A new cover to judge it by

Back in May, I printed  up a couple of copies of my book, even though it was still a work in progress. I had earned a free copy from CreateSpace by completing the NaNoWriMo 50,000 word challenge. The coupon expired sometime in June, and I didn’t want to see it go to waste.

Even though the book was not ready to be published, it was a great opportunity to see what it would look like in paperback form. I found a nice sunset photo that I had taken at the Grand Canyon. It has nothing to do with the story, but it was a nice picture. I was impressed with the printing and the look of the cover, but I knew I would eventually have to change the cover to give a reader a better idea of what the book was about.

I had vague ideas floating around in the back of my mind, but had done nothing of substance in the past six months. If I was going to make my goal to publish by the end of the year, I needed to come up with something soon.

I took my camera and drove down the coast. I had a certain image in my mind, though I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to make use of it. I didn’t find what I was looking for, but I was mostly scouting on this first past through. Almost as an afterthought, I backtracked to another place off my route and got out to take some actual photos.

Armed with a self-timer, I tried to find a place with a good backdrop and a place to prop up the camera. I used benches, garbage cans, and the bike rack on my truck as makeshift tripods. I took several shots, dashing back and forth, trying out multiple looks, and trying to ignore the odd looks I was getting. I ended up with some good initial shots, and just seeing these first attempts gave me some more ideas.

I went out for another afternoon in a different location. On the second day, I found some spots where I could have a wider photo that would wrap around the book from front to back.

After two days, I had several good shots and started playing around with them in my photo editing software. The more I messed with them, the more ideas started to take shape. I had the back cover figured out, and just needed to go out and re-shoot the new idea for the front cover. But then a strange thing stopped my momentum. Rain in San Diego.

I didn’t get a chance to re-shoot before heading to Seattle for the holidays, so it is still in the idea stage. I am hoping to capture the cover I have pictured in my head when I return. In the meantime, it is back to the less glamorous stuff to get the book ready.

Final cut

I spent the month of October doing what I thought would be a final edit of Share the Road. I wanted to get the edit done before changing my focus to the new book, and I thought that going through the novel would also recharge my writing battery for NaNoWriMo.

If I haven’t lost count, this would be the fourth edit of the book. Each round seemed to dig a little deeper, make finer corrections, but they would also add new things to the story. And each time something was added, it was fresh material that needed to be tweaked and corrected.

For the fourth trip through the story, I decided to print it out. For some reason when something is printed out it is much easier to detach myself, and read what is actually there instead of what I think is there. Problems don’t seem to jump out as readily when I am staring at a computer screen.

Reading through it on paper, smaller problems seemed bigger and I was able to focus in word choice and eliminate some repetition that had slipped through the cracks. When I was finished, it felt like it was about ready for a new audience. I set it aside for November.

December 1st I left the new novel at the halfway stage and returned to Share the Road. It had been in the back of my mind while I struggled with the new story, and I was hoping to get it completely finished by the end of the year so I move on. I sent off a copy of it to a friend for a typo check, and decided to give it a final read-through.

And I am still making changes.

It has been said many times by a number of people, a book is never really done, you just finally have to let it go. If you are fortunate enough to be a professional writer, a deadline forces you to stop endlessly tweaking it. For we amateurs, you have to force yourself to stop in order to move on. A book doesn’t come alive until someone reads it, and if you endlessly rewrite it, it is almost as if it was never written.

This is my last time through. I have a couple more chapters on my read-through, and my typo/grammar check should arrive in a week. I need to get this book out of my hands before I do anymore damage.

Fail?

I have given up (for now).

I am not going to make it to 50,000 words by the end of the day. I am not going to even get close. My word count sits at 30,194 at this point. I may add another thousand by day’s end, but it was clear more than a week ago that it just wasn’t going to happen this year.

 – Begin excuse portion – 

I don’t have any valid excuses, but here is what seems to have happened. Some of the excitement was gone this year. You can never recapture that first-time rush, that panic, pain and ecstasy. Since I was successful last year, I knew I could do it again this time. And somehow, knowing that I could succeed took some of the motivation away. I wasn’t working without a net.

