Self-publishing is killing self-publishing

Self-publishing. It’s being ruined by the very people who should be supporting it and doing everything in their power to make it great. I’m talking about all the self-published authors who are happy to release books littered with bad grammar, poor punctuation, clichés, repetition, clunky sentences and a total lack of any sign that proofreading or editing has taken place.

Their books get slammed by reviewers on Amazon, Goodreads, etc., and the widespread negativity towards all self-published books, not just the legitimately bad ones, grows exponentially.

Nobody ever posts a review on Amazon to compliment an author on good spelling or punctuation because those things are expected, and should be taken for granted by a reader. Because of that, those things should be prioritised by self-published authors, not forgotten or ignored.

No reader wants to have to struggle with interpreting the meaning of a sentence because it is poorly written. Just think about that for a few seconds. Now go pick a self-published book at random on Amazon and check out the ‘Look Inside’ sample. If that sample is a load of unedited garbage, the whole book is guaranteed to be.

No reader wants their immersion in a book to be derailed by bad punctuation, missing words (or duplicated words), and the countless other mistakes that too many self-published authors don’t even bother trying to correct before rushing their novel out into the world.

The attitude is obvious: they have written their book and they want it published NOW. It took them six months, or six years, or a whole weekend to write, so they believe that they have done all the hard work and now they want the reward to which they are entitled: they want to see their book published and for sale.

If you venture onto a Facebook author group or some other  forum where self-published authors congregate to help each other decide which badly Photoshopped cover to use, or which stilted, purple-prose blurb to choose, you must never, ever tell any of them that the books they have published need a bit of editing as they’re not in a fit state to have been published. Try this, and you will be either ignored or lambasted as some kind of fascist killjoy who lives only to belittle the stalwart efforts of the self-published community.

Sorry, but every unedited, mistake-laden self-published book that gets released contributes to the growing negative attitude of readers to self-published books. That’s a fact. I don’t care if it’s not a popular fact, it’s still a fact. There are lots of potential readers out there who will never go near one of my self-published books because they have already suffered too much at the hands of impatient self-published authors who were only interested in writing something and publishing it, and not at all interested in writing something, checking it, asking one or two other people to check it, and doing everything they could possibly do to make it the best that it could be.

It’s your book. You wrote it. You have to care about it being genuinely ready for publication, because nobody else will.

I’m not talking about boring stories, copy-paste characters, illogical plots, or sub-literate rambling bollocks masquerading as science fiction. I’m talking about actually caring about the quality of your finished product at a fundamental level. Because a hell of a lot of you clearly don’t care, and don’t want to hear about it from your peers.

“I sell plenty of books,” is one of their standard, brush-off replies when told that their books need to be proofread and edited before publication. Yes, I’m sure you do sell books. But then the people who bought your books will read them, see that you can’t even string a coherent sentence together, or understand the basics of punctuation, and the self-publishing negativity grows a little bit more.

I probably put more effort into checking and editing this rant than a lot of self-published authors put into editing and proofreading their own books.

I certainly put a hell of a lot more effort into editing and proofreading my own books.

And yet, some mistakes do slip through. I accept that, and I’m more than happy to not only admit it, but to applaud and thank anyone who spots something wrong in one of my books and lets me know about it. If I missed it, and my test-readers missed it, then whoever finds these mistakes deserves that applause and thanks.

If you’re a self-published author and you put as much effort, or more, into editing as you put into writing your books, then you have my gratitude and my congratulations. All you need to worry about are the same things I’m ranting about in this post.

If you’re a self-published author, and you read this post and thought ,”Ah, screw him, he thinks he’s some sort of grand-master punctuation expert who can lecture me on how I write…” I think we all know what I think of you and your rushed, ill-considered publications.

Have a great day. Do some editing. It won’t kill you.

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Branded (more writing tips & opinion)

Your protagonist has a phone. Heck, yeah, we all have phones. But your protagonist only needs “a phone”.

Cody reached into his pocket and pulled out his Samsung Uberphone ZX81 and…

No, no, no. And no. It’s a phone. Your reader will imagine it to be whatever phone they want it to be. But not if you tell them the make and model. They could even begin to despise the character because of the phone he or she is using, but mostly they just won’t care.

