There is a Learning Curve to Creating Ebooks

When I was formatting my first ebook, I found a lot of advice for Kindle and Smashwords, but much more random advice for PubIt and Nook. I am currently compiling useful tips so that my next formatting efforts go smoothly.

From a word .doc to .epub with one (or two) free programs: Calibre and Sigil. Both programs are fairly intuitive to use, and have decent documentation, but they can still trip you up. There is a learning curve of trial and error.

An .epub is a Nook-friendly file you can upload directly to Barnes and Noble Pub-It if you are publishing through their direct line. But it's also a legit file that you can load onto your Nook directly or read with Adobe Digital Editions.

Two Nice, Free Programs: Calibre and Sigil
Converting to .epub is made super-easy with Calibre. Download here. I have only used the Windows version, so I can't speak for the other OS. But Calibre has so far been a champion. (Though their previewer is a little flaky.) To find guides on formatting a word .doc for Calibre, help on the top bar of their website sends you to this guide and this general guide. Somewhat useful. Easy to find through the Calibre program's help, impossible to find through their site. Perhaps very easy to find, but if so, I got lost.

And if you have last minute changes to make and don't want to add more files to Calibre and reconvert the whole thing - Sigil is a good wysiwyg editor. Download here.

A Note on Kindle formatting: 
Epubs are not Kindle files. To make a .mobi file, you will follow most of the same rules for .epub formatting, but conversion is different. You will have to first make a .prc, which requires MobiPocket Creator (also free), and you'll have to check it with Kindle Previewer (note: this is the third orange heading).

Tips for Calibre: 

  • How you format the document in the first place matters a lot. Simpler is better. It's a good bet if you stick to the Normal style text except for Heading 1 and Heading 2. 
    • Note: there is a lot of overlap between Amazon formatting advice and a Calibre-friendly document - I used the same doc to generate both Nook and Kindle. Amazon KDP guidelines can be found here
    • Note: For fiction, the vogue seems to be to get your text to mimic the layout on a real book page. Thus use indents for first lines and avoid spaces between paragraphs, because that smacks of the internet. It is important that you go into paragraph styles to make these changes. The Smashwords guide has the best paragraph style tutorial I've read so far.
  • Within the .doc, you can use H1 and H2 to build a table of contents (TOC) - this works with Field Codes, and is great for .prc/.mobi (Kindle) and .epub (Nook). It creates an effective linking TOC
    • Note that field codes will jack up your Smashwords conversion (for Smashwords, you should definitely follow the Nuclear Method and strip the document). 
  • You will have to save the .doc as a "Web Page, Filtered" which will give you a .htm/.html file
  • Add your that document to your Calibre Library, edit the Metadata to reflect correct name, title, etc. 
  • When you press the Convert Books button, you will get a lot of options. 
    • Make sure under "Epub Output," you have checked the box to "Preserve Cover Aspect Ratio" otherwise your cover will stretch and your heroes will look abnormally wide. 
    • Under "Table of Contents," you probably want to check the box for "Do not add detected chapters to the TOC." I did not check this at first, and my TOC, which had H1 and H2 levels, had an extra set of Heading 1 chapter links frontloading the TOC. This was not desired.  


The Case for Self Publishing Today

This post continues the series of "To indie or not to indie? That be the question." We now present the case for self-publishing today. And there is a case. What pushed you one way or the other?

Ultimately, the case for indie is thus: you have written a book, a good one, and it is a crime against your creativity to let it rot in your desk drawer or hard drive.

