Tag Archives: self-publishing

A plea to new writers, while treading carefully…

A certain author, on a certain online group, recently posted, with evident pride, a chapter of their work-in-progress. I looked it over. It was not a happy experience.

One of the greatest problems with online self-publishing, in all its forms, is that it makes it entirely too easy to put out work that is in no way, shape or form ready for public viewing. And in this instance it wasn’t just poor writing– the author obviously had no grasp of basic grammar or punctuation, the very things Stephen King calls the writer’s fundamental toolbox. Comma splices, run-on sentences, misused or missing capitalization, long interior monologues, and adverbs– dear God in Heaven, not just over-used, but used in bizarre and novel ways…you probably get the picture, and it ain’t gonna be hanging in the Louvre. It’s the sort of thing that gives ammunition to those who denigrate self-published works as amateur and unreadable.

It is a simple truth that, to write effectively in English, you must master– and not just master, but internalize– certain rules and nuances of the language and how it is expressed in symbolic form. You can’t get away from it, not if you want your work to be readable and to rise above the status of laughing-stock. You ignore those rules at your peril.

Now, having said that, you will notice that I have not named the author, nor their work, nor have I quoted any of the more wretched passages (a strong temptation, if for no other reason than to bear witness to those adverbs…). It is not my desire, nor my purpose, to denigrate or belittle any author, just as you would not denigrate a student struggling with a math problem (at least, I hope you wouldn’t). In the first place, we all have to start somewhere. The difficulty is that self-publishing allows thousands and thousands of neophyte writers to plunge straight off into the deep end, with the result that the self-publishing sea is layered thick with their corpses….

In the second place, I am not sure I would personally have many stones to throw. I think I write fairly effective sentences, and I have been at this a very long while (depressingly so), but, even so, I trip up all the time. The hard-copy edit of Princess of Fire has rubbed my nose in that fact (more about that below). And I remember quite clearly how long it has taken me to get to whatever level of competence I have achieved.

Here’s the truth– English is a hard language, even for native speakers. This bastard child of German and French, bespangled with a host of ‘loan’ words (more like, hijacked), is tricky and ever-shifting– and it hasn’t helped that formal grammarians have long insisted on imposing Latinate rules of grammar on an essentially Germanic tongue, which has basically gummed things up even worse for generations (but that’s another post).

To handle this language effectively, you have to learn the rules. You have to study. You have to read good writing, by good authors. I have already name-dropped Stephen King, so I’ll go the whole hog and mention his memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, as an excellent primer on not just what tools a writer needs, but as an outline of how life influences a writer. Among other things, King hammers hard on the idea that to write effectively, you must read widely. And then you have to write, write, write, over and over again, figuring out what works and getting rid of what doesn’t.

And while I’m mentioning books, if you don’t have a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, stop reading this and go get one. Now. I’m not kidding.

All of this takes time. And time, I fear, is something many new or young writers don’t want to part with. Worse, they don’t understand that there is no other way to become a good writer than by putting in the effort and the time. Instead they charge ahead, afire with the enthusiasm of seeing their work online, on Kindle or Smashwords or Nook, and then wonder why the reviews are cruel, if they get reviews at all. This is, frankly, one of the downsides of the self-publishing revolution.

I’m saying nothing new here, but I think these truths need to be repeated every so often. More than that, though, I want to try end on a hopeful note. The fact is, everyone starts in the same place with writing, except for those extremely rare native geniuses who are born with pen in hand. Most of us have to do it the hard way. And that should be encouraging to anyone struggling to learn how to write. You need to write, and read, and persist. Therein lies your hope.

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On another note–

Re: Princess of Fire , yes, progress is being made, but my first estimate of a week to put in the hard-copy changes was, unsurprisingly, way, way off. Part of the problem is that I am in the process of re-writing, from scratch, a climactic piece of action; also, the real life demands of being unemployed, of dealing with medical Cobras and unemployment insurance issues, having been seriously distracting. But I’m closing in….

Later.

