I got ‘book mail’ today, and I am excited – a couple of books have arrived which I can’t wait to get stuck into. Both are self-published. Both look awesome. I read a wide variety of genres, styles, and authors. I love everything from Jane Austen to Terry Pratchett, via Elly Griffiths, Mick Herron and Dawn O’Porter. Traditionally published or Indie, I don’t mind.
Actually, that’s not strictly true.
I don’t mind the origins of the book. What I mind about is its quality.
There is no doubt that self-publishing is an awesome step forwards for the book world. It gives the reader a whole treasure-trove of literature which would otherwise never see the light of day. And there are loads of excellent self-published books and amazing Indie authors out there. Plus, I know lots of hybrid authors, who supplement their publishing deals with the freedom that self-pubbing brings.
However, there’s a ‘but’… (Isn’t there always…)
The other day I read a self-published book by a debut author and marked eighteen punctuation errors in a double page spread, as well as four sentences which, frankly, made no sense. I flicked through two-thirds of the book hoping for improvement. It didn’t come. On the back page, the author thanked his editor. I couldn’t help myself. I laughed.
The thing is this. Self-publishing provides tremendous opportunity, but it should come with an equally tremendous dose of responsibility to get it right. Not only for your fellow authors, but – more importantly – for your readers.
It shouldn’t be a way to foist a sub-standard product onto an unsuspecting audience.
Readers are intelligent and perceptive. They want to be entertained, to submerge themselves in the worlds which books create, to escape reality for a little while. To see different points of view, to experience life through another’s eyes, to go on adventures not possible for them in the real world. But nothing turns a reader off more quickly than typos, bad punctuation, and weird layouts. The human brain is amazingly good at making subconscious corrections. And every book ever published contains a few typos. But once a reader begins to notice errata, they have already been sucked out of the story and will inevitably focus on the wrong aspects of the book.
In other words, you’ve lost them.
And if the errors keep on coming, the next stage is for the reader to become annoyed. After all, they have given up time to read what they hoped would be an entertaining story. They’ve paid money for it. A contract has been entered into – the reader gives their money and time in what they assume will be an exchange for entertainment and attention to detail. If they don’t get that, they feel cheated. Rightly so.
Not every reader will like every book. Obviously. We’ve all got ‘did not finish’ books lurking in a pile somewhere. But there’s a difference between disliking a particular storyline of a well-written book and feeling like you’ve just been mugged.
I am going through the process of editing my debut novel, due for publication this autumn, and am on round two of the publisher’s editing process. After ploughing my way through most of the aforementioned book, whose edits I think – if I’m being uncharitable – feel like they might have been completed whilst author and editor were enjoying a heavy night out in a pub, or perhaps even during a visit to a strip club for the amount of concentrated effort which went into it, I began to count up the number of edits my manuscript has been through. It’s already on edit/rewrite number seven (and that’s a conservative estimate).
The first draft went to a treasured beta reader for her initial thoughts. I revised accordingly. Then it went for critique to a fantastic scheme run by the RNA. I rewrote accordingly. It was read by my local writers’ group and was edited as a result. It went for a mentoring edit – and was rewritten again. It was picked up by a publishing house (more about that in future blogs) and I completed a pre-edit for them. I am now working on its second round of content editing with my assigned editor, and I continue to be amazed by the fine-tuning involved. The basic story and characters might be exactly the same as the ideas which turned my brain into a racetrack when I initially wrote it, but there is so much more to creating a novel than writing down the story.
At every stage of what might look like a daunting process, I have learnt something new. I have taken my abilities further. It has been more than worth the effort.
In the not-too-distant future, my book baby will leave my control. It will enter the final stages of its journey to publication, with line edits and copy edits, formatting and quality reviews taking place – another host of different eyes checking for slips and errors, another group of people aiming to produce the best quality product possible.
