Unlocking the Secrets of the Bestseller

Image of the New York Times Newspaper

by C. K. MacLeod

What are the ingredients of a bestselling novel?

In the book The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel, Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers use machine learning and a text-mining tool — the bestseller-ometer — to study the characteristics of the bestselling novel.

What the bestseller-ometer reveals is specific and potentially helpful. Using computers to assess a novel's bestselling potential raises and number of questions:

  • Will acquisitions editors use algorithms and text mining tools to determine whether a book is worth investing in?
  • Could indie authors use these tools see if a book will sell?
  • Could editors use it to help writers craft a more marketable book?

I’ll leave it to you to decide. For now, it’s worth thinking about what Archer and Jockers’ research has to say about books that sell brilliantly, and those that don’t.

In a nutshell, The Bestseller Code reveals helpful information about bestseller theme, style, plot, titles and characters, as well as something about the kind of education and training that bestselling authors have. Archer and Jocker's have compiled lists of must-read novels, selected by the bestseller-ometer, that demonstrate bestselling qualities that writers could emulate. If you're suspicious about a computer’s ability to assess bestselling qualities, you could read the books yourself and arrive at your own conclusions.

While I can’t do justice to Archer and Jockers’ research here , I will say this: some of the writing advice on this blog lines up with the characteristics of bestselling novels:

For crafting a well-designed plot, see Why Writers Love Scrivener (and Why Editors Will, Too!)
For writing in the “language of the people,” see Make Your Writing Readable with the Plain Language Macro and Hemingway Editor: A Proofreading Tool for Writers
For choosing verbs, consider your use of adverbs: Hunt Down Adverbs with a Macro
For writing shorter, tighter sentences, see Omit Needless Words with a Macro

If it’s your goal to best sell, trying the tips and tools in these articles can’t hurt. At the very least, they’ll help you to see ways to improve your writing. In the wider context, the information in The Bestseller Code is worth considering if your goal is to write a book that people will take time to read — and pay money for.

Image by Charles LeBlanc

 

Choosing the Best Words with Google Ngram Viewer

Magnetic word tiles

C.K. MacLeod

Recently, I edited course content for the Teaching LGTBQ Students course on coursesforteachers.ca. The writer used the terms two-spirit and two-spirited interchangeably. I am not the subject-matter expert in this collaboration, so I didn’t feel qualified to decide on the correct term to use. But as an editor, it’s my job to suggest to the writer if two terms mean the same thing. It's best to pick one and use it consistently throughout.

When you’re deciding on which word to use, Google Ngram Viewer is the tool I turn to. It is a database of 450 million words, gleaned from university library print books that were scanned for the Google Books project (I even found a scan of my Masters thesis on an obscure topic). Search results from this database of words can suggest

  • which words are more common than others
  • when words may have first emerged in the lexicon

According to the graph generated by Google Ngram, “two-spirit” is the more common term.

Because Google Ngram can only search words from books published up to 2008 (was that when the database was last updated?), I decided to consult a large group of editors for expert advice on current usage. Two-spirit it was.

Armed with this knowledge, I approached the writer with my recommendation.

Applications

In the example above, I used Google Ngram to determine which term is more common. Ngram is also helpful for determining if a word was part of the lexicon at a certain point in history — which is good to know if you’re writing historical fiction. See Carla Douglas’s article Use Google Ngram’s Viewer to Craft Authentic Fiction for more details.

Limitations

No tool is ironclad, and it’s always important to understand a tool's limits. Sarah Zhang’s article The Pitfalls of Google Ngram to Study Language will help you use Ngram's powers wisely.

How to Use Ngram

Ngram isn't difficult to use. Marzia Karch’s article Google Books Ngram Viewer explains the ins and outs of basic and advanced searches, so you can begin using Ngram right away.

