Thursday, February 28, 2013

Buy an ISBN or several

(This is the 8th part of my How To Publish An Ebook thang.)

Every book you'll find in a bookstore has an ISBN--an International Something Book Number. It's a tracking number that's used to track inventory and it allows the bookseller and the book buyer to unambiguously identify a specific edition of a specific book.

This means that if you were to publish a book in hardback, in paperback, and also in large-print, you'd be able to ring up your bookseller and get the edition you want. And an ebook is just a different sort of edition that doesn't kill trees. So, you'll want it to have a unique ISBN number.

When you publish an ebook, you don't absolutely have to have an ISBN, but if you don't, it'll scream "amateur." There are ways to get an ISBN that you don't have to pay for, but if you do, it'll have biblographic information encoded in it that you may not want.

ISBN numbers look random, but they are not. They are a fixed 10 or 13 number of digits, and they give a code number to every publishing company, and a sequence number associated with which book this is in your catalog of books. If you're a mega corporation, with thousands of titles, you'll be given a shorter publisher code and a longer catalog number. And if you're a small fry like me, you'll have a longer publisher code number and a shorter catalog number.

If you do a bit of googling of how ISBN works, you'll be able to look at any random book's ISBN number and know how big the publisher is--or isn't.

The pricing of ISBN numbers accounts for deep quantity discounts. If you want to buy a single ISBN number, it'll cost you just a few bucks less than if you buy ten ISBN numbers. Thus I suggest you NEVER buy a single ISBN number, and always buy a lot of ten ISBN numbers. If you publish a book in ebook and it sells enough to justify a paperback edition, you'll need that 2nd ISBN number and that's when you'll save money.

Prices right now are $125 for one, $250 for ten, $575 for a hundred and $1000 for a thousand.

You'll want to go to Bowker Identification Services and sign up for an account. Then follow their instructions to get as many ISBN numbers as you want. You'll get an email from them with a set of ISBNs that you can later assign to your works.

 As you publish editions, you'll go back to your account with Bowker to provide the information that they'll associate with this number when anyone asks. This will be the number you provide as metadata.

(You can find the bullet-point outline of How To Publish An Ebook here.)

Register a Company Name

(This is the 7th installment of my How To Publish An Ebook thang.)

When you publish an ebook, you'll have to identify who is publishing it. Publishing is a business and by publishing a book you are going into business for yourself.
You might say Steve Poling Publishing, but why should you publicize me? Instead, come up with a cool name for a publishing company. When you come up with a cool name, google it and make sure nobody else has something close.

Run it past some friends to get their reactions, because it's really easy to not-see problems with the name. I have a friend who came up with a cool name for a company that just happens to differ by only one letter from a slang term for an unnatural sexual act.

Once you've got a name you like, you have to register that name. How will you register the name depends upon your jurisdiction and how you want to organize your publishing company. Maybe you want to organize your publishing company as a multinational corporation. Get a lawyer and ask him what to do.

To start a little smaller, you can organize as a sole proprietorship and file for what I call a DBA. The letters stand for "Doing Business As." This probably won't need a lawyer. It depends upon your jurisdiction. In Michigan all you need to do is fill out a form, give it to the County Clerk with a fee and get approval. I suppose they check to make sure someone else doesn't already have that same name. (Just for laughs, why not try to file "Ford Motor Company" and see what happens.)

If some MBA tells you different, believe them instead.

Once you've got the name you are going to publish under, get ready to use it in a number of places. Starting with your ebook's metadata.
(You can find the bullet-point outline of How To Publish An Ebook here.)

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Alimentary Tract

A few weeks ago I was watching what passes for a Sherlock Holmes TV show on American television. The show begins with a policeman coming under fire from what sounded to me to be a machine gun. The appearance of the weapon was a hand-held machine pistol and I heard to term MP5 used to describe the weapon. Presumably, this machine gun was the Heckler & Koch MP5 that has a firing rate of 700 too 900 rounds per minute.

It has been unlawful since 1934 (The National Firearms Act) for civilians to own machine guns without special permission from the U.S. Treasury Department. Since the Firearms Owners' Protection Act of 1986, ownership of newly manufactured machine guns has been prohibited to civilians. Machine guns which were manufactured prior to the Act's passage are regulated under the National Firearms Act, but those manufactured after the ban cannot ordinarily be sold to or owned by civilians.

