Tag Archives: advice

The role of the writer’s friend

On Friday night, I attended the launch for Pulp Fiction Press’s latest book, Carolyn Morwood’s Death and the Spanish Lady. It’s a murder mystery set in Melbourne in 1919, in the aftermath of the Great War and during the deadly flu epidemic that killed more people than the actual war managed to do. I’m excited to see it out and it’s next on my to-read pile!

I love a book launch. The publisher gets to finally release their latest project into the wild. An honoured guest gets to launch it with good and kindly words about the author, the subject matter and how everyone there should buy a copy because BOOK X IS AWESOME AND YOU WILL TOTALLY LOVE IT.

And the nervous author, often better at hiding behind a keyboard and typing than standing up in front of a bunch of people, gets to say “I’m really proud of my book. I hope you like it.” (Perhaps with a subtext of “I’m kind of glad it is all over now. Someone pass me a drink!.” and maybe a frisson of ‘Oh god, now I have to write another one!!”

In short, a book launch is all promise and hope. It’s that marvellous/terrifying moment of letting your words finally fly beyond your own brain and fingertips and hopefully find some hearts and minds in which to nest.

But the release of a novel can be a fractious time for a writer as well. To be more accurate, it’s the months after the release that can be fractious, with well-meaning friends deciding that the best time for critical feedback on everything they think you did wrong is after publication.

I’m not talking about reviews, whether in the pages of a newspaper or magazine or in the blog of an enthusiast. All writers know that their book will be reviewed, and they hope some people will like it, though they know some people will hate it. It’s part of the deal. Bad reviews only upset me, for example, when I agree with the point they’re making. But I can live with the bad reviews. Not everyone’s going to like what I do. I don’t like everything that other people do. We all bring our own interpretation and ideas to what we read. I’m not even trying to please all of the people all of the time, so it’s hardly surprising when I don’t.

I’m talking about the friends who say “There’s a spelling error on page 58” or “I thought it had a weak ending” or “I really hated your lead character.”

I don’t mean to sound like a hypersenstive, delicate little flower but… why are you telling me these things? Why are you, my friend, telling me you don’t like my work, to my face, as though that is a helpful thing? I don’t expect that all my friends will like everything I do, but seriously, why do some friends feel the need to tell me they think my work sucks?

I’ve already had a handful of readers (with particular skills and viewpoints and a mandate to look for the flaws) provide critical feedback it before I submitted it to my publisher. My publisher has read it. So has my editor. Numerous times. Both have provided firm, unflinching but constructive feedback on how to polish it, picking up the continuity errors, plot holes and thin character development as we went. A team of other readers, including the proofreaders, have gone over it and hopefully caught all the errors (though, yes, sometimes we miss them).

So, you know, it’s been edited before publication. Once the thing is printed and sitting in its crisp, shiny cover, smelling of ink and new paper and potential, it’s too late to change anything. And if you don’t like the ending or the lead character, that’s really okay, but what is the purpose of telling me so? The reviewers will cheerfully tell me they don’t like my work, and I’m prepared to live with that, but why are my friends telling me? I, my editor, my publisher and a bunch of other people responsible for releasing the thing actually really liked the book and the ending and the characters, or we wouldn’t have released it.  I’m not going to rewrite it now. It’s finished. It’s published. It’s done.

Here’s the deal.

Writers:  Never ask your friends what they thought of your book. They may not care for it, and you don’t want to make either party uncomfortable by putting a friend on the spot and making them either lie or hurt yourfeelings with their brutal honesty. It’s needy and awkward, so do not do that to your friend or to yourself.

(By the same token, if you are sharing your manuscript pre-publication, ask for honest feedback. You don’t have to take it all on board, but this is when the honesty is essential.)

Friends of writers:  Feel free to tell your proud author friend that you enjoyed their book if you did. That’s nice, but it’s not essential. You can always say “I like the cover” if absolutely nothing else appealed. If you think the whole thing’s a wash, try “You must be so proud of your achievement.” But skip the part where you imply that your writer friend would have better spent that two (or more) years of their life learning shorthand and becoming a secretary, which would at least have been useful.

Offer your your support and a little kindness because, believe me, there have been times when this process has been really rough and the writer concerned has seriously considered that secretarial course.

To show your support, it’s ideal if you buy a copy of the book, even if you don’t read it (though it’s nice if you do). It’s great if you like it, but you’re not obliged to. Just like you’re not obliged to tell the author every defect, great and small, you think the book contains.

So please, if you love me, if you understand what hard and emotionally exhausting work this has been, oh please be kind. Suppress that need to tell me how flawed you think my book is*. And I promise not to tell you that you really can’t sing, that you’re a bad cook or that your children are ugly**.

Because that would be rude and tactless.

*Though actually, if you find formatting or typing errors in my e-books Witch Honour, Witch Faith, Fly by Night or Sacrifice, I’d like you to tell me about those, because those ones I can fix.

**These examples are not aimed specifically at any of my friends, just in case you think it’s you I mean. All of my friends are excellent cooks, sing like nightingales and have exquisitely behaved and beautiful children.

Self-publishing = vainglory?

