Tag Archives: paperback

The Advantage of a Reader’s Guide for Writers

So, I’m convinced we can learn anything from any source we encounter, especially when we’re not looking for it. The trick is to recognize it as a lesson when we see it or hear it or feel it or taste it…you get the idea.

Monday night, when I finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir (and then watched the movie to see how close it is to the book—pretty close, with a few disasters omitted and a slightly different and modified ending plus epilogue), I didn’t fully close the book until I read through the supplemental materials at the end, including “A Conversation with Andy Weir,” “An Essay from Andy Weir: How Science Made Me a Writer,” and, most relevant to this post, “A Reader’s Guide” because I wanted my money’s worth. I suspect most readers would’ve closed it after reading the final lines, and that’s understandable, as I would usually do the same. And anyone but the avid consumers of knowledge would feel okay with leaving the rest of it on the table because the important part, the story itself, is now over.

But as I was reading through the reader’s guide, being kinda nerdy that way, I realized it was unintentionally giving me a lesson on how to write a novel.

Now, let me be clear that I’ve been studying how to write a novel for many years. I’m not learning anything new per se, just better understanding the lessons I’ve already picked up along the way. But for new authors, or those who are out of practice, or those who are in-practice but still clueless, there is much to learn from reading books on writing. But, incidentally, there is also much to learn in the reader’s guides for novels you might like. You know, learn by accident doing something you already like doing. Win-win. Just figure out early that you’re learning something useful.

Here’s an example:

After finishing with the movie, I started listening to The Story Grid Podcast, hosted by Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl, the episode titled “The Martian and A Christmas Carol,” or simply “The Martian Carol,” as it’s referred to on The Story Grid website, and took some mental notes as they broke down The Martian’s global genre, which is Action Adventure, and its specific plotline, Man Versus Nature. If you look at the first paragraph of the reader’s guide you’ll see the passage,

“A castaway story for the new millennium, The Martian presents a fresh take on the classic man-versus-nature battle for survival by setting it on the surface of Mars—a planet completely hostile to sustaining human life.”

Why is this caption important for the writer? Well, it tells you the genre and plotline right there in the opening line. If you visit The Story Grid website, which is all about teaching writers how to edit their books, you’ll see that knowing your genre is the most important first step in writing your book. If you know what kind of genres your favorite books fall into, you’ll have a better understanding what conventions are needed once you start writing the book of your dreams.

So, considering that, let’s look at some of the reader’s guide questions. Again, these are taken directly from the reader’s guide at the end of The Martian paperback. There are twenty in the book. I’ll highlight the first three to make my point. Very slight spoilers in the questions. Also note that I won’t actually attempt to answer these questions the way they’re intended. Rather, I will briefly discuss why they’re helpful for writers to think about:

Question #1: How did The Martian challenge your expectations of what the novel would be? What did you find most surprising about it?

This is a great question to ask yourself when you finish writing your book because if the answer is “it didn’t” or “er…nuthin’,” then maybe you didn’t try hard enough to write a compelling story. So a good follow-up question might be: What would’ve made the novel more surprising yet natural? Of course, the ideal solution would be to anticipate this question before writing so that you can consider what surprises the reader might find before you write right past them.

Question #2: What makes us root for a character to live in a survival story? In what ways do you identify with Mark? How does the author get you to care about Mark?

More specifically, why should the reader care about Mark? Or, why should the reader care about your character? If we consider Mark Watney’s plight, how he handles it, and whether or not we care, then we can begin to understand what it takes to get us to care about a particular character, including the ones that we write about. Isn’t that an important part of writing fiction: getting the characters to an empathetic state?

Question #3: Do you believe the crew did the right thing in abandoning the search for Mark? Was there an alternative choice?

If we can answer this question honestly, then we can begin to see the consequences of our characters’ choices and how those consequences feed into new consequences, if we’re honest with ourselves and make a decision early on not to take the easy way out. If Andy Weir had been asked this very question before he wrote the book (assuming the story was a disembodied entity just waiting for a book or website to latch onto) would having the captain spending so long searching the evacuation area that she discovers Mark alive and well, though unconscious, be the easy way out? What if she found him and assumed he was dead? Would that still be the easy way out? Would that make the story better, worse, or basically void of the point? Isn’t abandoning the crewmate without certainty of status far worse, and thus harder to write but with a more satisfying payoff, than the alternative, easier choices? Doesn’t that choice give us a story?

Clearly, reader’s guides are handy for writers to read along with the novel itself because they can train authors how to anticipate the questions that avid readers might have when reading their books. Many novels don’t have reader’s guides attached, but for those that do, like The Martian, which is really a fantastic book through and through, as is the Blu-ray version, if you’re an author, I would take a little bit of time going through the questions and answering them honestly for your education. The more reader’s guides you examine, the more likely you’ll ask similar questions for your own books and preempt answers to your readers’ questions.

