Photodump: 2015 so far, and things to come

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. Sorry, any of those who are following the minutiae of my life! Things have been very busy of late, and they’re only going to get busier very soon.

Back in February, we took a trip out to Phoenix, Arizona. We went for a couple of reasons: first, all of my immediate family has migrated there from Seattle, so we were able to visit my parents, as well as my brother and his family.

tiki gods and lemons

My parents have a thriving lemon tree in their backyard, with a few friends keeping it company. The bulk of the landscaping is pale gravel, which I really dig. Lawns are not my thing.

The other reason we went there was to scope the place out. We’ve been here in Florida for over 8 years now, and it still doesn’t feel like home. We have no urge whatsoever to buy a house here and settle down. As soon as we went back west, where the time zones run later and the TV stations all start with the letter K, it felt right again. We went into a Safeway grocery store, and I almost cried with joy.

SO, we’re moving to Phoenix in September. We’ll be able to find a place to live starting about 60 days out, and are currently planning other aspects of the move. (Current plan: ABF U-Pack ReloCube for our stuff, transport company to take the Fiat over, and we’ll fly out nonstop with the cats.)

We’ve started into doing things here for the last time. Scott’s brother came out to visit this month, so we went on our last trip to the Universal parks.

really, Universal?

I went as ready as I thought I could be. They always make you put your purse in a locker, so I wore shorts with deep pockets, put my phone, wallet and keys in those, and even brought safety pins to pin my pockets closed to keep my stuff safe. And YET! Now on a few rides, Universal doesn’t allow you to take any of that stuff on the rides — you have to go through metal detectors, and if you’re carrying any personal belongings, you STILL have to go put them in a locker.

That trip to Universal also taught me that my equilibrium has become so bad with age, I can’t really do the big roller coasters anymore. I’ll stick with Disney-grade rides from now on. (And when we’re in Phoenix, we’ll be a 5-hour drive to Disneyland. Which thrills me more than I can say. It’s still a way better park than any of the ones we have here in Florida.)

Brother-in-law brought my birthday card, which had been mailed a month before, but met with some peril on the way:

birthday card

Ouch. The machine did a near-perfect job of tearing off the name and address, while leaving the envelope sealed. It’s impressive, in a way. Though it looks like someone gave it an F grade.

After Universal, we went to the Magic Kingdom with brother-in-law. Everything there was much more my speed. One nice thing about both Universal and Disney is that they have some decent gluten-free options in the restaurants. At Universal, many of their burgers can be put on a gluten-free bun (they still haven’t quite perfected the texture, but they do the job of holding the fillings in just fine). At Disney, I got the GF chicken strips, which are not only good, but I think they’re better than the regular ones.

Disney gluten-free chicken strips

Let’s see, what else is going on? I’m currently working on the 4th draft of my next book (beta reader feedback is coming in these days, and I’m making edits based on their comments/suggestions/critiques).

The cats are lovely, as always:

Cheddar and Trouble and a box

We have a large cardboard box in our living room, because Cheddar just adores it. Sometimes she’s inside it, but most of the time she lays on top of it. Trouble isn’t as thrilled with the box, but then again, she’s a crotchety old 17-year-old. She’s seen it all, man.

Oh, and we had a great celebrity encounter recently, when our friends Jen and John from Cake Wrecks took us along to see the Mythbusters Live show, where we also got a backstage meet-and-greet with Jamie and Adam.


The show was a fascinating thing: a weird hybrid of comedy, science demonstrations, Q&As, and more.

So that’s what’s going on these days! If you’re wondering what I’ll be doing for a job, after we move I’ll be taking a few months to do a few things: I’m going to put myself through an online certificate program for graphic design, since my knowledge is mostly self-taught and mostly at least 5 years old at this point. I’m going to get Scott’s social media sites whipped into shape (we could do so much more with his Facebook and Twitter accounts). And by that point, my 2nd book should be out, and I’ll be able to start on my 3rd. Which I believe will be in a different universe completely.

I really enjoy drawing weird things.

The Holiday Doodles continue on, though I scaled them back from 7 days a week to Monday through Friday. It gives me a little more breathing room, and they’ve always felt like a work/school kind of thing to me.

One big change this month is that I’ve gone from drawing them on 4×6 notecards with a pencil and pen to drawing them completely on the computer. Less wasteful of paper, and I can re-do the final black lines as many times as I want, instead of having to get the rough sketch just right, then pray that I draw it correctly with the pen.

Previously, here’s an example from last April of the pencil sketch process:


I also photographed the final drawings, then used Photoshop to lighten them up and boost the contrast so I could then import them into Illustrator. (We do have a scanner/printer, but I hate the scanner. Takes forEVER, when it decides to work. Because it’s an HP machine. NEVER AGAIN, HP.)

