Daily Archives: 4 July 2014

How do You Write a Book?

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“The best thing about writing fiction is that moment where the story catches fire and comes to life on the page, and suddenly it all makes sense and you know what it’s about and why you’re doing it and what these people are saying and doing, and you get to feel like both the creator and the audience. Everything is suddenly both obvious and surprising… and it’s magic and wonderful and strange.”
– Neil Gaiman

Now and then, people ask me about my approach to writing and I figured that would make an interesting story to share. Fans are often curious about how a book was created and fellow authors often looks for tips and methods, so I figured this could be a worthwhile bit of information to tell you about.

Okay, actually, that’s not true. I’m lying. No one has ever asked me about my approach to writing.

However, I believe in being prepared and thus, just in case someone does ask someday, I’ll be able to direct them to this nifty explanation I created ages before anyone ever bothered to inquire.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the creative process of how to get ideas and construct a story. No, I’m talking about the actual, physical labor of writing. Do I use a pen? Do I use a typewriter? Do I use a computer? Where am I physically sitting when I write? A desk? A coffeeshop? That kind of thing.

I began to write my first novels and short stories when I was a teenager. Back then, I used an electric typewriter on occasion but, I usually wrote by hand. I just preferred a good old pen and a notebook. For years, I used Bic Fine Point Metal Roller Pens with black ink and 0.7mm tip, and more than 20 years later, those are still my all-time-favorite pens to write with. When I become famous, I expect Bic to provide me with a lifetime supply. Thank you.

Although I had abandoned about 3 novels beforehand, The Gothic Rainbow, was the first novel I ever actually completed and I started writing it when I was about 22 years old. At the time I began, I still lived at home with my family. The entire book was handwritten, in notebooks, while sitting on my bed, in my bedroom, on Behrwald Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. That was it. I never wrote in any other location. I never wrote outside my house. Never wrote in another part of the house. The whole book was written in my bed. I had two or three notebooks containing notes and outlines, one pair of notebooks possessing a first draft, and one pair of notebooks with a final draft. So, at any given time, I’d be in my bed surrounded by a pile of 6 to 7 notebooks all around me.

As to the posters in the back of the book, which you can still buy today, those were all shot on film. For many decades, book covers were typically done by painters and illustrators. Since around the start of the 21st century, it became popular for graphic designers to create book covers using stock photography. Personally, I think using stock images is absolutely pathetic. I didn’t know anything about photography when I designed the images in The Gothic Rainbow, so I taught myself how to do things. There was no way I’d use some stock images created by someone else in order to represent something so personal and such a deep seeded aspect of my own creativity.

Therefore, all the pictures were taken by myself and a few were done by my then-girlfriend, Kathyrn. I worked on gathering those images for months, shooting photographs of my friends from the clubscene. I even went to the Cleveland Museum of Art and took shots of centuries-old paintings and masterworks of classic illustrators, so I could mix and blend those images into my photographs as well. I did all the work myself in Photoshop and in the end, I had made very surreal and moody collages that to this day I still feel do a great job of conveying the emotional tone and vibe of The Vampire Noctuaries duology.

When the full text of The Gothic Rainbow was finally finished, I borrowed a Canon StarWriter 30 word processor from John Rozack (uncle of my gradeschool friend Mike Rozack) to type the entire book and save it to 3.5″ floppy disks as a rich text file. That was brutal work. The machine had a thin little LED screen on it, so I could only see about one paragraph at time. Retyping close to 190,000 words, I was literally working about 16 to 20 hours a day, for 3 weeks straight. No breaks. No days off. I was typing about 9000 words a day. That was torture. But, I wanted to get it done as quickly as possible. It really pissed off Kathryn, because I literally didn’t see her once for that entire 3 weeks. We’d talk on the phone everyday, but we never got together face-to-face that whole time. I never left the house. I literally ate slept, showered, used the bathroom, and typed. What can I say? That’s what happens when you’re dating a writer who also happens to be a selfish jerk. Plus, I was really fueled by an intense hatred for all the people in my life who saw me as “lazy” because they don’t think writing is real work. So, I engaged in this self-induced psychotic marathon of typing as a way to slowly eviscerate myself in front of everyone just as a big way of saying, “Fuck you, I work harder than any of you can possibly imagine.”

