Writer Artisan – Printing Your ARC

Here’s the third installment in my series on the mechanics of self-publishing.  Again, this isn’t meant to be an expert guide, just a relation of my own experience.  In the last post I made a case for hiring a professional editor and set out a couple of reasons and resources for doing just that.  After the copy comes back from the editor, there are still a couple of steps to take before putting out the no-kidding, final draft of your book for sale.

Galley Copies and ARCs

The terms “Galley” and “ARC” are somewhat synonymous, but they aren’t exactly the same thing.  In a publishing house, the galley is the first, rough copy of the book that gets moved around within the company and to selected readers outside.  This is generally done before the book is ever shown to anyone outside the circle of trust.  Why?

Remember that most editors have approximately a 90% catch rate on typos.  That means that somewhere in your copy these little critters are probably still lurking around, dead-set on making you look bad.  The galley copy will help you track and eliminate these pests by getting extra eyes on the draft.  Beta readers who are given galley copies will annotate any typos or errors in the copy.  Usually, they’re also asked to provide feedback on the overall story as well.  This is the last chance for changes to be made before the story goes to print.

Ugh.  My hands are getting shaky and I feel the ooga-booga spirit possessing me.  I can’t help myself, I’m about to get preachy.  So, fair warning, I’m going to spend a moment on the topic of beta reading.  If you don’t care, skip on to the next section.

<preach>

When you look for beta readers, I’ve found the best feedback comes from avid readers of the genre who aren’t afraid to give honest opinions.  These are readers — not necessarily other writers.  The distinction is important.  At this point in the process, other writers should have already ran their dirty eyeballs all up and down that manuscript.  Right now, you need to be concerned about what the readers think — and there is a difference.  Writers are readers by nature, true.  The issue is that once you’ve committed to being a writer, you’ve peeled back the layers of the craft, and you’ve opened your eyes to the technical details of the story’s construction that a reader won’t necessarily care about.

It’s like going to see a band play with your friend, who happens to be a musician.  You loved the show for a dozen different reasons.  When you ask you friend, he windges a little and says that he wanted to like it, but the drummer held his sticks in an irritating way, and he doesn’t understand why the lead guitarist would ever use a Marshall stack while the rhythm guitarist had a Vox setup.  Don’t they know those create two completely different sounds?

In this imaginary scenario, your friend has some valid (if not nitpicky) points.  However, as astute as his statements may be, the fact remains that you and almost everyone else at the concert had an awesome time and loved the show.  For the people who weren’t well-versed in the technical points of the performance, none of your friend’s observations mattered.  All they know is that they enjoyed themselves.  So, despite the expert opinion, maybe the guys on stage actually knew what they were doing…

This is why non-expert feedback is exactly the feedback you want at this stage.  What I’ve found is that we writers have a difficult time taking our eyes off the mechanics, just like the musician friend in the previous example.  Technical and craft discussions should be had much earlier in the draft process, not when you’re two steps from show time.  By now, those issues should have long-since been put to bed.  At the beta-reading stage, you want to understand the reader experience.  What was their overall impression?  Was there anything they didn’t understand, issues that were unintentionally left unresolved, did one of your endearing characters turn out to be hated, etc.  Experiential issues and typos.  These are what you should be concerned about from your beta readers.  It’s exactly what a seasoned reader can point out to you.

</preach>

Exhale.  And done.  Back to printing books.

ARCs, or Advanced Reader Copies, are copies of the book that are sent out to reviewers or retailers before the book’s official publication date.  The goal is to generate interest in the title before its release, that way booksellers can place their orders ahead of time, and reviewers will (hopefully) start saying positive things about the book that can be blurbified on the back cover before the final printing.

While the galley and the ARC are two separate types of copy for the major publishers, the independent author generally treats the entities as one and the same.  My thought is that one can use the same method of printing for each type of copy, but should still treat them as separate and important phases of the publishing process.  In short, use the steps below to produce both types of copy.  Just make sure not to send a galley copy which could still contain typos to a reviewer as an ARC.  Take the time, print out your galley copies.  Work with your readers to catch the typos and fix the errors.  When the copy is in good shape, do a fresh printing of ARCs for the pre-release audience.  Remember, the ARC should be prepared after you’ve collected and acted on the feedback you’ve received from your beta readers.

