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Novel vs. Memoir II: Story Within a Story

Even though I knew I would be drawing heavily on my life for New Old World, I never considered writing it as a memoir. In my head, it was always a novel—because I love novels and wanted to try to write one, but also because I knew that my own life didn’t have all the dramatic turns that a good memoir needed.

For most of my career I’ve been a non-fiction writer, in journalism, public relations, and business settings, so a memoir might have been more within my skill set. I’d already stretched the bounds of journalism with Faces of a Reservation by taking a fairly personal approach to my photographic and written portrait of the Warm Springs Reservation. And I wanted to stretch even more by creating fiction out of my own life.

Like Ti in New Old World, I first planned to fictionalize my time on the reservation, but I was waylaid by life events, which agitated for a wholly different novel. I did finally start on the reservation novel about ten years ago in a largely futile attempt to move some material out of my page-heavy New Old World manuscript, but the “prequel” wanted to be its own thing and resisted these transfers. Now I have seven original but very tentative chapters sitting and waiting for me.

Back when New Old World still bore the working title En Face de L’Eglise (Opposite the Church), I wrote an opening chapter that was an amusing riff on genre. In that throat-clearing essay (“Apologia”) I described all the possible genres that my book was not, maintaining that I just wanted it to be thought of as a Story, with a capital S. I’ll be reproducing this chapter for comic relief in an upcoming blog post.

I realized even then that I was a bit torn about genres, but that I was also willing to play with them. As a result, New Old World is a kind of memoir-novel hybrid, a novel about someone writing a memoir. I suppose every novel narrated in the first person essentially is that, except Ticonderoga Fox has an acute awareness of her writing process, which creates an extra layer of story. The careful reader will see that part of this story-within-a-story is Ti’s desire to create more distance from her subject, as she gradually turns her memoir into a novel.

New Old World is a bit like a 19th-century novel in the slow, expository way it presents Ti, her family constellation, and their history. One device of older novels is to have the central story be told by someone in a tavern or around a fire or at bedtime, with the author as listener. Ti is that storyteller within my novel, and while it may seem that she’s telling the story to herself, she clearly hopes that her son, and her elders, and her lovers are listening.

Ti starts out intimately and nostalgically in the first person, but then with little warning the next three chapters are in the voices of two family members and a lover. Where did they come from? Ti invited them, in a way. She implies in her first chapter and in “Interlude” that she has drawn on the letters and memories of loved ones because it’s their story as much as hers. During the time covered by the early chapters, Ti wasn’t giving a lot of thought to her childhood or her relationships. She was raring to get on with her trip and not very interested in looking back. As the author, I saw this as an opportunity for her family and lover to introduce her and offer some backstory until such a time as Ti wanted to address those subjects herself.

Much earlier, in my very first draft, I had made a similar decision about the final chapters, though “decision” isn’t the right word because it’s just the way the chapters flowed out. It had felt natural, after Ti’s climactic event, to tell the end of the story from the perspective of observers, as if their friend/daughter/niece/wife/ex had withdrawn first to heal and then to embrace her new life, unready to give her own account of those months and years. The opening chapters were always more elusive. After reworking them many times, usually in the first person and sometimes in a mixture of narrative and journal entries, I finally hit on the idea of other people laying Ti’s foundation and then getting her on the road. This gave me my final structure—the differently voiced chapters that bookend the novel. It was a late choice that felt right.

Once Ti starts her cross-country road trip, it’s her story again, told in the first person, still in a kind of memoir style. But just before she’s ready to put herself on the plane to England, her real life intrudes: her baby has become a toddler and is not taking naps anymore, while her husband is going blind. It’s just not the right time to be writing a memoir! So she stashes it away and picks it up again—twelve years later.

That’s the enigmatic “Zigzag” chapter, where it might seem that as the author, I am interjecting myself, but it’s really Ti moving away from and back to her own just-launched opus. If this chapter is difficult to sort out, just imagine the leap of faith that would have been required in my early drafts, when Ti actually gave the manuscript to her cousin James to finish! I clung to that device for years, but realized, with the help of a couple of volunteer readers and the one editor/advisor I hired in this whole process, that it was important to keep the manuscript in Ti’s hands during the heart of the story. It was a trust issue between author and reader.

During the elapsed “down time,” Ti has come around to feeling some distance from her story. She has perspective now that she didn’t have when the events were so fresh, and she feels a natural urge to tell the story in the third person and in a more novelistic fashion. So as “Zigzag” moves along, she begins referring to herself in a mix of first and third person, trying to make a distinction between the old Ti and the new Ti, and preparing the reader for the next sections of the book, which are in the third person.

