I can’t wait to start reading my friend’s first novel. I happily empty my wallet to buy an autographed copy. I inhale the new book smell and flip through all those pages looking forward to what I expect to be a wonderful experience. I brew a cup of tea, settle into my comfortable chair with the dog at my side and turn to Chapter One.
That’s when I realize the writing is bad. Really bad. By page three, I still don’t know what’s going on. My critique group would tear it to pieces. Bill would say he doesn’t get it. Dorothy would cross out most of the pages, saying it’s not interesting, it doesn’t go anywhere. I’d ask for scenes, for specifics, and for dialogue that sounds the way people really talk. I would note the many grammatical errors, the mismatched modifiers and the typos. We would send the author back to his computer to start over.
But it’s already a published book. It’s going out into the world as is. Book-signings, publication parties and readings have been scheduled. It’s too late. Where was the editor? How could he or she let this book go out into the world this way?
Another author sends his book to me via Kindle, asking for a review. By the end, I’m so frustrated I’d throw it across the room, except I don’t want to break my Kindle. It has bad characters and bad dialogue. It raises questions that are never answered. I vow to never read another book by this author.
The next one, also an e-book, has good content, but the writing and the typos make it painful to read.
I turn to an old classic for some literary relief. I have two more new books to read and review, but I can’t stand it anymore.
You know what makes me even more nuts? These authors get their friends to offer five-star reviews that make them sound like Pulitzer Prize winners. I read them and think: Did they read the same book that I read? Do readers just not know the difference anymore?
These books are self-published. They give self-publishing a bad name. After a while, even though I have self-published some of my own books, I check the copyright page, see that a book is self-published and don’t want to read it.
The problem is two-fold. First, everybody needs an editor. No matter how good a writer you are, you can’t see your own mistakes. You can’t back away from the story and see the big picture. Your brain is programmed to see what you want it to see. Start with a critique group. It hurts to have people point out your writing flaws, but it helps so much in improving your writing, so get your work critiqued before you publish it. Run it by some non-writer readers, too. See if they react the way you hope they will, laughing at the funny parts, loving the characters, getting wrapped up in the story. If they don’t, you need work on it some more.
Before you self-publish a book, get it professionally edited. It can cost quite a lot—over a thousand dollars in some cases—but it can make the difference between a well-written book and one that needs work. As I read recently in a brilliant article by Russell Blake called “How to Sell Loads of Books,” “If you’re too cheap or too broke to pay an editor, barter something of value to get someone qualified to do it, or (gasp, here’s an idea) save some money so you can do it right. Skip these steps and you won’t sell much, if anything. Or if you do, it won’t last very long, because word will spread, and then you’re dead.”
Of course, not everyone who calls herself an editor is a good one. Ask for recommendations from writer friends, get referrals from the acknowledgements of books you admire, or check the Editorial Freelancers Association.
The second problem, a deeper and more difficult one, is that people are putting out books when they haven’t laid the groundwork for a writing career. It’s like some guy who wants to be an electrician expecting to rewire the White House without having taken any classes or served an apprenticeship. Good writers spend years working on their craft. They take classes and workshops, earn degrees, read the works of the masters, and write reams of prose or poetry that never gets published. Like pianists practicing their scales, they practice their craft and never stop learning. They don’t dash out 60,000 raw words and start designing the cover. They spend years revising and polishing.
Yes, with today’s technology, anyone can write a book and publish it. You can do everything yourself or pay one of the many companies offering to give birth to your book—no matter how bad it is or how unready it is for publication. Years ago, I talked to Donald Maas, agent and author of Writing the Breakout Novel, about print-on-demand publishing. With POD, all the rage at the turn of this century, companies like iUniverse and Xlibris would publish your books but not print them until orders came in. They offered marketing help for extra fees but no editing. What you sent them was what got published. Now with e-books and Amazon’s CreateSpace program, you can put out your books for free. There’s nothing wrong with that if they’re truly ready for publication.
Maas said most self-published authors don’t take the time for that last much-needed rewrite. There are a lot of good reasons writers avoid the big publishing conglomerates these days. The competition is fierce, and it can take years for a book to be published, but for God’s sake, don’t jump into print (or cyberprint) until your book is the best it can possibly be. Don’t make me want to throw it across the room.
And if you haven’t developed your craft or gotten your book edited, please don’t ask me to review it. No matter how pretty the cover is or how much I want to say good things, if I see problems with your book, I’m going to tell the truth. You have to earn your stars from me.
Now go write.
A friend who recently retired (hi, Nancy) met with me at Starbucks the other day to talk about how to become a writer. Oh, she has written things before, mostly related to her teaching or government work. She even took one of my classes at the community college years ago and saved all her notes. But now she wants to BE a writer.
This is not unusual, especially as we boomers work our way into retirement. The question is how to get started on this new endeavor at an age when most people lucky enough to have jobs to retire from are kicking back in their RVs, playing golf or pursuing other hobbies.
Maybe you’re just getting started as a writer, too. At any age, it can be daunting. There are so many different kinds of writing and so many different outlets. Books, newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, YouTube, OMG! This might need to be one more than one post, even a series.
I think anyone who wants to start writing needs to ask some important questions. For example:
Do I need to make money from my writing?
Is this going to be work, art, or just a hobby? If you’re counting on writing to pay the bills, you’ll need to consider what kinds of writing make money (nonfiction articles and how-to books) and what kinds don’t (poetry, memoirs by non-celebrities, columns about your cats). Either way, don’t expect instant income. It takes time to write and sell your work and get paid for it. If you have enough income from pensions, other work, or a spouse with a paycheck, you can write anything you want and not worry about the money. If you need the money, you’ll spend at least as much time marketing as you will writing, and it’s going to be months, if not a year, before you make more than lunch money.
What do you want to write?
Please don’t say “everything.” I know some of us like to dabble in nonfiction, fiction, poetry and maybe even a screenplay. Me too, but what calls you the loudest? What would you feel bad about NOT writing? If you were diagnosed with a fatal illness and only had the time and energy to write one thing, what would it be? Or, try this, say your name and follow it with a genre of writing, such as Sue Fagalde Lick, novelist, or John Smith, poet. How does that feel? Which one feels right?
What do you know a lot about?
Writing about something you are already an expert on will definitely give your new writing career a boost. Maybe you already have tons of information, contacts, ideas, and even some publishing credits that can lead to new writing in whatever genre you want to write. Were you a fisherman in Alaska? Did you serve meals at a school cafeteria? Were you a doctor? A lawyer? A pastor? You’ve already got stories and knowledge you can parlay into books, articles, fiction or poetry.
On a blank piece of paper, start a list of what you know. Go beyond formal education and jobs. You know about lots of things from life, things like parenting, maintaining a home, managing finances, dealing with illness, raising dogs, cats, llamas, children, travel, etc. Make a list. Do you see some things you could write about?
To be continued: I’m going to have to finish this discussion next week, but the most important thing I told my friend is that she has to write. If you want to be a writer, don’t just talk about it. Start writing. Whether you use a pen or computer doesn’t matter. Just start putting down words. You can’t write everything at once, so write one thing.
Today, why not write a page on what kind of writer you want to be?
Now go write.