Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015
It's Prelude Week here at CuriousTale.org!
First of all: Cross-platform e-book compatibility formatting is ABSOLUTE JINGLE BARF. We're talking top-quality yuletide HOLLYSNOT.
With that out of the way, allow me to make a momentous announcement:
At the same time, this website is finally going "live" in the sense of me being ready to market it to the world.
It has taken me a lot of work to reach this day, and I am very thankful to everyone who has helped me get here.
If you're a supporter of my Patreon or choose to become one before the end of this month, or if you donated money to my ISBN fundraiser, I'd be happy to supply you with a copy of the e-book at no cost, with my compliments.
Everyone else—and even my Patrons if you are so inclined—I hope you'll buy a copy of the book, read it, and tell me what you think! (Even if you don't like it, I'd like to know.) If you do like it, tell your friends. Tell them it's the best friggin' book since the Holy Broble! There's no DRM on the Prelude and I chose to allow Amazon's lending service, so if you know someone who would probably read my book but wouldn't pay for it, let 'em borrow your copy.
I do have some disappointing news: I currently am not able to afford the $125 I need for an ISBN, a tracking number that virtually all commercial books use. I've done some fundraising among friends to help me get there—and all of that money is staying in the ISBN fund and won't be used for anything else—but I didn't earn as much as I need. Therefore, unfortunately, for the time being the e-book is only available on Amazon. Once I get an ISBN, I'll be able to sell it more widely.
What's in This Article?
This week's installment of Curious Tale Saturdays is a Prelude smorgasbord. All other features this week have been suspended, because the Prelude took all my time. (I'm even running late on my Christmas cards because of this.
Below, I'll talk a little bit about the process of completing the e-book. However, most of this article is devoted to talking about the feedback I received from readers after the initial publication back in August.
Reflecting on the E-Book Formatting Journey
What an adventure it was to format this thing! Let me tell you, it takes about ten minutes to format a rough, readable version, and about two complete days to do a proper, premium format. And that's just for one version.
The e-book is optimized for the EPUB file format with Calibre. I also did some preliminary formatting on my own in MOBI format, but quickly realized that I'd never make my Saturday deadline. Fortunately, Amazon's automated trans-formatting system has produced some very good results. There are a handful of obnoxious artifacts, inevitably: On most versions, paragraph indentation doesn't work. On a few versions, certain text-centering and text-sizing conventions don't work. And on a couple of versions, the friggin' table of contents doesn't work.
Ultimately this is all acceptable to me. I checked all the key parts of all the major versions, and everything I saw is adequate or better. Having said that, I used Amazon's virtual devices to examine the results. I don't own things like Android tablets and iPads. If you read the Prelude on your device and notice that it has serious formatting problems, please let me know!
As for the table of contents, the Prelude really isn't meant to need one, as there is only a single chapter in the book. I included one simply because people seem to expect it.
I learned some interesting stuff about XHTML along the way, which I'd never worked with before, such as the fact that line break tags have to have a slash, and ID attributes shouldn't start with a digit, and all kinds of mindless syntactic drivel like that.
If I had to name the most important lesson I learned along the way, it's that conversion from HTML to EPUB entails an enormous amount of fine-tuning. Next time I might try converting from DOC format and see if that's any easier on me.
My Pricing Decision: $2.99
Of course, the Prelude is available for free on this site as a way to get people hooked into the broader Curious Tale. The point of an e-book is convenience.
I picked $2.99 for two reasons: First, it's the lower cutoff for Amazon's higher royalty tier. Anything less than $2.99 and I'd most likely be earning between 20 and 50 cents per sale. The purpose of the Prelude is not to make me rich on its own, but if I'm going to sell it for anything other than free I want a dignified return per sale. This book took a lot of work!
The other reason is that I think it's a pretty good book. For its length and contents, I think $2.99 is a reasonable reflection of its value. Were it not for Amazon's royalty cutoff I would have seriously considered $1.99, but I don't feel that $2.99 is greedy.
(There are of course values between $1.99 and $2.99, but for some weird reason humanity expects 99s in its prices, and, anecdotally, other authors say their sales are much stronger at "99" increments. Go figure.)