Image by Terry Johnston

Editors or Editing Tools? A 10-Point Comparison

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by C.K. MacLeod
Editor or editing tools? Sometimes it’s hard to decide. Sometimes it’s not.
Here are few points to consider:

  1. Editing tools are widely available and free or cheap. Editors are widely available, but not free or cheap. If you hire an editor, do not get attached to your first-born or your fur baby.
  2. Editors will point out the mistakes in your writing. This will ruffle your feathers. (Tip: If you want to work with an editor, you need to stop wearing feathers.) Tools will point out the mistakes in your writing. You will be unbothered by this. You can continue to wear your feathers.
  3. Tools don’t always tell the truth. You will need to be discerning. Editors don’t always tell the truth. You should be thankful for that.
  4. Tools will make you do the heavy lifting — they’ll identify writing errors, but they won’t fix them. Editors will find and fix most writing errors. And then, like Rumpelstiltskin, they’ll ask you to hand over your first-born.
  5. Tools won’t roll their eyes when you forget to close quotations 53 times in the first 100 pages of your book. Editors will roll their eyes, and then announce your transgression on Facebook. You will be immortalized in the morning’s virtual water cooler conversation.
  6. Many editors charge by the child. Tools are a one-time fee, for multiple projects, for the cost of a two bags of chips, or a fine pair of designer jeans.
  7. Tools will only find what they’re programmed to find. Editors will only find what they’re programmed to find. Bonus: If you choose an editor who studies style guides, takes courses, and teaches courses, they will find things that tools miss. Decide if that matters to you.
  8. A successful editing tool efficiently finds inconsistencies in your writing. A successful editor efficiently finds inconsistencies in your writing, with (gasp!) the use of editing tools. If you are fond of your first-born, encourage your editor to use editing tools.
  9. Tools will not change anything without your permission. Editors worth their salt will not change anything without your permission. If they do, see # 1.
  10. A good tool is not an editor. A good editor is not a tool.

Image by becca.peterson26

How to Automate Writing and Editing Tasks

Robot Painting

by C.K. MacLeod

Writing takes a great deal of energy, focus, and time. Add to that the necessary revising and editing tasks required to polish your writing and writing is now a part-time job. Or a full-time job.

What if I told you that you could automate some writing and editing tasks?

Recently, my editing colleague Paul Beverley created a macro that accomplished in five minutes what it would take me half a day to do manually.

In fact, Paul Beverley has created over 450 macros, many of which have made editing tasks, in particular, easier to manage. You can download his free book of macros — Computer Tools for Editors — at Archive Publications. And, if you’ve never used a macro before, you can learn how in this free 20-minute macro course.

Automating Editing Tasks

So, what kinds of writing and editing tasks can you automate with the use of macros and other tools? Here is my current list of favourite tasks to automate:

  • Pull out citations from your chapters and list them on a separate page so you can build a reference list or bibliography (CiteCheck — Computer Tools for Editors)
  • Reach readability targets and make writing easier to understand (PlainLanguage macro or Hemingway Editor)
  • Clean up formatting to get a book ready for ebook conversion, or a content ready to upload to a website (FRedit — Computer Tools for Editors)
  • Build in better use of Bloom’s Taxonomy verbs for how-to books, teaching articles and online courses (FRedit— Computer Tools for Editors)
  • Remove most instances of passive voice for livelier writing (Hemingway Editor or PassiveWords macro)

And for my fiction writing friends...

  • Identify instances of telling, where showing might work better (TellingWords macro).

In Making Word 2010 Work for You, Hillary Powers points out that if you repeat an editing action three times, you might want to find a way to automate it. Wise advice.

What writing or editing tasks would you like to automate? What tools are you using?

Image by weasel.jem

Format an Ebook with Sigil

Sigil logo

by C. K. MacLeod

@CKMacleodwriter

Updated July 24, 2016: Sigil's newest version has a different interface from the one you'll see in this post. While Sigil is a great tool for the right price, I've begun to use Jutoh instead. Jutoh is better supported, and it allows me to create epubs and mobis.

It's possible to build an ebook that's straight fiction with a tool that many writers already have: Microsoft Word. But for more complex books with headings, endnotes, pictures, and other advanced style features, there's a better way.

Sigil.

Sigil is a free, open-source epub editor that allows you to create an epub file that you can upload to most distributors (all but Amazon, actually). It's surprisingly easy to use and if you're at all interested in having more control over how your ebook looks, Sigil allows you to do a bit of tweaking under the hood.

