Friday, March 22, 2019

All 21 Marvel Movies According to Me

I grew up on Marvel comics. I was rabid collector for twenty-some years. Over time the price of comics steadily crept up in sync with the decline in story quality and I stopped collecting entirely sometime in the late 90s.

Which is why I LOVE Marvel Studios. They capture everything I loved about comics that the publisher has lost sight of. They are kid friendly and fun, but fully aware that it's grown-up True Believers who make up the core of their target audience.

Unlike those Zack Snyder atrocities over at DCE, Marvel movies focus on staying fun and entertaining, and yet they consistently (well mostly) balance this with a serious, grounded tone in (most of) their stories. Exactly like the comics of the bronze age, which were for kids, but never made you feel like you were reading a children's book.

If you want to get a sense of my philosophy as a storyteller, you needn't look much further than these movies.

Now that I've seen Captain Marvel, it seemed like a good excuse to look back through them and rank them with a fresh perspective.

A couple things to keep in mind...

I do not pretend to be objective about this list. Anyone who does is lying. This list is influenced by my philosophy on story structure, pacing, style, and very much on my own personal taste. I've always gravitated toward lower-to-non-powered heroes.

Also, this isn't necessarily a straight ranked list. First I grouped them. Those groups are fairly set in stone, but the actual order within each group are subject to change depending on my mood from day to day.

Except these top 4 which are actually ranked in order.

Best of the Best

These are the standouts of the franchise that either set or raised the bar.

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)  -- I gushed at some length when this one came out. It had the most solid story of the franchise, tons of geek out moments, perfectly paced action, awesome characters. It was everything I wanted out of a Cap movie. I especially loved how it tapped into a zeitgeist that appealed to my sensibilities, yet it did so in a way that fans did not complain about its politics. They were not smacked over the head with it because it fit seamlessly into the story.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) -- This film was nothing short of brilliant. Damn near flawless, and another that I gush over often. It's a case study in how to properly incorporate humor into a grounded, relatable story that doesn't come across as a gag fest. Not to mention how to make a fantastic space opera setting feel grounded and relatable.

3. Marvel's The Avengers (2012) -- After all these years and all these sequels, the first movie to bring the Avengers together remains one of the greatest superhero movies of all time. I even manage to forgive Joss Whedon for giving the bad guys at the end the Death Star syndrome to wrap up the big battle at the end. Great laughs, every character had a memorable moment, and a clean plot. It really was the total package.

4. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) -- I was so hesitant of this one at first. Spidey is near and dear to my heart, and I did not know what to make of all the changes they were making to him and to his supporting cast.

But dammit if this movie didn't perfectly capture the heart and soul of Peter Parker. I participate in social media groups populated by old curmudgeons who refuse to live in the now. They hate how this Spider-Man is basically Iron Man's plucky sidekick. And yet they ignore that it hits EVERY other note of the Lee-Ditko era of the comic.

This film had wit and charm and one hell of a villain. This places so close to the top of the list because it is another case study... How to properly modernize a character for a new generation without ruining him.

Awesome Flicks

While maybe not as stellar in my mind as the above, these are endlessly rewatchable.

5. Captain America: Civil War (2016) -- Very little to complain about here. It juggled a lot of plot elements really well and kept a solid pace. Great geek-out moments during the airport throwdown. Spider-Man's powers were wildly inconsistent, and they had to forget Vision was present during too much of the fight to allow Cap to get away. Zemo's plot was airtight until the end, when it suddenly relied on convenience. But the movie was such a fun ride until then, and Iron Man vs Cap was so cool, the sins are easy to forgive.

6. Black Panther (2018) -- A little too formulaic and way too over-hyped, but a fun ride. I enjoyed both of the movies that they mashed together to make this happen. Part 1, T'Challa as James Bond. And Part 2, the Lion King.

7. Avengers: Infinity War (2018) -- I am hard pressed to think of much to complain about in this movie. Tons of great performances. For such a dense script, it somehow managed to give every character at least one great moment. Probably the most well-told and epic story of the franchise overall. And what a cliffhanger. Steve Rogers should be a red stain on the grass after Thanos punched him at the end, though. Loses some points for being a bit bleaker than I've come to expect, so others get ranked higher just for being more fun. Of course the the comic was waaay darker.

8. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) -- Possibly the most underappreciated of the MCU. This and the first one had a great balance of humor, charm, and action packed sci-fi adventure. And Luis.

Still pretty damn good

These lost points for one reason or another. But I really enjoy them overall.

9. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) -- So you may notice the pattern that each category starts with Captain America. I pretty much use him as the benchmark for the rest. When First Avenger came out, I absolutely loved it, and still stop flipping channels when I find it's on. It slowly lost points as better paced sequels came out. The montage of Rogers as WWII mascot went on way too long and hence ground the film to a screeching halt. And there wasn't nearly enough of Cap vs Red Skull.

10. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) -- This might be the one I am most conflicted on. There is so much to love. Wanda and Pietro, Hawkeye's development, the into of the Vision, James Spader's deliciously insane portrayal of Ultron. But that's just it. There is too much. Too many plot elements crammed in made the pacing feel all kinds of awkward.

11. Captain Marvel (2019) -- The latest installment of the franchises lands firmly in the middle of the list. It was fun, action packed, with a tight story and great character moments. But at the same time suffered from some ridiculously lazy writing at times. The haters need to seriously get over themselves. Brie Larson was great, and helped salvaged what could have been a very mediocre film.

12. Thor (2011) -- Loved the opening sequences. Felt it was a decent story. Loved Loki, natch. Laughed through most of Thor being on Earth despite that part dragging out so long. Rolled my eyes at the bizarrely goofy portrayal of the Warriors Three on Earth. The end battle was decent but almost anticlimactic. I want to like it more than I do.

13. Ant-Man (2015) -- I know I ranked the sequel way higher and said how underappreciated this movie was. And I meant it. I thought this one was a lot of fun. They did some crazy creative things with his powers that you don't see in the comics that made it a pleasant surprise. But it loses points for having a painfully thin plot and a pretty lame villain that followed the formula of...

14. Iron Man (2008) -- Speaking of thin plots and lame villains. You'd think the one that started it all would be ranked way higher, but I just can't.