In the course of the investigation Sherlock Holmes' boss, a policeman makes a point to state that the gun was a semi-automatic with a large-capacity magazine. These are code-words in the current debate about gun control.

At first blush, it appeared that the script writer wanted to show that the police in New York City do not understand the difference between a semi-automatic weapon and a machine gun.

That's not unusual, a lot of people who know nothing of firearms hear fully-automatic or semi-automatic and they make no distinction. But the former is a machine gun and the latter is a single-shot firearm.

Upon further reflection, the script writer was saying something different, because later s/he intimates that the gun had been subjected to an illegal modification to convert it into a machine gun. So the writer was making a point about this illegal modification. Perhaps the justification for this narrative speed-bump was to make the viewing public more supportive of new gun laws.

One needn't possess Sherlock Holmes' deductive powers to wonder how would new gun laws deter the criminal who in this story had already violated Federal laws passed in 1934 and 1986?

But I'm more interested in the narrative speed-bump.

The audience tunes into a detective show on television to see all the things one expects of crime-fighting--searching for clues, drawing inferences from them, catching criminals, and bringing them to justice. Audience members can be equally entertained by this whether they are NRA members, ACLU members, or both. The audience has not tuned into a tract for any activist's cause.

Any speed-bump takes the audience out of the story--even those sympathetic to the political axe being ground. This is a tax on the storyteller. Part of what I call the Hollywood Stupid Tax.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Convert ePub to Mobi using Calibre

(This is the 6th part of my multi-part How To Publish An Ebook thang.)

If you have an e-reader or more than a couple ebooks, you should use Calibre to organize them. Calibre is like iTunes for ebooks. It is also free software.

Calibre enables you to download ebooks from your Kindle or Nook or iPad or whatever and then transfer them onto your computer's hard disk. When you have more than one ereader (or like me, one of each), Calibre is a good tool for putting an optimal mix of ebooks on each.

I don't approve of archiving all my ebooks on Amazon's or some other company's server. Instead, I believe I should have all the ebooks that I've purchased on my own hard disks and on backup medium. It stops Amazon from doing skeezy things like taking books away from you when they feel they must.

But that's not why I'm writing.

When you bring an ebook into Calibre it can convert it between different ebook formats. There are only two ebook formats you need to care about: MOBI and ePub (Sure there is LRF for Sony readers, and CLT for Microsoft readers, and PDF, and something else that's Apple-specific, but you really don't need more than those two ebook formats.) When you sell for the iPad, Kobo, Sony, or Nook, you provide ePub format files. And when you sell for the Kindle you provide MOBI format files.

The workflow that I follow, and that I recommend goes like this:

DOCX => HTML =>  ePub => MOBI

You use Microsoft Word to create DOCX files, then Rick Boatright's web page to convert to HTML, then use Sigil to build ePub (and make everything perfect), then use Calibre to convert to MOBI.

If, like Finding Time, your ebook has a lot of images/illustrations in it, you may need to compress the MOBI file to reduce the "delivery charges" that Amazon levies against large-sized ebooks. To compress a MOBI, just take the MOBI file and convert it a 2nd time to MOBI to make the compression happen.

Converting between ePub and MOBI formats is pitifully easy. Just go into Calibre.
  • Load your ePub file (from Sigil) into Calibre by clicking on the "Add Book(s)" button
  • Right click on the book and select "Convert Books"/"Convert Individually" from the popuup
  • On the upper left hand corner, verify that it says ePub
  • On the upper right hand corner, verify that it says MOBI
  • If not, change the buttons in the corner accordingly
  • Verify the metadata on the file is as you want (it should have been set up in Sigil)
  • Click the OK button
Play around with the dialog and acquaint yourself with all the controls. If there's anything you don't recognize or don't know, you might want to consult the Calibre documentation.

This isn't rocket surgery, the guys at Calibre have done all the work for you, and the program is free!

One more word on workflow. I suggest you be prepared to run this process multiple times. The logical place to fix typos is in DOCX files. And then you'll have to redo everything downstream from there. The more you can automate of that downstream processing, the less painful typos will be.

