Sunday, 28 April 2013

Eight basic formatting tips

I’m not going to go into hardcore details about page numbering and headers/footers, etc, because basically I’m no good at that kind of technical stuff. Recently I’ve seen a few manuscripts and looked at some books on Amazon and a few things have jumped out. These are also things I found out the hard way. As always, this blog is written from personal experience so that you won’t have to suffer the same pitfalls that I did.

1. Justify your text. It’s not a school report. Make it look like a book.

2. Never underline titles or chapter headings. It’s just not necessary, and again, there’s that school report thing. Be careful about using bold either - although I use it very occasionally for things like the Table of Contents header. Don’t use it in-text unless it’s for something specific like a letter that the character is reading.

3. Only use one space between sentences. This is mostly for paperbacks because when you upload to Amazon it defaults to one space anyway, but in paperbacks those spaces will suddenly appear huge when the text justifies. Trust me, I know.

4. Don’t use tab or spacebar to make indents. They might look fine in Word but some programs will screw around with them when you upload. Again, I’m speaking from personal experience. Set an indent of 1.5 or 2 spaces, no more. Don't go any bigger because while it’ll look fine in Word, if you view it on something small like an iPhone your indents will be halfway across the page.

5. Make sure there are no extra spaces at the end of the last sentence in a paragraph. Turn on your Word “show symbols” button to check. One space might be enough to carry over to the next line and then you’ve got what looks like a scene break in the middle of your narrative. Remember, it might look okay in Word but there are dozens of different e-readers out there in many different sizes and your book will look different on all of them.

6. Use a hash symbol / star / “and” symbol to indicate scene breaks. You don’t have to do this - this is my personal choice, but it’s cover in case of number 5 happening. Scene breaks are therefore easily identifiable. However …

7. … don’t put a hash symbol / star / “and” symbol at the end of a chapter. I originally did this in Tube Riders and I had random pages with just the hash tag at the top because it had carried over on to a new page. It’s not going to kill anyone but it looks kind of stupid.

8. Keep your fonts small for titles and chapter headings. Having 36-size font for your title might look awesome in Word but it’ll look rubbish on a little e-reader when it doesn’t fit on one page. You need no more than 14-size for titles, while keep your text at 10 - 12. Remember, you can adjust the size on an e-reader so keep the sizes on your original document close together so that people with poor eyesight don’t have your title spanning fourteen different pages.

Remember, simple is best. If you can afford a fancy formatter to make it look awesome, that’s great, but trying to make it look fancy yourself with lots of interesting fonts and huge-sized titles is just asking for trouble. Been there, done that, learned the hard way. Now I’m passing on my failings to you so you can avoid them.

If you want more information, go to Smashwords and check out the free style guide. A lot of writers whine about Smashwords for whatever reason but that guide really helped me pull my socks up, and even if you're not going to use the site itself there is a lot of useful information there about how to get your formatting right.

Chris Ward
29th April 2013

Saturday, 27 April 2013

On dialogue tags and adverbs

Okay, so this morning I was spammed yet again by someone wanting me to like their Facebook page. I was in a good mood so I clicked their link and it turned out the writer in question was building a sizable (as in a lot bigger than mine) social following before actually releasing a book. A worthwhile, idea, I thought, and then I clicked on a link to the writer in question's sample from their upcoming book.

And I came up with this editor's gem -

"... I don't want anyone else to die,” I barked, loudly.

I won't be mentioning the writer because that would be unfair, but safe to say, if I downloaded a book and hit upon this on the first page (and there were other errors before I even got to this) I would be closing the book straight away and not reading any further because it would scream "amateur" to me and my time is far too valuable to waste on people don't understand the basics of writing. Why?

Three reasons. Can you pick them?

Okay, in case you don't know, and if you want to survive as a fiction writer you'll need to learn, just from a grammatical perspective that comma is unnecessary. Kill it. "barked loudly" is grammatically correct, although it has its own problems.

