Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Practical books for writers

First, a book on the technique of fiction; then a book on how to prepare a text for the press, if you’re going to publish it yourself; and finally a book on how to generate sales through online marketing.

Sandra Scofield: The Scene Book

For about thirty years I made it my business to read every book I could find about the technique of fiction; and I certainly learnt a great deal from them. Unfortunately none of those books was perfect, and this one isn’t either. However, if you’re a relative beginner in writing fiction, it’s worth its money.

Sandra Scofield’s The Scene Book is subtitled ‘A primer for the fiction writer’. And her principal point, as you will guess from the title, is that fiction should be written mainly as a series of scenes – the word 'scene' being used here in the sense that it is used by playwrights.

The author has written seven novels and a memoir, and the record of their reception shows that she is predominantly a literary, rather than commercial, writer. Several of her novels have been named Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review. Sandra is said to be ‘a popular summer workshop instructor for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and other conferences’. (See her web site for more details.)

The Scene Book seems to have been written with more than half an eye towards the textbook market. After all, creative-writing courses, at university level, now seem to be a minor industry in the US, and developing fast elsewhere. I have more than serious doubts about the value of such courses, but there they are, and the students doubtless need textbooks, so why not offer one?

I was attracted to this book by the fact that, some years ago, I too gradually came to the conclusion that writing in scenes was the best way to connect with modern readers. It has something to do with the fact that we’ve all watched endless TV and movies.

I find it interesting that, even on page one of her book, where Sandra Scofield tells us that she herself grew up with no access to television, and saw few movies, she also tells us that, when she began to write, what she wanted to do was ‘to watch characters work out their destiny on the page.’ And she grew excited as she waited ‘for the story to reach its final image.’

Note the words 'watch' and 'image'. Yep, this scene business is in the very air that we breathe all right.

Despite her literary leanings, Sandra Scofield has some sensible things to say about commercial fiction. ‘Don’t get trapped,’ she advises us, ‘in a false choice between “literary” and “commercial” writing. In my mind, fiction exists on a continuum of accessibility, affected primarily by language (style) and story complexity.’

I don’t know that I would go along with that last bit entirely, about story complexity, but the continuum part I agree with.

Sandra also gives writers the following good advice:
1. Think of yourself as a worker.
2. Show up at the job.

The Scene Book is published in paperback by Penguin, who have not, in my opinion, made a good job of it. The paper looks cheap, and the print is smaller than I would like. The book would have been far better if printed in a 9” x 6” format, with a slightly larger font and heavier paper.

Aaron Shepard: Perfect Pages

Aaron Shepard tells us that he has been making his living from self-publishing for years. He is an award-winning children’s author who has had numerous picture books issued by major publishers: for details, visit his web site.

You will find that one section of Aaron’s web site is devoted to ‘the new business of self- publishing -- how to publish books for profit with book marketing on Amazon.com, print on demand by Lightning Source Inc., and book design in Microsoft Word.’

Perfect Pages is about that last bit: how to use Microsoft Word, rather than an expensive page-layout program, to prepare a book for the printer. Though a short book, Perfect Pages describes in great detail how to go about laying out your text to best effect.

Well, you don’t have to go very far into Aaron Shepard’s book before you have your nose rubbed into one of the great unpalatable truths of self-publishing, namely that, while writing may be fun, preparing books for the press usually isn’t. Usually it’s just plain old hard work: dry as dust, boring, repetitious, fiddly, and calling for enormous patience and concentration.

Very few people in this world have the right temperament to take the trouble to lay out text for printing in the way that it ought to be done. And that includes, believe me, all modern trade publishers (see my remarks about Penguin, above).

In the old days, when printers were craftsmen, rather than computer-keyboard operators, they took an intense pride in their work. Let’s face it, it was the only to avoid madness. So, for example, no self-respecting printer would have allowed a right-hand page to end with a hyphen. No printer would have allowed a chapter to end with two lines at the top of a page. To avoid these horrors, the printer would rejig the previous page; or possibly even the five previous pages. If all else failed, he would have asked the author to rewrite a few paragraphs.

Today, absolutely no one (apart from a few eccentrics such as the GOB, and, posssibly, Aaron Shepard), gives a tuppenny shit about any of these refinements. They just empty the digital file into the machine, and that’s it.

