The cost of doing things right

The last few days have been weird. I’m down to about one hundred pages left to edit on the second draft of Princess of Shadows, but that number’s deceptive. In truth, I have been brought to a shuddering halt. I knew that I would have to substantially re-work the Bleak sequence, but I didn’t anticipate throwing out a couple thousand words and starting the section over from scratch. The end result will be better (I think) but my net progress has fallen to virtually zero.

That was before I was thrown a complete curve ball. I had made a few changes to Princess of Wonders and Princess of Secrets, pretty minor stuff, and I sent Amazon a request to post a notice that updated versions of the novels are available for the (small) number of customers who have bought the books. Amazon, per their policy, ran a scan and detected not only lingering typos (sigh), but outright formatting errors that came out of my pure, appalling ignorance of a simple bookmarking technique in Word. It didn’t help that I had to ask for help on the Kindle boards to understand what Amazon was asking for.

In the end, after correcting the formatting issue, I surrendered to something I had been putting off while drafting Princess of Shadows— taking another editing pass at both published novels. From the feedback I’ve received in reviews, I knew there were still issues with both texts, despite my previous editing efforts. So for the last few days I have halted all efforts on Princess of Shadows to focus on running through Princess of Wonders and Princess of Secrets again. My original intent in posting updated versions of my published novels was to make clean copies available for customers by the time Princess of Shadows is ready, and I finally realized nothing less than a full pass would suffice.

I’ve now finished this effort on Wonders, but I’m still working through Secrets. So far most of the errors I’ve found are minor– for some reason (a failed find and replace?) I had a bunch of extra spaces associated with closed quotes. I also have a terrible tendency to drop words in the heat of composition, e.g., “He armed nuclear weapon.” Ugh.

But the hardest part of the edit is reading through both books and seeing things that apparently I thought were okay when I first wrote them, but now look clunky. I suppose this is a sign of growth as a writer, and I have the excuse that Wonders was first drafted six years ago, Secrets four, and both spent years in over-the-transom hell waiting for an agent to notice them. It still takes some of the wind out of my sails that these works were not all they should have been when I published them.

Well, I just defended, with some vigor, the right of amateurs like me to publish their work without professional intervention. In case I didn’t make it clear before, I understand perfectly that that freedom does come with a cost– the necessity of doing my best to get the text right. It’s not only fair to my customers, it’s a point of pride with me.

But nobody said this was easy– especially when it’s clear that I am learning as I go. Hopefully I am learning, both the craft of writing and the craft of publishing. If I am, then maybe the next novel, and the novel after that, won’t suck quite so egregiously.

Oh my God, did I just say something positive? Maybe I have a fever….

Later.

The war over self-publishing.

I feel impelled to step away for a moment from my periodic recounting of my progress on Princess of Shadows to share some thoughts on self-publishing. There is something of a flame-war going on right now online. In the last few weeks there have been a number online blogs/videos/rants that basically suggest that self-publishing is the worst thing since Velveeta cheese–

Self-published authors are destroying literature–
http://goodereader.com/blog/commentary/self-published-authors-are-destroying-literature/

John Green on Self-publishing (video)– Publishers and the publishing infrastructure are necessary (watch out– he uses naughty words…)–
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/05/john-green-self-publishing_n_3390143.html
(not sure what Ayn Rand has to do with self-publishing, but there’s a lot of stuff I don’t understand in this life).

Andrew Franklin (as reported on goodreader.com)- “The Overwhelming Majority of Self-Published eBooks Are Terrible”–
http://goodereader.com/blog/e-book-news/the-overwhelming-majority-of-self-published-ebooks-are-terrible/

Some of the points raised by Green and Franklin are no surprise at all to indie authors– that most self-published works are poor to terrible, and most indie authors will never capture an audience. No new insight there, frankly.

It’s their implicit or explicit assertion (particularly in the case of John Green) that the traditional publishing industry/infrastructure is necessary to produce good or valid (whatever that means) literature that has caused certain members of the self-published community to go ballistic. Here is a long counter-rant by Libbie Hawker—
http://www.theseattlevine.com/featured/9349/bookrant-the-publishing-industry-forgot-the-only-thing-worth-remembering/

The publishing industry is undergoing radical change at the moment. The thing about radical change is that it is either creative destruction or just destruction, depending on your point of view. Self-publishing, or the self-publishing model embraced by Amazon, Smashwords and others, eliminates the “gatekeepers” of traditional publishing– the agents, editors and publishers– by allowing authors to upload files directly to the web for customers. Those who favor trad publishing hold that the old-style gatekeepers were the arbiters of quality, and kept a lot of rubbish out of the public view. The new model, they say, opens the flood-gates of a mighty river of crap.