Methods of printing

Good news, when it comes to printing, you’ve got options these days.  From the images above, you can see that a galley copy looks a bit like something spit out at by a copier, and the ARC looks like a plain-Jane paperback.  This is because back in the day, it was much cheaper to assemble the galleys in office using your own equipment.  Short-run printing runs on books (anything under about a thousand copies) through an actual printing house were ridiculously expensive.  Since the galley was shown to a relatively small number of readers, the publisher would distribute those hand-made copies, and then after all the resulting changes were made, they’d order an actual print run of books for the ARCs.

Thanks to Print on Demand technologies, you don’t have to use hand-made galleys.  In fact, it’s cheaper not to.

The hell you say?

I do.  Let’s say you have a standard, three hundred page novel to print out.  If you went to FedEx Office (the print shop everyone still calls Kinkos) and printed one of these out, it would cost you about forty dollars.  Don’t believe me?  Go ahead, go to their site and put an order together.

You can take that same content, and print it in an actual paperback book for about four bucks a copy.  That’s quite a savings for something that’s going to look much nicer when you hand it to a beta reader.

Using Createspace

There are plenty of sites that will print your book.  For my purposes, I’m going to use Createspace.  I’ve found that their setup is relatively easy, and there’s no minimum order of books.  In the next few sections I’ll get a bit technical and walk you through the way that I, and some other writers, use this platform to create galleys and ARCs.

If you’ve never used Createspace, it would be helpful for you to acquaint yourself with the site.  Create an account, check out their user documentation, and get a feel for how they do business.

Setting up your projects

Getting a project set up in Createspace is pretty easy, IMHO.  They have a step by step process that will walk you through each step.  The only real consideration here is what you want the publication date of your final product to be.

inigo

Lemme splain.  When you set up a project in Createspace, the system will not allow you to select a publication date that takes place in the future.  This means that you can’t plan on a December launch for your book and then use this project to start cranking out ARCs in August.  What does it matter?

Well, that kind of depends on you.  If you’ve set a release date for your novel, and you are a stickler for what the publication date associated with your ISBN is, then this is going to put a hitch in your giddyup.  I’ve heard of some review and giveaway sites which only accept titles that within a certain window of their official publication date.  I don’t think this is a common practice anymore, so it’s probably not a big concern, but it is a concern.  Additionally, if you get reviewed by a larger publication like Kirkus, they’ll use the publication date associated with your ISBN record on their review.  So, again, if that’s a concern you’ll want to do two projects.

If you don’t care so much what the official publication date for your ISBN is, then go ahead and just set up one project in Createspace for your novel.  If you do care, then you should go ahead and create two new projects.  One for the galley/ARC, and create the second for your official publication of the novel.  For the project that will be your final novel, go ahead and fill in the title information for the project, but leave the publication date field blank.  When you do eventually approve the proof for printing, Createspace will use that date as the official publication date.  The advantage of setting the project up ahead of time is that you’ll know what the actual ISBN of your novel is ahead of time.

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If you’ve created a separate project for your galley/ARC, then just bear in mind that Createspace will automatically place an ISBN on the back of the book when it’s printed.  I don’t believe you have any control over that.  The ISBN they print will not be the ISBN that’s associated with your final product, so you’ll have to cover it before you hand out copies.  I’ve got some tips for that at the end of the post.

Another caveat for those who will be creating two projects is that you shouldn’t enable sales channels on the project which you will use for your galley/ARC.  Once you approve the proof, make sure that none of the channels are selected, like in the screenshot, below.  If you don’t, people will be able to buy copies of your galley.  Not a good thing.

Channels

Preparing the interior

I’m going to assume that you’ve already got this novel written out in a Word document.  If you’re a Linux geek, you may even be using Apache Open Office.  The instructions in the link could probably translate more or less to any solid word processing software.  Unless you’re so dedicated to being obscure and hip that you’ve pounded out your novel on a typewriter, you should be okay.  As an aside, I actually met an author who wrote an entire novel using command-line Emacs.  That’s dedication, man.

