Finding Your Voice

Finding Your VoiceAnyone can put words down on paper, but just because the words are there doesn’t mean they’re anything anyone wants to read.  That’s because the hardest thing about writing is finding your voice.  It’s the writer’s unique style – their voice – that shines through to make any writing engaging.

I see this problem all the time with my business writing clients.  They’ve certainly got plenty to say – they’re experts in their fields, business owners with decades of experience and tons of valuable information to impart.  But I find that as a communications consultant (my day job outside of writing fiction), my clients tend to fall into one of two buckets: either they’re pretty decent writers but need help organizing their writing, or – more commonly – they’re struggling with their voice.

In the case of the under-developed voice, the writing just sounds… off.  Despite making good points and imparting valuable wisdom, whatever piece my client is trying to write is just not hitting the right notes of professionalism and personality.  Instead it sounds immature, dry, flat – not at all how they come across when you speak to them, but they just aren’t as compelling on paper as they are in person. What’s missing in their writing?  Their voice.

The big secret here is that there really is no secret to bringing your own unique style to your writing. It’s simply about having confidence in what you have to say – and in the act of writing itself.

The reason many of my business clients’ writing sounds shaky is because they don’t believe they can be good writers.  They are certainly confident in the information they’re sharing – after all, they’ve spent 20+ years amassing that knowledge in the field – but for most of these individuals, they stopped getting coached on their writing back in high school, or perhaps well before then.

Think about it – when the last thing anyone told you that you could write successfully was a 4th grade book report, it kind of makes sense that you’d continue to write that way.  It’s easy for a smart person to give up on writing – and their writer’s voice – when all they’ve ever seen since is a B or C or D in red ink on their papers.  Pretty soon writing gets put in that box of “things I don’t do well” and they leave it there, because no one ever pushed them to do better.  Positive reinforcement is a powerful thing.  The thing is, positive reinforcement is also very hard to come by.

In my own case, I found my voice in high school, writing under the guidance of a few very engaged and very encouraging teachers.  I’d always been a good writer (at least according to my mom, haha) but when I look back at my early writing, I see myself falling into the very common trap of trying to write in someone else’s voice, the way I thought writing should sound since that’s how it sounded to me when I read.  Even with engaging subject matter, my early writing felt forced, awkward, unnatural – and that’s because I wasn’t writing like me.

I’m forever in debt to my high school teachers because they saw something in my writing – the potential for something more – and they took the time to push me to develop it further.  My junior year English teacher founded a two-week summer camp specifically designed to help a handful of flourishing writers from our school develop their creative writing skills and invited me to join.  She then managed to foster an environment at the camp where we felt uninhibited and free to experiment without judgment (or grades!) getting in the way.

My senior year English teacher was well-known for teaching to rigorous standards in preparation for the upcoming AP exams, but seeing my potential, he held me to even higher standards than the rest of my peers.  I still have many of my papers from that class, and his meticulous notes scrawled in the margins of the page helped me to recognize and develop stylistic traits that I’d been doing unconsciously – parallelisms and unexpected personification, playfulness with words, a love of vocabulary and a more formal tone.  He helped me to realize that I had a voice, and that it was okay to use it.

I even had a fabulous math/computer science teacher both of those years who was an admittedly terrible writer himself – but he recognized my own talents in that area, and actually asked me to help him write/edit pieces that he knew needed to come across as professional and credible, including college recommendation letters for other students.  Can you imagine at 17 years old how much confidence that gave me in my own abilities as a writer?

What these experiences all had in common was that they made it clear that not only did I have a voice, but it was one that other people were interested in hearingThat set me on the right path of knowing who I was as a writer and having the confidence to develop my own unique voice further.

But not all writers have been lucky enough to have had that kind of support early on.  So my advice?  Seek it out.  Join a writers group – whether online, in your city, or through a local college – and just write.  Get people to read your writing, listen to their feedback, and just keep writing until it feels natural.  Eventually, you should start to hear your own voice in your head when reading your writing.  Practice until it’s authentic.

And, most importantly, don’t worry about writing something perfect – after all, I still cringe reading certain parts of Stitch.  Nothing you write will ever be perfect.  The important thing is that you’re always improving, and always being real in your writing, doing what comes naturally to you even if it means breaking a few rules.  After all, writers are people too – we’re individuals, we have unique personalities and quirks, and we’re not perfect!  Our writing should reflect that.

The fact of the matter is, the sooner you believe in your abilities as a writer, the sooner your voice will ring loud and clear.  You just have to give yourself permission to be heard.

DIY Editing Tips

I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because typos are the bane of my existence!  (Sponsored post.)

You may think that soaring sales numbers or rave reviews are any writer’s crowning achievements, but in my case, one of the greatest satisfactions of my writing career to date has been something far less glamorous: protestations that my writing is well-edited.

After all, one of the main reasons self-published work gets a bad rap is because it’s often known to be riddled with typos, misspellings, and incorrect grammar.  When I first set out to publish Stitch, one of my biggest fears was that mechanical errors in the text would make me come off as unprofessional and, worse, amateur.  (Granted, I was – and probably still am – an amateur… but the reader didn’t need to know this!)

DIY Editing TipsDespite lacking an agent, publisher, and editor, I wanted desperately for my book to look and feel and read like a “real” book.  To that end, I hired a talented cover designer, I spent hours tweaking the print/e-book formatting, and most importantly, I put a LOT of effort into editing my writing.

And guess what?  It worked!  Many readers and reviewers have commented on the quality of my writing, and were even surprised to learn that my books were published independently.  In fact, after publishing Stitch and Shudder, I’ve only learned of a combined 3 true typos across both books (2 of which I fixed in the Stitch update released last April).  And while I’m sure there are more hidden in there (if you know of any, I’d love to know about them!), they’re subtle enough that the vast majority of readers will never even notice – and after all, even professionally published books have a typo or two in them, so I can deal.