Now, I do the rough sketches in blue:

February 20's sketch

February 20’s sketch

This was for Love Your Pet Day combined with Clean Out Your Bookshelves Day. The choice of blue is a throwback to the use of no-photo blue pencils for rough work; you could do the black final art right over the top, and specific camera/scanner settings would make the blue pretty much invisible, so you didn’t need to erase.

After I go crazy with the rough sketch, I throw a new layer on top, switch my pen to black, then do the final drawing. Right hand with the pen on the graphics tablet, left hand with two fingers resting on Ctrl and Z (undo).

February 23rd - a cupcake playing tennis

February 23rd – a cupcake playing tennis

I think it’s really giving me cleaner, more consistent lines. I tried doodling using the computer a couple of years ago, but at that time I found I preferred paper and pen. I don’t know what changed, but something certainly did.

I also believe that doing these doodles is making me a better illustrator. I’ve done Mario a few times before, but this one is by far my best one.

Mar. 10: Mario Day! Also, bagpipes.

Mar. 10: Mario Day! Also, bagpipes.

(Also, I would totally play the bagpipes if they were made to look like a power-up mushroom.)

I Can’t Believe This Hasn’t Been Done Before

The Lady Is a Trap

The Lady Is a Trap

And yet, my Google searches turned up nothing. This is what happens when I listen to a lot of standards/American songbook stuff.

Photoshop Text Effect Tutorial: Road Stencil

I’ve been learning a ton of new tips and tricks from following Photoshop text tutorials lately. As we were driving to the grocery store the other day, I looked down at the chipped up, grimy, beat-to-hell turn arrow and text on the road and thought, that’d be a cool thing to create in Photoshop! I looked around for a tutorial, but couldn’t find one. So I made one! Note: this is done in Photoshop CS4; things might be in slightly different places in different versions.


Here are the elements I scouted around for online. Major thanks to everyone who makes these things available!
Font: Boston Traffic
Pattern 1: Seamless Asphalt Texture
Pattern 2: Whitewashed Blue and Beige Grunge Patterns
Brush: Dust Particles Brush Set
Object: Tire Treads
Object: Left Turn Arrow

First, you’ll want to make a pattern out of the asphalt texture. Open that image file and go to Edit > Define Pattern. Done!

Decide how large you want your image to be. For a lot of the tutorials I’ve been following, I’ve been doing them small—around 400×600 pixels. (Then I don’t have to do any resizing to post them here on the ol’ blog.)

Create your base layer and color it in black. Or whatever solid color you like; we’ll be laying a pattern over the top, so you won’t see that color anymore. Go to your layer styles (that little “fx” option at the bottom of your layers window) and choose “Pattern Overlay.” Select your newly-created asphalt pattern, and scale it so that it has a realistic look. I went down to 25% on this 400×600 sample.


Why not just use the fill bucket to fill that first layer with the pattern? Unscaled, the gravel in the asphalt looks HUGE. It’s like when you see a miniature boat filmed for a movie; the boat looks accurate, but the water underneath it looks wrong. You want to scale the pattern so that whatever you put over the top of it doesn’t look weirdly out of scale.

Next up, type in your text. I found the font Boston Traffic and loved it immediately; it already has jagged, irregular edges, event though we’ll jack those up even more a little bit later. Fiddle with the font size, distance between lines, and distance between letters until you get a look you like. Here are my settings.


Once you get the type where you want it, rasterize it. (Right-click on that layer and choose “Rasterize Type”.) We’ll be doing some erasing in a moment, and you can’t do that when it’s still type.

Back to the layer styles we go! Here are the settings, applied to the rasterized type layer:






The pattern I used in this part is the blue crème #42 from the webtreats collection, but you could use any pattern that just adds an element of dirty grunginess. Adjust the opacity of that pattern to add as much (or as little) grime as you want. I like it pretty grimy, since I’m also going to dirty things up a lot.


Next, let’s erase away some of the text. Not a lot, just enough to show some wear and tear. This is one of the thousands of reasons I love the dust particle brushes from wegraphics: they’re good for a thousand and one uses. Fire up the eraser (at 100% opacity), pick one of the dust brushes you like, scale it to an appropriate size (for this 400×600, I scaled my brushes to around 700 pixels) and just give it one tap.


Boom! Pitted and aged.

Now, while you’re erasing, you can also take some nibbles away from the sides of the letters, to give them even more wear and age. No need to go overboard—just make some of the straighter edges not so straight.

Now, let’s add in the tire tread. Open up the tire tread image file and select a tread you like. I picked the fourth one from the left, because it has that gross blobby portion in the bottom half. Select whichever tread you want, copy it over into a new layer, then resize and rotate it so that it’s a good proportion to the text. Change the layer’s style to Linear Burn, and bump the opacity down to about 65%. You can also put a little bit of Gaussian Blur on it, to take away some of the sharper edges. (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur; I went with a radius of 0.8 pixels.)


