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Book review: Constance, by Patrick McGrath

 

Constance, by Patrick McGrath

Constance, by Patrick McGrath

Constance is an intriguing story of a young woman and her much older husband in 1960s Manhattan. Constance, the titular character, is haunted, aloof and intriguing; Sidney, her academic husband, is a divorced father of one who is still trying to find his niche.

The book is well written and draws you in; however, the fact both characters’ stories are told in the first person, with no real distinction in style between them, is a little unclear at first. While it is fascinating to read the points of view of both characters, I cannot help but wonder what would have been lost by telling it in third person, because it could have kept the limited narrative style while avoiding any confusion. The other thing that bothered me was the absence of inverted commas for speech, with dialogue indicated only by dashes. I’ve seen this a few times and it appears a modern way of doing it, but it does take some getting used to. But then again, maybe that’s just me.

The story is about two things – Constance’s need to work out where she fits, both in her husband’s life (littered with fellow academics, students, and the ex-wife and pre-pubescent son), and in that of her family, which consists of a father she resents and a significantly younger sister for whom she feels responsible. That her choices and actions can have a negative impact on her sister’s life seems to escape her; that she has any impact whatsoever on her father is also beyond her comprehension. For much of the story she is not only happy to but insistent on playing the victim, a fact which draws her wrath when her husband dares raise it with her.

Sidney, on the other hand, seems oblivious to the fact he is playing with fire when he feels an affinity and connection with Constance’s reviled father and occasionally takes his side against Constance’s. In this way he fits the stereotype of the absent-minded professor who knows everything there is to know about his chosen subject but nothing about human interactions or behaviour. He is able to offer clinical diagnoses of Constance, but seems unable to put these into a human context and deal with her in an appropriate manner; it is unsurprising that he succeeds only in driving her away.

Of course, this is a love story – or a romance, if you go with the definition that a love story has a sad ending and a romance a happy one – and our principal couple can find a way to connect in the end, even if they suffer many trials and tribulations on the way. In that sense it is masterfully told, because for much of the narrative it is hard for the reader to see any way out of this, yet when the story ends it feels like it could not have gone any other way. In another sense, though, the fact the characters are not particularly likeable and are far more frustrating than anything else means it is difficult to engage with the story. This was one I finished because I felt like I should, rather than having a need to know what happened next. From that perspective, it was not told masterfully at all.

Overall, Constance is the paradox of a brilliantly-written book which gives the impression it could have been better. It has all the ingredients of a great novel – deep and complicated characters, intriguing narrative, twists and turns, human suffering and resolution – but without more engaging characters, it seems to fall just short of its potential. I feel it could well become a classic in its own right; however, for an engaging read, I would be more likely to pick up something else.

 

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Constance, by Patrick McGrath
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
244 pages (paperback)
Available from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and ebook

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Guest post: Online Self Publishing (part III), by Peter McLennan

Hello all! Today I’m thrilled to be bringing you the third and final installment of Peter McLennan’s guide to self-publishing. If you missed the first two, you can find part one here and part two here, and I thoroughly recommend checking them out. If you’ve ever considered self-publishing but didn’t really know how to go about it, then this series is a must-read. So, without further ado, here’s Peter.

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eBook printing experiments

eBook printing experiments (Photo credit: proboscis)

Part III: After Uploading

In previous articles I’ve talked about laying the foundations  and formatting your manuscript  for on-line self-publishing. In this final article, I’ll outline some tactics to help with checking the results of your efforts.

Checklist

Checking multiple document formats multiple times is obviously repetitive. To speed things up and help me focus on likely problem areas, I produced a checklist of issues to look for. If I get enough encouragement, I could be convinced to put it up on my web site.

In general, you need to look for errors in font, text size, page alignment, paragraph spacing and alignment, indentation, line breaks, pagination, character formatting and special characters (eg, ellipses, m-dashes, non-breaking spaces and ‘smart’ quotation marks).

CreateSpace

CreateSpace produces hard copies, but you can check the contents well enough using on-line tools and/or the .pdf download.

