Category Archives: Commentary

Speculative Fiction: Learning the Genre

Plunge into Space (1890)Speculative Fiction, the overall genre that encompasses Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror and all their sub-genre niches, is my genre of choice. Over the years, I’ve read hundreds of novels in this genre. Even so, it is difficult to keep up with the trends of present day writing. To keep informed, I frequent many sites, guilds, blogs and forums on the subject. If you are an aspiring speculative fiction writer, you will find these sites to be a good resource for you. The only way to learn about a genre is to dive in and read about it. I’ve made a list of some of my favorites below.

SFWA is the site for the Science Fiction Writers of America. This is a guild for published authors only. They have strict guidelines for joining based on where and the dollar amounts that you have sold. SFWA has a newsletter, hosts the Nebula and Hugo awards and members are able to vote for the winners. As an aspiring science fiction and fantasy writer, it is a place to be aware of and consider joining once you have a few publishing credits to your name.

Del Rey Suvudo A site dedicated to the latest news and happenings in the science fiction universe. There is plenty to read here, from the fan to the professional. You will spend hours reading many great articles about books, television, movies and all things speculative fiction related.

Tor Books is a publisher of science fiction and fantasy. Their site is an enormous resource of blog posts, links, original fiction and more. I find the book and television reviews to be particularly good. Reading them gives me a better grasp on current trends in the genre.

Locus is the trade magazine of the science fiction and fantasy publishing world. If you are an author in the genre, subscribe to keep up with what is going on in publishing.

SSFWorld.com An active forum dedicated to all the latest news of science fiction and fantasy fandom. If you have a favorite SF television program, favorite author or just want to learn more about the genre, this is a great place to start.

SFF Net is home to many authors, publishers, media pros, and consumers of genre fiction. While the site is not as extensive as others, you will see many famous science fiction and fantasy authors connected with this site. It is worth checking out as a resource.

Science Fiction Chronicles is a United Kingdom based forum for science fiction and fantasy. It is a large and active forum with members from all over the world. They count published authors, editors and agents among their membership and have an extensive community of aspiring authors.

Science Fiction & Fantasy Novelists is a writing advice blog maintained by a group of successful genre writers. The posts are frequent and go back several years. It is a free source of information to learn more about the genre and the ins and outs of being a writer.

This is Horror is a UK based blog with many articles and interviews that feature the genre of Horror. It is a good site to help you keep up on the latest news in this niche genre.

The Horror Writer’s Association is a nonprofit organization of writers and publishing professionals from all over the globe who are dedicated to promoting dark literature and the interests of those who write it. There is an extensive amount of information on the genre that is available to the public at large, but if you intend to write in the horror genre, it would be a great place to network and get established as a horror writer. HWA is the sponsor of the annual Bram Stoker Awards for superior achievement in horror literature and they present an annual Lifetime Achievement Award.

Back It Up! A Good Habit For Authors

Wicked Witch Thumb DriveWhen I first started writing, my instrument of choice was a Selectric typewriter that sat on our formal dining room table. I had stacks of white paper, typewriter ribbons, and bottles of white-out at ready. Being only a teenager, I did not realize that you needed to make at least one copy of your work at the local copy center before you submitted your work to publishers. I was isolated without other writers to speak to about the craft and no one in my family had contracted this madness that we call writing. I made the mistake of sending off the one and only original copy of my second novel to Ace Publishing. They held it for eight months. I was put in the position that if they lost the manuscript or if it got lost in the mail, I would have lost two years of work. The troubles we create for ourselves when we are 17! I wrote a plea to Ace, asking them to return the manuscript and two weeks later it arrived with a rejection letter. I never sent the novel out again.

Technology and the world has changed a great deal from my days of typing away on the dining room table. Most of us do the bulk of our writing on computers or tablets. Yet, many of the backup practices that I should have used as a teenager are still useful today, just in slightly different forms. Don’t be caught as I was. Back up your work.

