Self-Publishing: Good for Writers, Bad for Readers?

I love a good Major League baseball game, watching men in tight pants running bases, hitting 90 mph fastballs, and catching towering fly balls.

But what if they changed the rules and allowed anyone with a mitt and cap to play in the majors? We’d see thousands of new teams as every guy or gal who ever dreamed of being in the big leagues finally got a chance. It would be great for them, but lousy for the fans who pay good money to watch the best of the best out on the field.

That’s similar to what has happened in the publishing business. Writers no longer need to “tryout” to be published. They can circumvent the agents and publishers who serve as gatekeepers to traditional publishing. Write a novel, create a cover, upload to Amazon, collect some five-star reviews (Thanks, friends and family!), and BOOM, you’re a published author.

I’m planning to self-publish my first novel, so I’m not knocking this route. But as a reader, I find reading self-published novels to often be an exercise in self-punishment.

I try to read both traditionally published and self-published novels. The former I usually choose after reading reviews or because I love the author. The later, well, I do read some of those five-star reviews, and I want to believe them, but I’m usually left wondering if either they didn’t read the book or they wouldn’t know good literature if it hit them in the forehead.

I also read a lot of forums where writers talk about traditional vs. self-publishing. Writers complain that agents and publishers reject work because they think the book isn’t marketable, or because the writer doesn’t already have a following. I’m sure that’s true, but I suspect, based on my own history as a script reader, that agents and publishers reject the vast majority of manuscripts because they’re just not very good.

Which brings me back to readers. Self-publishing is here to stay, and that’s a good thing. But we reader need a better way to separate the wheat from the chafe. We need reviews we can trust.

Writing quality reviews is a difficult job, but I would love to see some tough, smart critics emerge who are willing to write reviews of self-published novels (especially in the romance genre). Are there some already out there? Are there romance reviewers you trust? I would love to read them too.

Best Wishes,

Kelee

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Damn the Commas, Full Speed Ahead!

I had intended to write my next post about sex, marriage, or even kids. Instead, I find myself unable to think about anything but the lowly comma.

I do find commas sexy. They remind me of sperm trying to wiggle around a tight corner. I hate to see commas misused and abused. Commas make reading a pleasure instead of a chore and deserve to be treated with respect.

I’ve been reading a self-published romance novel. The author (I won’t mention her name.) has written numerous books. She’s clearly a very experienced writer. but I find her use of punctuation irritating. Commas are thrown into sentences where they have no busy being. They break sentences into illogical segments or join what really should be two sentences into a difficult-to-read mishmash. Reading the book is like spotting your husband talking to a hooker. He may have a good story to tell, but you’re not in the mood to listen.

Commas and other punctuation serve two functions. We’ve all laughed at the results when a comma is mistakingly omitted, as in this Rachael Ray cover story.

rachelray01

But just as importantly, punctuation makes reading smooth and easy. It’s like a singer taking a breath in the proper place. Improper punctuation detracts from the story you’re trying to tell and makes the sophisticated reader think don’t have a firm grasp of the English language.

I don’t claim to have perfect punctuation skills. I make mistakes, and sometimes I need to check my grammar guide to make sure I’m doing it right. But I believe proper grammar and punctuation must be the foundation for any writer. I wouldn’t want to find out my surgeon doesn’t have a basic grasp of human anatomy right before I go under the knife, or that the mechanic working on my car doesn’t know how to put the wheels back on safely.

So please, if you want to be a writer, learn how to use your tools properly. Your reader will thank you.

Best Wishes,

Kelee

Go Set a Watchman: A Lesson in the Agony and Ecstasy of the Rewrite

I find myself fascinated by the coverage of Harper Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set a Watchman. I use quotes because there is every indication that Watchman is actually an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. To me, the fact that the time period, story, and even characters change so radically between Watchman and Mockingbird only goes to show how much the rewrite process can transform a novel. Evidently, Lee’s agent thought the original Watchman was good enough to send to a publisher, and Lippincott thought it was good enough to buy. But Tay Hohoff, the editor who took Lee under her wing, wasn’t satisfied.

tayhohoff-cropShe pushed Lee to turn a good novel, Watchman (I’m judging this from the reviews since I haven’t read it yet.), into one of the greatest works of American literature. It was a difficult process–at one point Lee threw her manuscript out the window into the snow in frustration–but it was worth the pain.

Back when I ran a writers’ group, we would occasionally get a new member I would classify as an “arguer.” He/she couldn’t accept that our constructive criticism was valid. Five or six other writers would patiently explain why this person’s screenplay wasn’t working for us, but the arguer would respond with a dozen reasons why it was fine in its current form. After all, Steven Spielberg’s dentist had loved it!

Were we correct on every point we made? Probably not. But when several smart, literary minded people are telling you the same thing about your manuscript, you should probably at least consider what they’re saying. And more than once the arguer returned to our group many months later to tell us that we were right after all.

Few of us have a Tay Hohoff to guide us through the rewrite process, so we must search out good editors wherever we can find them, and continue to work on making our manuscript better and better, even when we want to throw it out the window and call it quits.

