A caution against self-publishing, with links…

I have a side job right now where I review “indie” books, which mostly means self-published books, although some small-press books are also thrown into the mix. Reading on average one self-published book a week for the past several months has made me very pessimistic about the quality of self-published books in general. In fact, it’s pretty insulting to readers, some of the dreck that’s being sold to us in these days of instant self-publication. A book may be a piece of art, it may be your baby, but it’s also a product that is being sold, and readers deserve a professional product. I view my little reviews as something of a public service, either a message to the author that the book was not nearly ready for publication, or if that’s not something the author wants to hear, then a message to the reader to beware.

It’s not all bad news. Self-published nonfiction tends to be better quality than fiction, I think because nonfiction is more likely written by a professional in his or her field. When it comes to fiction, though, I have a hard time recommending any of it. Of all the books I’ve reviewed, I’ve only given an unqualified recommendation to books published by a small press, which had obviously received the attention of an editor, a copyeditor, a designer, and a cover artist.

Based on my forays into the world of self-published books as a reviewer, I’ve developed a prejudice against them as a reader. Whether that’s fair or not, it’s the natural result of being exposed to so much amateurish self-published writing. I can assure you that I’m not the only reader who is rapidly learning never to touch a self-published book. I would caution any new writer to think long and hard before choosing to self-publish. For a small subset of writers, self-publishing may be a good way to build a readership and maximize profits. However, most writers won’t be able to distinguish themselves in the rapidly expanding ocean of self-published books out there, and they may be putting their work out for judgment before it’s mature enough.

For further reading, here’s a small collection of links about deciding whether to self-publish:

Finally, if you decide to go the self-publishing route, make sure that your command of spelling and grammar is impeccable. Readers should not have to read your book with a red pencil in their hands. And please, I’m begging you, learn the difference between passed and past.

Women writing — some links

For my yearly reading project in 2015, I have been focusing on women writers, specifically of speculative fiction. This project has led me down lots of wonderful side alleys discovering new writers, revisiting old favorites, and thinking about what they have to say. It’s also helped me understand the bias that women writers continue to face when it comes to getting published, reviewed, and honored. Here I want to share some related links and also encourage every reader to seek out more women writers to add to their To Read lists.

I am putting together a list of great books by women writers to read. It is now over 150 books. I’ll probably share it when it gets up to 200 or so titles. In the meantime, here are some women writers who I have been reading lately to go out and discover right now: the aforementioned Margaret Atwood and Daphne du Maurier; Shirley Jackson; Patricia Highsmith; Ursula K. Le Guin; Octavia Butler; Jane Austen; Stella Gibbons; Dorothy L. Sayers; Harper Lee; Tana French; Mary Doria Russell; Kate Atkinson; Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie; Ruth Ozeki; Jhumpa Lahiri; Ann Leckie; Emily St. John Mandel.

Patricia Highsmith, from 20 Photos of Famous Authors Looking Badass at Flavorwire.

Writing advice, distilled…

Every writer must eventually write a book about writing. It’s some sort of unspoken rule. Due to my lifelong interest in the writing process, I’ve read a fair number of these advice manuals. (Two of my favorites are Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley and Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, because both of these books say quite a lot about reading and understanding what you read, in addition to writing.) No question that books about how to write remain popular. I guess a lot of people want to be writers, and they think these books contain the secret, that one highly guarded piece of knowledge that will finally transform the person reading the book into a by-gosh for-real writer.

Here’s the real secret: All books on writing say pretty much the same things. They use a lot of words and pages to say it, too, when all the writing advice ever given can be distilled to just a few simple rules. Hang on, I’m going to tell you what they are in just a minute.

If I had to recommend just one writing book, it would be Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It’s not that she imparts any great secrets either; her book says pretty much the same thing all the other writing books do. But she says it with a lot of humor and reveals a great deal of herself in the process. Her book is really more useful for providing emotional support to writers, rather than showing them how to write. I take my copy out and read random sections from it whenever I need a little boost.

Now, on to the writing secrets. These are the three rules you need to know about writing, distilled from every writing advice book ever:

  1. If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day. You can’t wait to be in the mood or to have a great idea. Showing up is key, but the urge to procrastinate can be very powerful. Successful writers usually build a routine around this just to get their butts in front of the computer (or typewriter or notebook or what have you).
  2. If you want to be a good writer, first you have to be a bad writer. The initial struggle is just to get words on paper. Those words will never be as good as you want them to be. Once the words are there, you can work with them, revise, shape, cut, rearrange, to make them better. This rule also means that your writing, like most things you do, will get better the more you practice doing it.
  3. Writers read. I will never understand why someone who doesn’t read books would want to write books. All good writers read, a lot. They read obsessively. They read widely. Reading is how you learn to write. It’s how you figure out structure, character and plot. It’s how you find ideas and techniques to “borrow,” to play with and make your own. It’s how you realize what works and what doesn’t.

