Reflections on NaNoWriMo

S l1600I participated in NaNoWriMo this year, in spite of my objections to the use of the word “National” in the title of what is by now surely a global event. GloNoWriMo works just as well.

Anyway, I squeezed out 50000 words, somehow, in this hard term for teaching with a workload to die for from.

Don’t know if I’ll finish it, or even if I could if I wanted to. I don’t know if I could come up with an ending. I’ve done it in the past: you just write and write and while you’re writing, inspiration can strike, and you suddenly get that hook, the thing that’s going to drive you towards some sort of ending. But it’s probably a symptom of general tiredness that I wasn’t really feeling it this year.

And yet: I dribbled out 50,000 words, by putting together a couple of ideas I’d had in the past and trying to make them work together.

You’ll be wanting to know what it was about. It’s about a widower who is presented with an opportunity to find out why his journalist wife was murdered fifteen years before. By resurrecting some old technology, he and a retired cop come across documents left by his wife which lead them in a direction previously unexplored.

That’s the bones. Which is all I really banged out in November, without knowing how it would end. I left it in the middle of things, on the South Bank of the Thames, with the red lights winking on the construction cranes. Just abandoned it, with relief, as I crossed the 50,000 word target.

In writing the material left by the wife, Jo, on old floppy disks, I was confronted with the problem of digging back to the turn of the century. What was it like back then? I mean, if you were travelling abroad in the summer of 2000, what network access would you have had, what phone would you have been using? How much was the internet a part of your life? I’m sure I’ve dropped things into sentences that make no sense in the world of 2000 or 2002.

I didn’t have a mobile phone till about six or seven years after that, although I did have a Palm Organiser with a colour screen and a stylus that I synched to my Mac. Had absolutely no use for it, of course (got it from Macworld for a Letter of the Month). Those days! As for the internet, I think we got that at home while I was doing my PhD, late 90s, but if I’d been abroad in 2000 (as I almost certainly was at some point), I’d not even have missed it back then.

But it’s by creating these problems and limitations for myself that I hope to unlock something interesting. I just have no idea what.

Using Scrivener to publish a Kindle book

I bought Scrivener version 1.5 when I did NaNoWriMo properly for the first time a couple of years ago.

It’s an application dedicated to researching and writing, and though I didn’t use anywhere near all of its features, I found it quite useful and pleasant to use.

I think Scrivener would really work for a professional writer, though it’s probably overkill for an amateur like me, but I’m planning to do NaNoWriMo again this year, so I upgraded to version 2.

I noticed that Scrivener now has options to output electronic books (I wasn’t aware of this feature in version 1.5, though it might have been there). Although I’m in love with type and would love to have a printed book (I did take advantage of the offer to produce a printed proof of my last completed NaNoWriMo), it’s more realistic to think you might finish and revise a book and put it out on the Kindle. You never know.

I discussed this with a colleague at work. The thing about Kindle books is, a lot of them are free, or quite low priced, and by people you’ve never heard of. In these circumstances, you tend to judge a book by its cover. Which is ironic, given that Kindle books don’t actually have “covers”. Still, we thought, if you had a good cover, you never know who might be tempted to download.

I realised I already had a very high quality book I could publish. Even if I do say it myself, my 1999 thesis on Don DeLillo is very good indeed. It’s well written, thoroughly researched, and highly original. Why wasn’t it ever published, then, I hear you ask? Short answer, I left academia and went to work in marketing. I never saw the need. The publish-or-perish life of the academic never really appealed to me. I always found most academic writing to be an impenetrable, badly written, load of old wank.

Some of my thesis was published. A couple of (edited) chapters appeared in journals. One was presented as a conference paper (and may have been published as well, I don’t recall). And my last hurrah was to have a chapter published in a book, this one in fact.

The thing about academic publishing is, it’s not about the money. I’m sure the publishers do very well (as they should, at £33 a pop), but the individual authors see nothing. So it was always about careers, and since I didn’t have an academic career, I didn’t try to get my thesis published.

Which is a shame, because it was written in a very accessible style, and would certainly appeal to the general Don DeLillo fan, as well as the odd research student.

My chapter in Underwords has actually been cited in a couple of other books. I get a passing mention (which is all you can hope for) in Don DeLillo: Mao II, Underworld, Falling Man by Stacey Olster and in Partial Faiths: postsecular fiction in the age of Pynchon and Morrisson by John A. McLure.

So I was already primed when I noticed that Scrivener can output electronic book formats, and decided to have a go. Unfortunately, the only copy of my thesis manuscript to hand was the PDF version, which looks beautiful, but was hard to edit. The text output included page furniture and numbering, which had to be edited by hand. The output also stripped out all the formatting (italics, small caps etc.), so I had to go through and manually edit as many of those as I could spot. I found this easier to do in Pages than in Scrivener. For example, when I was doing a find-replace on certain words and phrases, Pages allowed me to edit on the page (by hitting Command-I to italicise, say), without losing the Find-Replace window. This saved a couple of seconds for every instance.

(Of course, what I could have done, if I’d remembered the shortcut, was use Cmd-G and then Cmd-I, both in Scrivener and Pages, which would have saved time. And I wouldn’t have needed Pages at all. I used to know Cmd-G, but clean forgot it. More fool me. Thanks to commenter Ioa Petra’ka for reminding me.)

It took a few days to edit each chapter in a satisfactory way. I kept doing test exports in the Kindle format, and using Amazon’s free Kindle Preview app (as well as testing on my own Kindle) to see how things were turning out. Block quotes were tricky. Scrivener had a paragraph style called Essay Block Quote (Preserved), which did the trick. I managed to put in a diagram, and designed a cover that worked in colour (for the Kindle app on computers, phones, and the iPad) as well as greyscale. Scrivener makes it easy to create a hyperlinked table of contents. I also converted the footnotes in the thesis to hyperlinked endnotes.

I edited the text a bit, changing a few paragraphs that seemed particularly dated, and looking out for language like “recent” to describe Underworld, which was “recent” in 1999, but isn’t any more. On the whole, though, it all holds up very well. And it’s interesting to read my discussion of Mao II, terrorism, and images, written a couple of years before 11 September 2001 but somehow still relevant.

It’s a shame in a way that I couldn’t publish a second volume based on DeLillo’s output since 1999, but to be honest The Body Artist annoyed me so much that I haven’t touched a DeLillo book since.

Amazon make it fairly easy to publish. They don’t insist on an ISBN. These aren’t a legal requirement and hardly anyone is likely to search for a book based on one. You can enter bank account details (you need the long international account identifier from your statements) for payment in Euros and Sterling, but you have to get dollars from Amazon.com in cheque form. Unfortunately, Amazon retain 30% of your royalty for the IRS, which you can try to claim back by filling in forms.

But I doubt this will be much of an issue.

I opted for their 70% royalty and a low price rather than a 35% one and a much higher price. Academic books are usually very expensive, but I resent that, given that most students don’t have much money. If my book had been published by an academic publisher back in 1999/2000, it would probably be out of print by now, or would cost £30+ to buy.

Apple, unlike Amazon, make it very difficult to publish as an individual. They demand an ISBN and some kind of tax certificate. They recommend that you go through one of their partner aggregators. The only European one is in Germany, and their web site is in German. So screw that, for now. You can get the Kindle app on the iPhone and the iPad, and buy the book from Amazon instead.

All in all, Scrivener made it relatively painless to publish on Kindle. My only difficulties were caused by having to convert from a PDF – if I’d retained the original Word document, it would have been easy.

Amazon UK link

Amazon US link