Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sigil vs. hand-coding ebooks

Sigil is a free piece of software for building EPUBs. I heard lots of raving about it at Balticon, so I decided to give it a try for generating Disciple, Part III's ebooks. Previously, I had been agglomerating all of my text into one document, stripping it down to a naked .txt file, hand-coding it using jEdit, and converting the resulting HTML file into EPUB and MOBI with Calibre. (My PDFs are generated from the print layout because Calibre sucks at making PDFs.) I talked about that process a bit in this post.

Things I liked 

  • Sigil let me import separate text files into the EPUB. Thumbs up on that one.
  • Sigil automatically generates a TOC for you. If you use their header tags, that is -- it won't let you choose custom tags. A minor problem, okay, I can make that work.
  • Sigil automatically replaced all the em dashes with the appropriate code. Nice. But it didn't catch the odd characters, í & ü & ä, so I had to search & replace those. Good thing that writing this made me think to check the ellipses, because it didn't do them either. On the whole, not much improvement over doing that by hand.
Yeah, these are the good points and I'm already complaining. To be fair, if you aren't familiar with HTML markup, Sigil does have a nice, word-processor-like interface to help you with that. Being me, I went straight to looking at the code and didn't use the word-processor side much. It was convenient when I got the revisions back from my proofreader and had to make some minor edits.

Things that were annoying
  • I'm running Mac OS 10.7.5. Sigil's current version is for 10.8, isn't backwards compatible, and there isn't a user's manual specifically for the 10.7 version. So the manual I used occasionally referred to functions that didn't exist in what I was using. Feel the love.
  • Their vaunted Regex search function crashed Sigil a few times, then mysteriously began working. Regex is a method for searching and replacing HTML tags and other bits of code that are surrounding text that you don't want to change. Why do you need need a whole search function for that? Because…
  • Importing files into Sigil generates a lot of junk tags which are redundant once I apply my Disciple-specific CSS.  This offends my aesthetic sensibilities. It's annoying to have to do several searches to clean them out, too.
  • Having done all the necessary cleaning and coding, I opened the resulting EPUB in Nook and... the cover art did not show up in the bookshelf view. None of the spacing I specified in the CSS had been applied. Grumble, snarl, wtf.
Calibre to the rescue, as usual. I converted the EPUB to an EPUB and lo and behold, it's fixed. Also generated the MOBI (for Kindles) using Calibre, but that was to be expected.

On the whole, color me not so impressed with Sigil. Then again, I'm a bit of a control freak (as you know if you're a regular reader) so take that with however much salt you like. :)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Busy, busy, busy

I'm trying to get Disciple, Part III together for publishing on Sept. 1, so no post this week. This time around, I will be trying out Sigil, the ebook coding software, so look for a report on how that goes... in a couple weeks.

After I finish Part III, I will be working on Fire's First Kiss, which is the thirty-thousand-word "prologue" to Disciple. Look for a cover reveal and more info on that, soon. FFK is only available through Kickstarter campaigns, so if you've missed your chance to buy a copy, keep your eyes peeled for my next Kickstarter.

When will that be? Don't know. My editor just raised her rates by 50%, so... :/

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Indie Life: Quality control

Welcome to Indie Life -- the second Wednesday of the month! Time to talk about the realities of self-publishing in the middle of the ongoing sea change that ebooks have wrought.

Editors, line editors, and proofreaders
Do I need to hire an editor? It's a common question. Sticker shock is a contributing factor -- trust me, I don't have that kind of money burning a hole in my pocket either.

I know my grammar isn't perfect. Typos sneak through. I live on a budget, but I scrape together the money and hire an editor/line editor and a proofreader for each part of Disciple. Why?

How many chances do you get to make a first impression?

Consider the truth behind the accusations leveled at self-published books: poorly written, badly punctuated, terrible grammar. I've looked at plenty of book samples and chucked them for those reasons. Those writers won't get a second chance to make a first impression.

People treat me in proportion to how I present myself, I've found. There's a huge backstory about being shy vs. projecting confidence there, but I'll skip it for now. Short version is: I present myself as a professional artist so that I will be treated as such. That requires maintaining a standard of quality for everything attached to my name. Maybe I come across as a hard-ass when it comes to standards, but I'm the only one who can make me stick to those quality standards.

So how do you maintain high standards on a limited budget? Good beta readers and choosing your freelance editor carefully.

