Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Essential Vellum Tips

So, you've finally done it. You've bought Vellum. Maybe you even had to buy your first Mac to do it.  You've probably figured out how to make style choices or add elements from the tutorial, but what about those little details? How do you make the most of your new software and make your books the prettiest they've ever been with a minimum of headaches?
After recently reformatting several of my books with my brand new copy of Vellum, I have some tips to share.


The Find function works as in other apps on Mac. Just hit Command-F to bring up the search window. You can also find and replace to correct multiple identical errors at once, just like in Word.

Invisible Characters

In the View menu at the top of your screen, toggle on "Invisible Characters" to help you with niggling format problems like extra spaces and split ellipses.  Speaking of split ellipses . . .

Split Ellipses

A lot of people prefer to write an ellipsis as ". . . " rather than " ... ". It's just more attractive and easier on the eyes. But then you run into the problem of line-splitting and page-splitting disrupting your ellipses. To fix ellipses that are running over the end of the line, you want to make sure that spaces between the periods are non-breaking spaces. You should also having a non-breaking space between the last word and the start of the ellipsis. To make a nonbreaking space on a Mac, including in Vellum, hit "option-space" instead of "space." Turn on Invisible Characters, do one ellipsis correctly, then use Find to fix all the wrong ones in one go. Problem solved.

Table of Contents

Vellum will automatically generate your table of contents. However, the default setting seems to be to only generate it in e-book formats. To have it auto-generate the ToC in the print edition, make sure that you have clicked "Include in > All editions" under the Settings wheel of your Contents section.

Print vs. E-book Versions

Once you have dealt with all of your corrections in your Vellum file, you might find it convenient to save separate copy of the file for the print version if you think there are elements that might differ significantly between formats. I, for example, have a map at the front of some of my fantasy novels. In the mobi file, I simply have it as a photograph on a page by itself. That way, it is clickable for the reader to enlarge it on their e-reader. In the print version, on the other hand, I have it as two separate images, each with one half of the map, inserted as two "full page images" on facing pages.

Blank pages

Speaking of the print edition, if you find yourself needing to insert a blank page into your front matter for some reason (like getting your map to show up on facing pages), try clicking "Insert element > Dedication." Then delete anything written in the section you've just inserted and move it to where it is needed.

Social media links

In your "About the Author" section, Vellum prompts you to include Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram links. You can also click on the plus sign to add other platforms, such as Pinterest and Bookbub. If you want to include the links in the print version, be sure to toggle that choice in the menu.

Adding other links

To add links in the text, highlight the relevant text, two-finger click, and select "Add Text Feature." You can then choose "Store link" or "Web link." Paste in the link, and you are good to go.

I hope these tips will help you save time and avoid confusion when you use Vellum. Please share any tips of your own in the comments. Take care, and keep writing!

Friday, January 11, 2019

A New Excerpt from Unclean

Today I'm going to share with you one of the flashbacks from my forthcoming novel Unclean, the sequel to Hexborn. As in Hexborn, I start every chapter except the first one with a flashback from either Shiloh's or Silas's past. It will give you your first peek at the books' primary villain, Brother Fenroh. Fenroh is the illegitimate son of the Patriarch, who is the series's equivalent of the Pope. And he is bad news, indeed. Enjoy, and don't forget to pre-order your copy of Unclean.


Young Silas stood in the foyer of the Patriarch’s mansion in the Claw, trying not to twitch as he awaited a response to Alissa’s letter. At least it’s warm in here, he thought. He’d spent twenty hours straight in the saddle, and the weather had been none too pleasant. His stomach growled.

A boy a few years his senior pushed open heavy doors and strode toward him. His gray robes hung pristine from his lanky frame, and Silas was acutely conscious of the mud on his own boots.

“His Holiness requires more time to compose a reply,” the boy said importantly. “You may take a meal in the kitchen and bunk with the guards.”

“May I, honored brother?” Silas replied drily.