Unfortunately, the only way to be sure that your cover is okay is to actually buy a proof copy of the book. If you order a proof copy, you aren’t permitted to continue with publishing until the book has been printed and dispatched to you, so if you’re in a hurry you might want to risk-manage this.

Kindle Direct

Checking your KDP conversion is easy, since Amazon provides a free program for this. You should see what your eBook looks like in different versions of the Kindle (which the program lets you do), since not all Kindles are created equal.

Smashwords

Smashwords eBook conversions are the hardest to check because of the plethora of possible formats and the limitations of the Smashwords converter. I found it best to look at each format in at least two eBook readers since the readers themselves can be idiosyncratic: if you only use one reader, you can’t know whether an anomaly is inherent in your eBook or just the reader being quirky. Here are the readers I used and the formats they handle:

Some file types and viewers do not allow the use of multiple fonts, and some are unable to render bold and italics. If you’ve used such formatting to emphasise or clarify things in your text, you need to ensure that your meaning remains clear in the absence of such cues. Alternatively, you can opt not to publish your work in those file types that don’t meet your needs.

Unfortunately, some eBook formats, or conversions thereto, are so crude as to be unacceptable. For example, .pdb turns all your smart quotes, ellipses and m-dashes into gibberish. I didn’t need any more gibberish in my book: I’d already written enough of it. Rather than further dumbing down my formatting (which would have detracted from the more popular eBook formats), I chose not to publish a .pdb version. Some writers publish separate versions for the less capable formats, whereas others just sell defective documents (check out a few .pdb files on Smashwords and you’ll soon see what I mean).

 

.pdb silliness: note the inconsistent font sizes in the table of contents and the incorrect special characters

In addition to eBook files, Smashwords also produces two formats for on-line reading. These often have formatting errors that are not present in any other format. Here are two examples:  the preliminary material on page one should be centred, and the first paragraph of the story should have the same font as the subsequent paragraphs. Such errors are distressing since this is the format that a prospective customer is most likely to view prior to purchasing, and they make the author look amateurish. Further simplifying the styles in the document would probably fix these problems—but at the expense of the ‘real’ eBook formats. I chose to maximise the quality of the latter.

.html silliness: note the inconsistent font face and size

 

Smashwords will automatically insert your cover image into some of the formats, but not all of them (most notably, .pdf). If you want your cover image to appear in all formats, you need to insert it into your Word document. Supposedly the Smashwords converter is smart enough to detect this and avoid duplicate covers, but I could never get this to happen. Ergo, I had to choose between having two covers in some versions or no cover in some versions. I opted for the former.

Smashwords strongly encourages the creation of a table of contents since some distributors insist on it. These can be especially problematic. Several eBook formats couldn’t handle the character formatting I needed for one chapter heading, forcing me to rename the chapter.

Repeat

When you’ve looked at every combination of format and reader and made appropriate changes to your manuscript, you need to upload the new version and repeat until you’re happy with the results. For Smashwords, I needed four such cycles.

Marketing

With over one million eBooks for Kindle, and 38 million hard copy books on Amazon, the odds of your book being discovered by a simple search are negligible. Judicious use of metadata to describe your work will help, but marketing is essential. Each self-publishing site provides some recommendations and facilities to help with this, and some other eminently sensible advice is here.

Shameless Advertisement

And speaking of marketing…

If you’ve found this information useful, then you probably wouldn’t like the novel that yielded it. But you might have kids, nephews, etc, who would! It’s about a fourteen-year-old named Jason who can’t work out how to get climate change fixed—until he saves the life of the mysterious and powerful Graham. Graham promises a reward, and Jason asks him to do something to stop climate change. The request is caught by the media, so Jason thinks the man’s trapped and has to keep his word.

But Graham’s got other ideas.

Jason’s got a fight on his hands.

—————————–

Peter McLennan

Peter McLennan served for 28 years in the Royal Australian Air Force, where he focused on strategic planning. He has tertiary qualifications in engineering, information science and government, and a PhD in planning for uncertainty. He has had several non-fiction monographs and papers published.

