Everything Old…


Eat my shoe,

I have a secret,

And so do you.

Petey always said that whenever a grown-up asked him to do something that sounded dodgy. He seemed to regard it as some sort of incantation against something that was both unpleasant and inevitable. Or else, it was a stalling tactic, I never knew which. Evie just stood to one side, glaring at me.

The paragraph above was what was in my head two days ago when I woke up. Exactly in those words. So I got up and wrote them down on a small steno pad and set about setting up my laptop. A story was unfolding itself in my head. It was exciting. It was fresh. It was original. After turning on the laptop, making sure it had enough power, opening my word program, selecting the styles, I placed my fingers on the keys and…


Between the inspiration and the technology, everything went clean out of my head.

This used to happen to me a lot. When I was in college (twenty years ago now, eep!), I could never write any papers on a computer without writing it by hand first. Sometimes that blinking cursor can be powerfully distracting. There’s an immediacy to the act of writing with a pen that the keyboard can’t match. The screen seems too far away from my eyes, and the distance is telling.

Then, too, there’s the whole question of chair placement and posture that always made me feel like Goldilocks trying to find something that was just right. I seldom found that happy state in the computer lab at the university I attended. Or at home, for that matter.

Write by hand, however, and you can pile  pillows on your bed or lie on your stomach on the couch with your favorite fountain pen and a cat draped over your butt and scribble away. Because, let’s face it, your butt is the cushiest place on that couch, and warm besides, so why wouldn’t the cat lie on it? My favorite writing spot was always my bed, where I could build a nest of pillows, pen in hand, and sip hot chocolate without fear of spilling anything on expensive hardware.

Of course, most of history’s great works have been hand-written. Shakespeare wrote with a quill. Probably Jane Austen did as well. Sherlock Holmes was born from the tip of a steel nib pen. Even after typewriters were born, writers continued to write out their first drafts by hand. Hemingway carried little notebooks that made Moleskine famous. Neil Gaiman, Amy Tan, and Joyce Carol Oates all write their first drafts in longhand.

While I haven’t yet written an entire novel that way, when I’m feeling especially stuck on something I find that getting out a notebook and a pen helps to knock things loose and I can reconnect with the story. I can’t say why this works, but it does.

So if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, try writing by hand. It can’t hurt,and it just may help.


Paper Books in an Electronic Age

A lot of writers these days are publishing ebooks only. Even old-style publishing companies will now only offer ebook-only contracts to new authors. There are a number of reasons for this. Foremost among them is the lower cost and higher return on investment in producing and distributing a book in electronic form as opposed to its paper version. Indie authors may also go on at length about the perceived rush to ereaders and the ability to offer low prices to the consumer. All of these are valid reasons. But the main reason, I suspect, is that ebook publishing is just plain easier to do than paper. Put in another way, formatting for paper is a royal pain in the ass.

An ebook file, you see, is one page long. Oh, the page may go on for several hundred screen shots that masquerade as pages. But it is really one uninterrupted page of reflowable text. What that means is that it’s the reader and not the author who has the ability-through a menu on an ereader or tablet-to configure the font style and the size of the print, making page numbers redundant. So all the author needs to provide is a clean manuscript using a standard font (Garamond or Times New Roman, for instance), with chapter headings marked using the Styles menu in Word. Most ebook publishing platforms accept either .docx or .doc files, which they automatically convert into .epub or .mobi files as needed. Then all you do is hit the publish and voila your ebook is instantly published. No fuss, no muss.

Paper, on the other hand, requires some attention. First, you need to decide what size your book is going to be. Six by nine, the standard for hardcovers? Or five by eight for a trade paperback? If you want to go larger or smaller, check with your print on demand (aka POD) publisher. The measurements may not be exactly what you think they are. Then click on the page layout tab in your Word program, and resize the page.

After you’ve done that, you need to adjust the margins. Pick up a paper book that you like the look of and measure how much space there is from the block of text to the edge of the page. You need this measurement for the top and bottom of the page as well as inner and outer edges. The inner edge should be a bit wider than the outer edge to make allowances for the binding. While you’re at it, make sure that your pages are set for mirrored margins. There ‘s a small pull-down menu on the page layout tab. You should see it when you set your page size.

Of course, the text itself should be fully justified amd single-spaced. The font size for most books runs between ten and twelve points. Anything smaller than that is too small to be read comfortably-ten point font is really pushing it-while fourteen points is considered large print. If you want to publish a large print version, go for it.

Then you need to separate your front matter, which is the title page and copyright notice, plus any dedications and list of previously published books, from the main text. Insert a section break here. You will find it under the page layout tab under “breaks.” Make sure it is a section break and not a page break. Use “section break, odd page” so that the beginning of the first chapter starts in the right place. At the end of the first chapter, insert a “section break, next page” until you reach the end of the book.