The first half with Tony in the cave building the first suit is stellar. Seeing him build the upgrades and going out on his first flight was pretty cool, too. But the trilogy suffers from some major problems. 1. Not enough superheroics in the armor and 2. Tony creates ALL of his own villains. That second one was a huge problem with Age of Ultron, too. Still, it's a fun enough ride that I can roll it.

15. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) -- When this one first came out, I was really harsh on it. A subsequent rewatch made me lighten up on it a lot, but not entirely. For all it's flaws (being insanely formulaic with too many forced gags instead of the natural humor of the first one)... this movie had heart. The underlying story about family was powerful enough to keep the whole thing tied together. And damn it's fun.

Decent to Okay

We're getting into shaky ground now. I still rewatch them.

16. Doctor Strange (2016) -- Awful pacing. He apparently becomes master of the mystic arts in a matter of what? Months? It loses huge points for being like 95% origin story. Awesome SFX and a cool villain, though.

17. The Incredible Hulk (2008) -- Yes, it had an embarrassingly thin plot. But Ed Norton was great in the role. What plot there was I thought was interesting. And that big brawl with Hulk and Abomination destroying Harlem was epic. C'mon. I don't know why I'm such a sucker for Hulk fights. I own Ang Lee's Hulk on DVD, but only for Hulk vs those gamma-dogs and the big Army chase across the desert. So I am kinder to it than most critics.

Meh

I don't outright hate them.

18. Thor: Ragnarok (2017) -- There are times when I have said outright that I hate this movie. The gags were so effing forced they were painful. But Cate Blanchett was incredible. I loved the battle on the rainbow bridge. And I could not help but chuckle at many of the Hulk moments, almost despite myself.

19. Iron Man 2 (2010) -- This turned out to be the most disappointing series of the franchise. There is just nothing special about this particular installment. I loved the recasting of Rhodey. And I started to love Michey Rourke as Whiplash. But then it dragged on. And on. And on. And... zzzzzz... Then the big battle at the end happened and it was over.

And where the hell is my Black Widow movie!?


Worst of the Worst

I can say nothing polite about these.

20. Thor: The Dark World (2013) -- Stupid. Contrived. Boring. Forced humor. It was so empty I can't even remember enough about it to specifically criticize. Oh... that gag with taking the train back to the fight when he lost his hammer. GAH!!  Okay now I'm pissed off at having lost 2 hours of my life again.

21. Iron Man 3 (2013) -- Remember the problems established by the first installment? Not enough superheroics. Check. And it's now gotten beyond tiring that Tony literally creates all of his own enemies. Not only that, but this time they even teased that we were finally get Iron Man's greatest foe from the comics. And that turns out to be a slap in the face. Then what happened to Pepper was beyond contrived. Absolute trash.

And yet, Robert Downey Jr is one of the best parts of the franchise in every other film he's in. I'm really looking forward to Endgame, and I'm kinda bummed that he's retiring the role.

Thinking I'll do this same treatment to the Marvel Netflix shows.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

How To Be An Author

A guy walked up to me at my booth at Comic-Con one year. He asked if he could take a look at my comic, so I said handed him one. He looked at it with awe and wonder, then looked up at me and asked, "How do you do..." The word hung for a few seconds as he waved his hand over my book and finally said, "... this."

I'm sure every writer reading this has been asked "How do you come up with your ideas?" or "How do you sell your books?" But never did I imagine someone who had so little of a clue as to not even know how to ask the question. I could tell he was eager and wanted to create comics, but he didn't even know even one of the steps involved in "...this."

Maybe he thought he could ask the question because I wasn't known. I was a normal guy just like him. And yet I apparently had this magical power he wanted to understand.

In my last post I mentioned that, despite so many false starts, I'd been holding onto the winning strategy all along. But before I get into specifics of writing and marketing books, there's a different strategy that a lot of aspiring creators need to apply first.

It involves changing your mindset.


This entry is for people who think they want to __________, but struggle like I have. Fill in your own blank. Because regardless of what you really want to do in life, it likely involves a huge change in mindset to get our of your comfort zone and go from dreaming to chasing that dream.

There are 7 "steps" to achieving success. They are not easy steps. And the real trick is in order to truly understand them, don't think of them as a sequential list. They all revolve around and connect back with each other.

If you're a self-help junkie seeking the secret magic bullet to success, these may sound like the same platitudes you've come across a million times. The thing is... they're all true. But like all things, you can't just acknowledge them in your head. You have to believe them in your gut.

What made these "steps" finally click came from talking to a number of successful pros, and studying successful people. They all had different paths, but every single one of them has these 7 elements in common in their stories.

#1 Define Success - First you have to visualize it. Not in abstract, but in concrete terms. What does it look like? What does it sound like? What does it smell like?

What you tell yourself is what you will achieve. If you don't think you're good enough, you won't be. If you think that all you'll get out of your hard work is failure, you're right. If you think what you really want out of life is nothing but a pipe dream, it is.


#2 Have A Strategy - I've managed projects in my day job, so I can attest to the power of having a solid project plan at the outset. Nothing motivates an engineer better than a hard deadline with consequences for missing it. The idea doesn't just apply to IT and business. You need to handle your life like you would a business if you want a return on your investment.

The difference between goals and dreams is a timetable. Set a plan to keep focused. Break your goals down into measurable benchmarks and deadlines.

But just as a goal is near impossible to reach without a project plan, a plan is not worth much without an end state goal. You have to know what you are working for. Always keep that north star in sight and make sure your plan is moving toward it.


#3 Turn Intention into Attention - This one is probably the hardest. They call them comfort zones for a reason. This requires a conscience decision to stop dreaming and start doing. This is what the old saying about the road to Hell means. All the good intentions in the world mean squat if you don't act on them.

No more some-days. No more maybes. Do not accept any more excuses. Never quit.  Make every decision like your life depended on it. Because in a way it does.

One way to stay motivated is to learn to recognize little successes. When you hit one of your little benchmarks in your plan from #2, celebrate it. No step forward is too small.


#4 Take Risks - For some this may be just as hard. Part of making that decision to take deliberate steps forward involves overcoming fear. Believe it or not, fear of success is stronger than fear of failure.

But therein lies the rub. Because there WILL be failure on your journey.  You need to understand and accept that up front. And when failure comes, don't dwell on it. Own it and move on.