In fact there were too many nets. I wanted to make this one different. There had to be more characters, more stories intertwining. I wanted the story to be more distant from my own experience. I wanted a book I could actually describe in a synopsis and make it sound interesting.

I don’t know if you could call it a sophomore slump when your first effort wasn’t a hit, but it felt like a slump nonetheless. I hit a personal rough patch mid-month, and lost all motivation. Nothing dramatic happened – no family crisis, no health problems, no accident that broadsides you on a random Tuesday – it was just a confluence of things that sent me spiraling.

This time around, I had more of an idea of where the story was going. This should have made it easier, but it did take away from some of the excitement of discovery. There are still many things that came to me in the moment, but somehow the scenes that I had planned a bit ahead of time were harder to start. There is sort of a fear that I won’t be able to pull them off.

But of course I can’t pull anything off that I don’t start.

 – End of excuse portion – 

I may have failed to reach the 50,000 mark within the 30 day challenge, but I will finish this book. Though I haven’t read it yet, I think there is something there, there. The pressure of a deadline forces me to sit down and write whether I feel creative or not, but I need to be able to do that on my own any month of the year if I want to continue to have this be a part of who I am.

I am digging my way out of the slump I fell into. Though I am disappointed I did not pull off the NaNoWriMo challenge this year, I do not consider 30,000 words a failure. Beating myself up over it (as tempting as that is for me) will not make me any more motivated.

I will get inspired again. I will sit my butt in the chair and write. I will finish what I started.

Just not today.

Different but the same

Different novel, same story.

The first week of NaNoWriMo went relatively well. I sat down at the computer on a regular basis, and met my daily word count. The characters that had been bouncing around in my head were now taking life on paper. They were talking, they were fighting, they were going places.

On day six I was within a couple hundred words of that graph line that leads to 50,000 words. Then I plateaued again. Last year I was out of town for several days in the second week, and wrote nothing. This time I had no excuse. I had time, I had a quiet household to write in, and yet I stalled just the same.

Doubt and over-thinking moved in and chased creativity out. I struggled to type anything. I think what I am writing is more polished than the first draft last year, but it is only because I am taking so (too) long with it. I have lost the panicked abandon of just getting anything down on paper. After several rewrites of the first novel, I am too self-critical this time around. I hover too long over every word and paragraph.

I have a much better idea of where the story is going this time around, but that doesn’t seem to help. I keep those plot points safely out in the distance, worried about how I am going to pull them off. Like last year, I am counting on things developing as I write. And they are developing slowly.

But there are good things happening. I will finish this thing. Even if I don’t make it to 50,000 words by the end of the month. But I am hoping for some of the late month magic that happened last time. To get to the point in the story where it takes off and the words come more easily.

I haven’t given up.

What to write?

Last year, I started with little more than an opening paragraph. I wrote my way into the story and figured it out on the way. I did have the physical structure of a road trip to lead me along, and that helped the story to move forward.

Share the Road was a man vs man sort of novel. I like the way the book turned out, but it is a relatively simple plot with only a few characters. I wanted to write a more typical novel this time around. More characters and story lines. But what to write about this time?

I was wrapped up in the last book for most of the year, but wondering what I would do next was lurking in the back of my mind. As November approached, I was starting to panic. I had nothing.

One morning, I was listening to a podcast on the way to work. The Seattle affiliate of NPR does a show with Nancy Pearl, a librarian worthy of her own action figure. She discusses books once a month, usually under a tenuous theme, though they go off on tangents when they present themselves.

I don’t remember the theme of the particular podcast, but it had me in the literary mind as I drove. Then I saw something in the car next to me that sparked an idea. It started to spin into something over the next 15 miles. It was something. Finally.

I wrote some things down in the first few days after the spark, but little later. I wanted to be better prepared this time. I wanted to do a little planning, maybe draw up a rough outline of how the story would progress. But the story sat tucked away in the back of my head, safe from any active work.

As is typical, I crammed for finals. I still didn’t plan out the book in outline form, but I at least thought about the characters, their histories and their motivations. Sticking with On Writing as my guide, I plan to let them discover their own story.