While this sense of time and distance vaguely mirrors my own experience of working on the novel over three decades, I never put the manuscript down for more than a matter of months. In fact, my own son’s early school years were my most productive time, and before he’d finished elementary school, I had a complete first draft, which I’m not proud to say I’ve been tinkering with ever since!

So now, in the “Old World” and “New World” sections, we’ve entered a third-person story that’s still very much inside Ti’s head, but with passages from other characters’ points of view as they become more important to the story. After the climax, the telling is handed back to friends and family in a long dénouement that sees Ti through a period of grief and rebirth—her new old world. We don’t hear directly from Ti again until the final poem, which adds some new information and gives a sense of circularity and completion to her story…a tale that has gone twenty years beyond her original scope.

What kind of memoir has the narrator popping in and out of her story? What kind of novel shifts the narration from first to third person as well as voice to voice? Maybe the kind of novel-memoir hybrid written by a self-taught fiction writer who feels no compunction about breaking the few rules she knows. Since I write by instinct and then edit with slightly more of my left brain (but not as much as would be engaged in an MFA program), I can only say this with assurance: that New Old World is intended as a novel about a woman who believes she is writing a memoir, until she decides she’s not.

As Ti’s alter ego and creator, it was my job to make sure she told her story as honestly and entertainingly as possible. That meant making my own life infinitely malleable, within the bounds of credibility and the conventions I created for that new life. By choosing to adhere to some aspects of my reality and to imagine others, I may have complicated matters for readers who know me. But I’ve also allowed myself to explore new, unfamiliar things like motherlessness and grief—issues that end up having more bearing on other women’s lives than on my own.

I haven’t attempted in this post to expound on the stylistic and structural differences between a novel and a memoir. But I’d like to quote my editor/advisor, who bravely attempted such a distillation in her report to me. My favorite line: “A novel, mostly unconstrained from fact, is its own unforgiving driving force, with needs that must be met, and curiosities that must be satisfied.”

By this definition, I believe my final version of New Old World is more a novel than it ever was in its 27-year-history. But it also reserves the right to be a memoir whenever it suits my protagonist and her story.

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Novel vs. Memoir I: All in the Family

Everyone has had the experience of reading a novel inspired more or less by the author’s life and wondering which elements are “real” and which are fiction. It’s an exercise that can lead you to a level of truth or lead you astray; it can enrich your reading experience or take you out of the author’s carefully constructed world.

As a reader, I’m guilty of imagining autobiographical content even when it may not be there. How can an author not write about what she knows best? Even in the most fantastical fiction, the author is surely articulating her own experiences and opinions through her characters, be they axe murderers or aliens. But it’s probably because I have written so directly from my own life that I assume others do, too. It’s my literary comfort zone.

As a newly published writer, though, I’m quite outside my comfort zone. After keeping New Old World under wraps for three decades, it’s exciting but also a bit of a shock to have my friends and family reading it and talking about it. I feel exposed, but not because the details of my life are on display—I’m generally pretty open about all that. My discomfort has more to do with the conundrum I unwittingly created for readers who know me well. Almost to a person they’ve reported being distracted by the task of unraveling me from my protagonist Ticonderoga Fox. Whether it’s an elective or an imposed task, it seems to have interfered with their immersion.

My not very admirable first impulse is to apologize—for using my life as source material and then for tweaking it just enough to make it weirdly unfamiliar. The result is a hybrid Ti-Cynthia that I’ve unleashed on my friends and family. Those who have finished the book have been gracious and complimentary but also full of questions, which I try to take at face value and not as cloaked criticism. This is not to say that I haven’t enjoyed the various coffees and e-mail exchanges I’ve had with friends, where I’ve done some voluntary decoding, asked questions of my own, and reassured them that I’m still the same person they thought they knew before I messed with their minds. It’s more fun than I expected to talk about what I’ve written.

A few readers have said they were “hooked” from the start because they enjoyed the quality of writing or found the family intrinsically interesting. But I need to pay attention to those who have reported that the momentum doesn’t really pick up until somewhere in England or France. Is that because they’re busy with the biographical sorting game? I’m heartened by people who made it to the end and said that the payoff is worth the early investment of time and effort. I’m also encouraged by a couple of readers who don’t know my past well and have had smoother sailing through the early chapters and beyond.