Peter now writes fiction from his home in country Victoria, Australia. His hobbies include playing computer games badly and developing software badly. You can find Who Can Save the Planet? online in print versionKindle, and other eBooks.

Thanks, Peter! I certainly feel like I know a LOT more about self-publishing than I did a couple of months back, before I’d read these. If this has helped you out at all, I’d really appreciate if you left a comment thanking Peter for sharing his experiences, because let’s face it, the more we know about this sort of thing before going into it, the better prepared we are.

 

 

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Guest post: Online Self Publishing (part II), by Peter McLennan

Today we have Part II in YA author Peter McLennan’s three-part series on the hows and wherefores of self publishing. If you missed Part I three weeks ago, I thoroughly recommend you check it out if you have ever considered self publishing, or even if you are just curious to know exactly what’s involved. I know it was an eye-opener for me, albeit a welcome one should I ever decide to go down that path. Anyway, if you have read the first instalment you’ll be wanting me to skedaddle so you can read Part II, so without further ado … here’s Peter!

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English: A variety of laptops, smartphones, ta...

English: A variety of laptops, smartphones, tablets and ebook readers arranged. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the second part of my trilogy on on-line self-publishing. Now that you’ve laid the foundations , you’re ready to reformat your work so it can be digested by the sites that will convert it into things people can buy. (Of course, you should keep a pristine copy of your manuscript safely tucked away, and only work on copies for each submission.)

Documentation on how to reformat your work is available on each of the self-publishing web sites. I’m only going to mention tricks and traps that aren’t otherwise clear or are easily lost amid the eReams of information available.

CreateSpace

CreateSpace is the print-on-demand supplier to Amazon. Since the ultimate product is a hard copy, you need to reformat your document so that it looks like a book. This involves adjusting the page size, margins, pagination, etc. CreateSpace provides templates that you can use or refer to, but be careful: these can be defective, with inconsistent font sizes, etc.

While CreateSpace accepts uploads in .doc format, I found that this didn’t always get the page alignment right. The solution was to convert the .doc to .pdf using Word 2010, and then upload the .pdf.

The hardest part about using CreateSpace is cover design (unless you use one of their prefabricated layouts). Since the cover must be printed, it needs to be done in high resolution: at least 300 dpi. Worse, because it may not be printed and trimmed precisely, it has to be larger than your book, there are areas you can’t use, the spine width depends on the page count, there has to be a barcode on the back, and so on. Fortunately, CreateSpace also provides templates for covers.

I used PaintShop Pro (~A$45 here) to do the artwork, then PrimoPDF (free) to convert it to .pdf for upload.

eBooks—General

You’ve slaved over the formatting of your masterpiece until it’s perfect. Bad news: eBook readers (the gadgets, not the people) aren’t as smart as word processors. Worse news: they’re wilful. They’ll reformat your work as they see fit, they won’t get it quite right, and they’ll all do it differently. Regardless of the sophisticated formatting in your word processor file, eBook readers will happily place section breaks at the top of a page, start a line with an m-dash, make your block quotes look the same as the rest of the text, etc. While your aim is obviously to minimise such problems, you won’t be able to eradicate them entirely. If you’re a perfectionist (and you probably should be), this is rather galling.

The good news is that eBooks require smaller covers, so you can easily downsize your CreateSpace cover for them.

Kindle Direct

The main problem I experienced with the Kindle Direct conversion was that I wanted to use a sans-serif font for block quotes to distinguish them from regular text. However, Kindle refused to grant my wish so I had to resort to other tactics such as indentation, italics and font size variations. You can see an example on page 1 of the free preview here (compare the paperback and Kindle versions).

A block quote as printed: note sans-serif font

 

A block quote in Kindle

Smashwords

Smashwords is ambitious: it tries to create nine different formats of eBook from your source file. It’s also relatively crude, and may require you to dumb down your formatting and do things its way. In particular, you’ll need to master the use of ‘styles’ in Word. Unfortunately, I’d already mastered them too well and was using a sophisticated hierarchy; eg, my ‘para-first’ style was based on my ‘para’ style, which was based on my ‘normal’ style.

