My son started using a word — I don’t know if it came from school or the TV, but I think it’s a combination of friend and enemy. That’s what time is. We never know how much of it we have. I think the worst is when you see a deadline approaching, and no matter how fast you move to try and beat it, it won’t work. Two or three weeks ago, I learned about a contest that would be perfect for me. It’s the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Award. The prizes looked fabulous, or at least well-worth the $100 entry fee; and it just so happens I could squeeze that much out of the lemon that is my life right now. I knew my novel was ready — it was already renting its own apartment in the e-book world, and I was already working on a print version of my novella. So I started pushing hard on making a print version of my novel; a bound and finished copy is what is required to enter in the contest.
Here’s the deal. Anything you do at the early stages of your writing life can make or break your reputation. The people at Writer’s Digest know that. One of the things they look carefully at is how professional your work is. It doesn’t matter if your prose is brilliant and your grammar could write its own textbook; if the book looks sloppy, you look sloppy. They did allow any books published within the past five years or so to be eligible.
So here I was, trying to push my book through finishing school in record time. I am using CreateSpace for the printed copies: budget constraints, et al. I don’t know how many thousands of people they work with; they are part of Amazon. But it takes a certain number of hours to accomplish a task, even if it is mostly automated in their computers. And it takes a certain number of days to mail a physical object from one side of the country to the other. When you print a copy of your baby, it is old-fashioned. Things don’t update at internet speed. So you format your work to the best of your ability and submit it. Once they approve the format as usable, you need to order a proof copy and wait for it to arrive. Things that look perfect on a computer screen don’t always look perfect on a page. When you flip through a book, it’s easy to see any discrepancies, such as margins that don’t match from one chapter to the next, such as quotation marks that point the wrong way at the end of a cut-off conversation. I don’t know if I’m missing some hidden feature of Word, but I could only get the quote marks to do what I wanted them to do by changing dash marks to ellipses. I have learned a lot about the Ruler. The ruler tells each paragraph how much to indent the first line, for one thing.
Another thing I learned was to take a book published within the last several years — mostly Stephen King stuff in my case — and study the formatting used by the professionals. If you learned about paragraph indents of five spaces in school, that is no longer in ‘vogue.’ Now it’s about three. Margins are close to the edges, too close if you ask me. What if by some twist of fate a page becomes torn — say it isn’t so! You have just lost that many words, and if you are like me, things like that stick in your mind: the whole book is DAMAGED GOODS. The page numbers are at the top, the author is all caps on the left, the title is all caps on the right. If you are going with a full-service self-publisher, they may take care of all that for you. If you are on my budget, you have to take care of all those details yourself.
So the proof comes in and you start marking your changes and dog-earing the pages; both of which hurt my heart to do to a book. If your trusted friends have any kind of life at all, most of the work will fall on you; make sure you get everything right. When you’re done, you go back to your computer copy and make all the changes there. Save it as a pdf, and take the time to study every detail. Go through it fast and watch for formatting glitches. Go through it slow and watch for everything else. A missed Return at the end of a chapter will spread out a line until it reaches the right margin. Try it and see how retarded it looks just above that huge white space, just begging to be noticed.
Every time you make a change in your book, it has to go through the approval, proof printing, shipping, study process all over again. Once you approve the proof, it’s finished. I don’t want to make my first printed works anything less than my best effort. I already know I will miss the deadline for this contest, which is also tax-day. Rather unforgettable, isn’t it? Maybe it’ll happen next year. Maybe I can advertise effectively in the meantime, sell a million copies, and my book will speak for itself. Maybe pigs will fly out of my . . . umm, book.
Don’t ever give up.