Adventures in Self-Publishing, Part 5

After publishing my first volume of poetry, I turned to the exacting task of constructing Volume 2 of Research Notes for Women at Play. Just as with Volume 1, I first created a template and then typed my book into that template. (For all my other books, I wrote the book first and then pasted the manuscript into a blank template.)

There was so much formatting involved with all three volumes of Research Notes that I just felt more comfortable doing everything in the template itself, thus decreasing the chance that I would create some inadvertent error if I were to transfer the manuscript to the template.

GregorichRNNotesIIKindleCoverI published Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume 2, in July of 2013. It was my second self-published book of that year, and my seventh self-published book since early 2010.

Not long after publishing Volume 2, I was hit with a desire to write a book on how to write a mystery novel. I’ve been reading mysteries since I was eleven years old, and mysteries account for perhaps 50% of all the books I read. As an avid reader, I find that over the years I’ve developed annoyances at certain things I encounter in some mystery novels — and if I encounter them, I do not continue to read that author’s books.

I’ve published two mystery novels, and while writing my second one, Sound Proof, I created charts and graphs. These allowed me to track the appearance of minor characters, track their motives, and always be aware of where all the characters were within the setting. I drew a diagram of the farm and buildings where the action took place. I made certain that the minor-character villain was present often enough to register on the reader’s consciousness. I tracked all the elements important to developing plot, character, tension, and resolution.

One day (who knows why) I was struck by a desire to explain some of the things a mystery writer should consider in order to write a mystery that doesn’t cheat, doesn’t sound improbable, and doesn’t annoy the reader. So, pulling out all my saved materials for Sound Proof, I wrote a 25-chapter outline for my to-be nonfiction book and then, week by week, wrote the manuscript. And, because most of the books I’ve written are not mysteries, the guide contains a lot of information on writing in general. (Reviews have pointed this out.)

Let me digress a moment to say that one of the truly wonderful things about self-publishing (and there are many) is that it allows writers to publish books that, because they have a small market, are unlikely to be picked up by a traditional publisher. All three volumes of Research Notes serve as an example. Th existence of high-quality self-publishing also allows writers to self-publish books that are unlikely to sell to a traditional publisher because the author isn’t a big enough name. My how-to serves as an example. I felt that traditional publishers might like my manuscript, but wouldn’t take a chance on publishing it. I love that I was able to publish it myself.

COVER-WITH-TEMPLATE

And now back to the process of self-publishing my how-to. With this how-to, which would become my eight self-published book, I ran into a word-processing roadblock. Fitting all the charts and graphs into my 6”x9” template proved impossible: there was something about Apple’s Pages program that didn’t allow a long chart (three pages long, say) to flow from one page to another. Instead, I had to chop the chart into pieces that would fit on each page. And even then, I couldn’t make it work. So, as before, I asked friend Robin Koontz if I could hire her to format the document. Robin agreed, producing a publication-ready template — but even she thought it was difficult to do.

Of all the titles I’ve come up with for my self-published books, this one is my favorite: Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. The title promises information, lots of examples, and humor. The book, I think, delivers those things.

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, was published in October of 2014. It soon became my best-selling self-published book. To this day, Guide battles with Jack and Larry for the number one position in my monthly sales.

After I published Guide in 2014, I dove into the work of publishing the final volume of Research Notes to Women at Play. I self-published the first volume in 2010, and the third in October of 2015.

BookCoverNotesCoverIII-FINALIf you’ve been reading these posts on my self-publishing adventures, you may remember that I intended to donate my thousands of pages of research notes to the Baseball Hall of Fame . . . but then I got the brilliant idea of self-publishing a portion of the notes.

So, after the third volume was finally published, I began to organize my notes, so that I could deliver them to the BHOF in a neat order. I began in November, 2015, and I finished in July, 2016. The project was a big one. I delivered the notes in August, 2016. And then I spent the rest of the year catching up on what I had neglected while organizing the notes. So I did no self-publishing in 2016.

In fact, I thought it was unlikely that I’d self-publish anything for two or three years. But such was not the case.

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Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies vies with Jack and Larry for best-selling of Barbara Gregorich’s self-published books.

