A New Way Through the Labyrinth

As readers of my perverted series of comedy fantasy novels, the Rampant Damsels range, will know, I always like to indulge myself by including one chapter which is formatted as a ‘choose your own adventure’ escapade, allowing the reader to steer their own course through a section of the story, using their ingenuity to select a path through the atrocities and depravities secreted within the numbered paragraphs.

So far, readers have plundered a dungeon to battle the Demon Lord at its heart; attempted to rescue a kidnapped Elf-maid (who had no intention of being rescued until she’d succeeded in seducing her hunky kidnapper); tried to get laid in a brothel (considerably more difficult than it sounds, apparently); guided a vicious, foul-tempered old codger through a desert; tried to find a way back to their home reality from a multi-dimensional nightmare.

I am currently writing the sixth book in the series, Starship Damsels, which features the alternate universe sci-fi alter-egos of the usual characters (first introduced in book #5, Damsels and the Dark Arts).  I’m half way through the book, the ship has crashed on an artificial planet made of space junk, the crew are scattered and must find each other and effect repairs and … it seems like a good candidate for this title’s ‘choose your own …’ entry to me!

In the past, I have always painstakingly flowcharted the adventure before beginning, then I’ve numbered all the options, then written the numbered sections, then reallocated the numbers, then gone through and changed all the links to match the new numbers, then playtested thoroughly to make sure I haven’t missed or mistyped a link …  You get the picture.  It’s a lot of work, even for a single chapter length adventure, with less than a hundred options.

But now I’ve discovered The Gamebook Authoring Tool.  It’s a great piece of software that allows me to simply start typing.  Every time the path splits and there are multiple choices, it generates the new locations, allots them numbers, displays them on a detailed flowchart and labels them with the text of the choice that leads there (which is adjustable if desired to provide a better memory prompt).  All I need to do is write the damn story, with all of its meanderings as the whim takes me.  I can see at a glance where everything separates and comes back together, it’s obvious which threads I’ve left hanging and need to go back to.  And best of all, when I’ve finished, it will randomly reassign all the numbers (except those I assign as start and finish, and any other specifically designated as immovable by me) as many times as I want till I’m satisfied, updating all links to match automatically.  It then generates a text file in one of several formats, which I can paste into my manuscript and format to suit.  All of that fiddly nonsense gone and dealt with, all I have to do is write!

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The Gamebook Authoring Tool

This is so amazing, so time-saving, and if your gamebook comes in at less than 100 numbered references, it’s even free!  To date, all of the Damsels  chapters have been less than 100, this one may be too (though maybe not; I notice I’m producing a lot more material since I don’t have to chart and track it all by hand!)  But I’m going to pay for the Pro version with my next pay anyway.  It’s pretty cheap, only £39, and it’s quite simply a piece of software that I’m pleased to pay for and support.

If you write this kind of thing, give it a go.  You won’t be disappointed.

Rekindling Old Fears

Every self-published author knows the importance of editing.  But when publishing ebooks, there’s an additional element to take into account.  No matter how perfect your manuscript may be grammatically, no matter how precisely each word may be spelled, no matter how immaculately each page may be formatted, you may still be thwarted.

When a file is converted to Kindle format, it undergoes all manner of changes.  If you prepare the print version of your book first, preparing a print-ready PDF file, then choose CreateSpace’s default options to create an interior file suitable for Kindle, the resulting ebook will lose much of its formatting.  The simple fact is that although their use is encouraged, the Kindle conversion process does not treat PDFs kindly (pun intended).

My early ebooks were all produced from PDFs in my naive innocence, and I wondered why the page breaks were lost, with one chapter sometimes running into the next; formatting was lost; text justification was scrambled; the fonts I had employed to display runes etc. were stripped away…  despite the painstaking work I had put into my initial document.

With time – and many more books – comes knowledge and experience.  So here are a few tips for those of you who may be preparing your first ebooks:

  1.  Always use a .doc file, not PDF.  This way you will retain the majority of your formatting.
  2. Remember to remove any blank pages at the front or rear of your document, between chapters, etc.  Blank pages on Kindle just look like errors, so tighten up the document and eliminate the blank space.  Also if you are in the habit of starting chapters half way down a printed page, bear in mind that on a Kindle display, this may push the beginning over onto the next display page, so strip away any empty lines at the beginnings of chapters.  Get rid of drop capitals too, they display very weirdly on Kindle.
  3. Remove all headers and footers and page numbers, or there’ll be tears when they pop up right in the middle of random sentences.
  4. If you use specialist fonts, Kindle won’t display them, converting them to a default font instead.  The only way to get around this is to insert any special text in runes or whatever as a graphic, or if their use is extensive, see the paragraph below.

If your book contains many illustrations or a lot of fancy fonts, or if the retention of the precise layout is particularly important, there is now an alternative.  Amazon have now made available ‘Kindle Textbook Creator’ software, which will create a Kindle book which is the exact image of the print volume.  The downside is that the cost of the resultant ebook is increased and that these ebooks will not display on the original Kindle ereader:  they will only be readable on a Kindle Fire, iPad or other tablet, or a PC or Mac.  Nevertheless, for certain titles, this is a godsend.  I could not have produced an ebook edition of my Runes of Mann without this tool.

