Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Must Read Advice Before You Self-Publish

Mistakes, Tips, and All From A Professional Editor

Over the last few weeks, I’ve accepted a string of review copies from self-published authors in the hopes of finding hidden gems. I know from my clients that promoting a novel can be difficult, and there are definitely books out there that deserve more recognition!

Well. I can tell you now that it hasn’t gone to plan.

If you expect readers to pay for your novel, it needs to be a quality product. A novel should have a professional finish whether it’s published by Harper Collins or Colin from next door.

I did find a few brilliant novels, but frankly I had a taste of an agent’s slushpile and, unfortunately, had to turn away more of the novels than I originally planned. Typos galore, ill-formatting, clunky info dumps ... They wanted my honest opinion and here it is as blunt as it gets: take down your draft and hone in on your craft. Your novel has a lot of good qualities but it's not ready for publishing just yet – but take the right steps, and you might be there someday soon.

Faced with the prospect of writing several 1 star reviews, I’ve decided to put something together which is far more useful than shedding their hard work to pieces. I do understand a lot of hard work has gone into the whole process so I’m not here to trash anyone’s book. I’m not going to name names or mock the authors. I’m simply going to outline the biggest mistakes and suggest how to fix them.

Get a Freelance Editor

The chance that a previously unpublished author knows everything there is about writing is slim. Writing sites are proof of it – I’ve never read a chapter on a writing site without finding several errors, and I can tell when that author is unaware of a particular writing rule.

Writing and editing are two different skills needed to create a solid prose. If you want readers to pay money to read your work, it needs to have a professional finish. It’s the most important aspect of the novel so do not skimp out.

If you can’t afford an editor, you probably can’t afford to self-publish. The alternative is to find a lot of beta-readers, to purchase a style guide (Oxford Style Manual for British English and Chicago Stlye Manual for American English), and to make sure you can recognise gaps in your knowledge and spot when your beta-reader is giving you bad advice rather than good.

To help you get started, here are the top grammatical mistakes spotted in the novels I rejected:

1) Semicolon were used instead of colons or vice versa. Semicolons are not simply pauses. They are for joining two complete sentences to imply a link. They are not to introduce part of a sentence or an idea – that’s a colon.

2) Too much fancy punctuation. If you have four semicolons in your first chapter, it’s too many. You should only use one or two per chapter max to avoid coming off as amateur or pretentious.

3) Dialogue has rules! Look at how it’s formatting in different contexts, and make sure you consistently do this. Here’s my easy layout guide which revolves around biscuit eating.

4) Inconsistencies in spelling and capitalising. If you make a new term and only capitalize it half the time, this looks very messy. If you use ‘organize’ in one sentence and ‘organise’ in another, this is very unprofessional. Words can have multiple spellings so make sure to check for these.

5) Repetition. This is both in structure and for certain words. Anna did this. Joe did that. Sue went here. Who can put up with that?

6) Typos. This is number five because I can understand typos. Our brains are trained to make sense out of nonsense, and we often read what we think should be there, especially when we have the memory of what was written. This is why you need another set of eyes or let time elapse between editing sprees.

7) Commas were used to denote taking a breath. This is the biggest lie your teacher ever tells you! Commas mark clauses. They group information together and disambiguate vague regions – they don’t show where the reader pauses. Some commas are also optional. You need to learn all of the rules and apply them consistently.

Seriously, Get A Professional Editor

The second reason a freelance editor is needed is for developmental issues. Here are some, not all, of the major issues found in the self-published novels:

1) There were either too many characters or one-dimensional characters. One novel had so many, I had no idea who was supposed to be the main character and who I would never hear from again.

2) The story didn’t start at chapter 1. The story didn’t start at chapter 2. Where’s the story? And by this, I mean the character is eating dinner, milling around the house, and contemplating their life rather than living it.

3) Info dumping. Whole sections full of information despite the character having no motive to listen other than it will be useful in the future. If the character has no motive to listen, the characters stop feeling real. Plus, there are interesting ways to convey material and then there’s the textbook way.

4) Characters didn’t react in believable ways because it didn’t suit the author’s needs. If a teacher is shot in front of a character to create action but the scene is never mentioned again and has no effect on the character in question, then the reader starts to wonder why the teacher was shot in the first place.

5) Long, arduous dream scenes. Dreams can stifle your pace. Your character generally wakes up in the same state they went to sleep – the story has not progressed. Short dreams can show emotions, worries, or help a character work out problems, but long ones that have a lot of fake drama can be dull. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that action in dreams in the same as action your character actually experiences.

6) Characters with similar names. My name is Samantha and my boyfriend is Samuel – it’s confusing in real life so don’t choose to do it this way. Also, look out for when you tend to like a particular letter. If you book has a Hillary, Hailey, Henrietta and Hatti then there’s a huge chance that readers will eventually mix them up.