I close with a story about my own rewriting experience. I once wrote a screenplay that went through some 30 drafts, was optioned by a producer, and even got the attention of a major Hollywood star who was interested in executive producing it. But this being Hollywood, the process stalled and then died. I was confident that the script was excellent. I wasn’t about to give up on it. In desperation, I went through my college alumni directory and contacted everyone I could find that was connected with Hollywood in some capacity. One young woman I emailed was a lowly assistant at a production company, only a couple of years out of college. She agreed to read my script. A week or so later she emailed me to tell me how much she loved it. I was pleased until I read her next sentence. She wanted me to call her so she could give me some notes on it.

I put my head in my hands and groaned. This script had been read and dissected by major and minor players. What could a 20-something assistant possibly add to it? But I was desperate, so I called her. She turned out to be a very intelligent and kind person. Her suggestions weren’t major, but they were spot on. Her sensitive reading of the screenplay added a little something extra to my protagonist. When I finally hung up more than an hour later, I was so happy I had contacted her.

While the script still didn’t end up going anywhere, my new friend went on to be producer for a successful Hollywood director. I wasn’t surprised. She clearly was very perspective about story and character. The lesson for me was to always keep an open mind and open ears when offered feedback, and to never stop rewriting.

Best Wishes,

Kelee

Your Self-Published Novel Sucks. (5 Ways You Can Make It Better.)

Don’t get me wrong. I love self-publishing. It’s been a boon to writers in the same way cheap digital technology has opened up access to low budget filmmakers. As readers, we get to experience deserving books that would have never seen the light of day in traditional publishing because they’re isn’t a mass market for them, or they’re controversial, or there’s just not enough room on bookstore shelves for another new writer.

That said, most self-published novels suck. That’s not surprising. It’s damn hard to write a good book. Odds are, 95% of self-published novels are going to be dreck. The question is, how does your novel, or my novel for that matter, make it into the coveted 5% that are actually worth reading?

I come to the world of novel writing from the world of screenwriting. When I was young, I was a first-round reader for screenwriting contests. I literally read hundreds of scripts, but only passed along a handful to the second round. I learned how hard it was to write a good script, and I saw the many ways they fell short.

I also coordinated a screenwriting group for many years, working with a diverse group of peers to improve our writing. Some people went on to success, others gave up. It was like a great Darwinian laboratory that showed me why many writers fall short of their goals.

I’ve obtained a few nuggets of wisdom through those experiences and from working with Hollywood agents, managers, and producers.  Here are five lessons that have stuck with me and changed my outlook on writing.

  1. Your first draft is going to suck. I love how writers are portrayed in movies. They usually are struggling with writer’s block, which is finally cured through the love of a good man/woman are some mind-blowing experience they have. They then sit down and bang out a first draft that their agent/friend/lover reads and declares to be the greatest thing since Faulkner. But the reality is, even a book as great as To Kill a Mockingbird started out as a mediocre first draft called Go Set a Watchman. (Or so an article in the New York Times posits.) Your first draft is going to be bad. Accept it. Embrace it. Be happy that you’ve finished it.
  2. Your 10th draft will probably suck too (though less so). A manager once told me that the real work doesn’t even start until the 10th draft. I once wrote over 30 drafts of a screenplay that turned out to be the best thing I’d ever written and garnered me some attention in Hollywood. Good writing takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. It’s like training for an Ironman. Many writers get frustrated and declare that they can’t write another draft. That’s the time to put it aside until you’re ready to rewrite and rewrite some more. It’s definitely not the time to start sending it out to agents and publishers.
  3. Listen to your critics. I have a friend who is a talented writer. She sent out her first novel to at least 20 friends who served as her beta readers. Most of them weren’t writers themselves and offered only vague, positive comments. I, on the other hand, sat down with her and gave detailed suggestions on how she could improve her book. But she didn’t want to hear it. She was defensive and said she wasn’t willing to do any extensive rewriting at that point. I realized that she was looking for people to prop up her ego, not improve her book. We writers need to put our egos aside and listen to every comment, positive or negative. Not all of them will be helpful, but if we’re open and free from judgement, we’re bound to learn a few things about our work and ourselves.

    A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark. — Woody Allen in Annie Hall

  4. Grow as a writer. A friend of mine who dances socially likes to say that some people have six months dance experience, while others have six times one month experience. In other words, they don’t continue to improve with experience. I’ve found this to be true of writers too. There were some very nice people in our writing group who never improved much as writers. We encountered the same weaknesses in every script they wrote, no matter how much the group tried to help them. Was this about a block that they might overcome eventually, or were they hitting the ceiling of their talent? I’m not sure, but I know it was frustrating for them. So do whatever you can to help yourself grow–have new experiences, take a class, find a new mentor, read a book, change genres, or switch from screenplays to novels, like I did.
  5. Accept who you and and where you are. Not everybody is going to be a best selling author or win the Nobel Prize in Literature. But you know what? Even if you achieve those things, you’re still the same person inside, and you still have to get up every day and face the distinct possibility that the next thing you write is going to suck. Enjoy the process. Enjoy living. That’s what writing is all about.

Best wishes,

Kelee