8 Page Design Fundamentals for a Professional-Looking Novel

A post I wrote recently for the Blurb Stories blog…

Illustration by Thomas Whitehead

Illustration by Thomas Whitehead

We all know the importance of a good first impression. It’s true for books, too. We’ve compiled some basic tips that will help make your book’s pages inviting and readable.

You’ve invested a lot of time and effort into writing your novel and the way it looks should reflect that effort. If your pages look clumsy or amateurish, you might scare readers away before they have a chance to fall in love with your prose. And, once they’re in, you want the page design to help them along—not get in their way.

Page design is a fine art, but don’t despair. Even if you aren’t a professional designer, there are simple things you can do to make your pages look more polished. Pull any bestseller or classic off your shelf and you’ll see all of the following principles brought into play. Use them yourself, and your book will belong with the best.

1. Keep the margins roomy

Page margins are a common problem in books by first-time self-publishers. It can be tempting to cram as much text as possible on a page to reduce a book’s page count, but don’t do it.

Tight margins make pages look cramped and intimidating. Even worse, some of your text can get lost in the “gutter,” or inside edge, meaning the reader has to torture your book, prying it open just to read it. A nice, roomy margin all the way around the page makes the book feel more inviting, allows the reader to hold it comfortably, and leaves space for notes or marks.

How much margin is enough? For a 5 x 8 inch book, try 5/8” (.625”) to start. For a 6 x 9 book, 3/4” (.75”) is more appropriate. Make the inside margin slightly larger so words don’t fall into the gutter (this is especially important for longer books, which have deeper gutters). There are some detailed resources online if you want to explore this topic in depth.

Read the rest of this post (7 more tips!) at Blurb Stories

Editing for Self-Publishers: an interview with Kim Bookless

Editing is an important part of the publishing process. Hugely important. But it can be confusing, especially to new authors and those who choose to self-publish. Nobody wants to read a rough draft (much less pay good money for it), but how much editing does your book really need? How does the process work? And how do you find a good editor?

I got to chat with editor and publishing consultant Kim Bookless (yes, that is her real name) to talk about these issues for Blurb a couple of weeks ago. Kim was a great interviewee with lots of valuable insight into the need, the process, and how authors can get the most out of their editing relationships. I hope you enjoy listening!

If you’d like to learn more about Kim, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.

Get Ready for NaNoWriMo! a webinar with Chris Baty

It’s almost November, and that means National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Writing 50,000 words in a single month is a huge challenge, but for those who fully embrace NaNoWriMo, it can be tremendously rewarding. It’s a community, a chance to unleash pent-up creativity, and a heck of a lot of fun.

A few days ago, I got to spend an hour talking all things NaNo with the world’s two preeminent experts on the subject: Chris Baty, who founded NaNoWriMo back in 1999 (and wrote its bible/manifesto, the book No Plot? No Problem!, just released in a new edition), and Grant Faulkner, the Executive Director of NaNoWriMo. We had a great time discussing everything from basic motivation to survival strategies for the month. If you’ve considered participating in NaNoWriMo but aren’t quite sure about it, or if you’re an old hand getting excited about another year, do check out the video.

This webinar was made possible by my day job at indie publishing company Blurb (we’re a major sponsor of NaNoWriMo this year). To find out more about Blurb’s involvement, check out our Coffee & Quill Society.

Note: there were some technical issues with audio in the first few minutes of the webinar. Stick with it; the sound does get better!

Book Review: No Plot? No Problem!

No Plot? No Problem! Revised and Expanded Edition: A Low-stress, High-velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days
No Plot? No Problem! Revised and Expanded Edition: A Low-stress, High-velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty

My rating: 4.5 Stars

I’m about to embark on my fifth National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and boy do I wish I’d read this book a few years earlier.

NaNoWriMo is a wonderful thing. It’s a challenge, a community, and a much-needed injection of delirious creativity in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, ranging from novices who have never even written a short story before to seasoned professional writers. It’s also more than a little crazy-making, so anyone planning to attempt it really should get some advice first.

Who better to guide us than Chris Baty, the guy who invented NaNoWriMo in the first place? No Plot? No Problem! is like a great big pep talk—Baty prepares you for the high points and the low, addresses all the usual objections (“I don’t have time/ideas/talent”), and throws in a ton of practical advice for surviving the month with your brain relatively intact. There’s simply no better explanation of the what, the why, and the how.

So I highly recommend this book, but please bear in mind that it is NOT about the craft of novel-writing! If you’re going to churn out 50,000 words in 30 days, you can’t worry much about craft. There’s no time. NaNoWriMo—and, by extension, this book—is about freeing up your calendar and loosening up your brain and just getting the story down, as quickly and as exuberantly as possible. It’s about writing a novel in a month, period. If you want it to be a good novel, you can go read some other book while you start your revisions, AFTER you’ve basked in the glow of “winning” NaNoWriMo with the help of this one.

Originally posted on Goodreads

Book Review: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

My rating: 5 Stars

When a guy has written, published, and sold as many books as Stephen King, he must know what he’s doing. In On Writing, King shares his process, his opinions, and his journey as a writer. He does this with brevity and a gruff but good-natured wit that makes this book a joy to read.

But here’s the thing about writing, or any other art: It’s an act of personal creation, and each of us is different. Once we get beyond the basics of grammar and vocabulary (what King calls the top shelf of a writer’s toolbox), we all have to find our own way.

This is King’s way, and it works for him. Everything he suggests is worth a try. But I think what’s really valuable here—even more than his strong advice regarding adverbs, revision, and career-building—is what he has to say about the writer’s life and motivation. If you want to write fiction but you don’t read it, that’s a problem. If you write because you think you have to and not because you want to, that’s a problem. If you’re a slave to plot (which is imposed from the outside) at the expense of story (which evolves from the inside), that’s a big problem.

King identifies a sort of pyramid of writers with four tiers: the bad, the competent, the good, the great. He believes that the bad cannot be redeemed, and the great are born, not made. So all instruction can do, he says, is help the merely competent become good. I don’t buy into that theory. It seems to me any new writer could benefit from the advice and inspiration of On Writing.

Originally posted on Goodreads

Book Review: Meteor Menace

Meteor Menace
Meteor Menace by Kenneth Robeson

My rating: 4 Stars

March, 1934
Original publication order: #13
Bantam reprint order: #3

I’ve been taking a break from Doc Savage for a few months, but this was a good way to get back into the habit. Picking up almost immediately after the events of The Man Who Shook the Earth, Doc and his fantastic crew get swept up in an adventure leading from the deserts of Chile to the frozen heights of Tibet. Many of the classic elements are here: a truly bizarre weapon, a flamboyantly fiendish villain, a healthy dose of gadgetry, and lots of two-fisted action. There are also a few “what the…?!” moments of sheer surprise, a nice departure from the norm.

I do have some quibbles, though. Any story which involves a meteorite really needs to give a starring role to Johnny (Hellooo, Mr. Dent! Remember Johnny, the world-renowned geologist?!), but he’s just window dressing here. I also wanted more from the token beautiful daughter, who gets one excellent scene but otherwise spends most of the story on the sidelines. But the story was a romp and a hoot and several other monosyllabic good things. Go get ‘em, Doc!

Side note: This story was just a little tiny bit uncomfortable for me personally, because in reading it I spotted a few coincidental parallels to my own novel, Dragon in the Snow (which is an homage to Doc, but one that makes no reference to any specific stories). Just for the record, this was my first exposure to Meteor Menace.

Originally posted on Goodreads

R.I.P., Robin Williams


I heard some folks in their 20s talking about Robin Williams this morning. They were bemused and befuddled by all the attention around his suicide (he was found dead at his home yesterday, at the age of 63). I didn’t say anything to those kids, but I wanted to tell them.

I wanted to tell them about how Robin Williams hit us in the ’70s. This guy didn’t “emerge,” he EXPLODED into pop culture like a string of firecrackers under our collective seat. “Mork & Mindy” was one of the top TV shows in the country in its first season. His “Tonight Show” appearances were let-the-kids-stay-up, capital-E Events. His stand-up shows were legendary. Wherever he went, gleeful anarchy was sure to follow. Nobody seemed more alive.

I wanted to tell them about the ’80s and ’90s, with that long string of movies: not just “Mrs Doubtfire” and “Dead Poets Society,” but “Good Morning Vietnam” and “The Fisher King” and “The Birdcage” and “Moscow on the Hudson,” a new film every year and sometimes five. Some were crap, most were pretty good. A few were classics. And his talent and presence were what made all of them tick.

He could be funny as hell or creepy as fuck. Like all great clowns, he could make you cry through your laughter. And like all great clowns, he had demons. We all knew it, but he always was so awesome that every time we heard about it (the coke, the drink, depression, rehab) we were sure he’d beat it, this time for good. We were really rooting for him.

So after all that, to hear that it got him anyway… The world has been robbed. It’s like we all lost a favorite uncle or a personal friend, someone said on Twitter. We really did. And to have it happen so close after Philip Seymour Hoffman, a similarly tortured man who inspired deep feelings in many of us, well that’s just like a kick to the teeth. How could this have happened again? Why couldn’t anyone stop it? Who’s next, and how do we save them?

That’s what I wanted to tell those kids. If your first conscious awareness of Robin Williams was as the star of “Death to Smoochy,” well then I guess you would be confused. But this guy… He was something else. And it really hurts to lose him.

Comic Review: Buckaroo Banzai – Return of the Screw

Buckaroo Banzai: Tpb Vol.1: Return of the Screw
Buckaroo Banzai: Return of the Screw by Mac Rauch

My rating: 3.25 Stars

More lectroids! More jet car! More cryptic non-sequiturs!

At the end of the 1984 cult film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, a sequel is promised for the superhero/rockstar/surgeon: Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League. But Buckaroo was too weird (and too poorly marketed) to find a mainstream audience, so the second movie never happened. There was buzz many years later about a TV pilot, but that too fizzled on the drawing board. For decades, Buckaroo fans were left wondering about Hanoi Xan and his league of evildoers, until Moonstone Books stepped up with Return of the Screw, a comic book miniseries that finally continued the saga in 2006.

Written by Earl Mac Rauch, Buckaroo’s creator (with creative input from film director WD Richter), Return of the Screw is based on “Supersize Those Fries,” the unmade TV movie. The story is in-your-face bizarre, a torrent of overlapping scenes, goofy plot twists, and terrible puns. Potato-powered death rays? An assassin in a pickle suit? Sure, why not? But so much happens here, and so quickly, it’s all but incomprehensible until the action-packed third issue finally connects a few of the dots… but not all, of course: this is still Buckaroo Banzai!

Pacing and structure aside, there’s some pretty good stuff here, especially when sidekick Perfect Tommy is in the frame – of all Buckaroo’s associates, he gets the best material. We finally get to meet Xan and a few of his minions, as they team up with a familiar bad guy to make the world miserable. I love the artwork. And this trade paperback edition has some terrific extras: character dossiers, alternate covers, interviews, and conceptual designs from the TV project.

Moonstone and Mac Rauch published a few more Buckaroo Banzai stories after this one, which are collected in Volume 2, No Matter Where You Go, There You Are…. I’m interested to see how they further expanded Buckaroo’s zany fictional universe, even if Return of the Screw was a bit of a letdown.

View on Goodreads