Self-Publishing is a great idea, if:
  • You LOVE the internet, and have a good internet connection.
    • Internet is your friend, you need it for social networking, ebook sales, uploading, etc. 
      • Fun fact: I love the internet, but my wireless tower is being dismantled. Going from the flaky internet I have to the zero internet I will have until a good solution is found  will not help my self-publishing initiative. 
  • You have a very strong need for immediate gratification. 
    • Let's be real. If you want to publish a book, there's no faster way. Sure, it will take some time to muddle through the formatting. But if you have a book and can cobble together a cover, you can find your name on Amazon in about two days! You are now prepared to face the problems of building a platform while riding a bubble of self-satisfaction. 
  • You are really enthusiastic about all aspects of the publishing process.
    • You are excited to find editors and a cover artist, to explore your options for printing physical copies, and to learn all bout the formatting required of ebooks. But wait, there's more! You are stoked about platforming and marketing. You have good ideas for exciting ways to deliver the message of your book to your readers. Maybe you already know a lot about marketing. Maybe you want the excuse to learn. 
  • You want creative control.
    • You're an artist, damnit! There is no reason that a publishing house should rip your book out of your hands and stick some slapdash art on the cover. Other artists don't care about your project, they don't "get it." But your cover art captures the soul of the piece. 
For bonus points, Self-Publishing may be a great idea, if:  
  • You've already been banging away at your platform. 
      • Er, I was going for a hammer and nails and building metaphor there. Moving on.
    • If you have a presence, if you have contacts with bloggers, and you have a number of people who are interested in what you have to say in these webby platforms, you have a much better chance of generating some interest. 
    • If you have built a parallel presence in another context, like, say, a Twilight fanclub, this may only help you if you have written a similarly claustrophobic and sparkling romance. 
  • You have multiple books already that you want to do something with. 
    • If you've been trying traditional for a while and churning out books, now's a great time to try indie. 
    • If someone discovers your book and likes it, it helps if they have more books to buy at once. Impulse and immediate gratification can multiply your sales!
    • Bonus: If you debut with multiple books, you will not be hounded immediately for the sequel, so you will get to postpone the guilty conscience.  
  • You're in it for the long haul.
    • You don't expect your book to be an instant success. You know these things take time, and that you will face a learning curve. But you are committed to writing and promoting your work (without looking like you're trying, of course). You have to start somewhere. 
    • You can test-drive the self-publishing approach with a manuscript you think is solid, but doesn't seem to appeal to agents. It isn't for everyone, but you just might like being so closely involved with the process. 
    • Self publishing works very well for some people. These are the people that put in a lot of effort and do not give up, a few months in, out of frustration.
  • You want to write shorter fiction
    • Ebooks are a good solution for novellas and novella-chunk serials, which are an awkward size to print either in magazines or in very slim book format.
    • They (the grand They who give advice) used to advocate writing a lot of short stories and getting published in literary magazines. Some people still advocate this. I can't remember the last time I voluntarily read a literary magazine that I wasn't published in. However, this did give writers a chance to try different approaches to writing, and more quickly analyze what worked and what didn't. Writing shorter fiction is a good learning technique and opportunity to find your voice. 
    • It is good practice to write some stories on the shorter side to learn some valuable experience before breaking into fully epic length fiction. A novella is long enough that you can have a satisfying plot and character arcs. When sampling a new writer, I am more eager to read a story I could finish in a few hours--I tend to finish the books I read, so shorter fiction is less of a gamble. 
      • Full disclosure: Once upon a time I read an esteemed 400 page fantasy novel by an esteemed writer I had not previously read. I suffered massive burnout and decided I would have enjoyed a 200 pager a lot more. 
    Psychologically, Self-Publishing may be a good idea if,
    • You have trouble letting go of your WIPs
      • Some people have trouble giving up their manuscripts. It could be that you do want to pull an Emily Dickinson and leave all of your writing until your death, but then you would have zero control in how your works were treated. If you find yourself unable to label a manuscript 'finished' for fear that it isn't perfect, it might help you to turn one loose and publish. There is no such thing as a perfect manuscript. If the story is polished, the themes are clear, and you have already edited it many times, you maybe should let it into the wild. Though there are scary critics with dart guns, you have to give the story the chance to run free. 
      • If a reluctance to release is an issue, it might help you to release a story so you can move onto the next one. It can bolster your writing self esteem to release it and have a book. It'll be easier the next time, because you know you can do it. You can let go. 
        • Note: No work is perfect. This is not to say that you should write half a book and throw it online. This is not to say that "nothing is perfect" so you shouldn't bother editing. No. This is to prevent the hoarding the story and hiding in the safety in your own grand potential. 
    • You have tried and tried and tried traditional
      • They beat you down, but you get up again. Never gonna keep you down.
      • The Gatekeepers have turned you away, time and time again. As countless (Amanda Hocking?) examples have shown, readers genuinely enjoy things that get turned down and lost in the slush piles. 
      • If they are turning you down because they don't think the story is marketable - well, here's a chance to showcase your creativity and ingenuity! You will have the challenge of succeeding where they did not think they could.
    Especially if you have a body of work, self publish and market. Don't let the stories rot. If you're on your first full length novel, it might be wise to shop it around for a while. Not writing that long? Try self-pubbing. After all, who wouldn't buy a great story that's only a dollar!


