Helping authors publish

Tag: Writing

Co-Writing Across Genres

Note: this post was written by myself and Andrew Knighton, and was first published on the Alliance of Independent Authors‘ Self-Publishing Advice Centre.

Co-authoring a book is relatively unusual, and for our military thriller The Bear’s Claws, we wanted to do something even more unusual — a collaboration between a novelist and a non-fiction author. For both of us, it’s been a very successful project. So why did we do it? And how did the collaboration work when we normally write such different things?

Why Work Together On A Book?

Book cover - The Bear's Claws

For several years, we’ve followed Joanna Penn’s advice to improve productivity with an accountability partner. We meet online once a month to discuss our writing goals and urge each other on. Accountability worked so well, it made perfect sense when Robin suggested that we try another collaboration — writing a book.

It’s tricky finding a shared project for a speculative fiction writer and a military historian, but there was a writing niche that interested us both — stories about the Cold War heating up. Ever since the 1980s, this strand of fiction has been popular with a small but devoted band of readers, and with the Cold War over it’s moved from future speculation to alternate history.

Robin already had a story in mind — telling one of these alternate histories from the Soviet point of view. It was a project that would let each of us reach a new audience while finding out how co-authoring works in practice. So we set out to craft what would become The Bear’s Claws.

Splitting the Work

The first important decision in the project was how to divide the work. Fortunately, there was a natural way to do this — playing to our strengths.

The sort of readers who enjoy war stories are interested in the details of military equipment and tactics. As a writer on modern military history, this was something Robin had the skills and knowledge to get right. Robin is also a more experienced marketer and self-publisher, so better placed to deal with that side of producing a book.

Andrew, on the other hand, has over a decade of experience writing fiction, from steampunk short stories to ghostwriting novels. The bulk of the work on bringing the story to life went to him.

Co-Writing a Novel

The story started with a novel Robin had begun for NaNoWriMo. A rough draft of the first few chapters, it provided the core story around which The Bear’s Claws was built, the story of a Soviet soldier invading West Germany and of his sister at home in Leningrad.

Based on that beginning, we worked together to flesh out the plot. Robin developed a plausible scenario for how the war might play out, including interesting details for the action scenes. Andrew fleshed out the characters, their personal arcs, and their journey through that war. Put together in a spreadsheet, this became the outline we wrote from.

As the more experienced fiction writer, Andrew took the plot and set to writing. He wrote a chapter at a time and sent them over for Robin to check the military details, problems with the story, and the inevitable typos. That ongoing feedback let Andrew write something more convincing and engaging, improving the work as he went along.

Getting the Details Right

Robin paid particular attention to the minutiae of the military equipment and tactics, often making small but important corrections to terminology or the details of how things work. This is a genre where the readers know the difference between an AK-47 and an AK-74, so the details are important.

Once a draft of the novel was complete, we read over it and sent comments back and forth, refining what we’d written. Then Robin recruited a group of beta readers, who let us see beyond what we’d been caught up in, picking holes in our beloved book. Their insights provided plenty of areas for improvement, with more rewrites for Andrew and more fact-checking for Robin, to get the novel as close to perfect as we could.

Production and Marketing

Although we’ve known each other for a long time, we understood the value of having an agreement in place so that we both knew what to expect. We used ALLi’s sample co-authoring agreement as a starting point.

Robin is a techie and runs an author services business, so they created a shared Dropbox directory for the book files, a wiki for notes, and an online task manager to keep us organised. Once the book was finished, they created the ebook and print interior files, including a large print version. We hired a cover designer that Robin has worked with before.

Neither of us wanted to deal with splitting the royalties, so we set up a collaborative project on Bundle Rabbit. They distribute the book to the major vendors, take a cut, then split the royalties. As well as less work for us, it means that we both have access to sales reports.