Adventures in Self-Publishing, Part 4

After I self-published two books in 2010 and another two in 2011, I planned to make Volume 2 of Research Notes my fifth self-published book, to come out in 2012. It was still my intention to donate all my research notes to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but I couldn’t do that until I finished publishing all three volumes.

As it turned out, I realized that instead of publishing Volume 2, I would end up self-publishing a totally different kind of book, though a baseball-related one. Jack and Larry is a nonfiction crossover (Ages 10 – Adult) book I had hoped a traditional publisher would offer me a contract on. I had been trying to get Jack and Larry published for more than three years. Editors told me they liked it . . . but they didn’t offer to publish it. Based on the personalized rejection letters I received, editors didn’t want to take a chance on a story set in Cleveland, Ohio: they didn’t consider that as exciting or as big a market as New York or Los Angeles. And some felt that the story should center on either Jack Graney or on Larry, his bull terrier — but not on both.

February 2012 would mark the 100th anniversary of Larry joining the Cleveland major league baseball team, then called the Cleveland Naps. By late summer of 2011 I realized that if I wanted the book out for that 100th anniversary, I would have to self-publish it.

And so I did.

BookCover5_5x8_5_Jack and Larry-FINAL-FINAL

Somewhere around late 2011 CreateSpace developed templates for all of its book sizes. (Lulu had had such templates all along.) So now it was possible for a user to download a template and paste her manuscript into it. In other words, she didn’t have to create her own template. I downloaded a CS template — but I wasn’t happy with either their default margins or their default typeface. Rather than change the CS template, I figured it would be easier to use my own 6″x9” template.

What I didn’t figure on was how difficult it would be for me to create the screened sidebars that appeared on some of the pages. Jack and Larry is written in free verse (also called lined prose), but some pieces of information appear in prose sidebars. Either because I couldn’t master Pages back in late 2011, or because it wasn’t possible to create pages of free verse with screened sidebars back in 2011, I asked Robin Koontz if she would like to design the book interior. Robin was willing to try, and she designed a beautiful looking interior — as well as an attention-grabbing, heart-warming cover.

J&LPg2

This page contains both a free-verse poem and a screened sidebar.

I published Jack and Larry early in 2012, so that it was out for the 100th anniversary of Larry joining the Cleveland Naps. The book received numerous reviews in baseball publications and bull terrier publications and became my best-selling self-published book. I have spoken on Jack and Larry in Ohio, Illinois, and Canada, and presented the story to middle-grade and junior-high school students. Even now, more than five years after its publication, I am still asked to give presentations on the story. Had I not self-published this book on the 100th anniversary of the event, I think it would never have been published. Timeliness of publication is a very strong argument for much self-publishing.

Because I spent all of 2012 giving talks on Jack and Larry, traveling, and publicizing the book in many different ways, it was the only book I self-published that year.

So, then: would I self-publish a sixth book in 2013? And would it be Volume 2 of Research Notes?

Yes. And No.

Either because I enjoyed writing the free verse in Jack and Larry, or because I loved the 6″x9” format, or for some reason still unknown to me — I decided to start 2013 by self-publishing my first collection of poetry.

Cover-with-Template

Because this book contained only poetry (no sidebars, as in Jack and Larry), I was able to format it myself. And even though CreateSpace now offered templates, I still continued to create my own, rather than download and modify theirs. (This would change when I self-published my tenth book.) Once again I duplicated my trusty 6″x9” template and pasted the pages of my manuscript within.

For this book, unlike any of the others, I wanted no header or footer information except for the page numbers. That is, I didn’t want my name or the title of the book to appear on the pages. My reasoning was that such information would, in one way or another, interfere with the lines of poetry. In addition to not wanting headers or footers to interfere with the poems, I also didn’t want the page numbers to interfere. So I made certain that the page numbers were in much smaller type, and that they appeared in the far-right corner of each page: where the lines of poetry were least likely to run into them.

Crossing the Skyway was my sixth self-published book. By this time I was thoroughly enjoying not only the writing of the books, but also designing and publishing them. I was finding (and continue to find) self-publishing rewarding on many different levels: immediacy; control of design; control of pricing; higher royalties; and, especially, collaboration between writer and designer. I enjoyed going through the cover design process with Robin Koontz, who not only was interested in how I “saw” the cover, but who also (because she read each manuscript), had her own ideas from a reader’s and designer’s perspective. From the very beginning, I found self-publishing to be a very rewarding process.

