extribulum

Posts Tagged ‘book design’

Fiction and Form

In Uncategorized on September 5, 2014 at 10:00 am

A note on this post: I’m going to be linking to a lot of fanfic below, not all of it appropriate for younger readers or work computers. Each link is followed by a rating in parentheses; please check the rating before you click. Teen+ ratings may be safe for work but may contain profanity or some sexual references; Explicit ratings contain explicit sexual material and may also contain violence and profanity.

Which, hey, if you’re looking for sex, violence, and profanity, does make your life easier, really.

A while back, there was a meme going around tumblr asking people to name ten books that have stuck with them, which eventually morphed into ten fanfics that have stuck with them. Maeglinhiei, who if my memory serves has been reading my stuff and hanging out in the cafe for quite a while, mentioned that one of my stories, Sublimation And The Snitch (Teen+), was on the list. In specific, one reason was “it’s the first time I encountered a fic not as ‘fic’ but in a different media, so to speak”, which is a lovely compliment, and got me thinking.

Sublimation And The Snitch is certainly not a traditional prose narrative; it’s framed as an essay about the application of Freudian and Jungian psychology to the game of Quidditch, and it uses that structure to explore relationships between students at Hogwarts school. The statement of it in that way — the first time someone encountered a story not as a story but as a narrative hung on a different framework — struck me as interesting. I remembered the first time I’d encountered fanfic that was outside the norm, and I thought about how fanfic continues to play with untraditional structures in a ratio that is far higher than published fiction.

I rarely encounter fiction written with the diversity of format that occurs in fanfic, and I think my experience in that sense is fairly common. Even so, the further out you go from the traditional Aristotelian dramatic arc, the more surprise you get. When readers encounter one of my other fanfics, A Partial Dictionary Of The 21st Century (Explicit), they usually comment on how difficult it must have been, because it is literally a story told as a series of vignettes attached to specific words. Having dicked around with fictional structures for twenty years at this point, it didn’t seem all that strange to me, but then I’d been dicking around with fictional structures for twenty years.

There are a ton of what might be called noncanonical structures in fanfic. My work in these areas is not the only work out there, but it’s reasonably representative: there are fanfics as essays and dictionaries, as collections of summaries and quotes (Teen+), as magazine articles (Teen+), as illustrated stories (Teen+), and with segmented structures (Teen+) — the “Five Times” or “Four Times And One Time” formats are a quite common genre at this point. I’ve read fanfics that are the same story told from two different points of view (Explicit). Fanfics exist as lists (Teen+) and as collage collections of social media (Teen+) or letters and postcards (Teen+) written by various characters involved.

Fanfic is safe for narrative experimentation because nobody is making a living at it — not the fanfic writer or their editor, not the people who run the archives where fanfic is posted. The reader pays nothing for it and usually, because it’s free and there, reads a lot more of it than your average reader of fiction reads in books. The risk in writing experimentally in fandom is extremely low; the worst consequence is a negative comment, and the much more common negative consequence is simply not much attention, which — while unpleasant — isn’t exactly punitive.

I have a distant hope that self-publishing, as it becomes more and more common, will perpetuate this low-risk environment for experimentation. At this point, because of print on demand services, self-publishing for the author is as low-risk as fanfic; there’s no upfront cash output, especially if you’re typesetting and cover-designing yourself, and most writers who get that far were writing for the pleasure of it anyway, not an imagined financial reward.

For the reader, self-publishing is a much more high-risk endeavor. Trying to find the diamonds amid the poorly-edited vanity novels and badly typset cookbooks can be a task. It’s the old gatekeeper problem again. But at least on the back end, the opportunity for experimentation is there.

I want to find a way to uplift the idea of the nontraditional narrative structure. I used some aspects of nontraditional structure in Charitable Getting and in The Dead Isle, and I’d like to use more. At this point I have a long list of books unwritten that I ought to be working on, so the nontraditional novel will probably have to wait its turn, but I feel like creating a space for these formats in original work is an important task, and one that deserves someone’s focus, whether it’s me or a reader elsewhere.

So if you know of books written with a nontraditional structure, or if you know of any sites about nontraditional structures, please let me know! Perhaps I’ll make some kind of compendium.

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Ode To Notepad (or, A Story Of Versioning)

In Uncategorized on April 8, 2014 at 10:00 am

A while back I took a class in project management software, which sounds very boring. Software in general is kind of boring to me, though the class was decent. What I really found interesting was the crash course in actual project management that inevitably came along with it, which was a mixture of revelation and “do people really need to be told that?

It was especially relevant that we received a lecture on “versioning” about halfway through the morning. The lecturer recommended that every time you make significant edits to the software file, you should save a new version of the file. This does get a little ridiculous eventually, but it’s a sound technique and I realized I’ve never really talked about “versioning” stories and novels.

For short stories, mainly fanfic, I have a process that adjusts every few years depending on resources, but which has essentially stayed structurally stable since since the days of Windows 3.0 and the usenet. It’s the way I grew up writing because back then there were certain constraints surrounding internet posts, and only one program, one beautiful, tiny, universal program, could handle those constraints:

NOTEPAD.

Thank Christ Microsoft hasn’t phased Notepad out because I’m not sure what I’d do. Back in the day, I programmed HTML in Notepad, but I also wrote fiction in Notepad because the usenet, where fanfic was mainly posted, couldn’t handle HTML. You indicated /italics/ and *bold* with symbols, and forget centering text or embedding images. You sometimes had a 72-character limit per line, and Notepad’s fixed-width font made that easy to determine.