Dymocks’ announcement of the launch of D Publishing Network is lighting up the newsgroups and Twitter at present. It’s at pains to state that the venture is not ‘vanity publishing’, the service will nevertheless allow writers to pay to have their books designed and uploaded, with the distant possibility that some books may be distributed via the Dymocks chain of bookstores.

I am not sure how this model is different from ‘vanity publishing’, but it will allow Dymocks to participate in the shift to authors self-publishing that is already very common on Smashwords and Amazon.com.

I myself have books on both Smashwords and Amazon.com. Each of the titles was previously published by small presses (Homosapien Books and Five Star Science Fiction) and are now out of print except for the digital imprints I’ve now released online. These books have been through the curation process of having a publisher select them from submissions and polished in collaboration with a professional editor.

So, like Dymocks, here am I distancing my own online efforts from that dreaded label, ‘vanity press’.

Cory Doctorow doesn’t seem to have this problem owning what he does. But of course, he was a professionally published author long before he experimented so successfully with the digital self-publishing route.

Why is it that readers automatically assume self-published means bad books? True, we’ve all read books that were published in this way that were at best full of typos and at worst full of badly plotted, badly written, self-indulgent purple prose. But then, I have read professionally published books that are just as guilty of poor structure and style, many of which I’ve abandoned by chapter five because I just don’t have the time to read books I’m not enjoying.

If someone creates jewellery that they then sell at markets (or on Etsy), we might be intrigued and praise the artist for their work. We might similarly encourage and support musicians who fund their own CD to sell while busking. Such efforts don’t have the sales reach of an official music publisher or art gallery to promote them, but we don’t disparage the efforts or talent of such entrepreneurial creativity.  The popularity of such work will soon be determined by those who see and buy things on the spot, and help the creators build up an audience of enthusiastic fans.

But try to write a book, publish it and sell it on a roadside stall (or online) and everyone will just assume it’s terrible. Admittedly, it’s harder to determine in a short period whether the book will be your cup of tea. A painting, a piece of jewellery and even a track from an album can be assessed in a pretty short period of time. Taking out fifteen minutes to read the first chapter or two of a budding new work is more time consuming and maybe less revealing to the casual purchaser.

But this is not far from how we select books (either digital or paper) in the bookshops. There, we may leaf through the first few pages to see how it strikes us. We also go by word of mouth or, in digital books, a free sample to download and try. Staff and friend recommendations and reviews give us an overview of what we might like to read. Surely this same model can apply to self-published books?

I am trying to train myself out of the old gut response that a self-published book is necessarily a bad book. I’ve been disappointed often enough with traditional titles, and every good book started as an unpublished manuscript at some point. The self-published titles on Smashwords, Amazon and, in future, D Publishing, will eventually be sorted into wheat and chaff by virtue of the same methods used for books with publishing houses: reviews and recommendations.

Nevertheless, authors taking this route can learn a lot by understanding and valuing the process that takes place in traditional publishing, where manuscripts are selected, curated and promoted by experts.

Many self-published books fail on a basic level because of the lack of editorial input and proofreading. I owe so much to my own proofreaders and editors for catching things that I have missed because I have just been looking at the damned thing for far too long. It’s not fresh to me any more, and I’m reading what I meant to say; not what I actually said.

Those fresh eyes, who are paid to be constructively critical rather than being friends, who are looking out for my delicate writerly feelings, are essential to helping me become a better writer, and to releasing books that are as good as I can make them at the time. Luckily, the publishing house takes on the economic responsibility of paying these fine people in the hopes that my books will sell well enough for them to recoup their costs.

My publishers have all been small presses, so while finding distribution channels can thankfully be left to them and their expertise, on the whole, promotions and marketing are left a lot to me. It’s hard work, and it’s time spent spruiking that I would rather spend writing, but I have to get word out somehow. Those recommendations and reviews don’t write themselves. (Well, some try via programs, but nobody’s falling for that.)

Doctorow recently pointed out in a Locus article that self-publishing and especially marketing books is much harder than it looks.

In the end, I think that self-publishing can work and be worthwhile, but the author needs to exercise professionalism. Self-publish by all means, but be professional and businesslike in your approach to the manuscript. If you don’t have a professional publisher to take on the costs of editing, find an independent editor to at least proofread your work. Value their input. Even if you don’t agree with it, don’t dismiss it out of hand. If they’ve missed the point of your prose, maybe you haven’t written that passage well enough.

Take the time to learn more about the craft of writing. Learn about grammar, spelling and structure. Read widely to see how others do it. Accept constructive criticism gracefully. Be painstaking and check your work. Consider your marketing approach, because publishing is absolutely not a case of ‘if you write it, they will come’.

Be like those artisan jewellery-makers, those struggling artists, those hungry musicians. Put everything you can into perfecting your craft. Help to get rid of the stigma of self-publishing by respecting everything that a publisher does for a writer and replicating it as much as you can.

Then, with luck and good timing, the readers will determine what happens in the market.

***

My thanks to Katherine Horsey, a fellow editor, who proofread this entry for me.

I will be presenting ‘Introduction to digital matters for writers’ at the Australian Society of Authors’ E-Exchange Day on 17 September 2011. Check out the ASA page for the details.