E. L. Doctorow’s latest novel and thoughts on writing.

Princess of Fire is now at 60,000 words. My best guess at the moment is that this is perhaps halfway through the story. I went back and looked at my progress reports from last year and did some comparisons. With Princess of Shadows it took me approximately six months to go from 26,000 words to 60,000. To cover that distance with Princess of Fire it’s taken me about six weeks. I continue to be amazed at this level of productivity, but I do see some potential trouble down the road. Because I’m writing the easy, pre-written/pre-imagined stuff, some sections still to be written are going to be harder to get down. More than that, because of the way I am writing this novel, I’ve got numerous disconnected sections that will need to be linked up and reconciled. Still, I’m okay with those kind of problems if they’re the price of completing a first draft in jig time.

On NPR this morning I heard an interview with E. L. Doctorow regarding his latest novel, and in the interview are some of Doctorow’s thoughts on the process of writing. One of these is “write in order to find out what you’re writing.” That may not make sense to everyone, but does to me. I thought the interview was worth sharing– let me know what you think.

I’m thinking I need to add some of Doctorow’s titles– probably Ragtime and The March— to my literary bucket list. Jane and Chuck, move over and make room.

Writing plans for 2014

As is typical with me, I’m late marking the turn of the year. Yah, 2014. New opportunities, etc.

Okay, that’s done.

I have some definite plans for what I want to accomplish with my writing this year. Firstly, unless something goes very badly wrong, I should be able to complete and publish Princess of Fire this year, perhaps by late summer or early fall. Publishing two novels within a twelve month period would be a first for me.

There will be a downside, however. I anticipate Princess of Stars, the last part of the series, is going to be mammoth, probably somewhere north of 200,000 words, which will almost certainly mean I will need to eventually break it into two separate books. I want to write it as one narrative stream, however, so at the moment it is a unity in my head. Because of the length, there will probably be a long gap between the publication of Fire and of Stars, especially since there are things in Stars that may stretch my skills to the breaking point. I need to make Fire fairly memorable, to keep people engaged during what promises to be another long hiatus, and that is what I am working on at the moment.

It won’t be just the size of Stars that will be tough; I expect the book will be internally complex, as I pull together all the threads that I have been developing in the previous four books of the Divine Lotus series and resolve them in what I hope will be an epic science-fiction story. The size and complexity of the novel may well push me during this year to do something I usually don’t do for my stories– write an outline. That, or the equivalent of a movie treatment. Either way, I anticipate having to plan for Stars at a level I usually don’t attempt. I am normally a pantser, but this book feels as if it will need special treatment.

At the same time, while I work on Fire and prepare for Stars, other projects are romping around in the back of my brain. I have talked about some of these projects in previous posts, and at different times one or another of them looms larger in my consciousness than others. At the moment I am thinking about a historical novel set in 1900 (there was a lot going on that year) that I have had in mind, but it is actually an open question which project I will take on after the completion of Stars, which is, more than likely, at least two years away. Meanwhile, I am basically reading and researching for the other projects on an ongoing basis.

The last major piece of my writing plan for 2014 is to continue blogging, diversifying what I blog about (more reviews, less whining) and staying engaged with the online community I’ve discovered. 2013 was the year I began to blog in earnest, and I plan to keep it up. Aside from that, I will probably doodle away on pieces on the side, such as Dinosaur Planet (a new episode coming soon), more abandoned fragments, and assorted topics as they come to me.

Looks like it’s going to be a busy year. Then again, life has a way of throwing me curve balls. Or avalanches. We’ll see.

Later.

The Writer’s Needful– Part Four– The Universe of Study

It might have been better to call this post “the universe of knowledge”, especially if “study” implies formal coursework somewhere, somewhen, in a formal institution of learning. That is not what I’m talking about, at least, not just. What I am talking about is what an author needs to know in order to write.

And that is not “the techniques of writing” nor “how to break into publishing” nor “how to market your books”. I am referring to the knowledge of truths and facts and how things– both material and immaterial– work. Most especially, knowing about the subjects on which you write.

Well, the answer to this one is simple.

You need to know everything.

Well, my work here is done….wait, you need that explained? Really? Oh, okay.

