Category Archives: Books

How to Survive the Copyedit

When you do get published, there comes before the typesetting of your work one of the many events of great vulnerability for a writer: the copyedit. The copyeditor won’t tell you if she likes your work – she’ll just tell you where you went wrong, how you went wrong, and how you can make it right.

I always bring my work as close as possible to perfection before submission, reasoning that the volume of submissions an editor must manage forces him to read not with an eye toward acceptance, but rejection. This means that minimizing errors reduces the number of handles an editor can use to carry your work to the trash bin.

Because I think I’m pretty good at getting the manuscript right, the copyedit always unnerves me, especially in a long work like a novel. The biggest casualty of long workspans is consistency. Everything from your use of the Oxford comma to your basic diction can change over a period of three or five years, and the copyeditor is there to normalize these changes.

The copyeditor is your friend. You may not feel that way about this overscrupulous nitpicker (copyeditor note: redundancy), but trust her. She will keep you from making a fool of yourself, or at least try, with the resources at hand, i.e., your manuscript.

In this day and age (copyeditor note: cliché), most copyeditors work through your Microsoft Word document with the track changes feature enabled, often adding comments to justify corrections or offer suggestions. Julia Armstrong from my alma mater, the University of Toronto, lists in a document for a copyediting workshop the five Cs of copyediting:

“Make the copy clear, correct, concise, comprehensible, and consistent.” She adds, “Copy editors should make it say what it means, and mean what it says.”

While this is all fair and true, a certain latitude needs to be applied when the work in question in fiction, as authors may stretch or break specific rules in the name of art.

I’ve just endured – er – enjoyed the copyedit of my forthcoming novel, The Sky Manifest. Here is the copyeditor at work, in this case improving clarity:

  • “He watched through the steel grating moirés of light rippling across the plates of broken ice below…” becomes, “He watched through the steel grating as moirés of light rippled across the plates of broken ice below…”

There are lots of examples of correcting errors, usually of the type where precision that is not considered during composition becomes essential once the work goes public, for example:

  • Pine-Sol, not Pine Sol; CorningWare, not Corningware
  • The title of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” vs. “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”; the copyeditor writes: “Sources, even authoritative ones, seem to disagree on whether the g is dropped. I’m following the punctuation used on the cover of the single.”

I want to commend the copyeditor’s astute concern regarding characters smoking in a tavern:

The province-wide ban on indoor smoking (enclosed workplaces and enclosed public places) went into effect on May 31, 2006, according to this page:

Near the end of the book, the TV news covers the release of the final Harry Potter book, which came out in July 2007. I’m not sure exactly how much time is meant to elapse offstage while Nathan cycles the continent (it certainly could be more than a year), so I’m flagging this just in case it’s a concern. (Same concern would then apply to the bar in Thunder Bay where Nathan meets the pimp.)

The Choo Choo could be a bar that flouts the new law, but that would be inconsistent with Claire’s nervous adherence to the liquor-serving rules.

Another excellent example: I refer to a newspaper headline reporting the D-Day invasion, speculating that the headline would read, “ALLIES LAND IN FRANCE!” To my own credit, I was not far from the mark. But the copyeditor noticed a discrepancy and corrected it, by finding the headline itself in the Globe & Mail’s archives, where it stands minus the exclamation point:

Allies Land in France

The book’s style includes some quirks, for example the frequent compounding of specific adjective-noun combinations, such as “towtruck” and “heatlamps,” (much like the word “copyeditor,” which some insist on writing as “copy-editor”), saddling this copyeditor with the extra chore of assessing the comprehensibility of each (for example, “arclamps” could be misread as “ar-clamps”), while adding candidate phrases to the mix (steeringwheel vs. steering wheel).

I like occasionally to use ambiguous descriptions when the characteristic being described is inconsequential to the plot. In The Sky Manifest, two come to mind. The first is “Eyes the colour of beer bottles.” The copyeditor rightly asserts, “This doesn’t specify the colour (beer bottles come in a variety of colours).” I used this description because the character’s eyecolour is irrelevant to the story, and I like it that his eyes might vary by reader. One might imagine his eye colour as brown, while someone else makes them green. If you drink a lot of Corona, perhaps they’re clear, or the colour of Corona beer itself.