    The case against indie publishing right now

    When is the right time to go indie? What with fanfare over outlier successes, some people have been diving in without stopping to check if there's any water in the swimming pool. Myself included.  Persuaded by the "anyone will read anything if it's 99 cents!" argument, I neglected to consider the question of when is the best method and time to become an indie writer. The goal is not to point you away from indie, but to point you away from stumbling blocks.

    So, friends, let's play a game of Epublishing Bingo as we go through the case against self-publishing. Make it a self-publish day or not: the choice is yours.

    Self Publishing may not be for you, if:

    • You don't want to pay a cent of upfront cost.
    • As much as KDP and PubIt make it possible to launch a book without paying a cent, it might behoove you to throw money at certain issues: 
      • The reader judges the book by the cover. If you do not have art skills, it might be in your best interest to throw some money at a (reputable) artist to get some cover art that doesn't scream indie newbie. 
      • Editing. You will need editors, proof readers, and beta readers. It may be that you have enough English Major friends that you can cover this for free, but a paid (reputable) editor should be more invested in the project, and perhaps more prompt
      • You don't want to interact with fans or social network.
        • You're screwed.  
      • You are a spammer, and post a book a day to Amazon.
        • Please stop. That's a horrible idea. 
      • You are an Amazon book pirate, stealing other authors work to post on Amazon. 
        • See above.

      You should postpone your first release effort if: 

      • No one has heard of your writing ambitions except for your mother. 
        • It may be wise to first develop an online presence and build interest, because if you just throw up your book on Amazon, it will be greeted with a fanfare of exactly one.  
        • You should take the time to send some ARCs to those kind reviewers who accept that sort of thing. Be aware that they have 2-3 month wait lists of other people presently jumping into the selfpub pool.
        •  Publishing works best if people are excited about a release date and then all buy the book at the same time. But this is an uphill battle.
      • You have never tried social networking, and think that Twitter is for twits.  
        • There is a learning curve, and there may be some floundering as you struggle to develop your personal brand, and how you want to present yourself to your fans. 
        • If you only have one book, you are in danger of beginning the social networking journey and discovering that while you thought you had no free time before, you aren't writing a word of fiction right anymore. 
        • Warning: social networking is a psychological trap. It's a variable interval reward system, which makes it addictive in the same sense as gambling.
        • Make sure that you know how to use social networks. If you begin by thinking that Twitter is an advertising platform instead of a networking platform, you will commit a faux pas or two that can cost you.
        • Note, and this is the most important thing to know, that if you use Twitter to post consecutive links to your book, you will fill your followers with hate.
      • You have never spent any time on Goodreads, but assume it is just there for you to plug your book.
        • Definitely do check out the community on Goodreads. There are some friendly people, and you can learn a lot about books, but you need to be interested in being a member and part of the conversation, not just in promoting your books. 
        • Note: you also need to be prepared for snarky reviews. 
        • And if you need to make yourself feel better about a bad review, look at reviews of your favorite books and read bashing reviews that are even more unreasonable and vicious. 
        • That said, pay attention to the substantial comments in reviews of what readers loved/hated. You should let feedback help your writing.  
          • Unfortunately, since the Hocking phenomenon, self published writers have swarmed to the site. They are ready to tell anyone and everyone about their books at inappropriate times. While I love hearing about new books and seeing what other people are writing, this has become a problem to the Goodreads community, and there is a lot of backlash when the indie writer becomes associated with spam.

            #Writetip: you do not want your name/book associated with spam.