When she discovered I had been creating a dark vampire novel, my grandmother commented that she wouldn’t have let me “waste all that time without a job if she knew I was writing that kind of junk.”

Ah, nothing like the emotional support of family.

Once I was ready to publish The Gothic Rainbow, I used a 1996 Macintosh Performa 6116CD and imported my original Canon StarWriter 30 rich text files into Claris Works 3.0. Incidentally, that Macintosh Performa was actually owned by the girlfriend whom I neglected for nearly a month. See, it’s true – jerks always get the cool chicks. Seriously, I’ll always be grateful to her for letting me do all that work on her computer, because I sure couldn’t afford one at the time. Really, I owe that all to Kathryn. I haven’t spoken to the girl in over 16 years, but I truly couldn’t have done it without her. Thanks again to John, Mike and Kathryn.

Anyhow, after everything was imported into Claris Works 3.0, I did all of my formatting, so I could print boards on a laserprinter to send to my printing company, McNaughton & Gunn, in Saline, Michigan. For those who don’t know, “boards” is a printing industry term for the final draft of printed pages that get photographed, so plates can be made to use on the offset lithography printing press. How did I find a printing company? Well, at first, I looked in the phone book and drove to a few local print shops in Cleveland and asked them about printing my book. As it turns out, most of them were incredibly expensive because most print shops needed to outsource books. I learned there were only about a dozen companies in the entire country with the ability to print books. Every other printer would outsource to them. I wasn’t sure how I’d find those other companies, so, I purchased a book called The Self-Publishing Manual by Dan Poynter and he had a list of printers in the back of his book. The idea was, you write an RFQ (which stands for “Request For Quotation”) to the printers and find out how much they would charge to print your book. Once you get all your RFQ’s back, you see who has the best price and that company becomes your printer. I started to send out a few, but, this was the days before email and I didn’t want to write a dozen letters. That was just too much work. Instead, I figured, “Wait a second! Dan Poynter would have already found the most economical printer for his own book! I’ll just ask him!” So, I called the phone number in the back of The Self-Publishing Manual and asked them where their book was printed and it was McNaughton & Gunn, in Saline, Michigan. Sure enough, once I got some RFQ’s back, McNaughton & Gunn offered the best prices.

Strange Coincidental Sidenote: Saline, Michigan is a very small town in the middle of nowhere. Back then, in 1996, they had a population of about 8000 people. It just so happens, not only was my first novel printed in that little town, but a tiny grass field airport in Saline, Michigan is also where I learned to aerotow hang gliders and became a licensed pilot. Very odd convergence of life experiences in the cornfields of Michigan. My first novel and my first solo flight as a hang glider pilot, both happened in Saline.

After the book was printed, the shipping company, ABF, trucked the books from Saline to Cleveland, but they refused to deliver the books to my doorstep, because 1000 copies of a 500 page book literally weighed about one ton. My girlfriend and I had to make 2 or 3 trips to their warehouse to retrieve my novels. We loaded the books into our cars and within a few hours of hefting them off an icy loading dock on a cold February night, they ended up on pallets in my grandparents basement.

So, that’s the whole process of how my first novel was created, between 1993 and 1997 in Cleveland, Ohio – written by hand, typed into a Canon word processor, formatted and printed on a Macintosh, sent to Michigan.

These days, all of my books are written in Los Angeles, where I’ve lived since 2003. I typically write my fiction on a Windows solid state laptop – namely a HP Pavilion dm3t-1100 Notebook. I never take it outside, or write in coffeeshops, or anything like that. I either write in my livingroom on my couch or I’m still writing in bed. I will typically use a text editor like EmEditor or Notepad++ to keep track of my outlines and all my notes and things. Consolidating all my notes into a text file replaces all the notebooks I had scattered around me. The actual books are written in Writer, the word processor in Apache Open Office 3.5. I really enjoy using the Open Office software because I can actually compose my book in the final format. Within the Open Office software, I set up my pages to the proper dimensions and I use the finalized font and everything. In other words, the book I see on my laptop screen looks exactly the way the actual printed book will appear. Obviously, I learned my lesson after handwriting my first novel and retyping it and reformatting it. I never wanted to put myself through anything like that again. I have to admit, composing on the laptop was a difficult transition to make. I missed my Bic pens. I missed my Mead notebooks. Psychologically, to change from composing novels handwritten to composing them while typing, was rather challenging. Handwriting was so natural and easy for me, it was actually very difficult to transition into writing on a keyboard. But I stuck with it and eventually, I retrained myself to compose comfortably on the computer and now I love it. It’s fantastic to just create the entire story right there in the final version. No retyping. No reformatting. There’s a great serenity in knowing I never have to go back and transcribe and every bit of formatting is finalized during the creation process; which obviously saves massive amounts of time, because I eliminated the need to spend weeks reworking the layout.