Discussing Feedback on the Prelude
Asking for Feedback: Also Called Pulling Teeth
It's always an uphill battle to get feedback from my readers, but I made special efforts to get as much feedback on the Prelude as I could, and even then I did not get as many responses as I wanted. I am very thankful to those who obliged me. It's beyond my comfort zone to solicit feedback when people clearly don't want to give it, but on such a major project my own judgment in a vacuum is dangerously bereft of perspective. I really needed other points of view, and every single person who chose to help me out did a great service to The Curious Tale.
As I received feedback, it became clear that I hadn't explained the book's status properly. People generally assumed there was still an opportunity for me to make major changes. There isn't. This wasn't a beta reading phase. The First Edition is complete. The copyright is already registered.
The obvious question facing me, then, was whether I would keep the First Edition as it is, do an Abridged First Edition, a Revised First Edition, or a Second Edition.
Whether to Revise: Major Issues
When I published the Prelude I had several major concerns. Would it be interesting? Was it too slow? Was it too long? And would the interplay between Silence and DeLatia be misinterpreted as sexist?
Sexism and the Portrayal of Silence and DeLatia
When people's feedback came in, it was the last of these questions that gave me the greatest concern. Sexual equality is very important to me. (I mean, if you've read my journal all these years, and put up with my countless diatribes on the subject, you know this quite well!) But new readers aren't going to know my background or the background of these characters, and I had mentioned ahead of time that I was concerned that new readers might misinterpret the enmity between Silence and DeLatia, and that I had made numerous revisions during the editing process to try to discourage that interpretation.
The feedback I received generally agreed that their portrayal is still problematic. For me this was a worst-case scenario. Of all the risks I had taken with the Prelude, the thought that I might have failed to portray these female characters well, in such a way as to attract the charge of misogyny, was particularly discouraging blunder to have supposedly made.
However, I was also aware that I had contaminated the feedback by mentioning my concern ahead of time. People are more likely to find something when they're already looking for it. Feedback is invaluable, but in the end the author always has to make their own judgment. I knew that I would be doing a Prelude reread ahead of deciding on a revision, so I chose to wait and see how I myself reacted to it.
That wait took several months. For one thing, I had been working on the Prelude intensely all summer. It was much too heavy in my mind at that time for me to make important judgments objectively. For another thing, I was about to move, and I had also fallen ill with a mysterious and debilitating illness. So here we are, on the cusp of winter, and only in the past week did I complete my reread and make a determination.
What I found surprised me. My fervent revisions during the editing process struck me as completely successful. I didn't find anything sexist about the interplay between Silence and DeLatia at all.
Indeed, it was too perfect. When you see nothing wrong and lots of other people are telling you that something is wrong, it usually means one of two things: Either you've got blinders on, or you're not judging by the same criteria.
In this case I think it's the latter. These two characters have dwelt in my mind for years and I know them very well, whereas my readers only know what they've seen in the Prelude and in my journal or on this site. The extra information about Silence and DeLatia, which only I possess, makes it clear that nothing is wrong with my depiction of their behavior. (That is, at least in my own appraisal, but do I consider myself a leading expert on this (even though, as some would point out, I am a male), and I trust my judgment on such matters.) In lieu of that information, and in light of my explicitly saying I was concerned about the portrayal, and given the small sample size of the people who gave me feedback, I think that what the feedback consensus initially suggested was a major problem is actually a fluke.
I went into my reread looking for specific instances of text that I might be able to change, to blunt the worst of the problems without needing to do a major revision. But I couldn't find them. In the Prelude Silence is super on-edge and barely containing her civil behavior. The one time she lets off steam at DeLatia (by thumping DeLatia's forehead onto the table) is an insight into how close to the line Silence is walking. In that same moment she also sticks her finger in Gregor's face, and moments prior she had explained to Galavar that she had nearly killed Benzan for asking her a simple question.
My revisions also succeeded in spreading criticism of Silence throughout the Guard (and even Galavar himself). In early drafts DeLatia dispensed most of the criticism, while in the final result she is more like the leader of a team of critics. And you have to appreciate that, from DeLatia's own point of view, she's right about Silence.