The same goes for tablets or e-readers. Either don’t mention the damn things or just mention in passing that Cindy was reading. Does it really matter to your story or plot whether Cindy was reading a paperback or on a Kindle? No, it doesn’t. Unless she’s being stalked by the Kindle Killer, in which case it’s essential that we know (or at least suspect) that she is reading on a Kindle.

But 99.9% of the time we do not need to know what make or model of electronic device a character in a book is using.

It started with a dream

Never, ever start your book with a dream sequence.

The wall exploded inward, showering her with chunks of plasterboard and shattered fragments of glass. A deafening, inhuman screech forced her to clamp her hands over her ears as a massive, green-scaled claw forced its way through the six foot hole in the wall. She backed against the jammed door, knowing that the next breath she took was going to be her last, her eyes squeezed shut to block out the vision of terror as the creature’s grasping talons closed around her…

Jenny woke up and turned off her alarm clock. 

“What a terrible dream. Oh well, never mind. Time to go eat some cereal and have a chat with my best friend, Tracey.”

See, now that right there is appalling. The reader thinks they’re getting one thing (which may be awful, but that isn’t the point) but they’re actually getting something infinitely worse – they’re getting let down.

The best thing to do if you want to start your book with a dream sequence is to … NOT DO IT.

If you absolutely have to put a dream sequence somewhere else in your book, always clearly introduce it as such and don’t play a stupid game with your reader, who is absolutely not going to find any entertainment value in being duped by an author who thinks dream sequences are clever or fun. They are neither.

Character descriptions are stupid

Okay, they’re not; not all the time, and not when the way a character looks adds something to the story. But, generally, it does not.

Any author who feels the need to describe the colour of the protagonists’s eyes, or the length of their hair, or the make of their suit in the first couple of paragraphs is sending out the clear message that they have nothing more interesting to say in those first paragraphs.

We’ve all read it, and you may even be one of those authors who does it. This kind of thing…

Misty Blade the teenage vampire hunter crouched at the edge of the steeply sloping roof. She pushed her long, deliberately unkempt style raven black hair over one shoulder and looked down at the dark street below through her matching pair of emerald eyes under arched eyebrows that were the same ebony shade as the aforementioned hair on her head.

Truly awful, I know. But come on, we all know someone who thinks that would be a great opening paragraph for their next novel.

Before describing a character, you need to ask yourself a few questions, of which these are just a sample:

1 – If you do NOT mention the character’s eye colour, will it affect the story at all?
2 – Can the character’s hair length be mentioned as part of an action sequence rather than just for the sake of it?
3 – Will the reader have a better time imagining how the character looks based on the character’s actions and behaviour, rather than being given an A-B-C description of eye colour, hair length, etc.?

If you absolutely have to mention a character’s physical features and clothes, try to avoid dumping them into the opening paragraphs like some kind of shopping list. And ditch the green eyes. They have been seriously overused.

Don’t use a mirror when you’re writing first person. You know what I mean, and if you don’t, well here’s another example.

I’m Byron Alpha, the extensively tattooed billionaire Mafia don. I paused as I strode past the mirror. I nodded with satisfaction at my mane of thick, glossy black hair (that every woman I met loved to run her hands through), hooded green eyes, aquiline nose, roguish two-day stubble, perfect cheekbones, and washboard abs that I knew were there but couldn’t see at the time because they were hidden beneath my very expensive Ermenegildo Zegna suit.

I am not completely opposed to describing a character’s appearance. I have done it myself, as anyone who has read any of my books will know. The point that I am making is that you do not need to shove details of eye colour, hair length and designer labels into the opening paragraphs of your book.

This is the first of a series of posts on specific writing issues where I feel that I need to add my own opinion to the millions that already exist. I have already posted a version of this on Wattpad, and I may post it elsewhere if I feel that it would be appropriate to do so. Or maybe just because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

How I write

I’m getting this down so that I can look back at it a year from now, or 5 years from now, or maybe next week, and see how much anything has changed. If someone else comes across this blog post and finds it vaguely interesting, that’s a bonus.

I generally write during a short (1-2 hours) period in the evening, every day, between 20:45 and 22:15. This is through necessity, not choice. I would write for longer if I had the time. On a good day, I can produce over 1000 words in under 2 hours, but it’s usually not that many.

I don’t force myself to write; I write for enjoyment.

