Friday, July 31, 2009

Get it in writing!

A friend recently emailed me to say she's been ripped off by a local publisher and needs to know how to disentangle herself. She has given me permission to post this. Here is her email (I changed all the names):

My book is published without a written contract. All I have on paper is an order form stating size of book, cost for bar code, ISBN, etc. Initially, I was told that the up-front money would be the total and that any monies from the sale of my book belonged to me. Well, over the weeks of getting the thing printed, Jane at ____ gave out little details about how it really worked. Honestly, I thought that I was getting a book printed POD. I had no idea she would take 20% of every book she sold that I had bought, as well as having extra books printed to sell in her "bookstore" and that I hadn't paid for. She would get all of that money. I verbally agreed to that, I think, in the week the book was being printed. The reason I didn't make waves was because it had already cost me more money because "it was taking so long and she was having to help me more than usual" to get the book done. I needed the book in my hands for an event. My question is can I terminate my relationship with Jane and do I retain all rights to my book, to include all hard data and disks? This is a lot to ask of you, but I'm not happy about this deal. The only one making any money is Jane and I keep going deeper into the hole money-wise. She is charging me $450 for a second run of fifty books. She sells other authors' books at her place of business to include two of Diane’s. When I queried Diane about it, she told me she had no idea Jane had any of her books and that if Jane had sold any, Diane hadn't received a penny from the sales. I can't afford to keep doing this and any thought of doing a second book with Jane is out of the question. Any help would be appreciated. I'm so dumb for not finding out all this legal stuff up front.

Then on the phone she told me the publisher was planning to print copies and sell them on their own, giving nothing to her! She said that for her initial print run including setup charges and whatnot, she paid nearly $1000 for 50 copies that would list for $11. Subsequent copies cost her $9 each. In other words, my good friend has been taken for a ride.

Oh, and she had a conversation with the publisher in which the publisher said they were getting so much business they were going to have to start keeping records.

I told her I'm not an attorney, but that she should send a certified letter to the publisher telling them to cease and desist from printing any copies not requested by her. She also can and should terminate that relationship immediately.

If there's one lesson to come out of this mess, it's this: Get it in writing!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Editing tip #1: Get rid of those extra spaces

This is the first in a series of editing tips for writers preparing their work for self-publication. They are presented in no particular order and represent tasks an editor or proofreader might do. Writers should still use a professional editor, but why pay for anything you can do yourself?

Get rid of those extra spaces. Your sentences should have only one space after a period. No matter how large your document is, you can check for and fix any extra spaces with a global search and replace. In Microsoft Word, for example, press Ctrl + h to display this window:

In the Find what field, type a period followed by two spaces.

In the Replace with field, type a period followed by one space.

Click Replace All.

How do you indent a paragraph? If you use the space bar, you may wind up with inconsistent indents—some five spaces, some four or six. Word and other programs can be set to automatically indent, but let’s put that aside for now. Many writers indent using a half-inch tab, and that’s fine. So let’s replace all those five-spaced indents with tabs:

Ctrl + h

In the Find what field, type exactly five spaces.

In the Replace with field, type ^t.

Click Replace All.

Then you can repeat the process by replacing ^t plus a space with ^t only, and then do the same process with four spaces.

Finally, do a search for two spaces and replace with one.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Planning to self-publish?

Las Cruces cacti in bloom

Planning to self-publish*? Always hire an editor—yes, I'd like that. I'm an editor. Hire me. Chances are you won't, of course. Chances are you'll hire no one, and that will be a pity for your book's sake.

Here's the deal, though. You must have someone read your manuscript who is not a friend or relative, someone with critical skills whose first interest is not to make you happy. If you belong to a writers' group, ask for critiques of your work, and be prepared to reciprocate. You might consider the Internet Writing Workshop, a helpful group I've been with for years.

Skill levels vary, of course, but getting critiques is an essential start. Don't take everyone's advice, because people can and do contradict each other; critiquers can also be flat wrong or unconstructive.