Let me put this succinctly– the possession of a deep understanding your specific subject, as well as a general understanding of the great mass of human knowledge, is essential to good writing.

I don’t usually go around quoting Hemingway, but this once something he said seems very appropriate–

“A good writer should know as near everything as possible. Naturally he will not. A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge….A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

Most of us will never be ‘great writers’, but the necessity of knowing what you’re talking about is fundamental to any writer. This is specific to the topic on which you write– whether it’s the meat-packing industry or nuclear physics– and in general for all of human knowledge. As Hemingway said, this is impossible in toto; but you have to come as close to it as you can.

In short, writers have to be educated.

Not necessarily formally educated– there have been many writers who had hardly any formal education whatsoever. Jane Austen never went to college. Neither did Mark Twain. Both, however, would have to be classified as learned people in their time and place. For another example, Abraham Lincoln had hardly any formal schooling, but he educated himself, and in his speeches and letters he created some of the greatest prose in the English language.

Certainly, formal education can be an advantage to a writer, but we can also multiply examples of men and women who have attended the highest educational institutions and remain ignoramuses. Obviously, a formal course of study is no guarantee that you will succeed as a writer, or anything else.

Perhaps mostly importantly, then, writers must be able to educate themselves.

Many or most writers are already readers– most of us come to writing through our reading. However, a writer needs to read not just in their favorite genre of fiction– they need to read broadly, to comprehend the shape of their own culture, to understand what has gone before, and to bring depth to their writing. A writer also needs the capability of intensively researching out specific issues as needed to round out their stories.

Everything you read, all the formal courses you take, and all the topics of interest you research will feed into your stories. Every history you read, every Shakespeare play you see, every language you stumble through, will lend depth to your fiction. The more broadly you spread your search for knowledge and understanding, the better your writing will be.

Let me share a personal example of what I am talking about– I have read a lot of history, particularly around military topics. At the moment, in preparation for a future novel in the same universe as the Divine Lotus series, I am reading histories on the British-Zulu War of 1979 and the French and Indian War. I am also reading a history on Reconstruction, which would be part of the background for a possible Civil War novel. None of these topics have anything to do with my current work in progress– they are preparation for works in the near to distant future. And these specific readings connect with and enhance the background I already possess in military history.

The consequence of not possessing a broad base of knowledge, and of not understanding whatever specific topics are involved in your writing, is shallow, ineffective prose, thin and transparent rather than deep and rich. This hold true for fiction and non-fiction; with non-fiction in particular this can result in catastrophically bad writing. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, readers interested in your topic will detect it immediately and rip your efforts to pieces.

Unfortunately, it’s evident from the mass of badly thought-out and written books available on self-published venues that all too many people are writing in ignorance, to put it bluntly. They have not taken the care to read, to study and to comprehend their topics. It’s the sort of thing that taints self-published books in all too many readers’ minds.

The solution to this for any writer is quite easy, though– read. Read everything. Read until your eyeballs fall out. Read, and think about what you’ve read, and feed it into your writing. Take classes as well, if possible, but above all, read. I guarantee you’ll not regret it.

Next topic: Experience.

Later.

The Writer’s Needful– Part Three– The Core of Persistence

In my previous post I talked about writers needing courage. This post is about persistence. I do believe for writers persistence and courage are linked, but I do not believe they are identical. Courage is about overcoming and surviving discouragement and disappointment; persistence is about the daily discipline that writing requires.

Persistence is actually a well-worn topic among writers and those who instruct others on how to write. Lewis Shiner once said that if someone can be at all discouraged from writing, then they should be. Bridget McKenna, years ago in a writing panel at Norwescon, told all of us eager young wannabe writers that getting published is 90% persistence (and if you can’t trust Bridget McKenna, damn it, who can you trust?). Google “writing persistence” and you’ll get a screenful of links to websites and videos on the topic.

But hold on– many of these sites talk about persistence in the context of getting traditionally published. Keep submitting, keep sending out your work, that sort of thing. But this is the new, glorious age of self-publication. Does perseverance mean anything when a new writer can take their very first ever short story and publish it online within 24 hours?

