Haiku 366-191 to -208 will come soon, but today I thought I’d get back to a post about fiction and the struggle of every indie author–getting people to give your books a chance.
I’ve ranted before about the quality of some indie publishing, but as I’ve read more and more of it, I’m finding the truly awful (i.e., unedited, misspelled, and grammatically deficient) is fast becoming a minority. Add in Barnes and Noble, that behemoth of traditional publishing, will allow indie published work in its stores (at last), and the writer, who decides to forego the traditional and often demoralizing hunt for an agent and a publisher, is getting R-E-S-P-E-C-T. This is especially heartening for those who took the time and effort to publish a polished product and who didn’t succumb to the coveted “published author” title at all costs.
So, before this becomes a rant: join a critique group, hire a professional editor (for all stages of editing), design or purchase a professional cover, hire a proofreader, and, if you’re not familiar with a book’s interior design, hire someone who is.
Now, onto “getting your name out there.”
An Unexpected Find
I’ve always believed my books about my spy characters would be successful if I could “get them out there” where people could see the depth of the characters, the timeliness of the subject matter, and the pains I’ve gone to for an intriguing story. I’ve done the bookmark thing, the postcard thing, the purchase-an-ad thing, the book signing thing, the open mic thing, but what more could I do without bankrupting myself?
At Virginia Festival of the Book this past spring, I came across a local fantasy writer who’d purchased a table at the book fair. I almost walked past because I’m not much of a fantasy reader. However, on one corner of her table were several small (as in thin) books with a sign that said “Free.”
“Free?” I asked the author.
“They’re short stories featuring my characters and aspects of the mythology I’ve built,” was the reply.
“And you give them away?”
“Bookmarks and postcards get thrown away. When someone’s done with one of these, they won’t throw them away. They’ll give them to a library or a used book store, and that’s exposure. Hell, maybe they’ll even keep them.”
I must have stood there gaping with the shock of “why hadn’t I thought of that” because she picked up two of the “booklets” and handed them to me. “Enjoy,” she said.
Back home when I unpacked my goodie bag from the festival, I came across the two booklets and sat right down to read them. The author was right. They were engaging, a quick read, but complete, well-crafted short stories and certainly piqued my interest for her longer works.
But life moves on, and I put them aside and forgot about this unique marketing idea.
Imitation and Flattery
After polishing off the edits on a couple of draft novels, which I hope to have ready for the demoralizing agent hunt (Yes, the dream is still alive in my head.) later this year, I decided I wanted to go back to writing some short stories, not the flash fiction I’ve been delving into for years, but a true short story of 7,000 to 8,000 words. I’d come across an article in The Washington Post about Russian security services allegedly harassing diplomats in Europe and Moscow–juvenile pranks mostly, but they were escalating. The Russian government, of course, disavowed any participation on its part, but those of us who’ve studied that country throughout its iterations knew better.
The result: a 7,500-word short story called, “Spymaster.”
And the booklets from the Festival of the Book came back to mind. What if (a writer’s favorite question) I used CreateSpace to make that short story into a booklet to give away at book signings and over events. At CreateSpace, it’s free to publish, and the size of the booklet means ordering copies for my personal use will be a minimal investment.
Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery.
The story is with a beta reader/editor right now, but while I’m waiting for the feedback, I went ahead and designed a couple of cover possibilities.
If you’ve never heard of Canva, it’s a great online tool for designing a number of graphic art pieces, from Facebook page headers (go to https://www.facebook.com/unspywriter and have a look at one I did for my author page using Canva) to Instagram posts. Canva has templates for ebook covers, including Smashwords and Kindle. Most of their artwork is free, but even the ones you pay for start at a dollar a piece. Unlike another good resource for professional covers, http://www.selfpubbookcovers.com/index.php, where once you buy a cover, it’s taken down and not sold to anyone else, with Canva you risk having the cover you choose used by someone else. Of course you can customize it. I remove all the sample text on the Canva cover, download it as a .jpeg, and further customize it in Photoshop. Canva’s selection of free graphics is limited compared to SelfPubBookCovers, but I managed to find a few that appealed to me and fit the theme of the story, “Spymaster.”
“Spymaster” Cover #1
This cover appealed to me because one of the critical scenes takes place in a forest in Eastern Europe. What it’s lacking is color. The story has dark elements, but not quite this dark.
It fits the story but to me has limited appeal in getting someone to pick it up and look at it.