        Reasons to continue the traditional path of searching for agent/house:
        • Most authors who do well quickly in self publishing do so because they already have a fanbase.
          • See JA Konrath, who began with traditional means. 
          • Amanda Hocking is an outlier. 
        • It may be worth at least trying to publish traditionally while you write your second and third books
          • If you think "No! I want to start making money now!" you should realize that the ten dollars you will make will not really cover your car insurance. Maybe it would be better to put most of your energy into writing? 
        • Even if you publish traditionally and your book doesn't do well, there should bump up your fanbase.
            • Chances are if your agent/publisher likes it, someone will buy it and love you.
          • I have heard it repeated over and over that traditional publishing houses are putting less and less money into promoting books and especially first novels. And yet. Their budget will be more than the zero dollars you are attaching to your self publishing budget. 
          • If you get some fans with a first novel, they might be even happier to buy your low-priced ebooks.
        • You do want a fanbase. 
          • And if your books are in bookstores and libraries, people can stumble upon physical copies. 
          • Ebooks sitting on the Kindle store without an easy way to be found are pretty much in an invisible and intangible store room, buried under other books. 
        • Disclaimer: I am not sure that publishing houses are fond of their authors doing self-pub on the side. Or a publishing house ding-dong-ditch.

        So, am I missing some important arguments? Have you self published and found yourself crashing into any unexpected obstacles? 

        Up next on Fictician: The Case FOR Self Publishing. 


        Black Humor Dark Fantasy

        There is a particular style of fantasy that I have a special weakness for. It isn't quite an official subgenre, but it's something like dark fantasy with a heavy dose of black humor. These books frequently feature assassins or other would-be unsavory characters, but with enough witty dialogue to prevent them from being maudlin or classed as anything close to horror.

        Shadowing falls under this category, and you might like it if you have read and liked any of the following. And if you haven't read them, you should try at least one.

        Kat Zantow - Shadowing - To be released June 4, for Kindle.

        All too often in fantasy books, the servants of Dark Overlords are dispatched with a lazy flick of the hero's sword. But in Shadowing, the job benefits of fire, mayhem, and flight almost make up for it. In between burning down villages, the primary directive for minions is taking out heroes. When a man in golden armor and his faithful companions sneak across the border on a quest to assassinate the Dark Lord Magna, long live the Magna, it's up to the Shadows to cut his quest short. As always, things do not go quite according to plan, and one henchman ends up lone-wolfing it across the permafrost lands, following the stench of valor.

        The Anvil of the WorldKage Baker - The Anvil of the World
        A light picaresque involving a retired assassin, demons, demigods, and glass butterflies. The assassin inherits his cousin's caravan, and makes a dangerous journey to a city by the sea. Assassination attempts at every turn. Witty dialogue and other good things. I have fond memories of a very unconventional wizardly battle involving name calling and talking smack. 

        Villains by NecessityEve Forward - Villains by Necessity
        This is out of print, so good luck getting your hands on a copy. I hope one day it will be ebooked, because it was one of the more amusing fantasy books I've read. Samalander, the last assassin in the world, joins a neutral druid, a black knight, an elf sorceress, a centaur, and a thief. Together, these cooperation-haters make up the last gasp of Evil in this Good-conquered land, and only they can restore balance to the world. 

        Dragon (Vlad Taltos)Steven Brust  - Taltos, Dragon
        There are few books that manage to find just the right blend of humor and badassery, but Brust's Vlad series often hits it well. Vlad the assassin is an underdog in a criminal underworld. I hesitate to class it as fantasy, because there is little if any walking in real time across a field, but there are other species and magic. Early books in the series make good use of organized crime, and have something in common with classic noir as well as sword and sorcery. Taltos and Dragon were my favorites.

        The Great Book of Amber: The Complete Amber Chronicles, 1-10 (Chronicles of Amber)Roger Zelazny - Nine Princes in Amber
        Tarot cards, amnesia, patterns, and court intrigue delivered through a sarcastic narrator. Perhaps this doesn't quite fit the list with a prince as main character, but the whole family is immoral enough that I think it counts. And besides, everyone ever is out to kill Corwin. But if you want Zelazny and distinctly not high fantasy, try A Night in the Lonesome October, which is told from Jack The Ripper's dog-familiar's perspective.


        Elves: size matters

        Elves have a long history in folklore and fantasy novels. They have their roots in a shoe-mending tricky/mischievous/annoying/Norse mythos. Over time elves have grown considerably taller and considerably more badass. When they grow to be over four feet tall, they shuck their shoe-mending ways and around six feet, they become ethereal and perfect beings. The image of tall elves, distant and cold, is pushed most strongly by old and new success of the Lord of the Rings. But there is an upper limit of acceptability for these tall elves. If they are more than seven feet tall, you may be stepping into a weird alien race or lanky giant territory, and things go downhill quickly if they get any taller still. Imagine if the fifty foot woman claimed to be an elf? Yeah, it's kind of like that.