Yes, because persistence in writing has more dimensions than simply getting published. And it always has.

First, for the overwhelming majority of writers, learning to write takes time. Lots of time, lots of words, lots of trunk novels and short stories. Most of us learn to write by writing. To become competent as a writer, most of us need to persist and persist, through bad draft after bad draft, lousy grammar, awkward sentences approximately the length of the Great Wall of China, failed short stories and novel. The cliche is that your first million words are crap. The only variant I have seen on that is that it’s actually your first two million words that are crap.

The new opportunities for self-publishing have not changed this reality. If anything, this is proven by the quite simply enormous (and growing) pile of terrible-to-poor self-published works out there. If a writer wants to be other than a sad joke, they still need to learn the craft of writing.

Persistence is also part of the daily- or as near to daily as you can manage– discipline of writing. This is one of the hardest things a writer has to internalize. Writing is not dependent on inspiration or mood– it is a task you take on and do, the same way you go to a job or brush your teeth every day (at least, I hope you brush your teeth daily….). It took me years to learn this lesson myself, which is largely why I didn’t start writing in a serious way until I was well into adulthood.

If you are pursuing traditional publication, persistence is, indeed, needed, and, given the state of trad publishing, more than ever. If it was hard to get published thirty or twenty years ago, it is orders of magnitude more difficult now, as the publishing world petrifies into a living fossil, stuck in the adaptive rut of doing the same thing over and over again because it sold last go-around. The inability of traditional publishing to break out of that rut is leading thousands of authors to abandon trad publishing for self-publishing. It is very much like a torrent of water, dammed in one direction, finding an outlet in another. Another way to think of it is to say that people’s patience with a log-jammed process is not infinite.

Self-publishing, though, is not a golden road. Getting your writing in order, formatting everything correctly and uploading your story to Kindle or Smashwords is, unfortunately, no guarantee of winning an audience. The dirty secret about self-publishing– which isn’t much of a secret– is that getting noticed in the ever-widening sea of self-published material is very, very difficult. There is no sure-fire way to publicize a self-published work, certainly no one way that works for everybody, and building an audience takes time and patience– in other words, persistence.

Part of that audience-building is creating a body of work, instead of publishing a single story and retiring. That means more writing, and probably re-writing (certainly it does in my case). And so we come full circle back to the need to keep writing and to keep on learning how to write, because hardly anybody ever completely perfects this craft. In other words, once you’ve signed on as a writer, it’s for life.

Personally, I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

Next topic: Study.

Later.

Victory

Princess of Shadows went live on Kindle this afternoon. After 17 months of writing, rewriting, doubting, worrying, re-rewriting, cutting, adding, despairing and praying, the novel is done. There really were times I doubted this monster would ever be finished. I’m more than a little brain-fried– I expected that I would have a big emotional reaction, but instead I seem to be mainly just relieved.

As predicted, Shadows came in large, about 152,000 words. However, I did a little research and found that I am in good company– Emma by Jane Austen, is about 158,000 words. Watership Down, one of my favorite books of all time, is 156,154. Moby Dick is 206,052 words (it is indeed a whale of tale. Sorry). I think that, after the cuts I did make, the narrative moves along okay, though.

There’s still mopping up to do– I will be a few days at least formatting the CreateSpace file and getting it pulled together. And if previous experience is any guide I will need to be ready to provide updates to both the Kindle and CreateSpace files as needed. Having said that, this is the most thoroughly edited and corrected novel I’ve published to-date– I’m just leaving room for my all-too-evident humanity.

But otherwise I have a sense of tremendous relief, as if I’ve been carrying an aircraft carrier around on my shoulders that I’ve finally managed to unload into Elliott Bay. Once my shoulders stop aching, I’ll probably start on Princess of Fire, though there may be an extended period of doodling on other projects, as I engage in a certain amount of exultation in the sense of freedom I feel.

Now, if I can just get a day job….

Later.

Nope, changed my mind….