The boy glared at him. “You ought to be grateful for the Patriarch’s kindness.”

“Oh, I am, I assure you,” Silas told him. It was a challenge to hide his disdain. “If you would direct me toward the kitchen, honored brother?”

“I’ll show you. I don’t intend to have you traipsing all over this holy residence unescorted,” the boy replied.

They passed another priest in the corridor. The older man half-bowed to the boy, greeting him with, “Brother Fenroh.”

Silas raised his eyebrows. “You’re someone important’s son, I take it, honored brother?” he asked Fenroh.

The boy grinned savagely. “Only if you consider a God to be important.”

Silas followed Fenroh out toward the barracks, cursing Edmun silently for sending him on this mission. The Patriarch’s compound made his skin crawl, and his creepy son was probably planning to stare at Silas the whole time he ate, as though his every bite was suspect.

As they entered the courtyard, his host stopped short. A group of guards stood in a circle, laughing and tormenting a woman. They shot hexes at her bare feet, forcing her to dance to avoid their sting. At the sight of Fenroh, the guards came to attention.

“What is this about?” Fenroh asked, his voice somehow both silky and sharp.

“She stole from the collection plate at the temple out by Wilsar Creek, honored brother,” one of them explained with a bow.

“Is this true?” Fenroh asked the unfortunate creature.

“No, I would never!” she protested. Tears had carved lines through the dirt on her face. If she stole, it was because she was starving, Silas thought, taking in her bony shoulders and ragged clothes.

Fenroh looked at the guards, eyebrows raised. “Brother Tytoh caught her red-handed,” one of them offered.

That seemed to be enough for Fenroh. Silas stepped back as the boy drew his wand. A curse crackled, and Silas heard the crunch of bone an instant before the screaming came. Fenroh holstered his weapon and continued across the courtyard as though nothing had happened, the woman’s broken body lying on the uneven stones.

She continued to scream, all her limbs bent unnaturally. Blood gurgled in her throat. The guards did nothing, neither to help her nor to put her out of her misery. Sighing, Silas drew his own wand and flicked it at the doomed woman, who stilled at once under the fatal curse.

Fenroh looked back at him, head cocked sideways.

“I have a headache,” Silas claimed. “And she was loud.” But his casual words did not hide the disgust in his eyes.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Eight Reasons to Still Love Harry Potter

Sure, it isn't perfect. And when you read something again and again, the flaws just become more apparent. (House-elves wanting to be slaves, anyone? And Cursed Child was just so, so terrible.) But I still love Harry Potter. Here are a few reasons why.

Flawed characters

I enjoy the fact that the heroes in Harry Potter have flaws. They hold grudges. They dislike people.
They can be unkind or irritating. They get angry. They make bad calls and have to live with the consequences. They learn from their mistakes.

Extraordinary courage by ordinary people

Along the same lines, characters in Harry Potter find the courage to fight evil against overwhelming odds. Most of them aren't particularly powerful. Many of them are still children. Yet they fight nevertheless.

Intelligent women

The Harry Potter series gave us a number of brilliant female characters. Many bookish girls identify with Hermione, of course. But there are also Professor McGonagall, Tonks, Lily, and Luna, to name a few.

Portrayals of loyalty

I enjoy the portrayals of loyalty in Harry Potter, especially between friends. Harry's friends stand by him, a few bobbles by Ron notwithstanding. Snape remains loyal to Lily to the bitter end.

Mixed stakes

The stories contain a satisfying mix of stakes, some mundane and others earth-shattering. In Harry Potter, a quidditch match can cause as much nail-biting as a duel with the greatest dark wizard of the age. and isn't that what being a teenager feels like, when an oral report at school seems as terrifying as jumping off of a cliff.

Vivid world-building

There aren't too many books with vivid enough world-building to spawn theme parks. We have all enjoyed imagining such places as Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, and Diagon Alley. To provide that wealth of detail without getting bogged down is quite a feat.