But there’s the nagging concern that if my story had been compelling enough, my friends would have been able to resist the comparisons. Or maybe the real culprit is the choice I made to start the novel out slowly, not mid-action, giving readers too much time to ponder where the book is going—and to wonder whether I really had an uncle who was a photographic mentor or a father paralyzed by grief. (Nope on both!)

It probably doesn’t help that I’ve consciously played with genre, using different voices, viewpoints, and narrative distances to blur the line between novel and memoir. I will write more about these choices and devices in my next post.

For now, I’d like to bring a revered American author into the discussion, someone who’s a pro at using his life as a springboard. This past year I picked up Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America for its political prognostication, not for its autobiographical content. My first clue that Roth had drawn on his own family was seeing that the narrator’s name was Philip Roth! This is part of the cheeky, post-modern, 21st-century trend of authors creating protagonists who bear their own name, like avatars in video games. I haven’t read much Roth, but it didn’t take much Googling to learn that Philip and his brother Sandy and their parents lived in a Jewish neighborhood in Newark during the 1930s and ‘40s, just as described in the novel. Of course I idly speculated about whether the real Philip had had a beloved stamp album and a live-in cousin who lost a leg in the war, but any issues of verisimilitude were of no consequence once Roth launched into the central “What if?” of the novel: What if Charles Lindbergh had aced FDR out of his third term as U.S. President, and the national hero and Nazi sympathizer had gone on to be a puppet of the Third Reich? At that point Roth’s family became every Jewish family dealing with anti-semitism, deciding how to resist, and being whisked off to work camps for their own “protection.”

In New Old World I’ve also introduced a family that has some parallels with my own, and then posed multiple “What ifs?”. For example, what if a woman grew up without a mother and that absence affected her life decisions, her relationships, and her thoughts about motherhood? What if she had a crisis while traveling that turned her life around and showed her how to deal with grief at last? They are intimate questions, not political ones, and the answers are personal, not dystopian. But, like Roth’s “What ifs,” they took me outside the limits of my life and served to address larger truths that might speak more universally than my own story could have.

Roth anchored his speculative novel in the reality of his own family, then told a bigger story that not only had repercussions for that family, their neighborhood, and the nation, but continues to serve as a cautionary tale in these Trumpian times. As far as I know, Roth was never apologetic about using his own familiar demographics as his starting point in this and any number of novels. So why is it difficult for me to admit that I’ve written a character so much like me and a story based on some of my own experiences? Is it the suspicion that an author, especially a woman and a first-time novelist, isn’t really being creative if she doesn’t invent a story out of whole cloth? It’s also tempting, as the world shudders under this newest populist surge, to dismiss a very personal story as not relevant or meaningful.

I had gone into this project wanting to better understand a big transition in my life; but I never fully achieved that understanding because the novel took off in other directions, posing different questions with different answers. Would it have been more honest and perhaps instructive, to write a memoir instead of a novel and stick to the “facts”?

In my mind, I didn’t need to choose between novel and memoir—I tapped my life and created something new. I knew my story needed something more than randomness to hold it together—it needed new contexts and a different climax in order to flower into an engaging work that would speak to other human beings on its own terms. So that’s what I did for the sake of a wider audience (commercial viability never having been a goal).

I’ll stick my neck out here and submit that a semi-autobiographical novel should be viewed as total fiction if that is the author’s intention. But the author can’t simply label it a novel—she has to earn the right to that genre by telling her story both universally and specifically enough to keep readers in her dream. If they’re distracted by real-life similarities, perhaps there’s something else wrong, technically or stylistically. But before I jump to conclusions or start rewriting, I will wait patiently for input from strangers who bring to the book only the desire to be captivated by another stranger. It would be nice to have a professional critic weigh in, too.

In the meantime, it may be useful for my readers, both strange and known, to think of New Old World as a puzzle. Not the riddle of who’s who or what’s real, but a series of interlocking story pieces that all fit together into a complete picture by the end. My hope is that readers can relax and have fun handling the individual pieces, no matter how much they look like me.

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Turning a Manuscript into an E-book

I’ve been reading e-books for several years now, but it wasn’t until I started trying to format my own manuscript as an e-book that I truly learned the differences between print and digital versions. This may seem obvious to people familiar with designing e-books and websites—but to the average reader or writer, it’s a bit mysterious.