Okay, re: what I said in my last post about just bulling through the line edit on Princess of Shadows? Forget it– today I cut another 7,000 words. The dime dropped and I realized that I could cut to the chase on one section, saving about 3000 words, and that there was another section I did not need at all– I could accomplish the same goal with two hundred words versus about 4000. And I think I’ve gained a better understanding of the warning signs that a passage is too big, or surplus to requirements.

The downside is that now the PDF I’ve been using for the read-through is significantly different from my working draft file, so I have had to resubmit my doc file to CreateSpace and I’m waiting for a new PDF. This will add a couple of days to the read-through, but I think it’s worth it. Shadows is still going to be a very large book, in the vicinity of 151,000 words, but the action should now move along at a much better pace.

While I’m waiting, I’ll probably post something on Man of Steel, which I finally got around to seeing. Not a review– more like some thoughts on the fraught nature of super-hero stories.

Later.

Yet another extremely brief update

I have completed re-editing Princess of Secrets for both Kindle and CreateSpace, and the respective files have been submitted. It will take at least 24 hours for the updated Kindle file to be available, and the CS file will need to go through one more proof approval before it can go live, but the hard work is done. I am tired.

More importantly, I now have a proof PDF for Princess of Shadows, which means in the next day or two I can start the same final edit process for Shadows. I am going to budget two weeks for the read-through of the proof file, during which I will create a punch-list of errata; but I hope that the read-through will also give me some clues about what I might be able to cut from Shadows.

I think I am now in the home stretch of what’s been a very, very long race. Just don’t want to trip this close to the finish line.

Later.

Self-publishing– the naked truth

I continue to work on preparing Princess of Secrets for CreateSpace– doing a line-by-line reading takes time. I hope to have Secrets ready for CS in the next couple of days; the edits I put in will also be added to the Kindle edition. Then I will turn my attention to Princess of Shadows, with the intention of having it ready for publication by December 1st.

I’ve had some ups-and-downs getting these novels re-edited, including a truly spectacular frak-up with find-and-replace on Wonders that I had to repair in a big, fat hurry. Editing my own work is the quickest path I know to humility. Or maybe it’s humiliation. For me there’s not much distance between the two.

No one should construe, from my previous ardent defenses of self-publishing, that I think I’ve achieved perfection with my own work. Hardly. As in, what a laugh. Every time I revisit my work, I see new items to fix, or to improve.

Let me be honest here– when I first self-published, two and half years ago, an objective observer would have probably classed me as one of those “not ready for prime time” self-publishers. I started out publishing some of my novellas and novelettes, and I spent months wrestling with issues. When I went to publish my novels, I thought I had cleanly edited copies. But my readers let me know that there were still issues, and I’ve had to revisit both Wonders and Secrets on several occasions (see my previous posts as evidence).

What this proves is that there is an “on the other hand” truth about self-publishing. A downside, a fly in the soup, a cloud obscuring the bright sun of our gloriously published state.

Ready for it? Here it is– self-publishing is hard.

Let me amend that– self-publishing is back-breakingly hard. Heart-breakingly hard. “Will this bastard ever be done?” hard.

At least, if you’re trying to do it right. If you’re not– or worse, you’re sure you’ve achieved perfection already– then forget what I just said. Sit back in the warm glow of your own self-sufficiency and the certain knowledge that it is only the stupidity of the rest of the world that prevents them from recognizing your genius. I have nothing useful to say to you.

For us mere mortals, though, the simple fact is that, when you self-publish, you take the whole weight of getting a book written and ready for market (two separate, if conjoined, tasks) on your own back. You may be helped by beta readers, you may hire a freelance editor, you may purchase a professional cover from an artist (God, I hope you do– there are some amazingly stupid self-published covers out there), but by-and-large this effort is all on you. You’re it. If the book succeeds, you get the glory. If it fails, or if it is an unreadable mess of misspellings, bad grammar and screwed-up formatting, you got no one to blame but yourself.

I can’t speak for other self-publishers, but for me, the whole experience of self-publishing has been one of learning, sometimes the hard way, sometimes by “oh my God, I can’t believe I did that!” Learning to edit, learning to format, learning how to promote (my personal downfall at the moment). And that learning process is still going on. It didn’t happen all at once, and I am beginning to suspect that it will actually never end.