Given my success in this particular arena, I thought I’d take a few moments to share my top 3 tips and tricks for other writers who are editing their own work:

1. Get more eyes on it! Seriously, this is the number one tip and by far the most effective thing you can do – get at least 10 people to read your work before you publish it, and make sure they know you want to hear about any typos, misspellings, or potential grammar issues.  (Sometimes people are afraid to insult you otherwise!)  The unfortunate reality is that you just can’t see your own writing clearly – you know what it’s *supposed* to say, so your mind just reads that instead of what’s actually on the page (thanks, brain!).

The good news is that you’re already getting people to give you feedback on the story, right?  Well, why not get some free editing while you’re at it?  Some readers are excellent at picking up on mechanical errors, others less so, so it’s essential to cast a wide net.  If you have the cash, you can even hire a professional – but so far, I’ve gotten by on the generous help of friends and family.  And be sure to THANK THEM for their time and input, even if you don’t always take their advice.  (After all, as I’m constantly telling my husband, there is such thing as “writer’s license!”)

2. Read it in print.  I don’t understand why, but for some reason, typos are easier to catch in print than on-screen.  I HATE wasting paper (I guess all those “save the rainforest” PSAs from when I was a kid made an impression…), but you have to review at least one printed version of your work before you hit the publish button.

In my case, I use the print proof from Createspace to do this, but if you’re just publishing an e-book, you can print it out at home (hey, you can always use a really tiny font, small margins, and double-sided printing to save paper!).  And again, refer to #1 – if you can get other people to read it in print as well, that’s even better.

3. Pay attention to grammar check.  Okay, I’m not going to lie – automated grammar checks have proven completely useless to me 99.9% of the time.  I don’t know what it is about the English language, but computers just don’t seem to get it.  BUT whenever I do a thorough automated grammar check on my books (which usually turns up what feels like about 3000 “issues” and takes 1-2 hours to go through), I almost always find one or two actual errors that I would have overlooked.

Yes, it’s a pain in the butt, but if you want your writing to look professional, you need to catch as many issues as possible – so save this one ’til the end and do it once, but make sure to do it!  You can use the built-in Word grammar check or any number of online tools (e.g., Grammarly), but use something.  You’ll have to sift through a lot of garbage, but you just might find a gem or two.

Good luck and good grammar to all!  If you have any other tips or tricks that have worked for you, I’d love to hear them!

“Fantastically original, well written, engaging” – Reviews, Highlights (“POV Perfection” & “Writerly Wisdom”) & Giveaway

Start the countdown – only 5 DAYS left in the Shudder Blog Tour!  Where did the time go??

Anyway, three more great stops today, including two stellar reviews and two more awesome set of highlights!  First, swing by YA Book Addict for an amazing 4.5 star review:

What a fantastic follow up to book one in the Stitch trilogy!! I absolutely loved it, from start to finish!!  … I truly loved Isaac in this book. He remained caring and supportive at all times. I think there was only one instance where he lost his cool and that was due to Alessa’s attitude, and if I’m honest, I would have lost it with her as well. … I absolutely loved Nikhil. I could really feel what he was experiencing and my heart ached for him. I think I actually looked forward to his portion of the story the most. … The one constant thought that kept coming at me while I was reading Shudder was the originality of it. I remember feeling the exact same way while I was reading Stitch. Personally, I have never read anything like it before and I have to give huge applause to an author who can create such a fantastically original, well written, engaging piece of writing. <continue reading>

Next up, check out a fantastic set of tour highlights on the topic of “POV Perfection” over at Library of a Book Witch.

MommasezAnd finally, head to Mommasez for another fab review AND highlights of “Writerly Wisdom!”

After reading Stitch, Book 1 in the Stitch Trilogy, I raved about the book and was super excited about reading Shudder. I HAD to find out what happened. I. Was. Not. Disappointed!! If anything, Samantha’s writing got even BETTER! What?! Yeah, you heard me! <continue reading>

And of course, you can enter the awesome grand finale giveaway at any of these stops!

Thanks so much to Tracey, Jennifer, and Cindi for hosting!!

Guest Post: “Celebrating the Stitch 1-Year Anniversary!” + Review

Happy 1 Year Anniversary to Stitch!

Guess what: today is the 1 Year Anniversary of the Stitch Blog Tour!  Exactly one year ago today, I announced to the world that I’d written book.  Wow – where does the time go??  To celebrate, today we’ve got a guest post at Head Stuck in a Book where I recount the lessons I learned along the way, and how I even found myself writing a book to begin with.  Here’s a sneak peek:

But it wasn’t always an easy road to get here.  It required (like anything else) a little sacrifice, a lot of hard work, and healthy dash of blind faith that if I just follow my heart, everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.  So what have I learned in my journey?  Here are the top three lessons:

1. Do what you love.  I know, I know – people say this all the time.  Easier said than done.  It took me years (like 25 years!) to even realize *what* it is that I love to do (write).  So I know how difficult this sounds, and I’m not going to lie, it takes a lot of introspection, listening to the people around you, following your gut even when it’s scary, and just a bit of dumb luck to figure this out.

But I can also promise you this – if you manage to find a way to make your passions your life instead of just trying to squeeze them into your life, you will be infinitely happier.  Because suddenly, you’ll look forward to what you have to do every day, even when it’s stressful.  I still spend plenty of time agonizing over how much stuff I need to write, but when I sit down and actually do it, all that stress magically disappears.  I lose myself in the work, because I truly enjoy it.  And I can’t say that about any other job I’ve ever held.  <continue reading>

Thanks so much to Sarah for hosting this special day on the tour!  She’s also got a Shudder review up at the stop, so head over there for more!

Guest Post: “Book Pirates: Not the ‘Arrrgh’ Kind” + Alessa/Isaac Interview, Review & Giveaway!

Nomi's Paranormal PalaceSome awesome new content up today on the Shudder Blog Tour, including an interview with Alessa and Isaac over at Nomi’s Paranormal Palace (plus an excellent review) and a guest post titled “Book Pirates: Not the ‘Arrrgh’ Kind” (plus giveaway & excerpt) at Reading Between the Wines!  Here’s a sneak preview:

From the Alessa/Isaac interview:

Naomi: Hi Alessa and Isaac! Welcome to my Paranormal Palace!!
Alessa: We’re very excited to be here!
Isaac: Thanks so much for having us, Naomi!