The biggest difference is that an e-book document has no fixed pages; instead it flows like one continuous document, much like this blog. (Also kind of like Jack Kerouac’s manuscript for On the Road, though I saw that in person and it was Kerouac scrollactually a series of pages taped together into one scroll! See left.) Each e-book reader simulates pages that you can flip through, but of course those pages and their numbers change when you fiddle with the font size or switch from one device to another. So the job of the e-book formatter is to forget about standard page layouts, including margins, headers, and page numbers, and focus on the overall look and style of the text and chapter titles. The most important formatting commands you’ll issue are those telling the conversion software when there should be breaks in the scrolling for new chapters and sections.

One of the handiest features of an e-book is the hyperlinked table of contents that allows the reader to jump to sections and chapters, much more efficient than an imprecise thumb cracking open a book or fanning pages. Creating the hyperlinks was the scariest thing to anticipate but turned out to be the easiest part of e-book formatting. I felt like I’d been let in on a magician’s secret!

I was introduced to e-book formatting last year when I bought a “2Way” template from Book Design Templates online. My goal was to create an attractive internal book design for a very limited print edition that I planned to produce with our local Espresso Book Machine. It was a bonus for me, or so I thought, to be able to make an e-book version at the same time. But it turned out only to be a distraction as I had to disable some of the e-book features for the print version and kept stumbling over the template’s built-in formatting. I did ultimately produce a beautiful print book, but I never could get an acceptable e-book version, partly because of my own ignorance but also because of the conversion program recommended by Book Design Templates. I’m not discouraging anyone from using their templates—they’re good-looking, affordable, and relatively easy to use—but I believe you have better control if you do it yourself from scratch.

So, this past fall, I started all over again with the e-book formatting. I had made quite a few changes to my original Word manuscript and my templates were out of date, so I decided to simply reformat the original. I had chosen Smashwords for my e-book conversion and distribution, and they prefer that you submit a Word document (.doc not .docx!), so at least I was staying within the same program. And their Smashwords Style Guide is so clear and easy to follow that I knew I could do it myself.

A word about hiring a professional designer/formatter: Many people who aren’t as stubbornly DIY as I am will smartly opt for this. Apparently professionals can format an entire e-book (particularly a text-only novel) in a couple of hours, and they only charge somewhere between $100 and $200. So why not!? Because, in my case, I have experience with layout, I enjoy technical challenges, I’m a terrible delegator, and I felt very protective of my photographs and how they displayed. But I can tell you that it took me about six weeks longer than two hours to accomplish! The learning curve was steep and the details endless (not to mention the temptation to keep editing as I was handling the text!). And yet I can still say that it was a lot of fun. (My IT husband/advisor may disagree.)

I won’t be going step by step through the formatting process—I’d end up reproducing the Smashwords Style Guide in order to cover everything, and you can check that out yourself.  Instead I’ll hit a few high points. The Smashwords Holy Grail is an uploaded document that’s formatted as simply and elegantly as possible, with no ambiguous commands and using Word’s “paragraph styles” to precisely define the look and flow of the book. If you have any bad habits left over from the typewriter era—tabs, spacing over, multiple returns—they must be shed once and for all during this process!

My manuscript was double-spaced and in a font I found attractive and readable onscreen. It had margins, headers, page numbers, and a few stylistic special situations like letters, postcards, and poems, as well as quite a bit of italicized text where I’d used French words and phrases. I had to dispense with all of that and completely start over, defining and setting new styles. But I wasn’t willing to do the “nuclear method” that Smashwords recommends, where you clear the formatting of the entire document. Sheer terror at the prospect of 600+ pages of undifferentiated text and spacing caused me to take a hybrid approach—starting a completely new document, defining all my styles at the outset, then moving the text over chapter by chapter.  (The title page, copyright page, dedication, and table of contents I typed directly into the new document.)

I defined 11 styles, perhaps a few more than I needed, but I wanted to be on the safe side! The names of my styles give you an idea of their usage: Novel Text (90% of the book), Centered Text, Chapter #, Chapter Title, Datelines, First Line Chapter, Letters, Poems & ToC, Postcard, Section Head, and Title Page. For some reason that I can’t reconstruct, I used Times for all these styles instead of the Times New Roman that Smashwords recommended, but it worked. The important thing is that you use the most basic font possible to ensure a good “translation.” (Of course readers can change the font to their liking once they have it on their devices.)