Robin has taken the lead on marketing. They promoted the book on a number of Facebook groups related to the Cold War, and we have an interview lined up on a Cold War podcast. Robin used their knowledge of military history and hardware to write a blog post about the vehicles described in the book, and one about the change we made to history that ultimately led to war.

Conclusion

We both found the process enjoyable, and we’ve each learned from seeing how the other works. There was little crossover between our readerships, so we’ve both gained exposure to new readers. The book is selling steadily, so the project has been an all-round success.

Co-authoring isn’t going to be for everyone, but if you can play to your strengths then it can be a great way to create something new and interesting.

Easy Backups With Dropbox

Backups will save you from all sorts of problems such as ransomware, burglary, computer failure, and simple human error like mistakenly deleting files or chapters. Dropbox provides an easy way to make an off-site backup of works in progress. This article and video show how to set up a Dropbox account and start using it to make backups of important files.

Signing up on the Dropbox website
Setting up a new account

If you don’t already have one, you will need to create an account on the Dropbox.com website. To do this, go to www.dropbox.com and fill in the Sign up form. This will take you to a page where you can download the Dropbox installer.

Install

Once the installer is downloaded, run it to install Dropbox. As part of the installation, a new folder named Dropbox will be created. Anything saved in that Dropbox folder will be automatically backed up to Dropbox’s servers. Simply by working from that folder, you can ensure that your manuscript is always backed up.

On the free plan, you can store up to 2GB of files. When signed in to the Dropbox website, simply click on your user icon to see how much space you are using. Changes and deleted files are kept for thirty days. If you make a mistake and need to go back to a previous version, or if you accidentally delete a file, you can restore a previous version of the file for up to thirty days. Paid plans offer more space and longer retention of changed or deleted files.

Backup Your Work

Once the installer has finished, click the Open my Dropbox button and go through the introduction. Windows Explorer will open displaying the new Dropbox folder, which will have a shortcut to a web page and a PDF.

Dropbox file listing on website
File listing

At this point, I suggest you move any work in progress to the new Dropbox folder. It will be automatically backed up. Whenever you save, the new version will be backed up and old versions will be kept for thirty days. This process is completely automatic and happens in the background.

Restore Old Version

If you need to go back to an older version of a file, log in to the Dropbox website and go to the Files area, where you will see a list of your files. Click on the ellipsis menu next to a file and select Version history to see older versions.

File version history on Dropbox website
File version history

You can restore an older version by clicking Restore, or click on the file name to see a preview. From here, you can download the file, which may be useful for comparing an older version to the current version.

Restore a Deleted File

To restore a deleted file, go to the Dropbox website and log in. On the file list page, click Show deleted files. Deleted files will now be displayed, with a rubbish bin icon and a Deleted notation.

Restoring a deleted file on Dropbox
Restoring a deleted file

Click on the file’s ellipsis menu and select Restore. Confirm, and the file will be restored and downloaded to your computer, where it will re-appear in your Dropbox folder.

Video

The video below is a screencast, showing Dropbox being used to save, backup, and restore files.

Hire Me

If you need help with installing Dropbox or setting up a complete backup solution, email me.

Editing: Use Regular Expressions to Find Common Errors

I have a great editor, but I understand that she is human, and therefore she makes mistakes, and misses things, just like I do. Therefore, I like to try and make my manuscript as good as I can before I hand it over to her. The trouble with editing your own work is that all too often, your brain sees what is supposed to be there, not what is actually there.

One tool I use for finding errors is regular expressions. Regular expressions are like search and replace on steroids. Instead of finding simple strings of text, regular expressions provide a way to find patterns within the text. This makes them ideal for finding certain types of error that can occur all too easily when writing a long piece of text. The use of copy & paste, deleting, etc, can mean that even simple grammatical mistakes or typos can slip in and not be noticed.

Below I have listed some regular expression searches that I currently use on my manuscripts before sending them to my editor. To use one of them, simply copy it into the “Find” box in your word processor, just as you would type in a word you wanted to search for in the text. Note that they are formatted with a different background colour because spaces at the start or end can be important. It is possible to use regular expressions to replace text, but I haven’t included replacement expressions because I prefer to be cautious and make corrections manually. I’ve tried to order them in increasing complexity, and I’ve included some explanatory text for each one.