Effective escapism

Let's be honest. We read fantasy because we need a break from reality. Harry Potter spins a web strong enough to block out the world, if only for a time.

Satisfying journey

The victories and defeats, the triumphs and tragedies, all combine to make a satisfying journey (save the epilogue and The Cursed Child). Mistakes had consequences. Good triumphed over evil. War is rightly portrayed as a terrible thing, and I think Rowling struck the right balance in terms of the deaths in the final battle, sad as they made me. Overall, the walk with Harry is a satisfying adventure.

The Right Stuff for Crafting the Perfect Villain

Everyone loves a good bad guy. So what makes a perfect villain we love to hate and secretly want to win? I propose that a perfect villain has to have at least three of the following qualities.

The Right Charm

The villain must have charisma or charm. If the villain doesn’t draw you in, why would you want to watch him or read about her? What would keep your attention? Why would their henchmen follow them?  The great weakness of Voldemort as a villain in Harry Potter is that there is nothing positive about him that makes you believe that people would be devoted to him long-term.  He rules only by fear, whereas someone like Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts movies has the charm and understanding of human feeling required to manipulate people’s affections.

The Right Face

We like our villains handsome but in a weird way. They can't be too ugly or too pretty. The face has to have something a little scary about it: too sharp a nose, overly prominent cheekbones, a cruel mouth, a scar. There has to be something about the face that gives one pause. Ian McKellen’s ability to portray great villains like Magneto and Richard III owes a good deal to his face.

The Right Voice

If the villain has a voice you'd listen to reading a grocery list, you're halfway there. Who wouldn’t follow Alan Rickman or Benedict Cumberbatch anywhere, villain or not? And you can't have a villain monologue if the bad guy isn't articulate.

The Right Style

There's something about a bad guy who knows how to dress. Villain fashion doesn't necessarily have to follow convention, but it's nice when a villain has a look that is neat, attractive, and all his own. Who doesn’t remember Hans Gruber’s line about his suit? And Lucius Malfoy just wouldn't be the same without his hair and his cane.

The Right Attitude

I love a happy villain. Give me a villain who is fulfilled in his career any day over some moping, reluctant figure. I love a villain who enjoys breaking the rules, who takes pleasure in upending the world order. Boyd Crowder’s smile, Moriarty's glee, the Joker's unrepentant nihilism--the right attitude creates the kinds of villains you almost have to root for.

The Right Motives

A villain is the hero of his own story, after all. A sad back story helps motivate his actions and gain audience sympathy even when they are planning atrocities. Magneto lost his family in the Holocaust. Loki has his family woes and adoption trauma. Dr. Evil has his mother with webbed feet. Okay, maybe that last one is less effective, but you get the idea.  If the motive is pure cruelty for cruelty's sake, it rather ruins the fun for me.

In my own books, my villains are the most fun for me to write.  They can say and do things the hero could never get away with.  They are filled with a confidence that decent people can rarely achieve.  And as my vampire villain Luka says, enemies are more reliable than friends.

What are some other characteristics of your favorite villains of page or screen?

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Book Reviewing Tips

For some reason, many people who would not hesitate to leave a Yelp review for a restaurant or a physical product review on Amazon are more reluctant to write book reviews.  Perhaps it reminds us too much of the school assignments of our childhood.  Perhaps people think that book reviewers need some kind of qualifications.

Well, I am here to tell you that your perspective as a reader is valuable both to authors and to your fellow readers.  This is true regardless of your background or grades in English class.  And if you don't quite know where to start with your review of a recent read, here are a few tips to get you started.  You can discuss one of these points or all of them.  No matter how long or short your review, I guarantee that someone will appreciate it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Dialogue Tips for Writers

I've been told that I write dialogue well.  I don't know how true that is, but I certainly enjoy writing dialogue.  I like how it allows me to explore my characters, their personalities, and the images they try to portray of themselves when they communicate.  My favorite dialogue role model is Hilary Mantel.  Do yourself a favor and read Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety.  The woman is a master.