With my original document and my e-book document both open side by side on my iMac, I tackled each chapter:  a) setting up each chapter first page with titles and photographs, b) clearing the formatting in the original, c) copying and pasting the chapter text into the new document, d) restoring the formatting of the original document for reference, e) applying styles to the text in the new document. The Find (Command F) option was invaluable, particularly when I was searching for every instance of italics. It’s also important to have the “Show nonprinting characters” function on (the little blue pilcrows, etc.) so you can monitor every single line return, space, and page break. Here’s a screenshot of what my computer screen looked like as I was reformatting:

Reformatting

The original manuscript is to the left, with its page numbers and headers, and rather disorganized line returns, and the new formatting on the right, with cleaner chapter heads and more precise commands and some spacing built into the styles. The Find window shows that I’m searching not for specific words but for anything in italics, which would include my French, my postcards, and my letters.

Note that the e-book document is single-spaced, which turns out differently on different e-readers. For instance, the Kindle version has tighter line spacing, which in my opinion looks clunkier than the iBooks version.  The screenshots below are from my iPad—Kindle at left, iBooks to right.  You can also see that the Meatgrinder (the Smashwords conversion program) has taken care of the justification of text…though I learned while collecting these various screenshots that the iBooks version on the iPhone is not justified—perhaps a readability issue for such short lines (see iPhone shots further down).

img_0175   img_0174

Probably the trickiest part of formatting an e-book is getting photographs and other graphics to display properly. You don’t have absolute control over how big they’ll show up, and each format deals with images differently. All you can do is make sure your photos are small enough not to put your document over the maximum upload size (10 MB for Smashwords) but big enough to be sharp and to approximate the look you want. I made all my photographs 320 pixels wide so they wouldn’t take up the whole screen width but also wouldn’t appear as postage stamps. When you figure in the differences among smart phone, tablet, and computer displays, you can see that it’s a hit-or-miss proposition.  (Compare the iPhone images below, Kindle at left, iBooks at right, with the iPad screenshots above.)  If anyone has any tips for keeping photos in relative proportion to the text, please share!

img_8207       img_8210

 

As for the hyperlinked Table of Contents, I was delighted to discover how easy it was. In a nutshell, you insert a bookmark before your chapter title, give it a unique one-word name, then go back to the ToC you’ve already typed, highlight the equivalent chapter, go to Insert—Hyperlink, and anchor it to the bookmark. And that’s it! There can be glitches along the way, and I had a couple, but Smashwords helped resolve them.

Throughout the formatting, I did a number of test conversions using a program that Book Design Templates introduced me to. It’s called Calibre, and it converts books into a host of digital formats. But I’ve learned that each converter has its quirks—for instance, Calibre can’t justify the text in an EPUB format to save its life, and the Meatgrinder at Smashwords has an odd habit of inserting blank pages between page breaks. Another bit of awkwardness is that Calibre only accepts .docx from Word while the Meatgrinder wants .doc, so I was constantly having to save in different versions for testing. But these trial runs with each converter gave me the general idea whether things were working, particularly with the hyperlinks and the photos. And when I had problems I just couldn’t puzzle out, a very kind and smart guy named Kevin at the Smashwords help desk looked at my document to see where the errors were, and/or ran my document through the Meatgrinder on a test basis. That way, before I officially uploaded it on “publishing day,” I knew that my document was clean and I was confident it would survive their “AutoVetter,” which identifies formatting errors.

I can’t say enough about how helpful Smashwords was during the formatting. Since I wasn’t paying them upfront, I didn’t expect to have access to a help desk, much less someone like Kevin who could quickly diagnose my issues and test my fixes. But I’m not sure he or anyone else would have been as willing to help if I hadn’t demonstrated some proficiency in Word or familiarity with the Smashwords guidelines. Fair warning: this process is not for the unprepared or the faint of heart!

As I’ve said before, I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and it was hard while formatting my e-book to let go of some of the control I had when designing my print book. But it’s important to realize that the Meatgrinder at Smashwords is a generalist, having to come up with a product that works for the range of e-readers available, from iPads to iPhones to Kindles to Nooks. Kevin said that the Meatgrinder would be undergoing an upgrade soon to eliminate some of its idiosyncrasies, but in the meantime I think it did a remarkable job of turning my Word doc into a presentable, sometimes even attractive, e-book.

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A Trip Through the Meatgrinder

This post is likely to get a little wonky. It’s intended for those who are considering self-publishing through Smashwords, so I’m assuming you’re as interested in the mechanics of “meatgrinding” as I am.