LibreOffice Find & Replace dialogueThe expressions given below should work in LibreOffice and Scrivener version 2.4 or later (earlier versions don’t support regular expressions). Microsoft Word also supports regular expressions, although the syntax is rather unusual, so you’ll need to check the documentation for help. Whichever software you use, you will have to tell it that you’re doing a regular expression search, rather than a normal text search. In LibreOffice Writer, use the “Find and Replace” function (not “Find”). Click “Other Options” in the dialogue box, and tick the “Regular expressions” tickbox. In Scrivener project search, select “RegEx” from the operator section of the magnifying glass icon menu. In Scrivener document find, select “Regular Expressions (RegEx)” from the “Find Options” drop-down menu.

Note that, when copying and pasting from your browser into the search box, make sure that the quotation marks are correct – they sometimes get mangled.

Punctuation And Quotation Marks

This is a simple expression, but there are two versions. In British English, the convention is to have commas and full stops outside quotation marks, whereas in US English, commas and full stops are placed inside the quotation marks.

Expression to find commas and full stops inside quotation marks (use this if you write in British English):

[.,]”

Expression to find commas and full stops outside quotation marks (use this if you write in US English):

“[.,]

These simple expressions match a quotation mark followed or preceded by a full stop or a comma. Square brackets are used to group characters, so that if any character in the square brackets is present, a match is found. In this case, the square brackets are used to match a full stop or comma, but nothing else.

“a” instead of “an”
This expression will find words that begin with a vowel immediately preceded by “a”, instead of “an”:

 a [aeiou]

The first three characters are simple: space, lower case “a”, space. Then square brackets are used to group all five vowels. Note that the “Match case” option must be selected in LibreOffice for it to work correctly.

Oxford Commas

At school, I was taught not to use Oxford commas, but I use them in my books because they can avoid ambiguity. Unfortunately, because I didn’t use them for so long, I frequently forget to add them. Consequently, one of the first regular expressions I wrote to check for errors in my writing was to spot missing Oxford commas. Note that this won’t find every sentence that is missing an Oxford comma, but that’s why you have a human editor ????

\w+, \w+ and 

If you have the opposite problem, and you don’t want Oxford commas, the following expression should find them:

\w+, \w+, and 

“w” matches a word character, ie any character that can be part of a word (letters, numbers, etc). The “+” means at least one of the preceding characters must be present, so “w+” matches a word.

Missing Capital After Full Stop

I started using this expression after seeing this error in a book published by HarperCollins. If the big publishers can miss such basic mistakes, so can the rest of us.

Note that the “Match case” option must be selected in LibreOffice for it to work correctly. Acronyms followed by lower case letters, eg “The N.C.O. said” will not be matched.

[^.][^A-Z]\. [a-z]

This expression introduces a new twist on the use of square brackets: if the first character in the square brackets is a “^”, it matches anything NOT in the group. So, “[^.][A-Z]” matches anything that is not a full stop, followed by anything that is not an uppercase letter. The next term is “.”, which matches a full stop. When not in square brackets, a full stop is a wildcard, but placing a backslash before it tells the regular expression engine to treat it as a full stop, not as a wildcard. Finally, it matches a space followed by a lowercase letter.

Missing Brackets

It’s far too easy to forget to close brackets, or to accidentally delete the closing bracket. This expression will find an opening bracket that doesn’t have a matching closing bracket.

\([^)]*$

Since parentheses have a special meaning in regular expressions, the opening bracket is prefixed with a backslash. This tells the regular expression engine to treat it as a simple opening bracket. The “[^)]” matches any character that is not a closing bracket, and the “*” means “match this zero or more times”. Finally, the “$” indicates the end of the line/paragraph.

