Tuna for Bernadette

Cat: hungry. Tuna: expensive. Solution: novel.

Robert Gryphon blogs on learning the novelist's craft to pay for better quality cat food. All writing-related conversation welcome.

Recent Tweets @RobertGryphon

Written by a professional book doctor (aka “freelance editor”), Jason Black’s blog examines the spectrum of what makes good writing but applies a particularly focused eye to plot and character development.

Much of the “writing on writing” in the blogosphere is weighed down with jargon and bullet points, seemingly aimed more at search engines than people. WWTW defies this trend by using a personable, individual voice to present useful advice on the authorly arts.

Guest post by Wil Forbis

Pulp fiction is, as most authorly types are aware, a genre that was especially popular in the 1930 and 1940s. The magazines printing such stories used wood pulp paper and featured eye catching cover art and action packed tales, usually orientated towards adventure, science fiction and suspense. Pulps were the birthplace of many still popular characters such as Tarzan, the Shadow and Doc Savage.

Pulp fiction has long been accused of having little literary merit. Despite the existence of many pulp authors who were talented wordsmiths, these accusations are not entirely unjust. Pulp stories were not meant to be prose-rich pontifications on the complex nature of man, they were meant to be a quick and dirty form of entertainment. And pulp authors were bound to the whims of a marketplace which demanded prolific output. There was often no time to agonize over finding the right word or perfectly detailed exposition. To feed the raging beast, pulp authors developed a number of writing tools and techniques for writing fast.

Writing quickly is not every author’s goal. Some writers have no deadlines imposed on them by either a publisher or themselves. Others simply know that to do their best work, they have to take their time. It’s up to each individual to decide what their objectives are. However, if you are an author who would like work faster, the techniques of pulp authors may interest you.

Our first discussion centers on author Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970). Gardner is best known as the author of the Perry Mason novels (which inspired the hit television show of the same name.) Mason, as many know, was a fictional defense attorney who would, while defending someone wrongfully accused of a crime, unmask the real villain.

Gardner, like his character Mason, was a practicing lawyer. He entered the pulp market partly as a means of making extra money. While he had some early success, his stories often went unpublished as editors complained of his lackluster plots. Realizing that he would need to master the art of plot generation to achieve quick output, Gardner began to analyze his problem. This post from crime writing blog The Kill Zone elucidates:

After much study [Gardner] said he “began to realize that a story plot was composed of component parts, just as an automobile is.” He began to build stories, not just make them up on the fly. He made a list of parts and turned those into “plot wheels” which was a way of coming up with innumerable combinations. He was able, with this system, to come up with a complete story idea in thirty seconds.

Gardner’s plot wheels became his secret weapon. The web site for the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Austin has several on display and notes:

By using different combinations of possible twists and turns for both major and minor characters, Gardner was able to construct narratives that held his readers rapt for several decades.

How did the plot wheels work? They were, in essence, random idea generators. Gardner had broken down plots into individual components. For example, one of the wheels on display at the Harry Ransom Center is a list of “Hostile minor characters who function in making complications for hero.” Some options in the list are: Newspaper Reporter, Attorney, Spy, and (my favorite), Hick Detective. You can see how with a spin of his wheel Gardner could fill in a needed plot element.

Now some writers would complain that this method is limiting. It is and that’s precisely the point. It’s great to fully explore all the possible options for every aspect of a plot, but it’s also time consuming. By limiting his options Gardner was working faster. He was also avoiding a sand trap for many authors: analysis paralysis. By exploring every available option, authors can often overwhelm themselves with choices. Writing blog The Daring Novelist argues that this issue can be avoided by opening up the creative process to random idea generators such as the plot wheel.

The more you know about something and the better you are at it, the more you see a million options. Decision making is harder, because you can see many benefits and problems with each direction you could go.

So randomizing choices with what you’re good at can actually be a time saver. It only requires a minimal short hand, and you jump straight into solving that problem; put your energy into pushing it in a new direction. The fact that you’ve artificially limited your options just forces you to be more creative.

When your options are limited, working with what you’ve got becomes a matter of necessity. And necessity is, as they say, the mother of invention.

Scott Myers’s blog is focused on the world of screenwriting, but at its core is a study of elements that also apply to crafting a good novel: story and dialogue. He examines in detail ways of making them work.

The AHA blog holds true to its name in featuring twice-monthly posts on a variety of book marketing and sales techniques. Recent posts have dealt with the topics of metadata, guest blogging and earning royalties.

This blog might be facetious when it touts one of the characters from “My Little Pony” as being worthy of study—or possibly not. Either way, it affords a useful mix of writing and book marketing advice.

