Thursday, May 19, 2011

Using Lulu to print copies for feedback

I'm trying something that might appear a little self-aggrandizing or precious but that I really think makes sense. I'm using one of the new online vanity/self-publish/print-on-demand services to print drafts of my books for my readers to comment on instead of just printing out the typescript.

After comparing prices and other factors I decided to use What I should be getting in the mail in about a week is a few copies of a trade-paperback size version of my novel, formatted with margins customary for trade size, front and back, and perfect bound. I'm expecting to be pretty cheap-looking, on the cheapest possible paper with one of their boilerplate cover designs. (I could have taken the time to design or have designed a better cover, and I could pay more for premium paper.)

The first major reason I decided to go with this method is price plus convenience. My 294-page typescript at $.9/pg cost almost $30 to print at the copy shop, plus between $6-13 to mail it to a reader if they don't live nearby. Plus the cost of a mailer or the hassle of finding a box in the basement to pack it in. It's almost always at least two trips in the car.

Lulu prints it for around $10. (In the layout I chose, it comes to 234 pages.) Shipping is $5 on the low end for one copy. The big drawback is that I might lose a week -- still to be seen -- waiting for it to be printed and mailed. I sprung for some faster and more expensive shipping, and even with that it is a savings. Plus they have lots of different coupons floating around for percent off the order or free shipping over a minimum amount. I ended ordering 3 copies to be sent to me to hand deliver to readers nearby and another single copy to be mailed directly to another reader. Hopefully everyone will have them in their hands by this time next week. I might have lost a little time through this method, and maybe I'll end up thinking the week was more important than the $100 or whatever I saved.

The second major reason I decided to go with this method is because I have a hunch it will actually help my readers give me better feedback. For naive readers who don't normally work with draft typescripts, having a ream of copy paper dropped in their laps might be intimidating, and I think that might affect how they read it. It might be even more of a factor with children, which is an issue with some of my readers, since it's a children's book.

For example, I often coach my "naive" readers on how to develop feedback and give it, since they might be afraid to say anything critical. One of the ways I do that is to ask them to imagine that they are reading a real published book that they paid $15 for. Then I ask them to mark in the margin as they go along whenever they become aware that they are not in fact reading a published book -- where the illusion is broken. When you're reading 300 pages of single-sided copy paper, which looks more like homework than a book, it's harder to get into the illusion to begin with. Children might not understand that this thing is supposed to be a book instead of a chore.

This is all just a crazy theory. I have no idea if it's really true. But it just makes sense to me somehow that the more I can create the familiar experience of reading a book, the better feedback I'll get on it.

The process is maybe is just slightly time consuming, but not in a way that I mind. I had to download a template for the book size I chose. Then I pasted the typescript in there. Then I did some fussing with where the formatting I had didn't carry over. (Usually where it involves margins; I had to re-center the chapter titles.) I full justified the margins, fiddled with the line spacing. (I know for professional designers, this is a key issue, and I didn't really know what I was doing, so I just guessed. Same with the type size.) Assuming any future revisions happen in my usual typescript, then I'll have to redo all this work to update what is getting printed by Lulu.

Then I wrote a kind of intro letter explaining what this thing was. That replaced the memo I usually include with the printed typescript to focus the comments from my readers. Then I uploaded it to the website, which involved creating an account for myself -- careful to make the project private instead of for sale to the public. Then I designed the cover. Select from one of the template styles. Select a color. Select a layout. Type in the title and other info. (I have a draft summary, so I pasted that on the back cover like you would see on a paperback.) None of this needed to take much time, but I indulged myself in making it look as good as I could. I even played with having a cover illustration by doing a quick search on google images, saving one, uploading it Lulu and pasting it onto my cover.

It occurs to me that there's a third benefit to this. I've found that just the act of printing out my book in the past forces me to imagine how other people must see it, which fires up different critical faculties and helps me see it in a new light. Same for putting it in the mail to someone or just knowing that it's in someone else's possession. With this I think just seeing my work perfect bound with wide margins, etc. -- impersonating a book, basically -- will make me see it in a different light and give me some ideas about what else it needs.

