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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

September 2011

Formulating a Business Plan

Last week I hinted that I might have another book in the works. I've been going back through this blog from the past 18 months, pulling out the posts I think might help other first-time self-publishers find their way through the many traps that await the innocent. My advice to others is always to commit to the book, give it a title, and tell readers that it is coming.  That not only builds interest but keeps the author working. So, following that advice, here's the announcement. Before the end of this year, I will be self-publishing a small guide to self-publication. The working title is "The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese: How to Avoid the Traps of Self Publishing." I'll be talking about my own experiment in self-publishing and offering  some tips on what I've learned along the way. The manuscript is about 75% complete, but there are gaps to be filled. As I write the posts to flesh out the existing information, I'll post them here, in hopes of spurring my readers to tell me what else I need to talk about.

The Business Plan

It's one thing to decide you'll self-publish your new book.  It's quite another to take all the steps necessary to become a publisher.  Here's the point you must understand: publishing a book starts long before the book is written. Publishing is a business, not an afterthought. So, in the spring of 2009, establishing a business was my first step.

A business needs a definition and a name.  I started with the name, something I could use as a publishing imprint on my books.  I didn’t want anything that would identify me too closely — not my name or a street address, nothing too cutesy, but something that would lend itself to a neat little logo.  After coming up with several ideas, only to discover by way of a Google search that the name was already being used, I looked around the room where I was sitting and realized that all four of my cats were there keeping me company.  My first thought was, “This is like living in a cat house.” Then, realizing the unfortunate connotations of that word, I switched to German, coming up with Katzenhaus Books and a simple black cat silhouette as a logo.

Next I asked myself what I wanted this business to do.  The answer was fairly straightforward. Katzenhaus Books would produce, publish, promote, and sell one or more books of original historical fiction. It would remain flexible enough to expand into other book types. Perhaps eventually it would be able to offer similar services or advice to other writers who were seeking independent publishing choices.

Any business needs capital and a financial plan. During my academic career, I had relied on research grants to support the writing process, a publishing contract to pay production costs, and a publisher to bear the burdens of advertising and distribution.  All I had to do was write. Now, all those expenses came back to me. I started my financial analysis by comparing several years of our living expenses against our income to discover how much discretionary income I had to play with. After deciding how much I could afford to risk on this venture, I did some research on self- publishing companies to estimate  the total cost of a typical book. What I discovered was a wide range of offers, depending on how much help I was going to need.

The next step involved an honest examination of my own knowledge and abilities. I had easy access to most of the research materials I would need, so I would not need to do a whole lot of initial travel. I’m a professional historian, a pretty good writer, and an experienced copy editor. Writing was not going to be a problem. Advertising and distribution remained question marks, but I had some experience in doing book signings and conference presentations.  I was also an experienced webmaster.  When it came to book design, on the other hand, I was pretty much out of my element.  While I might have an idea or two about how I wanted a particular book to look, I was going to need someone to do the actual cover  and interior layout. It  appeared that I could afford to pay for some contracted design services and handle production costs out of the nest egg I had identified. Then I worked on establishing a book price that would make it possible to re-coup my expenditures.

My private resolve was to produce the book I was eager to write within the next two years. Then I needed to sell enough copies to (1) restore the savings account and (2) accumulate enough of a cushion to finance any future book. I gave myself an estimated eighteen months to two years to accomplish that.  If, at the end of four years, I had not made a profit, I would retire from the publishing business and take up knitting or crossword puzzles.


Do You Ever Get Finished?


We've talked about awkward wording, misused words, bland adjectives, misplaced commas, and boring verbs.  What else could possibly be wrong?  Before you decide your book is perfect, let's try one final round of tweaking.

1. Eliminate all instances of passive voice.  A sentence will usually be much stronger if the subject is the one doing the action, not the object of someone else’s action.  “I was spanked by my father” is whiny. “My father spanked me” is angry and accusatory.  

How do you find passives? The various forms of the verb  “to be” (am, is, are, was, were, being, been) do not necessarily make a sentence passive, but it is hard to imagine a passive  sentence without one.  Every time you find one of these words,  ask yourself if the subject is acting or being acted upon. If the subject is not the actor, re-write the sentence.