And as for DeLatia herself, she's a flamboyant, emotive, high-strung, sarcastic person. Characterization is not my strongest suit, and I tend to write the same character type by default. DeLatia is a smooth-talking extrovert. She stands out the most among everyone in the room. Without her presence, and without being presented in the way she is, the atmosphere in those scenes would be a lot less interesting.
Thus we arrive at an irony: The reason I spend so much energy on the interplay between these two characters is that they are very important characters in the story and their relationship is a major point of relevance in Book I of ATH. Silence and DeLatia are much more fleshed out as characters among all the other Guards, and a big part of their relationship is that they don't much like each other. The prominence of this enmity is a result of them being important and disliking each other—and not the result of a misogynistic author dwelling on "problems with the bitches."
One respondent gave the specific criticism that the enmity itself is well and good, but perhaps the execution could have been better. Notwithstanding that the entire book could be better, I searched hard for ways to alter my portrayal of this relationship in a way that would prevent readers from perceiving sexism that they would otherwise have perceived, without taking me past the line into major revision territory. But I couldn't find anything obvious. Taking the Prelude by itself, I think people who want to find sexism are going to find it no matter what changes I make, if I keep the enmity between Silence and DeLatia intact. For that matter they can also "find" sexism in the fact that the female characters are outnumbered (which is simply the result of grandfathering from the RPG), that Zirin wasn't a warrior (even though I took pains to present Jemis as the weakest of the bunch), that DeLatia is loud and fat (which is, I should note, a robustly common character type in male generals), and that Silence, the token "crazy character," is a female.
(A couple of readers mentioned the male characters at the Council as being sedate and dignified in comparison, but during my reread I specifically checked for that and don't agree. The males do not come off as being more mature or more self-disciplined. I know that DeLatia skews the female trait curve, given what a flashy character she is and given that she's 50 percent of the females at the table, but just looking at the male characters in and of themselves shows plenty of emotionality and imperfection.)
In the end, therefore, I decided that the portrayal of Silence and DeLatia doesn't warrant any change at all. It's really not bad. Actually I think it's pretty good. And their depicted relationship will become fuller in the fullness of time, as they have more interactions and as we learn more about them as individuals.
Whether to Do an Abridgment
Everyone, myself included, is in agreement that the Prelude is too long. What's strange is that, during my reread, the parts of it that caused my attention to wander are not necessarily the parts that I had trouble writing, or which seemed potentially extraneous to me during the editing period.
In fact, as far as my reread went, I found the extraneous portions to be highly fragmented—on the level of specific sentences rather than whole scenes. I don't think there's an extraneous scene in the whole work. Even the scenes that don't appear to serve any purpose, such as Benzan under the Eye of Sourros or Gregor in the indoor marketplace, carry a lot of weight in terms of setting up The Curious Tale as a whole. No, it's the way I say things, not what I say, that is most consistently in need of being shortened.
Every writer needs a separate editor. Even though I'm an editor myself and can do a generally very competent job of editing my own work, there's a problem when it comes to my weak spots that overlap both my writing and editing skills. The worst of these is verbosity. I take too long to make my points—even after accounting for the fact that I'm an author who explicitly thinks that modern storytelling is too fast-paced and is happy to present my work at a more leisurely pace.
Whereas the sexism question was the one that loomed large originally, after my reread the most pressing question was whether I should do an abridgment. I'll discuss my decision on abridgment later in this article.
Did People Like the Prelude?
People liked it! Most people's overall response was positive. A couple of people were downright enthusiastic. There was only one review that weighed more on the negative side, and even that one had lots of qualified praise to offer.
What's absolutely, deliciously weird, however, is that no one agreed on which parts are good! Everyone had parts they liked and parts they didn't, but there was very little consistency. Some people liked the early sequences with Benzan and Galavar moving through the Fortress. Some liked the Vardas Council sequences. Some liked the action-packed, ethereal ending. The two most important reviews I received (in terms of the level of detail in their feedback) were almost diametrically opposed on which parts they liked the most.
I'm tempted to say that this means I succeeded in writing a good story with no especially weak links. Every part had its ardent fan.