Now, the pavement itself looks too clean and new. Create a new layer underneath the text, and go to town with those dust particle brushes. Pick a few shades of dark gray and tap the brushes to put down a splattering of grime. Photoshop also comes with a few spatter brushes, so experiment with those. You can play with the layer styles here too; change the style from Normal to Overlay to Linear Burn and see what you like.


You can also add in some browns, for oil and dirt and dust and coffee spills. I created a new layer for brown and set the layer style to Overlay, then smeared around three or four shades of brown, some stacked on top of each other.


For some, it’s done. For others, it just wouldn’t be complete with a little gradient around the outside, to give it a kind of hip Instagram-style filtered look. So here’s that, if you want it. It’s a totally optional step. As shown, I created a new layer over the top of all others, filled it with a radial gradient, black to transparent, reversed so that the black is on the outside.


I set the layer style to Overlay, and knocked opacity down to 50%. And there you have it, if gradients are your thing! (You could also do that gradient in a dark brown. Or any other color that floats your boat.)


You can also do the exact same thing with objects, instead of text. Here, I took the standard road sign arrow, chopped a piece out of it to give it that stenciled look, and then applied all of the same settings, layers, and whatnot.


So there you have it, stenciled road text! Now I’m headed out on the internet to find more tutorials to follow.

More Photoshop Text Tutorials!

So I’ve really started poking around the internet, and it’s amazing the kind of things you can do with Photoshop effects. Why have I only spend all of this time using it to graft people’s heads onto other people’s bodies, and other boring uses?

Previously, I showed my results from following a few tutorials online. Well, I’ve discovered a few more tutorials that I found do-able, and here are the results!

(Side note: I’m using Photoshop CS4. There are a number of tutorials out there for the far newer CS6, which has some new 3-D features and other glitzy things that I can’t do. Sad face, but I’m not about to shell out a gajillion bucks for a few new features.)

A 3-D style sign on the wall.

A 3-D style sign on the wall.

This is the ultra-glossy text effect tutorial from Wegraphics. It felt like a kind of metallic sign hanging on the wall to me, so I adjusted my text accordingly.

Carved wood.

Carved wood.

Here’s the first video I followed, as opposed to a series of screenshots and instructions: using PS text effects to give the impression of letters carved in wood, from Ice Flow Studios. I had to pause and skip backward a few times, but overall the following-a-video experience was a good one. A+, would learn from again.

Yes. Let's.

Yes. Let’s.

Next up was a pretty easy way to put a photo inside your text, from Photoshop Essentials. It’s a good step toward knowing how to do old-fashioned postcards. Although I believe there’s a tutorial out there for that style of postcard, as well.

Yay, sparkly things!

Yay, sparkly things!

This is a tutorial for a dynamic particle explosion from the Photoshop Lady. It includes a link to her free brush set of dust particles, which I can see coming in handy for a thousand and one uses. I’ll admit, this tutorial forced me to look up a second tutorial, because the instructions just said to “add a Gradient Map adjustment layer,” so I had to figure out how that was done. Fortunately, Googling that very phrase got me what I needed.

Scorching hot Mickey!

Scorching hot Mickey!

Last up is the magma hot effect from Tuts+. I figured I’d try a simple object instead of text, and I think it still worked quite well. It makes the mouse even more of a badass than he already is.

Playing with Photoshop Text Effects

I’ve had Photoshop on my computer for years, but I’ve mostly used it for, y’know photos. And doodle-related stuff. If I was using it to put text on something, I might put an outline around the text. Or a drop shadow. That was about the limit of my Photoshop text experience.

Recently, I’ve had my eyes opened that you can do some really cool text effects in Photoshop.

We bought a package of vintage and retro text effects (they were on a hella good sale, which sadly ended a couple of days ago). I took a look, and as is usually the case when seeing something cool and artist, I wondered if I could learn how to do that kind of thing.

Here’s a sample from the package we bought:

Vintage/retro text effects package sample

Vintage/retro text effects package sample

It’s pretty cool. Textured background, textured letters, lots of shading and shadows and groovy crap like that. So since I had nothing better to do with my day off today, I’ve searched around the internet for tutorials and how-to guides for some Photoshop text effects.

There are a ton of sites out there with “50 great text effects” and such. I browsed through those until I found things that looked cool. Here are some of the things I learned to do today:

The letter M. ON FIRE!

The letter M. ON FIRE!

Here’s a flaming letter, from a tutorial over at 10 Steps. You do a bunch of manipulation of the text itself, then you actually put a layer of a photograph of fire over the top, and manipulate that too!