Number two - think about the word "bark". What image do you get from that word? Is it a peaceful, quiet sound, or is it something annoying and loud?

I hope you got it. Of course, the word "bark" suggests something loud and annoying, which makes the whole word "loudly" completely redundant. Chances are, if this writer goes through a decent editor this will be picked up, but you can save your editor time by culling such unnecessary words yourself. Other examples would be "whispered quietly", screamed hoarsely", "ran quickly", etc. My own personal favorite is "he/she nodded his/her head", because there are so many other things you can nod, aren't there? (although this isn't a dialogue tag :-) )

Okay, third reason. This one is the most forgivable, and in certain circumstances I would allow it. When you hear the world "bark", what do you think of?

That's right. A dog.

Is this man a dog? No. Then why is he barking?

Stephen King's brilliant book On Writing puts this way better than I can, but there really is no replacement for the simple dialogue tag. Why complicate things by giving the reader the image of a dog when a man is arguing with his wife? As I say, in certain circumstances this might be excusable (please don't come back to me with examples - I've used the likes of "he grunted/snarled/growled/spat" numerous times, but all were relevant), but really I see no reason why "I shouted" wouldn't be perfectly acceptable here.

"... I don't want anyone else to die,” I shouted. 

is perfectly acceptable and allows the reader to move smoothly on to the next sentence. Sometimes special dialogue tags are necessary, and some times a dialogue tag requires an adverb to clarify its exact form. Usually it doesn't.

I have to get up early tomorrow so I'll sign off now, but just remember, keep your dialogue tags as simple as possible. Nine times out of ten adverbs are unnecessary and simple verbs such as said/shouted/whispered/cried will convey your meaning perfectly well.

Chris Ward
27th April 2013

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Beware the Crutch

##Please note: This was published on my original blog here on April 17th. This is its new home)

Recently I saw a post on a writer’s forum giving a link to an online tool which allowed the self-published writer to quickly add up their sales figures on their Amazon reports. There were lots of positive replies on the usefulness of the aforementioned online tool, because it meant you no longer had to add the numbers up yourself.

Hang on a minute …?

You need an online tool to add up a string of whole numbers? While I’ve come across a lot of evidence to suggest a brain isn’t always a requirement in the world of self-publishing, in general I’ve found that mine is usually sufficient enough for this task, often with the help of the fingers on one hand, or occasionally both on a good month. And if you’re one of the lucky ones who sells in the kind of numbers that might take more than few seconds to easily calculate, then there’s always that trusty tool known as a calculator. Most computers have them, as, often, do desks, drawers and pockets.

The paragraph above might come across as being a little condescending, but be assured it was meant to be tongue in cheek. However, this online tool is a simple example of a writer’s crutch.

Of these, the self-publishing writer should beware.

I see lots of posts on forums by self-published authors wanting programs to help them do things. “How do I keep track of sales/chapters/characters?” Um … Excel? Or failing that a pen and a piece of paper?

I see a lot of writers talking about a program called Scrivener. I don’t know what that is, but apparently it’s a computer program that organizes the hell out of your novel. Personally I’m happy with an old version of Word and a simple Excel spreadsheet, but even that is a crutch. A computer is a crutch to make life easier for writers who used to write on a typewriter, which was in turn a crutch for a writer who used to use a pen, which was a crutch for carving something on a rock, itself a crutch for your mouth, which was a crutch for your heart, which is where stories truly come from … whatever, you get it.

Just to clarify, I’m not trying to belittle Scrivener or those who use it or any other specialist writing program. I know far better writers than me who swear by it and sooner or later, if it’s as awesome as I’ve heard, I’ll probably be using it myself. However, as a noob starting out on a writing career today who has already decided to start self-publishing as soon as heavenly possible (which is probably too soon) then you could do worse than working with a pen and a pad of paper. Many moons ago that’s what I did. You’ll connect with the words a whole lot better and when you start out that is the only thing that is important.

