Friday, July 18, 2014
This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 9,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
Organization: You Don't Know What You Don't Know
Whether you’re an indie author or you’re pursuing the traditional publishing path, you have to make some key decisions about how much help you need.
One of those decisions is the question of whether to use a proofreader.
This decision is a little different, depending on which road you take to publication. So let’s look at your two major options:
If you’re submitting your work to traditional publishers, then whatever you submit needs to be as good as you can make it. That means no spelling errors. No grammatical errors. No punctuation errors.
Some writers think that a publisher ought to make allowances for a few typos, because after all, they have proofreaders, right?
Yes, they do, but it just looks lame if you submit a proposal or manuscript riddled with a zillion typos. It cuts your odds of getting accepted, and your odds were already long.
Proofreading is not your agent’s job. Your agent will probably help you polish the content of your proposal and will probably point out craft issues with your sample chapters. But it’s just not your agent’s job to proofread your work. It’s your job.
Either you’re good at proofreading or you’re not. If you are, then do it yourself and make it perfect. If you’re not, then you should hire somebody.
What if you’re not sure?
In that case, I’d strongly suggest you hire somebody.
The reason is because you don’t know what you don’t know. And you can’t see what you can’t see.
You might think that the phrase you want is “one in the same,” when it’s actually “one and the same.” You might think the word you want is spelled “discrete” when the word you mean is actually spelled “discreet.” You might know that the possessive of “it” is “its” but even so, your fingers might type “it’s”—and once you’ve done that, your eyes may skim right past it because it looks so right.
And spell check won’t catch any of these errors.
If you’re an indie author, this becomes doubly true, because now you’re the publisher. A traditional publisher would hire at least one proofreader, probably more, to review your manuscript after typesetting. They would also send it to you for review.
When you’re the publisher, it’s your job to make sure the proofreading gets done.
I know many indie authors who say this isn’t necessary. They use beta readers. Or they do all the proofreading themselves.
It’s a rare beta reader who’s qualified to do a professional level of proofreading. It’s a fairly rare author who’s qualified.
I’m very good at spelling and I’m fairly good at grammar and punctuation. So it’s a real temptation for me to do this myself.
But I don’t, for a couple of reasons.
First, I’m a perfectionist. I want my books to be as good as possible. Even one typo is unacceptable to me.
Second, my eyes just aren’t good enough anymore. The retina in my right eye has a small bubble under it, which means that everything that eye sees is slightly out of focus. My left eye is fine, but my brain has to put together the very different images from my two eyes and make sense of it. And sometimes, it just doesn’t see what’s there. This is very frustrating, but it’s my reality.
I’ve been working on a new indie book on the Snowflake method, which I’ll be releasing soon. I edited it as well as I could.
Then I hired an experienced freelance editor to give me a high-level revision letter. She gave me several suggestions that were “obvious,” but which I had somehow missed.
Then I worked the manuscript over another couple of times. Then I proofread it one last time, until it was absolutely perfect in my eyes.
Then I hired an experienced proofreader, who caught an embarrassing number of mistakes.
You don’t know what you don’t know. You can’t see what you can’t see.
I know an indie author who uses beta readers to do his proofreading. When he released one of his books, I bought it on launch day and read it right away. Good thing I did.
Midway into the book, I discovered one of those embarrassing spelling errors that you hope never to make in public.
I emailed the author right away and he fixed it. But it could have caused a bit of backlash from his readers.
I know other authors, both traditional and indie, who believe they are much better at proofreading than they actually are. But even my eyes, fallible as they are, can see problems in their work. And if I can see lots of problems, then there are probably many more.
I’ll say it again, because it’s worth repeating.
Ewe donut no watt ewe donut no. Yew cant sea wot yew cant sea.
The above paragraph passes spell check. But every word is a typo.
My opinion is that hiring a proofreader is just a standard cost of doing business as a writer.
Craft: You Are What You Read?
Years ago I was talking to a fellow novelist whom I’d just met and I asked him what his Top Five favorite novels were.
This is a question I ask writers a lot. I’m always looking for great books, and one place to find them is on the Top Five list of another writer.
This guy’s answer just about knocked me over. He said, “I don’t read fiction.”
I couldn’t believe it. I asked him if he meant he didn’t read much fiction.
No, he didn’t read any. He was a nonfiction kind of a guy.
He wrote fiction, but he didn’t read it.
That was years ago, and I haven’t seen anything from him recently.
To put it bluntly, I don’t see that as a recipe for success. If you’re a novelist, you need to be reading fiction.
There’s a saying that “you are what you read,” and I think this is partially true.
If you read great fiction, you’ll absorb some of it, and you’ll become a better writer. You’ll learn what’s possible to do in writing, and it can’t help but expand you as a writer.
But I think it goes beyond that. I recommend reading widely, even if it isn’t great fiction. Because the fact is that you are MORE than what you read. What you read is fuel for your mind—it’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient.
Novelists need to be reading fiction. A lot of fiction. Not just the bestsellers. Obscure stuff. Good fiction. Great fiction. Horrible fiction (not too much of this—if you do manuscript reviews at a writing conference, you’ll see more than you need).