And typos are one of the key indicators of amateurism in self-published ebooks. Be prepared to test the dickens out of your ebooks. Many eyes make shallow bugs. You want the maximum number of eyes on your books before publication.
(You can find the bullet-point outline of How To Publish An Ebook here.)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Reverse Engineering ePubs

When you publish an ebook, you should study what others have done. There are some serious adults out there who can do some marvelous things in ebook design. And when you try to do the same, it can end up looking lame. The way to save yourself from looking lame is to learn what the serious adults did and so something similar.

I am a firm dis-believer in DRM. I think it is the tool of the devil and I will never willingly use DRM in anything that I publish. Moreover, DRM is something that one can easily defeat with just a fair amount of Googling. I mention DRM not because I want a flame war but to explain why you might not be able to reverse engineer some of the smart-kids' ebook designs. If you try to study an ebook that's DRM encrypted, you'll have to first defeat the encryption.

I think the great strength of Sigil is how well it works at opening up an existing ebook and showing you its structure. Sigil reads and writes ePub files. But what if the ebook you want to study is in MOBI (Kindle) format. Not to worry. Load the ebook into Calibre and ask it to convert from MOBI into ePub. You do use Calibre to manage all your ebooks, don't you? I've even heard rumors that those sneaky Russians have a way to circumvent DRM with a Calibre plug-in.

Once you have an ebook unencumbered by DRM, open the ebook's ePub file in Sigil and look around. You'll see a table of contents, a cover, content, and metadata. Take notes of what you see.

For instance, study the copyright page of your ebook. How can you make yours look cool and professional? What Tor Science Fiction did was to create an image of exactly the right size and on this image they put text and line-art consisting of the requisite info in the perfect typeface and size. Good idea. I can do the same in my ebook's typeface with my ebook's text.

How about the metadata for your ebook? What should you put in? Grab two or three other ebooks and look at what those guys included. Just make sure that your exemplars should be comparable to your own ebook. If you're making a cookbook, don't study a thriller's metadata. And if you're making a thriller, don't glom onto a cookbook's metadata.

Pay attention to the sequence that the other guys used to organize their ebooks. Do you really need to put the Table of Contents at the front of the ebook? Or the title page? Often times people will look at the excerpt at the front of your work. You don't want this clotted up with a bunch of non-prose that doesn't help the reader toward a buying decision.

Do your chapters have titles that look like "Chapter One" or "The Adventure Begins"? Which do you want to appear in your Table of Contents? What did someone smarter than you do in a similar circumstance?

If you see an ebook that looks amateurish, notice what it is that makes it look that way. Then look at a professional ebook to find out how it creates the opposite impression. Usually, when I see an ebook that looks amateurish, it doesn't have a snazzy enough cover. This is why I prefer to hire out cover design.

The main thing you want to do from this step is to build up checklists of things you don't want to forget to put in your ebook, and to raise questions for which you need to research the answers you'll need later.

(You can find the bullet-point outline of How To Publish An Ebook here.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Create A Snazzy Cover

When you publish an ebook you're going to need a cover.

I like pretty girls and I won't balk at buying a book with a pretty girl on the cover. Obviously, I'm not into Regency Romance novels, but if I were I'd be on the lookout for books with a pretty boy on the cover--some dashing Captain back from the war in a pirate shirt. Maybe holding a sword and looking swashbuckling.

And a girl holding a sword looking swashbuckling is appealing, too. I'm not trying to be a sexist jerk here. I'm just saying that your ebook will have a market and that market will respond to the cover of your book.

Sex sells. If you are gnashing your teeth at the intimation that an attractive female might be reduced to an object of commerce, you might take comfort that attractive males can be so objectified, too. And this is the problem with using sex to sell: you can easily offend unawares or unintentionally. Tread tastefully.

If you are a closet Rembrandt, then all you need do is dash off a pleasing study of your main character doing something interesting--hopefully with a gun or swashbuckling. Sadly, I am not a closet Rembrandt, or Picasso, or anybody else. My art is best pinned on refrigerators with little magnets.

With this in mind I set about finding an artist. Here's what I did and it has worked out quite well for me: I went to Google image search and put in "steampunk" because I was looking to publish a Sherlock Holmes story. I confined the search to After paging through a few hundred images, I found one I liked. Then I looked at the artist's portfolio and liked what I saw. (I recommend you look for a particular "style" that you find agreeable.)