There is, in fact, some truth to that. When I attended science fiction conventions some of my favorite panels were “It came from the Slush Pile” readings, where publishers would read the worst/funniest selections from their slush pile, with names removed to protect the guilty. It was great fun (up to the moment they started reading your stuff, after which it was a lawsuit). There was almost always some jaw-droppingly awful stuff we could laugh at.

And, as I have already said, much of what is self-published these days is awful. It’s perfectly obvious that there are people who have not learned the craft, have not spent the time to do all the hard work of formatting and editing, and are shoving material out there that is not ready for prime-time. For some people it’s inexperience and newbie ignorance; for others it’s a genuine inability to appreciate their own lack of talent, like contestants on American Idol who really think they can sing when they sound like a rusty hinge, and then get huffy when the judges boot them.

But…

There’s a fly in the martini of traditional publishing, a truth its defenders seem to be eliding– with a few exceptions publishers do not primarily exist to advance literature. They exist to find and market profitable commodities. Others have pointed out that nowadays most publishers (or agents, for that matter) are very leery of taking on new or unknown writers; they want proven performers, or authors bringing them material in genres already proven to be popular money-makers. Traditional publishers are not holding up lamps to illuminate literature; they’re wielding flashlights to point people where they want to go, which is frequently someplace ugly.

I’m old enough to remember the flood of crap pseudo-science-fiction that came out after Star Wars. Before SW, sci-fi was much smaller in scale, and not at all mainstream. Afterwards, sci-fi suddenly looked extremely profitable, with a market swollen with all the new fans clamoring for more, and so there was proliferation of bad writing that made it to print.

In much the same way we’re now suffering through the current flood of vampire/paranormal/undead books, largely because of Twilight. Publishers, by and large, are not looking for art; they’re looking for a sure thing. And they will not hesitate to put something second or third-rate out if it will increase profits.

And that brings us to the flip-side of slush pile reality– in the process of pushing through what is perceived to be profitable, genuinely good writing is all-to-frequently ignored. There are far too many tales of famous books that went through submission after submission after submission before being accepted for me to repeat them. God alone knows how many books that would have found an audience and made an impact have been lost to us because the authors gave up after losing heart. The myth that all good books are eventually published is, in fact, just not so. It has, quite simply, become harder and harder for new writers to break into publishing.

This is the hard reality of publishing that Amazon and other online publishers understood and found a way to get around. Although it’s still early, the new model appears to be profitable for them. Individual authors are a different matter, and right now the focus among indies appears to be “discoverability”– the struggle to get noticed in the sea of available material. That is a problem that has not yet been solved, in my opinion.

I still haven’t addressed the trad publishers’ assertion that really good literature requires editors, cover artists, etc., in other words, a team. This assertion seems to have really inflamed some people. Personally, I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding in operation here of what constitutes “good” writing; “good” is getting conflated with “publishable”. The two are not the same.

I once read a history of World War II that talked about mail censors (and sorry, I do not remember the title– so many history books….), and, in particular, the experience of one censor, who had found his service uplifting. He had, he said, read some of the greatest prose in the English language in the letters he censored– frequently written by people who could not spell. If a person can write– if they have something to say– then the writing, in and of itself, has value, whether or not it’s punctuated according standard rules, and even if its spelling is dodgy (English spelling…a dark and ambiguous subject….).

This is very different from whether the work is publicly presentable– i.e. publishable. Recent scholarly research on Jane Austen’s original manuscripts reveals her editor did a lot of cleanup on her rather sloppy punctuation, etc.–

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130838304

Does this prove the trad publisher’s point? Only to this extent– as any experienced writer will admit, the first draft (and the second, and the third…) stinks. Nobody except an egotist or a newbie thinks otherwise. And yes, it helps to have other eyes on your manuscript, which is why many indies, including me, have beta readers.