        But there are still many elves who start stick to the short end. If they are too short, they tend to be a little silly. They can pass for tricksy or servile, but they may also confuse the reader into thinking they are very large fairies. One of the main problems is that an elf who is too short eliminates all chances of a satisfying interspecies romance with a human character.

        Around five feet and you start getting some potential. If they are just a little short they are fighting from a height disadvantage, and have more to overcome. They can be more badass than tall elves, because their success in battle in a tall world displays character strength. This height may be optimal.


        The Maxim of eBooks

        I have thought it over and decided that eBooks are undeniably superior to real books. This is despite or perhaps because of listening to a talk yesterday: http://www.vabook.org/site11/program/details.php?eventID=153

        It was a very good talk, but I remain unconvinced that books are a good thing. They take up space, they kill trees, and even if they're bad, you're reluctant to get rid of them because you bought them. Also, they are cheaper.

        So we've established that
        a) eBooks save space
        b) eBooks do not kill trees
        c) eBooks are cheaper

        Too often, it is thought that eBooks are cheaper because their insubstance makes them an inferior product. But they allow you to save space and prevent you from having tree-murder guilt. Thus I assert that they are NOT an inferior product.

        I went to a bookstore today and found myself staring at rows and rows of books that all looked bad. Reading a couple of back covers and such, I realized I have no use for books sitting in bookstores, getting lost on the shelves. What good is your cover of a picture of fun and excitement next to every other cover that promises fun and excitement? The only reason I would invest in one of these books was word of mouth. And how does word of mouth spread? In person, online, email, or by other insubstantial means.

        Yet if someone tells me to read a book, I'll say sure, and it will be a good three months before I manage to track it down, which I may or may not remember in the first place. The library may not have it, the bookstore may be out of copies.

        But eBooks - the instant gratification potential is endless. Pay a dollar for a story. What else would you be doing with a dollar? Buy 1/10th of a physical book? Buy most of a stick of gum? If you like the story as much as you would like a $10 book, the author has saved you $9. Therefore, you owe the author nine dollars. You can pay the author back with $9 of word of mouth advertising. It is only logical that you settle the score by telling nine other people how good the book was.

        This is the only way eBooks can possibly work.


        At a glance: A Fisherman of the Inland Sea

        I just finished reading A Fisherman of the Inland Sea by Ursula K. Le Guin. Admittedly, the book has been out for a couple of decades, so you can probably survive without my thoughts on the matter. But the book came out before the internet, so maybe the internet is not clogged with reviews? Nah, she's famous. I'm sure they're there. To avoid idea-infection, I very carefully avoided researching the question. And she is famous for good reason. This feminist pioneer sci-fi writer knows what she's about.

        Le Guin continues to be a good read, even in a time so alien to her own. Of course, she mostly writes about aliens, so this is no surprise. There isn't much to date the stories except for the date of publication. The book was enjoyable, but not every story was engrossing. As a collection, it did suffer from incoherency and structure. It would have been stronger if halved. Some stories were just tossed in but were disruptive to the strongly developed verse of the others.

        This book contains an introduction and eight stories. If you read the introduction, it provides a guide for what to read and what to skip, but I didn't listen. She says she wouldn't explain two of the stories because they are jokes. Unfortunately, humor must have evolved beyond recognition since the early 80's and 90's.

        Another is a story that originated from a single sentence someone else wrote in a workshop. It's a damn good sentence; you can skip the story.

        Three of the stories have the makings of an excellent book. They build on each other. They explore the implications of a theory in a changing and engaging way. This is a universe traditionally limited by light speed. In comes Churten theory, or transilience, and you can be somewhere in the blink of an eye. But at what cost? Gone is the deeply human process of cause and effect. Of chronology. Of sanity. It's a beautiful synthesis of story and philosophy. If the whole collection continued developing this, or even led up to it, I would strongly recommend the book. The title story is the best, FYI.

