weeks--months, in many cases--years, in others--to write the darn thing.  Do some research while you're writing. 

Research where?  Well, first thing I did was jump into the acknowledgments pages of my favorite novels and see who my favorite authors were using.  Then I looked them up on the web.  Then I coughed a bit at how much that option cost, and I went looking for others. 

Join groups, both on ground and on Facebook, and ask folks about editors.  Some are expensive, and some of those are worth it, while others, especially those who're just starting out or who're only doing you a friendly hand on the side, are less expensive.  My advice?  Go with the best you can afford.

Should you hire an editor if you're going for traditional publishing (which presents their own editorial staff for your torture pleasure)?  I'd say yeah, if you're a newbie.  You've got several acceptances to gain before a trad-pub editor's going to lay eyes on your work, and the cleaner your book is the more likely you are to get them.

Publishing Tools

Paperbacks: my advice?  Just don't.  They don't sell worth a crap.  I know a guy who bought $30,000 worth of copies of his first work, and he still owns about $29,900 worth of them.  I know another guy who invested far less, about two grand, but he still ended up walking through the writer's group handing copies to anybody who didn't snarl at him for doing so.  Yes, yes, I know we all love physical books.  We all hate that ebooks are taking over the market.  We all wish that we could bring back the old musty-smelling bookstore.  If you'd rather sit and dream of what you wish would be than make money, then fine.  G'head and print and buy a few thousand copies. 

But...but...but...why?  The problem is that even publishers can't produce a paperback book that can bring anybody along the line a profit for a final sale price of less than six or seven bucks.  You, using a print on demand service like Createspace or Lightning Source, have to sell each copy for twelve bucks, minimum (based on size, number of pages, number of goofy colored spots, and so on), to make a few pennies.  If you're John Grisham, go for it--I bet people will buy your works in large volume for even higher prices.  If your grandma doesn't even know you're a novelist yet, then you probably don't have any business trying to sell books for that kinda money. 

Stick to ebooks.  They'll get your name out there, or not, much more ably than paperbacks.

So, let's say you're going to ignore me.  Fine.  Which POD service do you choose?  Well, as with most other things, it depends.  If you're just selling (paperbacks) in the U.S. and aren't worried about making them shippable anywhere else, and you don't want to invest much up front, and you don't convulse in aversion when somebody mentions the trademark Amazon, go with Createspace.  They're pretty simple, with a wizard that guides you through the process.  They don't require you to come with your own ISBN either, which is a cost-saver right there. 

The downside of Createspace?  Well, for one thing, don't expect many Indie bookstores to carry your book if it's a Createspace work.  For one thing, it's an Amazon brand now, and Indie bookstores generally despise anything and everything related to the A-word.  More crucially, though, the Createspace model isn't built for the kind of discounts bookstores need to make your book available while still paying salaries and light bills and such. 

The other option?  Lightning Source (  It's not as user-friendly, I think, and they do require you to bring your own ISBN, a thing that our buddies at Bowker will gladly help with.  It ain't cheap: $125 for one ISBN, which is about $120 more than you can expect to make from sales of your paperbacks over the shelf life span of the work.  For a skosh more money (as in double) you can buy ten ISBNs.  Why would you need ten, though?  Not planning to write ten novels?  Shame on you!  But seriously--every major revision you do to the one novel will need another ISBN.  Planning both hardcover and paperback?  That's two just by itself. 

That brings us to ebooks.

Amazon, all the way.  Lookit, I know people love to hate the A-word.  But you know what?  I've had the same book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords before, and the sales at Amazon dwarfed everything else.  Jeff Bezos and company didn't go without a profit for five years, reinvesting every penny they made into research in and creation of the ultimate Internet marketing machine, for nothing. 

It's quite simple.  Just go to the KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) page, sign in or create a free account, follow two pages of prompts, and boom whiz bang, you're published. 

But what about the covers?  Yeah, let's talk covers.


Covers are tough, man.  The worst thing you can do, I think, is to end up on one of the "Covers That Suck" pages.  That said, there are as many differing opinions about what makes a great cover as there are about what makes a great novel.  What sucks to you may be pretty snazzy to someone else. 

I'll get it out of the way and just say that I do my own because I'm a cheap bastard guy.  I've worked a long time at figuring out the hows and hownots of GIMP, and it's my (free!) image manipulator of choice.  If you're going this route, Youtube will be your best friend, because all the wisdom of the tremendous user base for the software package is contained on that one video site.  If you're not sure how to, for instance, put a black border around blue letters, look up "gimp border text" on and watch the experts at play. 

Why did I pick that example?  Because it's one I have to look up every time I do another cover, because the makers of GIMP didn't put a "border the text" button in the stupid toolbar.  It's amazingly frustrating surprisingly simple to do once you figure it out, but you have to figure it out first.  Youtube is your friend.

There are probably as many cover artists as there are editors out there, with just as much of a range in pricing as well as quality.  Try asking around in your groups.  You can find cover artists online that will do a custom cover for a few hundred bucks.  Some on Facebook have a "friends and family" discount.  There are also "pre-made" cover sites where you can browse things that they've already created and are ready to smack your title and name onto; these range from $5 (I've seen one for that, I'll say, but I won't vouch for anything quality-related) to $45 or $50 a cover. 

Then there's marketing services, but I've already gone over my word limit by a few (hundred) so I'll write a separate post about those.



  1. Hahaha, I love my yWriter and couldn't get into Scrivener. Figures ;)

    Though I do wish they'd do another update of it, streamline a few things. It's quite good but... yeah. Scrivener is the more polished software for sure (which makes sense given that yWriter is free, as you said).

    1. Indeed, Mary. I wasn't unimpressed by yWriter; I just couldn't use it. No matter which software we use, though, let's keep writing!

  2. See, all of this is what I was hoping I'd learn at the meeting and the reason I frantically wrote notes every time you spoke.