Technical stuff: I write in Word 2007 on a desktop PC. I use Notepad to write plans, outlines, character bios, and other background notes. I regularly convert my work-in-progress Word documents into mobi files and transfer them to my phone or tablet so that I can do some proof-reading and editing as and when I get time while I’m out of the house.

I use a mechanical keyboard, specifically a Das Model S Professional. I don’t know exactly how many first-draft typos it has prevented, or how much it has actually improved my typing speed, but it looks great and it is just excellent to work on.

I plan books before I write them. I also plan individual scenes and choreograph the details of sequences where that sort of thing is necessary or useful.

I spend a lot of time naming characters, then I get people telling me I named a character after them or someone they know. I didn’t do this. Or, if I did, it wasn’t you or anyone that you know. Just so we’re crystal clear on that. Again.

I write each book as a single Word document. The first full length book I wrote, I created individual documents for each chapter. Terrible idea. It makes everything much more complicated and tiresome than it needs to be, particularly if you want to search for a particular word, or rename a character.

There are thousands of tips on how to write, in hundreds of books and even more websites. Some of the tips are very good, some of them don’t apply too readily to the way that I work.

For example, everyone seems to have a tip for breaking through “writer’s block”. I don’t get it. I actually don’t get writer’s block, whatever that is. Maybe it’s because I only have an hour or so each evening, and I’m constantly excited about filling that small window of opportunity with creativity and entertainment. Perhaps I’m just lucky, although that’s a bit of a stretch.

Another tip that I don’t agree with is to write your novel in a random order, maybe starting with a scene that you really want to write that happens near the end, or in the middle. I can’t see how that can be anything but utterly counter-productive, and it makes me wonder if that is the cause of all these people with writer’s block. It seems fairly obvious to me that if I planned out a novel, identified half a dozen really exciting scenes and wrote them first, the rest of the novel would end up feeling like a chore to write, filling in lengthy gaps between the few scenes that were actually fun to write.

I start at the beginning and write the whole novel in the sequence it’s going to be read. I look forward to writing the fun scenes, and I plan them before writing them, but I also enjoy writing the book as a whole. If I don’t enjoy writing the whole thing, how can I expect anyone to enjoy reading it?

I’ll list a few tips that I consider essential:

Get the grammar, spelling and punctuation right. You’re not James Joyce and I’m not Cormac McCarthy. If the first page of a Kindle sample of one of my books is full of spelling mistakes, grammatical foul-ups, and poor punctuation, I’m not going to assume anyone will be interested in reading more.

I’ll fully credit this next one to Elmore Leonard, as he says it most succinctly when listing his ten rules for writing novels: “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.” If you create strong scenes and give your characters good dialogue, you don’t need anything else. And don’t use adverbs to modify “said”.

No clichés. And I mean clichéd situations as well as using worn-out phrases. If any slip through the cracks in my first draft, I strip them out with extreme prejudice during the editing phases. While you’re busy eliminating clichés, take out any uses of the word “suddenly” and rewrite the sentences so that the suddenness is apparent without the word.

Don’t describe characters, places, or objects in extreme detail. I’ve been guilty of doing this, but I’m working on it.

Mirrors. Don’t have a character look into a mirror as a mechanism for describing that character, particularly when writing first-person. I looked at my reflection and checked that my hooded eyes, chiselled jaw and jet black hair complemented the neatly pressed shirt and grey Armani suit that I was wearing for the annual Billionaires’ Ball. That sort of thing. It’s everywhere.

Read it all aloud. The whole thing. This will highlight clunky sentences, overused words and bits where it just doesn’t work. It is really useful and should not be avoided.

Edit with a chainsaw. If you can’t afford to pay an editor, do it yourself and be absolutely brutal. I look forward to editing my own writing, almost as if it was written by someone I don’t particularly like and I go in wanting to find lots to change, rewrite completely or just rip out and throw away. I’ve got a document called “Deleted parts of Kissing The Scorpion” that is over 6000 words. Those are just the parts I ripped out; I changed a lot more. Subsequent books have required less wholesale butchery because I am learning as I go and not repeating my mistakes. In theory.

Get someone (more people if possible) who will give you honest, useful criticism and feedback, to proof-read or test-read your books. It’s invaluable.

That’s just over 1000 words. I’m not going to claim those as today’s 1000 because that would be cheating.

If you enjoyed that post, or if you think it’s rubbish, please let me know.