Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Novel Writing 101.2 - New forms of publishing

The following is a transcript of a talk I'm giving this weekend on epublishing.  Hence the talky nature of it.  Not typical of my writing.


Now, about the self-publishing, epublishing.  We all think we are good writers, or we wouldn’t be doing this.  But publishing is a business.  Yes, we think, “they just publish people they think they will make money on.”  Of course they do.  And if they reject your novel or book, they just, in their opinion, don’t think they will make money on you and/or it doesn’t fit in the kind of thing they want to publish right now.  It may or may not have anything to do with the quality of your writing and story.   I have read plenty of traditionally published books that were just not good.  I rarely read light fiction or genre fiction, no matter who the author is.  Now, if you want to write light, funny Southern fiction, that’s great.  There’s a market for it.  If you want to write mysteries, erotica/romance (big in epublishing), cowboy stories, that’s fine, it’s just not what I am into.  I want to write literary fiction, which to some people means no plot, but that’s not what it means to me.  To me it just means it’s not genre fiction and there are serious themes and it’s character driven.

However, let’s just be honest and admit that a lot of stuff that is self-published is awful, too.  It may be awful because it is self-indulgent, too writer-based than reader-based (the writer is writing to make a point about himself/herself, to justify some aspect of his/her life, to rewrite the Civil War, to not-so-discretely talk about his/her own sexual prowess and conquests) and there is nothing there for a reader to benefit from or enjoy or grow from.  I am traditional enough to say that if I spend years writing a book (which of course many self-published people don’t spend that kind of time) and expect readers to buy it and spend hours or days of their lives reading it, that it should have something in it that the reader walks away with.  I resent a book when I have spent days reading it (I’m not a fast reader) and say “so what was that about.” 

Another fault of self-publishing is that no critical editor has gone through it to check for:  
 factual errors or historical inaccuracies (although I’ve seen that in traditionally published fiction, and since I write about historical contexts, I am really picky about that);
poor style (sentences of ridiculous length, illogical sentences where the character is doing three things at a time or there’s a dangling modifier);
inconsistencies;
point of view problems. 
You can of course pay people to do this at the self- and e-publishing houses, but they want your money and are going to “respect your writing,” so how much of that actually gets done is another issue. 

I have a master’s degree in writing, so I consider myself qualified to critically read and edit my own work before submitting it to a publisher—but that is not enough for a manuscript before it goes public.  I do administrative work at the college and I don’t even send out a campus email before I have one of my English colleagues read it.  I am not saying someone has to have a graduate degree in English before writing.  Many great writers did not or do not.  In fact, an English degree might get in the way of writing:  You can feel that the “canon” is so awesome and fearsome that no one has the right to even try to get into it.  And perhaps there is something just a bit arrogant about trying to write a novel in the first place. 

What I am saying is that if you don’t have intensive academic background in the English language, it pays to humble yourself and have (or pay) someone you trust, who understands what you’re trying to do with the writing but also who will be honest with you, to go paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence through your novel or memoir or whatever before you revise and then send to a publisher.  Publishers today do not want to do what they did fifty years ago with Harper Lee (I have to wonder what her first draft was like!).  They do not have the resources.

My son asked me the other day how long it takes to write a novel.  Ten years, I said, or a week.  It all depends.  But usually the reader can tell.  Writing is hard work.  Very hard.  I can get write a chapter, or two, or three, very easily if I’m in the zone; I would rather clean the toilets than revise it if I am not in the zone.  And then some of us have demanding lives.  I can only write if I consciously eschew TV and movies and am on breaks from school.  During most of the school year I am just exhausted at the end of the day. 

These are my thoughts.  I am happiest when I am writing.  I do not like all the other stuff (marketing-related), but if you are going to write today, you have to start liking that, too.

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