Just call me Ms. Fancy Pants.

Just call me Ms. Fancy Pants.

For a lot of these, I put in text that seemed to fit the style. This is a totally fancy-pants tutorial from Tuts+. (I will confess, I only made it halfway through this one; their final product is way cooler than mine. But I did this one just before lunch, stopped at the mid-way point, then decided to just save it and move on.)

Looks like nail polish to me.

Looks like nail polish to me.

This is a glossy emblem tutorial from Hongkiat — they’re a great source for lots of tutorials. I changed a number of the settings, including the color, and used a different background. But I really like the look of this one; it has a kind of fluid look, like someone filled in the words with wet fingernail polish.



Here’s a really cool light burst effect, thanks to a tutorial from Designer Freelance. I thought it was quite shiny. The shadow of the text stretching along the ground made me extra happy.

I am a mature adult.

I am a mature adult.

Last but not least is my favorite of the lot, this light burst from Photoshop Essentials. And no, it isn’t just my favorite because of the text I used. Although I’m delighted by that, too. What can I say, my inner child is a 13-year-old boy.

I’m excited to try more tutorials, because in each one, I learn about a text effect or filter or other Photoshop trick I’d either never used before, or I’d never used it quite that way. I’m sure I’ll get around to doing more this evening, since there’s nothing else to do today.

So happy Photoshopping friends! Merry Christmas to all, and to all, poopy farts!

The Second Novel Mambo: Sequels Are Hard.

Did I say that a second novel is just as hard as a first? I take that back. If the second book is a sequel, it’s way harder. My primary issue is trying to figure out how much recap to include. Do I assume that the reader of this book has read the first? Do I need to cover people’s jobs? Appearance?

My only solution is to treat myself as if I’m the reader. Recently, I read the third book in a trilogy. It had been two years since I’d read the second book, so I didn’t remember who some of the characters were, and how they got into the situations they were in. So for this first draft, I’m throwing in bits here and there to refresh the reader. I may add more, or I may subtract some, when I go back in on subsequent drafts. We’ll see how I feel then.

As I write this first draft, I have to keep reminding myself that this isn’t in any way final. As I said to Scott, this is really an opportunity for my brain to vomit out words onto the page, so I’ll have something to work with later. (He thought the way I phrased that was gross, FYI.)

So far I’m not hitting numbers as large as last time – as of writing this post, a week in, I’m averaging just over 2,100 words per day, but it isn’t the ferocious 2,700 words per day I averaged on the first book. But I’m also trying to squeeze more real-life into my evenings, so I’m not just eating, then writing, then sleeping.

This time around, we live in a different apartment, with an awesome walking trail right outside our door. It’s also a half-hour closer to work. So now, I get home from work, change clothes, then Scott and I go and walk for a couple of miles. It’s a great chance to wake my brain and body up after a long day at work. (And since Scott is also in the middle of writing another book, it’s a great chance to bounce ideas off of each other.) Then a shower, dinner, writing anywhere from 1.5 to 2 hours, and then I still have an hour or so to watch TV or play video games or whatever I want before bed.

Our evening walking trail. What a dump.

Our evening walking trail. What a dump.

I’ve made sure that backing everything up is also part of my daily routine. After I finish writing, I copy the total number of words into a spreadsheet, and a formula tells me how many words I wrote that particular day. Then I copy the draft, that tally sheet, and any other documents I’ve made changes to (usually either the outline, my cheat sheet of characters, or both) over to cloud storage. I also have an on-site backup drive, but I like having a copy out there somewhere that isn’t inside my house.

I agree with some comments that We Could Be Villains starts out slow. It’s a lot of exposition and backstory right off the bat. The nice part about writing its sequel is that I don’t need to worry about the whole new-person-meets-team part of things. The first two chapters get you straight into a heist, because action is awesome.

One of the coolest things so far, and something I loved while writing my other book too, is the collection of browser tabs I have open at the end of a writing session. Thank goodness for the internet; I can’t imagine having to find a book on the bookshelf to research things, or have to go to the library to find a book on a specific topic. Or owning a full set of encyclopedias!

One day while outlining, I finished work for the day and closed tabs with: the periodic table of the elements, a top-10 list of the best burger places in a specific city, geological surveys, and an airline timetable. I’ve also had to completely re-imagine a couple of things, because the science was just impossible. I want my science to at least be slightly possible, although a lot of it is probably farfetched.

So, onward I go, vomiting out words onto the page so I have something to edit later. Some of it feels good, some of it I know needs a lot of work. (A couple of chapters have notes at the beginning, stuff like “add in X, think about Y, maybe cut Z.”) But since starting is the hardest part, I’m already ahead of the curve.

The Second Novel Mambo: It Begins!

So I’ve started writing my second book, which is a sequel to We Could Be Villains.

