The fifth time’s the charm. Maybe.

It’s down to me now. All the others are done with their work. It’s time for me to get it done and get it right. I’ll get it as right as can. I’ve invested too much to not give the final stretch my best shot.

The fifth proof copy of A Housefly in Autumn hit my mailbox yesterday. That’s right, the fifth proof. As I said, I’ve invested a lot.

The beginning of the end?

Will the fifth proof be the last? Cross your fingers.

This copy is mine and mine only. All the skilled people I’ve been fortunate to have help me have done what they could. It’s just me and my book.

There’s something liberating in this. I’m back in control of the pace of things. I don’t have to wait for anyone else. The people who’ve helped me have been more expeditious than I had any right to ask, but waiting any length of time is hard when you’re eager to get on.

There’s also something daunting in it. I’m the last line of defense against little errors hidden in the text. Whatever gets past me this time becomes dirty laundry hung out for the public to see.

Thus begins the first of the “pins and needles” readings. If I find no more errors, I am free to release the book for sale. That would be a happy accomplishment, marred only by nagging doubt about the one I missed. Or the two, depending upon how susceptible I feel to nagging from the back of my mind.

The even more intense pins and needles will happen the first time I look at the book after it has been published, when every page holds a potential embarrassment, despite all my efforts to eliminate them.

My goal as a self-publisher is to produce books that deserve a spot on the same shelf as those published by Random House or any of the other big names. I haven’t reached this goal yet, but with each book, I think I get a little closer. But I still make mistakes, and in self-publishing you don’t get to blame mistakes on your publisher; you can only blame yourself.

I do blame myself, but then I do my best to fix it, learn something, and move on. There’s another story to write. And if that story turns out to be worth publishing, there’s another book to produce.

This means more hard work writing, more tedious work editing, more finding the right people to help, more waiting while those people do what they do, more frustration at getting it all to fit together, and more pins and needles at the end when the skivvies are hung out to dry before the eyes of all who wish to look.

But all that is for tomorrow. For today I have a fifth proof to make as right as I possibly can, so I can inch a little closer to Random House and to saying I know what I’m doing as a writer and a publisher. Wish me luck.

Are you trying to tell me my research stinks?

Skunks happen for a reason. I’m convinced of that now.

In February, my family was left reeling from the noxious fumes of a skunk using the area under our deck as a late-night rendezvous location to get her groove on with the boy skunks in the region. We all hated that skunk more than anything, but I’ve developed a new appreciation for her since then.

Why have I softened toward her, and how does this have anything to do with writing?

She provided me with another thrilling adventure for my fatherhood blog (read it here). This alone did not make her visit worth it. It’s only in the last few days I truly appreciated her visit.

I’m preparing a new novel, A Housefly in Autumn, for publication. It’s set in 19th century Europe.

When you write a story about a different place and time, you research as much as you can, but some things are too obscure to discover. In these cases, you get things as nearly correct as possible and keep vague about details you can’t nail down. You avoid the impossible and keep to situations that, if not historically provable, are at least historically plausible.

In doing this, you make assumptions. Sometimes, you don’t even realize you are making an assumption, and this assumption is the idea you fail to research.

This is where the skunk comes in.

In A Housefly in Autumn, there is a scene in which the protagonist mentions a skunk as if that would not be a surprising animal to see in a garden. At my house, it’s common.

I wrote this scene years ago, and have edited it many times, without giving the skunk a second thought.

On my fatherhood blog, I’ve mentioned skunks several times. People from other continents have commented, showing a perfect understanding of the hazards presented by the animal. This reinforced my assumption about the universality of skunks.

Back in February, I found myself extensively researching skunks, trying to find the right solution to our infestation, and one image stuck in the back of my mind, waiting.

A few days ago, I was scouring one of the last proofs of my novel. I came to the aforementioned scene for the thousandth time. On the thousandth time, the latent image from my skunk research rushed to the front of my mind. My jaw dropped.

I hurried online to verify the image. It was a map of skunk habitat, and it was correct.

Skunks are an American animal.

Never would I have guessed there are no wild skunks in Europe. Pepe Le Pew is French, right?

Maybe there are wild skunks in Europe by now, because those exotic animals from other continents rarely turn out the awesome pets promised, and they’ll probably survive in the woods behind the neighbor’s house. But in the 19th century, I doubt it.

Needless to say, A Housefly in Autumn is now a skunk-free novel. Most readers may never have noticed, but I do hope to sell two or three copies in Europe. And who knows how many other naïve assumptions I’ve made?

Just like every other part of a novel, the detail accuracy will never be perfect, but mine is now a little better, and I owe it to a real skunk.

skunk lunch

For my European, African, Asian, Australian, and Antarctican friends: this is what a skunk digging for insects on your lawn looks like.