A few moments later I emailed Joanne Renaud asking if she might do the cover art for The Aristotelian. She would and she quoted a price I found fair. We drew up a simple contract to do the art and get paid. PayPal provided a satisfactory conduit for payment. Joanne and I live in different states, but we were able to make effective use of email, facebook & twitter to convey my vision to her and to get back drafts.

Your publishing project may include a different mix of specialists, and you should learn to work effectively with each business partner. I recommend that you keep the questions "what" and "how" clear in your mind. You own the "what" and your specialist owns the "how."

I regard Joanne as a business partner and I value her opinions about artsy stuff. I would propose ideas and ask if they worked artistically. I had a devil of a time describing what a Lasanian skycycle looked like and I ended up googling images and saying "like this, but elliptical." I suppose that had we been able to share sketches on the back of a napkin, it might have gone faster.

You should learn to do rough sketches and storyboards. More on that later...

It is important to share a clear vision of what you want to the cover to look like. I recommend going through bookstores and finding the covers that jump out at you. I suggest standing about 20 feet away from a shelf of books and then look at their covers. If they pop out visually, consider something like them. Then go to Amazon, where most people will be making the buying-decision for your book, and look at what works for you. And understand why it works for you.

I devised a sort of "grammar" of what the big-money book designers are doing and I tried to implement something like that in Finding Time. In the case above, I took inspiration from both Sarah Hoyt's Darkship Thieves and also Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game.

Ender's Game is an interesting book-cover-study. Do a Google image search on the cover. You'll see how cover design has evolved in the last three decades. The cool, angular space ships and funky typefaces of the '80s have been replaced with something that's more personal and more iconic.

You'll want to think a bit about your cover lettering. It should mesh with your story. I picked a Trajan typeface for Finding Time because it was more "timeless" and I used an Algerian typeface for The Aristotelian because it was more "Victorian."

But don't do what I tell you, do what you think works for you.
(You can find the bullet-point outline of How To Publish An Ebook here.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Copy HTML into Sigil

This is the third step in my multi-step tutorial on how to publish an ebook.

I use Sigil. You can find it here. It is free. You can download Sigil and soon be generating ePub files to publish. I spent about a day learning how to use it.

One of the good things about Sigil is that it'll read pretty much any unencrypted ePub file. If you see someone else's ebook and wonder, "How'd s/he do that?" You can use Sigil to reverse-engineer it. I'll talk more about that later.

For now, let's just stick with the basics. After you download Sigil and read its online documentation--or skim it at least. You should run it on your machine. It'll look something like this:

Now, get the HTML files you converted in the last step of this process. Click on that little blue cross on the toolbar and that will enable you to add your HTML files to the project. Put them in the folder marked Text.

You may have some images that your ebook uses. You have to copy them into the Images folder. Use the right-click pop up menu. If you have a lot of images, this can get involved.
If you have images like this, then you have to go into the HTML markup and change the locations to point inside the epub file. (If you're confused, don't try to grok this in one go. Just take this as a placeholder for something you have to learn to do, or hire out to a teenager.)

That's it for now. If you are serious about doing this, you should not regard this tutorial as anything more than a roadmap. You should spend the next few hours reading the Sigil documentation. It's not particularly hard, and if you know what you're doing, you can probably figure things out for yourself.

(You can find the bullet-point outline of How To Publish An Ebook here.)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Convert To HTML

This is part 2 of a multipart tutorial on How To Publish An Ebook: Convert to HTML.

You may not know this, but an ebook is a lot like a web page. You're looking at a web page right now, and what makes it work is a markup language called HTML. The people who keep track of internet standards can tell you the difference between HTML4, HTML5, XHTML, XML and several other similar data format standards. You probably don't care. I'll be inexact in my terminology: when I say HTML I may be playing fast-and-loose and really mean XHTML instead. Will this hurt anything?

I hope not. I'd rather you get a few niggling details wrong and get the overall concept right.

Let's suppose you've gone through the process of writing a book. And that book just happens to be in DOCX format. This is the file format that Microsoft Word uses. If you use another word processor, you can probably get it converted to DOC or DOCX format easily enough. Otherwise, ask and we'll work out that contingency.