Since we all live in a digital age, creating a simple paper copy of your work and storing it in a file cabinet is not the only option for backing up our stories as it was in the past. I still do this back up method with the final revisions of my work as a last resort. Paper can be stable for decades, even a century or two given good storage practices, with the exception that it is susceptible to fire and other natural disasters. What I like about the paper method is that I can put each story into a file folder with a label and I know that the words there will never change. It has a certain finality in its physical presence that I find comforting.

My writing program of choice is Scrivener. In addition to its intuitive way of supporting my writing style, it also has many ways to automatically back up your work. Every two seconds, or if you stop writing for a moment, Scrivener will automatically back up your current project file. It is not necessary to click on save, as you once had to with Word or other word processors of the past, it takes care of that basic function for you. Every time you close the program, it creates a backup copy of your file in another folder in addition to the regular backup of your project file. You can also set Scrivener to do a dated backup of your project file into Dropbox. This means that you have two copies of each project on your home computer and one in the cloud. All of this is done automatically by Scrivener, once you have set everything up, you can forget that it is there and know that a basic backup system is in place. I have the habit of closing Scrivener at the end of the day. This insures that I have a new trio of backups of whatever project file I’m working on that day.

In addition to the backups that Scrivener does, I also backup my current projects to a thumb drive that hangs behind my writing desk on a lanyard. I do this backup once a week when I’m drafting during Nanowrimo. During this time, I have thousands of words coming into my Scrivener writing program from different sources: my Alphasmart Neo, a laptop and sometimes my souped up NEC MobilePro 800. It would be very easy to lose files during this time. The extra step of the thumb drive gives me added protection in case I have a hardware crash on the way to the coffeehouse or if a virus takes over my computer and wipes things out. It is digital, but off line, much like my cloud backup is. I would not completely rely on a thumb drive because the device only has a shelf life of around seven years. They are prone to destruction due to heat, such as happens in your car on a hot summer day. My main thumb drive stays in my purse and my studio back up remains here in my home where it is not subject to excessive heat.

A final method of backup is the old-fashioned CD Rom or DVD. I do not use these for the backing up of drafts and revisions, I tend to leave that on the cloud, thumb drive, and on my computer, but when I make a paper copy of a completed final draft, I also put a digital copy onto a CD Rom and store it in my bank box. Our bank is far enough away that if a fire took my home, my CD Roms would be safe at the bank. CDs are small enough that you can tuck a couple of them into a bank box with ease. They are also more stable than thumb drives in my opinion. If you would rather not take on the expense of a bank box, sending a CD Rom to a family member that lives in a different location than yourself is also an option.

Backing up your work as an author is important. In our modern age of computer hardware failure and virus attacks, our information is unsafe in storage. Do not let yourself be caught with losing months or years of your work. Make sure you have several methods of saving your writing in place. Have a good labeling system that allows you to see what are revisions and what is a final version. Make backing up a regular habit.

Prep Your Novel For Self-Editing in Scrivener

As an advocate for the Nanowrimo writing process, I firmly believe that a writer should write the rough draft of their novel as quickly as possible and let the words flow as they will. The most important thing to remember about writing a rough draft is to finish it without letting your inner editor stop you. Once you finish the rough draft, there is still plenty of work to do before you hand your manuscript to a hired editor and begin the publishing process.

Breaking it Down

When my rough draft is completed, I break the entire manuscript into scenes. A scene is defined by a single place and time in the story where action or dialog happens. I write a short synopsis of each scene in a paper notebook that I can remember and I color code it with highlighters. I label “good scenes”and “bad scenes”. Each type of scene is color coded with its own hue.

I understand that many people like to print out their manuscript and then cut up the paper into scenes and lay this out on story boards in their office. Others take the print out and hole punch the pages to fit in a large Filofax or office binder. The loose pages allow them to move the scenes around in the binder as they rearrange the scenes. While I love to use paper in my writing process, I tend to reserve it for outlining and brainstorming. It gives me a hard copy of what I’m working on that I can use as a referral beside my computer.