Not one single success story came without failure. Without risk there is no reward. Another of my favorite Rocky quotes is, "Every champion was once a contender who refused to give up."


#5 Deal with Reality - This one may seem contradictory. Just because you think you want something doesn't mean it will happen.

On one hand, I loathe the the old parental axiom, "Not everyone gets to be an astronaut." I hate the idea of telling a kid what they can't be. But the statement itself is not untrue.

If the thing you defined back in #1 isn't happening the way you think it should be, then you have to make an adjustment to either your expectations or to your project plan.

Don't live in denial. Don't delude yourself. Understand and accept your limitations--differentiating between an actual limitation and your own imaginary ones. Admit when something isn't working. But don't stop there! Course correct. Take a good hard look at your expectations and your plan and make changes where needed. The trick, though, as I said above is to not dwell on it. Stick with point #3 and keep moving forward. Learn and adapt.


The flipside of this is do not have any expectations of a fast track. There is no magic bullet. Like I said, these are not easy steps.

Nothing worth having comes without hard work. LOTS of hard work.

The rest of the line from this epic scene in Pursuit of Happyness is...

"You got a dream? You gotta protect it. People can't do something themsleves, they want to tell you you can't do it. If you want something, go get it. Period."

Which takes us to...

#6 Network - Another huge lesson that Chris Gardner learned is that NO ONE succeeds alone. When you need help, ask for it. Surround yourselves with encouraging, like minded people who share your passion and support them as much as they will support you.

Part of this process is get rid of toxic people from your orbit. This may include purging yourself of toxic voices in your own head that likely sound like people from your past. Are they holding you back, keeping you mired in regret and inaction? Get rid of them. Or at the very least, marginalize them so they don't have so much influence over you.


#7 Find Your Passion - This may sound weird as the "last" step. Wasn't your passion what you defined at the outset?  Yes and no. This is more about defining your motivation to maintain your passion.

Do you really want something? I mean really want it in your bones? Then don't half ass it. Stay focused on it. Define what your motivation is for WHY you want it.

Always maintain a positive mental attitude about it. The only way you will be able to stick to your plan and pick yourself back up when you trip over one of those hurdles is to stay excited about what you are trying to achieve.
...

Now... I am writing this as someone who, to date, has done everything wrong.

I thought I had my vision of success defined pretty well, but not really. And I got stuck there. I meandered about it without a project plan. Being honest with myself, I half-assed a lot of it. I always thought of it in terms of some day. I had every good intention without taking tangible action. I didn't take many risks, at least not on the right things. Because I held onto unrealistic expectations of myself and how the business worked.

And when I did take big risks and fell on my face, I wasted more time than I want to admit dwelling on them. I wouldn't let go of unrealistic expectations. I wouldn't give myself enough credit for the small victories. I alienated myself from more than one network. I lost my passion. And I definitely didn't maintain a positive mental attitude through most of it.

I used to think that I was incapable of doing any of the things named above, mainly because I suffer from crippling social anxiety. I am no salesman.

But can you guess what was another thing that damn near every single working self-publisher I talked to had in common? They all considered themselves (either currently or in their past) to be socially awkward and shy.

Meaning that was just another excuse I was leaning on to hold myself back.

I know I'm a good writer. I've had enough qualified people throughout my life tell me as much, so I know I'm not kidding myself. I have studied my craft. I have applied feedback to improve. In 2014 I was nominated by the New Pulp Awards for Best New Writer. I got 3 novellas published. I taught myself how to produce my own book and published it myself.

If I don't say so myself, it's damn good. I don't consider myself a great literary wordsmith. I tell stories. And they are all stories that I think will resonate as they entertain.

I write because I have to. I write because my story ideas consume me and demand to be shared. And I write because I want to live comfortably in my eventual retirement. My stretch goal is to be able to leave my day-job-career early and write full time.

Next up, I'll get into the details of what it will take to get there.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Turn the page...

I recently saw a 2012 movie on Amazon Prime called The Words. It was a brilliant film about a writer, who wrote a story about a writer, who wrote a story about a writer. It's pretty meta.

Beyond great performances from a top notch cast, it had several powerful themes masterfully woven through the story.

The plot gets rolling when aspiring author Rory (Bradley Cooper) finds an old unpublished manuscript. Upon reading it, he is thrown into a deep depression. Because no matter how much he's been trying to convince himself otherwise his entire life, he knows he will never be as good as the man who wrote those words on those dusty pages. He feels like a fraud.

What writer hasn't had that existential crisis?

At one point Rory tells his wife (Zoe Saldana) "I'm not the person I think I am. And I'm terrified I never will be." That scene hit me like a gut punch.

I won't spoil any more if you haven't seen it. Suffice to say it's amazing.

In the weeks since, I've been seriously introspective.

As of this post, it's been one year and seven months since I published my first novel. It's been one year and five months since my last update on this blog, and the posts to my Facebook Author page are painfully few and far between.

I could go into the laundry list of excuses for why that is, but that's not what this is about. I've thrown one too many pity parties for my liking. And therein lies the whole problem.

Not putting out regular updates is precisely how you keep people from caring about you. It's rule #1 in virtually every author-brand marketing advice page you will find. There is no excuse. It's a pattern I have to break if I expect anyone outside my family and one good friend to ever read my books.

Thing is, the pattern goes back a looong way. The truth is, Prodigal traces back to a manuscript written in pencil on a notepad when I was twelve years old. Somewhere in my garage I have a junior high yearbook that says I want to be a writer under my picture.

My first piece of fiction that someone else other than myself read was a high fantasy short story about a barbarian warrior and a thief who broke into an evil wizard's castle. My teacher's praise was the first real encouragement to keep writing that I can remember. It was the first that stuck with me at least.

She liked it so much she wanted to publish it in the school paper. I was so embarrassed I said no.

My next finished piece of fiction was set in a post Apocalyptic world about a wizard and a cyborg soldier who free a town from bandits. Again it was for a creative writing assignment, this time in college. Again, the teacher gushed. She wanted to introduce me to a friend of hers about getting published.

Again, I was so embarrassed of my hack work I said no.

See the pattern? Are you maybe all too familiar with it yourself?