By the way, these rules also apply to pretty much any creative endeavor. Just substitute the word writer for the artistic pursuit of your choice: painter, musician, dancer, cook, whatever it is.

And that’s all you really, truly need to know. I’ve just saved you a lot of money buying all those books about writing you don’t really need. No need to thank me–just promise that when you become a successful writer, you won’t write yet another book about writing.

Everything that’s wrong with your screenplay (or novel)…

All The Things That Are Wrong With Your Screenplay In One Handy Infographic | Co.Create | creativity + culture + commerce

This is a terrific infographic for any aspiring writer to study. It’s also a great tool for book reviewers and media critics, to help us pinpoint what is going wrong with what we’re reading. I admire the people who read all these screenplays and then put this detailed infographic together documenting the process.

Essay of the week: About MFA Writing Programs

Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One – Books – The Stranger by James Yamasaki.

Well, this was a controversial essay, to say the least. He divides aspiring writers into three groups:

I had a handful of students whose work changed my life. The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it. My hope for them was that they would become better readers. And then there were students whose work was so awful that it literally put me to sleep.

Tough truths, but after spending several months now reading and reviewing “indie books” (and having yet to run across the “real deal”), I tend to agree.

A good resource for writers…

I recommend that all writers, whether you intend to self-publish or publish traditionally, read the excellent and short reviews of self-published books that Jefferson Smith (and occasional guest reviewers) posts at Immerse or Die. Smith maintains that the most important quality of fiction is whether it enables the reader to become immersed in the story, an assertion with which I wholeheartedly agree. This is the elusive quality of suspension of disbelief, that ability to forget you’re reading about made-up places and characters, and to instead actually believe that what you’re reading could have really happened to these real people. This is why we readers want to read.

In his reviews Smith explains exactly why his immersion was broken (or less often, not broken) by the book he is reviewing. His clear and precise explanations have helped me pinpoint exactly what I disliked about the self-published books I have been reviewing. They should be very instructive to writers as what not to do.

Nothing will kill your story faster than grammatical errors and superfluous typos. Believe it!

Watch out, that writer’s taking an info-dump!

This is another entry in my ongoing series identifying common problems in self-published novels.

As a writer, you’ve got a terrific idea for an alien planet, a fantasy world or a dystopian future. You’ve worked out all the details, and you just know that no other writer has come up with something this creative or unique ever. (Hat tip: This is probably not the case, sorry.) You’re itching to write that novel (or more likely, series) and share your wonderful vision with hordes of grateful readers.

So what do you do to best communicate all the intricate, well-thought-out details of your incredible fictional world? You introduce a character who is new to the world so that character has to learn everything about it right from the start. Perhaps it’s a visitor from another planet or an explorer from another realm. Perhaps it’s a newly awakened coma patient or a time traveler from the past who discovers a radically changed future. Sure, this technique is a cliche, but good writers can get away with using cliches. Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance, often uses the premise of a visitor from another planet to explore her worlds. But she is a terrific writer, and she knows how to world-build in a way that captivates the reader’s interest.

Do you?

A common problem I see with more immature writers of science fiction and fantasy is the tendency to dump information all over the reader in the first few pages or chapters. It’s bad to do this in huge chunks of exposition, worse to do it in dialogue, with one character explaining to the new arrival exactly why everything is the way it is. Not only is this boring to read, but it’s hard for readers to get a real sense of the world when we’re told about it via giant chunks of information, rather than shown the world over time. Each new detail about the world should build on the previous so that we gradually feel that we really know this world. I guess that’s why it’s called world-building.

As a writer, it can be difficult to know when you’re info-dumping. After all, you’re a writer and you’re writing! Look how much you’re writing. Lots and lots of writing. That should be a tip-off right there. Are your characters making painfully long speeches in order to explain something? Are expositional paragraphs stretching down entire pages? If you’re unsure, let someone else evaluate it. Readers know info-dumping when we see it. Our eyes glaze over.

Another way to realize when you’re info-dumping is to outline the action taking place in the scene. If nothing important or exciting is actually happening right now, even though there are lots of words on the page, then it’s surely an info-dump. This is the key to why info-dumps are such a turnoff for readers–they bring the action to a full stop.

To avoid info-dumping, instead show us the world as your protagonist experiences it, in small increments, as needed to advance the story. Let the protagonist discover the world and figure it out as she goes along. If further explanation is needed, keep it simple and short. Trust the reader to work things out for herself. It’s more fun for us that way.

I can assure you, since most info-dumps occur within the first chapter or two of the book, many readers won’t tolerate them. They’ll put the book down and move on to something more interesting. If you want readers to actually finish reading your book, you must be ruthless about excising the info-dump.

TV Tropes has a good article on info-dumping and why it’s so painful to read.