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In Jack and Larry the Cleveland Indians win the World Series.

Adventures in Self-Publishing, Part 3

After successfully publishing two books in 2010, I went for a third in 2011. My first self-published book was a reprint, my second was an original. Sound Proof, my third, was also an original. It’s a mystery novel, the sequel to my 1988 mystery, Dirty Proof. This is a novel that I could have submitted to publishers for traditional publication, but I really wanted to see how an original mystery would fare as a self-published book. So I published it myself.

This was an easy, enjoyable process. I simply took the 6″x9” template I had created for She’s on First, duplicated it, titled the template Sound Proof, and deleted the interior — while keeping the formatting. I got rid of the New Peninum font and replaced it with Palatino, an elegant, readable typeface. In less than a day I was able to insert my manuscript pages into the existing template, choose a font for the chapter numbers, write the copyright information, write the dedication, and write an About the Author page.

Had I gone ahead and published, I could have said that I formatted and self-published a book in a 24-hour period. But I didn’t go ahead and self-publish. What I did was go hunting for widows and orphans, and that added four or five additional days to my schedule. And a lot of woe.

As one who has read books since the age of five, as one who has observed what the pages of typographically beautiful books like like, and as one who is a former typesetter, I was determined to avoid pages that started with “widows” — a word or a few words which end a paragraph but start at the top of a new page. A widow is separated from the rest of its paragraph and kind of hangs at the top of a new page, all alone. In typesetting, widows are considered undesirable elements: sentences or paragraphs are rewritten so that the widow disappears. If the writing is made shorter, the widow ends up on the same page as the beginning of the paragraph. If the writing is made longer, at least one additional line of type moves to the top of the next page, so that there are two lines of type at the top. No widows.

SOUNDPROOF-CoverAn orphan, on the other hand, is the first line of a paragraph that is the last line on a page. That is, the first line of the paragraph starts at the very bottom of a page, and then the rest of the paragraph continues on the next page. Orphans are also considered undesirable in typesetting. No orphans.

In the process of eliminating widows and orphans, I found myself rewriting two or three times per chapter (there are 28 chapters in Sound Proof), just to change the page layout. What I was rewriting were lines in the final, thrice-proofread, formatted manuscript. My brain was in an eliminate-widows frame of mind — not in a look-for-typos frame of mind. And definitely not in a send-this-out-for-more-proofreading frame of mind. As far as I was concerned, the typos had all been eliminated. But in rewriting on the spot, I ended up making typos that I didn’t catch. Or, worse, I typed proper names that were correct for the characters in Sound Proof, but Spellcheck changed the spelling.

As a result, readers told me that Sound Proof contained noticeable typos: about fifteen of them. That is a lot of typos. Several months after the novel came out, I corrected each typo and resubmitted the manuscript to CreateSpace, and within a day my new, corrected manuscript was published.

No other book that I’ve self-published has contained so many typos. Most of my books have contained no typos: before I publish, I make certain the manuscript is read, re-read, read by outsiders, and spellchecked several times. Because of my experience with Sound Proof, I have, ever since, disregarded widows and orphans — because I associate them with a blunder on my part. If they occur, I let them occur. I find this preferable to trying to rewrite paragraphs and creating inadvertent errors that show up in print. And also preferable to sending out a thrice-proofread manuscript for a fourth proofreading.

After I self-published Sound Proof, I realized that it would be very easy (as well as very wise) of me to republish its predecessor, Dirty Proof. As with She’s on First, my agent made sure that the rights had reverted to me.

DIRTYPROOF-FINALCOVER-2So once again I duplicated my 6″x9” template, deleted the contents, and pasted in new content. Having made up my mind to ignore widows and orphans, I self-published Dirty Proof in less than 48 hours. The template was the same one I used for Sound Proof, as was the typeface and leading, and as were the margins and chapter headings. Robin Koontz designed both covers, and she made certain that the covers indicated the books were part of a set. A set which would become a series after I wrote a third Proof novel.