Later in college, I thought I had honed my craft enough to start taking this writing thing seriously. Sticking with my roots as a D&D player whose earliest inspiration was CS Lewis, I dove into the high fantasy genre.

Then I read R.A. Salvatore. Then I read Ed Greenwood. I was Rory reading those dusty pages. I was a fraud.

Being as objective as I can get... my attempt at period dialogue really was kind of painful. I just had not found my voice yet, and I clearly had a lot to learn. But that's not how I dealt with it at the time.

Fast forward roughly a decade and I'm all about comics. I read as much about comic script writing as I could. Over the next five or six years I would make three attempts at publishing, once with collaborators, and under two labels as a self publisher.

My work got reviewed in three places. One LOVED it (God bless you, Corrina Lawson). One was lukewarm. One passionately despised my writing and our art. I suspect he didn't actually read the book he was trashing.

Long story short, I quit the collaboration, and my solo ventures tanked. Despite what I had considered a ton of heart and hard work in production, sales were dismal We had great reaction at conventions. More than once someone who had bought a copy on Friday came back to the table on Sunday to tell me how much they loved it.

I think 7 or 800 people or in total read all of my comics combined. The funds ran dry and I went back to my cubicle.

Then I started Haven Distributors. That lasted four years, as some may remember.

I did manage to put out a handful of novellas over the next few years. Again, frighteningly few and far between. And again, sales have been, well... not great.

To those still reading (thank you!)... I'm writing all this to get it out of my system. It's "dear diary" (and for the benefit of many out there who I suspect can relate to what I've put myself through).

The objective is to read this post a year from today. In February 2020, I'll either still be bitching about my failures to an audience of one, or... Well I'm still trying to define what that goal looks like.

After talking to and reading up on a bunch of successful pros, it turns out that I've been holding onto the winning strategy for a long time now. On paper. I just haven't been able to get out of my own way to execute it.

I'll wager there are a ton of similar journeys out there. Do you wonder why you're not selling as many books as you think you should be (or any!?).

Have you looked in the mirror?

(to be continued...)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Vote for PRODIGAL for Cover of the Month

So a few weeks back I was approached to enter the cover of Prodigal in a monthly contest at AllAuthor.com. It IS gorgeous ain't it?

I've been a bit of a dark horse in the competition, shooting from near the bottom of the list to #15.

The cover needs to be in the top 12 to make it to the final week. The top 3 win and get some free promotion.

I could use all the votes and signal boosting I can get to stay in this. If I rack up enough of a following, I'll start using that site for more promotions and a newsletter.

Show your support here... https://allauthor.com/cover-of-the-month/924/

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

How To Format Your Self-Published Book

So you've finished editing your novel. Now you want to format it for both e-book and paperback distribution. Read on, my self-reliant friend.

There is a metric megaton of guides on the interwebs for how to format. I've compiled the useful advice I found along with injections of my own experience for my own benefit as much as anyone who stumbles upon this.

I went into this with every intention of presenting a simple straight list of steps to follow because so many of these guides seem overwhelming. The thing is... while formatting does take a keen eye for detail and above average patience, it's really not THAT hard. You just have to understand some basic concepts of using styles.

The one simplified list I did find only confused me even more until I found out why they did things the way they did. There are no shortcuts, kids. Sorry. You want to do it quick or you want to do it right?

Here's the breakdown...

Step 1: Clean the Slate
Step 2: Format Your Pages (Print book only)
Step 3: Format Your Paragraphs
Step 4: Format Your Chapter Headings
Step 5: Format Your Scene Breaks (if you have any)
Step 6: Format Your Front and Back Matter
Step 7: Format Your Page Numbers (Print book only)
Step 8: Proof, Revise, Rinse, Repeat
Step 9: Navigation (E-Book only)

It might seem like a lot, but once you do it the first time and you understand why you're doing it, every other time will take like 20 minutes (except probably step 8).

And if you think this post is long, try reading the Smashwords Style Guide. OMFG!

Before you dive in...

There are couple things I should probably mention up front.

Use Microsoft Word

There's a lot of hate out there for MS Word. Trust me I get it. There are better programs out there. But it's what the industry uses. As much as I wish they'd come to their collective senses and use Open Office, they don't. 

You just have to learn how to make Word behave, which I'll help you do. My screen shots are from Word 2010. All of the features are available in previous versions, just located in a different tab or menu.

If you are really that dead set against kissing Bill Gates' ring, everything I spell out here CAN be done in other programs, too. I have to leave it to you to figure out where those menus are exactly. Just keep in mind that .doc or .docx are the only formats many places will even accept. And I learned the hard way that saving in this format using other programs is not always reliable.

Important caveat: Smashwords only accepts files in .doc format (not docx). So you have to save as type "Word 97-2003" first.

Now if you only get one thing out of this post, make it this...

This linefeed screwed up
ALL of my front matter pages.

Everything is a STYLE

This is the key to everything, regardless of your software.

The concept primarily applies to e-books, but stray code artifacts and improper font and alignment changes could mess up the PDF conversion step for print books, too. 

Bottom line: Never use the little formatting drop-downs in the tool bar to manually add or remove an indent, or change alignment or the font. That overrides the style, which causes the conversion program to spit out garbage.

It IS okay to use the Bold, Italic, and Underline buttons, though. It's just the bigger changes that can cause screw ups.

What I do is make a bunch of standard styles up front and apply them when needed. Use the Manage Styles menu to set the Paragraph and Font settings for every section of the book.

In a fiction book, there really aren't that many...
  • Normal... 90% of your book (DON'T use Body Text. Just trust me)
  • Chapter Headings
  • Scene Break
  • Scene Start
There are more when you get into the Front and Back Matter, but we'll put a pin in that for now.

Note that Paragraph indents, alignment, and Font settings are really the ONLY things that should be changing. There's no need to mess with the rest once you do it at the beginning.

Oh, and, uh...


... well, two more things.

Pre-Formatting Decisions

Choose Your Trim Size (Print book only)

There are a bunch of different industry standard trim sizes. Most sites put 6"x9" as the default because it's considered "universal" but it's not. There are a ton of considerations, depending on the kind of book you are producing.

IMHO, 6"x9" looks amateur. Unless it's a comic book or non-fiction. 5"x8" seems to be popular, but I don't understand why. 