Repeated Word

Repeated words crop up sometimes, and often aren’t noticed if the word happens to appear at the end of one line and the start of the next line.

\b(\w+)\b \b\1\b

This one may look rather odd, but is simple once you understand it. As above, “w+” is used to match a word. The parentheses are used to group the characters that are matched, so that they can be referred to later in the expression. The “1” matches the group in the parentheses. “b” denotes a word boundary. In this case, it is used to ensure that only complete words are matched. Without the word boundaries, it would match a term like “anderson song” as the “son” would be matched in both words.

Putting all that together, this expression matches a complete word, followed by at least one space, followed by the same complete word.

Want To Learn More?

If you want to learn to write regular expressions to find the mistakes that you find yourself making, www.regular-expressions.info is an excellent learning resource, and regex101.com has a regular expression tester, which will also explain the elements of the regular expression.

Hire Me

If you don’t want to run these regular expressions yourself, I can do it for you. I run a set of regular expressions over every manuscript that I proofread, at no extra cost.

Backup Your Manuscripts And Marketing Files

Some time ago, I read a news story about an author who ran into a burning house to save his laptop. Luckily, the author survived and rescued the novels stored on his laptop. If he’d had a backup, he wouldn’t have had to risk his life to save his work. Backups will also save you from burglary, computer failure, and simple human error like mistakenly deleting files or chapters.

Backup

What is a Backup?

At its simplest, a backup is just a spare copy of any important files, like your manuscripts. Ideally, a backup will have the following properties:

  • It’ll be located in a different physical location. A backup won’t save your work from a fire or burglars if it’s next to your computer.
  • Backups will happen automatically. If you have to remember to do it, you might forget, or decide that something else is more important.
  • It’ll keep older versions as well as the most recent one. This enables you to reverse changes if you need to.
  • It will retain deleted files. If you delete a file by accident, you can get it back from the backup.
  • If your files are stored by a third party, they should be encrypted. This keeps your private files private.

How to Make a Backup

Many authors aren’t very technical, and those that are probably already have a backup routine in place. Luckily, there are plenty of simple options. Online cloud storage such as Dropbox or Google Drive will probably suffice for a work in progress, but these services usually don’t offer encryption, so I can’t recommend them for sensitive or private files. Three possible solutions are CarboniteCrashplan, and Mozy. All three work on Windows and Mac, provide all the features listed above, and aren’t too expensive.

I’ve used Dropbox for several years, but have little experience of the others, so can’t recommend them. They all have limited free options though, so you can try them out and see which one works for you.

Mr Backup

Backup your Website, Mailing List & Email

Your web and mailing list hosts probably have backup procedures in place, but it’s still sensible to keep your own backups. If your web or mailing list host decides to terminate your account because you’ve contravened your terms of service (whether you did or not), a backup will allow you to switch to a new provider.

With hosted WordPress websites, you’re largely reliant on them for backups, though you can go to Tools->Export in the admin area to export your posts and pages (not images). For self-hosted WordPress sites, there are plugins to help with backups. I have used BackWPUp, which will backup your database and files, and can save the backup to various places.

MailChimp, ConvertKit, and Aweber have reasonably straightforward instructions for exporting data. You can also export your data from FacebookTwitter, and Google. Unfortunately, Facebook’s export doesn’t include data from pages. For email, you’ll have to check your email provider’s help pages to find out how to export your messages. There isn’t a simple way to automate any of these, so I suggest you set up a repeating reminder in a calendar program. If you really want an automatic option, it may be possible to set up a recipe on If This Then That to (for instance) append Tweets to a file in Dropbox.

Test Your Backups Regularly

A backup is worthless if you can’t get your files back from it. Periodically check your backups and make sure you can restore files. This doesn’t have to be complicated, just pick several files at random. For each one, restore the latest version, plus an older version.

Hire Me

If you want one-to-one help, or you want me to set something up for you, email me and we can discuss your requirements.

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