It definitely isn’t easier to write a second book after you’ve written a first. You still have to do an absolute crap-ton of research, and outlining, and prepping. (Unless you aren’t the outlining type. But I’ve discovered that I totally am.) So I guess right now, it seems like it’s just as hard as the first.

I kept a list of general ideas for a month or so. (I’ve discovered that notebook apps like Evernote and such just don’t work for me; instead, I keep an email in draft, addressed to nobody, and write in that.) The idea-gathering period is a strange one. Sometimes I’ll just follow a link and find something I like, whether it’s an article about a new technology or a strange news story. Other times, I’ll be hit during the day with an idea, so I’ll jot something down in that draft email.

But what happens most of all is that I’ll have an idea, or a thought, or come up with a snippet of dialog, just as I’m trying to get to sleep. There have been nights where I’ve had to grab my tablet a half-dozen times off the nightstand so I could tap out an awkwardly-worded and usually-misspelled thought with my hammy thumbs. Scott usually laughs at me, and it disturbs the cats.

Once I get enough ideas, I start building my outline. I should really take a look at one of Scott’s outlines, because I bet they’re totally different than mine. I build mine with one paragraph per chapter, with a bunch of short sentences about what things/actions/discussions I want to tackle in that chapter. As I ask myself questions or have places that need to be filled in, I highlight them. And at first, there are a LOT of highlighted things. But I stew over those, and usually come up with answers to those questions, again, as I’m trying to drift off to sleep.

You’re probably seeing the theme to my creativity, which can be kind of a pain in the ass. I’ve come up with entire conversations in my head, and had to get up out of bed to go type them out at the computer, because it’s just too much for my tippy-tappy thumbs. If I could live my life in that twilight of just-about-to-fall-asleep, I’d be more prolific than Stephen King.

I’ve actually started writing with a couple of highlighted questions left on my outline. But they aren’t until late in the book, and I have high hopes that some sleepy-time thoughts will occur between now and when it’s time to actually write those chapters. There’s also the possibility that something I come up with earlier in the book will present itself as a perfect thing to call back later on, and that can take the place of one of those remaining questions.

So, outline in hand, I’m diving in. Last time, I averaged over 2,700 words per day, which meant that I pretty much didn’t do anything in the evenings besides eat, write, then sleep for a month. (Good thing it was June, when there were slim pickings for good TV.) Not sure if I’m going to hit those same kind of numbers this time, but if it takes me more than 30 days to write the first draft, so be it.

An Update on My Tea Habit

It’s been a couple of years since I really started getting into tea. Two years later, we’re still totally in love with the stuff. We started with Teavana, since there was one located very close to us, got frustrated pretty fast with their high prices and aggressive sales techniques, and moved online. We’ve tried a few different mail-order places; here are the ones we’ve tried, in order of how much we love them.

#1: Harney and Sons

This link will take you straight to my favorite tea of all time, Harney and Sons’ Decaf Hot Cinnamon Spice. They have other good flavors as well, and they have sample size packages of almost everything. They also sell their teas in these nifty pyramid-shaped “sachets,” so you get the convenience of a tea bag with the tastiness of loose leaf.

Harney & Sons Decaf Hot Cinnamon

I’m drinking the decaf these days, in all things. Back when my anxiety was really turned up to 11, I discovered that caffeine made it way, way worse. So I stopped drinking caffeinated things. After I got the anxiety (mostly) under control, every time I tried caffeine again, it would grab a random emotion and crank it way up. The emotions it chose made no sense — one time it would be joy, the next it would be rage. So I’ve embraced my new decaf lifestyle.

I still haven’t tried all of Harney’s decaf flavors, because the hot cinnamon is so, so perfect. It’s like hot tea with red hots in it, but in a good way. And in the evenings, it’s especially good with a glug of Fireball cinnamon whiskey in it. Right now we have three containers of their cinnamon tea in the house — both loose leaf and sachets of decaf for me, and some regular-strength for Scott.

Ooh, AND. You might be able to find some tins of 20 sachets at your local grocery store. Our nearest Target has eight flavors available, a couple of them decaf. The Publix only has one flavor, but it’s the regular Hot Cinnamon Sunset, so that’s cool. (We’ve also ordered Harney teas from Amazon, when they’re out of stock at the Harney website. Many of their offerings come with Prime shipping, so I can get my mitts on the tea that much faster.)

(Edit: Just got an email from Harney. Free shipping now through November 30th!)

#2: Adagio Teas

Adagio has a GREAT selection of teas, be it regular, decaf, green, or whatever tickles your fancy. My link here will take you to their Rooibos Vanilla Chai, a great decaf chai that rocks my socks with a shot of cream in it.