5.25"x8" is the same aspect ratio as a mass-market paperback. It feels more like a traditional book in your hand, even if it's a little bigger. And that extra quarter inch is nice for saving your page count, which helps with your print costs (and thus royalties).

It's also the most common suggestion for fiction books on every blog and article I checked.

A Note About E-Book Covers

The recommended size for e-books by KDP is at 2560x1600. That is a 1:6 aspect ratio, which is really close to the print trim size including .25" bleed. So resizing that for your digital edition is easy.

Just to be confusing... The Internet has mysteriously declared that the size that covers should be displayed at is 1:5:1 (2500x1707). So if you take your gorgeous 1:6:1 cover that you uploaded to KDP, and try to upload it to a promotion site, it will insist on cropping it.

Keep this in mind as it may mean designing 2 covers, depending on how much of a perfectionist you are. Then if you want an audio book, that will be 1:1, which will end up looking completely different.

So bottom line: Keep your original PSD files.

Choose Your Font

If you are only publishing an e-book, you may not think you need to sweat this. Kindles just ignore font and default to Georgia (or whatever the user sets). Other e-readers let users change font, too, so why bother?  Because EPUB format uses embedded fonts and you don't want to punish those readers with a default like TNR 12 or Calibri 11.

There are thirty-three quadrillion suggestions on the best font for your book (I counted). For fiction thrillers, the one that kept coming up over and over was Garamond. It comes with any PC that has Office installed on it, even if you're not using it.

Beware knock-off fonts, though. I found out the hard way that free fonts named "Garamond" will not render the same as the actual Microsoft TTF file. If you don't use Word, there are many variations of Garamond you can pick from.

If you're in another genre, well... I wish I knew what to tell you. Georgia seems the next most popular. There are people far more educated on the subject than I who can give advice. 

The consensus that I came away with was don't get too fancy.

As for the size... remember that what you are seeing on the screen will look different on a physical page. When you are working on it, you may think you'll need to use 12pt to be as readable as the manuscript.  Don't. Unless your target market is the elderly or you're going with a larger trim size, then okay. With good line spacing (which I mention in step 4), 11pt is fine for a paperback. Maybe even 10 depending on the font.

Okay NOW here are the steps...

Step 1: Clean the Slate

If you are producing both a print book and an e-book edition, what I would do is format the print book first (you'll understand why later), then go back to the beginning and either modify what you did for digital, or more ideally create it from the ground up.

The reason is because your e-book upload needs to be free of ALL hidden code that might corrupt the conversion process. Working in an existing Word doc where changes to fonts, styles, indents, centering, etc have already been done runs the risk of leaving unwanted code fragments behind.

FIRST: Nuke the whole site from orbit

It's the only way to be sure. 

Smashwords does seriously call this the "nuclear option" which makes sense as an analogy on two levels if you think of all those pesky code fragments as aliens.

To wipe all formatting from the old copy of your file and start from scratch...

WARNING: This will eliminate all italics. So if you used any in the body of your work, you'll have to manually put them back in if you go this route (which, honestly, you still should).

This is how the e-book converter sees manually inserted
formatting changes
1. Save a backup copy!!
2. Open Notepad
3. Ctrl-A (select-all) from the OLD Word doc
4. Ctrl-C (Copy)
5. Paste into Notepad
6. Ctrl-A
7. Ctrl-C
8. Open a NEW blank Word doc
9. Ctrl-V (Paste)
10. Save!!

It should also go without saying that if you are doing both print and e-book, you keep one file for the printed format, and a separate file for your digital (I ended up with 3 files, because my Smashwords edition has an ISBN and a link to my Smashwords.com profile, which you don't want in the KDP edition).

SECOND: Sweep for common editing errors 

Like cockroaches, even a nuke won't smite everything. Hopefully you caught all these in your editing, but just in case you didn't...

Click on the Show/Hide button (the little backwards P)

This lets you see all of the Paragraph markers, which is invaluable. You'll probably want to leave it on for the whole process.

Now...

1. Go to Find and Replace (ctrl-H, or click the dropdown on the Search bar).

Click More>>

Click Special -- Each of these special characters has a code that you can type in such as ^p if you are already familiar with them.

Replace ALL of the following...

  • (spacebar)(spacebar) => (spacebar)
  • Paragraph Mark(spacebar) => Paragraph Mark
  • -- (double hyphen) => Em dash
  • Tab Character => (blank)

2. Word sometimes gets confused with the curly quote at the end of sentences with dashes (which I use a lot because my characters are constantly interrupting each other.  There is no good way to Replace-All with those. Instead, do an Advanced Find on Em dash" and also on --" to locate and delete any quotes turned the wrong way. The trick to getting them to curl the right way is to...
  • Insert any letter after the dash
  • Type your end quote
  • Delete the letter
3. You may want to also manually scroll through to spot check for code. Keep an eye out for errant alignment changes or wacky code inserts. If you see a weird square on your page, kill it with fire.

4. At this point, you can go back through and do an Advanced Find to look for all Italics (using the Format button) in your original manuscript and put them back in on your formatted file. But personally I'd do that in the proof step at the end, since that can be tedious if you use them as much as I do (blame my start as a comic book guy).

Okay, so if you are only doing an e-book, skip to Step 3. Otherwise...

Step 2: Format Your Pages (Print book only)

This is a one-time setup for your paperback. E-books should only use the universal default of 8.5x11 paper with 1" margins all around.

1. SELECT ALL

2. Go into Page Settings and adjust the following,,,

Margins Tab: Set Top, Bottom, Inside, Outside, Gutter to your preference

Multiple Pages: "Mirror Margins"

What those margin widths should be depends on the trim size and how many pages are in your book. For a standard 5.25"x8", setting Top, Bottom, and Inside to .75 is comfortable on the eyes. The outside margin can be a little shorter, but no less than .5.

What's a Gutter?

Glad you asked. That's the area of the inside fold when you open up the book. You need to add extra padding in there so your print doesn't fade into the dark recesses of the spine.

How big should it be? No one seems to know. Not a lot. An extra 0.1" up to 0.15" depending on how thick the book will be (# of pages + weight of the paper).

For my 384 page book with cream paper, I set it to .14. That's a hair more than a lot of books, but it made my proof copy much easier to read. My father, who was a printer for 35 years, agreed.