        Le Guin uses a traditional narrative approach, which is perhaps necessary. A postmodern approach to transilience would be bewildering; it would necessitate a rejection of chronology in the text, heavily influenced by stream of consciousness, and could be best expressed by text printed over other text for a more proper experience of simultaneity, and perhaps only as a hypertext web.


        Verse vs Verse

        In varying degrees, there is a certain poetry to prose. Hemingway didn't hold with girly things like poetry and description. That's why, as well as a poor structure for dialogue, The Old Man and the Sea is so bleak. Other writers, in the Faulkner fashion, try to inject poetry into every turn of phrase. This sometimes leaves the reader lost in abstraction trying to pass as plot and character.

        The amount of wordplay and poetry in the writing gives a certain feel to the text. Wordy, writerly, ornate, extravagant, flowery text must only fill a certain percent of the novel. Purple prose by any other name would overfill a tweet. If verse crowds out the plot or characters, the readers may be found lying dead, smothered on their couches, book draped over their face. A purple shroud. On the other hand, if the prose lacks poetry, you may be better off reading a newspaper to tally puns in the titles.

        The words create a sense of atmosphere which is critical to the story's universe (or at least to preserve life on the planet). An honorable knight can only exist in the two dimensional space of parchment, scrawled over with epic poetry. Cthulu can only breathe in Lovecraft's dripping, overwrought, and anxious prose. No matter what world your fiction is placed in, your tone needs to match it and supplement the story. This applies especially if it is fantastical or sci-fi; you need to find a tone that will aid and abet the suspension of disbelief.

        Twilight and every other supernatural romance is changing the tone for the supernatural from the unnatural to the pedestrian romance. But hey, it sparkles. There must still be some magic! A farce, but in a sense it works; the twilit tone is one of denial. Denial that vampires are a bloodthirsty lot. Denial that the relationship is inherently and utterly deranged. Please, dear supernatural romance writers, kick it up a notch. I think it is high time that this genre takes its psychopathology out into the open.


        Editing is hard.

        Don't let anyone else tell you different. It's really hard. You've got to walk that fine line, that razor's edge, between the writer's vision, and your own. You can see the writer's blindspots, but they can sometimes see yours.

        Writers have just done something remarkable, and it is the rare writer who is fully open to having that word-baby torn apart by the jackals of judgment and style. But without that gnashing and bleeding, the book is likely to have some problems. Hopefully the writer acknowledges it can be made better, and hopefully the editor will not scar the writer's unique feel with their own personal style. It's a hard, hard balance to strike.

        I am presently engaged in the process of editing a work of nonfiction. Structure may be what determines success. I may have to write or encourage the writing of an acrostic poem for greater coherence. How often can one say that?


        Dear Fictician: What's so bad about adverbs?

        Dear Fictician,

        Why do adverbs have such a bad wrap? They're words, after all.

        Ardently Defending Adverbs

        Dear Confused,

        First of all, fun fact: it's a 'bad rap,' the etymology hailing from a poorly cobbled song, rather than a spoiled sandwich.

        The thing about adverbs is that verbs are the most perfect form of writing. Verbs are active and carry character and plot forward. Starving oneself from adverbs encourages the writer to use more specific and efficient verbs. Using those precise and cutting verbs is important; it discourages the passive, the over-dependence on IS/WAS/WERE.

        The writing is cleaner. It breathes. And really, if you need adverbs to supplement dialogue, your reader may be snoring. This is telling:

        "I hope you're right," she said anxiously.
        "I am," he said confidently.
        "This wine," a waiter rudely pushed a bottle between them. "Is a fine 2005."

        See? Nothing is added. We're told something about their mindsets which could be pretty well inferred even if this riveting scene were presented in script form. Minimalism may be best. The alternative is showing, and it is quite possible to show too much:

        "I hope you're right," she said, wringing her napkin as if it were the neck of a remarkably resilient chicken.
        "I am." He patted her twitching hands with his meaty palm.
        "This wine," a waiter dropped the bottle between them. It shattered. "Was a fine 2005."

        Anyway, Ardently, writing is an imperfect medium in all forms. Adverbs are just extra boring. And you don't want to be boring, do you?


        The Importance of Solitude

        Being a writer is easy. All you have to do is show zero inclination to get a real job, make sarcastic and/or pretentious comments every half hour, and drink a lot. People will believe you. 

