Those Little Formatting Oddities

I love books. I love libraries. I love bookstores. That beautiful paper fragrance in a second-hand bookstore is a wonderful thing. When I was a kid, in addition to visiting our local library, my family would occasionally drive to downtown San Diego to visit the huge public library. It was (and still is) an amazing place.

Emerald Cove released its first two anthologies (Kidnapped! and Stolen!) solely as ebooks. They were never intended to be paperbacks. The text size and other formatting in an ebook can change depending on the preference of the reader and the type of e-reader used. As an ebook author, you can’t stress too much about formatting, because you really don’t control it.

However, when John and I published 60th Hour, in addition to ebook format, we decided to publish a paperback version as well. (Did I mention that I love books?) The ebook came out first, and then I spent time formatting the paperback. Despite my appalling lack of technical competency, it was fun to play with the text and try different formats: “Oh look, John! You can make the first letter of the first paragraph of each chapter large and bold, like they do in real books!”

Until the print version went live and I got my author’s copy in the mail, I did not realize two things. First: all the little formatting oddities that I saw on the screen would still be there in the paperback. For example, when I added those large first letters, the paragraph text around them condensed in a weird way compared to the other paragraphs. I naively thought that issue was just a problem with the computer screen and would correct itself in the print version. Likewise, I assumed the extra spaces that appeared between some of the paragraphs for no reason I could fathom would undoubtedly be gone later. (Haha! Silly me.)

Second: I didn’t realize that all those formatting oddities looked better on a large computer screen than they did in a printed book. That sentence hanging at the end of Chapter One seemed like no big deal when I was reviewing digital pages side-by-side. When I flipped through the paperback, however, the hanging sentence made me wince.

There are even a couple of typos in the text. *cringe* Question: How many proofreaders does it take to catch a typo? Answer: At least one more than you used to review your manuscript.

At some point in the near future, there will be a second edition paperback version of 60th Hour to correct those formatting errors and typos. I’m not exactly sure when that will happen, but it will certainly be before Emerald Cove publishes Haunted!

Hah! Maybe I should use the weird formatting as a marketing tool: Hey all you book collectors, buy your first edition paperback with all those formatting oddities now, before the corrected version is released!

Or maybe not.

-Susan 8/21/20

The Problem with Prologues

If you’ve read 60th Hour, you may wonder why the first chapter takes place twenty years before the rest of the story. In a book that focuses on time, why have that outlier right at the beginning of the book?

The astute among you (who read the title of this week’s blog post), probably already guessed the answer. The first chapter was originally the prologue. In the draft version of 60th Hour (back when the working title was still Final Night), the story opened with a prologue recounting events during the Siege of Lavay approximately twenty years before the start of chapter one.

I like prologues. Some of my favorite fantasy books over the years have opened with prologues. They remind me of the “teaser trailers” for movies. The author gets a chance to intrigue the reader about situations which will be explained in more detail in the rest of the narrative. So naturally, when John and I wrote 60th Hour, we included a prologue.

Then I attended a writer’s conference and met with an editor who had reviewed the first ten pages of the novel. The editor and I had a very productive discussion about the manuscript. He told me, among other things, that fantasy novels should not include prologues because a lot of readers skip them.

While I found much of his other advice to be useful, I scoffed at that particular statement. Of course, fantasy readers read prologues! I always read them. Who ever heard of such nonsense? All right, I’ll admit that maybe everyone doesn’t read “Concerning Hobbits” at the start of LOTR, but that’s not a typical fantasy novel prologue.

When our rpg group met that Friday night for gaming, I remarked to my friends about the ridiculous advice I received regarding prologues.

“I never read prologues,” one of my fellow gamers told me.

I thought he was kidding.

“What do you mean?” I said, once I realized he was serious. “Suppose they are part of the story?”

“I don’t care. I never read them.”

Then someone else pointed out to me (either that same night or later) that ebook software is sometimes designed to start the reader at chapter one of the story, skipping over all the material before. The reader may not even know there is a prologue.

Needless to say, John and I were then faced with a difficult choice about the prologue for the novel. If we kept it, readers might skip it and miss important plot and character exposition. If we deleted it, I would have to spend time incorporating all that plot and character exposition into the remaining book without disrupting the existing narrative.