Just a thought I had Monday night.

And, for the record, I highly recommend reading the book if you like stories about humans overcoming ridiculous odds to survive nonsurvivable situations while exploring places we’ll likely never visit ourselves. But I also recommend you read it before visiting the reader’s guide. It helps to know the story before trying to answer questions about it. Oh, and the movie is great, but the book is better.

The Art of Hyphenation

Recently, I revisited my novel, The Computer Nerd, to update its paperback version with the changes I had made for the e-books last month. Because print and electronic have two vastly different formats, simply porting one to the other is no straightforward task. Even with the foundation already set, I have to review how even the smallest change shifts everything around. At the end of the day, I find myself having to check and recheck the entire book to make sure nothing’s out of whack. Inevitably, something slips through, and now I completely understand the frustration that professional typesetters must feel when they piece a new book together. And though shelf space is cited as the number one reason why publishers don’t want to produce print books over 120,000 words (approximately 480 pages), I think the real reason is that their typesetters will up and quit if they have to deal with laying out anything over that mark. In short, it’s kind of a pain.

One of the worst parts about designing a paperback book is not so much setting the page size, or even determining which size best represents the book (something we can discuss in a future post), but the finicky hyphenation that one must consider if he wants to keep his lines from stretching too far across the page.

Consider:

compressed line
Hyphenation example #1

Over:

stretched line
Hyphenation example #2

I don’t know about you, but if I have to read a continuous stream of compressed, stretched, compressed, stretched, line after line, I’d get a little eye-fatigued. Nobody wants that.

So, the best way to handle the reduction of such a visual seesaw is to hyphenate the text.

But how?

Well, the first step is to consider your source file. It’s my understanding that the best program to use for any kind of book layout, whether you’re a professional or an indie, is Adobe InDesign. It supposedly has an algorithm that really gets close to accurate on the first pass (I’ll never claim that any program will get anything perfect by itself), but at a price tag of $19.99 a month (yes, you can only subscribe to it; you can no longer outright buy it), I think the professionals and the financially talented are the only ones likely to use it.

And good for you if you’re one of the successful people who can afford such a program. For the rest of us, especially those who are producing indie books on a tight budget from a spare bedroom in our parents’ houses, or at Starbucks because it’s the only place we can afford the Internet, or the bus station because…you get the idea, we’re stuck with the average quality hyphenation feature that Microsoft Word offers.

hyphenation selection
Example of how to hyphenate in Word

Okay, yes, it’s mediocre. But it’s there. It’s functional. If you want to hyphenate your self-published novel—because the only reason you would need to worry about the hyphenation feature is if you’re self-publishing—you’re going to have to get comfortable using it. It isn’t particularly fun. But it works.

Now, there are plenty of tutorials on how to use Word’s hyphenation feature out there. A particularly good one can be found here, and if you just need to learn how to hyphenate, I’d check that link out. It’s helpful. But, if you want to learn how to hyphenate effectively, then let me share with you what I’ve learned and put into practice.

Now, before I continue, I should emphasize the title of this post. It’s not “Hyphenation 101.” It’s “The Art of Hyphenation.” Understand that art is subjective. You can decide your own formula when you’re ready to hyphenate your own paperback or hardcover. I find that this formula works best for me. And again, this assumes that you’re using Word. If you’re using InDesign, then I’m jealous, and I’m guessing you operate by different rules set by your secret society of privileged layout artists.

First of all, you should consider why Microsoft Word’s “automatic” hyphenation feature is gross and terrible and the perpetrator of your book’s greatest eyesore. It hyphenates based on space used versus space free within each line. It guesstimates where the word you’re using may naturally split, even if it doesn’t understand the word or the syllables you’re using to form it. Even though you can set parameters on how often within a set range it chooses to hyphenate, chances are it will hyphenate in the most ridiculous of places, making your book appear messy and broken.

When you choose “manual” hyphenation, you have a lot more control, and thus, you can come up with a better plan for how your book should look.

manual hyphenation
Example of hyphenation in action

Notice, under manual hyphenation, Microsoft Word gives you the option to accept or reject its suggestion. You can also cancel the current session if you feel you need a break from the monotony. I like to cancel after every few changes to ensure that I’m happy with the layout so far. The thing to consider is that hitting “undo” on a hyphenation session will erase all changes you’ve made since your session began. By cancelling every few changes and checking your work, you reduce the number of words you’ll reset if you have to undo for any reason.