Here's how to get your book from Word into Sigil:

Quick Steps

  1. Open your book in Word (I use Word 2010). Go to File, Save As, and save your file as Plain Text (.txt). Select "Other coding" and choose UTF-8 encoding (you'll need to scroll down in the menu), Click OK.
  2. Now that you've saved your document in a form that Sigil can read, copy and paste it from Word into the middle window in Sigil's Book View.

You'll find more information about how to begin with Sigil at the Beyond Paper blog.

Dictating a Book? Tips for Editing the First Draft

Megaphone with words "speak up"

Originally published at The Book Designer.

Written by Corina Koch MacLeod

Edited by Carla Douglas

Dictation has become a popular method for laying down a first draft. Barbara Cartland and Voltaire did it, James Patterson and Dan Brown are doing it, and popular self-publishing author Joanna Penn is determined to try it. In fact, Cindy Grigg (The Productive Author’s Guide to Dictation) and Monica Leonelle (Dictate Your Book) have written books on the subject so you can try it, too.

Reasons to Try Dictation

There are many reasons to try dictation:

  • dictation software has improved
  • it eases the strain on your wrists
  • you can get words down faster than with typing
  • it can separate writing from editing, which can do wonders for procrastination and writer’s block
  • it gets you away from your desk, and out for a walk if you have a dictation set-up to support that
  • it’s not hard, and it doesn’t have to cost you a cent

Not convinced? That’s okay. I've been there, and on some days I am there. If you change your mind and give dictation a try, come back to this post to figure out what to do with that dictated first draft.

Needs Must

I'll admit it. I’ve come to the idea of dictation with a lot of skepticism. I've learned to think and write through my fingers, first with a pen, then with a keyboard. Could I learn to use talking as a vehicle for thinking? I remember the awkwardness I felt when I was first learning how to type. I survived those first fumbling attempts, and my typing-to-thinking pathway is now firmly established.

Fast forward several gazillion words and 11 books later. My brain seems to be holding up, but my wrists, sadly, are not. It’s time to build another writing pathway.

Writing Differences

It's not difficult to get words onto a page with dictation. What's difficult is figuring out which ones to keep. Or how to manage that sea of words. If you’ve tried dictation, you may discover that your first draft reads differently than a typed first draft. It may be looser, less organized, and wordy. As a result, your approach to editing may need to be different. Or you may find that you’ll need to spend more time at the editing stage of the writing process. A lot more.


Pre-Editing Tips Before and During Dictation

If you’ve decided to give voice dictation a try, you’ll need a pre-editing strategy so that the process is less unwieldy. Below are a few suggestions for managing dictation so the editing stage is easier:

Know What You Want to Write

Monica Leonelle recommends creating an outline before you begin dictation. Similarly, though she doesn’t use dictation to increase writing productivity, in 2k to 10k Rachel Aaron recommends taking five minutes to sketch out notes for each scene in a notebook before you write it. This is excellent advice.

Because words can come so quickly when you’re dictating, it’s possible to create volumes of text that go off topic or off plot. Having an outline or notes to speak by can help you stay on task and prevent plot holes. You can, of course, dictate an outline or scene notes, but it’s okay to use a pen or a keyboard to outline your writing, too.

Factor in Error Rates

Most dictation software is now 95–98 percent accurate. Off the top, you can count on fixing two to five words in every hundred you speak. What words will you have to fix? Those that your dictation software didn’t understand.

Depending on your spoken dialect and your skill as a typist, this may or may not be equal to the number of typos you make in every hundred words. Keep in mind, though, that dictation software can make creative (and sometimes hilarious) “typos” that you may not be able to decipher later. Be sure to read over your words often to correct any errors while what you intended to say is fresh in your mind.

Pause for Effect

Your mother was right: think before you speak. Monica Leonelle recommends pausing to gather your thoughts before you speak a sentence. This is the single best piece of advice when learning to dictate your writing. There’s no need to hurry. Hurrying can encourage muddled thinking, which can result in bloated and disorganized writing. Bloated writing requires more attention at the editing stage, which is fine if you’ve budgeted lots of time for editing. Lots.