Next, you need page numbers. Hit the insert tab at the top of the page and click on “page numbers” to proceed with formatting. This part is tricky. You need to click on the “link to previous” box to disable it. Otherwise, you’ll end up with page numbers on the front matter, and you don’t want that. Do a right click on the “page numbers” menu to format how you want them to look. Then do the same with succeeding chapters until the end. Just make sure that when you are formatting after chapter one, that you click on the box marked “continue from previous” so that you don’t end up with each chapter marked 1-2-3-4-5-etc. It will save you a lot of frustration.

Then you’ll need to add the running headers on the top of the page. This is the little banner which announces the author, title, and possibly chapter name of the book. Go back into the “insert” tab and select “headers.” Right click on that and select “edit header” to proceed. You’ll need to do this every time. Be sure to check off all the boxes marked “different first page”, “different odd and even pages”, and so on. Don’t forget to disable the “link to previous” too. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a running header on your front matter, and no, you don’t want that, either. Then start with the second page of the first chapter, select the header style you want, and type in your first and last name or the chapter name, if it has one. Gon on to the next page and do the same thing, only this time put in the book title. Proceed until the end of the book.

When you’ve finally sweated it out and have your formatting done, you need to save it as a PDF file. Look it over, making sure that the pages are in the right places and you’ve remembered to put the section breaks where they need to be.

Log in to your account at your POD publisher and follow their directions in uploading your PDF. There is usually a twenty-four to forty-eight hour delay while they check your file for printability. They will not check for anything else, so any spelling or grammar errors are on you. If something comes back showing an error, you’ll have to fix it in your .doc or docx file before converting the corrected file to PDF and resubmitting it. If they say all is okay on their end, you need to proofread the finished file before giving the final okay. If it’s your first book, then order a paper copy-this is not free-and read it carefully before approving it. People have reported weird things happening to the text during one file conversion or another, and it’s best to be careful. If you have more than one book under your belt, then either use an online reviewer (warning, they don’t work with all browsers, enlist tech support if needed), or simply download a PDF version and read it from that.

Then, at long last, if everything looks satisfactory, hit the publish button and in 3-5 days, your book is ready for purchase.

All of this is by way of explaining my mortification when I reread my proof copy of A City of Stone last week to check on some detail of the plot, and discovered that two whole sections had missing italics during nonverbal communications with one of the ghosts of the story. Which rendered those passages nearly incomprehensible, since there was no way to distinguish the POV character’s thoughts from the communication he was getting. Upon investigation, I discovered that all of my various PDF files had that same flaw. Which meant that I had to make a copy of my ebook file and start the whole formatting process from scratch. Which is another way of explaining why this blog post is a week late.

Sorry about that. Sometimes these things happen. Here’s hoping for smooth sailing from here on out.


Excerpt from A City of Air

Hello, everyone, and a belated happy Thanksgiving. I spent a lovely day in my pajamas, watching the parade on tv and losing count of the times that boy bands came on pretending to sing while pretending to play instruments in the middle of Manhattan. Hope you all had an equally enjoyable day.

I thought I might take the time to let you know what I have planned as far as future scheduling is concerned. First, I am now working on no less than three novels at one time. I couldn’t really tell you why I decided to do things that way, except to say that my attention span has been shrinking with the passing years–ooh, look at the birds flying past the window–and after being blocked all summer, it seems better right now to take whatever comes to me in the moment.

My main project is finishing A City of Air, the third book in the trilogy A City by the Lake. I’m about thirty thousand words in, and people have been asking about it. I still think I can finish by Christmas if I apply myself. The added transitional chapters at the beginning of the book are done, so it’s just matter of pushing through the last half. I’ll check in here each week to let you know about my progress. There is a small excerpt posted below to give you a little taste. The airship does get off the ground, and even takes on passengers before it’s all over.

I have a secondary project involving a pastische of Sherlock Holmes, who I rediscovered this fall. It’s set in the year 1924, and is narrated by a young American woman named Enid Stone. Enid is a research assistant to a celebrated movie director who has been assigned the task of tracking down Mr. Holmes for a film. It’s more light-hearted than the trilogy, and should be great fun. I hope to complete it sometime in January.

My third work in progress (only an outline at the moment) came to me out of the blue a couple of weeks ago. It begins in central Africa during the 1870s and quickly moves to France eighteen years later. It will involve a young man’s quest for his father. I don’t have a title for it yet. Hopefully one will come to me as the story progresses. I’ve divided the story into five parts and thought I would experiment with serializing it here on this blog next spring.

In the meantime, check out the excerpt below from A City of Air. The airship has been liberated from its barn and is about to leave the ground for the first time. Enjoy.



The drivers of  the horse teams watched Gideon and waited for his signal. There were six teams in all, with four large draft horses in each. Gideon stared up at the great hulk of the steel behemoth above him. The building surrounding it had been carefully dismantled, and the panels that had formed the walls and roof lay on the ground.

It looked as if it had exploded from within.

Three large balloons of heavy gray silk bobbed gently in the breeze above the deck. A faint hissing noise indicated that they were still filling with gases. Gideon absently rubbed his thumb over the blue stone of his watch fob. It was the only visible sign of his anxiety. There was no sign of Abner yet, and Gideon was very aware that he was now the center of attention. People had been gathering since early morning to watch.