Once you've compiled and incorporated the best comments from the critiques, take the steps I outlined in my previous post. This should not take the place of hiring an editor, but not being born yesterday, I know that many people either can't or won't spend the money. In the first place, editors vary in quality as widely as writers do. In the second place, many charge by the hour and expect—get this—to be paid a living wage. Soon I'll have a post containing tips for choosing an editor.

Meanwhile, the higher quality your work is to start with, the less work an editor needs to do, and the less the impact on your wallet.

*By self-publishing I mean causing your book to be published, whether by sending your manuscript to a printer or to an outfit such as iUniverse or Xlibris.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Self-Publishing—Ten Great Tips to Make Your Book Shine

We self-publishers fight a lonely battle, finding readers for our wit and wisdom. We write alone, and now we sell alone and search for ways to market our work. How do we entice readers to open their wallets?

Those questions are often premature. Before asking how you’re going to cope with all those book orders, you need to make sure you have a quality product. So here are ten tips to make your book, fiction or non-fiction, the best it can be.

#1 Use a spell-checker, but only as a first line of defense. Then you look for misspellings the spell-checker won’t catch, such as then/than, to/too/two, tail/tale, or its/it’s.

#2 Read your manuscript critically, as though you weren’t the author. Some things to check include complete chapters, well-organized paragraphs, complete sentences, and accurate punctuation.

#3 Be consistent. If you capitalize a word once in the text, chances are you always want to capitalize it. Decide whether you want one space or two at the end of a sentence, and stick with it. Never change your font or type size without good reason. If your work consists of more than one file, be sure that every file is formatted identically.

#4 Get honest, competent critiques. Leave your mother and spouse alone; your family has better things to do than fawn over your work. Avoid critiques from anyone who has an emotional stake in making you happy, because that isn’t what you need. The Internet Writing Workshop ( is an excellent source of constructive, informed criticism.

#5 Use your judgment. Even good critiquers may give you conflicting advice. Remember that it’s your project, so the final decision is always yours.

#6 Refer to a style manual such as the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the most widely accepted guide for standard writing.

#7 Make a style sheet. A novel or other large manuscript can involve lots of small stylistic decisions by the author. Keep a pad of paper with a running list things you don’t want to have to keep looking up. For example, a cartoon I liked showed a bank robber writing a note and asking the teller, “Is holdup one word or two?” Think of words you often misspell or don’t know how to capitalize, and write them correctly on the list.

#8 Follow your publisher’s guidelines religiously even if they don’t insist.

#9 Repeat tip #2.

#10 Review the publisher’s proof carefully. When you receive the publisher’s proof isn’t the time to look for typos; you should have done that already. At this stage, the publisher may even charge you if you fix many of your own mistakes at this stage. Instead, look for their errors. Are illustrations in their proper places? Are pages and chapters numbered properly? Look at every page’s overall appearance. Is each one properly aligned? Is any text missing?

If you follow these simple (but not always easy) tips, I can’t guarantee best-sellerdom for your book, but I can promise you this: Your book will be far superior to the vast majority of self-published books. You will have a quality product.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Where ideas come from

The other side of Paradise:
Behind the Paradise Diner,
Lowell, Massachusetts

Where do a writer’s ideas come from? The genesis of my new novel, Getting Lucky, is very much the location: the mill city of Lowell, Massachusetts. There is an old map of the city from circa 1907 dividing it up by ethnic neighborhoods: English, Irish, German, Jewish, Polish, Greek, and French Canadian are the ones I recall. It was a city designed to be a modern 19th-century industrial center, with a spider web of canals linking a series of mills to the Merrimack River. Barges brought raw cotton from the South and returned with bolts of cloth for much of the country.

In the 20th century Lowell fell on hard times and developed just the grittiness and the edge to make it a good setting for a noir detective novel. Then for various reasons in the 1980s refugees from Cambodia flocked there by the thousands. My wife and I lived in a nearby town and sponsored one of the families, which gave us a heightened awareness of the Cambodians’ impact on the region. I had been a technical writer, and I remember waking up in the middle of the night thinking I had to write a novel about the Cambodians coming to America.