My point is that you should beware over-reliance on something that makes your job easier. When you’re starting out on the quest to write as well as you can, you shouldn’t concern yourself with how to make it look pretty, or how to organize it neatly. Right at the very, very beginning, you shouldn’t even worry about plot. You should concern yourself with the WORDS AND THE WORDS ONLY, because if your words are awesome all the rest will come together in time.

The biggest crutch I see self-publishers leaning on is the editor/proofreader. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use them because I strongly believe that you should – but knowing that an editor is waiting to correct your crappy grammar or your poor spelling is no excuse for not striving to get your book perfect before it is seen by anyone else. The old analogy that you can’t polish a turd is appropriate here – an editor might be able to round a turd into a more uniform shape so that it appears somewhat more like a mud pie … but it’s still a turd, and shame on you for sending it to them – for leaning on your crutch – in the first place. You should never have let it out of your sight in that condition.

I used to do proofreading on the side, but I gave up because people were sending me the kind of junk I would be embarrassed to allow off my computer and expecting me to fix it up into a quality book that people would want to pay money for. I molded a couple of mud pies, but that was the best I could do. Then, surprise, surprise, aforementioned turds later appear on Amazon with five-star reviews from friends and family and the evil beyond all evil, the paid-for review service. So it looks great, and it sounds great. But what has really happened is that turd has been allowed to get all the way to the reader before it’s been flagged as a turd, but by then it’s too late, your turd is in the hands of someone with the power to smash your sales into smithereens, simply by pointing out in a nicely worded one-star review what you should have realised long before you self-published it that what you have on your hands is nothing more than a turd. All those fake reviews are like a paper umbrella – it’ll protect you from the rain for a while, but sooner or later the rain is going to break through and then you’re going to get drenched. But whatever, it’s each writer’s personal choice. There is a school of thought that self-published writers can “grow up in public” as it were, improving their craft with the public as the ultimate judge. Each to their own, but as a shy, fragile kid who’d been pushed around a bit at school I know without a doubt that had I self-published those novels I wrote at 18 and 19 in the form they existed in then, I would have got deservedly hammered by reviewers, and that would not have been good for me. It would not have been good at all.

But, whatever. Each to their own. Personally I don’t enjoy getting punched in the face, either in real life or on the internet, not until I’ve developed a chin to take it.

It says a lot about a writer who leans on crutches too much. First and foremost a writer is an artist. After he (or she) has created something worth selling he then becomes a businessman. Review that phrase “worth selling”. This is the key. It is your responsibility to produce something worth selling. After you have done that it’s perfectly acceptable to get someone else to give it a shine and then put it into a nice packet ready for sale. But don’t cut corners or those corners will reappear sooner or later to bite you in the ass.

Beware the crutch. We all use them, but know that you’re using them and always strive, where possible, to do without them as much as you can. You’ll be a better writer for it.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Don't be a Spammer

This morning I banned someone from my Facebook page. It's only the second time I've done that, and it was for the same reason - some random indie spammed me with his own Facebook page and book link without so much as the decency to even introduce himself.

Don't. Do. It.

I don't barge into a private party and start trying to sell cars to the first person I meet without so much as introducing myself first. The poor recipient would be quite within their rights to throw me straight back out the door, which is what I will do if anyone spams my Facebook page, one of my blogs, Goodreads, or anywhere else (you can do it on Twitter - I really don't care what you do there because Twitter is just one long spam feed anyway). There are no second chances.

In indie publishing, making contacts is vital. I've spent more than a year getting to know other indie writers and I've learned a lot from them. I hope some of them have learned from me. Approaching someone you don't know is just as difficult on the internet as it is in real life - if you do it correctly. It's a thousand times easier to be a dickhead and flood their inbox with your book links or post them on their Facebook wall.