So be warned– if you want to self-publish, and do it right, then you have to be prepared to commit to long hours of picking through prose, finding mistakes and sweating over whether this phrasing is better than that phrasing, to learn how to upload an html file and what it means to link your TOC correctly– and then to take the one and two star reviews, think about what they mean, and apply them to your text. You will need a thick skin, including on your behind where you’ve sat for hours editing a passage for the fourth or fifth time. You’ll need to be willing, after you’ve uploaded a novel, to turn right around and re-edit it and upload it again to fix one misspelled word on page 231.

There is, however, a positive to all this labor and pain– my work is better now than it was when I started. Perhaps much better. And I’ve learned how to make the next novel better to start with. For me, that makes the whole business worthwhile.

Not to mention, it’s better than doing yard work. That’s really unpleasant.

Later.

(PS– I have now edited this post twice to fix issues. QED.).

Trying to find the silver lining…a brief update on my lack of progress

I’ve never been someone who is naturally cheerful. Somebody says, “Good morning!” with a bright and happy smile on their face, and my tendency is to say, “Let’s not jump to conclusions” even if it’s 11:55 AM and the planet hasn’t yet been invaded by right-wing mutant zombies from outer space (the homegrown varieties are quite enough, thank you). This has been, at times, a problem in my church circles; some Christians seem to think you’re supposed to paint a joyful grin on your puss no matter how miserable you actually feel. Not me– somebody asks me how I’m doing and they’re liable to get a response similar to, “Well, I’m not dead yet, but give it time.”

And at the moment, life’s not exactly handing me sunshine, either.

Chiefly, I remain unemployed; I haven’t heard back from either of the companies I interviewed with two or more weeks ago, so it is not looking hopeful. Both interviews seemed to be fairly positive, but my natural pessimism (here shading over into paranoia) assumes that the people who interviewed me showed me to the door with smiles, and then burst out laughing when I was gone. Pretty soon I am going to have to start looking for temporary gigs, which I hate.

In addition, there is this thing and the other thing, most of which are trivial annoyances that altogether come to a lot of time on my hands, doing chores I don’t like, and probably snacking more than I should. There are stresses and strains and tensions because of the uncertainty of my immediate future. There’s personal stuff that would be embarrassing for me to talk about and which probably needs a therapist’s touch (or sledgehammer).

The holidays are coming, too. I have complex feelings about the season from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, which I will not try to unpack here and now. Suffice to say that I usually feel out of step with the whole commercial business of false cheer and merriment. Somebody says, “Merry Christmas!” to me, they’re liable to get the finger.

And then there’s my lack of progress on Princess of Shadows.

It’s beginning to look as if two out of my three beta readers are not going to be finish their reading-throughs in time for my drop-dead goal of having Shadows published before Christmas. I have almost decided to just do another read-through on my own, make final changes, and publish. I’m not happy about that, but I think it’s something I need to do. This book has been hanging around my neck for far too long.

Now, in view of all the preceding, it would not be unreasonable to assume that I am completely in a pit of despair and hopelessness. Or even more than I usually am. Strangely, though, not so much.

Uncharacteristically, I think I’ve found a silver lining or two in this whole situation. The extra time on my hands has allowed me to complete initial research for Princess of Fire. My enforced idleness on Shadows means I’ve had to put it aside for a month and focus on other things, which I have heard often recommended as a way to see your own work with fresh eyes when you do take it up again.

Lastly, I’ve used the extra time to publish Princess of Wonders to CreateSpace, Amazon’s print-on-demand service. It’s now available on Amazon and in the CreateSpace e-store. I’m in the process of doing the same for Princess of Secrets, and when I publish Shadows, I’ll be doing it simultaneously for Kindle and CreateSpace. This is a new venture for me, and, as good as Kindle has been for me, the idea that my work will be available in print still makes me smile.

It’s an odd feeling– I don’t think my face is used to it….

Later.