Rule number 1 for self-publishers: Proofread!

In the last few years, services like Kindle Direct Publishing and  Lulu have made it incredibly easy for writers to self-publish, which I think is mostly a good thing for writers and readers. Self-publishing enables writers to build and audience and demonstrate their talents, and it puts more voices out there than ever before. Some terrific writers have gotten their start through self-publishing, such as Hugh Howey (Wooland Andy Weir (The Martian: A Novel).

But self-published books have already acquired a tarnished reputation, and with good reason: They are all-too-often riddled with errors. Spelling mistakes, typos, punctuation misuse, grammar abuse, word confusion, incorrect names and facts–when a reader encounters too many of these in the first few pages of a book, she will stop reading, and with good reason. How can a writer expect readers to pay good money for an unprofessional product? It’s not enough to run a spell-checker. Writers who aspire to the professional level must show some respect for their craft and knowledge of the language that is their medium. They must proofread.

We’ve all seen errors in professionally published books as well, especially e-books, but the amount and types of errors aren’t nearly so egregious. Professional publishing assures the reader that someone has read the book beside the writer and has probably caught most of the major goofs. Self-published writers have to give readers a very good reason to dip their toes in the sea of dreck and seek out their books. They have to be even better than their professionally published competitors.

The bare minimum self-published writers can do is hire a professional proofreader or copyeditor to give their books a thorough vetting. If your book is riddled with errors, your ideas simply won’t shine through.

Is writing torture? Should it be?

I remember when writing used to be something I did solely for fun, when I would write just to play around with words. I created collage poems out of words and pictures cut from magazines. I tried to make up my own acrostics and crosswords. I wrote stories as a form of play — playing with an idea, a structure, something that someone else had written.

I think one reason I don’t write as much as I used to or would like to is because somewhere along the way, I lost that sense of having fun with it. Is it because I’ve grown up? Is it because I think I shouldn’t do anything anymore unless it’s productive or results in a paycheck, because that’s we are taught to think that adults do. Adults don’t play; we work.

Or is it because I’ve been told over and over again that to be a writer, one must be tortured, obsessed, possessed? Writing is something you do because you have to, not because you want to. Above all, it is not fun.

Probably it’s a combination of all of the above. One thing I do know — I miss writing just for fun. I want that back in my life.

After reading this — Elizabeth Gilbert Versus Philip Roth: Is Writing Torture? in The New Yorker — I have to declare that I completely respect Elizabeth Gilbert’s point of view. She has not lost her sense of fun or play. She can’t believe she actually gets to write as a job.

Doesn’t that seem preferable to the old “tortured artist” routine?

Also worth reading: Elizabeth Gilbert’s thoughts on writing.

 

The writer’s job…

The writer’s job is to entertain, but there is more. Writers can educate, enlighten, even corrupt. This is why books are often seen as dangerous.

Writers are observers. They want to figure out what makes us human. Why do we behave the way we do toward one another? What is our purpose here? Is there any meaning to all this? Are we in control of our destiny or at the mercy of fate, the environment, heredity or dumb luck?

Writers are always looking. They are constantly:

  • looking back — to understand who we are by understanding where we came from
  • looking around — at contemporary society, culture, institutions, values and beliefs
  • looking inward — revealing interior thoughts and psychology, trying to figure out what makes us tick
  • looking beyond — turning our fears into monsters; realizing our fantasies by making the impossible possible; traveling to the furthest reaches of space, other dimensions and parallel worlds
  • looking forward — extrapolating on the problems of today and following them through to their ultimate ends

A writer’s trick…

I once heard a writer say in an interview that he always goes to a coffeeshop to write. This is because at home there are too many distractions. There are chores to be done, books to be read, snacks to be eaten and so on. But at the coffeeshop, while there are distractions, they aren’t intended for him. If he isn’t there to write, he has no reason to be there. So he might as well write. It sounds like a good trick, one I should try. All writers seem to have the problem of how to force themselves to sit down and just write.

How to have a conversation with a book…

Illustration of the final chase of Moby-Dick.

Image via Wikipedia

In school as an English major, I learned how to interpret symbolism in literature. Take Moby Dick, for instance. My professor made a point, which I still remember, of how Ahab’s hat symbolized his manhood, which the whale stole from him. He likened that to the scene in Thelma and Louise when the girls blow up the trucker’s shiny big rig full of oil (like a whale, ha ha) and then steal his hat before driving away.

Finding symbols, making connections, trying to guess what the author wants you to know — this is what English class is all about. In studying literature, we are meant to be doing something “important,” which is why we spend so much time discussing what the writer intended and what the text really means. We are taught there is a right way and a wrong way to read literature, that we either get it or we don’t. No wonder so many people get turned off of reading.

In creative writing classes, however, I learned what I already had guessed –writers mostly wing it. They write from the gut, or the subconscious, if you prefer. They don’t think in symbols any more than I, walking through a mall, would see a pair of red shoes in a store window and think, “Ah, there’s a symbol of my lost youth, if I ever did see one.”