Beta readers
I'm sure we all agree about the importance of beta readers and the revision process. What makes a good beta for a given author is as unique and personal a question as "what's a good writing process?" -- IMO, it falls under the same trusting-the-universe umbrella as where I get my story ideas in the first place.

How do you know beta feedback is good? Because it feels like a hammer hitting a nail right on the head. You know that their suggestions will make the story better, even if it's a difficult thing that requires murdering some darlings.

How do you know if it will make the story better? That's part of the learning-to-write process. Keep reading well-written stories to see how it's done (and poorly written stories to see how it's not done) and keep writing so you get the hang of how you're going to do it.

When is a story ready for a professional editor?
That's something each writer has to gauge by how their betas' feedback changes over the course of drafting their novel. By which I mean fresh betas reading later revisions, compared to what other betas said about earlier drafts. I wrote a post about that, and how I decided I was ready to publish Disciple over at Unicorn Bell, last year.

Choosing an editor
Choose with care. Read books they've edited, or books they've written if they write, and critique them as you would any writer you're studying. Check their references.

If they offer a sample edit, take advantage of that -- especially if you're looking for a line editor. It's on you to know grammar's rules and how to bend them, but do their edits make sense? Are they making your story clearer while maintaining your style and voice?

In short: work with somebody whose work you respect. For me, that's Debra Doyle.

Is it worth the money? 
Yes. What you're buying is objectivity and experience. As hard as I can be on my own writing, deep down I still love it. As insightful as my beta readers are, we're all at a similar experience level, writing-wise. IMO, if I want to maintain a high quality standard in my self-published stories, I need to find the money for my freelance editor.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What's SF got that fantasy doesn't...?

Science fiction has a long history of offering critiques of contemporary society, and of deliberately wrapping social issues in fictional trappings to make it "easier" for the audience to think about the issue at hand. This is known widely enough, apparently, that I recently heard that from a friend who isn't even much of a genre fan. (His opinion being that you should face the real issues in all their painfully unjust glory. He has a point.)

Fantasy does not have this tradition. A handful of writers have a reputation for social commentary within fantasy novels -- such as Terry Pratchett -- but it's not common. Or, at least, it goes unnoticed and unremarked-upon.

I've heard it said that whereas science fiction looks "forward", fantasy looks "backward" and is a re-imagining of how things "used to be". Perhaps it's some essence of human nature that makes it easier for us to relate the future to the present. Maybe we're thinking of how to get there from here even if it's only in the most abstract way.

The past doesn't seem to provoke that sort of analysis of the present. If you present a minority population living in segregation and repression in a science fiction story (such as District 9), people notice and comment on it. If you do it in fantasy story... hmm, having trouble coming up with an example. Which is part of the problem, admittedly.

A lot of fantasy stories center on princes, nobles, the "gifted" who've risen above poverty -- whereas I've always been fascinated by the lives of ordinary people in fantasy worlds. Melusine has an MC who was still hacking out a living as a ghetto thief, there's an example. Personally, I want the stable-boy's perspective, I want to hear about why a woman has to take in laundry to pay her rent -- or the nail-biting dangers of putting herself on the street corner to do the same. What does a ghetto look like, in high fantasy? What stories happen, in there?

Why does fantasy always focus on the rich and powerful? Because everyone else is too busy keeping body and soul together to go on amazing quests and save the world? As if those are the only stories that matter...

I want to shout out to Chris Gerwel here, because of his recent blog post about realism and the quotidian fantastic. I'm thinking I'm going to be guilty of writing a fair amount of quotidian fantasy (lol, love the pretentious name) in my writing career. It's definitely an interest of mine, and in fantasy more than science fiction.

Disciple's main character is a peasant girl who has worked hard to become a healer. In Hawks & Rams, one MC is a shepherd boy and the other's a border patrol Ranger. Recently, some more thoughts have been bubbling up and I've codenamed them "Wharf Rats" -- you can guess why.

Those thoughts are coming in response to real-world stories I've been hearing of late (from that friend who doesn't believe in disguising issues). Which doesn't surprise me because I've found that the best genre ideas come from outside the genre. The further outside, the better.

Are there any fantasy stories you'd point to for their social commentary?

ps. Writing the tweet announcement for these posts often gooses me with things I didn't think of. Would social commentary in fantasy be too... boring?
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