Examples: “The child was being beaten by a bully.” (Passive — the subject is having something done to him.)
      “The child was beating the drum.”  (Active — the subject did the action.)

2. Check your dialogue. Does it sound like real people talking?  Try eavesdropping on real conversations while riding a bus or waiting in a checkout line.  You’ll see that people don’t often use complete sentences, and speakers don’t politely wait their turn.  They jump in whenever they feel like it.

Have  you used too much description in identifying the speakers?  Is it really necessary to identify the speaker? If your characters are strong, they will have distinctive speech patterns that will automatically identify them. You can usually get rid of “Tom said,” before every pronouncement.

 The only exception to that rule may be when you are handling a conversation in which more than three people are involved. And even in that circumstance, you probably don’t want to use any tags beyond “said” or “asked” or “answered.” Consider this example: “I don’t want to leave,” she sniffled.  Now, she may have said that, and she may have been sniffling at the same time, but she can’t sniffle (which involves breathing in) and speak (which involves breathing out) at the same time. If you are determined to keep every word, then punctuate it as two sentences: “I don’t want to leave.” She sniffled.

Don’t be too descriptive.  Let the speaker’s words tell the reader how the words were said. Consider this horrible example: “Help!” she shouted helplessly.  It conveys the same information  four times in four words: the word itself; the exclamation point; the descriptive tag, ‘she shouted”;and that ridiculous adverb at the end. “Help!” tells the reader everything necessary.

3. Vary your sentence structure and length. Don’t start every sentence by giving subject — verb — object. But don’t start every sentence with a conjunction, either. Personally, I really have to watch my habit of starting with an adverb or prepositional phrase. All grammatical sentences are acceptable. You just need variety to keep your reader awake.

4. Keep each page visually attractive.   Try staring at the page from across the room. Do you have enough white space to make the page look interesting? Make sure you don’t have lengthy segments of narrative. Dialog helps to keep up the pacing. Perhaps you give more description than is needed.  Does the page look like a solid block of print? Perhaps you need to break it into several shorter paragraphs, or add some dialogue in the middle.

At the other extreme, you don’t want a whole page full of dialog in which each person speaks only one or two words. If the page has a narrow band of print at the left margin, and gaping areas of white space on the right, you’ll need to break up the conversation with paragraphs of description.

5. Be sure your facts are consistent from one section of the book to another. If a character has blue eyes in chapter one, they probably won’t turn brown in chapter four.  If you speak of summer heat, don’t send your characters out sledding in the next few days. Check dates extra carefully. Don’t let a character die and then come back  to life, unless you are into zombies and vampires.

6. Check your transitions. Chapters should wrap up some loose ends but leave enough questions unanswered to make your reader want to keep reading. A new chapter may switch point of view, or location, or jump from one period of time to another. But if such changes take place, be sure to make them clear at the start. The first words of a new chapter may need to be some variety of these:
    •    “Meanwhile, back at the police station . . . .”
    •    “The next day, Tom traveled to . . . .”
    •    “After school, the children . . . .”
    •    “When the plane landed in Paris, . . . .”

Editing your work using these questions will produce a more readable book. Will it then be perfect? Of course not. You still must be on the alert for omitted articles and prepositions.  Look for spots where you may have done some cutting and pasting, leaving a few extraneous words behind. Other proof-reading tricks may help. Some people swear by reading the book backwards, which may draw your attention to misspelled words.  Enlist the help of willing friends, who may spot details your own eyes keep overlooking.

And then, once you’ve exhausted your own editing ability, pay for a professional editor.


Spelling — Cna Ouy Rdea Htis?

I should be taking off from the Memphis airport, headed for Fairbanks, Alaska, about now.  Instead, I'm sitting by the phone, waiting for a medical report that could drastically change every plan I've made for the rest of the year. (No, I'm not the patient; it's a close family member, and not bloggable beyond that.) To control the panic and nervous energy, I'm working on my proposed book about self-publishing. So, as I fill in the gaps in the manuscript, you'll be seeing some new writing articles here.  This is the first one, which goes into the chapter on editing.