They also have small sample packages for around two bucks each, just like Harney and Sons. They say the sample packets make 10 cups of tea, but your mileage may vary on that. (We only get 5-6, but maybe we just like it strong.) So you can try a bunch of different flavors and see what you like. (Turns out, I don’t like teas made from dried fruit. The best of them is like drinking hot fruit punch.)


Adagio is also the source for the IngenuiTEA teapot, which I reviewed a couple of years ago. I still think it’s a great device for some people; I just didn’t like having to clean all of the soggy tea leaves out of it. Which is why I’ve switched over to either pre-made bags with loose leaf tea, or filling my own empty tea bags with loose leaf.

Right now (Thanksgiving weekend in the USA), they appear to be doing free shipping on everything.

#3: ESP Tea Emporium

We tried these guys way back when, and they come in a distant third place. Their smallest sizes are around $5 each to try (as opposed to Adagio and Harney with their $2 samples). A couple of flavors were all right, but not as great as other brands we’d tried, and a couple of the flavors we got tasted kind of stale and lifeless.

And, a new gadget!

As an early holiday present, I got a Panasonic 3.2-quart water boiler. Here it is with a cute tin of Harney regular hot cinnamon, and a giant ugly bag of 50 sachets of decaf cinnamon.

The tea nook

(I see they’re in the $90 range right now. If you keep an eye out and wait for a sale, you can get this model for under $70. Did you know that you can use sites like Camel Camel Camel to alert you when items on Amazon drop under a certain price? It’s awesome!)

Since we moved, we now have a fridge with a filtered water dispenser in the door (and I never want to go back to being without ice and water from the door, hoo boy). For hot beverages, we would fill a measuring cup with filtered water from the door, then microwave it. Now, it’s as easy as teabag in the cup, press a button, and blammo. Immedate steeping!

We weren’t sure it would be worth the money, but this thing is fantastic. It’s helping me cut down on pop (Caffeine-Free Diet Coke is a little Kryptonite-ish for me), because now a cup of tea can be almost as immediate as cracking open a can of pop. So it’s worth it for that alone. Scott also uses it for his coffee. I guess we could use it for ramen, as well, if we ate ramen. (I’ve tried these rice noodle soup bowls in the past; I should grab some more of those. They were almost ramen-ish, and delightfully gluten-free.)

Anyone out there have a favorite online tea shop, preferably one that sells little samples?

The First Novel Mambo: Print Layout

This is going to be a long one, friends. Buckle up! Writing a book can be difficult–anyone who’s tried to do it can attest to that fact. But laying out that book for print, especially if it isn’t something you do every day, can fill your soul with rage.

There are a ton of little fiddly rules that mean you’re going to have to nudge, adjust, wiggle, and poke at things until they sit just right on the page. All the way through the book, from front to back. And if you need to go back and correct something early in the book, that good ol’ butterfly effect may mean you have to make those adjustments all over again.

I’m very fortunate to have a copy of Adobe InDesign on hand, although I understand that it’s possible to lay out your book in Microsoft Word as well. It just takes a lot more work, and a lot more tinkering.

Let’s take a look at a number of headaches you’ll need to consider when laying out your book for print:


There’s a temptation, when using a print-on-demand system, to make the margins small. After all, the narrower the margins, the fewer pages you’ll use! Since POD prices are tied directly to the number of pages, it means you can charge a buck less or so!

In my first print proof, I had margins that were 0.4 inches on the outside. And the top margin was about 0.25 inches. Take a look here–compare them to the professionally laid out book underneath, and you’ll see why I re-did the entire layout with wider margins.

comparing margins

I read somewhere that the goal is for the reader to be able to hold the book and not have their thumb block any of the text. I really liked the sound of that.

You’ll also need a larger margin on top, because of the header up there. In my book, I went with the title on one side, author’s name on the other, page numbers on both (except in certain circumstances, which I’ll discuss in a moment).

Oh, and you’ll need a wider margin in the gutter, too! The gutter is the inside margin–the right side of the left-hand page, and the left side of the right-hand page. Because of the way the pages are bound together, you need some extra space in there, so the reader doesn’t have to crack the spine of your book in half in order to read the entire page.


Open up any novel you have on hand. It’ll have the author’s name, the title of the book, and page numbers on most pages. Sometimes it’ll be the chapter title instead of the title of the book or the author’s name. If it’s a collection of short stories, it might be the name of the current story instead of the title of the book. But almost every book you open up will have some sort of identifying information at the tops of the pages.

Some books will put the text (author name, book title, etc.) along the top, and page numbers on the bottom. That was one more confusing step than I wanted to take. Besides which, if page numbers on the top are good enough for Scott’s pro-printed books, they’re good enough for me. So I rolled with everything along the top, and I’m happy with that choice.