Editing Tips for after Dictation

Once you’ve completed your first-draft dictation, you’ll need a plan for revising and editing it.

Take it in Layers

As with typewritten text, it’s best to approach revisions and edits in layers. Go through the four levels of editing, beginning with a big-picture edit and ending with word-level details.

For example, you’ll need to make sure

  • your writing has an overall flow
  • your plot lines are well-paced
  • scenes or sections are evenly weighted
  • paragraphs are shortened if you forgot to instruct the dictation software to create a new paragraph (ahem)
  • paragraphs and sentences proceed in a logical way (especially if you had trouble sticking to your outline)
  • sentences are trimmed of wordiness
  • your sentences are correctly punctuated (you need to speak out punctuation, and this takes getting used to)

I’ve noticed that my current abilities with dictation cause me to produce 40-word sentences. Twenty-word sentences are better for comprehension. I need more than the usual work at the paragraph level. You may find that, too.

Use Revision Tools

Revision and editing tools can help you address each layer of editing. Below are a few of my favourite problem-solvers, as they pertain to the pitfalls of dictation:

For Structural Issues

If you’ve gotten off track with the structure of your book, consider using Scrivener to help you analyze and reorganize your writing. Scrivener’s Binder and Split Screen can help you to rearrange sections of your book. The Word Count column in the Outliner can help you discover potential pacing problems at a glance. Labels will allow you to visually separate plot lines to see if they flow and intersect where they need to.

Scrivener’s Word Count feature in the Outliner

For Filler Words

A spoken first draft can be different from a written first draft. You may use filler words, such as “really,” “just,” and “even” in dictation — words that are often used in spoken language for emphasis. These words work fine in spoken language, but depending on what you’re writing, filler words can muddy the meaning of a sentence.  The NeedlessWords macro can help you spot filler words so you can remove them. The Overused Words check in ProWriting Aid will help you see where you need to add variety to your writing.

For Long Sentences

Your sentences may be longer and more complex when you dictate your writing. That’s okay when you’re speaking, because your intonation can help listeners group words into meaningful chunks. There’s no intonation in writing, so be sure to shorten sentences or punctuate them so that they’re easier for readers to navigate. The long sentence highlighter in the Hemingway Editor can help you shorten long sentences. So can the Sticky Sentences check and the Long Sentences check in ProWriting Aid.

For Readability

Sometimes it’s okay to strut your vocabulary. In some kinds of nonfiction, it’s more important to remove every possible barrier to understanding — including ten-dollar words. To help you choose simpler words and improve readability, use the Hemingway Editor, the PlainLanguage macro, Paul Beverley’s Find and Replace macro with a supporting plain language words list, or the Diction check in ProWriting Aid.

Conclusion

Did I dictate this article? Some of it. And that’s my final tip: you don’t have to use dictation exclusivelyespecially when you’re learning this new skill. If you’re a visual learner whose thinking is guided by the words you see or a kinesthetic learner who works out your thoughts by penning or keyboarding them, it might not make sense to dictate all your writing. (Hat tip to Russell Blake for this observation in an interview with Joanna Penn). Besides, Rachel Aaron, who has written over 20 books, has proven that it’s possible to be productive without voice dictation.

Don’t be afraid to dictate part of an article or book, or begin with dictating text and email messages. If you build your capacity for dictation slowly, you’ll be less likely to abandon it and more likely to find a place for it in your writing process. Instead of an all-or-nothing proposition, think of dictation as one of many tools in your writing toolkit.

Editor’s note: Corina and I have been editing each other’s writing for 14 years. After a first read-through of this piece, I noticed that something was different. Was it voice? Tone? Organization? Yes to all of these and more, and I wondered what was up. This didn’t sound like Corina — it was looser and less precise than what I’ve come to expect. Then it dawned on me: she’d been dictating!