I’m happy that I self-published Dirty Proof, both because it was so easy to do, and also because many mystery readers insist on reading a series in sequence — so I wanted the first book available along with the second. As to my experiment to see how well a self-published mystery did, I was happy with Sound Proof’s first year of sales, and for two years it was the best-selling of my self-published books.

In 2010 I self-published two books, one a reprint and one an original. In 2011 I also self-published two books, one a reprint and one an original. That exhausted my supply of books to reprint: from here on, I thought, anything I self-published would be an original.
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Dirty Proof and Sound Proof are available as softcover books and as ebooks.

Adventures in Self-Publishing, Part 2

When I first considered self-publishing, what I was thinking of were manuscripts which, for one reason or another, would have taken years to find a home with a traditional publisher. So I was thinking of books I had already written. Or perhaps had not written yet, but soon would.

I was not, I assure you, thinking of going into my file cabinets, pulling out thousands of pages of research notes, and publishing them. Yet that’s what happened.

The existence of easy self-publishing through CreateSpace is what made me even think about publishing a collection of research notes. As a result of all my research on the history of women who played baseball, I had thousands of pages of information in my file cabinet. My original intention was to get all these notes in good order and then donate them to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

sc004dc527Which I would have done back in 2010 had self-publishing not come into my life. Because one day, as I was eyeing the stuffed file drawers, trying to figure out how and when I would put them in order, a thought crossed my mind. Two thoughts, actually: (1) Might baseball researchers, historians, teachers of the research paper, and others be interested in some of these notes? (2) If so, why couldn’t I self-publish the ones that were public domain (1923 or earlier)?

I was so excited by the possibility of this venture that I immediately sat on the floor in front of my file cabinet and began sorting. It soon became clear that, unless I wanted to publish a 500-page book (I did not), I would have to divide the notes into at least two volumes. Digging deeper into the files, I realized that three volumes allowed for a more logical division of the materials. Okay, then: I would self-publish three volumes of research notes!

Shoving future volumes two and three aside, I collected all the papers that would go into volume one and heaped them on my computer table. The stack was about 18 inches high.

The next day, I looked at CreateSpace book sizes again and decided that I wanted a bigger size than 6×9”, so that I could have wide margins in which people could write, and so that the book might more easily lie open. I chose the 8″x10” format and then created a document that size in my word processing — thankful that I had learned how to create such a format for my first self-published book. (See Adventures, Part 1.) CreateSpace at this time (2010) still did not offer format templates. Because I knew not only how to create a specific page size, but also how to change page margins, I ended up with a template that was 8 inches wide, with a 1-inch inside margin and a 1-inch outside margin. Because many of the newspaper articles were quoted in full and thus indented even more, readers usually saw a 1.25-inch margin.

Left Page V1              Right Page V1

From that time on (February, 2010) until early October, I daily typed notes into my 8×10 template. This was tedious work, not because the notes were uninteresting (some of them were quite lively reports from old newspaper articles), but because I had to create many headers and sub-headers and develop a style for the newspaper reproductions. In short, I was making design decisions as I created the book, entry by entry.

By October of 2010 my book was ready. Robin Koontz designed the cover for me, and in early November of 2010 I self-published Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume 1. Although both Robin and I knew there would be more than one volume of Research Notes, and although both of us knew that the CreateSpace POD process did not allow for printing on the spine of books that were fewer than 175 pages in length — neither of us anticipated something that would turn out to be a problem when I started to work on Volume 2. More about that in a later blog.

 

First Cover, V1

Cover design by Robin Koontz

This time around I was able to conquer the alternating headers problem: my left-hand pages contain the title of the book, my right-hand pages contain the names of the main players in Volume 1. But this time around I decided to put this information in the footers, not in the headers. My reasoning here was that information at the top of the page could interfere with the reader’s concentration.  The fact that I didn’t know how to create different left- and right-hand headers/footers with my first book, but was able to do it with my second, made me giddy with happiness!

If you recall, my goal was to format my second self-published book in three weeks or less. As it turned out, the process for my second book took longer than three weeks. In fact, it took eight months — but that’s because I was creating the manuscript as I went along. With She’s on First, the manuscript had been created years ago: my job was simply to format it. With Volume 1, creation, design, and formatting took place at one and the same time. This is a much slower process than pasting an existent manuscript into a template.