What the article tells us is that if your software can format the document correctly and produce a pdf, then you’re in business.  However, if you’re using Word, you can upload the docx file and Createspace’s web application will do the conversion for you, which is a little bit easier.

Additionally, if you’re using Word and you don’t want to mess around with the formatting too much on your own, you can use one of Createspace’s document templates, which you can paste your own text into.

Cautions

After you upload your document or pdf, Createspace has a text reviewer that will parse your file and report any errors that it finds.  Like any piece of software, it’s not perfect, but I’ve found it does a pretty good job of alerting you to any formatting issues.  Please keep in mind that this tool doesn’t proof for spelling or grammar, it just looks at the document set up and couple other items.

One such item is the ISBN number.  If you’ve listed the ISBN on your cover page (which the templates do) it will have to match the ISBN that Createspace has associated with your project.  Normally, this is no big deal at all.  However, if you’re creating an ARC in a separate project, and you want to insert the ISBN of your actual book, then the checker will reject your document.  The easiest way to resolve this is to just not include the ISBN in your galley/ARC cover page.

Another common gotcha comes about when you’re using Createspace’s document templates.  If you delete a section from the front matter, there’s a good chance you’ll throw off the alternating page gutter setting.  When that happens, your pages won’t align correctly and the interior document will be rejected.  The easiest way to manage this is to simply not delete any sections from the front matter.  Customize as you like, just try not to get rid of any complete sections.

Preparing the cover

Ah, cover art.  I’m saving the topic for another post, but if you’re putting out your galley/ARC, you’ll need some type of cover for it.  If you’ve already got a cover, great.  If not, then there’s no need to panic.  For the most part, ARCs released by publishers just have plain-Jane covers on them.  Take a look at the these.  Cover art usually isn’t finalized until shortly before a book is sent to print, so in order to get an ARC out well in advance of the release date, they just use placeholder covers.  Most people in the business understand the practice.

Darth_PlagueisArt_Fowl_ARCRed Mars (1992)_phixr

Now that you know I’m not lying to you, those who don’t have cover art ready yet can take a deep breath.  Use your favorite image editing software, and whip up something simple.  Createspace provides a good example of how to set up a document using Adobe InDesign, but really, the guidelines they provide as far as dimensions and document setup are concerned could be applied to just about any software you want to use.

If doing the document on your own is too much work to handle, they even provide their own cover creator tool.  I haven’t used it, so I can’t speak to how well it works.  It seems simple enough though, and for an ARC cover that’s going to be kept simple, it’ll probably do.

cover_creator

Screenshot of the Cover Creator

Covering the ISBN

If you decided to go the two-project route, then one last consideration when printing the galley/ARC is the ISBN which will be automatically printed on the back cover.  Since your finished novel will use a different ISBN than the one printed on your galley/ARC, you may not want to expose it.  Covering it will eliminate confusion, as people who read and review frequently will use ISBNs to search for books online, or will place them in a review for others to search on.

The auto-generated ISBN on the back cover is 2″ wide by 1.2″ tall.  That means that all you have to do is get some Avery Labels  large enough to cover the code, and you’re good to go.  You can print them out to say “Promotional Copy: Not for Resale” or something similar.  If you want to get crazy professional, you can go to a site like this  and get barcode labels printed that reflect the actual ISBN of your novel — the ISBN which is available on the second project you set up (see what we did there?).

That’s All, Folks…

With a little bit of prep work on your end, it’s easy to get galley copies and ARCs at a very economical price.  Whether you decide to go with the one or two project approach, it’s a great way to generate the copies.  I’m an advocate of Createspace, and I feel like they make the process of printing a book really easy.  More importantly, they provide a method to get a great-looking book printed.  When you’re an author who cares about your reader’s experience, then putting together your novel is actually pretty exciting.  I hope that some of the tips in this post will help others out as they get ready to print out their next book.

