Archives for December 2013

Best Books For Writers 2013

Just to be clear this is not my list of the best books for writers released in 2013. This is my list of the best books I read this year. Looking at the list I realise that I prefer technical books about methods and process, nuts and bolts, rather than motivational books and those that talk in terms of art. Please keep that in mind as you go through my choices. 

Sitting down to write this made me think about the way publishing has changed in the past few years. Even in the first decade of the 21st Century, a list of books released in a particular year was important because you might only have a short window of opportunity to get your hands on the book before it went out of print, was stripped and returned or otherwise vanished from the shelves of your local bookstore. It didn’t always happen but sometimes there was a good chance of it. In this, the Age of the E-book, it is easier to get your hands on most books.

Having said that, let’s lead off with the only one of my recommendations that is not available as a cheap e-book. Trial and Error by Jack Woodford is still my go-to book on the subject of writing as a career. Woodford wrote in the era of the pulps and the slicks but most all of his advice is still as relevant today as it was back in the 30s. Woodford made his living at the typewriter and the book is not only a fascinating insight into a bygone era, it is a manual for an age when pulp style productivity is coming back into fashion among writers. The book is funny, cynical and wise. I learned how to write novels from the chapter on the subject and I have pretty much followed his method exactly for all of the 30 books I have completed since. 

I first read 2000 to 10000 by Rachel Aaron last year but I re-read it a couple of times this year. To be perfectly honest, I don’t actually have much interest in writing 10000 words a day– I have built a career based on extreme laziness and writing 3000 words a day. Doing that regularly over the long term lets you build up a surprisingly huge backlist. Where Aaron’s book really scores is the advice on organisation and editing. The mechanical process of prepping to write 10000 words a day will serve you well at whatever length you want to write. Her advice on motivation is sound and her methods for revising are absolutely excellent. If you want to learn to use your writing time more efficiently, this is the book for you.

Next up Rock Your Plot by Cathy Yardley, quite simply the best book about how to plot a novel I have ever read. It is short. There is not a word wasted. The method described is not for everyone but it will work. You can tell this book was written by someone who had really wrestled with the process of plotting a genre novel efficiently. She is also someone that gets that outlines are not set in stone and sometimes plots need to change and evolve on the fly and she sets out excellent methods for dealing with this.

How to Format Your Novel For Kindle, Nook, the iBookstore, Smashwords and CreateSpace in One Afternoon  by Ed Ditto is a book I reviewed quite recently so for more details I shall simple point you in the direction of my previous post. If you are an indie author, a Mac owner and a Scrivener user you should own a copy of this book. If you are a Mac owner who wants to be an indie author get yourself a copy of Scrivener and this book and you will be all set to produce e-books in every format and print books too. That is all I am going to say on this subject.

I read Write, Publish, Repeat  by Sean Platt and Johnny B Truant last week on the recommendation of David Gaughran’s fine blog  I am glad I did. This is a handbook for survival in the indie publishing age. It deals with all the issues you are likely to encounter. It is superb on the subject of marketing and it is also very funny. 

While I am here I will give an honourable mention to David’s excellent Let’s Get Visible, an excellent primer on e-book marketing.

Anyway, that’s the list of books for writers I found most useful and entertaining this year. You should be able to pick all of them except the Woodford as a package for around 20 bucks.




White Screen of Death

My apologies to those of you who glanced at the blog yesterday and found only a blank white screen. You were encountering a fairly well known WordPress flaw colloquially known as the White Screen of Death. I was looking at it myself  in a lot more panicked way since my entire website seemed to have vaporised. 

How did this happen? Why was I panicking? Let’s deal with the second one first. I was panicking because  two and a half years worth of blog posts and comments along with various widgets I had hand-written had vanished into the ether and I had absolutely no idea what had happened to them. To add to my angst I thought I had compounded the disaster with a rookie error. 

How did it happen? When I logged into my WordPress dashboard yesterday I saw a notification stating there was an update available for Prose the child theme of the Genesis framework that gives this blog its rather fetching appearance. I was only half paying attention since I was looking at the baby as he played on the carpet in front of me. I toyed with backing up the site as is my usual practise before any update but then I thought hey, it’s only an update to a child theme, not even the framework, what could possibly go wrong? I hit the update, it unpacked and installed and everything seemed to go fine. Then I took a look at the site. Nothing, just a blank white screen. 

I tried typing the URL of the admin panel in. Nope. The site was stone dead. I tried looking at the site in a couple of different browsers just in case its a problem with Firefox. In a panic, I took a look at the update log sent to me by my site security plug-in and fired off a quick email to Studiopress, the providers of the Genesis framework.

I kept hitting refresh like a lab rat hitting a lever in search of a food pellet but nothing happened. It was not a temporary glitch and it didn’t resolve itself. Anyone looking at my site was seeing the same blank white screen as me. Unless they were using Chrome in which case they had the option of looking at error box telling them they were getting a type 500 server error.

I took the next obvious step and googled type 500 errors. I discovered rather unhelpfully that this is a generic error message that means the server is either incorrectly configured or undergoing maintenance. Initially my plan was to just wait for the Studiopress tech support people to get back to me which the support ticket said would happen within 48 hours, but the idea of having the site down for potentially a couple of days started niggling at me. I was googling this stuff anyway so I kept at it. I came across the inevitable references to the White Screen of Death and I came across a couple of solutions, the best of which was here.