Also, this time around I did not use the New Pentium typeface that I had used in She’s on First. Initially I chose Palatino because I think it’s a beautiful, very readable typeface (with no problems when it comes to italics or Arabic numerals). But somewhere along the line I realized that Palatino is also a rather large typeface. I experimented with changing my document from Palatino to Times New Roman.

The result was mildly astonishing: my 8×10” book was reduced from 123 manuscript pages to 112 manuscript pages. At no cost in legibility. The reduction in page size helped me keep the price of the book at $12. (I would have preferred charging $10, but with the cuts taken by both CreateSpace and Amazon, my income per book would have been too low.)

A few days after publication I created a PDF of the document and self-published Volume 1 as a Kindle ebook. (More about PDFs as ebooks in a later blog.)

My Formatting Accomplishments
•  Created an 8″x10” Template
•  Created Wide Page Margins
•  Inserted Distinct Footers for Left- and Right-Hand Pages
•  Chose a Problem-Free Font
•  Designed the Interior with Consistent Headers and Sub-Headers
•  Decreased Total Page Count by Choosing a Different Font

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Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, Volume 1 not only reports the stories of 19th century female ballplayers, it sets the stage for the dramatic intersections of these stories in Volume 3.

Adventures in Self-Publishing, Part 1

Desktop Publishing (DTP) is the creation of print-ready documents using page layout skills on a personal computer. That is to say, a person sitting at her personal computer can use her word-processing/layout program to create a document that can be printed as a newsletter, or a greeting card, or a book. She can most likely print the newsletter or greeting card directly from her printer. But in order to print/publish the book, she will have to submit the document to a publisher.

That publisher can be an ebook publisher such as Kindle or Smashwords; it can be a traditional publisher which uses traditional printing presses; it can be a Print On Demand (POD) publisher such as CreateSpace or Lulu, which sends the document to various POD fulfillment centers who print and ship the book.

The kind of self-publishing I have explored and used is the POD kind in which the author creates the page design and cover, determines the price and distribution, and is responsible for the marketing. To date I’ve self-published ten books through CreateSpace, and I’ve turned all ten of them into Kindle ebooks after first publishing them as softcover books.

Bloomingdale Public Library

Selling my self-published books at the Bloomingdale Public Library, with Phil Passen

I first became interested in self-publishing in 2009, probably as a result of the fact that editors were taking way too long to respond to manuscript submissions. Also due to the fact that some of the rejection letters I received stated that the story was wonderful but, in the publishing house’s opinion, the book would not be profitable. So I reasoned that in addition to submitting manuscripts to traditional publishers, I would try to self-publish those stories which editors at mainstream publishing houses did not or might not want.

Back in 2009 I did a bit of research on the various self-publishing options. Lulu and CreateSpace (CS) seemed the most usable at that time, and I chose CreateSpace because marketing my books through Amazon (via CS) would be both easier and more profitable.

CreateSpace charges no setup fees: thus it’s possible to publish a book at no cost on CreateSpace. This is how I published each of my ten self-published books: at no cost.

No financial cost, that is. I confess there was definite wear and tear on me as I worked to conquer the difficulties of formatting manuscripts into facing-pages book form. In my public presentations (“How to Self-Publish on CreateSpace at No Cost”), I guide the attendees through the CreateSpace process step by step, from set-up through finished book. However, I find it more interesting to look at my experiences in chronological order: what I learned, book by book.

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1987, hardback, Contemporary Books

From the get-go I realized that self-publishing a book would most likely result in my making a few mistakes. If I were going to make mistakes, I would prefer to make them on a reprint, not a new book. The rights to She’s on First, my first novel, belonged to me, so I decided I would reprint it myself, as my first CreateSpace book.

I began formatting the manuscript in early November, 2009. That’s when I realized that even though I had been working with documents for decades, an 8.5″x11” manuscript page was N.O.T. the same as what was required for self-publishing a  book. After perusing the various book trim sizes that CS offered, I settled on the 6″x9” size. I guess my choice was a good one: two or three years later CS made the 6″x9” size its default selection.