And because it’s really easy to make a bad hyphenation decision (it’s often difficult to see how this hyphenation works in conjunction with the surrounding text when your windows take up so much visible space), you’ll probably want your core draft and your hyphenated draft to be two separate files. That way, if you seriously mess something up along the way, you won’t cause any real damage.

Now, when should you accept the hyphenation? Again, this is up to each artist according to his need. But I find this system works well for me:

  • Never hyphenate a word that breaks on the first two letters. Ex: If you are hyphenating the word reiterate, don’t hyphenate if the suggestion leans on breaking it at “re.” Two letters won’t overstretch a line enough to justify a break there.
  • You can hyphenate a word that breaks at the last two letters, if you want. Even though it won’t affect your finishing line much whether you accept or reject it, it could affect your starting line if a word like straighten is moved down to the next line (creating an eight-character stretchmark) by a lack of hyphen.
  • Even though it’s okay to break at the last two letters of the word, it should probably be avoided if that means leaving only two letters for the last line of the paragraph (or worse if it’s the last line of the page or chapter). Really, unless you have enough letters leftover after the hyphenated break, it’s probably a good idea not to break the last word in the paragraph.
  • If the word has three or more syllables, then it’s a good idea to manually choose the break yourself if Word is suggesting a break on a two-letter syllable. For example, if Word suggests you hyphenate sporadic at “ic,” and you don’t think moving the whole word down is the right choice either, which is what choosing to ignore it would do, then you’ll want to highlight the hyphen between “spor” and “adic,” since that would more evenly distribute the word across both lines. Again, this should be common sense, but Word does not break according to common sense. It has none. It does things mathematically. It’ll split the first line that feels too stretched, then it’ll split the next line because the first change caused a new stretch, and it becomes a vicious cycle. Make good decisions when hyphenating. Second-guess Word’s suggestions constantly. Don’t form ladders.
  • When it comes to three-letter syllables, I tend to accept them, as long as I haven’t just accepted another one within the last three or four lines, and as long as it doesn’t suggest it at the last full line of the paragraph.
  • I rarely accept any suggested three-letter hyphenations on two-line paragraphs. I just don’t see the need for it. This applies primarily to lines of dialogue that run just past the word wrap threshold.
  • I never let Word break a word where it gets the syllable wrong. You shouldn’t, either. Doing so is just sloppy editing.
  • It’s best to skip breaks on capitalized words. Odds are you’re breaking at the start of a sentence, and that’s a weird place to break anything. But you also don’t want to ruin the integrity of somebody’s name. I also think breaking already hyphenated words, like two-digit numbers, is weird.
  • Using hyphenation to break a word at the bottom of a page is probably okay, but breaking it at the end of a chapter is a little ugly.
  • Lastly, I prefer to keep my hyphenation count per page to the barest minimum. The other reason I tend to cancel a hyphenation session often is because I want to double-check the frequency of the suggested hyphens that I’ve chosen to accept and make sure that I don’t have more than three or four to a page, especially if they’re in close proximity to each other on that page. I find that if I do have too many on a single page, or more than two in a four-line space, then I want to hit “undo” and try again. This minimizes the work I have to redo. But yeah, having too many on a single page gives it that cluttered and choppy look. It’s not worth it.

So, that’s a general overview on how I like to hyphenate my books, but this isn’t a hard and fast set of rules. Writing is a medium littered with exceptions, and the art of hyphenation is wide open to those exceptions. Sometimes the line stretches too long if you don’t break that proper noun or all caps word in half. Sometimes breaking the word on a three-letter syllable on a two-line paragraph looks better than not. Rules are nice to follow, but certain conditions may present challenges that require defiance. At the end of the day, you might just have to split focus between the fo and the cus in order to keep the following line from pushing Sweeeeeeet! down to a spot by itself and pulling its origin line across the floor like a tired rubber band. But if you can avoid it, you should. Or, if you’re struggling with the ethics of splitting a good word in half, look at how your favorite books handle it. Sometimes the best strategy is to emulate your mentors. It certainly makes the heart feel better.

How do you prefer to hyphenate yours? Sound off in the comments if you’d like.

If you want additional advice on putting together your own book, I’d recommend these articles:

“Book Design Basics—Use Hyphens for Justified Type” by Dave Bricker

The above article is Part 7 in Dave Bricker’s Book Design Basics series, and the other parts are just as helpful, so you should read them.

“Why Self-Published Books Look Self-Published” by Joel Friedlander

A helpful reminder on the elements you need to keep your book looking professional (including hyphenation).

Self-publishing: Expert Advice On Typesetting for Self-publishers

A decent overview. Take notice of its “Shift + Enter” advice.

