Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Paddler's Journey: What it takes to create a book

As my regular readers know, I've been working on a book, a paddling memoir tracing my career as a kayaker. But I know from experience that most people don't really understand what all it takes to make a book, so I thought I'd explain the process a little more.

Putting words on paper (or into a word processor). That's what most people think of when you say you're writing a book. And you do have to do that. But that's the fun and easy part, and it's just the beginning. Sure, you could just ramble on for page after page, just collect the stuff I've already written here, but a book - a real and true book - is different than a collection of blog posts.

When I set out to write A Paddler's Journey, I needed a theme, something to hold it all together and give it a backbone to build around. I wanted to share some fun paddling stories, but that alone wouldn't be worthy of a book. I decided to show my progression through the sport and all the lessons I learned along the way. How becoming a paddler has influenced my life as a whole. I did this through stories, and the stories can be taken by themselves and enjoyed as individual adventures, but each one builds on the previous and they all lead somewhere - to the person I am today. I had to leave out some good stories that didn't fit. I had to include more than just the paddling - I had to talk about the people, since they influenced me as much as the water. It took a lot more thought and careful deliberation to come up with the content for the book.

But then I did write it all down. That was fun. Then I reread it and saw all my mistakes - mistakes everyone makes in a first draft - and that wasn't so fun. I edited, changing large chunks of text, deleting some chapters, including more of my emotions, trying to be more descriptive and entertaining in my prose. It takes a lot to edit a couple hundred pages.

Then I sent that draft off to several folks for feedback. Quite a number never responded. It's very understandable - everyone is really busy and even if they squeeze in the time to read it they might not know how to critique it. But spending months pouring your heart and sole into an artistic endeavor, one that reveals your innermost thoughts and lays out who you are as a human being, only to get chirping crickets in response, is never easy.

But some did respond. They said good things and they also made suggestions of ways to improve it. I didn't agree with all of them, and some were contradictory, but it gave me more information and allowed me to go back in for another draft. That's right, I re-wrote the entire book, tightening it up, making every sentence the best I could. Months of hard work.

That basically got me to a near-final draft. Currently I'm working on a little bit of final editing - more proofreading than anything, making sure there are no typos, no missed words or clumsy constructions. Going through 57,000 words individually to make sure each one is correct. It's not fun or easy and requires a huge amount of concentration. I take books seriously.

Is that it? Is having all those words sorted out enough? Not even close. I plan to publish my book as a physical thing as well as in electronic form. Both formats require more preparation.

Digital books are pretty easy to format. It takes a little more than just uploading your Word document, but not that much. The main thing is to make sure your code is clean, that the conversion engines can handle it (there are multiple eBook formats, so you have to have a slightly different source file for each one). It's about adjusting styles, removing tabs, including title page info, lots of little things. I've done it before so I know it's not too hard, but once again it requires a lot of attention to the details.

A physical book is a much larger beast to slay. You have to choose a font, decide on a trim size (how big the book will be), set chapter breaks, create drop caps for chapter openings, check the line spacing, the leading, the line wraps (removing widows and orphans), confirm margins and adjust headings for each section. It's typesetting, an art and industry unto itself, but as a self-publisher all the work falls on me unless I pay someone else to do it (which isn't financially realistic for a book that will likely make me a few hundred dollars). There are so many little things about a book that readers don't notice - unless it's off, then they know something's not right even if they can't name what it is.

Then there's cover design, another job that I'm doing myself. It's easy enough to put a title on top of a picture, but that cover is the main thing that sells the book, so choices of color palette, text sizing, font choice, word layout, all have a huge impact on how the reader first perceives that book. And if you get them to pick up the book (or stop to read the Amazon page), there's the back-cover copy, a one-paragraph summation of the entire project that needs to sell the book to a dubious buyer.

All of that to create a book, but it all means nothing if you don't market the book. You need to get people to look at the cover, to read the copy, to read sample pages. Again, with no budget to hire professionals, that means me talking about here on my blog, asking my friends to spread the word, calling distributors and even individual kayak shops to ask if they want to stock a few copies. All for a couple of dollars for each book you sell (and if you consider the average self-published book sells less than a hundred copies, you start to realize why very few authors actually make a living at writing books).

I'm nearing the end of the journey. I expect to have a proof copy by the end of next month and be ready to go to print a couple months after that. But I'm trying to do all this work while holding down a full time job and living the rest of my life (including teaching some kayaking now and then).

So if someone says they're writing a book, you might want to think that they're just typing away, writing out stories or ideas and having fun doing it. And that might be true. But if someone is a real author, if they're putting out a book that's equivalent to what would come from a professional publisher, then they're doing a whole lot more than that. As a reader, you're free to just enjoy the words, but maybe somewhere in the back of your mind try to appreciate all of the effort it takes to bring you each and every one of those books you breeze through and throw on the shelf to fade into memory. Writing is something special and I applaud anyone who takes it seriously and does it well. It's a journey every bit as challenging and rewarding as any kayak trip.

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