My first Smashwords conversions were poor. Distressingly, as soon as you upload something for conversion, Smashwords assumes the results are perfect: they go public straight away and are queued for distribution to other sellers (Apple, Barnes and Noble, etc). You don’t get to check them first. As a result, potentially defective copies of your work are offered for sale, only to be replaced with the next trial potentially within minutes. (Smashwords does provide an option to ‘unpublish’ your work which minimises the duration for which dodgy versions are out there, but there are dire warnings against doing so.) Because of this, I recommend that you be as prepared as possible when commencing the Smashwords publishing process, avoid excessive experimentation, and be ready to fix errors and upload corrected versions in quick succession once you’ve started.

To avoid spamming the world with defective eBooks (and there’s enough of them already), I quickly succumbed to doing things the way Smashwords recommends rather than trying to gently massage my masterpiece. This drastic process involves stripping all the formatting from your document and then putting it back in again—but in the Smashwords-approved manner.

Actually, I still cheated a bit. If you’ve already used multiple paragraph styles (and you should have), you can keep track of them by prepending the style name to the paragraph mark (¶ ) for the relevant paragraph; eg, ‘Chapter 1’ becomes ‘Chapter 1#CHAPHDG#¶ ’. This makes it much easier to apply Smashwords-friendly styles after you’ve purged the formatting, especially if you use ‘Find and Replace’ to automate the process.

In addition to applying styles, you also have to reinstate character formatting and some special characters.

Even after this radical surgery, my lean-and-mean document still confused Smashwords slightly. I suspect that it inherited some non-standard customisations from my Normal.dot template. If this may affect you, I recommend renaming your current Normal.dot (or .dotx) for safe keeping. Next time you run Word, it will create a nice vanilla one which will be more to Smashwords’ taste.

Part III …

…of this series will provide some tips for checking the results of your conversions.

Shameless Advertisement

Who Will Save the Planet? by Peter McLennan

If you’ve found this information useful, then you probably wouldn’t like the novel that yielded it. But you might have kids, nephews, etc, who would! It’s about a fourteen-year-old named Jason who can’t work out how to get climate change fixed—until he saves the life of the mysterious and powerful Graham. Graham promises a reward, and Jason asks him to do something to stop climate change. The request is caught by the media, so Jason thinks the man’s trapped and has to keep his word.

But Graham’s got other ideas.

Jason’s got a fight on his hands.

—————————————–


Peter McLennan served for 28 years in the Royal Australian Air Force, where he focused on strategic planning. He has tertiary qualifications in engineering, information science and government, and a PhD in planning for uncertainty. He has had several non-fiction monographs and papers published.

Peter now writes fiction from his home in country Victoria, Australia. His hobbies include playing computer games badly and developing software badly. You can find Who Can Save the Planet? online in print versionKindle, and other eBooks.

Thanks Peter! This is all really interesting information. I’m looking forward to seeing what you have to say in Part III (due for publication on Friday 27 July).

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Book review: Linked, by Hope Welsh

Linked, by Hope Welsh

This is a review of the book Linked, by Hope Welsh, a paranormal romance / thriller.

I am always a little cautious about paranormal romances, probably because of the Twilight effect – namely, that after the success of Twilight the market was flooded with teen paranormal romance titles, often of dubious quality. As a result, anything with vampires, especially, usually has me running for the hills. On that note, Linked was a pleasant surprise, with not a vampire to be seen. Evil spirits and shapeshifters, yes, but not vampires. :)

The book is short, and this is both a curse and a blessing.  A blessing because it’s refreshing to have a well thought-out story expressed with so few superfluous words and scenes; a curse because I felt that some aspects of it should have been fleshed out more.  The romance aspect, without giving too much away, felt a little rushed – while a connection like that in the short space of time in which the story takes place doesn’t bother me in itself, I didn’t really feel the relationship. Perhaps if more space was allocated to the feelings of the characters, their yearnings, confusion, maybe even fighting against the surprising strength of their attachment, it would have felt more convincing.