I tried to create 6″x9” pages on Pages (Apple word processing software), but couldn’t. My attempts frustrated me for days and days. And days. Admitting defeat, I stuffed my MacBook into a backpack, hoisted the pack onto my shoulders, and walked to the Apple store on Michigan Avenue. There I explained my problem to the first person who offered assistance. He showed me how to set the page size in about, oh, three minutes.

Creating a 6″x”’ template was the single biggest problem I had to solve in formatting my first manuscript. At that time, CreateSpace didn’t offer templates. They do now, but because they didn’t then, I had a lot to conquer.

The second most difficult problem for me was figuring out how to make my word processing program show one header on a left-hand page and a different header on a right-hand page. Specifically, I wanted the title of my book to appear on the left-hand page and my name on the right-hand page.

I absolutely could not do this, and so She’s on First was published with the same header (the title) on both the left-hand and right-hand pages.

SOF Sample copy

My template, showing the layout of two facing pages

The typeface I chose for She’s on First was New Peninem, which no longer looks anything like it looked back in 2009: it was a serif font back then (as you can see in the pages above), but now it’s offered only as New Peninem MT, which appears to be a sans serif font. I have no idea what intrigued me about it back in 2009, because after my novel was published I realized that wherever I had used italics, the New Peninem font didn’t look good. It especially didn’t look good if there were Arabic numerals involved. Maybe, some day, I’ll go back and convert the entire document to a more readable typeface, such as Palatino or Times New Roman.

I think that by 2010 (if not even earlier) CreateSpace offered Cover Creator as a way for its customers to easily create book covers. For my first book (in fact, for my first nine books) I didn’t explore this option. That was because I wanted a really great cover for the reprint of She’s on First, and I didn’t particularly want a cover design that would look exactly like other cover designs. So I asked friend Robin Koontz, a writer/illustrator/designer, if she would design the cover. I paid Robin for her design, so, while I published for free on CreateSpace, I did lay out some money for the cover design. And I also paid for the cover photo. I’m both glad and grateful that Robin took care of dealing with the cover template that CreateSpace allowed me to download after the interior was approved.

SOF-COVER-FINAL-JAN16-2010 copy

The cover template, created by Robin Koontz, who, just before publication changed the color of the black line to a striking orange-red

Back in 2010, if you wanted to self-publish through CreateSpace you had to order a physical proof of your book and examine it. This later changed so that now you can proof your book online, without ever holding a physical copy in your hand. Even though I’ve published ten books with CreateSpace, I always order a physical copy. When I received my proof copy of She’s on First, I opened the book to the middle and saw that the interior margins I had created were too narrow: I had half-inch interior margins, but after seeing how tight they looked, I changed them to three-quarter-inch margins.

Where I Succeeded
•  Creating a 6×9” Template
•  Creating Page Margins
•  Inserting Headers
•  Inserting Page Numbers
•  Choosing Fonts
•  Examining the Proof Copy and Correcting It

Where I Failed
•  Creating Distinct Headers for Left- and Right-Hand Pages
•  Choosing a Problem-Free Font

In February of 2010 I published She’s on First as a softcover book. A few days later I submitted a PDF of the document to Kindle for publication as an ebook. This means I accomplished my goal of self-publishing a softcover POD book — and ebook! — with about three months work on my part. At this point I was already thinking about self-publishing a second book. My goal was to reduce my formatting time from three months to maybe three weeks.

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Read She’s on First and decide for yourself if the New Peninem typeface should be replaced with a different one.

Baroque Music and Multiple Endings

Multiple-ending stories are a kind of fiction in which the reader decides which plot path to pursue. The concept for the first wave of interactive fiction books, Choose Your Own Adventure children’s books, which were hugely popular during the 1980s and 1990s, was developed by Edward Packard in 1976.