Here are my tidbits of advice when it comes to writing conversation.

1) Your characters should talk like people actually sound.  Unless you have some real reason for your characters to speak strangely (different time period, aliens, second language, whatever), your characters should sound like they grew up on this planet conversing with other human beings.  Even when there is a reason for someone to speak strangely, it can be really off-putting and distracting if done in excess.

2) Readers should be able to tell who is speaking.  I don't mean every line needs a dialogue tag, but if you use so few that readers stop out of confusion, then you need to be more explicit about who is saying what.

3) Repetition is boring.  Don't write the same conversation multiple times.

4) Dialogue should accomplish characterization.  If a character's words and the way he speaks tell us nothing about him, then something is wrong with the writing.

5) Your imagination can help you create an effective voice.  If you don't have a clear sound and image in mind, try "fantasy casting."  Imagine which actor would play that character in the movie of your book.  How would she sound?

6) Conversation isn't just about the words spoken.  It includes body language, gestures, facial expressions, and what is left unsaid.  People don't communicate with only their words.  On the other hand, don't overdo the adverbs and descriptions.  A taste is enough for the reader to fill in the details.

What are some of your favorite tips for writing dialogue?  What are some of the greatest pitfalls?

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Lessons of Twilight or Avoidable Mistakes in Vampire Fiction

In the world of vampire fiction, there are several names that loom large.  There's Dracula.  There's Anne Rice.  There's Sookie Stackhouse.  And, of course, there's Twilight. 

In writing She Dies at the End, one of my goals was for it to be the anti-Twilight.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I read all the Twilight books.  They are page turners.  There's no denying that they're fun.  But there are some things about them that really bother me. 

First, I shall complain about the romance.  Edward emotionally abuses Bella.  He's incredibly controlling, and her worship of him is disturbing.  Her total nervous breakdown after he leaves her paints a terrible picture to young girls of what it means love someone and of how you process your feelings after it goes bad.  This is one reason that November goes through a failed romance in Book 1 of my series.  I wanted to show that a girl can be sad about a first love gone wrong but still stand up for herself and move on.  I also wanted to acknowledge the fundamental creep factor of an ancient vampire going after a teenage girl.  The power dynamics of that are really unacceptable, no matter how much you try to gloss it over by saying that he's a virgin or that she's his one true love.  

The vampire-human romantic situations in my book are portrayed as sketchy because they are, in fact, sketchy.

Another thing that irritates me about Twilight is the lack of diversity in the main cast.  You do have Native American werewolves, but otherwise, it's white people as far as the eye can see.  The only Black dude has a handful of pages and then dies.  Why are all the Cullens white?  There is no reason for that.  Representation matters.  When the default race for every character is white, that sends a strong, negative message to people of color, especially young people.  I deliberately create my characters to reflect the diversity of the world around me, here in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I think that makes my books more interesting and sends a positive message to all readers.

Finally, there's the total lack of any consequences for bad decisions.  In the Twilight series, Bella knows that if she becomes a vampire, she is likely to kill someone.  Her vampire friends tell her this over and over again.  Some of the Cullens even take bets on how high the body count will be.  And yet, Bella wants to become one anyway, so she can be with Edward forever and never get old.  And instead of having to face the consequences of what is fundamentally a selfish decision, she's conveniently such a special vampire snowflake that she can resist her urge for human blood with no mistakes.  I find that to be an unsatisfying cop-out, one I try to avoid in She Lights Up the Dark.  

My mixed feelings about Twilight have definitely informed my writing, and serve as an example of how helpful it can be to read within your genre.  It helps you to see the elements you love as well as those that are more problematic.  I will likely never have the level of success achieved by Stephanie Meyer, but I'm proud of the story I've created.  I think it is enjoyable, interesting, and socially conscious.  I hope you'll agree.

Read more about my vampires, fairies, and werewolves in She Dies at the End, She Lights Up the Dark, and She Marches Through Fire.