There are a lot of ways to convert a DOCX file into HTML. And they all work fairly well. However, they tend to generate bloated HTML code. You can generally represent something in many different ways. And when you have a Word document, it can have a lot of odd formatting things that anyone might put in for any reason. But that's not you because you're writing an ebook.

However, file format translation programs don't know that, and they can add a lot of just-in-case code in their HTML translations. Maybe you like having all that bloat in your HTML files, but I like to be able to see what's going on when I inspect an HTML file. (Generally this happens after something goes wrong and I need to find out why.)

That's why I like a clean, lean, light-weight HTML translation that's relatively minimalist. (And if your ebook design is not minimalist, you're doing something wrong.)

That's where Rick Boatright's translation comes in handy for me. Go here to see what i mean.

You'll see two boxes. One on the left and another on the right.

Go into Word. Hit Control-A to select everything. Then hit Control-C to copy everything.

Go into your browser and Rick's translation page. Click in the left box and hit Control-V to paste everything.

Select the checkboxes you want, then click the button marked "Clean up Word Text" and wait for a few minutes--depending on how long your document is. If it barfs, break up  your ebook into chapters and try again.

When you get each piece of your ebook translated to HTML, click in the right box and hit Control-A to select everything, and Control-C to copy everything. Then paste your buffer into a Notepad file and save it off with an extension of HTML into project directory.

When done, you should be able to double-click on each HTML document to see what it looks like in your browser. Pictures can be a bit tricky. You may want to get some help to get pictures put in the right places. It's not hard to do, just hard to explain in a brief post like this one.

Now is a good time to look for badly translated symbols like smart-quotes, copyright or trademark symbols and other bits of noise that'll hurt the appearance of your ebook. It's best to find these errors as early in the workflow process as possible to avoid rework

Do you have to use Rick Boatright's translator? No. Can you use other HTML translators? Probably. I'm only telling you what worked for me. And you might have some other way that works better. I certainly haven't cornered the market on truth. Can you avoid Word altogether and use another tool that generates clean HTML automatically? Idunno. Haven't tried.

Let me know if you have tried something different--like, say, Scrivener.

(You can find the bullet-point outline of How To Publish An Ebook here.)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Write A Book

This is part 1 of a bigger collection of posts of "How to publish an ebook."

First you have to write a book. If you have paid attention to Robert Heinlein's five commandments, you've been doing just that. I strongly suggest you NOT try to publish your deathless prose until after you've written a million words.

In addition to your deathless, prose you may want to think of ebook design.

I suggest you use your favorite word processor, but you only want to use a subset of its formatting capabilities. Microsoft Word is a big bloated beast of a program because it enables a ton of different functions you won't use. You won't use multiple columns in an ebook. Things like tables and drop-caps are troublesome--avoid them.

The rationale is that you're going to end up with either a MOBI or an ePub file which are both built on top of XHTML. If you don't see a cool typesetting feature in a lot of web pages, you probably can't put it in an ebook, either. In later steps you'll be converting your book into XHTML and if the converter program barfs, you have to back up and revise your book to avoid the typographic thang which caused the barfage.

Easier to start with a vanilla word processing file. I'm assuming you will be starting with a DOCX file generated by Microsoft Word.

I've never used Scrivener, but if someone reading this has any strong opinions about it I'm all ears. Just keep in mind that whatever you use has to have some mechanism for generating XHTML.

Typefaces are not fonts, but fonts are specific implementations of a particular typeface. If you're not into typography it behooves you to learn just enough to not-suck at book design.

Typefaces come in three flavors: serif, sans-serif, and display. Use sans-serif for forms and signage. Use serif for body text. Use display for headers and titles. This is because centuries ago the monks copying texts found that adding those tittles at the ends of letters made reading faster/easier than without them. Besides, when the Romans carved words in stone, they took pains to make them look nice. That's why many serif typefaces have Roman in their names. And when people used to read newspapers, they often chose the London Times or the New York Times. That's why many typefaces have Times in their name, too.

However, just a word or two works in sans-serif. Popular with Nazis, Communists and highway departments, sans-serif is the typeface of totalitarians. 

There are other times when you want your text to evoke a time or place. Ferinstance, a book about camping might have its title rendered with letters that look like bent pieces of logs. An Algerian face evokes thoughts of the Victorian era, and the Star Trek face evokes a Science Fiction vibe. These are all instances of Display typefaces. They vary to an incredible extent and you don't care about Display typefaces until you get to cover design.