Naomi: The pleasure is mine, I assure you! Alright, let’s get straight into the nitty gritty. How are you both adjusting to life now that you are out of the spotlight, not that you realised that you were being filmed before…
A: (big sigh) It’s a relief!  It was SO difficult during Stitch once I realized what was going on.  Can you imagine getting dressed or going to the bathroom knowing there are thousands of people watching you??  It was horrifying.
I: Yeah, we were definitely happy to get some alone time in Shudder.  (gives Alessa a wink)
A: (laughs and elbows Isaac) <continue reading>

From the guest post:

I have a confession to make: at one time in my life, I was a pirate.

No, silly, not the swashbuckling “arrrgh” kind – the digital media stealing kind, of course.  Though I’m proud to say I’ve since reformed my unscrupulous ways and now purchase all of my music and streaming TV legally, in my past life as an internet scalawag I probably acquired upwards of 1000 songs and watched at least 10 or so seasons of some of my favorite shows through shady online “sharing” sites.

I still vividly remember the day in high school when one of my friends introduced me to Napster. The first song I ever downloaded was “Flagpole Sitta” by Harvey Danger, and the experience changed my life.  I never looked back (well, until I graduated college and had a job and realized that a) I could afford to pay for stuff and b) it actually made me feel better to do so, since I would never under any other circumstances condone stealing and I was tired of being a hypocrite).

So I get it.  Really, I do.  Why pay for something you can get for free? <continue reading>

Thanks so much to Naomi and Crystal for hosting today!!

Pre-Release Jitters – Guest Post @ Reutreads

ReutreadsEver wonder what goes through an author’s mind leading up to the release of his/her book?  Well, it’s not pretty – basic a chaotic jumble of anxiety, stress, self-doubt, and of course the ever-present hopeful glimmer of excitement that drive an author to put him/herself through this process, again and again.

In a new guest post up today at Reutreads, I’m offering a glimpse into the handful of things that are keeping me awake in these nights leading up to Shudder’s release.  Here’s a quick preview:

1. How do I make my book NOT SUCK?

Okay, I’ll be straight with you – I don’t think the current draft of my next book sucks. I actually think it’s pretty good. But I thought that about my last book, too, up until the day I released it, and then almost immediately after I realized that I hated it. And then I loved it again, and then I hated it, and so on and so forth, until one day I finally saw it for what it actually was: a book – and a pretty decent book at that – but one that, like most books, has its flaws.

So what I learned after my experience with Stitch is that it’s really not for many months after the book has been released that I can actually see it clearly. The problem is that in order to make the book the best it can be, I need to know what’s wrong with it before I publish it.

I’m still not quite sure how to accomplish this, but I can promise you one thing – I’m TRYING. Really, really hard. I’m thinking about my book constantly, before I fall asleep at night and first thing when I wake up in the morning, in the shower, while I’m cooking, when I’m supposed to be doing my day job… it’s always on my mind. Where are the problems and how do I fix them?

LOTS more neuroses where that came from!!  Lol.  Check out the rest of the post over at Reutreads today for more.  :-)

Big thanks to Reut for making time in her busy school schedule to host me!

“On Bad Reviews”- A Guest Post @ White Sky Project

Ever wonder how authors deal with negative reviews?  Check out my guest post at White Sky Project “On Bad Reviews” for one perspective!  Here’s a sneak peek:

“endless babble…nonsense really…” “boring dialogue” “far fetched and stupid” “I just couldn’t connect” “I felt nothing” “HUGE issues with this book” “forced myself to finish”

OUCH. Those are actual comments from the handful of bad reviews that Stitch has received, and I’ve got to tell you, as much as I try not to let them, those words still sting.

The fact of the matter is that bad reviews are an inescapable part of being a writer. Ask any author, and they will gladly tell you that you need a thick skin to write (or, at least, to share your writing with people who have access to the internet!). Even the best/most successful books ever written have their fair share of 1-star reviews: To Kill a Mockingbird? 88. The Great Gatsby? 104. Harry Potter? 95. Twilight? A whopping 738.

Head to White Sky Project today for the rest!  Big thanks to Leah for hosting me!!

Play By Play: CreateSpace, KDP & Smashwords Publishing Timeline

Stitch has been officially published for 10 days now, and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that I am the author of a published book.  So in the meantime, I’ve been keeping track of the timeline by which Stitch went up on Amazon and Smashwords after I hit the “go” button to put it out in the world, since I thought that a) this would help me to better remember this pivotal moment in my life, and b) I thought it might be useful information for other self-published authors who are asking themselves, “How long will it actually take for my book to show up on Amazon and Smashwords?”

When I started looking into publishing Stitch through Amazon’s CreateSpace and KDP and also Smashwords, I was surprised (and disappointed) to find that as an independent author/publisher, I really have very little control over when and how my book becomes available to the public.  My goal was make my self-published book and release look and feel as much like a “real” published book as humanly possible – I didn’t want readers to even notice or care about the publisher, b/c I was offering a quality product that was 100% professional.  I had originally hoped to come out to a big bang with a blog tour leading up to the launch day, where I could take preorders the whole time and it would all be glorious and gay.  BUT, much to my frustration I could not seem to figure out a way to arrange this with the tools that are currently at my disposal through Amazon and Smashwords.

Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s AMAZING that I can even self-publish at all, and though it took a bit of work, I’m THRILLED with the quality of the final print book and e-books that the CreateSpace, KDP, and Smashwords tools allowed me to create and the relative ease with which they have enabled me to get my book into all the major online sales channels.  So, if anyone from those companies is reading this, please know that overall I think you are wonderful, but if you’re looking for suggestions for what tools you should implement next, this is my request: give me more control over how and when my book appears, and especially allow me to pre-load all my book’s information and take preorders so that I can have a big fancy launch day just like the New York publishers do.