Studies have demonstrated that most people look at the line above and have no trouble reading it as “Can you read this.” Experts think that our minds are conditioned to switch the letters around until they form a recognizable word. That may be so, but fussy folks (like English teachers and other literary types) expect a writer to be able to spell.  Nothing will get your manuscript tossed into the trash can more quickly than having misspelled words — especially if one of then happens to be the name of the agent or publisher you are trying to woo.  I really worry about today’s teenagers who have grown up knowing how 2 txt w/ as few ltrs as psbl.  We may have raised a whole generation of unemployable illiterates.

Grammar books will offer all sorts of rules, some of which I know you've heard.

   •   "I before E except after C."  This one works sometimes, but it doesn't apply if the word is pronounced with an AY, (neighbor, vein)  and there are other inexplicable exceptions (either, foreign).

   •   "To add an ending to a word that ends with a silent E, drop the E before adding an ending that begins with a vowel, (curve becomes curving), and keep the E if the ending begins with a consonant (true becomes truly)." But of course there are exceptions, such as mileage and judgment.

   •   "When you add an ending to a word that ends with Y, change the Y to I and then add the ending (worry becomes worries).  But the rule does not apply to  adding -ING (worrying) or when the Y is preceded by a vowel (saying).

   •   Do you want to talk about doubling final consonants? I don't even want to try this one. The answer is you do and you don't, depending on the number of syllables in the word and the placement of the accent. Don't ask.  Look it up.


Now, it would be nice if I could offer you some easy rules, comparable to the comma rule, to get you past this problem.  Surely phonics instructors and Sesame Street taught us how to pronounce our letters. But the English language, being terribly English at times, does not lend itself to rules. Do you doubt that? Then think of these words and say them out loud:  although, through, cough, rough, drought, dough, ought.  Tell me now, how do you pronounce the following letter combination: OUGH ?

Here are the only rules I think you can trust.

   •   Use a spell-checker constantly, but don’t rely on it to catch every spelling error.  It won’t catch the difference between too, to, and two, for example, or any other pair of words that sound alike.

   •   Buy a good (new!) dictionary and check it whenever you are in doubt. Remember that the meanings of words change over time, old words become obsolete, and new ideas and new technologies spawn whole new vocabularies.

   •   Don’t try to sound sophisticated by using English spelling for words like centre or colour. They just make you sound like you made a wrong turn somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. (But if your publishing company happens to be located in England, all bets are off.)

An Update from Patricia Stoltey


Here's a note that just came in from Patricia Stoltey, who helped with the original book launch for Beyond All Price.
 
Carolyn, congratulations on all your great accomplishments.  It doesn’t seem possible a whole year has passed since you launched Beyond All Price. It really is true, I guess, that time flies when we’re having fun.
 
I’ve spent my year writing a new stand-alone suspense novel, working as the Member Liaison for Northern Colorado Writers, contributing weekly to Chiseled in Rock, the new blog associated with Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (http://chiseledinrock.blogspot.com), and attending two excellent writers’ conferences.
 
The RMFW Colorado Gold Conference in Denver was just last weekend, so I’m resting up from three days of learning, pitching my novel to an agent, and networking…lots of networking.
 
I wish you the best of luck with your re-launch as well as future projects. I hope you’ll drop by my blog (http://patriciastoltey.blogspot.com) from time to time and let me know what’s new.

The "Other" Blog

If you're looking for a good read while this blog is on hiatus, click on over to "On the Road to Frogmore." This is where I send the out-takes, the dandelions, the scraps on the cutting room floor, the extra ideas that litter the sides of the road to Frogmore. I'll be posting a short story or scene here about once a week. If you've read about Jim McCaskey and the Roundheads, if you've read Nellie's story and want to learn more, if you can't wait for the next Low Country book to come out, take a few minutes to poke about here. You'll find some old friends and get an introduction to some new ones.

 Today I've posted "Incident on Bay Street." It contains some some scenes I really hated removing from the new book.  You can get there quickly from here. There's one more part to the story you'll find there.  I'll try to get it posted before we leave.