In another section, a man is described as a “slight codger.” The copyeditor asks, “is this a slight (small) man who is a codger, or is he a bit of a codger?” The character described is inconsequential – the ambiguity of the description allows the reader to decide.

I’m tickled by the idea that the ambiguity of these two phrases represents an overt variance in a process of reader interpretation that runs throughout the entire novel. I do not tell you how to respond to Nathan’s reaction to the girl in the amusement park ride – you respond according to your own values, ideas, culture, thoughts. While interpretation of character responses are more subtle than those surrounding physical descriptions, they are in fact more important that the colour of a man’s eyes or whether an old coot is only slightly a coot, or a little coot.

In the end I concede the first point, but maintain the second. The beer bottle eyes are now “eyes like brown beachglass,” to prevent the ambiguity from interrupting the flow of the text, while the second is left to the reader’s discretion. You get to decide what kind of codger greets Nathan at the Canada-U.S. border. It’s like a painfully subtle Choose Your Own Adventure.

All in all, this was a labourious laborious, but unconfrontational copyedit, and I’m pleased with the care and treatment of the copyeditor. I still have no idea if he liked the book. But he made it right, and for that, I’m thankful.

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Free eBook, 21 January 2013

NiaS trade 3D cover

My novel is again free for Kindle, January 21st. You can find a long excerpt here, or here’s a brief sampler:


“Your ETA was out by fourteen minutes,” Tessa mutters through a cigarette as she banks to line up the dirt strip.

“The wind changed,” Cordell replies. “You haven’t set the gyrocompass in an hour.”

Tessa says nothing, stubs out the cigarette. Cordell rubs his chin, pledges to recheck his plotting. His eyes follow a bolt of green which runs from the hills below to the opposite horizon, impaling at the plain’s midpoint the clustered structures of a town surrounded by a lowrise sprawl of slum. The runway lies within an irrigated patch of green, some sort of orchard, though it’s hard to tell from this altitude.

“Do they know we’re coming?” Cordell asks.

“Yeah. Yesterday.”

The plane descends steeply, and Tessa battles a crosswind, twisting the yoke to the left while standing on the right rudder pedal, nose askew of the centreline. She trims the elevator, drops the flaps, and throttles back, releasing rudder and aileron, allowing the plane to straighten out. The craft sinks to the sand and they rumble down the runway, decelerating as Tessa cuts the throttles. Cordell looks through the side window, sees limes dangling from the branches like verdant Christmas ornaments, gleaming in the sunlight. He spots among the shrubbery a yellow bulldozer parked with its blade facing the runway and for an instant he sees what looks like a man in military fatigues crouched in the seat.

He is about to comment when Tessa barks, “What’s this?” Cordell stretches his neck to look through her side window, sees an army truck with soldiers clustered in the back pull out from among the trees and onto the runway’s edge, matching their speed.

“Up!” Cordell cries. “Up up up, take us up! It’s a trap!”

“Yeah, got it,” Tessa says, reaching for the throttles before she calls, “Not enough runway!”

She stands on the brakes and they slam into their restraints. The plane pitches forward and Cordell feels the cockpit tilt sickeningly, thinks the tailwheel has lifted and they are tipping onto the nose. Tessa lets up and the tail thumps to the ground. The army truck continues until the soldiers hammer on the cab’s roof and the vehicle brakes. Tessa whirls the plane to face down the strip. “Puts wind behind us, but here goes,” she growls. She slams the throttles forward.

There is motion in the trees on the runway’s left side, and then like a yellow animal scooting headlong into traffic the bulldozer emerges and rolls onto the strip. It reaches the centreline and stops and the soldier in the seat turns to watch their approach, his mouth agape. Tessa grits her teeth, grunts, “All right, soldier. A little game of pollo.”

With only seconds to escape, the soldier leaps from the bulldozer’s saddle and lopes into the trees. Tessa pumps the brakes while Cordell grips the armrests and the Duck skids towards the yellow machine. A moment before collision Tessa swerves off the runway and they race for the trees. Cordell throws his hands over his face, hears the slap of leaves and twigs against the wings and fuselage. He hears branches snapping and the hollow tattoo of trunks against the aluminum, and when he lowers his hands he sees greenery whip against his window.