My ideal scenario:

  • 3-4 months before launch day, I upload my manuscript files and book metadata.  I can proof not only what my book will look like, but also the product pages and search results for the various versions of my book, and my author pages.  I can tweak and retweak to my heart’s desire until everything looks just perfect, without any of this ever showing to the public.
  • Once I am happy with how everything looks, I hit a button which makes the pages live on Amazon, but in preorder mode.  Perhaps it takes a few days to a week for everything to propagate through the system and appear online, and that’s just fine, b/c I have plenty of time and can wait until everything is live before I start contacting bloggers about my blog tour.
  • The preorder pages are live and look great, my print and electronic version product pages are linked and show up in search, and the review feature is fully functional, so I start emailing bloggers to book them for a tour leading up to launch day.  If I find typos in my book or decide to make other revisions over the next few weeks/months, I can of course still edit the manuscript and get more proofs of my book (and as many as I would like, since I’m starting to send ARCs to bloggers now and I’m sorry CreateSpace but a maximum of 5 print proofs is just not going to do it!).
  • The blog tour begins six weeks or a month before launch, and it’s going awesome.  Reviewers are loving my book, they’re posting glowing reviews on Amazon, and their followers are placing boatloads of preorders through Amazon and Smashwords (and maybe even through extended channels like Barnes & Noble and iTunes, since I was a good girl and uploaded my metadata months before launch so that there was plenty of time for all their feeds to update).
  • At midnight on launch day, I login to CreateSpace, KDP, and Smashwords and hit the big green “Go Live!” button (or even better, at some earlier point I set a setting to do this automatically so that I can go to sleep at my normal bedtime and be well-rested to maniacally push the refresh button for the first 24 hours of the book’s sale!).  Any existing preorders are processed and readers can start placing orders right away.  I wake up in the morning to a gazillion sales and my book in the Amazon Top 10…  Hey, a girl can dream!  This is my ideal scenario, remember?
Okay, so now let’s talk about reality:
  • T-1 month to launch: It’s my first time publishing a book and I’m not really sure what to expect.  The official help pages on CreateSpace, KDP, and Smashwords are a bit vague and give wide ranges to cover their own butts, so they say things like it will take 48 hours to three weeks for my book to appear, which is just not all that satisfying of an answer, since I’m trying to schedule a blog tour starting two weeks after launch and I need to know at what point I’ll be able to email bloggers and they’ll actually be able to see my book and the reviews that my beta readers have posted.  I try searching the forums and the internet to see what other indie authors have experienced, and the best I find is this thread which says 5-15 days to be fully operational.  I’m not exactly thrilled about this, but I can’t find any way around it.  Also, the only way I can figure out how to take preorders is a huge hack and will only work for print books, and since my big launch day plans now seem like a fantasy, I opt not to do it since I’m not confident that I can even give an accurate launch date.
  • T-1 week: I upload my manuscripts to the various sites and start proofing the output.  Unfortunately there’s no way for me to proof what my product pages, search results, or author pages will look like (in fact, I can’t even create an author page until after I hit the publish button), so I just focus on proofing the various versions of my book and trust that the system will do everything right (and oh does that trust come back to bite me in the behind!).  Also, there’s no way to proof my Smashwords output (which needed a LOT of tweaking to get right) without publishing it first, so I publish it, save the proofs, and quickly un-publish.  But then I realize that it will take 2-3 weeks or more for my book to appear on Smashwords’ partners’ sites (B&N, iTunes, etc.), so I decide to just quietly publish it and hope that it will show up in those partners’ catalogs by launch day (it doesn’t).
  • T-1 day: My book has been live on Smashwords for a week and still no movement on the expanded retailers, but perhaps this is my fault b/c I updated the manuscript with some last minute changes the day before launch and it takes some time for it to be reviewed and submitted again.  Oh well, it’s worth the wait to make sure my book is the best it can be before it lands in readers’ hands.
  • T-7 hours to launch: I know that after I hit the publish button on CreateSpace and KDP it’s going to take some time to for everything to appear in the catalogs, so I decide to do this the evening before launch day hoping that the system is actually quicker than Amazon is letting on and my stuff will all be up by morning.  It’s 5 pm on 7/31/12 – from here on out, I’m considering this T-0 (even though official launch isn’t until the next day, 8/1).
  • T+2 hours: Both the Kindle and print version product pages have appeared on Amazon, but they’re not linked, so both show up separately in the search results.  The Kindle version page has all the metadata and is fully purchasable, yay!  The print version page is showing all the metadata except Look Inside, which is good, but is not yet purchasable – instead, it showed only “email me when this title is available” (and when I signed up, I never actually did get an email when it became available).  In addition, I realize that my cover designer – who I listed as a contributor on the metadata forms on both CreateSpace and KDP – is showing up in the Amazon search results seemingly as a co-author due to some unclear formatting, and even though I really wanted to give him (the amazing credit on the product page, I’m forced to remove him as a contributor, since I think the search results will be confusing to readers.  I’m not able to update this on the KDP or CreateSpace websites b/c my book status is still publishing and I therefore cannot edit any metadata, however, I am able to call CreateSpace customer service to have the contributor removed.  KDP will have to wait until morning (I prob could have called, but I didn’t).  Now that my book is searchable on Amazon, I’m able to setup my Author Central page and I do so immediately, but I’m informed it will take a few days for it to be publicly visible and for my vanity author link to be functioning.  I also submit a manuscript file to the Look Inside team to get the Look Inside feature working for the print version of the book as soon as possible.
  • T+12 hours: The print version is now purchasable and shows a link to the Kindle version on the hand side left of the product page (“start reading this title on your Kindle in under a minute”) but the usual format selector in the top-middle of the page is not there.  Also, there is no mention of the print version on the Kindle page.  Both versions still show up separately in the search results.  I call Amazon’s Author Central customer service to get an ETA on when the linking will be done, and they report that their system shows that the books are linked, but it may take up to 3 days for the formats selection box to appear.  KDP finally shows the book status as published which means the metadata is editable again and I can (remorsefully) remove Damon as a contributor (sorry again!!).  In addition, it occurs to me that I should check if the book is showing up on Amazon’s international sites (, .de, and .fr) and it is, but I’m not sure when exactly this happened b/c I forgot to check earlier.  I also check my Author Central dashboard, and when I login I can see both versions of the book, though the metadata on only the print version is editable.  The public version of the Author Central page is not accessible yet, though.
  • T+17 hours: The Kindle and print product pages still are not linked properly, but my beta readers post reviews and are happy to find that reviews posted on one Amazon page automatically appear on both.  However, for some reason the print version is no longer showing up in search, which I call Amazon about and they assure me will be fixed once the linking is complete.  Luckily, I had saved a hyperlink to the print version product page and it still works (which is a good thing, b/c I’d already sent it out to like 500 people on Facebook!), and I am still getting plenty of print orders.
  • T+20 hours: I get an email notifying me that my Author Central page has gone live, and though the vanity link doesn’t work yet, all the biographical info I entered during setup is there and it’s showing both versions of the book.  On the back end, I can see/edit the print version of the book on my Author Central site but the Kindle version only shows “coming soon” and is uneditable (which, interestingly enough, is the reverse of how things were 8 hours ago).  Amazon search results are still only showing the Kindle version.  15 minutes later, the Author Central vanity link begins working.
  • T+41 hours: The print version is finally showing up in search again, but the print and Kindle product pages still are not linked with the format selector box.  At this point, I feel that things are in good enough condition to start contacting bloggers, so I begin sending out emails.
  • T+74 hours: The print and Kindle product pages are finally linked properly with the format selector box, yay!
  • T+4 days: With the help of an incredibly supportive blogging community, I’ve completely booked my planned 30-day tour which will begin 2 weeks after the book’s launch. Since there’s so much interest, I decide to extend the tour by a month and email even more bloggers.
  • T+1 week: The Author Central dashboard finally shows both books linked correctly with all the metadata editable.
  • T+10 days: The Look Inside feature on the print version is working, but I’m not sure when this happened b/c I forgot to check.  On the Smashwords front, the ebook version is still not listed at the extended partners like B&N and iTunes, though again this might be my fault b/c I published another update to the manuscript on launch day after finding a typo (as explained in my previous post).  On the blog tour front, I’ve managed to book all but a handful of dates for the extended 2-month tour and am confident that I will have all 60 days booked (and some double-booked!) by the start of the tour (remember when I said I love book bloggers?  I really, really do!).  In addition, I receive my very first review from a blogger and it’s even better than I had allowed myself to hope for, so I’m pretty much floating all day long!