What I like to do with my scenes is to create a new project file in Scrivener for my revision, leaving my rough draft untouched in its original file. I break each of the chapters into scenes and keep them free of their chapter organization and lay them out in the new project file. Then switch to cork board view and I use the notebook where I wrote down all the scenes and use the meta-data labels to color code my scene files to match what is in my notebook and I type in each synopsis into the scene file’s index card. I like to label each scene with the character POV as well. Naturally, as I go through the manuscript, there are scenes there that I did not remember. I label those as “forgotten scenes” and there are places in the story line that have no scene associated with them and need to be added at a later time. I create a blank scene file, write a synopsis of what needs to be there and label it as a “missing scene”.

The Different Types of Scenes

Good: These are the scenes you feel great about as the author. They are the cornerstones of your plot and characters. They are scenes that are most likely to remain in the book during the editing process.

Bad: These are the scenes that when you reread them you wonder “what on earth was I thinking when I wrote this drek?”. These scenes will either be removed or rewritten during the revision process.

Forgotten: These are scenes that you wrote, but don’t really remember. They could be good or bad, but the fact that you did not remember them as you did your break down means that they are not strong and could probably use rewriting.

Missing: As you reread your manuscript, you realize that there are plot holes in your story without any scene to describe it. Write what is missing into your list of scenes as a synopsis. There is no scene as yet to cover this bit of information, but later there may be.

Building It Up

At this point, my manuscript looks like a huge mess. My 30 chapters are now well over 100 individual scenes. Some scenes are a few paragraphs in size, others are twice as long as a full chapter. Due to Scrivener’s meta-data capabilities, it is easy to see in my cork board where the scenes that need work are due to color coding. I focus on all the red “bad scenes” first. I target them for rewrites or removal. I look over the small single or double paragraph scenes and remove them in order to tighten up the novel over all. Because I have set the meta-data to show me the POV of each character, this is a good time to follow each main character via a scrivening. This means to look at only those scenes that the character appears in. I can read this set of scenes and check for the arc of each character, giving small content tweaks to help shape each character into stronger story arcs. As I work, my cork board shifts from a hodge podge of different colors into being all green “good scenes”.

Finally, I put the scenes into chapters again. Each chapter is a folder in Scrivener’s binder. I move all the scenes associated with that chapter into the folder. Most of the novel will simply go back into their original places, but there are always scenes that end up moving in places that I would have never thought up had I not broken down my manuscript. It is here that I check the chapter’s length and make them all as uniform as possible.

Ready For Self-Editing

So far, all the work that I’ve done in the novel has been for content. Do the story lines flow? Are the scenes all necessary to the plot of the story? Have I removed all those little transition scenes that sometimes clog the pace of a novel? The novel is still not ready to send to the editor. The copy editing stage still needs to be done. However, that is a story for another day.

What are the basic steps you use to prep your novel before you start the self-editing process?

Android Apps that Writers Love

Last year, I made the switch to an Android smartphone and have been discovering the wide world of Android apps. While I still resist obtaining a full sized tablet, I find that the larger smartphone covers most of my on-the-go needs. For writing, I favor using my Alphasmart Neo as a digital typewriter combined with a paper notebook and fountain pen for rough drafting or my full-sized laptop loaded with Scrivener for editing and revising. I tend to not use my smartphone for actual writing.

This is a review of apps that I have found useful on my Android smartphone that I use for research or as a supplement to my Neo and notebooks. I did not want to make this into another “Evernote, Dropbox, or GoogleDrive” review that you see everywhere else. These are Android apps that are not commonplace, but could have a useful place in your writer’s app toolbox. I have not been asked to review the app by the developer nor do I have any financial stake in their product. These are simply my own opinions.