So, that’s pretty much it. Notepad++ for the outline, Open Office for the working and final draft.

As for the structure of the book from a technical standpoint, although I’m diligent about maintaining an ongoing archive of redundant backups, my approach is to make each chapter it’s own individual file. That way, if anything goes wrong and a file gets corrupted, I only lose a single chapter and not the entire book. Plus, working a chapter at a time also makes editing much easier. It’s quicker to jump to a chapter in individual files as opposed to scrolling through a 600 page document trying to find the page you’re looking for.

Speaking of editing, I don’t really have a set methodology for that. In the days of typewriters, you had a distinctive rough draft, first draft, final draft. I kind of just sit down and write for hours at a time. Then I might go back over the days work and try to tweak it a bit. Then I’ll usually just leave it alone until the entire book is done. Then I’ll go back over my book a chapter at a time and make sure the book is working. Check the flow from one chapter to the next. Pay attention to the pacing and the tone. Refine it. Tweak it. Move things around. Delete stuff. Add stuff. Whatever it takes. I just keep doing that, continually reviewing it, until it feels solid and really comes together.

Depending on the nature of the book, that process might take weeks or it might take months. Sometimes a story is really close to perfect right off the bat and you don’t need to tweak anything, you just kind of flesh out a few sentences and massage things together and it’s done. Other times, you might notice an entire aspect of the structure is wrong and you need to go back and make some major repairs to that original architecture.

So, as I said, there’s no such thing as a series of drafts for my stories. Editing and revising is a flowing, organic, ongoing, continual process until the book is completed. I know that was redundant but I was just trying to emphasize that the process is always churning along.

Once the book is done, all the individual chapters get inserted into a final single file. That final Open Office document gets converted to a PDF for submission to printing companies. Then I export another copy in HTML and I open that HTML file in Notepad++ to construct all the XHTML files to make my eBook. The XHTML process is rather long and arduous, but I have made a living as an Internet developer for over 15 years and spent almost half my career at Walt Disney Studios, so I have a lot of experience with programming and consequently, constructing an eBook isn’t all that hard for me.

As for the printed copies, those are set up with multiple companies. Doing things that way, simply allows for greater exposure of my books. Plus, if any of those companies goes out of business or their website goes down, readers can still go to a different distributor and buy a copy. There are a lot of authors out there who doesn’t seem to think that way. They will ask what company is the best and what company gives the most royalties and what company has the best printing and so forth. Personally, I think that’s ignorant. Why limit yourself? I believe that my books should be made available to my readership in as many different formats as possible from as many distributors as possible. Just makes a lot more sense to me.

The eBook versions are also available via multiple companies for the same reasons. Publishing through a diverse array of companies assures that the book is always available. Even if websites go down or companies go out of business, the redundancy of multiple distributors assures that my book will still be available regardless of those factors.

There you have it.

That is my fairly detailed explanation of how I write a book. The tools I use. The reasoning behind my methods. The locations and habits of how I write.

There are some authors who are very set in their ways. They never wish to deviate from the tried and true tools they have used in the past. As someone who has written short stories with electric typewriters, and formatted books with word processors, and written entire 190,000 word novels with pen and paper as well as laptop computers, I find that the tools don’t matter. Ultimately, the words are the only things that count. The tools used to compose those words are insignificant. The stories themselves are of the essence. Regardless if the words reach the reader by paperback or hardcover or audiobook or ebook or were written on typewriters or laptops or pens or chalk on a sidewalk, it makes no difference. The tools used to compose the stories (and the format in which they are presented) is irrelevant. The words themselves are the art. The words are the treasure. The value is in what the stories have to say, not in how they were created. The process of creation is inconsequential. The way a magician does his tricks is meaningless. What matters is the sense of wonder conjured in the magic.