Tuesday, April 5, 2016

How Do You Know You’ve Written a Historical Novel?

Oddly enough, not everyone has the same definition of what a historical novel is. Some people say a story set 25 years ago is historical enough, while others say 50 years is the benchmark. And then there are those of us who say, what’s so historical about 50 years ago? You need to go farther back in time!
I didn’t know there was such a wide divergence on what constituted historical fiction until I decided to write about what makes a novel historical. All I knew was I had read an e-book purporting to be both historical and a novel, yet couldn’t see elements of either in the story.

The e-book I read fell into the category of a memoir because it was based on personal experience and lacked the structure of a novel. To me, the story also lacked the feel of a historical because the characters used the Internet and flew around in jets. The contemporary feel of the story conflicted with my vision of a historical novel.

A vision based on writing four historical novels.

Defining a Historical Novel

When I first started writing historical novels, traditional publishers removed any argument about what constituted historical fiction. According to their guidelines, if the story was set at least one hundred years in the past, it was historical fiction. As the twentieth century drew to a close, any story that took place prior to the twentieth century rated as historical fiction.

One hundred years, give or take a decade, works for me. As a former history instructor, I definitely believe a historical novel needs to have the feel of another era. I also think time needs to pass before an era can be studied enough to know what sets it apart from earlier eras. To me, history is like a fine wine and needs time to age. 

Reconstructing the Past

Based on that criteria, research of the time and setting is an important component of my story. I’ll need to reconstruct the past, being careful not to write with lenses clouded by modern mores. I want to go back in time, preferably to a period that pre-dates the life of any living human being. 

I’m not the only one who believes the person writing the story shouldn’t have lived the events. Until I wrote this blog, I only knew the e-book claiming to be a historical novel didn’t sit well with me. Not only because it lacked the structure of a novel, but because the writer had lived the story, he didn’t have to research an earlier time. Therefore, the claim on his title page was false. It was not a historical novel.

Importance of Labels

Labeling your e-book correctly is important because all the marketing information will rely on the subject label you choose. To put an e-book into distribution, you have to select the correct subject code in accordance with the Book Industry Standards and Communications (BIAC).

As an indie publisher you get to decide how to categorize your e-book’s subject. Think about your story. Keep in mind that labels help you sell your e-book, but incorrect labels frustrate the reader. If you mislabel your e-book, instead of gaining a reader who will share your work, you lose a reader who will tell others not to read anything you write.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Calling It a Novel Does Not Make It So

As an indie publisher you get to call the shots as to how to label your beloved manuscript. If you hang the word “novel” on your published opus, be sure it is a novel. The act of printing “Historical Fiction Novel” on the title page when the story is not a novel and probably not historical only serves to alienate the reader. You do not want the reader to feel he or she has been tricked into buying a mislabeled book.

How Do You Know If You’ve Written A Novel? 
Writing comes in all shapes and sizes from a short story to a personal memoir, but each type of writing has a structure or framework peculiar to it. A short story is not a personal memoir even though they are both forms of written communications.

A novel has its own structure. If your story doesn’t adhere to this basic structure, it isn’t a novel. All too often, an author will write a “slice of life” narrative, a meandering story that lacks the fundamental elements of a novel. Readers expect to find certain elements in a novel when they read it. 

Structure of a Novel 
What fundamental elements do readers expect to find in a novel?

  • a hero or heroine they care about 
  • a plot or skeleton the story hangs on 
  • a goal 
  • motivation 
  • conflict 
  • satisfying resolution

These elements give the story or novel a recognizable structure. Sure, novels contain much more than this, but we’re talking about the basics. If the novel doesn’t have a main character with whom the reader can empathize, there will be no connection between the reader and
the story. If the story doesn’t have an ordered sequence of events that move the reader from Point A to Point B, then the story isn’t going anywhere and lacks a plot. Plot has often been compared to a road map of where the characters are going and without a plot, the story lacks cohesion. 

Characters also need reasons for behaving as they do (goal and motivation), but if life comes too easy for them (no conflict), the story is boring. Tying all these elements together at the end in a satisfying way keeps readers happy. They’ve gone on a journey from A to B with a character they love who faced and overcame obstacles…

You get the picture.

Why Readers Crave These Elements 
First of all, these are the time honored elements of storytelling. Our ancestors didn’t sit around the fire at night to listen to stories that meandered all over the map about imaginary characters who didn’t do anything. Today’s readers aren’t all that different from those ancestors. They want a character’s story to have a purpose, for the character to make a meaningful life journey. Readers want characters who have solid goals and compelling motivations for what they. As for needing conflict, a novel without conflict is like taco sauce without the chili peppers. You still have a sauce, but it’s tasteless.

Lots of conflict makes readers happy because they aren’t interested in reading about Utopia, they’d rather read about how Utopia becomes Dystopia. They like to read about how the main character faces conflict and deals with it. They want to empathize and root for him or her. Readers want to watch as the character grows and changes.