Two specific parts of the book stand out as being strongest, in that people mostly converged on liking them. These are the opening (prior to Benzan's arrival in the story), and the balcony scene with Silence and Galavar.
There was no part of the book that stood out as being weakest, although it would probably be the scene where Galavar gives a public speech—which probably says more about my speechwriting skills than anything else, although it's also worth noting that this was the last scene I wrote. That scene received the least editing, and I cannot stress enough how much of the final product is the result of extensive editing. This book was written in the editing period, not the writing period.
I was surprised that the scene in the Relodroade as a whole didn't attract any specific praise. I think it's one of the more memorable scenes, and it has a wide variety of interesting characters as well as the first extended dialogues. During my reread, I was honestly touched by this scene.
About the Vardas Council scenes: These scenes fill up a lot of the book, and I was initially worried about that. I still am a little bit, because they're just so slow-paced and so dependent upon the reader's interest in interpersonal dialogue. Nonetheless, I think these scenes are honest with respect to what The Curious Tale is going to be dishing out in the years ahead. There's going to be a lot of talking and a lot of thinking. These are seldom going to be action stories. I could rein in this tendency in my work, but I think I'd rather float the Prelude as a trial balloon and see what happens. And the fact that several of my readers explicitly enjoyed these scenes is quite encouraging.
People were very forgiving of the book's slow pace (not to be confused with its long length) and the limited plot, which is a considerable relief. They were also quite fond in general of my efforts at worldbuilding, which is an absolutely huge relief—because, more or less, the entire Curious Tale is going to be like that. Pacing will change, like the pendulum of a clock, but the worldbuilding will always be a central part of the story.
As far as characters go, Galavar was the source of some divisiveness. He's easy to dislike—something I'm well aware of, but which I wasn't on my strongest guard against because of my efforts to not inadvertently cause everybody to hate Silence (since she is super easy to dislike).
(I wonder what it says about me that the two characters who most closely represent me are also the easiest to dislike? Maybe it just means that those characters are more realistic.)
One respondent specifically called Galavar charismatic and interesting, while another specifically pointed out that Galavar is claimed to be charismatic but isn't and actually seems like the sort of person who would be terrible company. Both respondents had citations to back up their point of view. From what I know of good storytelling, this is likely a sign of strong characterization. If so, that alleviates some of my concern about Galavar coming off as bland.
On the subject of Galavar, in particular I was struck by one criticism that Galavar never seems to heed his Guards in the course of the story. When I investigated that for myself, I found it to be generally accurate. At no point does any Guard significantly alter Galavar's course. This is mainly the result of the railroaded plot and of the momentum built up by older versions of the Prelude, dating all the way back to the original RPG. Galavar was the mover and shaker of the RPG Prelude, whereas most of the Guards didn't exist as individuals yet. Fast forward to today, and it's easy to see how this legacy has been preserved: Galavar is the mover and shaker, and the Guards—being newer characters to the story—don't shape the immediate course of events nearly as much. Longtime fans of The Curious Tale, let alone new readers, only really know what's written down in the published works. So from their point of view, the Galavar of the Prelude isn't as responsive to his Guards as I know him to actually be.
But his strong-headedness is also a consequence of his temperament. Galavar's a strong-willed leader. He takes advice but isn't a pushover. He always makes his own decisions. As you will eventually find out, everyone on the Guard is like that—even Benzan—but, as far as the Prelude is concerned, it's particularly strong in Galavar.
Silence, for her part, received positive reviews—which is a relief given how much work I put into her. Silence's share in the story greatly increased during editing, so much so that one person even described her as the main character of the Prelude. She's not, but she is the main character of The Curious Tale as a whole, and the Prelude doesn't skimp in setting her up as such.
Unlike with Galavar, no one went into any great depth in explaining their opinions about Silence, and even though I asked several people for further feedback no one provided any, so we'll just trust that she's a solid character. (If she's not, this whole "Curious Tale" thing is going to have issues.) On the other hand, lack of strong opinions could be a yellow flag. But, as much as I know the objectivity of my own judgment is highly strained, I really do think she comes across in the Prelude as an interesting character.