Hopefully they have some good ideas.

Challenge (to myself) accepted

I have taken on the challenge of NaNoWriMo again this year. For those unfamiliar, NaNoWriMo is shorthand for National Novel Writing Month. We are so busy writing that we don’t have time to say the whole thing. And it is a fun, nonsensical word to say over and over.

As the website describes it:

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing on November 1. The goal is to write a 50,000 word, (approximately 175 page) novel by 11:59:59, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time last year. Like so many, I have wanted to be a writer for much of my life, but never took the plunge beyond school papers and four years of blogging. A close friend signed up last year and encouraged me to do the same. And I am better for it.

It was a struggle as detailed in previous posts, but at around noon on November 30, 2010, I had 50,213 words toward a novel that would eventually be titled, “Share the Road”. After more writing, and a few rounds of editing and revision, I am planning on self-publishing it by the end of the year.

Without the time crunch of the self-inflicted deadline, made to a website I had never heard of before, I may never have written anything of length. I am thankful for NaNoWriMo and all the tips and encouragement of the community. And to my friend that gave me the shove I needed.

I am a procrastinator. I need a deadline. 50,000 words in 30 days forces me to sit down in front of the computer, whether I am feeling creative or not. I am not as disciplined the rest of the year, but the month of frantic writing and the resulting novel was an exciting experience. As difficult as it is, I have enjoyed the rewrites, and I am proud to have written a novel. If it never happened again, I would have something to point to. And that would be great.

But I want it to happen again. To see if I can capture it again. To see if it was more than a fluke. To keep writing as a part of my life.

A new year, a new novel. I would love to keep that rhythm going for the rest of my life. And NaNoWriMo gives me the kick in the butt to sit my butt down and write.

It starts again tomorrow.

Beta readers

It was time to let someone else read my novel. Oddly enough, the novel proofs I had ordered were cheaper than printing the book out on 8 1/2 x 11 paper. So my beta readers were about to be duped by the appearance of a finished novel.

Over a few months, the three copies got passed around to eight people. I actually ended up formatting the book for a Kindle (more good practice for later), so one of my friends could read it without waiting. And the feedback was really interesting.

I was mostly interested in whether or not the story held together well enough for them to keep reading, and whether there was enough there to bother working to improve it. I asked them to write down any errors that pulled them out of the story, but I wasn’t expecting a total proofread. It turned out there were plenty of things that jumped out at them.

The first two people to send me their notes each noticed about 50 errors each. The surprising thing that there was only one error in common between their two lists. Not a big boost to the ego to have ninety-nine errors caught by the first two readers, but not entirely unexpected.

As more feedback came in, each person had a different sort of thing jump out at them. One person focused in almost entirely on punctuation, while another caught words being repeated within paragraphs. Every read was seen through a different lens.

Beyond the long list of corrections that was building, each person also had different things stick with them from the story. A particular scene, a good turn of phrase, a point where the story didn’t ring true, etc. One reader would mention a point in the story that really grabbed them, but the other seven wouldn’t even mention it. Another would say that a certain thing needed to be bumped up, while another thought it could be cut.

It was awesome.

It was great to have so many people helping me out. I did my best to improve the things that were mentioned by more than one person, but of course it was still up to me to make the choices about how the book should be changed. The buck stopped with me and I didn’t take every bit of advice.

But the book is absolutely better because of these eight people. Anything that isn’t great is all on me. I can’t imagine doing any differently in the future.

Thank you.

 

 

A false front

I was close to seeing my book in print. It was finished, but still really rough. It wasn’t important to have the cover be perfect at this point. In fact, it didn’t need a cover at all, but I was interested to see what a finished book from CreateSpace would look like. And just like the formatting adventure, it was something new to learn.

As I mentioned before, CreateSpace offers professional help to produce a good looking novel. But in the spirit of the self-publisher who wants to go it on his own, there is also a cover creator program on the website. There were several themes to choose from, each with a different color scheme and with varying picture sizes. The program is pretty straight forward, and you could probably whip out a cover in a half hour or less.

But I knew I would eventually want something different, so I decided to experiment. But I didn’t have any photo editing experience outside of the very basic cropping. More things to learn.