What is this Meatgrinder I’ve been referring to? It’s the nickname for the software Smashwords uses to convert Word manuscripts to various e-book formats. While it conjures an amusing mental image, its results are a whole lot better than chopped liver. And let me hasten to add here that Smashwords is paying me nothing for sharing both my fascination with their process and my esteem for their services.

The trip to the Meatgrinder is the hard part for the writer—not just the writing but the formatting and the preparation of support materials. The meatgrinding itself is quick and painless if you’ve gotten all the formatting right. What Smashwords coaxes out of you is the cleanest manuscript possible (and I’m not talking about the content – they do accept erotica!). What I mean is that the simpler and less ambiguous your style commands are, the better your manuscript will do in the Meatgrinder. To that end, the Smashwords Style Guide (downloadable in Kindle or iBooks formats) takes you by the hand down the road to minimizing errors and qualifying for their Premium Catalog. The only really odd thing about Smashwords is that they ask for your manuscript to be in the old Word.doc format instead of the newer .docx, or InDesign, for that matter. (Let them explain that to you!) But if you didn’t know Word well before using the guide, you’ll be a pro by the time you’re done with your formatting—especially the proper and precise use of styles and how to do a hyperlinked table of contents.

In my next post I’ll be describing the formatting process in detail, so let’s skip to the upload process. This assumes that you have a totally renovated document, complete with title and copyright pages, a working table of contents, back matter, and a sharp-looking cover that Smashwords recommends you have designed professionally (a caveat I ignored). You’re ready to tackle the Publish page on the Smashwords site! This page is visible only to people who have created accounts at Smashwords, which I encourage you to do so you can see what’s expected and how to prepare. Basically, you should already have been working on and refining your bio, your short blurb (400 characters), and long synopsis (4,000 characters) because these are going to appear everywhere—not just in the Smashwords store but at all the retailer sites and libraries—and they need to effectively draw people in.

Once you’ve uploaded your blurbs, you’ll continue on down the Publish page—this is the fun stuff! You’ll set the price of your book (generally somewhere between free and $9.99, but there are exceptions), decide what percentage of your book can be sampled for free, choose a genre and subgenre, create some tags to describe the content so shoppers can find your book according to their interests, and decide what formats you want your book to be available in. I described these formats in my previous post, but it’s worth repeating some of it.

The Meatgrinder can create all of the following e-book versions: EPUB, MOBI, PDF, LRF (old Sony Readers), PDB (Palm Doc), Plain Text, and Online Reader. I chose all but Palm Doc and Plain Text, which wouldn’t have worked with my photograph-heavy format. (Yes, my novel has photos!) Smashwords sends the EPUB version to Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble (Nook), Sony, Kobo, Android Aldiko, Blio, Inktera, Scribd, and various library channels. The MOBI version is invaluable because it’s the format for Kindles, the “amazon” of e-readers, and it may be the only way you’ll reach Kindle readers outside of publishing directly with Amazon. PDFs are good for people who don’t have devices and somehow manage to read whole books on their desktop computers or laptops. I’m not sure I see the use of the Online Reader option at the Smashwords site because it tends to mangle your format.

When I was ready to upload my precious Word document and cover, I had my husband sit next to me for moral support. Since he’s an Apple developer, he was also interested in how this process might be similar to submitting an app to the Apple store. He can write his own post about that! Some of this surprisingly fast trip through the Meatgrinder is a blur because I was so excited and nervous, but my overall impression was that it went incredibly smoothly after one initial hitch: my manuscript didn’t upload on the first try, maybe because it was so big, so I got an error and tried again with success. We thought we were going to see the Meatgrinder’s wheels turning or teeth gnashing, so we were a little disappointed when only a progress page popped up. But there, for the next five minutes which felt like an eternity, we could monitor the status of each format as it was completed. And then suddenly this page was replaced with a “Congratulations…you’re published” notice!

At that point New Old World was in the Smashwords store, at the top of the list—this is the “fifteen minutes of fame” that is somewhat overhyped by Smashwords. For those authors who have received error meVersion 2ssages, this 15 minutes (not to mention the whole next day!) can be chewed up fixing the errors. In my case, I had survived the dreaded “AutoVetter,” a rather Star-Warsian term for the program that looks for fatal formatting problems that will keep you from premium status. Even without any errors to fix (thanks, Style Guide and help desk!), there was one more hurdle—the EPUB check, which required downloading Adobe Digital Editions and running the EPUB version through it. That produced a long list of gobbledygook that both my husband and the Smashwords FAQ page said I could ignore. So I did, and the book was launched into review for the Premium Catalog!

Somewhere along the line, almost as an afterthought even though it was a high point for me, I was prompted to fetch my ISBN number, which Smashwords assigns. I’ll never commit those thirteen digits to memory, but it was very satisfying to receive them after 27 years of dreaming, writing, and editing my novel. And it was a nice convenience for Smashwords to provide the ISBN rather than having to buy it myself from Bowker.com. (Note: I’ve since learned that only the EPUB version receives the automatic ISBN. You have to get your own ISBNs for other versions, if you feel the need.)

It took about 24 hours for my e-book to go through the premium review, and by the time I was notified of the acceptance, I’d already sold two books at Smashwords—to my son and to a good friend! As soon as New Old World was approved for the Premium Catalog, Smashwords began shipping it to Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, with other retailers to follow. I think it was just a day or two before it started showing up on other sites. And that’s when I threw a monkey wrench into the Meatgrinder!

I wasn’t happy with how two graphics were displaying, and the title of one poem had been left out of the automatically generated table of contents, so the perfectionist in me spent the next day trying to figure out how to solve these problems. When I uploaded my improved version, it not only got the Meatgrinder going again but it triggered a second premium review process! This was an expedited review, though, so it only took a few hours instead of a day. Good thing, because I triggered the review process inadvertently one more time when I added the PDF version to my list of formats!

After about three days of fiddling and reviewing, the best possible version of my book was out there, so it was safe to start notifying my family and friends. But that’s another story. The rest of the week was happily spent checking and rechecking iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Blio, and Scribd for signs of New Old World. And one by one, they showed up, though so far 99% of my sales have been through Smashwords.

Maybe I amuse easily, or I just have a high tolerance and respect for tech, but I found this Meatgrinder process fascinating. I promise that future posts will have more to do with the content of my novel…after I’ve described the formatting of an e-book!

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Why Smashwords?

The decision to use Smashwords as my e-book converter and distributor was somewhat unexpected. Smashwords was on my radar, but I had been leaning toward self-publishing through Kindle Direct at Amazon. I participated in an Amazon webinar and downloaded their formatting guide, Building Your Book for Kindle. Then I heard about the Multnomah County Library Writers Project, and I made a quick 90-degree turn.

Our library was inviting local authors to submit their novels to be considered for the library’s e-book catalog, and one of their few requirements was that the book come through Smashwords. I studied up on what Smashwords had to offer and realized that once I followed all their guidelines, not only would I have an acceptable product for the library but New Old World would be available in a number of formats, including Kindle, and would be distributed around the world! I had nothing to lose, and most importantly, I now had a deadline: Dec. 15, 2016.

It was by then October and I was still doing my “final” edit. (There had been other “final” edits, and I even continued to edit while I was reformatting the manuscript for the e-book!) Once I’d downloaded and skimmed the Smashwords Style Guide, I was raring to go, and any thoughts I’d entertained of hiring a professional to do the formatting went by the wayside. I realized I could easily do it myself and retain complete control over the special design considerations of my book, including the use of photographs, a few pages of poetry, and a couple of other touches. Perhaps what nudged me over the edge was that I could format the book in Word and not have to learn Adobe InDesign.

With Smashwords’ very clear instructions, and some super e-mail support, I had my manuscript ready by the first of December. I spent the weekend polishing my bio and the two synopses (short and long) that accompany the book in the various retail catalogs. You really want to make sure you’ve captured the spirit and content of your book (and yourself!), so it’s a little nerve-wracking. That Monday, Dec. 5, I uploaded the formatted Word document and the support materials to the Smashwords “Meatgrinder,” which is what they affectionately call their e-book converter. And later that same day, New Old World was available for purchase in the Smashwords catalog!

But my goal was to get my book into the Smashwords Premium Catalog, not only because that’s what the library required but because once a book achieves premium status, Smashwords distributes it to an extensive network of retailers worldwide.  I was excited out of all proportion to learn that through one of their channels my book might reach retailers in England and France, the settings of large parts of my novel!   More practically, a great appeal for me was that instead of creating my e-book in different formats for different distributors or retailers, I could do it once and Smashwords would not only ship it, but handle the financial end so I wouldn’t have to manage multiple outlets and accounts.