Benzan was generally received poorly, as were Arderesh, Gregor, and Jemis. The problem with Benzan is that he was seen as being too obviously a crutch for the reader, and more than one person disapproved of my deliberate decision to make him the center of attention for the first half of the story but then relegate him to the margins for the second half. I kind of like that decision. It's a little bit of narrative misdirection—a device I use quite sparingly, but which seemed good here. Just as readers are beginning to think that this is going to be a Benzan story—no wait! Now he's in the background, and the world of Relance has opened up quite a bit. But perhaps my intended effect did not succeed as well as I hoped. I can anticipate professional critics really dragging me across the coals on this point. In retrospect, it could have been a mistake to not force Benzan to have a bigger role in the second half of the story.
Arderesh and Gregor were seen as flat, and one person called them outright interchangeable. I think this is a fair criticism. I can see the difference between them personally, but again that's because of private information that only I know. Their differences aren't strongly presented in the text. (Although, I do think it comes across clearly that Resh is much more emotive and emotional than Gregor.) These two, while still quite important, are less important characters than some of their peers at the table, and thus they are going to take longer to become apparent to the readers. Remember, by generally avoiding caricatures and stereotypes in this story, I deprive myself of the ability to instantly type my characters for my readers. That means the reader has to discover for themselves, over a period of time, who the characters really are. And, naturally, less-important characters will get less attention, less word count, and will take longer to flesh out.
For whatever it's worth, Resh is a gentle soul, a consummate diplomat, a leader-by-consensus, a peacekeeper, a mediator, and a very kindhearted mate. Gregor is a bureaucrat who loves details and civil management. He too is gentle but has a somewhat snarky personality that is harder-edged and can at times be mean. Any acerbic quality is hidden by an outward behavior of geniality and mild manners.
Jemis was also seen as flat, and was additionally seen as too much of a comic relief character. That's a testament to the importance of giving a character weight before trying to make them funny. DeLatia is far more a comic relief character than Jemis in the Prelude but no one criticized her for it, because she also has so much else going on.
Jemis does have a fair bit of his own stuff going on—which was, once again, the result of my extensive editing, as I was aware from early on that he seemed to need more development. I personally feel that the revisions I made present him much more substantively, but readers didn't seem to share my sentiment.
DeLatia was widely enjoyed, except inasmuch as she was mean to Silence. (But if people are dissatisfied with that particular trait, I think that is a good thing, because it makes her conflict with Silence more realistic.)
No one commented on either Sourros or Diva, two characters whose portrayal I am particularly fond of. Diva in particular is probably my favorite character in the whole Prelude. She's extroverted and unfiltered, which on paper makes her very similar to DeLatia, but in practice they're quite different people—and I think that comes through clearly.
People generally didn't give me much feedback on thematic subjects—disappointing, but understandable. Themes tend to be less visible in Western eyes than plotlines and characterization.
Therefore, Whether to Revise?
In light of the feedback I received, in the context of my own reread of late and subsequent assessments, I've decided that there will be no major revision at this time. The First Edition is good enough to be put up for sale and presented to the world.
There are obviously many weaknesses with the Prelude, many areas for improvement. It's a first book, after all. But you all know that one of my weak spots is finishing things, and here at last is a thing that I finished, and, honestly, I think that's good enough. I need to move on and put my limited energy into other works.
I am ready to release the Prelude into the world!
There will be a Revised First Edition, but it will be with the publication of Book I of After The Hero, a few years down the road. That revision will contain a few scene improvements and probably a few micro-alterations to the canon. For example, the scene where Galavar gives his orders to the Guard, and concludes the Vardas Council, turned out to fall short in my eyes in its execution of the elegance and vision I originally had in mind. That scene will need a fair amount of work.
Whether to Abridge
So, back to the issue of the Prelude being too long and the question of whether I should do an abridgment.
I spent a lot of time thinking about that this week. That's because of the involvement of pragmatism in my decision-making process. Artistically, an abridgment is warranted. I think it would objectively improve this book. And I could do it without having to register a new copyright, which is significant. If it were purely a matter of the quality of the book, I should do the abridgment.