Since I could not get to my admin panel, the only way in to my WP installation was through my web-hosting package. It involved renaming and deleting things on the server. This is not something I am normally all that keen on doing but what the hell I might soon be doing a total reinstall anyway.

I renamed the plug-ins folder and still the white screen was there so the problem was definitely not a rogue plug-in.

I made a duplicate of my themes folder on the server and then deleted the Prose theme. That brought the site back but without the theme (obviously). If you looked at the site yesterday and found yourself looking at very basic HTML with very plain links that would be about then. I restored the default 2010 theme and to my surprise discovered that all of my custom widgets, all of the comments and stuff were still there, even if the menus looked very strange. I switched to a very plain text theme where no widgets appeared but at least the site looked tidy. 

I thought about quitting while I was ahead but it struck me that the basic problem was solved. I decided I would download the latest version of the Prose Child Theme, install it and see what happened. I did and it worked and everything was back to normal. My guess is that the problem was not with the child theme itself, but with something that went wrong during the installation. A couple of hours after I put my ticket in Nick from Studiopress support got in touch. He’d taken a look at the site and noticed I seemed to have solved the problem. I was impressed by the swiftness of the response. 

So what did I learn? Well, let’s put the obvious thing first– always make a backup. Even though I have all the material for my blog posts on my client, I risked losing all of my reader comments since the last backup. That would have been annoying.

I also learned that WordPress is very robust and modular. Despite my theme problems, all the comments, widgets etc survived. 

I learned that StudioPress respond promptly to problems which might be useful in the future, if something of a more serious nature goes wrong, although it’s worth saying that this is the first problem I have had in two and a half years of using the Genesis Framework. 

I learned that Murphy’s law applies. The one time I don’t do a backup, disaster strikes.

The worst thing that happened is that I forgot to reactivate my plugins immediately and without Akismet to filter my spam, I got some junk comments. Under the circumstances, I can settle for that.

Anyway, everything seems fine now and I even got a blog post out of it. Hopefully it will be another two and half years before something else like this happens. Now if you will excuse me, I am off to backup the site. 

How to Format Your Novel For Kindle, Nook, the iBookstore, Smashwords and CreateSpace in One Afternoon

Way back in the summer on Kindleboards and in other places I kept reading about people laying out their print books for CreateSpace using Scrivener. Long term readers of this blog will know that I can’t praise Scrivener enough. It is the single best program for long form writing I know. Now it seemed Scrivener’s utility had expanded into an entirely new arena. I knew it could create ebooks easily and well, but print books? I have always used Word, or if the need arose, InDesign for that. 

Being the sort of man that I am, I thought I should investigate the possibilities. I set myself to writing a template that would automagically lay out my own indie books such as Stealer of Flesh. It took me three days but I managed it. By the end of that time, I had a template that I could load a Word file into and 10 minutes later have a print ready PDF. There were a few hiccups along the way, the usual problems that arise when you’re doing anything on a computer for the first time but I got it done.

I wish I had read indie writer Ed Ditto’s ebook, How to Format Your Novel For Kindle, Nook, the iBookstore, Smashwords and CreateSpace in One Afternoon, before I turned my hand to that project. It would have saved me an awful lot of time. That title is a bit of a mouthful and its a big claim. It’s also true.

Ed lays out everything you need to know not just about how to lay out print books but nicely formatted ebooks, and,hallelujah, a way to get a properly formatted file for uploading to Smashwords, including the annoying copyright declaration Smashwords insists on. Not only that, he shows you to do it all from one file, with the push of a button (well OK, the adjustment of a pulldown menu). That’s right, you can take your Scrivener file and within 5 minutes export a mobi file for Amazon, epub for the other retailers, a doc file for Smashwords and a properly formatted print PDF as well. He does this simply, clearly, in words a total novice can understand.

Granted you’ll need to put in a few hours of setup before Scrivener can work its compiling magic but once the grunt work is done you will have a template into which you can load all your future work, ready for export. That’s the afternoon Ed is talking about. Once the work is done, you’ll never need to do it again– barring awful hard-drive accidents. Put in that afternoon’s work and you can look forward to laying out all your indie writing projects in five to ten minutes flat for as long as you are a Scrivener user.

Does this mean you can run your workflow entirely within Scrivener from start to finish, from writing a manuscript to publishing a book? Well, yes and no. You could if you wanted to but only if you can convince any external editors you use to work on Scrivener as well. As usual, editing remains the final frontier for Scrivener users. You will still most likely have to use Word and its track changes function for editing. That said Scrivener can easily reimport Word files. With a couple of minutes of tidying stuff up you should be good to go. 

At the moment, Ed’s book only covers the Mac version of Scrivener and sadly he has recently announced that he won’t be doing a Windows version, but should you have a Mac and any interest in creating your own ebooks and print books, I can’t recommend How to Format Your Novel For Kindle, Nook, the iBookstore, Smashwords and CreateSpace in One Afternoon highly enough. You can find it on and

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