“Spymaster” Cover #2
This cover also appealed to me because of a specific theme in the story. Again, it’s black and white. While it’s certainly intriguing and I know people who would pick up a book with a cover like this, it lacks color. I experimented with other fonts and putting the type in different colors, but that didn’t quite work either.
“Spymaster” Cover #3
The final choice appeals to me visually, has excellent color, and is very evocative. It doesn’t directly relate to a scene in the book, but it screams “intrigue” and “mystery.” I know I’d pick up a book, even a free one, with this cover. Of the three choices, this is certainly the one I’m leaning toward.
But what do you think? Which cover appeals to you and why? Let me know in the comments below.
Since this is the first time I finished NaNoWriMo with ten days to spare, I’ve had to resist the temptation to start revising that 94,000-word rough draft.
Why not, you ask?
Well, it’s too fresh in my head. I had that whole scene-by-scene outline before me as I did all that frantic writing, so I’d be too tempted this close to the rough draft to say, “Ah, this is fine. It follows the outline perfectly, so why mess with a good thing?”
Now, I’m not saying that rough draft isn’t a good thing. It’s a complete rough draft, and that’s the accomplishment. Frankly, anyone who goes into NaNoWriMo thinking he or she will have a complete and final novel draft in thirty days, and some unfortunately do, is deluding him- or herself and lowering the bar for indie authors.
I know that within that rough draft is the kernel of a good story; otherwise, I wouldn’t have written it. I wouldn’t have put my butt in a chair for eight to ten hours straight for too many days in a row just to write a piece of crap. Right now, that draft is fulsome, i.e., overdone. It’s full of unnecessary words, too many dialogue tags, and long jaunts inside characters’ heads.
To make certain the non-elective surgery to come is successful, I need to let it sit awhile, let it get out of my head, which is hard because it’s book two of a three-book series; I’m already plotting and planning book three. What’s more, I left a major issue between two characters unresolved at the end of the rough draft, and that’s driving me nuts trying to figure out how to address it.
In the past I’ve put a rough NaNo draft aside for up to six months before I’ve delved back into it. That may seem like a long time, but that has worked in the past for clearing the deck in my head and allowing me to take a look at the draft with a fresh perspective, or rather, an editing/revising perspective. I’m much more likely, after that interval of time, to cut those unnecessary words and extra dialogue tags, to turn the internal musings of a character into dialogue or action.
Writing is a process, a long, convoluted, and sometimes painful process, but the first step is having a draft to work from. Regardless of the critics of National Novel Writing Month–we call them “NaNo Haters”–having that draft kicks the process off, and it’s all uphill from there, uphill as in working hard and making the climb to reach that apex of a polished, readable, publishable draft. And that’s a good thing.
Well, not blues actually, but that caught your attention, didn’t it?
One of my beta readers for the novel I’ve been working on exclusively this summer not only sent comments back but a line-edit of the manuscript as well. And here’s the lesson learned: No matter how great an editor you are (and I have thirty-plus years’ experience editing other people), you cannot use yourself as your final editor. This beta reader didn’t find many typos (my bane), but she did find overuse of words, overextended dialogue, and over-explaining. However, those incidents of “overage” weren’t pervasive, just here and there, and I can make those fixes, easy-peasy.
Her general comments as well were good, and here’s another lesson. There is one suggestion she made, with which, right now, I disagree. It’s the merest hint of a new relationship for one of the characters at the very end of the work, and since I’m a sucker for happy endings (I didn’t get one), I don’t want to cut that. Don’t get me wrong. I respect this writer’s opinion, but for now I’m leaving it as is (maybe a little editing to make it even more subtle, though). I am, however, open to cutting it completely based on additional feedback.
When you’re open to feedback from others, especially people whose writing you respect and admire, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how their comments/edits improve your work. When I saw this beta reader’s line-edits, I smacked my forehead so often I may have given myself a concussion. They were obvious, so why didn’t I see them?
Duh, because it’s my work, and don’t you know my words are all gems?
Except when they aren’t. That’s why we’re word-blind for our own stuff. You can edit and revise, revise and edit, and then someone else still points out something you need to fix. These aren’t “happy to glad” edits; they tighten the work, they make the story more tense and intense, and they improve the overall product. I am forever grateful, and she and the other beta readers will be high on the list in the Acknowledgement section of the published work. When this novel gets published (I’m being positive, here), I know it will be in large part because these fellow writers helped make it publishable.
So, Indie authors, the next time you decry the use of professional editing and/or the use of beta readers because you think they’ll ruin your stellar work, think again. Let’s open our minds to the possibility they can make a good work brilliant.
