After three weeks of hit-and-miss internet time, I’m back! I enjoyed my time off, but I tell ya–as much as I complain about being overworked, I love it and missed it after about the third day of the computer hiatus. Still, I didn’t waste my time off entirely. I read a lot. I tried (and failed) to catch up on my reading, shrink the stack of 2011 titles, but mostly I read books for The Canopy Bookstore. I’ve been taking submissions for the bookstore from authors who are with small independent publishers, and from those who are self-published. The one thing these two groups have in common is how hard it is for them to get their books “out there,” which is one of the reasons why MSB and I decided to run the store.
I don’t know the process of getting self-published, I’m not familiar with the companies that offer self-publishing, but there’s one thing I do know: the number of self-published authors is on the rise. These authors want to be taken seriously as a viable and competitive group in the battle for readers’ attention. Many of the self-published stories I’ve read for the bookstore and otherwise have been good, some have bordered on great, but so far, they all have the same thing in common: they needed to have fresh, experienced eyes on them before they came out in print.
Yes, I’m singing that song again: get an editor or an experienced critique partner or join a group of experienced authors. I emphasize “experienced” because, folks, sometimes Mom doesn’t remember her grammar classes. Sometimes your best friend doesn’t have a clue about designing an exceptional story. Sometimes Uncle Ted, the award-winning poet, couldn’t begin to craft a novel. You need someone who knows and understands what it takes to turn “good” into “great.”
Study the craft. Learn every aspect of writing. Write your story and get fresh feedback. Edit. Edit. Edit. Then proofread. Then have someone else proofread–preferably someone who knows grammar, punctuation, and the technicalities of writing discovered only in books like Chicago Manual of Style.
I’ve read the argument by self-published authors before, “traditionally published works have errors, too.” Yeah, they do, but not near as many. Remember, being self-published still carries the stigma of being sub-par (and sometimes, nowhere near par). Once folks discover a book is a do-it-yourself job, they groan inwardly. To rise above the stigma, you have to be better, as a group. So organizations of self-published authors ought to be concentrating on making themselves better and more competitive. You’re already an underdog by not having the distribution avenues available to traditionally published authors or the marketing funds they have (what little of it there is). You rely on your readers to get the word out, and if you want more readers–and more return readers–write something they can support with enthusiasm.
In recent weeks, I’ve read four self-pubbed novels, and not once have I been able to shut down my internal editor and simply enjoy the story. Some of them have been intriguing or engaging enough for me to just shake my head and go on, but none have allowed me to shut down completely and travel to the world the author created. I’m not going to name them, but here are the problem books, worst to best:
Book Four: great cover, boring first chapter. The opening pages didn’t have a sense of direction; some unimportant events were overemphasized, important events were glossed over miserably. The first chapter didn’t have what it takes to pull me into the story and keep me there. I couldn’t finish the book.
Lesson: Tighten your work; open with significant action, and keep that action compelling. Instead of having a laundry list of activities, illustrate your MC’s emotions, temperament, or quirks while involved in the activities. While the actions are important, the reader’s ability to empathize with your character is vital. Don’t forget to show us who your character is as well as what he’s doing. Same with setting description. Put your character in the setting and describe it through his thoughts and actions.
Book Three: good story, seriously in need of proofreading; jargon and language errors. Another pair of eyes would’ve helped tremendously. Most of the mistakes are found in all books, but not with this degree of frequency. Once or twice is unnoticeable; virtually every page tends to get on my nerves. What am I talking about? Silly things. Missing punctuation, reversed and misplaced quotation marks (“Whatever am I to do? “she said. I have nothing!”), improper use of commas and other punctuation.
As for the jargon and language errors, this showed a lack of research. For those of you who don’t know, “y’all” is a contraction of “you” and “all” and is used only when speaking to a group of two or more. Never address an individual as “y’all.” Furthermore, when you’re venturing into a foreign language, be sure you have the accents and other marks in the right place. For instance, ñ is a letter in Spanish, giving the “n” a “nya” pronunciation (if followed by an “a,” or “nyo” if followed by an “o”). That little curly cue over it doesn’t go over any other letter.
Lesson: Simple enough–do your research; get a good editor and proofreader.
Book Two: compelling story; unpolished writing. This was one of the most clever stories I’ve read in a long time, a modernization of an ancient event that kept me reading until the final page. So much of what the author did was right that I hate to have her on this list, but it was evident she hadn’t polished her work. Repetition of noticeable words and phrases, and poor word choice in general were the distractions in her book. All of which could’ve been improved with the help of an editor or critique partner.
Lesson: Another simple one–get an editor or experienced critique partner. Authors tend to be blind to their own mistakes.
Book One: great, compelling story; unpolished first chapter. I haven’t finished this one yet, so I can’t say how well the story holds up from beginning to end, but I can say that after I struggled through that first chapter, I’ve had a hard time putting the novel down. I continued reading despite the disappointing opening chapter because I know the author and have heard a lot of good things about his book. So far, I’m not sorry I continued.
Lesson: The first chapter makes or breaks the author. While this one is significantly better than Book Four, it flounders. It doesn’t allow me to grow attached to the characters introduced. It seems to lack focus and should be tightened.
If the attention spent working on a novel could be illustrated in percentages, I’d give at least 30% to the opening scene and another 10% to the opening chapter–giving the entire first chapter 40% of my attention. Sounds like a lot, I know, but the opening pages are vital to holding potential readers. If they’re not captivated by the opening, they’ll put the book back on the shelf and continue browsing (or close Amazon’s “Look Inside” function and go look inside someone else’s book).
You may notice that the tips I give here for self-published authors apply to authors everywhere. Yep. Sure do. Problem is, some self-published authors don’t believe they fall into the category of writers who need to exercise these tips–which, by the way, are not just “my” tips. The best of the best novelists out there have published books of the same.
Authors who have made it in traditional houses have already been policed. They’ve already jumped the hoops to get their work accepted, have already been edited by a professional. They take their work seriously and strive constantly for improvement. Do they have mistakes in their work? Of course. Could some of the things they did be done better? Absolutely. Yes, indeedy, you and I both have seen trash-writing published by some of the largest companies out there, primarily written by authors who already have a huge following and have become lazy.
So why so tough on self-published authors?
Because self-pubbers are trying to overcome the stigma and run with the big boys. That’s not going to happen if, every time a reader picks up a self-pubbed book, the stigma is reinforced. Self-published authors must be better. It’s not an option.