Or I could simply change the name of the prologue to chapter one and renumber the other chapters. Guess what I chose?

Of course, even the third choice presented problems. Suddenly, the novel contained a twenty year gap between the events in chapter one and chapter two. Would readers find that confusing?

So, I added “parts” to the novel. Part One took place twenty years before the end of the calendar. Part Two started three weeks before the end, etc. It felt a little clunky, especially since Part One was only ten pages long, but it seemed the best way to overcome the problems.

I guess the moral of the story is: listen to your editor. Or your gaming buddies. Or both.

But I still like prologues!

Susan 8/7/20

Our Next Exclamation Mark Anthology

When Emerald Cove decided to try its first themed anthology (Kidnapped!), I expected all our stories to be similar. After all, we were writing on the same theme. To my mind, kidnapping stories followed a standard structure: a person is abducted, often for ransom, and the story revolves around what happens after that. Furthermore, we were all science-fiction/fantasy fans, so it was likely (although not required) that our stories would fall somewhere within that genre.

The stories did indeed fall within the realm of speculative fiction, but beyond that, all similarities ended. Danny opted for modern day superheroes. Sue Dawe, who is one of the kindest and most joyful people I know, surprised us all by writing a frightening, alien-abduction story. Stephanie gave us an amusing look at the twisted psychology of an author. John and I came up with a light-hearted take on medieval highwaymen (and yes, John was involved — see my earlier blog post about what is missing from Lord Larrin’s Daughter.) Jefferson…well, there is only one Jefferson Putnam Swycaffer in the entire universe, and his stories are as unique and interesting as he is. (Just teasing, Jefferson! He and I have been friends for over 40 years, and he is a great guy and an amazing writer.)

Emerald Cove’s second exclamation mark anthology was Stolen!

In case you are wondering, we don’t really call them that. “Exclamation mark anthology” is way too long to say in casual conversation. We originally added the exclamation mark to the end of Kidnapped! because we hoped it would differentiate the book from other works with that same name. We foolishly forgot that internet search engines ignore punctuation. By the time Stolen! came out, the exclamation mark had become our “thing” so we decided to keep using it.

When we started working on Stolen!, I was expecting variation in our stories, and that was exactly what happened. Not only were there stylistic differences within the science-fiction/fantasy genre, but there were also variations on the types of things that could be stolen. The stories involved the theft of things as diverse as gender identity, artistic creativity, and souls.

And a fish. One mustn’t forget the pilfered fish.

So now Emerald Cove is working on its third exclamation mark anthology: Haunted! As I mentioned in a prior blog post, all of us at the Cove had been in a writing slump since the pandemic’s shelter-in-place started. Now, thanks to the wonders of Zoom critique meetings, we are back to writing. In anticipation of our next Zoom critique meeting on August 12, we are already starting to place full and partial manuscripts into OneDrive for review. I can’t wait to see what variations on the theme we all come up with this time.

Susan 7/31/20

To Sequel or Not: One Writer’s Dilemma

If you want your characters to live happily ever after, you’d better be cautious about writing a sequel.

Case in point. The Star Wars movies. The end of the Star Wars trilogy back in the early 1980’s was a joyous moment for the heroes of the story and their fans (Ewoks notwithstanding). The good guys won. The bad guys lost. Han and Leia fell in love. The Empire fell and Luke even redeemed his father. They all lived happily ever after, right?

Wrong! In the recent sequel movies, we learn that Han and Leia split up, their son turned evil, and Luke went off to live in isolation, mired in guilt and remorse. All the hard won battles of the first trilogy were for naught. The gains made by the Rebel Alliance fell apart, and war and oppression once again filled the galaxy far, far away.

I’ll let others debate about which Star Wars movies were better or happier. That’s not my point here. Nor am I here to talk about what is or should be “canon” for the Star Wars universe. There were dozens of novels published after the original Star Wars movies aired, some of which may or may not have been “sequels” in a classic sense.

Instead, I want to talk about sequels, particularly to fantasy novels (because that is what I write). One of the marketing strategies suggested for Indy authors involves writing sequels. Essentially you use your second book to sell your first book.