Headers like that would be easy, if they were consistent throughout the book. But of course, they aren’t. There are certain exceptions where you don’t have the headers. The exceptions are:

* Title pages and copyright pages in the front don’t have any of that header information. And the page numbering starts with the first page of the actual story.

* Blank pages don’t have header information on them.

* The first page of each chapter doesn’t have header information.

That leads us into the next thing to consider:


Did you know that new chapters should start on the right-hand page? I didn’t even think about that, but sure enough, pick up most books, and that’ll be the case.

And since your page numbering will start with the first page of the first chapter, that means that odd-numbered pages are always on the right, and chapters always start on odd-numbered pages.

If you have a chapter that ends on a right-hand page, then the very next left-hand page is left blank, so that the following chapter can start on the right.

(Some will say it’s OK to start a new chapter on the left. But if you flip through the professionally printed novels on your bookshelf, you’ll see that the majority follow this right-side method. I’m sticking with the majority on this one.)

The whole blank pages/first page of a chapter having no header is where Microsoft Word users will run into difficulties. You’ll get into having several header sections, changing to a new header section each time you go from having a header to having no header. With InDesign, at least, you can apply headers to the entire document, then delete them only on the specific pages (blank lefts or new chapter rights) that shouldn’t have them.

Also, did you know that the first paragraph of a new chapter isn’t indented? Same goes for sections within a chapter. Go ahead, look at books on your shelf. I’d never noticed it, but sure enough, it’s usually the case.


You have pretty much two choices for justification: ragged right or flush/justified.

This blog post, for example, is ragged right–all of the text is lined up neatly on the left margin, but on the right margin, it’s mayhem. Lines end wherever, nothing’s squared up. Chaos!

You could do ragged right in your novel, but I bet most of the stuff on your bookcase is flush (aka justified)–both the left side and right side have the text touching the margin, giving you a solid rectangle on each page.

(The exception is the ending of a paragraph, which ends wherever it is. Especially if it’s a short last line–stretching it all the way over to the right would be really weird-looking.)


You can set either Word or InDesign to take long words and break them into two if they show up at the end of a line. I personally don’t like hyphenation, so I always leave it turned off.

That’s not to say you won’t find some hyphen breaks in my book, but they always occur in a word that already has a hyphen. “Self-assured,” “pre-sorted,” that sort of thing. What I’m turning off is the kind of break like “justifi-cation.”

This one could really go either way. I’ve read some professionals who insist on hyphenation. I’ve read others who hate it. Those who use it don’t like the “rivers of white” that can appear when the spacing between words gets too large. On the flip side, one of the big arguments against hyphenation is that it can feel like every other line of text (or sometimes several in a row) all end in a hyphen, which distracts the eye as well.

I personally can’t stand the look of hyphens, and find they interrupt my reading much more than rivers of white, so I turned hyphenation off. I think my line spacing and font size keep the white space to a minimum.

Font, Font Size, and Line Spacing

This is a toughie, and there’s a lot of personal choice involved. What font should you use? What size should it be? And bear in mind, a size 12 in one font can be significantly larger or smaller than a size 12 in another.

Culled from various sources on the internet, it appears that some of the most frequently-used fonts in publishing include: Garamond, Minion, Caslon, Dante, Palatino, and Electra. Most of those are in the 10-12 point size range. (I chose Minion for my novel, because it’s a book with superheroes. Seemed the obvious choice.)

You don’t often see books set in sans-serif fonts, even though they can be easier to read for a lot of people. I can only recall a couple of books I’ve read in the last few years printed in sans-serif, and they were both young adult novels. If you want to be safe, stick with a good serif font (and probably not Times New Roman, which has a reputation as the font of choice for self-publishers. Plus, I feel like it gives the impression of being a report for work, not a novel.)

Line spacing is how much white space appears between the lines of text. It’s usually around 120 to 130 percent of the font size, so if you have a font size of 12 points, line spacing of 15 points (125%) would mean three points of blank white space between the bottom of one line and the top of the next.

Even though you could use a smaller font and tighter line spacing to make your novel take up fewer pages (and in turn, cost less), you run the chance of it being harder to read. I’d rather have 10 more pages than have a book that you have to squint at to read.

The best thing you can do is print out a test page and see how easy it is to read. And compare it to books on your bookshelf that you find especially easy on the eyes, to see what kind of adjustments you need to make.

Widows and Orphans

I’d never heard of widows and orphans until I started researching book layout. And the funny thing is, people are divided as to what particular problems are called what.

There are three things that fall under the widows/orphans names: the first line of a new paragraph at the very bottom of the page (with the rest of the paragraph on the next page); the last line of a paragraph at the top of a page (with the rest of the paragraph on the previous page); and a paragraph that ends with a single short word.