You need to pick a typeface for your ebook that is supported by your e-reader hardware. If you are using Microsoft word, use Times New Roman for everything. That's not exactly what Kindle or the Nook uses, but it's so close you have to be a typeface designer to know.

Next you have to worry about which letters you use in your ebook. You want to use 'single quotes' or "double quotes" and not use ‘single quotes’ or “double quotes”. If you don't replace all these characters, you'll end up with unsightly blocks where these characters are used in your text. Same goes for several other special character.  Microsoft Word likes to make your documents look better and they do so by changing what you type into something that means the same but looks better.

The more of these characters you remove up front when you write your book, the less tweaking you have to do when you get to future steps.

Yes you can fix things downstream, but consider the problem of typos. You want to fix typos in the Word file, and if you do a ton of manual tweaks downstream from the Word file, all those manual tweats will make you not-want to fix typos--or worse, fix those typos in both your Word file and also in the manually tweaked downstream files.

For this reason, it makes sense to tell Word to not-change what you type automagically.

(You can find the bullet-point outline of How To Publish An Ebook here.)

Friday, February 15, 2013

How To Publish An Ebook

A couple weeks ago a friend of mine at writers' group asked about publishing an ebook. Since I've published The Aristotelian and also Finding Time, I've worked out a workflow for ebook creation. Last summer I gave a presentation at Bar Camp Grand Rapids and that was well received.

I did not use a fancy Power Point or Prezi presentation--just a text file zoomed up and projected on the screen. This is what it said:

1) Write a book. Use Word, or Emacs. If you use vi, you can't. Just quit...
2) Convert DOCX to HTML using Rick Boatright's script
3) Copy HTML into Sigil.
4) Create a snazzy cover with a pretty girl.
5) Open someone else's ebook in Sigil to see how they did it
6) Convert ePub to Mobi using Calibre.
7) Go to the County clerk and register a DBA, e.g. Atlas Integrated Publishing
8) Buy an ISBN or 10 ISBNs
9) Create an account on Kindle Direct Publishing
10) From your Bookshelf add a new title
11) Wait 12 hours for notification from Amazon.
12) After you sell 100 books, look into CreateSpace
13) Build a web page for your book
14) Create a snazzy book trailer
15) Create marketing pieces. Like bookmarks or business cards

About a week later, another friend, Matt Heusser, wrote this summary of my talk. I should apologize for step #4, because a snazzy cover may also have a pretty guy, or a pretty guy and girl. Or a puppy.

Coming back to now, my friend wanted this done for his book. I told him that the first thing he has to do (mindful of the above), is to decide what you want to do and what you want to hire out. I feel pretty handy with the geeky stuff and I feel pretty lame with the artsy stuff. That's why I hired my friend Joanne Renaud to do the artwork. And my friend Kemp Lyons to do the book trailer.

In both cases I was able to take delivery of content online and I was able to pay via PayPal. We're all still talking to one another, and I'll gladly do business with each of them again. I'll call that success. The more you can iron out up front, the less risk of hard feelings later. It's not reasonable to expect the other person to read your mind. Both of you should expect a bit of to-and-fro while you're converging on a solution. I hope to expand on this later.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Sustainable Rhythm of Writing

I made a bad mistake a few years ago that I've not yet gotten clear of.

I attend a writers' group. In such a group it is customary to bring something to read each week. It is bad form to bring more than a few pages. First, it monopolizes the group's time. Second, one's attention tends to wander after several minutes. I don't recommend you take more than three or five pages each week. This can be a trap, because you can think your written output per week should be three or five pages and that's wrong.

That's a trap I've fallen into and am trying to escape.

You should write as much as you can with quality. Or, if your project is at some points without quality. Let's go back to Heinlein's five commandments the first of which is "You must write." It's really easy for me to get out of the habit of writing, realize it's going to be writers' group tomorrow nite, then dash off 3-5 pages. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

You can't improve as a writer at this rate. Remember, you've got to write a million words to not-suck.

Every writer needs to maintain a rhythm of writing. When I've been on my game, I spend a while each night dashing off prose. It keeps my head in the work. And if I write last thing before bed, I've got all night for my subconscious to solve story problems for me. Maybe it's first thing in the morning for you. Maybe you can't write every day, but you have to maintain some kind of rhythm in your life where you're cranking out prose.