In addition, I would have liked more exposition about the evil spirit that is stalking the heroine, because that also felt underdone. Perhaps more elaboration on the spirit’s history and why it took the prophecy so seriously might have helped.  I quite liked the lack of information at the start because it felt more mysterious and made me want to read more, but by the end I still felt that spelling it out more would have been useful. As this is the first book in a series, though, it’s likely that I just need to read more books to find out what I thought was missing.  :)

That said, though, it was an entertaining read – easy, engrossing and well written. The story was well thought out and had enough suspense for me to keep turning the pages (or hitting the “next page” button on my kindle – but you know what I mean) to find out what happened next. The characters were solid and believable and the premise well thought out. If you are looking for a decent, quick read with a bit of suspense and paranormal themes, I can recommend this book wholeheartedly.

Linked, by Hope Welsh
Published by ROM On Line
136 pages (paperback)
Available from Amazon.com as ebook or paperback 

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99 Reasons Why – the ending (or, well, one of them)

99 Reasons Why cover

99 Reasons Why, by Caroline Smailes

You may or may not be aware of the recently released book 99 Reasons Why, by Caroline Smailes. It came out on Monday and has eleven possible endings, depending on how you want to read it.  Nine of these endings are available in the ebook (available from Amazon and itunes): the Kindle version has a series of questions you answer that determine which ending is best for you, whereas the iPad version has a spinning wheel to work out which one to use. Ending #10 has been handwritten by Caroline, and will be auctioned off for charity, while ending #11 has been made available to the blogosphere where people like me can share it with the world.

I hope you find this possible ending interesting enough to want to read the whole book. I certainly did!

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99: the reason why I was only worth ninety-nine quid

It’s been six days since the little girl in the pink coat went missing and me Uncle Phil’s in me bedroom.

We’ve been watching the little girl in the pink coat’s mam on the news. She was appealing to the public for witnesses.

‘Didn’t realise she had a mam,’ I says, looking at me telly.

‘Everyone’s got a mam, pet,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘She sold her story to The Sun,’ I says, looking at me telly.

‘Got a few quid,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

I nod.

‘She wanted nowt to do with that bairn before all this,’ me Uncle Phil says, looking at me telly.

‘Do you know where she is?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

‘Belle?’ me Uncle Phil asks me.

I nod.

‘She’s safe,’ me Uncle Phil says to me. ‘Your mam’s keeping an eye on her.’

‘Can I be her mam?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

‘No, pet, you’re a filthy whore,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

I nod.

‘Can you make Andy Douglas come back, Uncle Phil?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

Me Uncle Phil shakes his head.

‘I love him,’ I tell me Uncle Phil.

‘Andy Douglas is your brother, pet. You didn’t seriously think Princess Di was your mam, did you?’ me Uncle Phil asks me.

I nod.

‘You’re a cradle snatcher just like your mam,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

I nod.

‘Your mam miscarried when she found out I’d been banging Betty Douglas. Betty was expecting you,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

I don’t speak.

‘When you was born, your mam went mad and I ended up buying you from Betty Douglas for ninety-nine quid,’ me Uncle Phil says.

‘Ninety-nine quid?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

‘I paid a hundred but got a quid change for some chips for your mam and dad’s tea,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘You bought me?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

I’m a little bit sick in me mouth.

‘It was the right thing to do,’ me Uncle Phil says to me. ‘I got Betty Douglas pregnant straight away with Andy.’

‘I’m pregnant,’ I says to me Uncle Phil. ‘I’m pregnant with me brother’s baby,’ I says, and then I throws up on me purple carpet.

‘You’re a filthy whore,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘What am I going to do?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

‘You’re going to have the baby,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘Have me brother’s baby?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

‘Then I’m giving it to Betty Douglas to bring up,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘You what?’ I says to me Uncle Phil.

‘It’s the right thing to do,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘I can’t—’ I says to me Uncle Phil.

‘It’s either that or I’ll make you disappear,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

I don’t speak.

I’m thinking, they’re all a bunch of nutters.

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