Rory’s Story Cubes
$1.99
Also available as physical dice or as an iPad app

This app consists of 9 cubes that you roll to create combination. Use the images on the dice as the basis to form stories. There are millions of combinations. When you are stuck forming a new story, sometimes these dice can help you tickle out new ideas from your muse. Having the dice in your phone apps keeps them all in one place and able to use when ever you have a free moment.

Android Troper
Free

I like to browse through a website known as “TV Tropes”. It is a great place to find articles about television programs and the tropes behind the storylines. In the tabbed browser you can set the app to hide spoilers, put it in “night mode” when reading in a dark area so it is not too bright. It has a great search feature too.

Simplemind
Free

This is a simple mind map app that imports easily into its desktop client. The export options are somewhat limited, but I feel that its simplicity keeps you more focused on the task than on making the map pretty. Since it is free, it is not a bad little app to add to your writing app toolbox.

Habit Streak Plan
Free

A trick I like to use in my bullet journal is to create “chains” of activity. I make a note of each day that I perform a certain habit. For instance, I have a chain for every day that I write, every day I work on the revision of my novel, and even each day that I exercise. This app allows you to do your chains on your android phone and help you build a streak of habits that make you a better writer.

What is nice about this app as opposed to using a paper notebook is that it will prompt you to report on your success each day. It also allows you to create more than one chain at once. Of all the chain building apps on android, this is the one that I like the best.

Baby Name-o-Matic
Free

One of the more difficult tasks for me to do when writing is naming my characters. A baby naming app is perfect to help in this case. This app not only will suggest names for you, but it will tell you the meaning of those names. It has 10,000 of the most popular baby names in its database. I try to not rate the names, that way it doesn’t narrow the names choices that it gives me.

Clockwork Tomato
Free

I’ve been a huge fan of the pomodoro time management technique and often use it to help boost my word counts. This android app helps to streamline the timing aspects, and being on your phone it makes the timer extremely portable. I can use this app at home or on the go at the coffeehouse.

Write
$3.99

While I personally do not write on my smartphone or have a tablet, the one writing app recommended by my friends that use android tablets is Write. It has a minimalist text editor interface which makes it great for taking notes, writing chapters and it imports/exports to Dropbox and Evernote among others. It has a word count feature which is necessary for Nanowrimo, and a search function for your notes. CNET calls it the “best android notepad apps for students”. If you do need a word processor for your Android Tablet, this is the one to check out.

Nanoprogress
Free

I have covered this app once before in a post, but it is a good one and bears repeating. One of the features of Nanowrimo is the word count graph on the website that helps to motivate you to reach your goals. This is the app that will do it for you. It is a simple, free app for your Android tablet that will help you keep on track at any time of the year.

ISBN: Every Novel Needs One

BowkerWhen you are in the process of independently publishing your novel, you need to make a decision if you are going to own the ISBN of your book, becoming the novel’s official publisher, or if you are going to use a “free” ISBN from the Print-on-Demand company. There are reasons for going free or for starting your own imprint.

What is an ISBN?

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is an identification system that was developed in the 1970s for paper bound books. It can be used for inventory control, sales tracking and order processing by booksellers, wholesalers, libraries and universities. Originally it was a 10 digit code that helped to distinguish between books with the same title or different editions of the same book, be it fiction or non-fiction. Each edition of every book was given its own ISBN number to aid in this process. In 2007, the ISBN number expanded to 13 digits that are divided by hyphens creating five different identifying parts.

Prefix – A three digit number that identifies the book industry.
Country – These next set of numbers indicates which country the book was published in.
Publisher – Every publishing company bears its own unique code.
Title – Every book and edition of a particular title has its own code.
Check Digit – This solitary digit at the end of the ISBN validates the number. Usually it is the letter X, the roman numeral for 10.

When you look at any book that is for sale commercially, on the back cover you see not only the ISBN, but a barcode and the book’s suggested price. Today, not only paper bound books have ISBNs, but ebooks do as well. Each distributor that sells your ebook will require a new ISBN number for your novel. You will need different one for Amazon, Smashwords, iTunes, Kobo and any other commercial venue you wish to sell your ebook. Think of each of these sales points as a “new edition” for your ebook.