Writer Artisan — Editing

 

As promised, here’s the first part to my series of posts regarding self/indie publishing.  There are more than a few how-to guides out there.  This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive step by step.  My intention is to relate some of my experience and provide some resources to those traveling the same path.

You may have read my post on why I decided to handle the production of The Changed myself, or you could’ve breezed past that long-winded crap.  Either way, here you are.  You, like me, have decided to take your fate into your own hands.  Where do you start?

Most writers that I’ve met will immediately start obsessing over getting reviews lined up and creating cover art.  STOP:

hammertime

Before you get to that stage of the publishing process, it’s best to first consider the core of your product.  No, not marketing.  Your manuscript.

Major publishers have been following a production model that’s worked for them for years.  While the indie publishing process deviates in some ways, in others it should work more or less the same.  One thing the industry has been doing very well is editing books before they’re published.

I’m going to get a little preachy for a moment.  Bear with me.

4866-DC PRPATPB

<preach>

The biggest problem that I see with most self/indie published books — IMHO — is that the authors are in too big of a hurry to put their work out, and they don’t give the editing process the time and attention it needs.  I understand that in today’s ebook market, fixing a typo can be as easy as uploading a corrected file.  Some people see that as a license to let errors get away from them.  I’m telling you not to do this.

For generations, publishers printed books exclusively on paper.  Weird, I know.  The deal is that you can’t take back an error once the ink hits the page.  I believe that same level of diligence is needed, even in today’s increasingly digital market.  The first and most important reason is that typos and errors take people out of the story.  It makes them stop, dead in their tracks, and wonder about the words.  This is death to a narrative flow, and chokes the life from the reader’s experience.  If that isn’t enough of a reason, consider that even if you can upload a new, corrected version of your novel text to KDP or Smashwords, there’s no guarantee your readers will actually get that corrected file.  Depending on when the server updates, how they downloaded the file, when and if their device looks for updated versions of the document, they may not see that corrected text for days, weeks, or ever.  Most people only read a book once.  That’s your only chance to make a good impression.

</preach>

Which brings us to editing.

In the traditional model, a manuscript is developed — more or less — using the steps below.  These steps are actually cyclic, and can be repeated as many times as needed to get a story into the best shape it can be.

  1. Write the damn story
  2. Revise the draft
  3. Developmental edit
  4. Revise the draft again (and again)
  5. Copy edit/proof read
  6. Finished manuscript

Most writers are creative at heart, and hate the tedium that comes with editing and proofing.  When no one is holding us accountable, there’s a tendency to skip over steps or to not complete them as thoroughly.  Even when we are trying to be good, it’s very, very difficult to properly edit your own work.  There are tools, texts, tips and tricks, but at the end of the day if you’re the one who wrote the story, you’re probably not the best person to edit it.

So, what do you mean by editing, then?

This is Writing 101 for many authors, but for people new to the game this is a perfectly valid question.  When I started out I wasn’t clear on the concept, either.  I thought that editors were people who went through your draft and found grammatical mistakes and typos.  They do that, yes, but they also do a lot more.  To understand what you should get out of editing, first understand that there are different types of editing.

Copy editing/proofreading.  This is what most people think of when they think of editing.  The editor will review your work, line by line, and make corrections for grammar, spelling, sentence structure, punctuation, etc.

Developmental editing.  This category of editing approaches the story from a more holistic view.  The editor will review your prose and point out more technique-driven flaws like over-writing, POV slips, poor characterization, or badly written dialogue.  The editor will also look at the structure of your story and make suggestions in regard to the plot, pace, and internal consistency of your story.

While different editors may offer an array of more specialized services, including things like critiques, these are the two broad categories of editorial services that an author may need.

Do I really need to hire an editor?

*Sigh*  Yes.

eyeroll

Look, it’s expensive.  But, if you’re committed to putting out a quality novel, you can’t get around it.  At the very least you’re going to need copy editing before you publish your book.  Full stop.  End of story.  Get a professional editor to proof your work.

Depending on your proficiency as a writer, you may not need developmental services.  If you’ve got a handle on the elements of craft, and you’ve worked with your critique partners to whip your story into shape, then that level of editing may be overkill.  A good editor can recommend a level of editing based on sample pages from your manuscript.