They stop. Tessa struggles out of her harness and launches her hand under her seat. It emerges clutching a nickelplated Beretta. She checks the magazine, chambers a round, and darts down the aisle.

“Wait,” Cordell yells. “Wait!”

He thrashes out of his seatbelt and hobbles down the aisle where Tessa is lifting a curtain from a window.

They hear from outside a truck’s approach, hear it skid to a stop, footsteps on dirt, voices. Then someone thumps on the door.

Abra la puerta!” a voice demands.

Without a thought Cordell’s hand shoots out and plucks the Beretta from Tessa’s hand. They are both amazed by the speed of this move, and Tessa turns to him with a bewildered look. Then they each notice the weapon in Cordell’s hand, and Tessa makes a move for it, but Cordell draws it back. Her face flushes with rage.

“Give me that,” she growls.

Fear prickles along Cordell’s spine. “No,” he says softly.

“Bechard, I’m serious. Give me that gun.”

“I can’t, Tessa. You don’t stand a chance.”

She steps towards him like a panther, muscles tensed, ready to pounce. “That’s for me to decide.”

“Thank me later,” he says.

She leaps. With a flick of his wrist Cordell tosses the gun away just as she topples him, her hands snapping around his wrists. The fall winds him and the back of his head slams against the deck. She scrambles on top, straddles him, clamping his hips between her knees with surprising force. “Give it back!” she yells, spraying his face with spittle. He turns his head and struggles. Then she spots his empty hand and her grip falters. She is about to jump up when the door flies open and a dozen rifle barrels bristle inside. Tessa roars with rage, rears up, and with a mighty swing slugs Cordell in the jaw.


That Was Fun, Let’s Do It Again!

4.5 stars!

My novel Night is a Shadow Cast By the World is free from Amazon again, this time on New Year’s Day. Start 2013 with a rollicking adventure.

Wander through the pink city of Jaipur, explore an eccentric book store, smuggle guns, fly a DC-3 below radar, play the flute with exquisite skill (and kill somebody with your performance), walk a brilliant dog, eat sushi, drink stinky water, fix things with epoxy, ride a camel, spy on supermodels, fight the CIA, sign a confession, take a bath, deceive your inlaws, flirt with an old flame, swear in church, drink tequila and dance in the alameda, brush up on your Spanish, steal a fuel truck, try on a dhoti, foil a Russian plot, land on a burning runway, fly a kite, crack a secret password, pick a lock, set off some fireworks, mitigate poverty, study your spouse’s dreams…all this happens! Really!

Details here.

My Novel, Free on Xmas Day

NiaS paperback

My exciting literary adventure novel about books and aviation and travel and love, Night is a Shadow Cast By the World, normally USD$3.99 for the ebook, is free on December 25th from the Amazon Kindle Store. Grab yourself a copy for your (new that day?) Kindle, Apple iOS device, Android device, or to read on your Mac or Windows computer. There’s a lot of information, including an excerpt (and a link to the serialization of the first third of the novel) available on the book’s official website.

If you prefer a paperback, you can get it from Amazon here, or from Lulu here.

Read it, and let me know what you think. And happy holidays!

iTunesMetadata.plist EPUB validation error explained

Problem: you use the epub validation tool at Threepress Consulting, and consistently receive this error:

WARNING: [your epub file name].epub: item (iTunesMetadata.plist) exists in the zip file, but is not declared in the OPF file

Reason: you tested your epub by dropping it into iTunes. That’s all you have to do for this rogue file to be injected into the epub and make it invalid. You don’t even have to sync it to a device. You would expect iTunes to simply copy the file without manipulating the original’s contents, but such is not the case.

Solution: you can unzip the epub (on the Mac, I like the the ePub_UnZip_1.0 and ePub_Zip_1.0.3 Applescripts), delete the iTunesMetadata.plist file, and rezip it, or you can avoid the problem entirely by duplicating your epub file and dropping that into iTunes, leaving the original intact.