        The act of writing is another kettle of fish. 

        And I do mean kettle of fish. Seriously. Your head is the kettle, and inside that cast-iron skull of yours, all the influences of the schools are swimming around, disturbing your creative waters, and slamming the sides of your kettle-skull. They leave your vision doubled and your balance shaken, those schools. You have to off them, those pernicious literary influences and threatening concepts of style and conceit. 

        Fortunately, if shooting fish in a barrel is cheating, killing them is even easier in a kettle. Simply turn on the heat.  The fish? Their eyes will turn to cute little x's, and the school will drift to the top. You'll be left with a roiling boil of inspiration. 

        Now all you have to do is find a quiet place to write. Turn your WiFi off. Hide from the people you live with, or, if you are rolling in money, plant yourself in a coffee shop. You can pay for your new, noisy, boisterous office space with cup after cup of coffee and espresso. The bonus to this approach is that you won't sleep for days. And the hours between 1-4 are the best hours for creativity. Your critical defenses are down, your thinking is sloppy and loose, but focused enough to put words on a page. The beauty of these late hours, is that everyone else - unless you're in college - will be asleep. Then the only distracting demons you have to face are your own internet withdrawal symptoms.  Good luck with that.


        Writing Query Letters

        A proper writer should have a set of query letters available at all times. I'm working on it. I tried to draft a letter, but I kept having to start over. What approach would you take?

        Drafting a Query Letter: 

        1. Dear Sir, Ma'am or N/A, 
        Enclosed is a short chapter-by-chapter discription of my Writing Project. Don't worry, I didn't include the last part; I wouldn't want to spoil the end for you. 

        2. Dear Agent Orange, 
        I may have to warn you that Agents Pink, Chartruse, and Mustard have reviewed this document and deemed it best that the contents stay classified. However, it is unfathomable, in my society, to withhold a document of this much aplomb and pretension. 

        3. Dear Agent, 
        I am a blogger; please restrain your enthusiasm. 

        4. Dear Agent, 
        I am a William and Mary graduate. The fact that I have this expensive paper must impel you to read the story.  

        5. Dear Agent, 
        I would like you to read my story because it is good. If not, please consider reading it because I'm cute and cut a good figure, so when I go on the interviewing segment people will be sure to buy my book. I am also open to publicity stunts and social networking. 

        6. Dear Agent, 
        Do you want to experience the occult or pop-cult? If you, like me, believe you don't have to choose, this project is for you. Synthesis, Tarot, references from books.
        Together, we can nail that key Literary and Cultural Studies demographic!

        7. Dear Agent, 
        I deeply enjoyed meeting you at that conference, that one time. As I recall we had a lot to talk about, and we laughed and laughed when we found that the cafe offered drinks called a Holden Coffield. And for the after party, I believe you ordered a Rum-Tum-Tugger, and then you went wild, lifting up girls shirts, blowing raspberries, and calling yourself the tum-tum-mugger. 

        8. Deer Agent, 
        It must be tough for you to find good writers when your clients lack opposable thumbs.

        9. Dear Gentleman-Agent, 
        I presume there is an old boy's club that meets every friday at five for happy hour. I know you all sip martinis with olives and discuss the query letters you have received during the week. I know, old boy, that some nasty character started a rumor about me being a pushy broad who won't fit into the industry.  

        10. Dear Agent, 
        Please answer, this time, damn it! Why don't you agents ever answer? If I don't recieve a response in a timely manner, you can bet I will not hesitate to follow in the footsteps of my heroine on page 37. Just you wait!

        11. Dear Agent, 
        Enclosed is my 500 page treatise on the inverse relationship between speed and frequency of typing and length of fingernails. 


        The Importance of Good Names (Anything but Ernest)

        "What's in a name?" Shakespeare's Juliet asks. "That which we call a rose
        By any other name would smell as sweet."

        However, when Lisa Simpson raises this point to Bart, he counters: "Not if you call them Stench Blossoms."

        Bart wins with the more poignant point. This should not surprise, since the wisdom frequently touted as Shakespeare's actually comes from his angsty teenage character who voluntarily put herself in a deathlike coma and fillets herself when her equally angsty lover in too-tight tights follows suit. These are the starring lovers of cross-eyed wisdom.