What about self-editing?

Okay, you’re trying to get out of paying for a copy-edit.  Don’t lie to me, you are.  Here’s the thing.  You can self-edit.  You can even be good at it.  I would highly recommend that any writer who cares about their craft learn all about editing, and apply those lessons at every opportunity.  But the cold truth is that with very few exceptions, a writer isn’t capable of catching all the mistakes in their own work.  You know how your story should read, which is dangerous, because when your tired little eyes scan the sentences for the billionth time, typos, missing words, bad punctuation, and common errors are all going to sail right by you.  For the reader who’s just picked up your book for the first time…  Not so much.

But my critique partners looked it over…

Yes they did.  And they probably caught a bunch of stuff.  I’m going to wager they didn’t get it all, though.  In most cases, your critique partners are not professional editors.  And even if they are, you probably aren’t paying them, which is going to decrease their attentiveness.  Remember that every typo will throw a reader out of the story.  You may have caught 99 mistakes, but it only takes a few to make it through and cost you readers.

The hard truth is that getting a manuscript ready to publish is an effort that will require multiple sets of eyes, including that of a professional editor.  Even the best editors aren’t going to catch every single mistake in a manuscript.  Where you and your critique partners and beta-readers are really going to come through is in catching those errors that got past your professional help.

Wait.  You’re saying that even though I’m paying an editor, there isn’t any guarantee that they’ll give me an error-free manuscript?

Yep.  Look, man.  You can either view this fact as evidence that since editors aren’t perfect you don’t need one, or further proof that good editing is damn hard and you’ll need all the help you can get.  You know where my vote is.

As an exercise, the next time you read a novel put out by a major publishing house, highlight any typos you find.  Chances are you’ll find up to three.  That’s a small number, sure.  Small enough for most people to forget about after they’ve finished the book.  But remember that as an indie-author you’ll be under greater scrutiny by readers who’ve been subjected to poorly edited books in the past.  Do the right thing for your readers.  If a book put out by a major publisher is allowed a few mistakes, then you should shoot for a zero-tolerance policy.  Don’t just match the quality of the big guys — try to do better than them.

Fine.  Where are the editors, then?  How can I find one, and who can you trust?

The first place you can start looking is the Editorial Freelance Association.  This is an association of — you guessed it — freelance editors who offer their services to authors.  In today’s market, many of them are used to working with authors who plan on indie-publishing their work.  There are some great resources on the EFA’s site.  They publish what the average going rates for services are, as well guidelines an author should use when selecting an editor.

Buyer beware:  Do your homework on any editor you plan to work with.  Make sure they’ve worked with manuscripts in your genre.  Check out the testimony from previous clients.  If they’re new to the game, look at their credentials and education.  You’d be surprised how many people read a couple books on editing and then believe they’re qualified to enter the market.

Another resource are companies which specialize in providing editorial services.  There are some shifty operations out there, so make sure that your dealing with a name that’s been around for a while.  Writer’s Digest and Kirkus are among companies who have recently entered this aspect of the author services game.  With the big publishers tightening their belts, many qualified editors who were looking for work now take assignments from these companies.  One of the advantages of working with a company like this is that you’ll have a large support structure.  People to contact should you have questions, or recourse in case you have a dispute.

Buyer beware:  First and foremost, research any company you plan on working with.  If their rates are too good to be true, or their claims just a little too outlandish (return manuscripts in less than a week, etc) consider that a red flag.  Aside from that, my biggest single issue with paying a company is that you have no idea who your editor will be.  This person may or may not have the experience or skills necessary to edit your work — you won’t know until the edited copy comes back.  The relationship between author and editor is important.

When looking for an editor, most freelancers will offer a sample edit for free, just so you can get a feel for how they like to do things.  This usually consists of you sending them a few pages of your manuscript, which the editor will work their magic on and return to you.  I recommend that you always do this when working with a new editor.  It’s going to show you most of what you need to know about their style and efficiency.  This is critical to knowing if you and the editor will make a good team.  Consider this like taking a car for a test drive.