So that’s what happened.  As you can see, it wasn’t the worst experience in the world (and the whole blog tour planning aspect was just about the best experience in the world!), but it wasn’t exactly what I had hoped for, either.

Amazon/Smashwords, if you’re listening, hopefully this will be helpful feedback to you when planning your upcoming releases.  And for all the other first-time self-published authors out there, perhaps this will help you to set your expectations and plan more effectively for your own release.

As for me, I’m just counting down the days until this blog tour begins!  More info coming soon…

Kindle/CreateSpace/Smashwords Formatting Woes: I figured out the hard stuff so you don’t have to! (Part 2)

Continuing Part 1 of this post from earlier this week, which covered CreateSpace print formatting tips, I’m just going to dive right in to the Kindle and Smashwords tips…


#1 Advice: Know What You’re Getting Into

I didn’t.  For some reason, I was under the impression that this would be simple.  I have a finished manuscript that’s nicely formatted for print, so I figured one, two, three, upload this baby to the KDP site, and I’m done.  Right?  Wrong.

KDP is very misleading – sure enough, the form is only 6 questions (9 if you count the second page, which you don’t get to until after you have a working .mobi file).  And the most misleading step is #5 Upload Your Book file.  I knew from reading the formatting guidelines that they accept a whole bunch of different file types, but what Amazon doesn’t explain is that these are not all created equally.  The best is a .prc file which already has your .ncx and .opf and images and everything in there.  What is all that?  Read on to find out.

After LOTS of searching online, this is what I found I needed to do:

  1. Save my Word .doc manuscript as a Filtered Web Page .htm (NOT .html) and do some cleanup in Notepad (and by some, I mean like 4 hours).  These are the big things that took me a while to figure out:
    1. Anchor Tags & Weird Loss of Formatting Bug.  Make sure hyperlink anchor tags (<a href=””></a>) – like those you find around your Table of Contents (autogenerated by Word if you used their built-in TOC generator, or you may be adding this yourself manually) – are always on the outside of the paragraph <p></p> tags they’re linking to.  Otherwise, you get this weird bug in Kindle where after you use a hyperlink, the text loses all formatting.
      1. Update 5/30/13: As I ran through this process again with Shudder, I discovered that something had changed in Amazon’s interpretation of the HTML code, and now when I put the <a> tags on the outside of the <p> on my TOC links, the Kindle would no longer recognize them as hyperlinks.  However, if I did this around the destination links (the chapter titles) as well, I ran into the same loss of formatting bug.  So what I ended up doing was leaving the <a> tags on the inside of the <p> tags on the TOC links, but putting them on the outside of the <p> tags on the chapter titles.  That seemed to get the behavior I wanted.
    2. TOC Page Numbers. Delete unnecessary span tags (<span></span>) with page numbers from the TOC code.  Word automatically added this stuff into my TOC, and obviously page numbers are unnecessary on an e-reader.
    3. Centering Images. Add image references as needed (you DON’T need to add your cover, since that will be taken care of later – for me, I just had one image, the cover of the second book in the series which I added as a teaser at the end).  If you’re adding images, I found that this code worked well:
      1. Add this class up at the top somewhere (where the other classes are) to help make sure it’s centered properly:
        text-indent: 0;
        margin: 1em 0 0 0;
        padding: 0;
        text-align: center;
        font-size: 0.8em;
        Then add the image reference in the right spot using something like this:
        <p><img src=”NameOfTheFile.jpg” alt=”Description of Picture” width=”134″ height=”200″ /><br />Caption for Pic, if you want one.</p>(Note that I think I read somewhere that that alt=”” tag is required – I didn’t try it without it, but just be forewarned.)
    4. Un-Indenting Paragraphs. If you have paragraphs that aren’t supposed to be indented (for example, first paragraph of a chapter), you’re going to have to manually mark them as such, because Kindle automatically indents all paragraphs whether you want it to or not.  I tried using Word styles and classes in the HTML, but the only thing that worked for me was to manually add the following to the <p> tags on the paragraphs that don’t have indents:
    5. Monospaced (Courier) Font. This is another one that drove me nuts.  Even the Kindle Publishing Guidelines (sec 3.1.6) say there is a bunch of ways to get Kindle to display the newspaper-like Courier font, but I tried <font face=”courier”>, I tried <pre>, and the only thing that worked for me was adding <tt> tags around paragraphs (<p></p>) where I wanted to use the  monospaced font.
  2. Check your formatting by emailing your .htm file to your Kindle.
    1. Find your Kindle’s email address (it’s under the settings somewhere as “Send-to-Kindle Email”), open a new email (from the same email that your Kindle account is registered to), attach the .htm (doesn’t matter what the subject or body or the email contain), and send it.
    2. Amazon will automatically convert it to display on Kindle, and if your wireless is turned on, it will show up there in 2-3 minutes.
    3. Save yourself some time by tweaking your .htm file NOW, instead of doing all the following steps and having to redo everything when you find a formatting error.  (Note that your images will not work.)
  3. Use MobiPocket Creator to create the .prc file that you will ultimately upload to KDP.
    1. Start a new MobiPocket project with your formatted .htm file from above
    2. Use MobiPocket’s wizard interface to add the cover, metadata, and guide items (helpful walkthrough on guide items).  This will enable the program to automatically generate 90% of your .opf file.
      1. OPF File. “What is a .opf file?” you might ask.  For some reason, Amazon neglects to address this ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL PIECE of your ebook anywhere on their site, so it wasn’t until I did a bunch of digging on the internet that I learned what this was.  It’s called the Open Packaging Format and it’s basically an overall file that tells your Kindle where to find all the stuff it needs to display the book properly, including your .ncx file (more coming on this in a bit), images, all the metadata, the guide items, etc.
    3. Resize any images referenced in the manuscript .htm file to the desired display size and copy the image files into the same folder that your MobiPocket project is in.  (Don’t use MobiPocket’s Add File feature UNLESS you want the image to also display at the very end of your book.)
    4. Manually create a toc.ncx file and copy it into the same folder as the rest of your MobiPocket project
      1. NCX File. Perhaps you’re wondering, “What’s a .ncx file?”  I was wondering the same, and lo and behold, Amazon once again COMPLETELY NEGLECTS TO MENTION THIS CRITICAL PIECE OF YOUR EBOOK anywhere on their site.  Seriously, Amazon, wtf?  I learned from this really helpful guide to making a toc.ncx that it’s called a “Navigation Control file for XML applications” and that it basically tells your Kindle where those little tick marks at the bottom of your screen should go and enables users to jump quickly between chapters.  From a usability standpoint (and if you want your book to look like a “real book”), you need to have this working, so follow the instructions in that post to make yourself a nice toc.ncx file
    5. Use MobiPocket’s Build function, which will create the initial .opf file and .prc file (but you’re not done yet!)
      1. You might hit some errors, so read the build feedback and if there are any warnings, look them up online to try to fix them.  Luckily for me, the only thing I hit was that I had forgotten to copy my image into the same folder, so I don’t really have much experience debugging build issues – sorry!
    6. Now it’s time to tell that .opf file where to find the .ncx file.  Open the folder where your MobiPocket project is stored, right-click the .opf file and choose to open it in Notepad.  (Do NOT edit in MobiPocket or any changes you make will be overwritten).  Then do the following:
      1. Fix the line spacing to make it readable, if need be
      2. Add within the <manifest> tags:
        <item href=”toc.ncx” id=”ncx” media-type=”application/x-dtbncx+xml” />
      3. Edit the <spine> tag to read:
        <spine toc=”ncx”>
      4. Save and close the .opf file
    7. Now go back into MobiPocket Creator and Build again to generate an updated .prc file which now includes your .ncx
    8. Again, save yourself some time by testing the file before you move on.  Follow the same steps from #2 above to email the .prc file to your Kindle and test out your .ncx and images and general formatting to make sure it looks good.  If not, go back and edit (either in your .htm file and make a new MobiPocket project, or in the .html file in your MobiPocket folder) BEFORE you go to the next step.
  4. Okay, now that you’ve got a good .prc file, you’re ready for KDP.  Login to KDP, fill in your metadata in Steps 1-4, and on Step 5, upload the .prc file that you generated with MobiPocket.
    1. Note that if your book is a series, the only way I could figure out to get the series title to display consistently (e.g., “Stitch (Stitch Trilogy, Book 1)” instead of just “Stitch”) is to manually type that in the title.  I did this everywhere – on CreateSpace, KDP, MobiPocket, Smashwords etc. I’m not sure if that’s necessary or not, but it seems to be working thus far.
  5. That’s it!  Just follow the rest of the steps on KDP to preview the .mobi file for your book, and once you’re happy, follow the rest of the KDP setup process to get that baby out there!
    1. Note that if your previewing turns up issues, you’ll need to repeat this all starting from a new project in Step 2 (or editing the existing .html file in your MobiPocket project and rebuilding).  In case you have to start a new project, remember to save a copy of your .ncx file somewhere safe so that you don’t have to remake it from scratch every time.


(Ugh, yes, there’s more…)

Just when I thought I was done, I went on to Smashwords to investigate what format they needed so that I could get my book on iTunes, B&N, etc.  I expected this to be easy – after all, I had a perfectly formatted, fully-functioning .mobi file from all that work above, so I should be good to go, right?  Nope!

For some reason I thought I’d be able to take my .mobi file and upload at Smashwords and we’d be all set.  Not so.  Smashwords only takes .doc files.  I thought, “Well that’s not too bad – my manuscript is a .doc after all, so I’ll just upload that.”  But then I started reading the Smashwords Style Guide (which is VERY helpful, btw) and realized that the chances of that working were almost nil.