The Choose Your Own Adventure stories had plots that branched out in several different directions. Think of a branching-plot novel as one in which the reader climbs up the main trunk of a tree, then chooses a branch to follow. And from that branch, another branch. And so on. In order for a branching story to move forward, the reader has to make choices very soon after the story starts. Each decision leads to further decisions, and this continues until the chain of decisions leads to an ending (or sometimes not!). In some of the books, 40 different endings were possible, and the ways to reach those endings varied. In other words, if on page four the reader chooses Option C, that doesn’t mean that Option C will always lead to Ending #15. Depending on the choices after C, a reader could end up with a different ending. Ending #24, say.

The Choose Your Own Adventure books were so popular that at least twenty other similar series were published. (Nothing inspires imitation like success.)

In a tree, branches do not double back on themselves and end up where they began. In a book or a game (as computer gaming, role-playing with action and consequences), though, readers/players may end up back where they started. This isn’t ideal, and it isn’t common — but it is possible, depending on the fiendishness of the branching-plot constructor.

Back in the early 1980s, I was asked to write a series of computer stories with branching story lines. These were for first- and second-graders learning English as a Second Language. At that time there were no books or articles I could find that explained how to write branching stories, so in order to understand what I needed to do, I read seven or eight Choose Your Own Adventure books.

bach-concert-for-2-violins

Armed with an understanding of how these books worked, I spread many 3×5 notecards out on my dining room table. What I wrote on one notecard would serve as one computer-screen worth of text. I also had pens in different colors of ink, plus a paper tablet and blank paper. Knowing that classical music, particularly Baroque, affects brain waves and analytical abilities, I put several Bach CDs on. Then I began work on the first of many stories (I think the work-for-hire assignment consisted of twelve branching stories).

The Baroque music did stimulate my brain. The first thing I did was create the first two computer frames of the story. On my diagram, these are frames A and B. The story is about Crandall, a hermit crab, outgrowing his shell and looking for a new home.

Branching

Then I considered various ways Crandall’s search could end, and I wrote four endings. These have squares around them on the diagram. They are R, 0, M, and Y.

Next, I put the diagram aside and began writing individual “frames” (parts of the story) for the results of the C choice. That branched further into a choice between F and G. The F choice ended the story at R. The G choice, however, led to another branch, a choice between J and K.

The J choice eventually led to a choice between O and P. O ended the story. But P did not — P actually took the story all the way back to the second step of the D choice. If you study the diagram, you can see that some of the choices lead to unexpected results. That was fun.

Here’s what my notecards looked like. Each notecard is one computer frame’s worth of story.

Crandall

I remember that it took me two eight-hour sessions to develop the first of these branching stories. It was indeed a lot of fun, but also a lot of very hard work. In some ways, this branching-story assignment was the most complex writing assignment I’ve ever had. I had to be able to think of different plot possibilities. Instead of choosing one possibility over the others and following the story to its cause-and-effect conclusion, I had to juggle the plot possibilities and keep each and every one alive. And make certain that each led to a cause-and-effect ending.

And these were very small stories for first- and second-graders. Imagine all the possibilities that a game creator must juggle!

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Barbara Gregorich suggests you listen to Baroque music while reading her Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Series Yes, Series No: Part I

I started first grade when I was five years old, and it was in first grade that I learned to read and that I was first introduced to the concept of a series of books. Up until that time, the only books I was familiar with were picture books that my mother or grandfather read to me, and none of these were series books.

The series I was introduced to were the Dick and Jane readers, published by Scott Foresman, and I must say, I was underwhelmed. Dick bored me. Jane bored me. Sally bored me. Spot was fun. The series was not. I honestly think that, if I thought about series at all (probably not), it was with the intention of avoiding them, on the assumption that they would all be like Dick and Jane.

But then came third grade and the bookmobile! Wow! I could stand in line with other kids and we could enter the bookmobile three at a time and we could choose three books each if we wanted to. And I chose a book titled The Black Stallion, by Waltur Farley. And that changed my entire attitude toward books in series.

Because now I wanted to know what happened next to Alec and the Black. I needed to know. I needed to know faster than the bookmobile could supply me with books, and so my mother took me to a bookstore and I bought the next book in the Black Stallion series. Three days later, I bought the next. (My mother was very generous when it came to keeping me supplied with books.) And so on . . . until I caught up with Walter Farley’s writing and had to wait for the next book in the series to come out.

Agony.