Whatever the goal, the motivation, or the conflict, the reader wants it all packaged nicely at the end with a resolution that fits the story. No author wants a reader to walk away from the novel disgusted because the ending failed to satisfy.

Character versus Plot Driven 
Now, your novel may be more character driven which means character growth overshadows the plot, or your story may be plot driven, in which case the plot may be stronger than the characters. That said, the novel will still have a main character with a goal and reason (motivation) to work toward the goal, conflicts that prevent achieving the goal, and a solid resolution.

A novel’s plot does not meander hither, thither, and yon with no purpose. Its characters have to incite empathy, they have to make decisions, and change by the end of the story. They have to face conflict that can rip their beloved goals away. They cannot be given a story in which nothing really happens and their goal is easily achieved.

They need the structure of a novel. Only when you have created a story using the basic elements of a novel can you put the word “novel” on your beloved opus.

Next month we'll look at how I define historical novels.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Retrofiting Print Books Into E-books

We owned a computer testing company about fifteen years ago that specialized in giving Federal Aviation Administration tests and other commercial tests. Customers took the computer exams under our supervision using secure computers linked to a test database.

The test database was provided by a nationally known education company who built their reputation on after school tutoring and test preparation. They had taken their pencil and paper knowledge and slapped it into some software programming. The end product proved to be a cumbersome and frustrating system for test administrators, as well as test takers, to use.

One day a “from the ground up” testing software company approached us about using their test database. Once we learned about their program, we jumped at the chance to use their software to provide computer tests for our customers. The software was designed to provide digital tests, not to provide pencil and paper tests digitally.

Say That Again

Let’s look at that last sentence again. This company provided software written for digital testing. The old company had taken paper tests and slapped them into the computer. It may seem as if there was no real difference between slapping the old way of testing into a software program versus designing software for giving digital tests, but there was. 

But wait. How does this have anything to do with print and electronic book publishing? 

I often see a similar disconnect between a print book and its e-book counterpart because there appears to be a lack of understanding about the difference between print and e-books. Page after page, it is obvious the publisher–be it major traditional publishers or small traditional publishers or an independent publisher–hasn’t bothered to learn about e-book publishing, 

Still not sure what I mean? Let’s look at traditional publishing versus EPUB publishing.

Traditional versus EPUB

In traditional paper publishing, the font is locked in place. You can turn the hardback book in any direction, the print never moves. It’s fixed. If you want to read the text, you have to align yourself with the text. This is not true of an EPUB. This type of electronic publication is designed to flow the text to match the device the reader is using. Or even the direction of the device. You can turn your e-reader every which way and the text will change and flow into a readable format. There is no need for you to stand on your head to read your e-book even if you turn your tablet upside down.

Those Pesky Hyphens

Due to this difference, there are some elements in print that do not transfer well to EPUB. One print element I see all too often in poorly executed e-books is hyphenation. Print books use hyphens to help fit words on a fixed page. As I mentioned, no matter what way you turn that print book, once the words are printed, they are not going to move (unless, of course, you’re trying to read while imbibing lots of alcohol). 

Obviously, hyphens perform an important function in print books. That said, hyphens have no place in an EPUB because a hyphenated word can land anywhere on a page. The digital format precludes the need for hyphens. The words are going to wrap and flow. If a hyphenated word is not removed from the electronic version of a print book, it shows up anywhere on the page. Let’s look at an example.

Print version:

George grew up fascinated by insects which led him into a lifelong career as an en-                       

(Okay, the hyphen example looks great in "Compose" but when I hit "Publish," the computer puts entomologist on one line with the hyphen! So imagine the tomologist part as starting at the margin on the next line.)

EPUB version:

George grew up fascinated by insects which led 
him into a lifelong career as an en-tomologist.

Not good.

A good proofreader would know this and remove all the hyphens–a simple task with find and delete. Yet I see dangling hyphens all the time in EPUBs that were first published in print.

Scene Breaks

Another issue with shoving a print book into an EPUB is the correct placement of scene breaks. In an EPUB book I recently read, the publisher chose to format all the paragraphs with single spacing. To differentiate the paragraphs, the publisher chose to double space between them. So far, so good. 

This worked for separating the paragraphs, but no allowances were made for the scene breaks. Every paragraph was set apart with a double space. Nothing warned the reader of a scene break or change of point of view. No asterisk or cutesy symbol, i.e. a fleuron. 

What does this mean for the reader? Confusion. Jarring jumps from one scene to another. Unexpected change to the point of view character. It means being thrown out of the story and backtracking to figure out who is now controlling the story or where the characters are located. 

Connecting the Dots

How does all this connect to my opening anecdote about that first computer test company? I think too many publishers are still trying to shove a print book into electronic format rather than learning how to create an e-book in its own right. Granted, a traditionally published author may have no control over the process of how his or her print books become e-books. 

But the indie published author has no such excuse. 

My suggestion for the indie publisher: Capitalize on the strengths of e-book format rather than slapping a print version into a poorly planned e-book.