So I tried one idea for a shortcut, which was to open my .htm in Word and save it as a .doc.  Unfortunately, this did not work – it looked like garbage, with random line breaks all over, the styles completely messed up, just unreadable.  So I ended up going with the Nuclear Method.

The Nuclear Method

The Nuclear Method was recommended in the Smashwords Style Guide (Section 5) as the easiest way to clean up all that formatting garbage.  I ended up having to invest another 4 hours here, but in the end I have a version of my book which Smashwords was able to successfully convert into 10 different electronic formats, making it available on virtually any reading device.  For some of these formats the formatting is not quite as good as on my Kindle version, but it’s 95% of the way there and I just decided that that’s going to have to be good enough.

Here’s what you do: Open your Word file with your original (or CreateSpace) manuscript, do CTRL+A to select EVERYTHING, then CTRL+C to copy it all, then open a new Notepad file and do CTRL+V to paste it.  You’ve effectively removed all formatting from your book.  Now you need to repeat the process and copy it back from Notepad into a new Word .doc file.  Do CTRL+A once more to highlight everything, and choose the text style “Normal.”  And now you’re starting from scratch.

The main thing to keep in mind about the Nuclear Method is that it removes EVERYTHING.  That means you’re going to have to manually add back page breaks, all your text styles, extra spacing after paragraphs, even any italicized words THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE BOOK.  But it was the only thing that worked, so just grin and bear it (or, if you can, get smart and pay someone else to do it for you!  I will next time…)

Here’s a bunch of stuff you need to remember to fix:

  1. ISBN & Smashwords License. Make sure your copyright page is showing the correct ISBN (NOT the same ISBN as your print or Kindle formats – it must have a separate one, which Smashwords will give you for free.  Or you can just leave the ISBN out).  Also remember to include the required Smashwords License Notes:This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
  2. Page Breaks.  Not all output formats respect them, but at least the PDF and Mobi versions do (and possibly others), so add these back in at the end of your front matter pages and chapters.
  3. Un-Indented Paragraphs. Similar to my Kindle experience, I tried making a “First Paragraph” text style which set the indent to 0 or 0.01, but I found that it wasn’t respected in most (any?) of the output formats.  Instead, manually select each paragraph that you don’t want to be indented and change the Paragraph properties to set the First Line Indent to 0.01 (helpful tutorial from Microsoft).
  4. Space Before/After Paragraphs. Don’t use the Enter key to add space before/after paragraphs, as the Smashwords Auto Vetting tool might flag you for doing so and prevent you from publishing your book.  Instead, add extra space before/after paragraphs using Word’s paragraph spacing feature (tips from Microsoft).
  5. Italics/Bold/Etc.. Unfortunately the Nuclear Method kills all your text decorations, so you’ll need to manually add them all back.  I found that it was helpful to use my original/CreateSpace manuscript file to search for italicized words so that I could remember where to add italics (helpful walkthrough on searching for formatting in Word here).
  6. Other Text Styles. I had mixed results using text styles other than Normal in my Smashwords .doc.  The Chapter Header style I created seemed to work well, and some parts of the Newspaper style worked, but for some reason the Front Matter style and the First Paragraph style were ignored completely by most output formats.  I found that my best bet was to manually add any formatting other than Normal to the paragraphs where it was needed.
  7. Hyperlinks. If you include any hyperlinks to websites in your book, make sure they include the http:// – otherwise, they will get nailed by Smashwords’s automated tools.
  8. Rebuild TOC. Yes, you have to rebuild your Table of Contents ONE MORE TIME.
    1. DON’T use Word’s autogenerated one this time.  Instead, manually add bookmarks at each chapter – instructions here.  Smashwords will use this to autogenerate a .ncx file for you.
      1. I found that it was best to put the bookmark BEFORE the chapter header, in the line above if possible.  At first I highlighted the whole chapter title and added the bookmark, which resulted in the actual “jump point” being at the END of the highlighted text, which meant that when I tried this out on an e-reader, it would jump to the right spot but would cut off the title of the chapter, which was disorienting to the reader.  On my second attempt, I put the bookmark on the paragraph right after the page break from the last chapter (above the header) and this seemed to give me the behavior I wanted.
    2. Once you’ve got your bookmarks, retype your TOC (it should probably be there already from when you pasted in from Notepad) and add hyperlinks to each bookmark from the TOC.  See instructions in the Smashwords Style Guide (Section 20).
  9. Preview It. EXCEPT you’re not previewing it, you’re publishing it. What?  You heard me – if you upload this thing to Smashwords, it’s going live right then and there.  I didn’t realize this, and I thought I would just get a preview version like I did on Amazon, and then I hit the submit button and there was Stitch on the homepage of Smashwords.  Oops!
    1. If you’re not ready to publish the book yet, you can quickly go into your Dashboard and Unpublish it, which will pull it from the store, and you can still continue uploading drafts and testing out the various outputs until you get it right.  But be forewarned that the publishing date will forever show as the original one.
Whew!  We’re done.  I sincerely hope this information is helpful to someone out there – it took me a LONG time to figure this all out and document it, so hopefully it will save someone else some time!  Remember to check out Part 1 of this post if you’re looking for CreateSpace print formatting tips.




Kindle/CreateSpace/Smashwords Formatting Woes: I figured out the hard stuff so you don’t have to! (Part 1)

I’m just coming up for air after an intensive multi-day foray into the surprisingly (and frustratingly!!) difficult world of formatting a book for consumption through CreateSpace print-on-demand, Kindle KDP, and Smashwords.  My impressions:

1. I honestly don’t know how anyone without a software engineering background publishes a Kindle book.  As a former Microsoft employee and someone with a general interest in programming, I have plenty of experience writing code and markup, and I have a pretty decent knowledge of HTML (which is what format the book needs to be in for Kindle).  Despite my credentials, I had a REALLY hard time getting the damn thing to behave how I wanted it to behave.  How do normal people ever figure this out??