Smashwords Kind of Sucks Lately

The buzz used to be that the best place to publish your ebook was Smashwords, as they would rapidly and faithfully push your book to the big retailers such as Amazon, Apple, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Sony, but it seems that the company has been damaged by its own success, which has made them slow to respond (if you can get support at all) and sloppy in their practices. I originally began publishing Night is a Shadow Cast By the World at Smashwords, expecting to let them distribute it to all the aforementioned channels, but I quickly ran into a few hitches with the epubs that Smashwords’s notorious Meatgrinder produced, such as:

  1. inability to set the text on a page labelled “Part One” down slightly from the top of the page; it turns out that the Meatgrinder uses the Calibre engine (if you dissect the resulting epub, you’ll find styles named “Calibre1,” “Calibre2,” etc.) to convert files to various formats, and Calibre by default invokes a TOC entry for and inserts a page break immediately before certain terms, as defined in their Xpath expressions: “chapter|book|section|part|prologue|epilogue”; Calibre allows you to refine these choices; Meatgrinder does not. After a ton of experimentation (17 uploads, conversions, and test downloads from Smashwords) I solved this issue by converting the words “Part One” into a graphic element. See, spammers do have something to teach us.
  2. consistent insertion of a blank page in front of every page break when the epub is viewed on an iOS device like an iPhone and iPad. The book has 56 chapters, which means iOS readers would be required to perform 56 superfluous screen swipes to get through the book – unacceptable.
For the second issue I found that I could run the resulting epub through Calibre and have it bump out a new epub – and this one was flawless. (I subsequently donated $10 to the Calibre team – if you’ve ever used this fine program, you should do the same.) Because I could get no traction at all dealing with Smashwords staff (several emails to their support department remain unanswered even today, ten days after I sent them) I decided to forgo Smashwords for iBooks distribution, and deal directly with Apple. It took a week to get my iTunes Connect account approved, and I just uploaded the book this morning and am awaiting approval. I expect this will take at least another week.
I figured while I was at it why not have a go with Kindle Direct Publishing, and that proved to be even easier than Apple. I signed up, uploaded my book, and in under four hours the book was live and on sale at the Kindle Store – astonishing after all the trouble with Smashwords and the long wait time to get iTunes Connect approval. Whatever bad things you might have to say about Amazon (and there are a lot), they aren’t the king of book distribution for nothing.
I decided to keep the book in the running at Smashwords to get into some of the smaller and more difficult markets: Kobo, B&N, and Sony. Today, a week after I submitted the book for Premium Channel approval at Smashwords, I got this response:
Well I’d already done the Ctrl-A method, in fact, I had run the book through the Nuclear Option, with excellent results, and the epub looks spectacular – exactly the  way I want it to look (and I’m a professional typesetter, with over 60 print books under my belt). Is this some uninformed newbie employee, who saw that I used various font sizes for the title page and chapter headings, and is fanatically following some Mark Coker rule-of-law rule in the Smashwords Style Guide? I think so, or at least I hope so. If there’s some Coker edict that will only let you use two font sizes throughout an entire book, I give up on Smashwords. I’ve since resubmitted the book without any changes at all – let’s see how far it gets. In the meantime, I’ve started investigating selling directly through Kobo, for starters, as dealing with Smashwords thus far has proved to be deeply unsatisfying.

Update: On December 27th, I received an email from someone named Raylene:

Thanks for the email. I took a look at your book and everything looks great. I went in and approved your book! 🙂

It took awhile, but Smashwords eventually came through. Thanks, Raylene!

Everything’s Free on Planet E

I’ve got bootleg Harry Potter for my Palm device. And I downloaded it free from a software pirating site on the Internet.

Everyone is feeling the pull of the E. Like a huge planet, the digital format is drawing everything into its orbit: film and video, music, and of course, books. Planet E promises a paradise of cheap and fast methods of production and distribution. When it comes to ePiracy, however, those features are a liability, and though all digital media are at risk, the eBook is most vulnerable because of its inherent portability.

Many blame Napster and its ilk for music piracy, but I saw music on web and FTP sites long before peer-to-peer sharing reached the masses. Music piracy has flourished due to a combination of distribution (Internet) and portability (the MP3 format). The average uncompressed four-minute music file is an unwieldy 40 megabytes; the MP3 algorithm crushes this to one-tenth that size, making the file portable without a significant reduction in quality. Video is even larger and more complex than audio. Text files, on the other hand, require no compression and no special encoding. All ~210,000 words of Moby Dick occupy only 1.2 megabytes of space, small enough to fit on a floppy disk, small enough to transfer via modem in 200 seconds.