So I got used to working with a very simple, very universal form of text. Especially since, at the time, Microsoft Word ate pretty significant processing power and tended to make itself lag, let alone any other program.

Once I’ve finished the initial notepad draft, the story goes to edits: usually into a googledocs file for my betas to discuss. Once that’s done, short stories get posted as permanently “published” works and rarely get edited unless there’s something offensive or drastically unclear or embarrassingly bad. (It happens.)

My novels undergo a more extensive process, which includes a lot of versions. This used to be just how I worked; now I do it intentionally, because versioning is awesome.

Since I write in a notepad file to start with and then usually post to LiveJournal for public reading (the Extribulum process), the formatting tags like italics and centered text are all in HTML. This is useful, since once I put it into a Word document for further editing I can select an entire novel at once, format it as twelve-point Garamond (my preferred typesetting font) and not have to worry I’ll lose italic formatting. Formatting tags are usually the last thing to go when I’m typesetting; after all, they’re very useful for locating where italic formatting is supposed to be.

The thing about editing, for most writers, is that it’s really, really hard to delete prose you like, even when you know you have to. It’s also hard to delete prose if you don’t like it but can’t remember if it might be relevant later in the story. The process I use helps me retain old copies; I can copy a novel from notepad to Googledocs, then tuck the original txt file away as version one. Googledocs is version two, and then Word is version 3 through version Whatever The Final Draft Ends Up Being. Between edits and typesetting, I’m usually publishing out to my readers something between version ten and version thirty.

Versioning helps because with all these old copies, neatly stored in small txt files or on GDrive, I can delete what I need to delete in the knowledge that my brilliance, however unnecessary, is still there somewhere. If I ever need it, it’s there, but it’s small and unobtrusive in the meantime.

This may seem obvious to some, but it took me a while to develop it. So now I pass it on to you.

As I copy this essay from my “WordPress essays” file into my WordPress Posting Page.

Cover Me, I’m Going In

In Uncategorized on March 13, 2012 at 12:36 pm

I think it’s a rule all selfpub websites have to do at least one article on cover design.

I had someone get in touch with me a while back about my opinion on the success odds of a website that provided design assistance for selfpub covers. I had to be honest that I didn’t think it was very high. Most selfpub authors essentially fall into two camps — people who can’t design a cover at all, and people who are competent enough with Photoshop or some other graphics program to do it themselves. There’s a small middle area of people who think they’re better than they are, and those people do tend to produce hilariously ugly covers, but they’re few and far between.

The folks who can’t do it at all usually use the built-in cover designer at their selfpub website, and honestly you can produce some pretty slick-looking stuff there. A cover-design service is a useful thing and something a lot of self-publishers need, but the niche is already essentially filled by the self-pub websites. Especially since most selfpub sites offer pro design services as well, and that’s where the sites make their bread-and-butter: professional design, proofing, and marketing services authors can buy as an optional package to help make their book more salable.

I’m not going to get into the aesthetics of cover design, because frankly it’s not my specialty and when I manage to make a slick-looking cover it’s more happenstance than it is talent. But I did want to provide some resources for people who are considering making their own cover.

I work exclusively with lulu.com as a self-publisher, but I believe their setup is pretty much universal: you can use their cover designer, upload your own image to the cover designer, or do a “one piece” cover — in other words, if you ripped the entire front-back-and-spine cover off a book and flattened it out, that’s what the one-piece would look like. They have templates and careful measurements they can give you to help with your one-piece cover, but a lot of the time for images, fonts, and ideas, you’re on your own.

Fortunately, there are several good places to get those, if you know where to look. It can be difficult to find stuff online that’s not mildly-illegal or downright-stolen, but they are out there, and the professionals know about them, so why shouldn’t we?

Two locations for genuinely free (as opposed to bootleg) fonts are dafont.com and fontsquirrel.com. Don’t anger the hipsters by using Papyrus!

A great place to go for images — though sometimes they’re too low-res to use — is university library image collections. Usually the images are either out of copyright or owned by the library, and lots of places have disclaimers saying they’re free for use as long as the original source is credited (ie, “Cover image courtesy of the University Library” with a link attached, in your front-matter copyright page). When browsing archives you should always check for “copyright info” or “terms of use” on the front page, but at least they’re large, diverse resources. One of my favorites for just plain cool stuff is The Fantastic In Art And Fiction at Cornell. There’s a good one at Duke dedicated to old-timey ads. The New York Public Library even has one.

The more you learn what a useful free stock image gallery looks like, the easier it is to separate out galleries that are trying to rip you off. And by far the best free stock image gallery I’ve ever come across is remarkably public: Flickr’s Creative Commons. Anything marked “Attribution” on Flickr’s Creative Commons is free for you to use, as long as you credit the individual who posted the image. It’s fun to browse, relatively easy to search, and lots of the images are posted with deliberately high resolution, so that they’re easy to use for book covers, which demand a fairly high-res image to produce professional-level quality.

At any rate, there’s a start; I could list off half a dozen other stock-image websites, but I’ve never found them especially useful, so why pass them on? The best thing you can do when looking for images is to chase the idea of the site — the image gallery owned by a not-for-profit or the artist licensing their work out to other creatives in return for credit.

It’s important, if you believe strongly in not being plagiarised, that you not rip someone else off for the very first visual your book presents!