Done . . . in a sense

As I've said before, the lines drawn between drafts are arbitrary, and the "finish line" itself is somewhat arbitrary. I won't really think of it as done until it gets accepted for publication, the publisher is no longer accepting input from me and it goes to press. But right now -- since yesterday morning -- I do think of the book as done in an important sense, though that other finish line is still a long way away.

One, I finished what I was calling the fifth draft. In getting through that I probably had some of my lowest moments. For about two weeks straight I did nothing but go over the first four chapters repeatedly trying to deal with the preface/exposition/starting problems that I wrote about earlier. It was a lot of heavy rewriting and revising, printing it out, discovering it wasn't working and trying again. I was convinced I had written a catastrophic weakness into the opening, but I finally found the solution I was looking for, and I finally got my wife's approval of it.

Second, I finished up addressing every problem in the book I know how to identify on my own without sending it out in the world to some more amateur or novice readers and to hear what they think. By amateur or novice readers, I mean people who didn't see it in earlier drafts (e.g. not my wife), or people who I'm not expecting to coach me on the next draft (not other writers). It's ready for purely readerly responses -- including from child readers, since this is a children's book. I have some readers like this lined up and have set in motion the wheels that will put the work as-is in their hands for a response.

Of course, their feedback will lead to more work and the first of hopefully very few additional drafts, but I can't help thinking of this as crossing a threshold that, while not meeting the strict definition of "done," feels like it deserves the badge anyway.

And I met my timeline, too. Back in January when I was starting the rewriting and revision process, I anticipated that it would happen in fewer drafts in name but with essentially this kind of work in character, and my goal was to achieve that before the end of the college semester. Yesterday afternoon is when I collected final materials from my students. Later that afternoon I handed a printout of the typescript to one of my readers.

That means it took just about 8 1/2 months exactly with breaks and it almost exactly coincided with the academic year. As noted before, I forgot to record my exact start date, but it was approximately Sept. 1, 2010. The drafting vs. rewriting was split almost exactly down the middle. The first draft was done 4 months and a week after I started.

For the record, it is now 294 pages (with front matter) and 70,355 words. I had it down close to my goal of 65,000 words at one point. In the last few drafts it yo-yo'd between 66k and 71k. The last revisions I made in the last week pushed it up about 2k to the current. I'm not too worried about it being too long. 65k was a good goal, but 70k doesn't read too long I think. In general, I think it reads pretty fast. I was aiming for what I imagined to be a sixth-grade reading level, and I think I shot a little low. And, apart from the technical reading level, I think it's pretty punchy. It's certainly dialogue heavy, which always reads faster.

I'm not sure when the whatever is next will be. It will surely take a few weeks at least and probably half the summer to hear back from some of these readers. I'm sure it will be good for the work to let it sit as long as possible. I probably ought to have let it sit more during the revisions so far than I did. Of course, I'm eager to get going to the next stage, but I guess I'm feeling less impatient than I have between other drafts. It feels kind of like graduation day and the start of a deserved summer break, not least because of the coincidence with the academic calendar, and I'm not looking for excuses to start draft 6 tomorrow.

The schedule for the next step will be partly determined by the other project that I plan to focus on during the first month of the summer. More on that another time.

Monday, May 9, 2011


So frustrated.

My supposed solution to the opening didn't survive even a glance from my wife. The flashback, even with the bright lines of chapter breaks around it, feels too confusing still.

So I'm making another run at combinations of previously rejected solutions. One, I just cut out the preface. Two, the book starts with Chapter 1 in the present action. Three, "essential parts" of the preface are woven into the first chapter as exposition and flashback, hopefully without too much sense of interruption. Four, the major scene from the preface is salvaged almost in its entirety by putting it in a spot later on Chapter 3 where I had never considered it before.

The result, so far, by the way, is reduction of about 1,200 words. I guess that must be the sum of the preface that didn't cut pasted in anywhere.

It's a messy patch job for now, and I have no real sense of whether or not it works. Does the book get to the action soon enough? (Which was the whole point of having the preface.) Does the escalation of the character's understanding of her problem still move at the right pace? Does the interplay of internal and external conflict still work? Does it even make sense anymore at a literal level?

And my careful balance of the chapter lengths . . . gone. Ch. 3 is now 19 pages.