        No matter what you're writing, the names do matter. This is Rule 18: Think hard, but not too hard about the names of people and places in your fiction.

        If you do not think much about your character names, you may end up with very generic names (Like Jeff, Jake, Anne, etc.), which imply very generic characters. If you try too hard to make the names unique, especially by adding y's, (a la Ravyn, Estrogyna, Satyra) then no matter what dialogue you give them, the reader will know that they are pale with too much eye liner and a secret wish to become vampires. Try to make the names cute, like Page Turner, or Sherry Creamer, then you're in danger of heading into parable or stripper territory.

        If you think too much about a system names, you may find yourself clever, but the reader may not catch on or care. For instance, if you name the characters in alphabetical order, alternating male and females, using only names on hurricane lists, well, that's all well and good. But really, does that add anything to anyone's experience?*

        Character names are not the only ones you must think about. If you write fantasy or horror, your invented creations must have names that are appropriately horrifying or fantastical. Unless you are writing a comedy or an epic poem, try to avoid alliteration and other dumb poetic devices.

        Also avoid giving creatures names that are hard to say. For instance, a creature that is a combination of snake and spider has a lot of scare potential. (See top of the post.) Many people have phobias of snakes, and many have phobias of spiders, as both are natural arch-nemeses in evolutionary history. By combining them, you hit twice as many phobics with night terrors in one fell swoop! Genius! However, if you give it a stupid name, the creature will be far less effective on that part of the population which lacks phobia. Let's say we call the creature an Asp-spider. This would be a poor choice of a name. Asp Spider. Say it ten times fast, I dare you. You will find yourself stuttering or whispering psst, like you and the critter are old friends who go way back, sharing secrets. You can't be afraid of it. You will end up thinking that the creature is silly and the writer is dumb.

        *If your book is targeted solely at meteorologists, then use all the hurricane names you want, just make sure you don't make a mistake, or they will have an 80% chance of catching errors.


        The consequences of stupid character description

        Every once in a while, an author makes a seemingly conscious decision to use piss-poor language to describe a central character. Occasionally the description is evocative enough that the author decides it is all that is needed, and he may even use it more than once. However, poor language can become a crutch. This should be avoided.

        This brings us to Rule 39: Do not beat the reader over the head with descriptions that say next to nothing.

        Rule 39 is prominently violated by the dearly departed fantasy author, Robert Jordan, in his 13 book epic Wheel of Time series. The following is a collection of descriptions of character Lan Mandragoran, drawn from multiple books throughout the series. Citations compliments of Google books.

        From the Wheel of Time series:
        • The Eye of the World (book 1):
        “That face was made from stony planes and angles, weathered but unlined despite the gray in his hair” (46).
        • The Great Hunt (book 2):
        A narrow band of braided leather held the Warder's long hair back from his face, a face that seemed made from stony planes and angles, a face unlined as if to belie the tinge of gray at his temples” (2)
        • The Dragon Reborn (book 3):
        “The flames cast flickering shadows across the Warder's face, making it seem more carved from stone even than it normally did, all hard planes and angles” (27).
        • The Shadow Rising (book 4):
        A braided leather cord held Lan's dark hair, gray-streaked at the temples. His face looked to have been carved from rock, all hard planes and angles, and his sword rode his hip like part of his body” (92).
        • The Fires of Heaven (book 5):
        “Which was to say as still and calm as his face, all stony planes and angles in the moonlight, and with an air of being on the brink of sudden movement that made the Aiel appear placid in comparison” (165).
        • A Crown of Swords (book 7):
        Brilliant blue eyes regarded her intently from beneath lowered brows, in a face all planes and angles that might have been carved from stone” (237).
        • And from the Eye of the World series, From the Two Rivers:
        “That face was made from stony planes and angles, weathered but unlined despite the gray in his hair” (30).

        Taken individually or together, these descriptions lead to only one possible mental image:

        This is a composite sketch from the many descriptions of the character. What could Lan be, but a face all planes and angles? Twin-tailed plane for lips? A plane for a nose? Biplanes for eyes, perhaps? As for the angles, his description does not reveal the true degree measurements, so the true angles are unknown. There is a gray tinge in his hair, and his face is kind of like stone. The character, as described, may have difficulty passing through society without notice.