With all that I have learned of Kindle publishing, I have started revisiting my earlier ebooks and uploading fresh files for them, which will display much cleaner formatting, making them that bit easier to read.  Aegishjalmur has already been done and today I have updated For Fear of Little Men, my collection of dark Celtic folktales.  The other titles will follow suit.

If you have already purchased these ebooks, you will be able to freely download the updated version by going to the ‘My Account’ section on Amazon, choosing to manage your digital content, then instructing to download to the appropriate device.

To celebrate the reinvigorated Kindle edition of For Fear of Little Men, here’s a video of me reading a complete spooky story from the collection:  Moddey Doo

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Wearing the Editor’s Hat

It’s always a great feeling to finish writing a new book.  I’ve put the final words to the manuscript and am content with a story well told.  Now I want nothing more than to put it out there and start work on the next one.  But first, I have to put on my editing hat.

By editing, I don’t mean rewrites.  My non-fiction works never require rewrites, they’re all meticulously planned from the outset and I know exactly what ground I need to cover.  And I rewrite my fiction as I go along; if something needs tweaking or changing to suit developments later in the story, I’ll make those changes right there and then while they’re fresh in my mind.  I also have my wife Celeste to help me spot any loose ends, as she reads many of my stories while they’re being written.  I’m lucky in a way, I have a really good imagination and the characters I write really come alive in my mind and before long they’re making their own decisions without any conscious manipulation on my part.  By the time I get half way through writing a novel, all I need to be aware of are the broad shape of events and the ending I’m aiming for.  The characters then shape their own reactions and responses to those events and steer their own course through the book.  I’ve had plots completely reshape themselves as a consequence of character actions that were decided by ‘them’ rather than ‘me’.

The editing I’m referring to is the painstaking checking of spelling and grammar.  It’s a chore to do, but it’s an essential part of the job.

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I pride myself on my high standard of spelling and grammar (British spelling, of course, what on earth do you American folks do with all your ‘u’s anyway?), but when pounding out words on a keyboard at the kind of rate that has allowed me to write a 440 page book in just two months, errors and omissions will occur.  You can’t rely on a spellchecker either:  that only spots incorrectly spelled words, not incorrectly used words.  If I type “father and so” instead of “father and son”, missing a letter, the spellchecker will find no error, but the reader will be left scratching his / her head.  And it’s even more common to muddle up the word order in a sentence, to write “He didn’t know even what he was doing” instead of “He didn’t even know what he was doing”.  Sure, the meaning is still there, but it jars to read the first version and anything that jars the reader’s mind from the flow of the story is not a good thing.

I’m in the unusual situation at the moment of having not one, but two, books in preparation for publishing.  The first is Damsels and the Dark Arts, the latest novel in the Rampant Damsels Gutter Fantasy series:  all the vulgarity, depravity and perverse hilarity you could wish for between two covers.  This one is thankfully edited now.  The book interior is print ready, just waiting for the cover art to be completed and delivered.

The other title is The Sevenfold Mystery, the latest title in the Apophis Club’s range of Draconian titles, a study and curriculum of Work based around the Enochian system of Dr John Dee.  Now this one I have cover art for and am a third of the way through the painful process of checking and rechecking my spelling and grammar (an especial bind where Enochian is concerned!)

The thing is, with every single book I have published, no matter how many times and how carefully I have checked them, I have always found some little error after the event, some niggle that escaped me and made it into print.  I apologise for these and can only say that these things happen, in spite of my high standards and the many, many hours of work spent editing.  I can comfort myself by reflecting that in recent years, I have found just as many, if not more, errors in commercially published books by huge publishing companies as in my own modest titles.  One of the most poorly formatted and edited books I ever read was a writer’s guide which insisted strongly throughout on the necessity for professional editing.

This leads me to conclude by asking people to be kind in their comments to indie authors.  I’m not asking on my own account, my spelling and grammar are good and the few errors that creep through are small indeed.  But there are a lot of indie authors out there who also have to do their own editing.  They don’t have the money or resources of the big publishing companies, but you know what, their books often contain no more errors than the big boys’.  And yet, when you look at book reviews on Amazon, you’ll find the indie author gets ripped a new arsehole for spelling a few words wrong, while nobody blinks at the big boys.  Again, this doesn’t apply to me, and I agree that good spelling and grammar are really important and help a great deal with immersion in a good book.  But don’t let these things stand between you and a good story.  Indie publishing is one of the most exciting things to happen in years, books are being written by people with a real passion for their stories.  And bear in mind that these are people who will only make a few quid – if that – from what they’re doing, it’s done for the love of it.  So show them some love in return and you may find a new world of fresh and original stories opening up to you.  Give them enough encouragement and maybe they’ll be able to edit better in future.