Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Get 'er done: Doing your own ebook cover art.

     Cover art is important. You'd think that with an ebook, cover art would be the least important, but we are a visual society and every article I've read about epublishing has stressed the importance of a good cover for your book. Paying an artist or graphic designer is the preferred way, but it will cost you anywhere from $200-$700. To think you can compete with these professionals is ill-advised, but if you're on a Top Ramen budget like I am, you may not have a choice. Making your own cover art can be fun if you don't mind spending at least a few weeks figuring out the software, many hours thinking about what you want it to look like, and several false starts and redo's.  Here's how my experience went.
      When I started thinking about concept, I knew I wouldn't be able to do any actual drawing, so I had to either take some pictures or find clipart on the web that I could use. Pictures I had in albums looked like personal pictures, so they wouldn't work. I considered just having a plain background with a title and my name, but it looked boring. Then, finally, I had a vision. I knew what I wanted. I just needed to figure out how to blend all the elements with a software program I could afford, and hope no one knew I had no idea what I was doing. 
     The first thing I did was borrow a suitcase from a friend. Next, I had a picture of me taken with the suitcase. Lastly, I went on the hunt for photo editing software.

     Gimp2.6 is offered free on the web--it's hard to believe they do this because it's such a great program. A friend brought over his version of Photoshop to "help" me, and as far as I could tell, it wasn't much different than Gimp; in fact I knew how to use his program because I had used Gimp. The down side is that it's somewhat complicated. It took me about a week to figure out most of the ins and outs. 
     After I downloaded the Gimp program for free, I just needed one more picture, which I found for free on the NASA site. They offer pictures on their site for free as long as you site them as a source of the picture in the acknowledgements page of your book. If you use NASA pictures, make sure to read over their copyright notice.   
     To recap:
     Gimp2.6: free.
     Picture of handsome guy with suitcase: $0.00
     Picture of "Face-on spiral galaxy NGL3983" courtesy of NASA and STScI: Free--and priceless.
     All I had to do now was combine all of these things and try to make something that looked like a professional book cover. I played with hundreds of fonts and styles for the title before settling on one. 
When I had it finished, I beta tested it. I sent it to friends and family and asked what they thought. Did it look like a real book cover, or did it look like some guy clowning around with a graphic design program? Then I went on the Kindle forums for unbiased feedback. All was positive.
     Because this one seemed to go so well, I was inspired (and still broke), so I used the same process to make other covers. When budget permits, I look forward to finding a cover artist that blows my doors, but for now I'm enjoying doing it myself. I look forward to your feedback.

My cover:


