Friday, January 19, 2018

Proper care and feeding of dependent clauses

Dependent clauses are wonderful things, but that doesn't mean they can be used indiscriminately.  One can use such a clause in a manner that's grammatically correct, but that doesn't mean that manner is the best way to go in that instance.  It's a craft thing, not a grammar thing.  Luckily, there's only one real "guideline" to keep in mind regarding these things:

When you start a sentence with a dependent clause, it weakens that sentence.

(Yes, I'm aware of the irony of starting that sentence with a dependent clause.  But this is a blog post, not a blurb or story, and nobody's paying me for my blog posts, so it doesn't matter.  ;) )

And that's it.  Keep that rule in mind, and then edit your lines accordingly.  For example, if you're writing a blurb for your book, then you want your sentences to be as strong as possible.  You want that blurb to grab the prospective reader by the virtual lapels, give him a good shake, and say, "This book rocks!  Click 'buy' already!"  You don't want a blurb that says, "Well, you might like this book.  Or not.  I'm not that confident about it, but please give it a try anyway."

Let's examine one of my own blurbs.  Here's the blurb for Clouds of Venus:

Dale Kinmont is a college student in post-catastrophe America. He's lucky; he lives in one of the walled cities for the nation's elite, and life is pleasant. He expects to graduate and find employment in his uncle's company.

Everything changes when he's framed for murder. He's tried, convicted, and sentenced to hard labor in the prison colony on Mercury. 

He ends up in Hesperus instead, a flying city that soars eternally through the acidic skies of Venus. His goal now is to find a way to clear his name and return to Earth before Hesperus erupts in civil war. He also must battle the harsh realities of the planet itself. Because if the Hesperans don't kill him, Venus probably will.

Only one of those sentences starts with a dependent clause, and it's the very last one.  By the time the prospective reader reaches that last sentence, his or her mind is probably already mostly made up about whether or not to purchase the book.  Also, the rules of blurb-writing are different for the last sentence of the blurb, because that sentence is the final "hook" that, ideally, convinces the reader to grab the book.  For the rest of the blurb, though, it's best to follow the guidelines.  Save the dependent clauses, sentence fragments, snarky puns, and whatever else for that last line.

Now let's re-write that blurb with the other sentences rearranged so that they start with dependent clauses:

In post-catastrophe America, Dale Kinmont is a college student. Living in one of the walled cities for the nation's elite, he considers himself lucky, and life is pleasant. Upon graduating, he expects to find employment in his uncle's company.

When he's framed for murder, everything changes. Tried and convicted, he's sentenced to hard labor in the prison colony on Mercury. 

Instead, he ends up in Hesperus, a flying city that soars eternally through the acidic skies of Venus. While there, his goal is to clear his name and return to Earth before Hesperus erupts in civil war. Also, he must battle the harsh realities of the planet itself. Because if the Hesperans don't kill him, Venus probably will.

It's basically the same blurb, but it lacks some of the punch, doesn't it?  That's because dependent clauses are sort of "passive-aggressive," or at least more so than independent clauses.  The natural position in a sentence for a dependent clause is after the independent clause, not in front of it.  When we swap those positions, the sentence feels a little weaselly, as if the writer was trying to hedge his bets by not fully committing to the sentence's meaning.  That's because the sentence's meaning is based on the independent clause, but it's only modified by the dependent clause.  The difference in the effect of these two methods of sentence construction is subtle, but it's real, especially on a subconscious level, and it can mean the difference between a sale and a non-sale.

Most of the time, both in blurbs and in the text of your story, you'll want to start your sentences with independent clauses.  That makes for stronger sentences.  Strong sentences are more engaging than weak ones, and reader engagement is crucial, especially in blurbs.

So that's my craft advice for today.  Have a look at your blurbs and see if you can re-write your sentences so that they start with independent clauses, not dependent ones.  If you do, then I think you'll notice a positive difference.  Good luck!  :D

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Coldest January ever?

Sure seems like it.  Snow fell for the second time this winter.  Other than a few days of highs in the fifties, this month has been frozen solid.  I legitimately cannot remember a colder January than the one we've had so far.  Still a couple of weeks left, though, so who knows what will happen.

In the meantime, I'm trying to get Mind Games polished up.  Progress is slow.  I hate myself for how little I've gotten done this past week.  But that's life, I guess.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

My least favorite Heinlein quote

Robert Heinlein was one of the most quotable authors who ever lived, in my opinion.  I see lines from his work pop up on internet forums all the time.  And with good reason, because there's a lot of simple, though, at times, perhaps uncomfortable, truth in his words.  For example:

A dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot.

That's from Friday, and it hits home now more than ever, I think, especially in the age of the internet.

Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor.

That's from Starship Troopers, and it should be obviously true to anyone who takes a cursory look at history.

But there's one popular quote that gets under my skin, and it's this one:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I absolutely hate this one.  The division of labor, or "specialization," as Heinlein puts it, is what makes a modern society possible.  If we were all jack of all trades but masters of none, then we'd all be living hand to mouth in Stone Age conditions.  After all, if a man is busy doing all the things, then he won't have time to focus his efforts on any one thing.  He'll never become excellent at anything.  The more specialized labor becomes, the more efficient the broader economy gets, and the richer lives we all lead in the aggregate.

I don't want to see Mozart wasting his time changing diapers and butchering hogs.  I want to see him writing music, because that's where he's most valuable to the rest of us.  Let someone without any artistic genius do the diaper-changing and hog-butchering.  At the same time, I don't want to see a professional athlete spending his days pitching manure and programming computers.  I want to see him play ball at the highest level, and that means dedication and focus on his game.