The cost for all this? Free! Smashwords takes a cut of the retail price (about 10-15%), as do the retailers Smashwords distributes to (30%), but there’s no upfront cost to publishing with Smashwords. As the author, you retain all rights to both the original manuscript and the published e-book, and you simply license Smashwords and other retailers to sell it.  As the publisher of your work, you can unpublish at any time or take the same work to another publisher/distributor, like Amazon.  The downside of all this freedom is that your Smashwords e-book is not DRM-protected (DRM=Digital Rights Management) so it’s relatively easy for people to share your book without paying for multiple copies.  Pricing it low and making it available as many places as possible helps head off such piracy.

A word about the formats churned out by the Meatgrinder:  I focused on EPUB because that’s what the library wanted from me, but I’ve come to understand that it’s also Smashwords’ most “powerful” format, used by Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble (Nook), Kobo, Sony readers, and Android Aldiko, as well as other retailers, subscription services, and libraries.  Smashwords also produces a MOBI version for Kindle readers, so technically you don’t have to publish at Amazon to reach Kindles.  If your book sells really well at Smashwords, they might send it on to Amazon, but there may be good reasons to do it yourself directly.  I need to study up on this!  There are lesser versions you can elect to have the Meatgrinder produce, too, like one for old Sony readers and a PDF for device-less folks.  Smashwords has most everyone covered—except print book lovers.

New Old World did make it into the Premium Catalog, and it could well be winging its way to England and France as I write this (in fact I think I’ll go check W.H. Smith and FNAC online!).  But I need to come full circle and finish my library story first.  With my book ensconced in the Smashwords catalog, I could now prepare my submission to the Library Writers Project. I wrote two short essays about why library members might be interested in my book, pasted in a link to my book page at Smashwords, and turned in the application with a week to spare! I’ll learn by February whether the library wants to acquire New Old World, but it’s more than reassuring to know that my novel is in the e-book marketplace—and several friends and family members are already reading it!

While they’re reading, I’m sitting at my nifty Smashwords Dashboard, watching sales come in, getting reports on page visits and download activity, generating coupons for complimentary books, and seeing what channels the book has been shipped to.  I can even upload a new version of New Old World from the Dashboard, a dangerous feature that makes it tempting to do more “final” editing!

But as easy and straightforward as it was to publish through Smashwords, it’ll be a while before I engage the Meatgrinder again.  Now that the book is out there and once the holidays and winter colds are over, I must begin promoting it more publicly.  It’s more fun, though, to reflect on my Smashwords experience and blog about it!

Of course time will tell if Smashwords is as good at distribution as it was in production.  At this point I can say unequivocally that Smashwords was a very professional enabler and ally in my quest to create an e-book.  Almost everything I needed to know to prepare my manuscript for publication was on the extensive FAQ page or in the Style Guide, and when I got stumped, I turned to their help desk and found a wonderful guy named Kevin who drilled down to bedrock with each of my issues. I’ll be doing future posts about the formatting and uploading processes, but in the meantime, you can peruse the Smashwords FAQ page at https://www.smashwords.com/about/supportfaq.

And hopefully this post will encourage you to take the leap with your own book.

 

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Now available!

I’m excited to announce that my novel New Old World has been published as an e-book. You can download it now at the Smashwords website, in both the EPUB and MOBI formats, for $4.99. Here’s a link to the New Old World page at Smashwords:  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/687602

If you want to read New Old World on your Apple device, just download the EPUB version to iBooks.  EPUB is also the format for Kobo, Sony, and Barnes & Noble readers, as well as the Aldiko app on Android. MOBI is the format for Kindles or the Kindle app. I’ve also made a PDF version available for those who don’t have e-readers. For more info on the magic of purchasing and downloading at Smashwords, try consulting their FAQ page.

It may be a lot easier to buy New Old World directly from your devices at the iBooks Store, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.  You can also find it at Scribd (a subscription service) and Inktera.  Smashwords distributes to libraries, too, so you might check your local library’s catalog after a bit.  My next project will be to publish at Amazon, but remember you can get the Kindle version from Smashwords. See the “Where to Buy” widget at the right for links to various retailers.

Enough technical stuff and back to the book!  There are thorough descriptions of New Old World at Smashwords, but you can also click on the “About the Novel” tab above. Another option is to download a free sample from Smashwords to get a taste of the style and content. Keep checking back here for updates or to offer your comments and questions!

 

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E-book coming soon!

The novel New Old World by C. D. Stowell will be published in December 2016 as a Smashwords e-book title.  It will be available at smashwords.com in the EPUB and MOBI (Kindle) formats, as well as at iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and many other retailers.  I’m in the final stages of editing and formatting, so stay tuned!

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