I'm a little bit exhausted by the work. And I'm not feeling great about having to do it. I want this problem to be behind me so badly.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Starting draft 5, struggling with opening

It's been an eventful week. My wife read the complete book, as I wrote about earlier, and my new writing group had its first meeting. I'll write about the mechanics and the vibe of that some other time, but it was really really nice to talk seriously about our work together.

The important thing for now is that they read and commented on the first 20 pages. As it happens, those were positioned as Ch. 1 and Ch. 2 when I gave it to them and as Preface and Ch. 1 when I gave them to my wife. I've talked about my trouble getting the story started, and unfortunately this experiment showed no difference in that positioning. Both versions read with the same "start/re-start" problems.

So this morning -- the official beginning of my work on draft 5 -- I've been trying to tackle that, and it's not going great. First, I tried just cutting the preface to do without it. (I start another "experiment" doc in these cases and when I settle on something paste the result back into my main doc. ) That idea was no good, because there's stuff in the preface I really need. I tried changing where in the timeline of the story the preface event happens -- so it's during the present action and basically the second or third major episode instead of prefatory in tone or placement. That creates a bunch of other problems, though. I tried cutting it but blending in the stuff I didn't want to lose as exposition in pieces, but that takes us out of scene too much in the Chapter 1/present action.

Finally, I tried just swapping the preface (which, if I haven't made this clear, takes place two years before the main story) with Chapter 1. So the preface is called Chapter 2 and is basically an extended interruption/flashback from Chapter 1. Then there's a hard chapter break and we resume the story back in the present with Chapter 3, f.k.a. Ch. 2.

Described that way, it sounds awful, but so far that looks like the best solution. It's certainly the most intelligible. I'm going to let it sit and see if I can get feedback from my wife on it. I really only did a patch job, so if I go with this, it will require some a lot of revision to straighten out detail consistency and redundancies.

If this doesn't work, then what I'll need to do is not just rewrite the opening but completely re-envision it -- not a job I'm anxious to do. If my students could see me now, they'd be getting a chuckle, because it looks like I'm evading the kind of hard work that I've been haranguing them to do.

I have a feeling this is mostly going to be set to stew over the rest of the weekend without much actual work. That's OK. I need some more distance on it before really tackling the next draft. I just wish I was able to work on two novels at once so I could keep myself busy with the time I have.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Done with fourth draft

I'm calling an end to the fourth draft and doing the "save as" and "create a new folder" and all that stuff to establish the fifth draft, which I'll start soon.

These are really arbitrary boundaries between one boundary and another. For example, during the "fourth draft" I went all the way through the manuscript twice. How is that not two different drafts? It has something to do without how much of a mental reset I'm doing. I guess a lot of the time, the stuff I'm doing on the second time through is stuff that I was aware needed to be done and that I postponed, so I consider it part of the same workload. I'm just not doing it in perfect sequential order. Like if a page needs for a paragraph to be added, a decision about whether to change a character's name, close fine editing of the sentences that are there and a read to see if there's a way that I can punch up the language, I might have the energy to focus on about half of that on one pass through and leave the other half for later. But since I was aware of all of it, I think of it as work on the same draft. Then, at a certain point, I either am aware of no problems any more or aware only of problems that I feel like I need some psychic distance from in order to tackle, then I feel like I'm moving from one draft to another.

That's where I am now. One major thing that has happened is that my wife read the entire typescript, front to back, for the first time over the weekend. (She had heard me read the first draft aloud as it was written and had looked at specific sections as I struggled with revision.) Discounting some for her bias, she has me convinced that I'm close to finished. The changes she outlined are not a lot of work, so my plan is for draft 5, whenever I get to it, to be a very short process and to look not terribly different from draft 4. (There were probably more differences between the two different passes of draft 4.) I have another reader lined up and I want to get it into their hands within a couple weeks if I can.

I'm also getting feedback this week from my writer's group, but that's only on a small section of it.

If I'm lucky, I'll get in three working days this week, but I don't know.

In any case, by not exactly the route I had planned, I'm getting to the destination in about the timeline I had hoped for last January -- to have it "done" by the end of this semester, which is in about 2 1/2 weeks. That's assuming I don't discover a crisis during work on the draft 5.