I learned grammar and punctuation a couple of generations ago from teachers who’d learned them a couple of generations before that. My approach to both, then, tends to be on the old-fashioned side; some might say pedantic. I even learned how to diagram sentences–not that I ever used it after that classroom exercise in 9th Grade.
As a result, I’m not forgiving of “experimental writing styles” and just see that as an excuse poor writers use when it’s obvious they haven’t taken the time to proofread and correct glaring errors. “A good story will shine through,” others like to say. Well, not if you can’t see the forest for the trees of bad grammar and incorrect punctuation.
If this all sounds familiar, I’ve beat this drum before, especially regarding indie or self-published authors. You can’t succumb to the lure of instant publishing and slap up a story scribbled in your journal on Amazon then wonder why you get one-star reviews for the mess. Worse than that is when friends give you five stars because they’re your friends and not necessarily editors. That fools people into buying the mess, and where that might get you a check from Amazon, I think it’s deceptive.
The counter argument comes: Oh, I’ve seen typos and grammatical errors in traditionally published works, and they still sell.
Yes, I’ll concede that–one or two per book; I’ve spotted them myself. That’s not in the league of ten or twelve per paragraph, as I’ve seen in some Indie books I’ve read.
Of course, grammar and punctuation go out the window in dialogue, especially if that fits the character. If you’re writing in first person from the point of view of an uneducated person, then precise grammar doesn’t ring true for that character.
I recently wrote a story I submitted to a contest that is all dialogue, but without quotation marks and dialogue tags. I know my 9th Grade English teacher is spinning in her grave, but for this story, it worked. And it’s grammatically correct and properly punctuated otherwise. That’s about as experimental as I get.
Grammar and punctuation don’t stifle your writerly voice. They’re icing on the cake. They make what you’ve written “look pretty” and, more importantly, read sensibly. They make you, the author, appear to readers as a true writer, someone who has taken the time to do it properly. If that makes me pedantic, so be it.
Don’t forget, go to Saturday’s post and vote for the cover of my new e-book.
Because I’ve given the author of a book I was supposed to review the option of my not reviewing it, I won’t be mentioning the book or the author in this post.
I’ve always been a bit quixotic–I voted for George McGovern in 1972, after all. Lately, I feel as if I’m single-handedly tilting at the windmill of “not self-publishing before you proofread.” I don’t want to be like some writers and disdain other writers who have “indie published,” or self-published, if you will. If a writer comes to the decision that self-publishing is for him or her, I respect that decision, and I try not to be judgemental about it. My collection of short stories, Rarely Well-Behaved, technically, was self-published. I won the contract in a short story contest, so I like to think that the merit of the story got the contract. Even up against a submission deadline, I read each story over and over, trying to make the manuscript as perfect as possible. Of course, after the book came out, I found typos.
In a post earlier this month–“Put That First Draft Aside“–I wrote about what I think is the major pitfall of self-publishing, that you can write something and publish it almost immediately. Some indie writers want to skip the editor for fear that will change their work too much. The least you could do, then, as an indie author is not skip the proofreading. If you do it yourself, you have to put the work aside so it’s not so fresh you don’t spot obvious errors. The best proofreading is done by someone who has never seen the work before.
The book I was to review, requested by the author as a result of a guest blog-post I did, is a perfect example of lack of proofreading. The mistakes are all what I call elementary school grammar goofs, i.e., they are diversions from basic, not advanced, grammatical norms. Enclosing dialogue in quotation marks, comma usage, and subject-verb agreement are examples. In the first two paragraphs of this book, I found eleven punctuation, grammar, and usage errors, including using the word “hallow” when it was supposed to be “hollow.” Throughout the work, quotation marks are missing, as are dialogue tags, commas, and contractions, among others. When I read a sentence about a bodily function that was anatomically impossible, I gave up and e-mailed the author to explain why I couldn’t finish the book and didn’t want to review it.
Sounds like a cop-out, I know, but I was pretty frank, and detailed, in the e-mail; merely, I didn’t want to blast the book in a review, which, as an honest reviewer, I would have had to do. I could have done that, and the author would have received a nasty surprise. I’d rather explain, privately, why I couldn’t do the review, and treat the book as if I’d never read it.
All of which is a shame, because I could see glimmers of a thoughtful story. It’s too bad the barbed wire tangle of basic, grammatical goofs hid it.
