Sunday, 29 September 2013

Why You Should Get Into the Habit of Reading Books Backwards.

We have all seen the test where we are asked to read a paragraph of text and to count the number of times that we see the letter F. Nine times out of ten (completely made up statistic - too tired for research) we get this wrong. The reason being that our brain registers the soft 'eff' sound in most words, but not the hard 'vee' sound in the word OF. We fail to see what is staring us clearly in the face. The same problem is encountered in a variation of the test where we are asked to look for the letter 'V'. This time we will overstate the answer for the same reason.

The lesson to be learned is that we cannot trust our eyes (or ears). Sometimes we see things that are not there and sometimes we fail to see things that are. We do this all of the time. Our brain is constantly filtering an enormous amount of information and whenever it can, it will use shortcuts. When it comes to editing a book, this can be a particularly awkward problem.

Many think that a writer is too close to their work to accurately self edit and they are probably right. A second (and third, fourth etc) pair of eyes is essential. The problem is, that all of our brains work in much the same way.  A proofreader or an editor is just as likely to read words that are not actually on the page, because their brain can so accurately predict what will be written that it subconsciously fills in any blanks in a sentence.

There is however, a way to get around this problem and that is to proofread your text backwards. Obviously, I am not talking word for word. sense no make would that Because. You need only take it one paragraph at a time, starting from the final paragraph. This will still make grammatical sense, it will just not make any sense from a story telling perspective. Your brain will not have enough information to make its usual subconscious predictions. In short, for the first time you will be able to approach your manuscript completely objectively. Of course, this does not help when it comes to spotting plot holes, but purely from a spelling, punctuation and grammar perspective, there is no better approach.

I have recently finished my final backwards check on my second novel, Stealing Asia, and hope to have it available for download and purchase by next weekend. I revealed the basic cover a while ago, but have since made one slight adjustment and that is to add a little text under the main title. It is very rare for a trade book to have only the title and author name as text and to do so looks a little bare (again, this is down to the expectations of our pesky brains). By adding text (it does not even matter what. A tagline, sales boast or as I have done - an also by this author) it makes the cover appear more professional and therefore, more legitimate in the eyes of the reader.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

An Artist's Resonsibility

I am going a little off piste with today's blog post. Normally, I will try to find a way to relate a tale from my travelling adventures to what I am writing. What I am going to talk about here could not be any further from an adventure. Last night, with some reluctance, my wife and I called the police to report our next door neighbour.

We do not live in a particularly enviable part of town. Although to be fair, I am not sure that Portsmouth has any enviable parts to it. It is one of the most densely populated cities in the country and yet it has the amenities and employment opportunities of somewhere a tenth of its size. Everyday I come into contact with aspects of human nature that I would rather avoid, but last night was particularly bad.

The neighbours have only been living there for a few months and the closest that we have had to meaningful contact is when we throw the cigarette butts back over the fence that the woman living next door keeps dumping into our yard. Occasionally, we will hear shouting. Nothing though, could have prepared us for last night.

I arrived home from work at 5pm and the shouting had already started. I was not paying it  much attention, but I could tell that it was the woman and her ire was being directed at her kids. It was fifteen minutes later when Katie got home that it took a marked turn for the worse.

I had never heard another human being scream with such hatred as I heard that woman screaming at her children. They are only young too - maybe 7 to 10 years old. Yet, the expletives that the woman used would ensure an r-rating if an actor were to use them in a movie. We could not make out everything that was being screamed, but the basic gist was that this woman was blaming her children for 'ruining her life'. The worst part was when the kids pleaded with her to stop.

'Please mummy, I love you,' one of them cried.

'WELL I DON'T LOVE YOU. I HATE YOU - GET OUT!' the mother screamed back, her vocal cords sounding like they were about to tear in two.

'Mummy please, I love you!' the little girl cried.

I do not want to go into details, but my wife, Katie, had to endure some pretty rough times when she was a child and as such, she could not bear to listen to these children crying any longer. I was debating with my conscience whether or not to call the police. Katie just picked up the phone.

I am sure that there has to be more deep rooted problems as to why this woman was behaving the way that she was. Maybe she is psychotic or maybe she is an alcoholic. One thing was for certain though. No child, in fact, no human being, should ever have to endure that level of verbal abuse. I can only hope that being paid a visit by the police was a wake up call for this woman and she takes the necessary steps to turn her life around. If this was a novel, I know how I would want the story to end, but it isn't. It is real life. And that brings me to a very important question. Basically, what is the purpose of art?

There are many ways to answer that question, but what I am most concerned with is how we address the darker side of human nature in art. I see films like the Saw series and I honestly do not understand the point of those movies. The same can be said for a lot of  'psychological thrillers'. Particularly the ones where the killer prevails. Again, what is the point to it?