When you are putting together your first draft it is important that you write as much as fast as you can. For one thing you want to keep your head in the same place. You want a consistency of voice and you don't want niggling details like characters' eye color to slip out of short-term memory.

This can disrupt your rhythm of writing. I recently finished writing an important story to submit to a contest. It consumed my life in a non-sustainable way. But I got the story done, I got it edited, I ran it past beta-readers, I revised it, and I got it sent out on time. It felt pretty good to get done, but the burst of energy burnt me out for a little while thereafter. Going back to my novel was almost a let down.

That's because I have been attacking it piecemeal for over a year between distractions like this story, and before that this anthology. What I need to do is attack it as a whole, get Mycroft into and out of trouble in Kashmir, get him to Saskatchewan, and then back to London before Sherlock finds out he's been gone.

This is a sucky time for New Year's Resolutions, but here's one anyway. I resolve to establish a sustainable rhythm of writing and to finish the first draft of Steamship to Kashmir before I entertain anything else.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Hooray for Bollywood

I've been savoring the differences between Hollywood and Hindi Cinema. (My friend Nitin tells me the correct term for Bollywood is Hindi Cinema.) I was pleasantly surprised a year ago when I first experienced it. Though Sholay shows its age, it provides a good starting referent to Bollywood. Kudos to my friend Debraj to got me started with this film.

In a Hollywood movie, you are best advised to start with a short story, and make a screenplay from it. That is because a typical novel would take many hours were you to do a scene-by-scene adaptation to a screenplay. Bollywood has no problem with time. They typically make much longer movies. This results in a lot more story to enjoy.

Another difference and the main one I want to bring to your attention is Bollywood's moral compass. It is magnetized differently than Hollywood's. I'm not taking this opportunity to cast aspersions on either Hollywood or Bollywood--different does not mean wrong. I am only going to note differences. And if you think those differences constitute depravity or something very good, that's your decision.

The first thing I noticed about Bollywood is that they are not afraid to mention God. In the USA, any movie that mentions God had better do so in an ironic or comedic fashion, or it's going to be filed in the "Inspirational/Faith & Spirituality" section of the video store. The only time secret agent 007 was ever in church was at his wife's funeral. Otherwise, if you hear deity's name taken in a Hollywood movie, it is most likely taken in vain. Bollywood, not so much.

India has had to negotiate a diverse collection of faiths, and Bollywood wants to sell tickets to Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians. Pious members of each of these religions will likely hear respectful mentions of deity in a fairly inclusive fashion. The US solution to the problem of religious pluralism is total silence. To Hollywood, deity is something like Voldemort of whom no one dares speak his name.

In both Hollywood and Bollywood movies it is altogether right and proper for the antagonist to die in the last reel. But the protocols for killing off the villain differ. In Hollywood, it does not matter how much evil the villain inflicts upon the hero, s/he'll try to take him alive--then helplessly watch him die. The script writer will then oblige the audience by making the villain go for his gun or fall onto some stabby object, like a wrought-iron fence, or a wood chipper, or molten lava. Whereupon the Hollywood hero will then respond with regret while the audience is doing fist-pumps.
Bollywood is a lot more eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth. If you smother my asthmatic family member with a pillow, I'll smother you with a tractor exhaust pipe. If you jam my race car into the wall resulting in a fiery crash, I'll do the same to you. I was shocked when I saw this happen in a kid-friendly family drama.

The only counter-example of this was a movie where a woman serially married men who for various reasons needed killing, and she murdered them one after another only to get off Scot-free by becoming a nun.

All the while nobody is allowed to kiss nobody on screen.

Bollywood also seems to have a greater tolerance for government and official corruption. If you ever see a dirty cop, a bureaucrat who takes bribes, or a corrupt politician in Hollywood, they are villains most vile. But in Bollywood this kind of behavior is laudatory provided he share his ill gotten gains with the poor. I have no way of knowing whether Indian official culture is more corrupt than American official culture, but its cinematic portrayal seems to be much more accepting of it.

They say that a fish can tell you nothing about water. This is because he's in it all the time. Foreign cinema provides a window into not just other cultures, but by way of contrast it tells you something of your own. The US has enjoyed a dominant place in world culture for most of the 20th century. In the 21st century, we're seeing other countries developing sophisticated movie making establishments.