You’re really dead set on this, aren’t you?

Oh, yeah.  The reason why I’m so opinionated on this topic is that I’ve been there, man.  Let me tell you a little story.

When I first decided to indie-pub The Red, I had no idea what I was doing.  At all.  The publishing tools hadn’t been available long, and many of us where feeling our way around blindly.  Authors who had experience working with big publishers seemed to do the best in this new landscape, because they already knew the publishing process and had the right connections to get the services they needed — such as editing.

Before I published the manuscript I knew I needed editing.  I did some research and found out how much it would cost.  I’m not rich by any means, and several years ago the situation was much tighter than it is now.  This led me to believe that despite the advice I received from people who had been in the game much longer than I had, I would just edit the book myself.  I reasoned that if I was really careful, I could catch all the errors.  I would be the exception to the rule, I’d be the author who could do it all.

Jennifer-Lawrence-ok-thumbs-up

Yeah.  So, that didn’t work out too well.  My draft was still riddled with errors that my beta-readers found.  Apparently, I was not the skilled self-editor I believed myself to be.

You’d think that would have set me on the straight and narrow.  It totally didn’t.  After I realized that I’d need an editor, I did what every budget-conscious person in need of an expensive service would do:  I looked for the Homie Hookup.

You know what I’m talking about.  Find that friend of a friend who’s in the industry and see if they’ll do it cheap.  I found an acquaintance who had experience editing.  For newspapers.  At the time, I didn’t stop to think about how vastly different editing for journalism is than editing for fiction.  Even if I had, I’m sure the cheap rate he offered me would have blinded me.  He was eager to branch out into a new area, and I wanted the cheap service.  Win-win.  Kinda.

After paying for his services, I received back a version of my manuscript that was virtually unusable.  Sentences had been abbreviated and concatenated, and the narrative read as though it was coming off a clipped newsreel from the 1940s.

univeral_news

This just in… Your manuscript blows. Now more than ever!

Not to mention that there were still more typos than I felt were reasonable.  But we had a good faith agreement, so I paid the man his money.

It took months to get the copy back into decent shape.  The effort was far more of an energy investment than I should’ve had to make.  Even after all of that, readers still found typos in the final version of the draft that went to print.  Let me tell you something, folks.  Getting unsolicited, positive responses from readers is the best thing in the world.  Hands down.  But, when you see a comment about finding typos in the copy, it’s a kick in the teeth.  I’d even go so far as to say that if you can see that sort of criticism about your work and not get a terrible feeling, then I have to wonder how much you actually care about the quality of what you’re putting out.

Like a high-school teacher once said to me, “If you just did things right in the first place, you’d already be done and it would’ve been half as much trouble.”

Just do it right.  Get an editor.  A good one.  Pay them for their time and effort.  After you get your copy back, give it to some trusted associates and proof it with them before you go to print.  Your readers will be better off for it, and that’s what it’s all about.

just-do-it

…right the first time.

Review – The Last Wish

The_Last_Wish_2
Full disclosure?  I’m a bandwagon reader on this one.  I played the Witcher 2 for XBox 360 and was completely immersed in the story.  After beating it (the first time around) and watching the credits roll, I saw that it was based on a series of novels.

The hell you say!

One Kindle download later, here I am.  I’m going to tell you that I loved this book, and yes, I’ll admit that my love of the game may have influenced me.  Let me explain my take on the story, then you can make up your own mind about whether or not it’s for you.

The novel is structured as a series of short stories that progressively weave together.  I love this style when it’s done well, and  Andrzej handles it deftly.  In a marketplace where publishers seem to believe that readers are too stupid to understand a tale that isn’t strictly linear in nature, it’s nice to see some deviation.  There is a definite logic to the structure of these smaller stories, though.  The depth to which each story brings you into Geralt’s world increases with subsequent tale.

In regard to the world, it’s a sword-and-horse fantasy land with some fun twists.  The dynamic between the humans and non-humans, the Witcher and the monsters, is very well thought out and executed skillfully.  There’s enough of our own myth and legend to make a connection, while it deviates to a degree that provides some surprises.  I never found myself feeling like I was reading a text book or on the receiving end of an info-dump.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  The novel left me wanting to experience more.