Now, granted, Heinlein's quote doesn't suggest that a man should actually do those things on a regular basis, but rather that a man should be able to do those things.  Okay, fair enough.  Still, though, that's a nuance that not every reader is going to get.  It's just not a good quote.  In fact, it's a destructive quote, because it diverts individuals away from what they're best at in favor of pursuits in which they have less skill or talent.  It stands in direct opposition to what makes modern living possible.

This seems obvious to me, yet this stupid quote keeps popping up here and there on the internet as if it's some laudable thing.  Anyway, that's my pet peeve for today.  Your tolerance for my ranting is appreciated.  ;)

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Progress Report

The past week has been slow.  I've accomplished very little.  I still hope to get Mind Games out the door by the end of the month, but that'll be pushing it.

On the plus side, I had an idea for a story, and I jotted down a few notes.  Maybe something will come of it, maybe not.

On the plus side, I've been trying to exercise a little more often, and I think I've noticed some improved muscle definition.  So I've got that going for me.  :D

Easy formatting (for me, anyway)

Lots of authors have trouble formatting their books.  They do the best they can, but when it's time to upload to KDP, the previewer shows all sorts of bad things happening.  This happened to me the first time I tried to upload Buddy.  In the previewer, one of the paragraphs was in a completely different font from the rest of the story.  I had to try again a few times before I got it right.

Now, though, I can get it right the first time, every time.  I simply follow a few simple rules.  My method isn't the end-all, be-all, of course.  Many people use a variety of different methods.  There's no "right" way or "wrong" way.  And if you've found a way that works for you, then you should probably stick with it, because change isn't always for the better.  But my way uses all free software--OpenOffice and Calibre--so if you're on a budget, then this might just be the info you were looking for.

So here we go...

1.)  Don't use Word.  Many people do and manage to upload error-free files, but the program is still a major source of frustration for a lot of folks.  I write in OpenOffice, but when I tried uploading Buddy that first time, I decided to copy the file into Word first in order to convert it to a .doc.  I erroneously thought the .doc from Word would play more nicely with KDP's converter than would a .doc from OpenOffice.  That was a mistake.  If you want to upload a .doc, then make that .doc in OpenOffice.  It's easy; just do a "save as" and then choose the .doc option.

See, Word inserts all kinds of junk html into the file, and that's what causes a lot of the problems authors experience with uploading.  By avoiding Word, you avoid that junk html entirely.  If you write in Word and are reluctant to give it up, then by all means, keep using it.  Then, when the book is done, you might want to try copying and pasting the whole thing into Notepad or something to strip out all the junk html.  Then copy it into OpenOffice and make that your permanent book file.  (Notepad will strip out your italics, though, and maybe some other things, so you'll need to manually re-insert that stuff.)  Then, when it's time to change the back matter or fix typos or something, you're doing it in OpenOffice where it's safe to do so without adding junk html.

2.)  Make the table of contents and do the other formatting stuff before you convert the file to some other format.  I do this in OpenOffice.  I add bookmarks (each chapter title) and hyperlinks (pointing to those bookmarks) in the .odt file.  This is also where I add the page breaks between chapters via the "add manual break" menu option.  I completely finish the book in .odt format first.  Then I convert.

3.)  Use Calibre to convert files.  (I no longer upload .doc files; I upload epubs to all retailers, including Amazon.)  After I've added in ToC and all the front matter and back matter and whatnot, I add the .odt file to my Calibre library.  Then I add the cover via the "edit metadata" button.  (KDP and D2D will prompt you for a cover image, but there's no harm in going ahead and adding one into the epub before uploading.  It simply gets replaced.)  After adding a cover image, I convert to epub.  I then run the epub through the online validator just to make sure it's good, but that's just a formality, really, because the file is always good so long as I stick to my method.

4.)  If you have more than 48 chapters in your book, then Calibre will cut off the remainder.  I don't know why it does this, and you should always double-check your ToC to make sure it's correct.  Nevertheless, this missing-chapters thing is an easy fix.  Just use the "Edit ToC" button to add in the missing chapters.  If you don't have that button in your Calibre's toolbar, then you'll need to add it.  Click "Preferences," and then "Toolbars and Menus," and select "The Main Toolbar."  Then you'll get a screen with two windows: the left one lists available buttons you can add, and the right one lists buttons that already appear.  Find the Edit Toc button in the left-hand window and use the arrow to move it to the right-hand window.  Once the button's activated, you'll be able to edit the epub's ToC right there in Calibre.  It really is an awesome program.

So there you go.  Nothing to it.  Good luck, and happy formatting.  :)

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

FYI: Social media

Just to let everyone know, I'm not on Facebook or Twitter.  My social media presence is basically just this blog, Goodreads, and kboards.  So if you want to interact with me on social media, those are the places to do it.

Otherwise, thanks for your support, and thanks for reading.  :)

Friday, January 5, 2018

Progress report

I'm doing the mobi edit of Mind Games.  I'm at the 20% mark on my Kindle, so I'm a fifth of the way done.  Not bad for a few days' work, especially in the wake of the holiday season, but I hope to increase that pace a little.  I'd like to finish it by the end of next week.

After the mobi edit comes the formatting and final proofreading.  That shouldn't take long.  And I still need to tweak the cover a little, but that's a few hours' work at most.  I'm well on pace to have this book published before the month is out.

After the launch, I plan to dive right into the first draft of book 3.  I'd like to get it done by the end of March at least, and preferably by mid-March.  Then I'll put that aside and work on a short story for Alasdair Shaw's next anthology.  His deadline is the end of April.  I've already got a skeleton of a story written, so I sort of know where I'm going with it.

So that's where I'm at. My goal for 2018 is to get the first half of the Wheel of Fire series published.  I'd love to get book 5 out there, too, but I think that's stretching it.