I was a fan and I wanted another book. I needed another book. I needed the story to go on and on and on and never end, always another adventure on the horizon. I wrote Walter Farley a fan letter. It’s possible that I urged him to hurry with the next book in the series. Only now, as an adult and a writer, do I realize how very difficult it is to produce a book a year. What’s good for fans is not necessarily good for writers.

unknownWalter Farley may have known before, during, or immediately after writing The Black Stallion that he would write a sequel. That book was The Black Stallion Returns. Two books do not make a series. That takes three books.

A sequel continues the story or expands on the theme of an earlier work. The Black Stallion Returns was clearly a sequel to the first book — the story continued from where it had left off. One of the reasons people love series is that they love to participate in the lives of other characters, be they heroes or villains — and they love to participate in these lives in a chronological, cause-and-effect order.

What’s good for fans (more books in the series they love) may not be good for the writer. I suspect that Walter Farley felt the need of a break from Alec Ramsey and his Arab stallion, because after writing a third book (a series!) titled Son of the Black Stallion, he wrote a fourth book about a boy and a horse, titled The Island Stallion. This was not part of the Black Stallion series. It was totally separate . . . although it eventually became its own series and it eventually linked up with the Black Stallion series when the two boy heroes met. The point is, I believe the writer needed a break from writing about the same people or the same horses all the time.

Today we’re inundated with series in fiction and even in nonfiction. Publishers like series because they sell more books. Readers like series because they get to spend more time with the characters they love.
But there was a time when writers didn’t automatically jump at the thought of writing a series of books. Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan, was thrilled that his first Chan novel, The House Without a Key, became a big hit. He was thrilled that the public clamored for more, More, MORE adventures of Charlie Chan. But Biggers wasn’t sure whether or not he should write a second book about Chan. He did feel that to write such a book would be financially wise. Up until the Chan novels, he had never written a sequel to any of his novels, and he felt he could probably make more money writing a series.

Unknown-1What worried Biggers was this: he believed that as soon as he wrote a sequel, he would have taken a step down a road from which there was no going back, because both his publisher and his public would demand nothing but Chan novels from him. This turned out to be absolutely correct: Biggers’ publisher wanted nothing but Chan novels, as did his public. Biggers did write a sequel (The Chinese Parrot) to the first Chan book, but as he lamented to his editor, “He who mounts a tiger cannot dismount.”

The public went crazy about Chan novels during the 1920s and early 1930s. Biggers received sackloads of fan mail, and his fans did not stop at praising him and telling him they wanted another Chan novel — they told him what the plot should be. Basically, they wanted Chan to take a trip from Hawaii to London to meet up with Inspector Duff, who had appeared in the third Chan book, Behind That Curtain.

These suggestions as to the plot of his fourth novel irritated Biggers. He wrote several letters to his editor complaining about the suggestions. In his fourth Chan novel, The Black Camel, Chan was in Hawaii and Inspector Duff was not present. I think Biggers was saying Phooey to the plot suggestions coming in from his millions of fans around the world. (The books were translated into 23 different languages.)

But.

What his fans suggested must have made an impression on Biggers, and he ended up using their suggestions — though not in the way they suggested them. In the fifth Chan book, Charlie Chan Carries On, Chan does not go to London. (Too bad, fans!) But a murderer does go to London. That murderer is on an around-the-world cruise. He murders somebody on the ship while it’s in London. And so Inspector Duff, who cannot solve the crime before the ship leaves, joins the passengers on their cruise. The murderer strikes again in Italy, but, again, Duff can’t determine who the murderer is.

Finally, halfway through the book, the cruise reaches Hawaii. So instead of Chan going to London to meet Duff, it’s Duff who comes to Hawaii to meet Chan. What the fans really wanted was a reunion of Chan and Duff, and Biggers gave them that, but in his own way. And I’m glad he did, because the fifth novel is delightful. Biggers managed to keep his hero out of the book for half its length, bring him in at a critical moment, and continue the exciting story of the around-the-world cruise.

As one who loves reading mystery series, but also as one who understands that authors need breathing space and creative room, I totally admire the way Biggers carried on his Chan series.

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Barbara Gregorich keeps wanting to make her two Proof novels into a series, but keeps getting waylaid by other books that demand to be written.