Today I’ve come to think of reading a book as having a conversation with the writer. It’s a conversation where both parties are separated by time and space, and the writer will probably never hear my side of it, but it’s a conversation nonetheless. The writer brings a lot to our conversation, of course — characters, setting, plot, theme — but as the reader, I bring a great deal as well. My life experiences, my beliefs and values, my current preoccupations, even what happened to me that morning or what I read in the news last night — all affect how I respond to and interpret what I read.

The writer has put something on the page, some words. Some time later, I read them. And together we decide what those words mean for us, in that moment when they are read. If I read those same words twenty years later, they may mean something entirely different, and then the writer and I will have a different conversation, even though the words themselves haven’t changed.

All those English classes spent trying to figure out what the author meant by such-and-such an image were probably pretty useless. The point is not to become preoccupied with what the words are supposed to mean, or try to guess the right interpretation. Any writer who’s overly concerned that his readers understand his precise meaning at all times is probably not a lot of fun to read, anyway. I think what’s more important is the meaning that is created between the reader and the writer when the book is read. A novel is not a lecture. It’s a conversation. Or at least that’s what it should be.

Analysis and thoughtful writing not endangered after all…

I like this take from Clive Thompson on how the blog, once a literal log of Websites, is now becoming a forum for longer, in-depth analysis once reserved for magazines and newspapers. His thesis is that Twitter and similar tools have replaced the quick link-sharing function once served by blogs, and that these social networks also provide a more appropriate place for instant reactions to news and stories — the “short take,” as he calls it. So more thoughtful analysis has moved to the blog. What really suffers, he posits, is the “middle take,” once provided by weekly newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek, but probably unnecessary in our wired world.

I see this at work in my own blogging and online sharing. I tend to confine links and thoughts “of the moment” — such as breaking news and reactions to it, or something that’s momentarily funny — to “short-take” forums like Twitter and StumbleUpon. I reserve more thoughtful pieces for sharing on my blog and preserving in Delicious.

But for truly long-form writing, such as essays, short stories and book-length writing, I return to paper. I still can’t stomach reading anything much longer than a typical blog post on the computer screen. Maybe if I had an iPad?

Read: Clive Thompson on How Tweets and Texts Nurture In-Depth Analysis | Magazine.

Write that novel or not, but treat readers right

So, this article over on Salon.com, prompted some thoughts: Better yet, DONT write that novel. The rant is a response to the annual write-a-thon, National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWrMo, as it’s known around the Interwebs, encourages writers and would-be writers to bang out a first draft in a month in an effort to just get it written.

I do take issue with Laura Miller’s tone in the Salon article. Let me paraphrase: “Hey, amateur writer, anything you produce during NaNoWrMo is going to be dreck, so why even bother?” Here’s why. Every person should feel free and encouraged to express themselves creatively in whatever medium works best for them, whether that’s writing, art, music, crocheting, cooking, ice sculpture, I don’t care what. It’s good for the soul, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re awful or not. Creative expression is something we all need to do more of, and I think it’s patronizing that Laura Miller feels like she has to tell NaNoWrMo participants not to bother their little heads with trying to write a novel.

But she doesn’t want to see that dreck foisted on the world, and I have to agree with that. Still, that’s why we have literary agents and publishers, isn’t it? They’re supposed to be our editorial gatekeepers. That’s why it’s so damn hard to get published. There’s a lot of competition, most of it is awful, and only the best of the best probably eke their way through. The flip side of that is that if you’re a choosy reader, you have a good chance of finding a more-than-decent novel to read on each trip to the bookstore.

Miller also makes an impassioned case for nurturing readers. As a reader myself, I’m on board. But I think the fault lies not with the legions of amateur writers out there, but with the publishers, who I think have gotten sloppy in recent years. It’s not that they’re publishing bad books; on the contrary, I’ve been reading a lot of great new books. But even hardbound literary fiction seems to be riddled with typos and other careless mistakes, which really distract a careful reader from the pleasure of reading. I don’t consider this the writer’s fault, although a writer who can’t grasp the basics of grammar and spelling probably shouldn’t make it far as a professional. Instead, I suspect that publishers are skimping on that lowly, often freelance, most definitely underpaid necessity: the copyeditor. And any publisher who can’t be bothered to pay someone a few bucks an hour to copyedit their books shouldn’t be in the business, in my opinion.

I’m not even going to get into the whole issue of e-books and gouging readers while not even letting them truly own the digital books they publish. I’ll only purchase an e-reader when there are no paper books left to read. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that any book I shell out my hard-earned money for be free of errors. These are professional editors, after all.

But amateur writers, please keep writing your hearts out. I wrote a novel once that’s completely unpublishable, but at least I wrote a novel. I get it. It’s about the feeling of accomplishing a goal, of creating something. It’s not about making Laura Miller read another bad book.

Better yet, don’t write that novel (Salon)
National Novel Writing Month