And boy does it ever show. Modern books, as often as not, look absolutely bloody awful. American book design is, as I have said more than once, better than British, but little of it is wonderful, and most of it shows a woeful disregard for polish and refinement. The general attitude seems to be: readers are too stupid, or in too much of a hurry, or both, to worry about these things. And they all cost money, so fuhgeddaboudit.

It is a firm belief of mine, however, and one which I urge you to act upon, that whether modern readers know anything formal about page layout or not, they are profoundly influenced, albeit unconsciously, by the way in which the text is presented to them. If you are a self-publisher, the biggest favour that you can possibly do for yourself is to learn how to present your work to its best possible advantage. And in that regard, Aaron Shepard is an invaluable aid.

On Amazon this book is priced at $20 or £13.50, but I bought a copy for £6.40, which included £2.75 for postage. So shop around, folks. In any case, even if you pay full whack, it’s worth every penny.

And don’t forget to go to Aaron’s web site. It’s a very generous collection of tips, hints, and wisdom for those who are involved in putting their work before the public.

Steve Weber: Plug your book

Another unpleasant truth about self-publishing is, of course, that publishing is one thing, and selling is quite another.

Not only do you have to spend a year or so writing your book, and endless tedious hours getting it ready for the printer, but you also have to spend at least as long again on marketing!

Hey, nobody held a gun to your head and forced you to do this, right? And you don’t actually have to do any marketing at all, if you don’t feel like it. But then don’t be surprised if you sell zero copies. Other things being equal (which they never are, of course, but let’s not worry about that), your sales will vary in proportion to the marketing effort that you put in.

Steven Weber’s Plug Your Book is subtitled ‘Online book marketing for authors – book publicity through social networking’. And if the book has a fault, it is that it underestimates, or plays down, the amount of time and effort which some of the suggested procedures require; and it may give an overoptimistic estimate of the volume of sales which is likely to be achieved as a result. However, this is another book which is worth every penny of its asking price. (Current best price $11.99.) I thought I knew quite a lot about online marketing, but this book told me things that I’d never previously heard of.

Steve Weber is, you won’t be surprised to hear, another self-published author. (He is the author of The Home-Based Bookstore, which was reviewed here on 15 December 2006.) And, since the whole thrust of his book on marketing is that you should use the internet to maximum advantage, you won’t be surprised to hear that the book has its own web site.

Again, the material on the web site constitutes a remarkably generous contribution to the gift economy. OK, OK, so it creates goodwill for the author, and softens you up to buy his various books. But it all requires work on Steve Weber’s part, and you get the benefit of his experience for next to nothing.

11 comments:

WWofP said...

Thanks, GOB!

And then there is Stephen King's book entitled On Writing, which he wrote while recuperating from being run over. I found some good info in the book. Here's an interesting link that has seven professional authors "roundtabling" about the value of On Writing to other authors.

http://www.authorsontheweb.com/features/0101on_writing/013101on_writing.asp

bhadd said...

Microsoft Word simplifies typing and formatting complicated information, but not producing sophistication in layout or design. Please mark that books set using Microsoft Word will look horrid.

The Hood Company

Andy O'Hara said...

Informative always--and thanks for the great links.

slim said...

I agree with bhadd - Word for formatting? Tosh!
Kerning, leading, widows & orphans? Thanks - I'll stick to InDesign.

Matt Ellsworth said...

Scofield's scene-making approach to fictionwriting is about as old-school as it gets: take a look at Aristotle's Poetics, and you will get largely the same advice.

On another front, totally irrelevant to the quality of her advice in this text, I can personally attest to Scofield's excellence as a teacher, as I spent the 1982-83 school year in her charge. I was eight; she was teaching second grade...

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Stephen Tiano said...

I don't know that I'd say that books typeset with MS Word always look horrid, but they definitely look amateurish, like they've been typeset with less than professional tools; like they've been set with ... well, a word processor. You can get the job done, I suppose, but why not use one of the right tools for the job: Quark, InDesign, some version of TeX. I just can't help thinking it's the kind of idea that's promoted by people making money telling people how to do it.

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