But what if your first book doesn’t lend itself to sequels? Are there stories that shouldn’t have a sequel? When is “happily ever after” good enough?

Obviously, some stories are intended to be a series right from the start. Detective novels, for example, can have a happy ending for each book and the hero can go on to the next story with no problem. There are many fantasy series that do just fine with multiple “sequels.”

At times, a fantasy series will involve subsequent books that are a continuation of the main story in the first book, but are those really sequels? Was the second Harry Potter book a sequel to the first? Was there ever an expectation that Harry lived happily ever after the events of the first book?

Some authors have maintained the happy ending for their main characters by focusing on other people in the next book. Bilbo Baggins keeps his “happily ever after” in the Lord of the Rings because he gets to write poetry in Rivendell while his fellow Hobbits go through the misery of the War of the Ring. Even in LOTR, however, we learn that poor Balin, one of the Dwarves from the Hobbit, did not get a happy ending in Moria.

Which brings me to my personal dilemma. Should there be a sequel to 60th Hour? Can there be? When John and I wrote it, we intended it to be a standalone novel, with no cliff-hanger endings and no set up for the next book. It is a complete story with a beginning, a middle, and (I hope) a satisfying ending. Ever since we published it in March, I have been trying to think of a way to write a sequel.

I don’t want to give any spoilers for those who haven’t read 60th Hour, so I won’t go into specifics. However, those who have read the story will probably understand. What do you write after the characters solve the problem that threatens the world? Any future threat to the world will unravel the happy ending. Anything less would seem trivial in comparison to the first novel. Do John and I really want to write a series of detective stories set in the Kingdom of Kenarin? It might be amusing at first, but hardly satisfying to readers who want another story with the broad scope of 60th Hour.

Writing the prequel to 60th Hour (presumably set 3600 years earlier) is also problematic. I personally dislike “train wreck” stories in which events move invariably toward the sorrowful ending that forms the background for the original book.

When John and I write our future books, we will keep possible sequels in mind. For 60th Hour, however, you can enjoy the novel without the worry that the universe will unravel. It contains no cliffhangers or partial endings that set things up for the next book. There’s not going to be a sequel to spoil the happily ever after.

Susan – 7/24/20

Zooming Around the Cove

Logo Design and Artwork by Sue Dawe

We did it! We held our first Zoom meeting of the Emerald Cove Press writer’s critique group this week. The meeting lasted much longer than expected (about three hours), but a lot of the discussion involved logistics for the best way to conduct our reviews and provide written comments going forward. After considering email, Dropbox, and other methods, we settled on Microsoft One Drive to use for manuscript exchange and commentary.

We plan to continue with Zoom meetings in the future. Those meetings are valuable for several reasons. First, they give us a chance to discuss each of our critiques and allow individual authors to ask questions regarding the comments. Second, they provide us time to talk about our shared projects and to encourage one another to continue writing. Third, and most important, they create a deadline to force…ahem…inspire us to write!

There was an additional benefit from this week’s meeting that I had not expected. It was great to see each other again. Email and telephone calls are just not the same as looking at your friends and colleagues as they talk to you. Of course, a Zoom meeting will never take the place of a real life gathering, but it’s still pretty good. And, at least, you don’t have to worry about what shoes you are wearing to the meeting!

-Susan 7/17/20

Writing Critiques During a Lockdown

What do you get when you put five authors and the latest drafts of their fiction works in their local Denny’s restaurant?

Nothing. Denny’s is closed for dine-in service in Southern California due to the pandemic.

What you used to get was the monthly Emerald Cove writer’s critique group meeting. Every month we would have dinner, exchange manuscripts, and comment on each other’s writing from the month before. We tended to be a little loud, so we always asked for a back corner booth. I admit that Denny’s is not exactly as close and personal as meeting in your local pub, but then we’re not exactly the Inklings either. Denny’s worked perfectly for us, and most of the evening staff who worked there recognized us, even if they didn’t know us by name.

Then came March 2020. Although we could no longer meet, we suddenly had tons of time for writing. Writing is solo activity, both easy and safe to do during a pandemic. In the middle of April, about a month after the lockdowns started, we all exchanged emails about our writing and discovered that our intrepid band of eclectic authors had one thing in common: Not one of us was writing anything.