 

Got all the gaps worked out of your story? What about the gaps in your text?

I’m justifying this post. By that I mean I’m aligning it to both right and left margins, as opposed to proclaiming a valid reason for its existence. Whether its existence has a valid reason I leave to its readers to decide.

I don’t usually justify posts. It’s an extra button to click, and what blogger has time for that? More to the point, justifying makes the edges of the text look nice, but it can leave the interiors of lines looking like they’ve withstood an artillery barrage. Look closely at the lines of this text and you will probably see some in which there appears to be extra space between words. If it’s just a little extra space, it shouldn’t be a big deal, but congregations of longer, inflexible words do create distracting instances of overabundant space.

Justification?

Incautious justifying can make text feel as cozy as this attractive, war-zone home.

I’m justifying this text to illustrate one of the more tedious parts of self-publishing. For those who have never formatted the layout of a book, it may be enlightening. For those planning to dip their feet into self-publishing, it may be something to consider.

Publishing is not all about telling a great story with proper grammar. Those things will get you off to a good start, but you also want an aesthetically pleasing product. No doubt, the cover should be attractive, but the interior’s visual appeal can’t be ignored.

I’ve never opened a book and thought, “Wow, this interior layout is gorgeous!” But I have seen books where the layout’s ugliness is a distraction. One common distraction is large gaps between words.

I know of three ways to avoid gaps. The first is to not justify the text. I would never do this; blog posts are one thing, but in books I think it looks disorganized. The second is to allow your writing program to auto-hyphenate. This breaks up big words so everything fits better. Some experts suggest this, but I don’t do it. One thing I stunk at in grade school was hyphenating. I don’t trust Word to do it for me, mostly because I doubt my ability to double-check it. It’s merely opening up another Pandora’s box of grammar issues.

The third way, my way, is to endure a round of tedium beyond normal editing. Editing is not fun, and this, if possible, is even less fun. I scan the proof copy for unacceptable gaps. Then I play a little puzzle game with that line and the adjacent ones, rearranging, cutting, or substituting words until the gaps are squeezed out.

It takes time, but it makes me take a closer look at the words I use. It helps me eliminate unnecessary words and say things in a clearer way. The key is to avoid ruining sentences to make them fit better. It wouldn’t be such a vexing game if this were allowed.

This should only be done once all the major editing is completed. New editing could create new gaps.

Gaps in some lines will still be greater than gaps in others, but if the gaps don’t resemble bomb craters it will be easier for the reader to focus on the words instead of the holes.

Ending obsession

Here we go again. It’s phase three of the A Housefly in Autumn remodel. As I predicted, between rewriting the middle and obsessing over the beginning, I’ve come to that time when I feel compelled to tweak the ending.

The good news is that it’s only the last couple of paragraphs I want to redo. The bad news is that those last two paragraphs contain a mother lode of tone. That’s not bad news in itself; it’s only bad news when you want to change them. It’s like changing whole pages at the beginning or whole chapters in the middle.

For the beginning, the concern is drawing readers in. At the middle, the worry is keeping them. The finale needs to hit just the right note. I think my previous note was a little flat and I’m trying to sharpen it up a bit.

When they are the last two paragraphs, two paragraphs can seem like a mountainous rewrite. It certainly has taken me more time than any two other paragraphs ever have. I’m still not completely satisfied, but at least I’m moving in the right direction.

On the bright side, I don’t have to count this late alteration as a self-induced delay to publication. This time I got smart and started obsessing about something while I was still waiting for my expert proofers to finish reviewing their copies. By the time they are done, this behemoth, two-paragraph rewrite should be complete.

At that point, I can feel good that I’ve given beginning, middle, and end their fair shares of obsessing and overthinking. The book will be as good as I can make it, lacking another 20 years’ worth of wisdom, for which I am not willing to wait.

What I'd look like after 20 more years of wisdom. Looks like I'd have a great story to tell doesn't it? Should we just wait?

What I’d look like after 20 more years of wisdom. Looks like I’d have a great story to tell, doesn’t it? Should we just wait?

It may seem like I’ve been talking about this book for 20 years already, but that’s just not true. I’ve been working on this book for 20 years (probably a mere 18, but who’s counting?). I’ve only been talking about it publicly for, well, far shorter than that.

Even so, I realize it may seem like I’ve been posting about this book for a long time without actually producing something like a book. No one feels this incongruity more keenly than I do. But no one sees the light at the end of the tunnel more clearly than I do. I am two short paragraphs away from concluding that it is what it is. Then all who are so inclined may judge for themselves whether I should have waited for 20 years more wisdom.

At that point, I can turn all my worries toward marketing. Marketing has been known to make me whine like a first grader with liverwurst on pumpernickel in his lunch box. Now that’s something to look forward to. Stay tuned.