Of those three, the first two are kind of lumped together. And it goes back and forth as to which is a widow and which is an orphan. The last one isn’t mentioned by everyone, but when it is, it’s called an orphan (and the first two are both called widows).

Really, you could call them whatever you want to. (We could refer to them as Firsties, Lasties, and Teenies if we so choose.) Here are examples:

widows and orphans - first line of a paragraph

The first line of a new paragraph ending a page. Sometimes called a widow, sometimes an orphan.

widows and orphans - last line of a paragraph

The last line of a paragraph starting a page. Sometimes called a widow, sometimes an orphan.

orphans - tiny final word of a paragraph

A paragraph that ends with a short single word. Sometimes called an orphan. These aren’t necessarily always bad; it depends on the size of the word. A two- or three-letter word stands out a lot more (and makes it look like you’ve double-spaced between paragraphs), while a longer word might not be a problem at all. Most opinions are to only deal with them if the word is shorter than the indentation on the next line.

Now, some will say that widows are OK, but orphans must go. Others will say that orphans are OK, but widows must go. I say: they can all be kind of weird-looking. And if you’re laying out your own work, odds are you can make adjustments within your text so that you can get rid of all of your problems. Changing a couple of words here or there can make all the difference–replace “automobile” with “car,” or “dog” with “German shepherd,” and you might be able to add or subtract enough from a sentence to bump a line up or down.

Both InDesign and Word have settings for automatically avoiding orphans and widows. In Word, there’s a checkbox for “Widow/Oprhan Control”. In InDesign, I believe there’s a “Keep” setting–change it to 2, and it will always keep at least 2 lines together at the top or bottom of a page.

But I don’t trust either of those, primarily because they’ll both then result in an imbalance between facing pages (which, to my eye, is a much worse sin than orphans or widows). The automatic settings might shove the first line of a new paragraph to the next page, so that if you open the book and look, the left-hand page will have 32 lines of text, and the right-hand page will have 31 lines. Most sources agree that looks pretty unprofessional, and is something to avoid.

So, possible fixes for widows and orphans:

* Rewriting bits of text to change the length of sentences
* Breaking larger paragraphs into two smaller paragraphs (or combining two smaller paragraphs into one larger)
* Bumping a line from BOTH facing pages, so that the left and right both have 31 lines, then on the next page they both have 32
* Tightening or loosening the space between lines (could make things look wonky)
* Tightening or loosening the space between letters in a line (could also make things look wonky)

This was the part of they layout that had the most trial and error for me. I used the first three options in my list, because when you make your letters and lines closer together, they can make the whole page appear darker than the facing page, because there’s more text crammed in there.

(I will point out here that a paragraph that’s actually just a single line, like a short line of dialog, is perfectly OK as either the last line of a page or the first line of a page. It doesn’t count as a widow/orphan. Like the cheese, it can stand alone.)

Now let’s take a look at the same text on two sample pages, and the changes from the one to the other:

Layout with errors

layout corrected

1. This is the first page of a new chapter, so it shouldn’t have the header information there.

2. Since this is the first page of a new chapter, it would appear in the printed book on the right-hand side. And all right-hand side pages should be odd-numbered. So the numbering is off somewhere in this book.

2.5: Not numbered, but I did that header in Comic Sans. Please, please, don’t use Comic Sans inside your book or on the cover.

3. The first line of a new chapter shouldn’t be indented. (Ditto the first line after a section break.)

4. This one uses ragged right justification. Comparing the two, the flush text on the adjusted page looks much more professional.

5. Something I didn’t cover above: two different speakers having dialog in the same paragraph can be confusing. Always start a new paragraph when someone new is speaking.

6. Going back to dialog attribution in a previous post, I changed “said Bob” and “replied Jane” to “Bob said” and “Jane said.” The name should almost always go first (because if you change it to a pronoun, “said he” sounds like a pirate is narrating) and Jane is clearly already replying. No novel ever tanked because the word “said” was used in most of the dialog attribution.

7. Sometimes called an orphan, here’s a tiny word making up the last line of a paragraph. It makes it feel like there’s a double-space between paragraphs. I deleted one three-letter word earlier in the paragraph, and it pulled this lonely teenie guy up.

8. This is either a widow or an orphan, depending on who you’re talking to: the first line of a new paragraph at the bottom of a page. Fortunately, in dealing with #7, it automatically pulled another line of text up and solved the problem for us!

WHEW! That’s a LOT of information I’ve just thrown at you. I’m sure I’ve missed some things, but I think I’ve touched on most of the stuff that I had to learn about in order to put together the inside of my novel. Was it a huge pain in the butt? You bet it was. But I’m satisfied with the end product, and that’s the most important thing.

Are there any other parts of self-publishing you’d like to know more about? Let me know, and I’ll write up my experience with them.

We Could Be Villains
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