The reasons for the lack of productivity differed from person to person, but the result was the same. Writing may be a solo activity, but we needed those group meetings, the critiques and encouragement they provided, and the deadlines they imposed, in order to write. It’s hard to look your fellow authors in the face and say, “I didn’t get any writing done last month.” It’s a lot easier to say that in email.

I’ve fared a bit better with my writing since I started this blog in May. Writing about writing has made me want to write. (Who would have guessed?) And having actual people read my posts, follow my blog, and “like” the things I write each week, is really encouraging. All you readers out there are my heroes! I am now 10,000 words into the short story for the Haunted! anthology because of all of you. Thank you!

But I digress. About a week ago, Emerald Cove decided to try Zoom critique meetings. We’re still working out the details for how and when to exchange manuscripts, but our first Zoom meeting is set for next week. I’ll let you know how it goes.

-Susan 7/10/20

p.s. I think Denny’s may have reopened for dine-in service, but I’m not sure. Circumstances in Southern California keep changing day-to-day. However, even if it has, it is highly unlikely that Emerald Cove will be meeting in person any time soon. Several of our members are either in the age-range danger zone for COVID or are closely connected with people in that age-range. We’re not taking any chances.

A Firm Foothold in Unreality

The Watergate at Enniskillen Castle.

Why write fantasy stories? For me, there is an easy answer and a deeper answer.

The easy answer: writing them is fun.

Ever since I first read the Hobbit when I was 12, I’ve loved reading and writing fantasy. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed books in other genres, such as the Dick Francis horse racing mysteries and the Brother Cadfael books, but I always return to fantasy.

I’ve occasionally tried writing other types of books. I even had a professional book published. The book filled a gap in the existing books about the profession, and I got to work with some outstanding editors in the process of writing it. But writing it wasn’t fun.

The easy answer, however, is not really enough to address the question of why I write fantasy. On a deeper level, the genre fulfills a fundamental need for me. Life has always been more interesting when it is sprinkled with imagination. Castles, monsters, magic, and exotic locales are the spices that add a “larger than life” quality to the world. I used to joke that I got through college by keeping “a firm foothold in unreality.”

Of course, I keep the other foot rooted in the real world. Eating just spices instead of substantial food would not sustain anyone for long. I comply with all those activities required of a “grown up.” But the fantasy element adds excitement to the mundane and sparkle to the commonplace.

For example, I went to Enniskillen (see picture above) in 2019 for a “grown up” reason: to do genealogy research regarding my Irish (McCaffrey) ancestors. But while I was there, I made sure to tour the castle! Great fun!

Now that I think about it, maybe writing fantasy is in my blood. I am descended from McCaffreys, after all. — Just kidding! As far as I know, I have no direct relation to Anne McCaffrey. (But wouldn’t that be great if I did?)

-Susan 7/3/20

Can a Book be too Timely?

My new novel is a problem. It’s a fantasy novel. The first draft was pretty much finished by March, but it needs a major rewrite before it can see the light of day. I also need to do some historical research because one of the characters has a connection to the real world.

All of that should not be a problem, right? That’s what authors do all the time. A few months of solid work should do the trick.

So why is it a problem?

The story involves a plague. Blargh!! Could my timing be any worse?? I just spent three years writing a novel that no one will want to read. Even I don’t want to read it — the last thing I want to read right now is a fantasy novel about a pandemic.

And frankly, it’s also the last thing I want to write at the moment. I read and write fantasy to escape, but the novel hits too close to home. Just rereading it feels like a burden.

For now, I’ll stick with writing the Haunted anthology short story. Once John and I finish that…well, to quote Professor Tolkien, “Then we shall see what we shall see.” If this year has taught me nothing else, it has taught me not to get too locked into my future plans.

Talk to you next Friday. -Susan 6/26/20

When is an Hour Not an Hour?

A large part of 60th Hour involves time. The driving force behind the narrative is the countdown to the calendar’s end. In addition, much of daily life in the Kingdom of Kenarin involves time or timekeeping.