But now we run up against one of the realities of independent publishing. When I was still trying to go the traditional publishing route, an agent who expressed interest in my work recommended a professional editor. I contacted the person and she seemed reasonable…until she mentioned her fee. As much as I wanted the help, there was no way I could afford $2000. I still can’t. And I suspect not many indies could.

If I understand the trad publishers, at this point I should, for the sake of Western literature, stop myself and say, “I haven’t been professionally edited, therefore I must not publish.” I hope everyone sees the intrinsic fallacy of that statement. It essentially assigns implicit censorship powers to a cultural elite who haven’t deigned to take my work up and deal with it on at least the same level of respect as Fifty Shades of Grey.

Would I like a professional editor to look at my work? Certainly, just as I would have liked a publisher to pick my work out of their slush pile over all the years I tried to get their attention. But the evident reality for me is that, if I were to continue to wait around for a traditional publisher, in a publishing environment that is increasing rigid and restricted, I would probably be waiting until I died.

So I am out here, pretty much on my own (with some help from friends, none of whom are professional publishers, either), and I have finally found a way get my work to an audience. But here’s a critical point that many (but by no means all) indies are missing– I have the same obligation to get my novels and stories right as a publishing house would. I need to do the work, as best I can with my limited resources, to correct my mistakes, to edit, and to format my work, so that it is at least reasonably readable and appealing. That is why I continue to edit my published novels when I discover problems (see my previous post on lunar systems and apparent diameters). That’s why I am going through four drafts, or more, on Princess of Shadows before uploading it to Kindle.

The bottom line is that, as long as online entities like Amazon and Smashwords provide the platform, I have a free speech right to publish my work. If I produce slop, it’s on me– I can’t even blame a typesetter or an editor behind a desk. And the customer, who can finally, finally access my work, will make the decision whether it has value to them. This, on the whole, is a tremendously good thing.

My recommendation to my brothers and sisters in traditional publishing– take a deep breath, see the change, and figure out how it can work for you. Because the changes are here to stay, one way or the other.

Later.

My writing sucks.

I am now about 168 pages into the second draft of Princess of Shadows. I’ve cut perhaps a net three thousand words; the absolute number is probably double that, but I’ve had to add wordage in several spots where it was thin.

I think I have hit the doldrums of the second draft process. For me the downside of the second draft is that it rubs my face in all the wretched aspects of my spontaneous compositions. I’m repetitious, at times overtly maudlin, some of my sentences run on for approximately the same duration as the Thirty Year’s War, and my attempts at conveying my protagonist’s internal emotional state clunk like a badly designed steampunk automaton. How many times can a character have their heart in their throat, or find their stomach in knots? Oh, and did I mention the clichés?

The only thing to do is to keep plugging. My multiple draft process usually produces a less puerile final product in the end. But wading through the horror of my first draft usually cures me of any residual illusions that I have talent. Just persistence.

So, deep breath, hold nose, back to work. Later.

Draft 2.0

I am about halfway through the second draft of Princess of Shadows. That’s encouraging in one way– I’m averaging 10 – 15 pages a day at this point– and I have corrected some basic problems. But some of the most difficult passages still lie ahead, and there are places in the first half of the novel I need to go back to to remove or add layers and details. There will be a Draft 2.1, and possibly 2.2, before I get to Draft 3.0 (the output from my hard-copy edit, where I expect to make most of my content edits). Draft 4.0 will be what comes out of the input of my beta readers, and I may have to go to 4.1 or 4.2 before this monster is ready for publication. I am hoping for end of August(?) as the publication target date, but that is tentative.

All of this talk of numbering drafts is a bit overblown– it’s not nearly that precise, and certainly not a science– but it’s helping me keep things straight in my head, which is rather like a 386 processor trying to calculate the movement of galaxies over the next ten billion years. A certain amount of overheating must be expected.

Meanwhile, I am still fighting off the temptation of other projects. One additional burden is that Amazon is preparing to accept fan fiction for properties they have signed licensing agreements for. I have never written fan fiction, being usually too busy with my own creations, but if Amazon signs an agreement with Paramount for Star Trek, the temptation to write the series of Star Trek novels I’ve had in the back of my head will become nearly overpowering. I sat down this past week and listed all the novels, including the Divine Lotus series, that I have had on my mind in the last year, and the list ran to 15 or so titles. It’s frustrating– I have only so much time left….

So back to work. Later.