Freedom Country was my first try at writing fiction, and the best I can say is that I learned a lot about writing, about Cambodians, and about Lowell. That novel will never be published, because I could never gain a deep enough understanding of the Cambodian culture to make the story compelling. But I used much of the research for other projects.

A couple of novels later came Getting Lucky. I named my hero Mack Durgin after Mike Durgin, a real kid who had bullied me in my childhood. Mack bears no resemblance to the bully; I just happened to like the name. My wife insists that Mack’s personality and my own are not similar, but I like to think that he and I would be very much alike given similar circumstances. He has a sense of humor that he uses as a defense against life’s brickbats.

In Getting Lucky I try to establish a strong sense of place and character. Lowell has a shop called Tower News that sells newspapers and tobacco up front and hard-core pornography in back. In my novel it becomes a pure (well, impure) porn shop called A Touch of Love. My writer’s group loved to tease me about my research and about all the “field trips” I supposedly had to make to Tower News. One of my friends, a proper and devout Christian woman if I ever knew one, playfully pouted that I never invited her along on any of these excursions. One outing we did take together was to the county medical examiner’s office. On the M.E.’s wall hung a satin painting of a crying clown sticking a revolver into his mouth.

Despite all the research a writer does, it’s still easy to get things wrong. In one of my writer’s group meetings I read a scene set on one of the city’s streets in a tough neighborhood called The Acre. Mystery writer David Daniel, who knows the city cold, listened patiently and then told me that street slopes gradually uphill. It wasn’t critical to the story, but it was important to get details right when you’re dealing with a real place.

In writing Getting Lucky I learned that you can use facts, details, and observations that come from anywhere and find a home for them in your fiction.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Open mic at Palacio's

Shades of Bulwer-Lytton. Tonight we're doing the dark and stormy, with torrents of rain and constant sky-splitting lightning. It began as I left Palacio's Bar in Mesilla, site of the monthly open mic readings and performances. It was my first time there. The Carta Blanca was ice-cold, the crowd was friendly, and the popcorn was free. I was up for a night like this.

I read from Getting Lucky to an audience of two dozen; most read poetry, one played a three-piece Indian flute, another acted out a one-man skit. A guy from El Paso read some cleverly-rhymed, fast-paced gibberish. He teaches English and Philosophy at a community college and claimed he's an avowed Marxist. He used to think all rich people should be shot, he says, but now wants them to have the option of repenting or committing suicide. I smiled, thinking him a harmless twit but keeping said opinion to myself.

Pamela was one of the better poets of the evening. She prefaced her work by telling the audience that the poems she planned to read were about her ex-husband. In one poem, she said his primary means of communicating with her was punching her in the jaw. Then she described putting a gun to his temple while he slept but not pulling the trigger.


In the course of the evening, the fellow sitting next to me kept picking up my book and putting it down, making me think he'd buy it. Alas, no. I made no more money than the poets tonight, but never mind—I'll be back.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Literary magazine for the
El Paso Writers' League

My friend and colleague Sulta Bonner and I just completed a slick publication for the El Paso Writers' League entitled Border Tapestry. It contains first-prize-winning entries in the EPWL's 2008 writing contest, an annual event held for members. We did all the editing and layout, and then we paid a local printer who gave us technical advice and printed up a couple hundred copies for us.

Sulta knows El Paso far better than I do, so she showed me around town and advised me what photos to take. The result is the collage that appears on the cover.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

New cover for When Pigs Fly

Here is iUniverse's new cover design for the Star edition of When Pigs Fly.

And this is the logo on the back cover.

By the way, a reader emailed me today and called When Pigs Fly an "absolutely fun and utterly impossible book." Sigh. Words like that are beautiful music.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

If only I had a beach...

The reviewer at Rebecca's Reads wrote this nice comment in her review of Getting Lucky: "Getting Lucky" is a fast-paced read and would be the perfect book to take to the beach this summer."


Friday, July 03, 2009

Star turn

My winged amigo Puerco, a gift from friends who'd visited Mexico, admires the shiny star that iUniverse sent me this week. The star commemorates the 500+ copies my novel When Pigs Fly has sold.