At some point during the worldbuilding for the story, the Kenarin day became 60 hours long. I cannot remember specifically when or why that happened, but it undoubtedly involved the symmetry with the other units of time. With 6 days in a week, 60 weeks in a year, 60 years in a cycle, and 60 cycles in the calendar, the number 24 just didn’t fit.

Of course, once the fantasy world has 60 hours in a day, that leads to next question: how does a 60-hour Kenarin day compare to one of ours in the real world? Is their day really long or are their hours really short?

Fortunately, 60th Hour was a fantasy novel, not science fiction. I didn’t have to worry about any of those pesky humans from Earth landing on my planet and comparing it to their home world. Therefore there was no need to determine the exact length of the Kenarin hour down to the micro-nanosecond. I just needed a general idea of an hour for timing the action of the story.

After consideration of the issue, I decided to keep the Kenarin day roughly the same length as ours. That meant each of those corresponding 60 hours had to be approximately 24 minutes in real world time. Likewise, each minute in Kenarin is roughly eqivalent to 24 seconds in our world.

So why, you might ask, did John and I decide to use the words “hours” and “minutes” for units of time that did not correspond to those same units in the real world? Why not just make up fantasy names for those units of time?

Two reasons. First, the story already had a lot of long and easily mixed up fantasy names and did not need additional ones, especially not about the critical timekeeping story element.

Second, do you remember the original Battlestar Galactica TV series? How long was a micron past a centon? Maybe you know. I don’t. At this point, I can’t even remember if the two terms measured time or distance.

And just how many parsecs does it take for the average smuggler to do the Kessel Run?

-Susan 6/19/2020

How the Countdown Began

El Castillo at Chichen Itza, Mexico

“CHICHEN ITZA IN 2012 – THE END OF THE WORLDCON”

That’s what the bid poster on the convention wall announced. The year was 1995, and John and I were on our honeymoon attending “Intersection,” the World Science Fiction Convention held in Glasgow, Scotland.

What? You didn’t plan your wedding date around Worldcon? Well, we did. We even went back to Scotland for our 10th anniversary in 2005.

But I digress. Back to the main topic of this week’s post. 1995 was an interesting year. When I grew up, the year 2000 was far ahead in the future. Back in the 1970’s, I remember my parents saying, “I don’t know if we’ll live to see the year 2000, but you kids probably will.”

Then suddenly it was 1995, and that upcoming year with a triple zero was looming practically right in front of us. In Ye Olde Times, the superstitious amongst us might have gone up to a hilltop to await the end of the world. However, we were sophisticated Twentieth Century people, completely unaffected by any fears that came with significant date changes.

Except for Y2K. Remember Y2K? It was that pesky little concern with double-digits that threatened to crash our planes and empty our bank accounts at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000. Looking back after 20 years, the whole thing seems rather amusing, but at the time, it added to our instinctive uneasiness about the upcoming new millenium. (And yes, I remember the debates about whether the new millennium started in 2000 or 2001.)

Which brings me back to the “bid” poster for Chichen Itza in 2012. For those of you unfamiliar with Worldcon, the location of the convention changes every year. Each year, different locations submit bids to hold a future convention. Because the selection between competing bids is made by vote, the bidding locations campaign with posters, room parties, give aways, etc.

Chichen Itza in 2012, of course, was a joke, playing on the end of the ancient Mayan calendar. With the year 2000 looming just ahead, the “End-of-the-Worldcon” at Chichen Itza in 2012 was especially funny.

I laughed when I saw the poster on the wall and then moved on to other parts of the convention, but the idea stayed in my mind. I began to speculate on what it might be like to live in a world where the calendar was ending, and you really didn’t know what was going to happen.

Those of you who have read 60th Hour probably know where I am going with this blog post. The idea sparked by that bid poster eventually led John and me to write a fantasy novel about a group of people who go up on a hilltop to await the end of the world. True, the novel contains a lot of other elements — magic, political intrigue, personal confrontation, etc. — but, at its heart, it began with that instinctive fear of the unknown future. What happens when the countdown toward the end of time begins, but no one knows how it ends?

So, that is the secret origin story for 60th Hour.

Susan 6/12/20

(As a footnote, I should mention that not only did my parents live to see the year 2000, but they are both still alive in 2020.)