Yes you can set Gutter to 0 and Inside to the full width if that's easier for you to wrap your head around.

Other important settings...

Page Tab: Paper Height and Width to match your trim size.

Layout Tab: Section Start = New Page

Header and Footer:  At most, 0.5" from the edge. Otherwise you are cheating yourself out of space for the main body. But at least .25" away to keep it from getting cut off during the printing process (and from making the page look off balance and cluttered).

Step 3: Format Your Paragraphs

Your primary goal in formatting is to make the book easy to read and comfortable on the eyes. That basically means square margins and good use of whitespace.

This is where you create your Styles, or at least your Normal style.
  1. Open the Styles Manager
  2. Click on the dropdown after Normal
  3. Modify
**Remember this menu for creating your other styles later.**

Go into Paragraph Settings in the Modify Style dialog box (click the Format button at the bottom) and adjust the following...

Alignment: JUSTIFIED (don't argue!)

Indentation/Special: First Line = 0.25" (I used 0.2 for the paperback to fit more words per page, but that looked barely indented on an e-reader, so I suggest the standard .25 for digital)

Line Spacing: 
  • PRINT: Multiple @ 1.15
  • E-BOOK: Single
  • BOTH: Before = 0, After = 0
  • "Don't add space between paragraphs" = Checked
In e-books, getting fancy will only screw up the conversion process. Keep it simple. The "At" field must be blank or weirdness will ensue. The e-reader makes these kinds of decisions.

For print books, there is some debate on line spacing. The smaller your font and trim, the more space between lines you will want. Single space looks way too noisy. Line spacing at 1.5 is way too big. Setting it at 1.2 is most popular. I went with 1.15 to save on page count as much as I could.

There is no debate over using indented paragraphs with no space between them for fiction, though. Block paragraphs with space between like you see on this blog is only for the internet, textbooks, and some nonfiction.

Oh yeah. The most important setting...

Widow/Orphan control: UNCHECKED

This feature might come in handy on a manuscript. But a professional looking book must have consistent bottom margins. 

"But Lance, now I've got all these ugly stray lines at the bot--"  I KNOW. I'm going to come back to this. Just trust me and uncheck the box. Get the nuts and bolts done first, then come back and clean it up.

Now at this point, your entire document should update to those settings. At least it SHOULD have defaulted to Normal when you pasted everything in. If it did not, or if you did not start with the nuclear option (why?), then...
  1. SELECT ALL
  2. Apply Normal (using the Quick Styles at the top, or the Styles list).
Now let's make it pretty.

Step 4: Format Your Chapter Headings

There are very different approaches to this part for paperbacks and e-books.

Paperbacks

There are 3 fundamental rules for Chapter Headings in a printed book.

1. New chapters begin roughly 1/3 the way down from the top of the page.
2. The first line of each new chapter should be flush left (not indented)
3. New chapters begin on an ODD numbered (right-hand) page

The first rule is easy to follow. When you create modify your style, click the Format button and select Paragraph. In that next window (same one where you set the Normal style), change these settings...

Alignment: Left
Indentation/Special: (none)
Spacing:
-- Before: 96 pt
-- After: 12 pt

Those numbers are just a guide to get 1/3 of the way down an 8" page, and may need to be tweaked for your font.

Remember your bottom margin should always be level on EVERY page. So you may need slightly less padding before and/or after the heading.

There are thousands of possibilities for what your chapter headings can look like. I've seen books that put them left, right, and center, higher, lower, slightly grayed out, bolder, italicized, plain text, different font, whatever. Then of course there are books that fill the top third of the page with some nifty quote. Knock yourself out.

Anyway, check the box to make it a Quick Style. That way it will remain in your toolbar, so applying it is easy.

The second rule is just as easy, now that you are using Styles instead of trying to manually change each paragraph.

Create a unique style called Chapter Start or Scene Start. Base it on Normal, but with Indentation/Special set to (none).

Make it a quick style, and apply it to the first paragraph of each chapter.

The third rule gets into the wizardry of Sections.

You want your reader to see the opening of a new chapter facing them from their right when they turn the page. Leaf through any professionally printed book if you don't believe me.

"But my chapters don't all magically end on even-numbered pages of your manuscript," you say? No problem. You just do ctrl-return to create a blank page right?

No, you don't want to do that. It will make setting page numbers a royal pain, and where your chapters end may end up changing if you do any more edits (which you will, see step 8).

Most Word users understand the idea of Sections, but none of them seem to know about this awesome trick.

1. Go to Page Layout
2. Click on the Breaks dropdown
3. DON'T click on Page
4. DON'T click on Next Page
5. Keep looking down.
6. Yeah... There ya go. Click on Odd page.

Now your chapter will land on the next odd numbered page following the end of the previous section without needing to add a bunch of extra breaks to force a blank page between chapters.

You're welcome.

Update: Word 2013 does something goofy with chapter headings that follow section breaks. After giving up on trying to figure out why, I created a style called Chapter Odd Page with an extra 10 points above the paragraph for those weird times when the chapter heading was too high for some reason.

E-Books

Okay, so assuming you haven't been skipping the print-only sections... you need to strip out all of those nifty odd-page section breaks. Remember, manual alterations to anything will leave hidden code that will make your file choke during conversion. This is why you need to go back and start over with a blank slate if you formatted a print edition.

So skip ahead and finish your paperback before doing this part. I'll wait.

Back? Okay.

The first step is easy. Create a style called Chapter, like I outlined in The first rule above. Note that the font choices and spacing above the text will only really show up properly in EPUB, not on the Kindle, but that's no big deal. The heading will still show up larger than the text and be bold or italicized, which is enough.

Keep in mind: DO NOT use multiple linefeeds to try to force the Chapter Heading to start somewhere down the page. Every e-book format will get confused and either strip them, or insert an unwanted blank page. For the last time... EVERYTHING is a style.

Now for the fancy part.

In the virtual world of digital e-books, there is no page.

EPUB will, in fact, strip out all page breaks entirely. But Kindles and Nooks simulate page turns.

So you still want to make it so your chapters start on a new "page" (swipe-right) to give them the illusion of reading an actual book like they expect.

Here's how you do it...