2. Again, as an ex-Microsoft person, you would think I would know basic Microsoft Office programs like Word inside and out.  And compared to most people, I think I do.  But even so, I STILL spent hours learning new Word features and figuring out how to get them to do what I wanted.  Again, how do writers who don’t have a background in these areas ever get this right??

3. There is a serious lack of comprehensive help information on the KDP or CreateSpace sites.  I put off all this formatting stuff until the end b/c I (mistakenly) thought that Amazon would have easy-to-use tools that were designed to help self-published authors get their books to market quickly and easily.  Instead, I spent hours upon hours wading through blogs and online forums to find tips from other authors who had struggled through it and eventually figured it out.  Amazon, get your shit together and write up a step-by-step guide for newbies!!!  (After a lot of digging, I did find this, but it was no-frills and definitely targeted towards people with a basic understanding of Kindle publishing and HTML, which I don’t think most first-time self-published authors really have.)

4. Smashwords does a much better job of making the formatting steps clear, BUT I was disappointed that after I had gone through hell with my Kindle format and finally got a good working ebook, I couldn’t just upload it to Smashwords.  Instead I had to start from scratch, again.  And then when I uploaded my file expecting to get a preview back, it published it!

So I guess this is why there are so many companies that now charge $400+ to format your book for you.  At first I thought, how hard could it be?  Why would anyone throw away $400 on formatting?  Well, now I know.  If Stitch makes ANY money, I can promise you that in the future I will be dishing out to have someone do this for me as well, since I spent WAY more than $400 worth of my time to figure this stuff out.

Okay, so now that I’ve finished my rant, I’ve got a list of useful tips for anyone who might be trying to sort through these same problems.  Below are tips for Print formatting for CreateSpace, and Part 2 of this post will has Kindle & Smashwords tips.  Hope this helps!

(NOTE TO READERS: My tips are based on my experience in summer 2012 doing this in Word 2010.  Things change quickly in the world of software, so just be advised that my tips may be out of date by the time you get to them…)


#1 Advice: Start with a Template!

CreateSpace has kindly posted formatted and basic templates for all available print sizes here.  I used the 5.5 x 8.5 Formatted Template and it got me 80% of the way there – I just saved their template on my computer and wrote my manuscript right in there.  I liked it b/c it gave me a good idea as I was writing how long my book/chapters would be and what the final product would look like.

#2 Advice: Think Kindle from the beginning!

It’s easy to focus on getting the print version perfect and put off the Kindle formatting until later, but based on my experience, it would have been A LOT easier to make sure I was using Kindle-friendly formatting in my Word doc BEFORE I converted it to HTML for the Kindle version.  So if you landed here just looking for CreateSpace tips, if there’s any possibility you will also release your book on Kindle, make sure you read the Kindle tips in Part 2 of this post as well.

Customizing Fonts, Spacing, Indents, etc. with Word Styles

This is huge.  You CANNOT, I repeat, CANNOT just highlight text in Word and change the font like you usually do.  There are a few reasons for this:

1. If you change your mind about your how you want your font/spacing/indents/etc. to look (and you will!) it will be a NIGHTMARE to fix it, b/c you’ll have to go through every spot and fix it manually, instead of just changing the style in one place.

2. It will be even MORE of a nightmare once you convert your book to HTML for the Kindle version and there’s so much formatting markup that you can’t even read the damn thing.

So my recommendation: use Word’s Styles feature.  There’s plenty of information out there about how the feature works (here’s a nice long tutorial from Microsoft).  I had a handful of different styles – one for regular body text, one for the first paragraph of a chapter (with no indent), one with a special “newspaper” font, one with a “newspaper” headline, and one for front/back matter.  The main things that I got snagged on:

– If you’re trying to modify a style, sometimes you will run into difficulties because the style is inheriting properties from another style, in which case you may need to modify the “based on” style instead.  For example, when I tried to change certain properties of my body text style, I found that they wouldn’t take until I noticed that the “Style based on:” was listed as “Normal” which, in order to access and edit, I needed to open up the Styles window and go from there (see the tutorial above for info about finding the Styles window).

– Don’t forget that a Style is also where you should edit things like line spacing, space before/after paragraphs, indents, etc.  You can find all of these things hidden under a little drop-down called “Format” in the bottom left corner of the Style Modify window (which you open by right-clicking on a Style and choosing Modify).

Use Word Section Breaks to Ensure Proper Header/Footer Formatting

The CreateSpace templates have some nice features already built in, like not showing the header on the first page of a chapter or not showing the page number on front matter like the copyright page and dedication page.  It all works great as long as you stick with the pages that are already there, but if you decide to switch things up at all, you might run into some trouble.

The key here is to understand how Word’s section break feature works and make sure you’re using them properly.  Here are instructions about how to add a Next Page section break.  I found that in my case, as long as I did this when adding new front/back matter sections or chapters, the formatting that was set in the CreateSpace formatted template worked just fine.

Word Automatic Table of Contents

This is another important one.  You’ll save yourself a ton of time and effort by using Word’s automatic Table of Contents generator, not only in the print version but also once you convert it to Kindle.  Here are some clear instructions from Microsoft about how to use this feature (skip down to the “Create a table of contents automatically” section.)

Adding Extra Space Before/After a Paragraph in Word

If you need extra space before or after certain paragraphs, DON’T just press the Enter key to add it.  Instead, use the Paragraph Spacing feature to adjust the amount of space before/after your paragraph as needed (instructions here – skip down to “Change the Spacing Before and After Selected Paragraphs”).  Remember, if you need to do this for ALL paragraphs in your book, use the Styles.  This is just to adjust individual paragraphs (for example, if you are showing a break in the middle of a chapter when changing point of view or skipping time).

Word Vertical Page Alignment (Centering Text Vertically on a Page)

This is actually very simple, but the feature is hidden away in a spot where you might not think to look for it.  This is particularly useful for front/back matter.  See instructions here (under “Center the Text Between the Top and Bottom Margins”).

Okay, that’s it for my print version tips!  Check Part 2 of this post and the Kindle formatting tips.