This is a topic I find fascinating, and recent research supports my hunch that “written and spoken language can exist separately in the brain.” This doesn’t mean that dication isn’t a drafting method worth exploring. I’m curious to learn whether a dictated first draft is much different from one that’s been brain-dumped into a word processor.  

I also have a hunch that dictating will be easier for some than for others, and that if you persist, you’ll get better with practice. You might even find your voice where you least expect it. 🙂

Image by Howard Lake

Why Writers Love Scrivener (and Why Editors Will, Too!)

by C.K. MacLeod

Planning map

 

Scrivener has become wildly popular with writers—plotters and pantsers alike—who are working on book-length writing projects. Little know fact: it's a great tool for developmental editors, too.

Scrivener is useful for

  •  planning and writing a novel (especially if you're a "pantser" and you need to do a little reverse planning)
  •  writing and organizing a thesis
  •  planning and writing an online course
  •  planning and writing curriculum
  •  setting and achieving writing targets
  •  writing and organizing blog posts
  •  planning a book marketing strategy
  •  publishing simple, text-only ebooks in mobi and epub formats
  •  developmental editing

Each of the items in the list above involves some planning or organizing. Scrivener is, in fact, the ultimate planning and organizing tool for anyone who works with words.

Scrivener helps you set goals, plan, and organize your writing with

  • virtual note cards
  • a built-in Binder feature that allows you to see each part of your book at a glance
  • symbols and coloured labels 
  • margin notes
  • Project Targets/ word count calculator
  • an Outliner, which can help you see the pacing of your writing
Scrivener Labels
Assign coloured labels to files in Scrivener

Scrivener is for Editors, too!

If you’re a developmental editor who works with writers to develop a writing project, Scrivener can help you (and your writers) to see a book’s structure visually:

Scrivener notecards
Scrivener notecards

And it can allow you to how a book is paced, whether points-of-view are balanced, and alternating time structures:

Scrivener point-of-view labels

Scrivener isn't the best tool for all kinds of editing (Word is still the best tool for copyediting), but it's definitely worth considering at the developmental editing stage of the writing process.

Scrivener Supports

There’s great support for Scrivener, too. Scrivener comes with a 319-page user manual and a walk-through tutorial.

For those who like self-paced online courses, I highly recommend Joseph Michael’s Learn Scrivener Fast video course.

I've created a free downloadable Scrivener Cheatsheet for some of the more common "moves" that writers want to make in Scrivener when they first begin using it.

Scrivener has a free trial for 30 uses, and it’s less expensive than traditional word processing software. See the Literature & Latte site for details.

It’s fun to think about how tools can make some aspects of writing and editing easier—especially planning and organizing.

Image by Sacha Chua

6 Ways to Set Up Scrivener for Writing

Out of the boxby C.K MacLeod

Out of the box, Scrivener comes with features turned off or on. Some of these features are helpful, but others drive me crazy and prevent me from being efficient.

You can customize Scrivener to work with your writing preferences. Below are six things I do to write more efficiently in Scrivener.

Note: I write mostly nonfiction. If you write fiction, tweak your settings to support your writing preferences.

1. Remove or change automatic paragraph indenting.

Go to Tools, Options, Editor, and move the tab slider to the left.

Tab slider Scrivener

2. Turn off automatic capitalization and autocompletion.

I find it distracting when a word processor automatically capitalizes words, or tries to guess and complete words for me. To turn off these features, go to Tools, Options, Corrections, and uncheck Fix capitalization of sentences and Suggest completions as you type.

Turn off autocompletion and capitalization

3. Change the font type and size.

I like to work in Times New Roman. Boring, but effective (it has a complete character set for special symbols. Go to Tools, Options, Editor, and click on the blue A button in the top left.

Change font Scrivener

4. Add a keyboard shortcut for a word or phrase you don’t want to keep retyping. I use .ip to indicate a placeholder for inserting a picture later.

Go to Tools, Options, Corrections, check the Enable Substitutions box, and click on Edit Substitutions. Click on the plus button to add your keyboard shortcut.

Substitutions shortcuts Scrivener

5. Select your dictionary.
I am a Canadian, so I like my dictionary to remind me to spell colour and honour with a "u." Go to Tools, Options, Corrections, select your dictionary, click OK, and then click Apply.