A murmur from the crowd drew his attention from the railing. He looked down to where the curving base of the airship rested on its wooden cradle. It had begun to rock gently. One of the horses snorted. The others shifted nervously. Gideon looked at them warily. He risked a glance at the spectators.

There were children in that crowd.

No one else seemed to notice. A sigh went up from the assembly, and Gideon turned back to the airship in time to see it lift gently from its resting place. A lanky figure appeared at the railing. Gideon’s skipped a beat before he realized it was Jameson, not Abner, who stood there. Abner must still be fiddling with the controls. Jameson looked over his shoulder for a moment, then waved his arm at Gideon. Gideon relayed the signal to the drivers, and they began to move forward cautiously.

The horses pulled against their harnesses with surprising ease. Both Abner and John Merriweather had claimed that the airship could just as easily have been guided without the aid of draft horses once it was off the ground. Abner, in fact, pointed out the number of times that both horses and cattle had been spooked by the balloons he had flown in over the years. But the secondary investors—who had become necessary after the first airship was destroyed—insisted on horses.

From the way that a couple of them were tossing their heads, Gideon wasn’t sure it was such a good idea. They looked nervous of the shadow that the great ship cast upon the ground. Gideon could empathize. Creatures on the ground tended to be naturally suspicious of something chasing them from above. He wasn’t sure that he trusted it, although he had promised to accompany Abner on the first official flight in three weeks’ time.

The drivers managed to hold fast to their teams until the turn into the broad meadow behind Abner’s farm, where a giant docking platform rose above the trampled grass. The shift in the angle of the sun after the rightward turn brought the ship’s shadow directly over the beasts’ heads.

Gideon watched with mounting anxiety as he saw the drivers struggle to maintain control. Then a big bay on the inside of the leading right-hand team suddenly reared in it traces, knocking into his neighbor, a chestnut with a white blaze.

The chestnut screamed in panic.

The awful sounds made by their frightened fellows—in combination with the strange shadow stalking them from above—quickly spooked the other teams. Soon enough, they were all united in trying to flee across open fields, spurred on by the monstrosity that bobbed along in their wake. Abner finally appeared, shouting something over the rail, but it was impossible to make out his words.

Gideon began to run after them. He had no idea what to do if by some miracle he actually caught up to them. He was dimly aware of shouts behind him. Abner disappeared again. The ship began to sink, bobbing wildly until its rudder was bouncing upon the ground, sending up sprays of grass and dirt in every direction. Gideon was forced to stop and throw his arms over his face to avoid the flying clods.

He saw the gray orbs of the balloons grow flabby. It looked like Abner was releasing their gases. At last, the full weight of the ship rested upon the ground. This did not, unfortunately, stop the forward motion of the horses. They dragged their burden another ten yards, leaving a broad, deep gouge slashing a dark path through the grass.

The airship creaked and, to Gideon’s horror, began to tilt to the left. He had a momentary vision of the thing rolling over and crushing both horses and drivers. But it stopped its sideways motion and came to rest at an angle in the soft dirt. Voices called out in the distance, and Gideon heard the sound of running feet coming toward him.

Abner appeared at the railing again, taking in the sight of the trembling, foam-flecked horses, and the deep trench left by the airship’s unscheduled landing.

He did not look pleased.

A hand suddenly gripped the railing, and Jameson appeared, peering over Abner’s shoulder. He looked shaken. Abner spotted Gideon on the ground below.

“I told them the horses were a bad idea,” he said, leaning his elbows on the  railing, “Maybe next time, someone will trust that I know what I’m talking about.”

The Literary Cat

In addition to the tortoiseshell, I also share living space with a ginger tabby named…uh…Ginger. Original, right? I also own a Nook tablet, with a lovely screen saver displaying floating bubbles.

Ginger loves bubbles. Sometimes when she pats at them she brings up other documents stored on my tablet. Yesterday morning I interrupted my reading to tend to a load of laundry in the basement. When I got back upstairs, there was Ginger, lying on the bed with her paws tucked under her body and gazing intently at some backlit text.

It was the ending of Incident at Owl Creek Bridge, by Ambrose Bierce. Interesting literary choice. Maybe she thought there were owls in it.


Many Irons in the Fire

It’s been a busy week around here as I try to hold on to the dream if being a writer. First off the bat, I submitted the manuscript of A City of Wood to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. The contest is held every year and there’s a book contract with Amazon Publishing offered as grand prize. I have a 1 in 10,000 chance of winning, so you can see that the odds aren’t in my favor, but that’s true of publishing in general. Nothing ventured, and all that…

I also sent my first short story to a magazine…and got it in 10 minutes before the deadline. Honestly, at the 30-minute mark I didn’t thinking was going to make it. A photo finish, to be sure. I really need to start these projects earlier. Time management has always been an issue for me. I’m the princess of procrastination, and always have been.

Oh, and here’s another look at Squeaky. She didn’t think the last picture showed her best angle:



Stay warm this weekend. We’re in for another round of snow in these parts.