I understand that not everyone has access to this level of editing. But there are plenty of books out there on the subject of writing, and on the art of editing. (I should know, I’ve read quite a few of them). There are plenty of writer’s groups and free websites set up by authors wanting to help fellow writers. Help and support is out there. And any serious writer is going to need it, because creating a novel isn’t an easy task. It shouldn’t be easy. There is a phrase which regularly pops up when I am taking courses or listening to established authors – ‘Easy reading takes hard writing’. In other words, something which is silky smooth on the page has taken a shedload of work to appear effortless. Think majestic swan on the river with its energetic paddling below the surface. It takes grit and determination to write well, along with time and thought and patience and self-doubt and rejection and rebirth and trial and error and skill.
I made a conscious decision a few years ago to pursue this challenge to its limits, and in doing so try to learn as much as possible about the process of writing. Like many things in life, the more you begin to understand a skill, the more you realise there is yet to learn. The higher the mountain you’ve decided to climb becomes. Few will ever reach the summit. That’s not what this blog is about. It’s not about getting to the top of the mountain. It’s about not sticking your flag in the ground and calling it done when you’ve barely scaled the foothills. Aim a bit higher than that. Go for it and self-publish, but don’t be content with being an ‘uploader’. Because at the end of the day readers can spot that a mile off, and they won’t ever bother to come back for more.
Remember the badly edited, error-filled book at the start of my blog? That kind of book is the reason readers decide that self-published books aren’t for them. In one fell swoop, that writer will have frightened away an audience. And not just for his books, but for all the Indie authors who fall into the same genre category. That’s why getting it right matters.
So here, for what they are worth, are my top tips for things to do before you think about pressing the ‘publish’ button…
- Read loads of books in the genre you write. Try to define why they ‘work’ – or indeed don’t. Apply the same logical approach to your writing. (If you find you don’t have the distance from your own stuff to be able to see that clearly – and if you’re like me, you probably won’t – see tip #2).
- Join a local writing group, or an online one. There will be writers at all stages of their journey. The guy running my local (free to join) group is multi-published and is happy to offer advice. I belong to lots of online writing groups, all were free to join. One offers a critique-swap between members (you send your stuff; someone sends you theirs – you swap thoughts on what you read). Costs nothing but your time and gives useful pointers from an independent reader’s viewpoint. Find some like-minded writing buddies and talk about your writing/critique one another’s stuff. If you can, pay to do some professional courses, run by established writers. They are worth their weight in gold. Above all, don’t go it alone.
- Don’t be in a rush. Write your manuscript. Put it away for a minimum of a few weeks (a few months is even better). Return to it with a fresh perspective and read it as if you’d bought it. Preferably when you’re in a bad mood. Still uber-impressed with it?
- Edit HARD. Don’t be kind to yourself, because readers won’t be. Stephen King talks about ‘killing your darlings’. He doesn’t just mean characters who fulfil no real purpose, he’s talking about pet phrases which you love but don’t enhance the story, parts of the novel which do nothing but fill up pages, the use of too many adverbs, filler words. Too much ‘telling’. The list is endless. (And if you’re not sure what’s on the list – you’re not ready to push the button).
- Be aware that what you think is your very best work today, will probably look like it was written by a seven-year-old when you review it at some future time. This is normal. It is part of the process. (Refer to tip #3). I have four complete manuscripts which were written before the one I refer to in this blog. I cringe when I look at them. I still love the stories. I don’t love the way I wrote them. I am eternally glad I didn’t self-publish them, because I now know I can do a much better job for those characters, when I finally get around to rewriting them.
- Know that every speck of effort you put in now will pay dividends later. Your future author-self will thank you, that much I promise you.
As with many things, Stephen King probably sums it up the best, so I will leave you with a quote from his writing memoirs.
“If a writer knows what he or she is doing, I’ll go along for the ride. If he or she doesn’t… well, I’m in my fifties now, and there are a lot of books out there. I don’t have time to waste with the poorly written ones.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft