Review: The Martian

themartianBlown away from his crewmates by a violent windstorm on Mars, Mark Watney is abandoned, assumed dead. The story of how he survives makes for a riveting page-turner (these are not words I often use) in The Martian, Andy Weir’s first published book.

Mark is a mechanical engineer and a botanist on a lifeless planet. His knowledge and skills are what enable him to survive.

The Ares 3 mission was meant to last 30 days, and had food enough for six people, which means Mark’s food will run out in 6-9 months, depending on how abstemious he is. But the next mission isn’t due for four years and he has no means of communicating with Earth, so he has to find a way to stretch the contents of the pantry and supplement them.

The Martian contains one disaster after another, each surmounted by a man with a can-do attitude and an inexhaustible supply of what I would call, not optimism exactly, but positive realism. I saw the movie (with Matt Damon) over Christmas and found it excellent. But it could not cover all the detail of the book, and only partly conveyed the crippling loneliness of being the sole living entity on a planet.

Like Tom Clancy’s novels, this one has a heavy dose of tech talk, which can be skimmed. It also has plenty of heart and is a great read for that reason alone. It belongs to the make-and-do school of stories, and can stand with the best of them, like Robinson Crusoe and Lost in the Barrens. A super read.

My rating: five stars

On Amazon


Carol singing

The Christmas season is filled with music, from the Nutcracker to the Chipmunks, the Messiah to Mahalia Jackson. Christmas carols, hymns, songs, and classical Christmas music are everywhere: at the mall, on the radio, in movies. For those of us who love the sounds of Christmas, this is good.

While listening to Christmas music is fine, singing it is better. There’s something about actually raising your voice in song that is good for the heart and good for the soul. Belting out the Hallelujah Chorus, even if you don’t know any more than the opening word, can be immensely satisfying.

Christmas carols are meant to be sung. You may love singing them yourself; you may prefer listening to others singing them. Either way, here’s a collection of 61 carols, new and old, words, origins and histories included. You can read about them, or sing them, or print them out for others to sing ’em. Whatever.

May we all have a happy and peaceful holiday season.



Image Quality in Print

I’ve produced five books as a self-published author. It was natural for me to do my own layouts since I used to work in publishing and I’m familiar with the conventions used in formatting books.

I’d like to say I use one of the high-end programs—InDesign or Quark—but I don’t. Like a lot of writers, I allocate the lion’s share of my budget to editing and cover design, so book formatting gets done low budget: by me, using Word.

For my earlier books, I learned how to get the best out of Word—how to overcome its production deficiencies and make it lay out text in a way that isn’t visually unpleasing. Tepid praise, I know, but Word can’t provide the options found in dedicated production software like InDesign. However, it has the settings to do an adequate job.

For my fifth book, however, I ran into a brick wall. Because this one, unlike the 3-littleEpreceding four, contains images (it’s a book for children). Here’s one of them.

Looks fine, doesn’t it? That’s because you’re viewing it in a browser, where image resolution is much lower than it is in print production. I had no idea of these distinctions until recently. I’ve worked extensively with images for the web, both photos and line art, but in my print projects, professional designers always took care of the graphic element. It struck me that there may be others out there with the same blind spot, so in this article, I’m going to lay out the steps to ensure that your images conform to the much-higher specification for printing.

Checking the Resolution

First things first. When I uploaded my original pdf to CreateSpace, their report said “some of the images” (in fact, all of them, as it turned out) were of lower resolution, but that I could still go ahead and print. So I ordered a draft copy and took a look. The drawings were indeed tolerable, but didn’t evoke much satisfaction. I wanted a crisper, sharper look.

It turned out that my images were only 120 dpi. For good-quality print production, you really want a resolution of 300 dots per inch. So before you knock yourself out trying to make Word behave in a civilized manner, make sure your images are of sufficient quality to begin with.

There’s a simple way to check this. Right-click any image and select Open with Paint. Under Image in the Paint toolbar, select Attributes and you’ll see the resolution expressed as dots per inch. If it’s less than 300 dpi you could rescan the image, find a higher quality copy, or choose to live with it. Regardless of what you decide, knowing your resolution to begin with (as I should have but didn’t) will tell you part of the reason why your pictures aren’t coming out as crisp in print as they are online or in your e-book.

(Preparing e-books with illustrations holds a different set of headaches. You’ll find a comprehensive guide to e-book production here.)

The “Save As” Feature

Word allows you to save a file in almost any format. For example, I save my book as an .odt file for e-book formatting. This is the Open Office extension, which produces a cleaner file for e-book production.

To avoid crushing your images, you want to use the .doc format. This has been supplanted by the default .docx extension in all versions of Word since 2007 or earlier, but for book formatting purposes and particularly if your book contains images, .doc still works best, because it allows you to turn off compression. Here’s how.

Hit File/Save As, and select the .doc extension from the dropdown list. Next, click on the Tools button at the bottom of the menu page, beside the Save button.

  • Select Compress Pictures.
  • Uncheck the box that says Apply Compression Settings Now.
  • Click on Options
  • Uncheck the top box, Automatically Perform Basic Compression on Save.
  • Hit Okay, Okay again, and Save.

Just for purposes of comparison, you might want to make a note of your file size, or work with a separate copy of your manuscript so that you can compare the file size before and after you complete the steps below. If you’ve been successful, you’ll have a larger file because of your soon-to-be-uncompressed pictures.

Insert Images

When you add an image, make sure to import it using the Insert/Picture option (rather than copying and pasting). Resize and format as necessary. When you’ve finished adding images and your pages are laid out to your satisfaction, you’re ready for the next step.

I’ve tried this step when I begin importing pictures and when I’ve finished. It seems to “take” better when I do it last. So: when your pictures are in place in your manuscript, select any one of them. Right-click, select Format and then click on the Compress button or tab.

  • Under Apply To, select All Pictures
  • Under Change Resolution, select No Change
  • Under Options, uncheck Compress Picture

When you save out of this step, you may well almost feel the file expand, and when you save the document you should find it is significantly larger than before. You can compare it with the earlier saved version, to see if this is so. Incidentally, if you repeat the above procedure with any of your pictures, the settings won’t seem to have been saved. But they were.

(If you’re publishing a book through CreateSpace, take advantage of their forums. They cover all aspects of book production and marketing and I found them really helpful when I was trying to figure out what I was doing wrong.)

Create a PDF

Your last step in preparing for publishing is to create a pdf. If you have Acrobat you’ll be fine. If you don’t, I recommend the free program doPDF. It will allow you to specify a 300 dpi image resolution and you can also embed your document’s fonts, an essential part of the process. I’ve submitted doPDF output to both CreateSpace and LightningSource. I believe IngramSpark still expects the pdf/x-1a format, which requires Acrobat.

These steps should result in a good-quality print output. I’d be interested to hear your own experience.



A modern Christmas story–free of charge

Owen's DayIn view of the time of year, I’d like to give a shout-out to my first novel, Owen’s Day. It’s the story of a man who gives too much, a rather reclusive man, and the family and city who come to know him after he does a very brave thing.

I recall having a terrible time defining Owen, while I was writing this novel. I had set out to write a story about the anti-Scrooge, about someone who gives and gives and gives. I was trying to figure out why he does that and for a long time I was in the same position as one of his friends: “I know people who throw money and gifts around to compensate for being obnoxious, but Owen isn’t like that and I don’t know why he does it.” Like her, I just wanted to throw something at him. But the effort was ultimately quite rewarding because he’s a good guy, just a misguided one.

Owen’s Day is set in the period from late-November through to Christmas, so this is the right time of year for it. And here’s the best part: you can read it for nothing on your e-reader and if you decide you’d like to give it as a stocking-stuffer, you can buy the paperback.

You have a couple of options to get the e-book. You can click on the orange-green button on the right and join my New Releases group. Or, if you don’t want to join a group, the link above will take you to the book page with a list of all retail outlets carrying it.


Goodreads Giveaway for “Knock”

A Knock at the Door
Today is the first day of a blitz Goodreads Giveaway for A Knock at the Door. While giveaways usually last a month, to give the offer time to percolate throughout the Goodreads system and the author’s audience, this one ends on December 20. If you’d like a free copy of the paperback itself, by all means head on over to the Goodreads site (you’ll find the signup link on my home page, too) and put your name down.

Publication day: A Knock at the Door

balloons244Here at last! A Knock at the Door is now up and running and available for purchase on Amazon. Other retailers will, I hope, follow within a couple of weeks. Right now, I’m just trying to get the little book moved out of the “facts of life” category (don’t ask; I have no idea) and into—oh, I don’t know, bedtime stories or humor or chapter books. But regardless, you can find the paperback here and the e-book here . All you need.

Want more details? You’ll find plenty on the Amazon books pages or you can stay on this site and move a few pages over.