Still not wanting to spend any money, I went searching the web for a free program. From what I found, it appeared that the program gimp (GNU image manipulation program) was one of the best. I downloaded the program, as well as a very helpful manual produced by one of the discussion board regulars, and set about trying to learn to make a cover.

Like the movie making software I have used in the past, the gimp program could do far more things than I would ever need. As is true of many non-entry level programs, it was not incredibly intuitive to use, but the manual helped tremendously. But just like the formatting of the Word doc, there were still hair-pulling moments where I didn’t understand why things weren’t working.

I was still in the messing around stage of things, but I wanted the cover to look as nice as possible. There were several old photos that I thought I could use, but they were taken with an old camera and the resolution was not good enough to fit without blowing them up. I saw a cover of a book at my girlfriend’s house that reminded me of a photo I had taken at the Grand Canyon. It had nothing to do with what the book was about, but it was a nice shot and I thought the color scheme worked.

This is what the test run of the book ended up looking like:

I sent everything off to CreateSpace and I had a novel proof in my hand in less than a week. I knew it wasn’t really a novel, but is sure looked like one. It was a great feeling.

I noticed a couple of formatting errors (my mistakes), made some quick changes and ordered a couple more copies. Now it was time to pass them out to the first people who would read them. Yikes.

Getting it in print

After a couple of rounds of editing, it still wasn’t near ready for prime time, but it felt like there was enough there worth working on. But of course how I felt about it would change day to day, paragraph to paragraph. I needed to get the book out of my hands and get someone else’s opinion. I could have just printed it out, but I had the opportunity for something a little nicer.

NaNoWriMo is a non-profit organization, and they depend on the support of both users and corporate sponsors. Some of the sponsors provide discount codes to participants, and others offer prizes for those who make it to the 50,000 word goal.

One of those prizes was a free paperback proof from CreateSpace, a print on demand company owned by Amazon.com. The coupon for a free proof expired sometime in June, and I didn’t want it to go to waste. But of course I couldn’t just send them a Word file and expect it to turn out looking like a book.

Fortunately, they provide lots of help for the first time novelist. They offer professional services that you can buy piece-meal, as well as some help for the do-it-your-selfer. Not only are there guidelines and FAQs on the site, but there is also an active discussion board where people that have been through it all can pass on their wisdom.

The first step was to get the Word doc formatted to work as a paperback. CreateSpace has Word files on the site that you can use as a template, and they come in various sizes for your desired book size. This made things much easier than starting from scratch, but even so, there were many hair pulling moments trying to get the page numbers and blank pages to work. I was using features I hadn’t used before, and trying to learn how they worked by trial and error.

After much cutting and pasting, references to the help files, and heavy use of the undo key, it was starting to look like a book without a binding. Now I just needed a cover.

Back up

I write regularly in coffee shops and libraries. I am more easily distracted at home, so I am constantly carrying my netbook around. I am paranoid about losing my novel through either theft of my netbook, or from a computer crash that I can’t recover from. I don’t want to imagine losing my first novel. I don’t know if I would have the strength to write it again.

I have been using the online service DropBox. Dropbox is essentially an online drive where you can store and backup your information. Not only is the information backed up, but you can you access files from any computer or Smartphone. When you sign up for the (free) service, you place a folder on any device you use regularly. When a file is saved to the local folder, a copy is stored online, and the folders on your other devices are updated as well. You can also access the folder on any random computer by going to their website and signing in with your password.

When I was writing the first draft of Share the Road, I backed it up after each session. And either through paranoia, or to create a road map of how far I got each day, I sent a separate file each day leaving all the previous ones intact. There are 30 versions of the first draft, one for each day I wrote. I did the same thing for each of the edits, so there are more than a hundred files, each with a slightly different version of the book.

I doubt I will ever go back and pour over each version to see what each contains, but it is sort of interesting to look back on the file dates to see how long I took on each round of editing. I probably won’t even open more than a few of the files at any time, but it is nice to know they are there, backed up on another server in case my computer fails.

And of course, most everything is backed up on another external drive in case the cloud fails me. You can never be too careful.