Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A few comments on self-publishing

This blog is about traditional publishing. I don't know how to self-publish and I'm not really interested. I think in general, writers would do better to improve their craft, get and give critiques, and approach traditional publishers. That said, there are probably a few instances where self-publishing is warranted, for example, if you want to publish a family history. I think print on demand (POD) services like are probably the best way to go for that--you only pay for what you actually print, I believe, which would negate spending money for books you don't end up selling. But if you want to know more about self-publishing, you're going to have to look somewhere other than here.

What I DO want to say about it, however, is this: there are places where it's appropriate to advertise, and places where it's not. Places that are NOT:

1. Traditional editors. Publishers publish unpublished books. (Uh...say that ten times fast.) If it is already published, the job is done and there is nothing left for them to do. Got it? (And lest you bring up Paolini, let me dispell any misconceptions--if you have sold 10,000 copies on your own--that's TEN THOUSAND--then a traditional publisher might be interested. But twenty or even a hundred to your closest friends and relatives? Nope.) If you still doubt, read this:

2. Agents. Agents sell unpublished books to traditional publishers. If you send them your self-published book, there is nothing they can do with it. Of course, if you write a new book, then by all means query them. Just because you've had one self-published book (or ten) certainly doesn't bar you from traditionally publishing a new one. Just be aware that your self-published books won't count the way traditionally published books will. An agent can see that you can finish a book, sure, but the point of listing publications is to prove that an unbiased judge found merit in your writing. You publishing your own writing is NOT an example of an unbiased anything. (Ditto endorsements from your mother, your children's teacher, or a classful of children. Of course they are going to say nice things. They don't want to hurt your feelings.) If you don't have any publishing credentials other than that, it's okay. The main point is, can you write? Not, how impressive of a resume can you invent. To cite the late Miss Snark (may she rest in peace!), the writing is what counts.

3. Writer groups devoted to discussing and improving craft with the goal of traditional publishing. Um...I've seen self-published authors blitz a board with their wares, never to return again. That is not an effective use of networking. More likely, your post will be viewed as spam. Yep. s-p-a-m. If you go the self-publishing route and still want to join a writing group, great. Stick around. Participate in discussions. Make a meaningful contribution. Maybe even...learn something about craft. People are much more likely to take interest in your book if you refrain from shoving it down their throats. Especially if they are committed to the long way around in hopes of traditional publishing.

So--if you are equally committed to self-publishing, please do yourself a favor and find out where it IS appropriate to advertise (maybe a site devoted to reading, not writing? Reading groups? Places where people are looking to buy self-published books? Groups devoted to the specific topic your book is about?) And good luck!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Passive and Voice

I've been thinking about voice and word choice lately, and I just want to point out that one of the worst things you can do to alienate your reader and destroy voice is to cast your prose in the passive. By this I mean both the grammatical passive (X was done by Y) and the stylistic passive (Bread was eaten, stomachs were happy.) And now that I've said this I'm sure someone is going to protest that that's how that character expresses him/herself. Look, there are no hard and fast rules, but in general, passive = bad. It's like throwing up a wall between the reader and the character. It's telling, rather than letting us live the event along with the character. It prevents us from being in the character's head because in many cases, we don't even know who the character is who's doing it.

Take this example. Which version puts you into the scene more?

The princess stood in the kitchen and watched as the bread was made. The dough was rolled and twisted to form shapes. Then it was set carefully on a pan to rise. The formed, risen dough was then placed gently into the ovens. After fifteen minutes it was removed and shown to the princess. "Take it away!" she cried. "We don't like rolls formed in S-shapes!"


The princess stood in the kitchen and watched the bakers making bread. The largest baker rolled the dough with long, fat arms and twisted it with practiced fingers. He set each form carefully onto the waiting pan and pushed it aside to rise. Next to him, a smaller baker with her hair tied back lifted a pan of puffy rolls and slid it gently into the open oven. After fifteen minutes she hefted her spatula and lifted the pan out. "What do you think?" she asked the princess, holding the pan out for inspection.

"Take it away!" the princess cried. "You know we don't like S-shaped rolls!"

Okay, not spectacular writing, but still. We know who the actors are. And that makes all the difference.

If you would like to share an example, please do!

Friday, February 1, 2008

More on openings

I've been following agent Nathan Bransford's first page contest this week. The first thing I have to say is, I'm glad I'm not judging all 600+ entries!! I freely admit that I am not up to reading slush. There were a lot of entries where I couldn't get past the first few sentences. The good ones--well, they really leaped out. A few observations:

1. The MG/YA entries were, on the whole, better written. (Uh--not that I'm biased or anything :)
2. The best entries started with the actual story.

(And now for the negatives...)

3. Profanity in narrative does NOT equal "voice." More like a weak substitute for voice.
4. Starting with a violent act with no chance to get to know the characters means that aside from general shock effect, there's no reason for the reader to care.
5. Starting with a character waking up is sure to put your reader back to sleep.
6. A lot of entries (especially those in first person) started by telling the reader the ENTIRE BACKSTORY of a character(s). But, there was no sign of an actual story beginning anywhere. Begin at the beginning, folks.
7. Perhaps a fresher use of phrases would be good, too. A LOT of entries had the actual phrase, "It all started when/with..."
8. Watch the gerund phrases. This is a pet peeve of mine, but if you start a sentence with a gerund phrase you are saying that that action is happening simultaneously with another one. Sometimes this is possible (Wishing she'd never come, Chiara wrapped her arms around her legs and tried to ignore the fact that she was 30,000 feet in the air, hovering over the Arctic Ocean.) But more often than not, it isn't. (Pulling the door shut across the room, Georgie lay down on the bed. --Unless Georgie is related to Elastigirl, he just can't do this.)
9. Starting with a character who is angry, bitter, and determined to MAKE THEM PAY!, without any other redeeming characteristics, is a character who many readers will prefer not to hang around. Characters don't have to be perfect, but readers need a reason to like them and hang around for the rest of the book.