Ah yes, and now we come to the single most important aspect of self-publishing. Without this element you might as well pack it up and go home. It is the basics, the bedrock, the point from which all other points spring. And yet, it is also the area where I see self-published authors cutting corners or attempting to take shortcuts or just not getting it. It’s the easiest area to get dead wrong because it’s the hardest thing to master: writing a genuinely good book.
Yet at the same time, I can’t exactly tell you how to do it. “A good book” means different things to different people. There are readers out there who love certain genres and hate others, who can never get enough of one trope, but will instantly drop a book if it contains another trope. The content of a book is subjective, but there are some elements of good writing that are objective. These are the best places to start.
Again, I’m not a writing teacher (yet!). I feel as though I was born knowing how to write, so it’s difficult for me to explain how to do it on a technical level. Yes, I believe that writing is an inborn talent, like musicality or athletic ability. You can learn an instrument or you can train and get into good physical shape, but only people with the right genes are going to become concert soloist or Olympic medalists. As Stephen King says, bad writers will always be bad, brilliant writers are geniuses with a gift, but competent writers can be taught to be good writers.
Which segues perfectly into my advice for you: The best way to become a good writer is to study the masters and learn from people who know what they’re talking about.
Take Stephen King, for example. You need to read his book On Writing. No, really. In so many ways, this book changed my way of looking at the craft of storytelling. King includes a pithy section in the middle that details the nitty-gritty of different aspects of craft. Study this section, absorb it. But the rest of the book is a fabulous morality tale, if you will, and example of what he’s talking about. King also advocates learning what good writing is by reading. Reading a lot! Reading the masters of storytelling and reading horribly written books. Read for entertainment if you want to, but then go back and read as if you’re sitting backstage during a play and watching the black-clad tech crew manipulating the sets.
Another book that I have found invaluable in honing my craft is Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. It’s not that Maass says anything earth-shatteringly new, it’s just that the way he says it struck me as being clear, understandable, and repeatable. The chapter headings for the craft section of his book alone read like a checklist of all the things you should think about as you write: Premise, Stakes, Time and Place, Characters, Plot, Pace, Voice, Endings, and Theme (among others). You have to consider all of these things as you write. Maybe not in the first draft, maybe not even in the initial edits, but eventually and deliberately until you have a finished draft.
And therein lies the heart of writing a truly good novel. Editing. As E.B. White said, “The best writing is rewriting”. That and Ernest Hemingway’s famous comment, “The first draft of anything is sh**” are the two most true statements about writing ever made. So how come I have read bunches of self-published (and trad-published) novels that feel like first drafts? That or like the author skimmed through it once after writing it to check for spelling and grammar without questioning their story elements? Call me goofy, but I don’t think any draft lower than 5th or 6th should be the one that ends up being published.
But it’s so hard! It takes so much time! I don’t want to keep going over the same material again and again, I just want to publish the damn thing!
Therein lies the problem. Yes, it does take effort to pound any given novel into presentable shape. It takes patience. One of the most effective techniques I have discovered for ensuring that I write the best novel possible is to put the thing down for a nap of at least a month after it’s done. Stephen King recommends doing this too, by the way, as did Angela James, Executive Editor of Carina Press when I took her “Before You Hit Send” self-editing workshop a few weeks ago (which I’ll talk about in a second). Letting a story go dormant for a while gives you distance and restores your rationality. Work on something else, take a vacation, play Angry Birds. When you come back to your work you’ll see it with different eyes and have a much better idea of whether it’s actually a good book or not and what work you need to do to get it there.
Also, remember to stay humble. You can’t revise your own work to make it better if you are unwilling to see the flaws. That’s what this fantastic “Before You Hit Send” workshop was all about. Angela James offers it online, btw, as well as in person. In the workshop we talked in detail about every aspect of polishing your writing from grammar and word usage to plot and character elements to pace and voice, as well as how to tie it all together to bring your writing to the next level before you submit it or publish it. It’s all about judging your own work and fixing what needs to be fixed before it’s presented to the world. I highly recommend you take this class if you ever have a chance.
Whether you’re able to take the class or not, the principles behind it are solid. The only way to end up with a really good book is to be diligent, to be merciless in your pursuit of perfection. The only way to approach perfection is to be honest and to come at it from a place of knowledge. This is also why it’s crucial to hire a professional editor. I’ve blogged before about why it’s paramount to have a professional editor edit your work, so instead of rehashing that argument, feel free to go read that post. But at this stage in the game I think we all know that you have to have an editor. Beta-readers too.
And, of course, the most important tool, practice. The more you write – and the more you receive legitimate feedback about your writing – the better writer you will become. Write anything and everything. I write fan fiction when I get bored and silly stories that I don’t think anyone else in their right mind would find interesting, both as a way to entertain myself and as practice. I’ve been writing since I was 10. I have boxes and boxes of practice from before it was common to own a PC.
Other than that, I don’t know what to tell you. If you’re diligent and honest in your writing process and career, you should get better with each book you write. Keep studying, keep reading, and keep asking yourself and others what you can do better.
Next week we’ll begin our journey through what we all think is the hardest part of being a self-published author (although writing a good book is actually the hardest part): Marketing.