There is nothing wrong with creating monsters in art, but I also think that the artist does have a responsibility for his or her creations. If we create a monster, then we should make sure that we also slay that monster or what kind of message are we sending out? A lot of people will disagree. They will argue that life does not always have a happy ending and it is the artists duty to reflect life. I could not disagree more strongly. I know what the world is like. I see it everyday on the streets and in the news. I do not need somebody else to paint me a picture of the horror that goes on. If art reflects life, it is nothing but a pale shadow of life. It is imitation. If an artist is to be truly successful, then life will reflect their art. I will say it again. Do not paint me a picture of how the world is. Paint me a picture of how the world could be.

Looking again at the domestic problems of the family next door. How should this be addressed in art? British soap operas have a history of approaching the 'gritty story-lines' and I despise them for it. The reason being, that for 'gritty' read 'realistic'. There is enough misery in the news, that we do not need it in our dramas as well. Unless of course, the story attempts to offer up a solution. Unless it attempts to slay the beast.

There is a movie I watched, a few years back, with Robert Redford called The Last Castle. In a scene near the beginning, Redford's disgraced General is viewing the military memorabilia of James Gandolfini's cruel prison Commandant.

'Any man with a collection like this is a man who's never set foot on a battlefield. To him a minié ball from Shiloh is just an artifact. But to a combat vet, it's a hunk of metal that caused some poor bastard a world of pain.'

I think that the same can be true when we look at any art form. The artist who has truly felt pain, who knows what misery is, will not throw it up purely for entertainment, for titillation (again, I refer you to those awful Saw movies). They will use their pain to try to create something positive. The writer does not produce for a mass audience. A writer creates a personal dialogue between them and the reader. If that little girl who has just suffered abuse at the hands of the one person in the world who she thought she could always count on picks up your book, what would you want to tell her? What kind of a world would you want to show her? I know what I want to say to her. I would want to give her hope, because ultimately, that is the greatest power of art.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

How to Create a Table of Contents (ToC) Using Microsoft Word

In this post I have created a simple step by step guide on how to create a contents page for ebooks using Microsoft Word. This is my first how to guide, so I will just get straight into it.

Step 1 - Create the text for the ToC menu.
This is the simplest step and it basically involves just tying up the contents page at the front of your book (or back - it is up to you). Make sure to include all relevant sections such as the copyright notice and author biography.

Step 2 - Create Chapter bookmarks.
For this step, you need to locate each of the chapter headings within the body of the book's text and then bookmark each of them in turn. To do this, simply highlight the chapter heading (note - highlight only the title and not a complete paragraph) and then click on the insert tab at the top of the document. Select the option labelled 'bookmark' and this will open up a dialogue box. All that you have to do here is type in a name for the bookmark eg Chpt1 (best keep it short and leave no spaces) and then click 'Add'. Repeat for each chapter heading in the book.

Step 3 - Adding a navigable hyperlink to chapters.
Return to your ToC menu at the front of the book. Highlight the first chapter heading in your contents and then open up the 'insert' tab. This time you want to select 'hyperlink'. Again, a dialogue box will open up. On the sidebar, you will see an option for 'Place in This Document'. Selecting this option will change the interior of the dialogue box. You will now see a list of all of the bookmarks that you added during the previous step. Select the one that corresponds to the chapter you have highlighted and then click 'okay'. The chapter entry in the contents should now be underscored and highlighted blue. You will be able to check if the link works by following the instructions that come up when you place your cursor over the link. Repeat for each chapter/section of your book.

Step 4 - Linking Chapters back to the ToC page.
This step allows you to link back to the contents page from each individual chapter. To begin, you need to highlight the header on your contents page and open up the bookmark tag. This time you will name the label as 'ref_TOC'. Once done, use your hyperlinks to go straight to each chapter in turn and add a hyperlink from the chapter headings back to the ToC using the process in Step 3 and each time selecting 'ref_TOC' as the destination. Each chapter heading in the book will now be underscored and blue and when selected, will return you to the contents page.

Step 5 - Publish Your e-book.
That is it - your book is now ready for publication (assuming it is properly edited and formatted, of course). You will be able to test all of the hyperlinks when you preview the final document and if you are still nervous, download the file to your Kindle from amazon and test it out for real.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Which Way is North?

In a weeks time I will be heading off on holiday to Wales. My last trip away was for my honeymoon at Disney World so this time we are planning to keep it lower key (and considerably lower budget too). With that in mind, the holiday is likely to involve quite a lot of walking. We have done our research and Snowdonia is blessed with an overabundance of scenic trails (including the mountain itself), but one thing that I have come to learn is that I have no idea how to read a map or even a compass for that matter.