If someone sends me a private message saying they've looked at my books and would I be kind enough to look at theirs in return, then there is a pretty decent chance I'll do it. I'm a nice guy. I'm far more tolerant than most people I know. And I've met some cool people this way. As a general rule I don't do the "I'll follow you if you follow me" thing. I get plenty of likes on Facebook without doing anything and in general I see no point in "liking" something I couldn't care less about. However, if you ask nicely, there's a good chance I will.

But if you post random links to my Facebook wall or write "that"s nice" (here's my link) on my posts, I'll ban you. I don't care if you're the next Charles Dickens, you're a dickhead and I'm not prepared to give you the time of day, let alone look at your book.

There are a lot of self-published writers out there of varying quality. I have a lot of time for the nice ones, regardless of how well they write, because they're following their dreams and they're not being a douche to everyone they meet on the way. I have time for those people. I'll talk to them, I'll help them out, I'll even read their books (eventually - I'm a very slow reader!).

However, there are a lot more that are pushy and spammy and nine times out of ten these people can't write for shit, almost as if the two go hand in hand. If you want to be an asshole in this business you'd better be the next Shakespeare because otherwise you'll get nowhere. Only one person out of a thousand that you spam will actually click on your book so unless its so good that they'll immediately go and tell all their friends about you rather than rolling their eyes at the spelling mistake in your first paragraph, then you have even less chance of getting noticed than if you'd just been a nice guy (or girl) in the first place.

There are ways to get noticed without spamming people. On Goodreads, for example, you can set up an event to notify the people on your friends list. They get a small, non-intrusive line on their news feed to say they've been invited and its quite easy to ignore if they're not interested. I get loads everyday, and while I ignore the vast majority I'll occasionally check one out. However, if you send people personal messages that's likely to irk them. I had some guy send me a personal message with a spammy link to his book EVERY DAY. After a week or so I told him to stop doing it. He actually refused - he said it was a social experiment and that he would be doing it for a month. Of course I blocked him, but by doing that what he achieved was negative publicity. I would rather shove chopsticks in my eyes than read his book. Just for sake of argument, I did click on it just to have a look at the Amazon Look Inside - and no surprise it was poorly written rubbish. It almost always is, because people who have not taken the time to learn correct etiquette tend not to take the time to learn correct writing either.

Building up contacts in this business is extremely important. You want people to help you and read your books. So be nice about it. Don't be a dick, or you might as well just shoot yourself in both feet and go back to bed.

Chris Ward
21th April 2013

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Knowing what words to cut

Very quick one for you today. I was working on my new horror novel this morning and I wrote this sentence -

"He took the frozen ready-meal from the freezer and put it into the microwave."

One word is utterly redundant in this sentence. Can you spot it?

Easy, eh.

Of course it's frozen.


Because if it's in a freezer what other possible state could it be in? Of course I cut it. Noob writers or those that haven't been edited (or edited by someone worth paying, there are plenty of those sharks about) are easy to spot because they write things like -

"He nodded his head."

Think of one other thing you nod. Go on, go.


Exactly. It could be worse - you could have written something as ridiculous as he "he looked at the clock to tell the time".

I'm not saying that there aren't other reasons to look at a clock - it might be an antique, or it might contain a bomb. In those cases you would specify why he looked at the clock, but if it's for the obvious reason of knowing the time, you're wasting words and your reader's energy (and time, ho hum) by including it.

Watch out for these.

Chris Ward
18th April 2013

Welcome to the site

My name is Chris Ward, and I'm a writer and teacher from the UK. This is my site dedicated to helping the beginning writer as they attempt to get somewhere in the world of self-publishing. I have been writing more than twenty years and last year decided to enter the world of self-publishing for the first time. While I'm not a big seller like some, I've sold more than 1000 books now and have a lot of advice that can help a new writer.

Much of what I will tell you comes from my own personal experience. I've experienced the pitfalls so that you don't have to.

Welcome and I hope you'll find this site useful.

Chris Ward
April 18th 2013