The problem is that it's not simply about quality. If I were to do a substantial abridgement project, it would take me several months and would probably require a hiatus on both The Great Galavar and Mate of Song during that time. This would disrupt my long-term financial planning and set much of my other creative work back by however long the abridgement takes.
This is bad for numerous reasons. First of all I'm in a difficult state financially and am counting on being able to build up my audience in 2016. I can't really afford to lose any time by spending months returning to work on the Prelude. Second of all I'm in a bad state with respect to my current living arrangements. In this house I have many pressures upon my mental health and limited mental energy to maintain said mental health. The prospect of returning to work on the Prelude—a book that I now consider finished—is deeply discouraging to me. Third of all, as I said earlier, verbosity is a weak spot of mine and I would be much better off tackling an abridgment with the help of a third-party editor—which I don't have the money for right now. Fourth of all I think the Prelude in its present form is probably not going to be all that much better than a Prelude with an abridgment alone (as opposed to a full revision). The Prelude is in some respects a niche fantasy work more so than a mainstream one, and abridging it won't change that.
Therefore there will be no abridgment at this time. The version on sale now is the full, unabridged version, in all its fat glory.
Changes Since Original Publication
I should note that the version of the Prelude on sale today—as well as the version readable on this site—is slightly different from the one you read back in the summer. Copyright law does allow for limited cosmetic changes within a given registration, covering things like misspellings and the occasional tweak to a sentence, and I have made a number of changes along these lines.
Though there will be no major revision or abridgement for now, I have made about twenty changes to the Prelude since original publication in August. Many of these are error corrections—bad grammar, a stray quotation mark—that I or my readers caught, or are clarity revisions.
The most notable changes are as follows (and this is an all-inclusive list; all notable changes are listed):
1. I capitalized one instance of the word "east," thus transforming the geographical term "powers of the east" into the geopolitical term "powers of the East." This is a very small change, but interesting.
2. Also interesting is Silence's snarky comment to the effect of "This is Gala and we don't do miracles [but really you need me to deliver one]." Galavar says this of miracles at one point earlier in the story, but Silence isn't present. Instead he says almost exactly the same thing of "wishes," and that's what Silence is present for. Now, it's entirely possible that this is the kind of refrain that Galavar repeats from time to time, but I knew that continuity nerds would hound me forever if I had Silence make a reference to something she didn't hear on-screen—they would think it was a mistake—so I changed her wording.
3. I removed the reference to poop. I found it jarring during my reread, and it didn't sit well with some readers. I put it in there deliberately, to show that these characters are not on pedestals—that they're real people—but since it didn't appear to flow well in the text I decided not to force it. The poop will return, though. In Relance, people poop.
4. The most important change by far is that I added a couple sentences where Galavar gives DeLatia Rennem's bloodstained ring, which he took from Rennem's severed fingers earlier in the story—although that was also implied rather than expressly depicted, so I added it too. DeLatia wears this ring when she goes to Davoranj, so I figured I shouldn't leave it implied that he gives it to her, given that they part ways at the end of the Prelude—Galavar up to his tower and DeLatia down to the Hollows. When Galavar gives her the ring, DeLatia tells him he has good taste. =]
Thanks a Million!
I've actually run out of time to write this thing if I want to publish it before Saturday is over. Hopefully I touched on everything. If you sent me detailed feedback, I'll be replying to you if I haven't done so already, to discuss some of your points that didn't fit in this article.
On a personal note, it's gratifying to be here. As you know I don't finish projects easily or often. But now I have a book! The Draft 10 Era breakthrough back in 2010 saw my writer's voice finally entering the sphere of where I want it to be. Mate of Song put that voice into action and virtually doubled Relancii worldbuilding. Then the Year of 32 led to a massive increase in output and a rapid acceleration of the storytelling. And now, at last, I have a book. It feels good. The worst dread I have is not that people won't like it, but that people won't read it. So tell your friends. Send them to this site, or to Amazon. And, please, give it a read yourself. If you do, let me know.
Tune in next week when I continue my miniseries on plot development! Until then, go read a book. =]
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!