I am referring to the large fold-out ordnance survey maps designed for serious walking aficionados, not simple road maps or street plans. If I am completely honest, I would actually go so far as to say that I am scared of them. Normally, I would try and leave this type of task to my wife (just lost a huge number of man points for admitting that) as in our usual roles of travelling, I am the driver and she is the navigator. With us now owning our own car and Katie having acquired a license of her own, the dynamic has altered. I am expected to do my share of the navigating and this extends beyond driving.

Previously on this blog, I have stated that I like to fly by the seat of my pants when it comes to writing and I suppose that when I go travelling it is no different. Guide books are all very well, but only when I get to see a place with my own eyes and breathe in its air, can I really know how I want to spend my time there. Sometimes though, forward planning is essential, hence we have bought the maps. Without them, we run the risk of finding ourselves well and truly lost.

This brings me to my writing again. A map is ultimately an essential part of any journey (whether we choose to use it or not) yet when I published my debut novel, The Outback, I did not include one. In this instance, by map, I am obviously referring to the Table of Contents (ToC). Amazon guidelines state that they must be included, but the rule is not enforced and has devolved into more of a guideline.

Why did I not include a ToC in my book? Well, the short answer is that I was a little afraid of them. The instructions on how to add a ToC on the KDP website are atrociously complicated. And to be honest, I never really understood the purpose of them. I do not own a Kindle or any other type of e-reader. Whether that changes is up to Santa Claus, so for the time being I am using the Kindle for PC app to download e-books from Amazon.

It was only a few weeks ago when I was fortunate enough to procure some free advertising for my novel that I realised that I really needed to add those final professional touches to my book (the other thing that I was missing was a mailing list sign up, but that is another blog post altogether). Every traditionally published e-book has a full contents added and therefore to omit one immediately makes a book look amateurish. I had to overcome my fear of technology and learn how to create a fully navigable ToC.

Editing is an area of the novel writing process that requires either professional or at the very least an objective pair of eyes, but formatting is something that every author can learn how to do. It is also so simple a process, that an author would be have to be crazy (or have an abundance of capital) to feel the need to hire somebody to do it for them.

As I stated earlier, the guidelines given by KDP were beyond my comprehension. I do not know how to write in HTML and the only time I use it is when pasting pre-written code into my webpage. I was, therefore, amazed to discover that there was a much simpler way of doing things using the inbuilt functions of Microsoft Word. I found the information in the Smashwords Style Guide. This how-to manual was produced with Smashwords in mind, but the information on creating a ToC is one of the sections which is universal to all formatting when using a Word Doc.

The post immediately following this one will feature a step by step guide to creating a ToC using Word. Here, I simply want to state the importance of having the ToC in the first place. When readers browse books by indie authors they are always on alert for anything that sets the novel apart (in a negative way) from one that was produced by a publishing house. If the bright blue highlighted text indicating a workable ToC does not appear in the sample, this will be noticed. Whether it is strictly necessary does not matter. It implies that the book has not been formatted to a full and professional standard and we all know what that then implies. A badly written book.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

I, Robot?

Since publishing my debut novel, The Outback, I have had to dramatically increase the time that I spend on social media. This has led to me having to remember a slew of different passwords, as well as also regularly having to prove to each individual website that I am human. To do this I have to pass a CAPTCHA test. I am sure that anybody reading will be familiar with the process, but what they may not know is that CAPTCHA is actually an acronym for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. With that purpose in mind, I cannot help but think that the tests are becoming a little too difficult.

The most common form of CAPTCHA's are the distorted text images, which look as if they have been written on water. Sometimes these are so heavily distorted that I often take two or three attempts to pass. However, I am increasingly seeing a switch to a test appearing in the form of a question and these really do throw me sometimes.

What is the first season of the year?

Call me pedantic, but does not anybody else find the above question a little ambiguous? For a start, it is not clear if it means the season falling on January 1st (winter) or the first season to begin in a calender year (spring). The answer may also depend on which hemisphere we are in. When it is winter in the North it is summer in the South. Likewise, spring in the North becomes autumn in the South. And what about countries who defy the conventional idea of four seasons - wet, dry, monsoon, hurricane etc? I'll be honest, I actually gave up on signing up to the website.

6 x 9 = ?

Okay, this one is fairly straightforward. We all know that the answer is the meaning of life. On a serious note though, how many people would have reached for a calculator to save the embarrassment of answering incorrectly. I cannot help but see the irony in turning to a computer in order to cheat a test to prove that you are not a computer.

I look forward to the day when we can access all of our media through a single interface. When we no longer need passwords or to prove that we are not robots. Of course, in order to do this we may have to have some sort of microchip implanted in our brain. When that happens, the Turing Test really will become redundant as we will ourselves be living, organic computers.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.