1. Create a new style called New Page or Chapter Page
  • Click Format / Paragraph
  • Go to Line and Page Breaks tab
  • Check "Page break before"
2. Enter a blank line ABOVE your chapter heading

3. Apply your style to it.

4. Apply your Chapter style to the actual line with Chapter # on it (after you remove the Page break before checkbox if needed)

I do this on the line ABOVE the chapter heading because of a weird quirk I discovered about navigation on Kindle, which I'll explain down in the last step at the end.

For now, just trust me.

Step 5: Format Your Scene Breaks (if you have any)

Most novels, especially thrillers, utilize scene breaks within a chapter to designate a shift in perspective or a time jump. In my case, I go all Inception and needed two different kind of scene breaks for my flashbacks and dream sequences.

There are a few conventions that often used.

1. Centered *** or ~*~
2. A blank line between paragraphs (assuming all other paragraphs are indented with no space between).

The first way is the clearest way to do a break. But be aware of the spacing you put above and below the characters. Too little will make the break look noisy. Too much could screw up your bottom margin.

Once you have the idea of setting Styles down, this is easy.

You can now either use Advanced Find and apply your new style to it, or use Replace / Format / Style to apply it to every *** in your doc at once.

The second way is much easier to implement, but it is potentially confusing to a reader if you end up with a blank line at the top or bottom of your page.

In my writing, I use the first for major scene shifts, and the second for minor jumps within a dream or flashback.

In either case, the FIRST paragraph following the break should be flush left. No indent. Use the Scene Start style you created in Step 4 or make a special style for it now...

1. Modify Style / Format / Paragraph
2. Name: Scene Start
3. Indentation / Special: (none)

Doing this is a time honored convention that helps the text flow. The purpose of the indent is to indicate a pause, so when there is a clear blank line above the paragraph, there is no need for that pause. It's also an additional signal to the reader.

One old school convention uses small caps for the first line or first few words of the first line. When I say old school, I mean the convention began with the first words ever printed by a typesetter, IN THE BEGINNING. Hope that tidbit helps in your next round of Trivial Pursuit.

I'm not a fan of it, but if you like that style, knock yourself out.

You'll have to edit every paragraph at the start of a chapter or scene break manually, but the good news is it's another case where you can highlight the text you want to tweak, right click, and choose Font to make the change. No style needed (besides the style to make it flush-left of course).

And that's it!

See? That wasn't as hard as you thought. Your book looks beautiful. We're done, right?


Step 6: Format Your Front and Back Matter

As you can probably deduce, Front and Back Matter is the stuff you put in the front of and back of your book. Every professionally published book has it. It typically includes...
  • Title Page
  • Copyright and Legal disclaimer
  • Published By and ISBN
  • Acknowledgements and Dedication
  • Other Books By You
  • Sneak peek or sample chapter of your next book
  • About the Author
The last two items almost always go in the back. A list of your other books sometimes goes up front, but keep in mind that in e-books, the front matter is often skipped. The title page, copyright, published by, ISBN, acknowledgements and dedication are always in front. It's still required to be there to be included in Smashword's premium catalog, but may never actually ever be read.

Just look at other books by major publishers to get an idea of what those pages should look like. For the purposes of formatting them, you basically need a few more custom styles.

Suggestions...
  1. MAIN TITLE -- 36 pt font, centered
  2. Main Subtitle -- 12 pt font, italics, centered (for the slug line under your title)
  3. Author Name -- 18 pt font, centered 
  4. Front Matter Header -- 14 pt font, bold centered
    -- Format / Paragraph: Check "Page break before"
  5. Front Matter Body -- 11 pt font, centered
You get the idea. Note that the Front Page Header, which needs to start on a new "page" of an e-book, was basically done the same as Chapter Headings back in Step 4.

I actually used more styles than that even. For example, I did not have a header that said "Acknowledgement" or "Dedication" since it was obvious that's what they were. I created a style to make sure those paragraphs remained on their own "page" in the e-book like the headers, just with regular font.

But you figured that out on your own didn't you, because you've been paying attention.

Okay. We're in the home stretch...

Step 7: Format Your Page Numbers (Print book only)

With e-books, you have no idea what will end up on what "page" or even how many "pages" (er, flips of the screen) there will be, so numbering them is meaningless. Plus, your digital upload has to be free of all headers and footers to avoid conversion problems anyway.

But for print books, readers kinda need them.

There's one critical catch.... Your front matter and back matter should not be numbered the same as your actual story pages, if at all. And any pages left intentionally blank should be just that. Blank. Otherwise it looks amateur.

We already solved the problem of blank pages between chapters with the odd-page section break. Word will only number your actual document pages, not printed pages (do a print-preview to confirm).

But what about the front and back matter you just added?

This was easily the  most frustrating part for me to figure out because neither Word nor Open Office give you page by page level control over footers.

Then I discovered a magical flag in the Header/Footer Tools I never noticed before.

First... If you already have an odd-page section break at the beginning of your story (the Prologue or Chapter 1), cool. If not, then you need to insert a section break at the top.

Next... If you did not use the nuclear option and you already have page numbers from your manuscript, double click on the footer at the bottom of the first page of your story.

If you don't already have page numbers, go to the Insert tab from the first page of your story and click Page Number > Bottom of page.

My suggestion here is to just choose Plain Number 2 (the centered one). Keep the font of the number the same as your text, but shrink it down by a point or 2 so it's not obtrusive.

Finally... Note the little blue tab at the bottom of page 1 of your story should say -Section 2- (assuming you put all your front matter into a single Section 1).

With the footer section still open, go to the Design tab and make sure that Link to Previous is NOT highlighted.

You might need to go to the Page Number dropdown (left side of the Design tab) then Format Page Numbers, and specify the Start At: field to 1.

Then go up to your Front Matter pages and remove the page numbers from up there if there are any. (either go to Insert tab / Footer / Remove Footer, or double click in the footer and delete the page number).

Note that if you have a lot of front matter, changing the style to lower case roman numerals is an accepted convention. The same rule about blank pages being completely blank, including no page number, still applies. For fiction novels, I don't see any need to get that fancy.

Now jump down to the last page of your last chapter or Epilogue and basically do the opposite for the Back Matter pages.

1. Insert a section break for the back matter
2. Unlink the footer from the previous section
3. Delete page numbers from Back matter pages (or insert Roman numerals starting at i.)

Easy peasy.

Now for the really fun part.

Step 8: Proof, Revise, Rinse, Repeat

Whether converting to a print-ready PDF for your paperback, or converting to any digital format, PROOF YOUR WORK BEFORE AND AFTER UPLOADING!! Do not rely on the way it looks in the Word doc or your final product could end up looking sloppy.

There are different considerations for print and e-books.

Paperbacks

If you haven't added your italics back in, do it now. This is a pretty manual process, but shouldn't take terribly long once you get into a rhythm.

1. Open your original manuscript or backup file.
2. Advanced Find / More>>
3. Format > Font
4. Under Font style: choose Italic

Click Find Next... jump that paragraph in your new formatted file, and change those words to Italic (using the I button in the Font toolbar at the top is okay)

So now your font, indents, and line spacing keep your text flowing nicely. Your chapter and scene breaks are how you want them. Now you can focus on cleaning up your paragraphs and bottom margins.

Back in Step 4 I mentioned Widow/Orphan control and the importance of square margins. If you look at your Print Preview, though, you'll see you have a ton of pages with one line of a paragraph separated out at the top or bottom.

Leaving your book like that is one of the biggest mistakes you could make. It's ugly and potentially confusing to a reader, especially on page turns. Not much screams amateur indie louder than those widows and orphans, and what I call hanging chads.

So yes. Seriously. Go back over EVERY page of your formatted draft to make sure the bottom margins line up, deleting or adding lines as needed. That is probably the biggest reason to format your book yourself. You're basically still editing, not just making it look pretty.

A "hanging chad" is when you have a line with just a single word or two tiny words of 5 total characters or less. Maybe that's just my own OCD hangup, but to me they disrupt the flow of the text to the point of being needlessly distracting. I wrote a whole blog post dedicated to pruning down your words if you're not sure what to look for to shave those off.

Use Print Preview for a truer rendering of what the final proof will look like, keeping in mind that the PDF conversion might still look slightly different.

For example... Try your best to avoid lines of dialog with end-quotes landing too close to the right margin of the page, especially on the last line of a paragraph.

I learned the hard way that MS Word's definition of "Justified" alignment is different than Adobe's. The PDF conversion will often stretch characters differently than Word did, even in print preview. So after all of your painstaking edits, your proof copy could end up with something like...


If you have Front or Back Matter that starts farther down than the top of the page (like Acknowledgement and Dedication are typically either centered or 1/3 the way down like Chapters), make sure that the TOP of those are at the same line, too. Little touches like that keep your book looking professional.

And don't forget to make sure that your Chapters really do start on odd pages, and that blank pages are completely blank, including no page numbers.

E-Books

You won't have control over your margins on an e-reader, so try not to even think about them.

Things to keep an eye out for are...

1. Everything that is supposed to be centered is centered,
2. Your indents look good
3. There are no weird blank pages or screwy fonts,
4. Chapter headings look right and start on new "pages" in the MOBI version.

You'll want to make sure that all of your italics are back in, assuming you wiped them in step 1. I spell out a good way to do this in this step, a few paragraphs above the Winchesters screaming.

Not that this isn't a handsome
mug and all
If you have images... The first few people to download the Kindle edition of PRODIGAL were treated to a page where my publishing imprint logo and my headshot photo filled the whole screen. They were meant to be 100x125 pixels

So don't rely on Word to shrink the image down for you. It will look like you want it to in EPUB, but the image will blow up to original size on a Kindle, which is what the vast majority of your readers will see it on. The actual image file needs to be the pixel size you want it to appear in the e-reader window.

And finally...

LAST STEP: Navigation (E-Book only)

I mean it this time. This is the last step. I put it last because I wanted to end on a good note. But you could do this earlier in the process if you want.

So... you all understand the idea that all e-books should have built in navigation, right? If you didn't realize that already, you do now.

Consumers of e-books expect navigation in case they want to jump back to a previous chapter without having to flip every single page.

Too many people think this part is sooo complicated. The section dedicated to this in the Smashwords style guide is obscenely long. There's a painfully tedious video that they make you think you have to watch to understand it.

Let me save you a lot of time and boredom.  Now, technically navigation is done by way of a separate file within the zipped bundle of files that comprise your e-book, whether it be EPUB or MOBI or LRF, whatever. It's called an NCX file.

Who cares? The converter makes that file for you. The act of doing it in Word is the easiest frickin step!

Don't use Word's built in Table of Contents feature. That creates Microsoft code and Micorsoft code is of the Devil.

Set up a table of contents using bookmarks and hyperlinks. It's easy. Manual, but really easy once you get into a rhythm (which you will by the third chapter).

Bookmarks

Do this for every page that you want there to be a navigation point (ie. Prologue, Chapters, Epilogue, About, Other Books)

1. Go to that blank line that I told you to insert ABOVE your chapter heading
2. Go to the Insert tab
3. Click Bookmark
4. Name your bookmark something logical (WITHOUT spaces in the name)
5. Rinse, repeat

IF YOU DID NOT NUKE THE OLD CODE... Check the box at the bottom of the Bookmarks window to reveal Hidden Bookmarks. I have no idea why these even exist, but they must make perfect sense to some idiot at Microsoft. They need to be deleted or your TOC links will not work.

Linked TOC

1. Jump to the last page of your Front Matter, before the Prologue or Chapter 1.

2. Type Table of Contents

3. Apply the style "Front Matter Header" that you created earlier to it. Now it's on it's own "page" of the e-book.

4. Enter a blank line. Apply style Front Matter to it, so now every line following will be centered on the same page.

5. Hit return, type Prelude (or Prologue, or Chapter 1, etc)

6. Highlight that line.

7. Go the Insert tab > Hyperlink

8. Link to: Place in This Document

9. Choose your Bookmark from the list

10. Click OK

11. Rinse, repeat

That's it.

The reason I did it this way is because when I put the bookmark right on the line that has the heading, like Smashwords tells you to do, this is what happened on my Kindle when I opened the book, or tapped any link.


It was supposed to look like the left, but it somehow came out looking like the right, with no formatting. No one on the KDP or Smashwords forums could explain why, so I came up with my own fix.

So now you know. And knowing is half the battle.

Okay. You're done.

No really. Bye. Good luck.

Go publish so you can get started on your next book.