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Emportance of a copi Editer

            It's a little known fact that Shakespeare is difficult to read and understand—not because he was using an older form of the English language, but because he was actually just horribly ignorant about grammar. Case in point: "Oh, Romeo. Where art thou?" He meant: "Oh, Romeo. Where ARE YOU?" The T in art was obviously a typo, and because he had massively stubby fingers, he had accidentally hit both the T and H keys instead of a Y for the word "you." How much better would his work have been if he had just hired a copy editor? Sadly, the world will never know.
            When I first started writing, typing away on a Smith-Corona (probably the same one Shakespeare used), it never occurred to me that writing involved so much editing and grammar and stuff.  This was before word processors were household items. My work was riddled with typos--the final product had more white-out than a blizzard. I was lucky to have a literate family to edit some of my work. I studied English in college, and after I had aced every English course they offered, I figured mistakes would be a rarity. Not so. The more I learned, the more I realized that writers have a hard time being objective about their work.  I once submitted a 1200 word short story to Weird Tales after checking the story for errors a couple of times. They sent it back requesting that I edit it. I spent hours going over it. I took a few days off from it, and then went back to it, spending hours more. It was only 1200 words and I had spent a solid week on editing. I resubmitted it and a few weeks later it came back in the mail with a handwritten note. The editor said he loved the story, even though it still had a few errors. He was grateful for the professionalism and he would gladly look at anything else I'd like to submit in the future. I was thrilled he liked the story and that I had made a connection with an editor of a well-known magazine, but I couldn't believe the story still had errors!  
            With the ebook revolution in full swing, hiring a copy editor is a must. If you take your career seriously, even if you're just a hobbyist, don't let your work suffer because of simple grammatical mistakes. The strange part is that even many of the top publishing houses are putting out inferior ebooks, much to the distaste of readers. Either they don't take ebooks seriously or they don't want readers to. Ebooks are an extinction-level event for traditional publishing and they'll do anything to make them look less than professional. I know of a well-known author who is getting an onslaught of complaints about the quality of editing and formatting in one of his ebooks put out by his publisher. In this case, the author looks bad and the reader's experience is interrupted. Luckily, ebooks can be altered after they’re published.
            Now that authors can publish their own work on the web and reach a worldwide audience, traditional publishers will probably begin to take on more of a fee-based editorial role rather than a royalty-based publishing role. Either way, it's now up to authors to pay for these types of services. If you're not adept at Photoshop, hire a cover artist. Unless you're the Rainman of editing, hire a copy editor. Find beta readers. Find reviewers. Though I never would have imagined spending $500 or more on an editor when I was starting out, I now can't imagine trying to publish a book without one.  
            My best advice is to complete the novel, put it away for a week or two, then go back to it with fresh eyes and give it your best shot at making it grammatically perfect. Try reading it aloud into a tape recorder or letting a text-to-speech program read it aloud to you. Try changing the font, bigger or smaller. Have someone read it to you. Next, share it with friends and family and ask them to look for errors. The reason for this is that editors sometimes charge by the hour, so the better the work is, the less time they'll have to spend on it. Last but not least, after getting it back from the editor, do a final proof, making sure not to introduce any mistakes. There are copy editors out there that also do formatting. My editor formatted my book for Kindle and for Smashwords according to their guidelines. This allowed it to make it into their Premium Catalogue on the first try. I'm told that most writers don't make it on the first try. It took a few weeks for it to pass, so if it would have failed I would've had to proofread the work again, and then try to republish it. It might have still failed. My editor got it into the Premium Catalogue on the first try.   
            So unless you want to make the same mistakes Shakespeare did, treat your book like a brutally drug-addicted relative and get it the professional help it needs.
            I went undercover to get an inside look at the world of copy editing: the drugs, the parties, the anal retentiveness. I spoke with a woman who will be known as Jessica from Strangelandediting.com.
            CJC: First of all, is there any truth to the rumor that editors do copious amounts of LSD before editing?
            Jessica: No. If I did, I might see purple dinosaurs instead of semi colons.
            CJC: When you say no, do you really mean yes?
            Jessica: No.
            CJC: We'll just agree to disagree on this one.
            Jessica: We should talk about the importance of hiring a copy editor.
            CJC: What is the importance of a copy editor?
            Jessica: The importance of a copy editor is to clearly communicate the author's ideas.
            CJC: What's your biggest pet peeve when a writer submits their work to you?
            Jessica: When I suggest a revision and they ask why, so I explain the reason and they still don't understand.
            CJC: Isn't it kind of like trying to explain HTML to someone who has no idea what you're talking about?
            Jessica: Um…
            CJC: Or is it more like trying to explain to a parent that their kid is ugly when they think they're perfect?
            Jessica: Yes, it's more like that.
            CJC: Writers tend to think their work is perfect, no matter what.
            Jessica: I wouldn't say no matter what. Sometimes if they're using commas in a list and I suggest they use a semi colon, they may not be familiar with the rule and don't understand, and other times they just don't believe you, so I have to get out the book and show them.
            CJC: Yeah, you lost me with the whole semi-colon, technical jargon thing. I think you're just showing off. I'm not yet convinced there is such a thing as this magical "rule book" for grammar.
            Jessica: There are actually many.
            CJC: What if a writer writes in the first person and wants to make the prose conversational? He uses grammar improperly, but it’s the way people talk. Where do your precious rules come in in this case?
            Jessica: As long as the reader understands what the writer is trying to do and he is consistent…as long as one paragraph isn't casual speech and the next paragraph is Standard Written English.
            CJC: Do you have to take extra LSD when you get a work like that?
            Jessica: No.
            CJC: I'll take that as a yes. In closing, do you think it’s a good idea for writers wanting to publish their work on the Internet to hire a copy editor, even if it costs them five hundred dollars or more, especially if editors are just going to use the money for drugs?
            Jessica: Yes.
            CJC: All the hobbyists out there who spend twice that on kayaks and crossbows and high class hookers should spend at least as much on their books to make them look good.
            Jessica: Definitely. I think most writers look at their work as more important than a hobby. They should consider spending at least as much on their writing.
            CJC: I agree. You can learn more about editing from Jessica at Strangelandediting.com

Sunday, April 10, 2011

When God talks to me

   In this post I'm going to discuss where I get my ideas, because now that I've become an international media sensation I'm sure all the young writers out there want to know how I make the magic happen. So where do I get my ideas: I steal them. A little Heinlein here, tablespoon of Koontz, dash of Dostoyevsky, put it all in a Google optimization program and bam, Chris's new novel. Download some free clipart for the cover, slap on a price tag, and wait for the awards. Just kidding.
   Actually, this was what happened with The Traveler's Companion. I was reading Deepak Chopra while Brain Greene's PBS special "The Elegant Universe" was on in the background. I should explain that I don't usually spend my time reading philosophy or watching programs on string theory. I was having a good week. I also couldn't afford cable, so I was forced into mind-expanding things like reading and public television. I now have cable and my mind is sufficiently numbed out, thank you Time Warner. But BC (before cable) I was often confronted with a myriad of stimulating ideas. Thank God that's over.
    The Chopra book was about making your dreams real by tapping into the universal wishing well he called the unmanifest. (Please universe, send me cable!) Through meditation, one could, in essence, submit one's innermost dreams to the unmanifest where they would be made manifest in reality, provided a person was altruistic. Meanwhile Brain Greene was going on about alternate dimensions, those in our own reality we can see, some we can't see, and others that may exist outside of our universe. He also said that during a particle accelerator event, what's called a graviton is sometimes ejected from a subatomic particle, and it's theorized that the graviton might breach the dimensional threshold of our reality and dart off into a different universe--a method that could even be used to communicate with the other universes. (Get hit in the eye with a graviton, blame neighboring universe.) Hearing all this, I was suddenly shocked and overwhelmed by what could possibly go on in these other universes. Was there a parallel me over there, or an opposite me, doomed to be unattractive and stupid? Was there a little person behind the curtain with a P.A. system? Was there free cable? What the hell was going on in these other universes?! It obsessed me for weeks and all the while I kept reading Chopra. Then it suddenly dawned on me that there could be a first universe, a place that begot all universes, the unmanifest: the womb from which all universes sprang.
   Or not.
   Weeks later I got cable and I lived happily ever after.