Indie authors, I cannot say this enough: You can’t do a brain dump and immediately slap it up on Amazon or Smashwords and call yourself a professional writer. Writing is writing and rewriting and revising and rewriting and proofreading, then rewriting and revising all over again. Tedious, yes. Instant gratification, no, but with writing, that’s a good thing.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading of indie published books lately (or, if you’re a stickler for terminology, self-published books, but terminology adapts, by the way). I have a list of eight of them I’m going to review, and, unfortunately, it’s been a mixed bag of quality. Oh, the stories have been decent; getting to the story through the morass of bad grammar and punctuation has been the hard part. Part of the problem is I’ve been both an English teacher and a magazine editor. What, to some apparently, may be unimportant details, to me are essentials of language. If those fine details–commas, word usage, grammar–aren’t present, I get distracted–and frustrated–by what I consider elementary school-level errors.
It’s too easy to attribute this to lack of education, but the authors involved–on their blogs or on social media–seem to have had a decent education. Then, it hit me, as I was helping a friend with a manuscript, these works read as if the authors had published their first drafts.
That’s the seduction of indie publishing. It is very empowering, on one level, to eliminate all those filters (agents, editors) who don’t get your fiction, who don’t see you as a money-maker, who have to take a cut of your royalties, etc. I believe publishing is evolving, but for indie publishing to get any sort of professional acknowledgement from traditionally published authors, you can’t publish your first draft.
First drafts, of course, are necessary. First drafts are the place where you finally get on the page that story that’s been rattling around in your head for a long time. It is an accomplishment in and of itself to do that–one of the reasons I like National Novel Writing Month. I can come up with something completely new at least once a year. Have I published any of the manuscripts I wrote the past four Novembers? No. They’re first drafts of what will be good works later. After proofreading and editing. When I finish a NaNoWriMo project, I set that draft aside for a good six months or more before I pick it up again. In the meantime, it’s never far from my thoughts, but I’d never, ever see the holes in the plot or the un-obvious typos if I started the edit immediately after finishing the first draft.
Whether you’re pursuing traditional publishing or indie publishing, the process is to set the first draft aside for the amount of time it takes to make it fresh when you look at it again. When you publish your first draft and start seeing those five stars on Amazon (which your mother and all her friends have put there) and read the comments like, “We need more of [insert character name here]!” resist the temptation to write a sequel in a weekend and publish it raw.
Cultivate a friendship with a local high school English teacher or newspaper editor or even a friend from school you know got good grades in English. Let them proofread your work for the typos, punctuation problems, grammar, etc. You can accomplish some of this yourself by reading your work out loud–at home, preferably, unless you like people at Starbucks staring at you and wondering if they should call the cops. (In reading this post aloud, to this point I’ve found a half dozen typos, now fixed.) But nothing beats a “fresh” set of eyes.
Then–and this has been something hard for a lot of indie authors to accept–hire a developmental editor. Yes, you get a higher percentage of royalties if you self-publish without all that traditional publishing detritus, but you’ll get better reviews and more sales if a reader/reviewer can’t tell the difference between your book and a traditionally published one. That takes work. That takes commitment not just to telling a good story but presenting a good story.
I have an indie writer friend who consistently produces a good first draft–in the sense of proper punctuation, grammar, and usage–and the story is decent as well. Recently, she sent a copy of her first draft of a new novel to her editor, and now she’s in the midst of a total rewrite. You may say, “See, that’s what’s wrong with editors, and that’s why I don’t want one.” However, this writer understands the editor’s purpose–to make it better–and she’s excited about the major revision because she knows she’ll have something beyond a good, first draft. She’ll have an outstanding novel.
So, set that first draft aside for a while. Resist the temptation to publish it until it’s polished. Get a tougher skin when your proofreader/editor suggests changes (being part of a critique group helps with this). Don’t be suckered in by seeing your words in print until what you’re trying to say is in its best shape.
Be a writer, not a hack.
I set out my writerly resolutions for the new year in a recent post: http://mymusings-maggie.blogspot.com/2011/12/resolved-to-write.html. So, periodically, I’ll provide an update because I know you’re just dying to know.
Writer Work Schedule Update:
- Sunday: Started reading one book to review (which inspired this post) and finished another
- Monday morning: Blogged on writing (see above)
- To do Monday afternoon: Edit/Revise a review of Linkage: The Narrows of Time Series (Volume 1) by Jay J. Falconer and get it ready for submission to eFiction Magazine
Take a look at my post as a guest blogger on Madison Woods’ blog:
Leave a comment there or here.Thanks!