Because digital text requires no compression, it suffers no degradation when transported. Certainly the debate rages over the aesthetic experience of reading from computer screens, handheld devices, or even specialized gizmos like the Rocket eBook Reader. But like the tinny speakers once standard on all computers, these limitations are hardware based, and hardware improves. Two things are going to happen: devices will advance, and people – especially children – will grow accustomed to them. And eReaders offer options no book ever will: backlights, text magnification, hot dictionaries, non-destructive annotating, plus the ability to contain many – hundreds, thousands – of concurrent texts. The hard book may not disappear soon, but what fool denies the inevitable steamroller of progress?

Hard books enjoy an excellent system of copy-protection. As anyone who has duplicated and/or read a photocopied book knows, books are both inconvenient to copy and aesthetically disappointing in their duplicate format. It is easier to copy films, video tapes, vinyl records, CDs, and DVDs. The eBook format is uncharted territory for the written word; no one really knows how the public will react to freely-available books.

Will they be freely available? Microsoft – which estimates that it lost a half-billion U.S. dollars in 1999 just in the state of Florida due to software piracy – hosts on its website a series of pages entitled “Protecting Against ePublishing Piracy” [page gone] which trumpet the “Three E’s of Preserving the Value of Online Content”: Education, Encryption, and Enforcement.

Microsoft explains that educating people on “the value of protecting eBooks and other copyrighted electronic materials,” and explaining “the importance of copyright protection on the Internet” will help, but this sounds to me like an appeal to consumers to protect commerce, not the artist’s work. The general public is not sensitive to the labour of the artist. As many as 60 million people have tried Napster; how many are unaware that downloading copyrighted materials is illegal? Yet only legal interference has halted Napster’s swelling popularity. Because electronic duplication leaves the original unmolested, many cannot comprehend the harm in copying. They do not equate duplication with theft in the way that stealing a Mercedes is theft. Bolstering this misconception is a growing sense that intellectual property should be free, a perverse ideology that free music and movies and books equal democracy and liberty. Indeed, groups have appeared on Internet sites and newsgroups whose mission is to liberate texts. The manifesto of RHONDA (Robin Hood – Online Network Distribution Anarchy), states, “We refuse to recognize any copyright claimed on any text. . . . Books come from the minds and mouths of the People so books rightfully belong to the People.”

Encryption is applied to ensure that an eBook will be readable only on a specific, individual device. Consumer software copy protection has gone in and out of style since the earliest days of microcomputing. Floppy disks and CDs have been encrypted, installers require serial numbers, and some software requires a “dongle,” a piece of hardware jacked into the back of the computer, to operate. Nothing has proved completely effective. Somewhere along the line – just before the information reaches the screen in the case of digital text – information must be decrypted, and it is at this point that pirates can scoop the content. The software pirate chants a simple mantra: if you can read it you can copy it. Each escalation of protection has caused increased inconvenience for the legitimate consumer, while providing a more satisfying challenge for the hacker. Stephen King’s eNovella Riding the Bullet was cracked within days of its release.

Enforcement may prove to be the eBook’s best protector. In 1998 the United States legislated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which governs circumvention of digital copyright systems and liability of Internet service providers. But publishers and writers must be vigilant, as the law is not actively enforced. And creators must be willing to prosecute violators aggressively. The software and music industries have waited too long to take action and have lost billions in potential revenue as a result. Most book publishers operate close to the edge of profitability with no such margin for loss.

Even a single incidence of ePiracy must be addressed seriously, because pirated materials are like cockroaches: the appearance of an individual signifies a hidden infestation. The site with the bootleg Harry Potter has vanished, but you can bet its spawn has propagated widely.

These are ePublishing’s formative years. What we do today to educate readers and how we tolerate copyright violators now will determine its entire future.

This piece appeared originally in the October 2001 issue of Quill & Quire. Anyone listening yet?

They are reading what they are told to read

“They are reading what they are told to read by this blurbing world. They are acting on the guidance they get. That guidance originates in a literary and literary-critical world that is amiable, bland, clubby, pious, careerist, relentlessly cheerful, desperate for numbers, suavely relativizing, and awash in worthless praise. A universe of invitations and congratulations, of pals and candidate-pals appreciating and mythologizing each other.”

~Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic, 22 September 2010