When you read other people’s fiction, you learn things that you couldn’t learn any other way. Because when it comes to the craft of writing, you don’t know what you don’t know. The only way to learn what you don’t know is by reading other people’s work.
For starters, you should read widely in your category. You need to know the rules of your genre—which ones are ironclad and which ones can be bent.
But that’s not enough.
Read widely outside your genre. Read outside your demographic. Read outside your worldview.
Read romance fiction. Most novels have a romance thread in them, no matter what their category. If you can improve that thread, your story will improve.
Read suspense fiction. Most novels have some element of fear in them. Learn how to do that better and your novel will be better.
Read fantasy. Even if you, personally, would never want to read a vampire or werewolf story, it’s quite possible that one of your characters would. If you understand that character better, then you’ll do a better job writing that character.
Read mysteries. Even if you hate mysteries. Most novels have an element of mystery to them—some secret that needs to be uncovered. If you know how to unwrap that secret, one layer at a time, then your story can only get better.
Read a spy novel. One of your characters is reading a spy novel right now. Do you know what he likes about it?
Read a historical novel. The better you understand history, the better you understand the present.
Read science fiction. You might learn a bit of science, if it’s a hard science fiction novel. But for sure, you’ll expand your universe a bit. Never hurts.
Read YA fiction. It’ll give you insights into your younger characters. It might give you some insights into a few young adults in your life.
Read women’s fiction. If you’re a guy, you’ll understand women better, which is good all by itself. If you’re a guy writing fiction, you’ll understand your readers better, because the odds are that the majority of your readers are women.
Read fiction that features characters with wildly different beliefs than yours. I understand hyper-capitalists better after reading Ayn Rand. I understand Jews better after reading Chaim Potok. I understand Wiccans better after reading S.M. Stirling’s apocalyptic series that begins with Dies the Fire. I understand Muslims better after reading Khaled Hosseini’s book The Kite Runner. I understand fundamentalists better after reading the first book in the Left Behind series.
The better you understand your characters, the better your novel will be.
Read bad fiction. Yes, really. If you find a particularly bad piece of writing, read it all the way to the end. Figure out why it’s so awful. Resolve never to do the things that the author is doing.
I confess that I have a favorite bad novel, written by a high-school kid who graduated a couple of years behind me. This thing is fearsomely, wonderfully, amazingly awful. It’s bad on every possible level.
No, I won’t tell you the title. Find your own dreck. I’m keeping mine a secret. My family knows which book I’m talking about, and they’ve all read it. We sometimes quote particularly horrible lines at the dinner table.
There are a billion ways to write great fiction, but only about a dozen ways to write truly horrible fiction. Good writing starts by learning to avoid that dirty dozen of Desperately Horrible Writing Follies.
If you’ve read some really awful fiction, I guarantee it’ll improve your writing. But there’s such a thing as too much of a bad thing, so stop when you’re had enough. A little goes a long way.
Read a little bad fiction and a ton of good fiction.
Reading fiction is the foundation of writing fiction. Make your foundation broad and strong.
Marketing: Every Writer Needs a Mastermind
The more I see of how successful authors work, the more I think that it’s imperative to be part of a community of writers.
You might think that once you get published, all the other authors out there are your competition, and you ought to do your best to avoid giving them one speck of help.
But that’s not what seems to work. Over and over, I see successful authors banding together into small and large groups to help each other figure things out.
Small groups of five to ten people are often called Mastermind groups, but in my opinion, even a large community of a few hundred can function as a Mastermind, if it’s run well.
You can think of it as “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” if you want to. That’s kind of a self-centered approach to life, and I think it misses the point. It’s fun to help others. It’s fun to hang out with similar people. And it’s way cool that doing good leads to doing well.
Based on what I’ve seen, I’d say that you’re much more likely to do well in marketing your work if you spend some time and effort helping other authors.
I belong to several small and medium size groups of writers on Facebook. Last month when I was trying to get my novel TRANSGRESSION permafree on Amazon, I ran into several glitches. I posted some questions on a couple of these groups and got help within minutes.
One of my small Facebook groups has been terrific in helping me evaluate cover designs. I’m not great at understanding what makes a good cover, but I can post several concepts that my graphic designer gives me and get feedback on what works, what doesn’t, and which direction to go next. This is huge for me.
Of course, in turn, I give a lot of techie advice on formatting and marketing to my Facebook groups. I have expertise in those areas.
In marketing, 1 + 1 = 10. So if you help a friend, and they help you, then you both wind up massively ahead.
If you’re trying to market your work and you’re not making much progress, then the very first thing I’d recommend is to join forces with other writers similar to you.
There’s power in numbers. There’s wisdom in a group.
And yes, you need to be wary of those annoying people who think that tearing down others is the quickest way up the ladder. You also have to be wary of the people who believe they know more than they actually do.
But I’d say the benefits of a group far outweigh the hazards. Successful authors hang out with other successful authors. Success breeds success. It just does.
The key thing is to find authors similar to you. Similar in category. Similar in outlook. Similar in level of success. They can’t all be identical to you, but general similarity with a bit of diversity seems to be the best.