While this blog looks at the world of indie novel writing and book publishing from a chiefly British perspective, it retains an international appeal. The authors don’t claim to be impartial commenters, but rather advocates for independent writers (and the readers who support them.)

Written by a publishing industry veteran, Brave New World examines the effects the digitization of content is having on commerce and literary culture.

A group blog authored by several Boston area writers, BTM offers what is becoming a rarity these days: a writing blog about writing (as opposed to marketing, promotion, social media etc.) Recent posts have covered writing compelling dialogue and crafting a memorable scene.

Largely focused on the software tools used in creating and editing various non-MOBI eBook formats, this site is a good tool for researching technical issues. Posts appear infrequently but the archive is bountiful.

Authors about to release their work will appreciate this list of book reviewing bloggers. Listings are categorized according to genres preferred by the reviewer.

Amazon’s own KDP forum is an active (and opinionated) online group that discusses the intricacies of formatting Kindle eBooks. I’ve received invaluable tips from the site’s contributors.

Guest post by Wil Forbis

Lately, I’ve been mired in the more technical aspects of eBook production. One area of study has been the specifics of how Tables of Contents are presented by various eBook reading devices and software. Details about this are scattered about the web and I thought it would be useful to capture the relevant points in one blog post.

The first curious lesson to learn is that eBooks can have two types of TOCs. One type is the content TOC (sometimes called the HTML TOC) which usually appears as a series of links for each chapter at the beginning or end of a book. The second type is the metadata TOC (sometimes calls NCX TOC) which usually appears in a menu of some sort on the eBook reading device or software. The Go To menu on the Kindle is an example of a metadata TOC.

That’s all we really need to know for a cursory understanding of the two TOC types but more information can be found at this FAQ node on the web site for the Calibre software.

Next, be aware that the generation of the metadata TOC is automatic in most eBook production tools. That leads us to two questions: How do I create a content TOC? And should I do so?

The first question has many answers, of course, depending on how you are generating your eBook. Below, I discuss and screenshot the tools I’m familiar with (with one exception.) I’m using the Mac versions of these programs but you should be able to find something equivalent in the PC version if it exists.

  • Scrivener (ver 2.5): On the Compile screen>Layout Tab, click the “Generate HTML Table of Contents” checkbox.

  • Calibre (ver 1.12) : On the Output Options screen launched from the Preferences>Change Calibre Behavior menu item, there are various checkboxes related to TOC generation broken down by output format (e.g. MOBI, AZW3 etc.) By default, Calibre adds a TOC to the end of the book; the relevant checkboxes change this behavior. (A review of the Calibre help text on TOCs may be a good idea here.)

  • HTML: If you’re an ambitious code monkey, you can build your TOC into an ePub file. You can then convert that file to a MOBI by using Calibre or the Kindle Previewer. This tutorial should get you going: Build a Digital Book with EPUB.

  • Word: While I haven’t tested it, this blog post provides instruction on using MS Word to add a content TOC.

Now for the second question: should you add a content TOC? If the metadata TOC could be counted on to be available in every situation it would be easy to answer no. Sadly, this is not the case. I came across two instances with MOBI files where the metadata TOC was not enough: the Kindle reader app running on the iPad and an older e-ink Kindle (4+ years) I have lying about. In these cases, not including a content TOC doomed the book’s reader to have no ability to jump to a specific chapter.

It’s something of an odd twist that for these cases (e.g. the older Kindle and the iPad Kindle app) the content TOC, not the NCX TOC, is used to populate the Table of Contents link on the Go To Menu. You can include the content TOC for these cases but you can hide it in the back of the book. There are several ways to do this but the easiest is by using the Calibre software. By default, Calibre generates MOBI files with TOCs at the end. If you find it’s placing them at the front you may need to uncheck the relevant setting in the Output Options screen shown above.

EPubs can work fine with just a meta TOC. You are of course free to add a content TOC if you see fit.

Having said all this, it’s debatable whether you need a TOC at all. Fiction books often avoid them, especially if using uninformative chapters titles like “Chapter One, Chapter Two” etc. However, there are reports of users receiving “warnings” from Amazon that their book has no TOC. Keep that in mind when deciding.

Blogger Katherine Mariaca has kept copious notes on her experiments in marketing two novels. Lately she’s been documenting her experiences with book swaps and freebie giveaways. 

As a self proclaimed “Swiss army knife” of document conversion, Pandoc can transform content into a variety of fiction friendly formats including the increasingly popular ePub.