7) Not aimed at a particular audience. Your book won’t appeal to the whole entire world, so make sure you know your audience and tailor your book to their likings.

Writing needs flavour and style, and that improves with well-spent time: writing, reading, and redrafting. You can’t rush any stage of writing, and your first draft should never be the draft you publish.

When you seek help whether it’s free or paid for, make sure you find people who enjoy your genre and share your vision. The person who can see what you’re trying to achieve and suggests how to make it work is a valuable contact; the reader who hates your main character would have probably never bought your book it the first place can probably be ignored for the most part.

Get a Proper Cover

People say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but people do. We are visually dominant creatures and we are attracted to covers that appeal to us, and this is actually a good thing.

The book cover isn’t just a superficial front for the novel. We look to the cover to get a get a gist of the words, genre, age group, and even the quality. That said, a misleading cover can draws in the wrong audience and lead to negative reviews, so make sure the cover is targeted to the same audience as the writing.

A blank cover with a clear title is much better than a poorly photoshoped imaged. But whereas a blank cover won’t push a reader away, it won’t pull them in either.

Illustrators are expensive because they can offer you a cover you’re proud of and a book that buyers want. They know what colours work, how to create a bold and beautiful image, and how to do everything that your friend who plays around with photoshop wishes they knew.

In the past I’ve found good illustrators on writing sites who are willing to work for free or for a critique – just make sure that the image they give you avoid copyright infringements. Half the covers used on writing sites contain illegally copyrighted material, and some of them are nice for a writing site but not good enough to make it onto a published book.

Work On The Typeset

In publishing, it’s someone’s job in production to make sure the words on the page are organised into the correct typeset. Page numbers, headings, spacing between lines, spacing after paragraphs (none!), a good font (softer ones are better for young adult fiction), consistency with chapters, and a new page for a new chapter. Compare how your novel looks on the page to how a traditionally published one looks. Does it look pleasing? It should.

Check it page for page for consistency! Indents are one thing that weren’t always consistent and are so easy to spot as long as you take the time to do it. Only stop checking through once you’ve done a whole lap without making any changes because they can have a knock-on effect.

It’s also the last thing that should be done. At this point you should be ready to publish, but don’t let your excitement get the best of you. Are you truly happy with the whole story? Do you have an internet presence?

Marketing Is Hard

This is the number one thing that self-published authors struggle with. Once the book is published it won’t sell itself. Publishers have a whole marketing department to ensure their book gets sold, and although a good book will rise, it will never be found without a lot of push.

Don’t wait until it’s published to start marketing. Beforehand, create all the social media platforms which you can think of, make sure you link them all together so that if a person find your twitter account they can reach your blog easily, and even approach some bloggers with a similar audience to your novel and ask for their help.

This is where your connections come in handy. Did you use a freelance editor and a freelance illustrator? If they have blogs then maybe they will help you out. For example, I offer clients author interviews, host giveaways, guest posts, and I often recommend the book onwards to people I feel would like it.

If you want to take it a step further, NetGalley is a great site for getting reviews. It’s pricy, but worth it. Firstly, it’s full of professional readers searching for potential novels to review. These readers can rate your cover so you know if it’s okay and request a free copy of your novel. If no one is requesting it, then maybe you need to sort out your cover and blurb. If they are requesting it, then you get to decide from the reader’s profile whether or not you want them to write a review or not.

The Three Huge Don't's

Don’t rely on friends and family

They lie, okay. They love you. They’re scared to critique too deeply and they’re too amazed that you wrote something enjoyable that they don’t want to consider it flawed.

Don’t Rely On Writing Sites

They’re a fantastic place to start, but a poor place to finish. They are full of other people who enjoy reading and writing, not critical minds who know what to look for. If you get a reading buddy who tears each chapter apart in a way that makes you improve, then just maybe you’ve got what you need. But if they’re someone who just gives you a brief overview at the end of each chapter then it’s not a substitute for a professional editor.

Don’t Rush

Having a published book isn’t nearly as glamorous as having a good published book. Put in the effort and make sure there’s nothing more that you want to do to it. Don’t think of it as something you can always go back to an edit later. If you’re thinking like that then you’re not ready.

This is why I’m a huge fan of N.M. Mac Arthur. Her book is fantastic, well written from start to finish, and she put lots of money into getting it properly finished with a cover that looks professional. She’s an example of how self-publishing can go right.

Do It For The Right Reasons

Whatever reason you're self-publishing, make sure it's a realistic reason.

Self-publishing may not make you rich, or famous, or help you get an agent in the future. It will make you a self-starter with your own business, and it puts your ideas out there for others to enjoy. It means you are 100% in control of your novel.

If it feels right for you, remember to keep smart and good luck with your publishing adventure!