There are 160 companies that handle the assigning of ISBNs worldwide. Their jurisdiction is based on the country the book is being published in. In the United States, that company is Bowker. The process to apply is done online with delivery in around 15 days. There is a $20 processing fee in addition to purchasing the ISBN. ISBN starts at $125 for the first one, or you can purchase a block of ten for $250. Bowker will also create a barcode of your ISBN for an additional fee, although there are programs that can do that for you if you end up buying a large number of ISBNs that will be used in print books.

Once you have created your imprint within Bowker and have assigned ISBNs to your upcoming books, each edition should be listed with Bowker’s Books In Print, a database and directory of all current and upcoming books. This is the main directory used by libraries, schools, booksellers and other institutions to search for and pre-order books.

Why Purchase Your Novel’s ISBN?

Many independent authors are on a tight budget and decide that because the various ebook distributors offer “free” ISBN numbers for their books and short stories, that is the best way for them to publish their book. After all, who cares what name is in the “publishers” section of the book when purchasing an ISBN is a hundred dollars or more? In the short term, this statement is correct. If you are looking to publish one book and then move on to something else, creating your own publishing imprint is probably not for you. This would also apply if you are creating in-house manuals for your business, a cookbook collection for your small club, or perhaps a genealogy book for your family. ISBN is an additional expense that will give you little short term benefit.

If you are an author who plans to have a stable of books under your name and to gain income from them for the next few decades, then there are additional aspects to consider.

Let us say you have a finished writing a novel and you don’t want to take on the expense of purchasing your ISBNs for the various online distribution points.

To save upfront money, you publish your book as an ebook instead of also creating a printed version. You proceed to distribute your ebook on Amazon which assigns it an ASIN (Amazon Product Code). Next, you distribute your ebook on Barnes & Noble, which gives it a B&N product code. Kobo will give your ebook a “free” ISBN, but Kobo will be listed as the book’s publisher. Finally, you distribute on Smashwords and once more the ebook is assigned a new ISBN, but the ebook will now list Smashwords as the publisher instead of yourself. With the exception of Smashwords, which does put the ISBN into the actual ebook, none of these distribution companies identifiers will be in your book.

Twenty years pass by. Let us suppose that Barnes and Noble and Smashwords have gone out of business. Amazon decides to change their in-house product codes and no longer uses ASIN numbers. Perhaps Amazon decides to not provide a searchable database for their discontinued ASIN products. Kobo, which owns the ISBN on your ebook, updates the information about your book in a way that is not to your liking. However, because they own the ISBN number, it is the only record of your book “in print”.

As you can see, owning your novel’s ISBNs can be critical in the long haul. By purchasing your ISBNs and creating your own small imprint, you can retain control over the information of your books in the long term.

Final Word

There are ways to gain the advantages of using “free” ISBNs and also purchasing ISBNs. When you are first starting out as a new imprint, you might want to consider juggling your novels and short stories imprint status to keep your initial ISBN block purchase only for your larger works. It is possible to use the free ISBNs that the companies offer you at first to save on startup costs and then “republish” your novel later with your own ISBN. Perhaps you are planning on doing a cover change after your book has been out a time, that would be a good time to pull out a new ISBN and assign it to your book. Another example is with short stories. Perhaps you decide to publish a few of your short stories as singles on Amazon, but later want to put a group of them into a book collection. You can use the free ISBNs from Amazon for the singles and then use your own ISBN for the collection at a later time. You’ll be covered both in the short term and in the long that way.

Using the ISBN system takes time and patience. Give yourself time to learn about the database and what it has to offer. It is my view that the ISBN system is here to stay. Having your books listed in the Bowker Books In Print database under your own imprint is well worth the time and money in the long view.