Where I think  Andrzej may lose some U.S. readers is in his choice of point of view.  Classic, third-person omniscient storytelling is just fine by me.  Many readers of genre fiction, especially older genre fiction, recognize the style and connect well with it.  However, in recent years this has fallen out of fashion with our publishers and readers.  Most stories these days will be told in deep-third or first-person.  For readers who are attached to that style of story-telling, third person may seem too clinical, or *gasp* boring.

The dialogue is very heavy, and fills a good amount of page space.  However, since I liked the dialogue for the most part this wasn’t an issue.  Action sequences are fast paced and well-written.  Among my favorites was the encounter with the Sylvan midway through the book.

Thematically, the story has a lot to say about people, our society, and how we conduct ourselves in regard to each other and nature.   It wasn’t just a good story, it was a good story with a purpose.

upgrayedd in Progress

Yes, that’s spelled with two d’s — for a “double-dose” of pimping. idiocracy

Seriously, though.

I finally ditched all the old html and css that I was using before. I liked it, but I was long since due for a web 2.0 site. To make things easier, I just went full WordPress and started customizing the css and php as needed. It may take a day or two to get all of the content from the old site migrated over, but it will happen soon.

Take care, be well. 🙂

Writer’s Research Protip — Don’t Hack the Mainframe

If you’ve ever worked in a field that gets represented at times through popular mediums such as television, movies, or books, there are going to be finer points that you’ll notice the writers are getting wrong.

You probably know what I’m talking about.  If you were in the military and you see people in a movie doing something that would’ve gotten you murdered by your squad leader, it makes you cringe.  If you’re a police officer and you read a novel where the detective routinely does things no self-respecting cop would do, it probably takes you out of the story.  For me, one of those sore spots is information technology.

A couple weeks ago I watched all five seasons of Fringe (don’t judge me).  I really liked the show, but in some of the earlier seasons they kept repeating a phrase that comes up in popular fiction.  A phrase that doesn’t make a lot of sense, and kills some of the fun of the story.  Several times, members of the Fringe team directed each other to, “Hack the mainframe.”

If you are a writer, or other creative professional involved with storytelling, please use caution when invoking this admittedly awesome sounding phrase.

The thing is, a mainframe computer system may not be what you’ve been led to believe it is.  Mainframes are large, powerful, computers that have been used by businesses for decades.  When most characters in popular TV and movies say “hack the mainframe,” they’re referring to activities that a mainframe really wouldn’t be used for.

For example, let’s say our heroes are tracing the source IP of a criminal, or they’re trying to get into the confidential files of a doctor who’s a suspect in a case.  Maybe they’re trying to get a customer list from a website.  Regardless, in almost all of these cases, the writers would have been better off just using the generic term “Server” instead of mainframe.  Server is a label given to a computer which has the task of holding (serving) information for others to use.  Using this term will be much more accurate, and it can apply to very wide variety of computers.

The other issue is that mainframes have been in declining use for decades.  These computers are tanks.  For the most part they are powerful, reliable, and secure.  Unfortunately, they’re very expensive and lack the scalability of many modern midrange, distributed computing systems.  Because of this, most new technology companies and businesses wouldn’t have a mainframe in their datacenter.  It wouldn’t make sense for them to purchase older, expensive technology like that.

I know, saying, “Hack the mainframe,” sounds wicked sweet.  I agree.  So, if you really want to use this term, use it in a situation that would be more believable.  Mainframes would be used more commonly by old, monolithic corporations such as large banks/financial institutions, airlines, and governments.  If your characters are after data that is contained on a mainframe, it would likely be information (records of some type) stored in a database.  To hack in, your computer-whiz character should also have a working knowledge of zOS administration and older technologies such as JCL, Cobol, and C.  These technologies aren’t taught very often in today’s computer science programs, so keep that in mind as well.

That’s all.  I hope this helps out another writer while they’re crafting their next amazing story.