If you don’t see your dictionary in the list of options, click the Download button to see if there’s one available.

6. Customize the toolbar.
Go to Tools, Customize toolbars and add or remove toolbar buttons. Here are the buttons like like to add:

  • Show Invisibles
  • Inline Annotation
  • Comment buttons

You can also rearrange the order of the buttons by clicking on the down and up arrows.
You don’t need to tolerate the out-of-the-box version of Scrivener.  Set up Scrivener so it better matches your way of working.

Image by Kool Cats Photography

4 Tips and 4 Tools for Tightening Your Prose

by C.K. MacLeod

Tighten by hand only

Want to tighten your prose and make your writing easier to understand? Here are four ways and four tools to help you do that — all for free!

1. Omit needless phrases.

Authors sometimes use phrases such as "owing to the fact that" or "in order to" like condiments. Often, your meaning won't change if you trim these phrases. For example, “owing to the fact that” can become “because,” and "in order to" can become "to."

Refer to this list of offenders and some solutions for fixing them. Use the search and replace function in your word processing software to find these phrases in your writing.

2. Omit needless words.

Authors tend to pepper their prose with filler words. If you use Microsoft Word, you can run the NeedlessWords macro, and the macro will highlight potentially unnecessary words. In this macros for beginners post, Carla Douglas offers suggestions for what to do with those highlighted words.

Never used a macro before? This 20-Minute Macro Course will have you up and running with Macros in no time.

If macros scare you, or you don’t have Microsoft Word, try the Hemingway Editor. It’ll help you to hunt down adverbs, another kind of needless word.

3. Shorten your sentences.

Long sentences make sentences harder to read. The solution? Create two short sentences from the long one, when it makes sense to do so.
The Hemingway Editor will spot long sentences by identifying them as “hard to read” and “very hard to read.” It also provides you with readability statistics on your writing. You can buy the downloadable version of the Hemingway Editor for under $10 USD. Try the online version for free.

Very hard-to-read sentences are highlighted in red
Very hard-to-read sentences are highlighted in red

4. Use easy-to-understand words.

You can use the PlainLanguage macro to identify hard-to-understand words so you can swap them out with a reader-friendly word. The Hemingway Editor will also highlight words that are difficult for many readers to understand, and it will suggest a replacement!

There are many ways to make your writing more readable. A handful of tools will help you to accomplish this task quickly.

Adapted from a post from Beyond Paper Editing.

Image by Joshua Crauswell

DIY Design with Canva

Design is the lighting up on an ideaby C.K. MacLeod

If you’re engaged in social media tasks to promote your writing or editing business, you’ll know that visual design is essential to helping your message stand out.

Do you have a blog? You need a banner.

Just wrote a book? You need a cover.

Going to a conference? You need a business card.

So, what do you do when your currency is words, and making a message visual isn’t your thing? Hire a graphic designer? Sure. But if that’s not in your budget, try Canva.

Canva is a free, online graphic design tool that you can use to create book covers, business cards, social media banners, and yes, even digital holiday cards. I created this holiday card in under one minute:

“But I’m not a graphic designer!” you say.

The folks at Canva know that. Which is why Canva contains correctly-sized templates and predesigned drag-and-drop elements in an easy-to-use interface that nondesigners can use. Building a business card, for example, is as difficult as building a tower with wooden blocks with a two-year-old. If you’re still not convinced, Canva offers free step-by-step design tutorials that will take you through the design process.

Canva has a nice selection of free professional-looking, pre-designed elements, so you can try designing something without spending a cent. If you decide to spring for paid elements, they’re inexpensive, at only about a dollar each.
Still unsure? Why not take a page from the pros? Self-publishing author Joanna Penn announced on The Creative Penn Podcast (episode 245) that she used Canva to create a simple book cover for Destroyer of Worlds, a book she’s released on pre-order on iBooks.The cover will be placeholder until she has the final version professionally designed by her graphic designer.

The online world is a visual place. Canva ensures that word people can now join in on the fun.
Image by David Joyce