Note that some of these articles use professional terms like “rivers” and “ladders” to describe phenomena within the hyphenation universe, and if you want to use these terms, too, then check out these articles to find out what they mean. We call that educating ourselves. 🙂

Today’s Image Credit:

Palette Graphic by Liz Aragon, submitted to sweetclipart.com

Direct Link: http://sweetclipart.com/artists-palette-paint-and-brush-583

License Information: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/

 

Friday Update #1: Teenage American Dream

It’s Friday, so I want to post a quick story progress update.

At some point I want to talk about Superheroes Anonymous: A Modern-day Fantasy, Year Two, as I released it three weeks ago, and discuss its performance, and discuss how it affects my future books. Maybe next Friday.

But this week I want to kick off the Friday update series with some news about Teenage American Dream, my next scheduled novel release.

I had originally planned to release it on April 30th, as that’s a great time for high school stories (some of my favorite high school movies were released in April of their respective years), but continuous swelling of previous works had cut into my time for finishing it, so I reset the release date for June 30th, thinking two months would be plenty of time to get it finished and polished.

But here we are just 13 days out, and I’m still not finished.

Here’s the thing: I want to get this right. I don’t want to produce something that I think is right. I want to get it right. And though I probably won’t go through a marketing campaign for this one (more on that in an upcoming blog), I still want the small few who find it on day one to have the satisfaction of knowing that they’ve discovered a true gem, should they take a chance on reading it.

So, I want to get this one right.

This means four things:

  1. I’ve reset the release date again, this time to August 25, 2016.
  2. Getting it right means this new date is arbitrary. I’ll release it when I deem it ready. But late August seems feasible.
  3. The books to follow it, Sweat of the Nomad and Zipwood Studios, will also likely get pushed back, quite possibly into 2017.
  4. Pushing the date back means I’m more likely to release a perfect version on the first upload, and not just on Smashwords, but Amazon, too, and it means I may have the paperback version ready with it, as well, so it’ll be a win for all readers.

But, don’t fret. You can still read the sample chapters if you’re itching to get an early taste. Keep in mind that they haven’t yet been revised to their final drafts, and the first chapter also contains the prologue, which jars the opening transition. However, these will be sorted out in time.

Thanks for your patience if you’ve been waiting for it. I am working on it, slowly but surely. I’m still on the third act (out of four), and have been for a while, but progress is progress. The slowdown at this point is making sure I don’t keep repeating the same types of scenes. I feel like I am, and that’s lame, and I’m trying to think of ways to keep the story fresh.

I’ll get there.

Next week, I hope to post an update on Superheroes Anonymous and the future of A Modern-day Fantasy Annual Edition.

Please keep checking this blog for new updates, writing tips, and other fun things.

A Goodreads “Favorites” Review: About a Boy

October 21, 2015

In honor of Back to the Future Day, I wanted to post a couple of “blast from the past” reviews for two of my favorite books, Syrup and About a Boy. Now, these are technically new reviews, so I’m not actually blasting the past here, but I have reviewed both before on my Visual Bookshelf, so I am kind of going back in time. That site’s gone, of course, and with it, all of my old reviews. I doubt I’ll review most of the books featured there twice, but these two books are certainly worth revisiting, so with that, I’d like to share my thoughts.

I’m continuing my “blast from the past” review series, or more accurately, my “favorites” series with a review of my second favorite book of all time, About a Boy by Nick Hornby. Although less revolutionary to me than Syrup, it still speaks to me as a man, as a role model, if I were one, and as a person who appreciates time. It reminds me that anyone can become a better person, and it inspires me to respect anyone and everyone. It, well, it’s a novel, and meant to be enjoyed as one. It doesn’t have to speak to anything.

But it does have to be read. Here’s my review of it on Goodreads:

About a Boy Review

What’s next? It’s a surprise. But when you walk away, don’t you forget about me.

A Goodreads “Favorites” Review: Syrup

October 21, 2015

In honor of Back to the Future Day, I wanted to post a couple of “blast from the past” reviews for two of my favorite books, Syrup and About a Boy. Now, these are technically new reviews, so I’m not actually blasting the past here, but I have reviewed both before on my Visual Bookshelf, so I am kind of going back in time. That site’s gone, of course, and with it, all of my old reviews. I doubt I’ll review most of the books featured there twice, but these two books are certainly worth revisiting, so with that, I’d like to share my thoughts.

I’m beginning with my all-time favorite novel, Syrup by Max Barry. It’s a story I continue to think about to this day, and one that still subliminally influences my own writing. It’s brilliantly conceived, expertly crafted, and hilariously received. If that’s not enough, then consider this: It makes me proud to be a writer.

Read my Goodreads review for it here:

Syrup Review

Come back in an hour to read my review of my second favorite book.