The Acceptance Letter I’ve Been Waiting For

Mr. Marsh,

Thank you for your recent submission.  I mean that.  Thank you.  Never before in the twenty years that I’ve been in the publishing industry have I read a piece so moving that it brought me to tears.  That’s not a euphemism, either.  As I finished your piece I found myself overcome with raw emotion; sobbing from a feeling of sadness and joy I never before thought possible.  I hope that doesn’t make you feel awkward.  But, it is honest, and if there’s anything your writing has taught me, it’s that we must always be true to ourselves.

The truth is that my life had been steadily losing its meaning over the past several years.  The pain of a mundane existence coupled with the lack of a promise of improved circumstances for myself, my family, or society as a whole, has drained the color from the world around me.  Until I read the monumental tour-de-force you graced me with, I hadn’t realized just how far into the downward spiral of depression I had fallen.  When I exhaled upon reading the final, wondrous, line of prose, the air ran sweet across my tongue and a vigor I hadn’t felt in recent memory permeated my bones.  Immediately, I called my cocaine dealer and told him that I wouldn’t be needing anymore of his poison; that I was now high on life.  I broke things off with my mistress and I’m trying to reconnect with my estranged children.  Your writing has saved me, sir, and for that you have my eternal gratitude and devotion.

That part when the Ewok break-dance crew helps a young Bruce Lee reunite his family and finally master the elusive secrets of Wing Chun?  I still get shivers, Mr. Marsh.  I still get shivers.  We may have some licensing issues to deal with by using the name Ewok, but, don’t worry too much.  If Disney won’t play ball we’ll just call them Beewoks or Leewoks, or something.  I hope that doesn’t compromise your artistic integrity.

My only criticism of the manuscript is that the one hundred and fifty page car chase through the San Francisco hills was not long enough.  You have a real knack for these scenes, and I have to tell you, we need more of it.  I hope I’m not being dramatic when I say that the world will continue to be a soulless machine filled with hollow faces until we get this book into print.

I hope that I’m not being presumptuous when I refer to you and I as, “we.”  I realize that you haven’t signed an agreement with me yet, and that you’ll have your choice of representation.  I’m going to level with you.  The other literary agents and I have been talking, and there’s been some disagreement about who will have the honor of being your representative — your champion and guide — in the publishing industry forthwith.  There has been talk of convening a special session of the Grand Council of Literary Agents to deal with the matter, as it’s quickly becoming an item of contention among us.  I can’t say too much, as our society is a secret one, but, I may have to duel for the honor of serving you.

Please, don’t worry too much for me.  Pain is temporary.  Even scars will fade.  The glory of being your agent?  That will transcend the ages.

Sincerely,

Noah Juan Ever

Literary Agent

Book Review – Ocean of Dust

Fantasy readers, don’t pass up this engrossing tale.

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I ganked the Amazon thumbnail – please don’t sue.

In Ocean of Dust, we follow Lissa, a young girl forced into a life of slavery aboard a mysterious vessel which traverses the world’s oceans.  As possibilities of escape diminish, she’s caught in a foreign culture full of strong, conflicting personalities, and strange traditions.  Lissa makes allies and enemies alike as she explores the world aboard ship, and struggles to discover the source of the strange influence the ocean itself has over her.

What I enjoyed most about this novel was the seamless melding of story and world-building.Ing’s world is unique, well thought out, and wholly alive.  Better yet, it’s shown to us at an even pace, letting the reader drink in and absorb the unique properties and physics of the universe as we adventure with Lissa.  Colorful characters populate the story, each one with their own distinctive voice and part to play.

Many publishers are putting their eggs in the urban fantasy basket, or else staying to the tried and true swords-and-horses subgenre.  Ing’s story doesn’t fit easily into either one of these categories, which, for me, made it a welcome departure from the norm.  It works as a YA tale, as the characters and plot will be relatable to young readers.  I definitely wouldn’t pigeonhole the story as a “YA only” read, though.  Adults who have enjoyed series such as Harry Potter and His Dark Materials would be in good company here.

The conclusion of the story is satisfying, while hinting at the possibility of returning Lissa’s story to us again in the future.  I hope this is the case.