It was a bit shocking the first time I heard two characters conversing in Hindi and lapse into Hinglish, uttering a word or two of English. This is the future of world culture: a mix of distinct national cultures that holds lessons for everyone. I think we'll see a convergence on the good and an appreciation of the differences.

Hooray for Bollywood. If you don't agree, I'll give you a tight slap.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Got To Know My Limitations

All the Dirty Harry movies had a pithy statement uttered by the protagonist to the antagonist, or over his dead body. It was a formula that worked so well it has been widely copied in action movies ever since. In the movie Magnum Force, Clint Eastwood says to Hal Holbrook, "A man's got to know his limitations."

English grammar is like a mighty torrent starting in the headwaters of Beowolf or something and flowing through the Norman Invasion and the British Empire's world-wide conquest to your mother's knee (or someone else) who taught you to speak.

When I got to school I was blessed because my mother spoke a grammatically correct, Midwestern American dialect of the language. Thus most of my English classes consisted of writing answers that "sounded right." This generally worked out fine except for those occasional instances of unusual usage where both "who" or "whom" sound right. Thus it wasn't until I learned Spanish and later German that I grew to appreciate the fact that English has a grammar associated with it.

I grew to appreciate that there are mine-fields in English usage that only became apparent when I started writing to any great extent. Correct grammatical usage started to peeve me more, particularly when I notice other writers doing it wrong. But "right" can sound stilted in some contexts. And "wrong" is obligatory in other contexts.

That's one reason why I wrote "The Aristotelian" when I did. It allowed me to jump into the deep water of proper English grammar as used by a Victorian gentleman, Mycroft Holmes. I relished the notion of using difficult parts of the language and working them out correctly like a puzzle. Normally, I have the good sense to portage around a rapids of difficult grammar, but in "The Aristotelian" and in "Steamship to Kashmir," when my fancy takes the prose there, I feel I can ride out the grammatical rapids, despite the fact that "correct" prose may sound wooden.

Despite this inclination toward Grammar Nazism, I advise everyone try to avoid grammatical white water. If I'm not sure whether "lay" or "lie" goes somewhere, or if I KNOW which one goes there, but it only sounds wrong, I'll rewrite to use "place" or "recline" instead. That's my limitation. Sometimes I'm unable to express myself clearly, fluidly, and correctly. That's when I rewrite. That's when I advise you rewrite.

There are only two commandments to writing that I require without exception: Thou Shalt Be Clear, and Thou Shalt Be Interesting.

If you find your usage distracts from that, reconsider it.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Steve's Insanity Chili

Apologies if you're not into chili recipes. This recipe won a chili cook-off contest at church last year and I've since made it for family reunions, and just to freeze and have around for lunches at home. My intent in devising this recipe was to come up with a chili that did not use ground beef.

Stew meat would work, but I have had very good luck with the "Philly Cheesesteak Hoagy" meat that I can get from a local restaurant supply store, Gordon Food Service. Look for SKU #1230-200 "Sliced and Shaped Beef Sirloin Steak." They come in little 3oz. frozen hockey pucks.

10 x 3oz. Philly Cheesesteak pucks
3 1/2 onions, chopped
2 stocks celery, chopped
1/2 bell pepper, chopped
5 jalapeno peppers, chopped
5 habanero peppers, chopped
1 1/2 large cans of diced tomatoes (42oz. total)
12oz. chili sauce
2oz. chili powder
1 tsp ground cummin
1/2 cup minced garlic
1 1/2 tsp minced ginger
3 tsp Dave's Insanity Sauce

Brown cheesesteak, making sure you deglaze the pan so those tasty bits will flavor the chili. Sweat the onions, peppers, and celery until translucent. Add tomatoes, chili sauce, garlic, ginger, jalapenos, habaneros, chili powder, and cumin. Simmer for 20 minutes or longer. The last thing I do is add the Insanity Sauce because cooking tends to degrade capsaisin--the active ingredient in hot peppers & sauce.

If you like beans in your chili, toss in a can of red kidney, black beans, or even garbanzos while simmering. My son likes it when I toss in a can of corn. Your mileage may vary.

Those more worthy than I: