“You Can Roll it in Glitter” … Thoughts on Writing and Publishing, Part I

[SB Steven (Scuba SBs) is, like many of, scrambling to understand a publishing landscape that is continuously shifting. I’ve divided his essay into two parts to make it more digestible by non-sapiens simians. SB SM]

by Dr. (and Silverback) Steven Shepard

(At left, SB Steve onstage)

I discovered a new online resource the other day. I’m not going to name it because that would be unfair, and because some of the comments I’m about to make could be construed as subjective. But this resource had all the earmarks of something that would be quite valuable to me as a writer.

As you no doubt know, one of the things that Amazon does with its authors is help them market their books in a variety of ways. This is particularly true of Kindle eBooks, and one of the strategies they recommend is to run campaigns occasionally in which the author prices their book at a very low price—99 cents, or even free—for one week, as a way to introduce new readers to their titles. It’s a good strategy, and it works well—except when it doesn’t.

I’m an author, and while the vast majority of the books I’ve written have been released by established publishing houses like McGraw-Hill, Wiley, Business Week, Aspatore, Aletheia, and a few others. I have self-published a few—about six out of the one hundred or so books I’ve written to-date. I self-published them for a variety of reasons: I couldn’t get a publisher to bite, or it was a title that I knew would enjoy a very small market and would therefore not be of interest to a standard publisher, or it was about a topic so esoteric that there was no point in even trying. In every case, I did my homework, laid the proper groundwork, and they sold successfully.

So, back to my ‘discovered resource.’ At any point, Amazon has large numbers of authors, often self-published, running a ‘free week’ campaign. This resource I mentioned collects all of those free book announcements in one place, and then sends the list to its subscribers, making them aware of the availability of free or very inexpensive titles that they might like.

It sounded too good to be true (it was). But I signed up, filled out the form about my reading preferences, and began to receive notices about books that aligned with my interests.

The descriptions were well-written, the covers were professional and compelling, and who could argue with the price? So, over the course of a month or so, I diligently read the daily newsletter, often found a title that intrigued me, and downloaded it. Over the course of a month, I ‘bought’ 15 books, most of them fiction. They fell within the genres I enjoy: fantasy; espionage; SCUBA diving-related tales; historical fiction; a bit of science fiction; a couple of hard-boiled detective novels (‘For readers of David Baldacci…’).

I only have two of them remaining on my eReader. I managed to get partway through the first chapter of the other 13, and then gave up and deleted them—with prejudice.

Here’s why. For years, I have taught business writing workshops for many of my customers, not to mention writing workshops for general audiences. For example, I ran a writing workshop at our local Barnes and Noble that was open to the public. It was attended by a core group of people who had all been bitten by the writing bug (once it sets its teeth it rarely lets go) and who wanted to become published authors. Many of them did.

He’s right. Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers and the author of Bird by Bird, one of the best books I know about the writing craft, has observed that the first thing a writer must do is ‘write a really shitty first draft.’ And, she’s right: the creative process rarely, if ever, yields perfection on the first pass.

The topics I cover in those workshops are what you would expect: Composition. Editing. Grammar. Editing. Flow. Editing. Vocabulary. Editing. Dialogue. Editing. Do you detect a theme, here? Good. One of the messages I always drive home early in the workshop is this: Just because Microsoft Word has 3,887 features available with the click of a button doesn’t mean you should use them. And just because it offers hundreds of fancy, frilly fonts, doesn’t mean you should use them. Here’s the real message, buried in those snarky comments: It’s too easy to write a first draft, right and left justify and pleasingly space the text, select a beautiful font like Book Antiqua or Bookman Old Style or Garamond, sprinkle in a few judiciously placed italics and underlines and emboldened words for emphasis, and call it done. No: It’s a beautifully formatted, incomplete, inchoate, embryonic, first draft. But because it looks pretty, it’s easy to declare victory and call it quits. As one of my writing students told me in response to my observation that you can’t polish a turd, he said, “Yeah, but you can roll it in glitter!”

So, back to my initial observation about the 15 books I downloaded for nothing or almost nothing from Amazon. Apparently, there’s some truth to the adage that you get what you pay for. 13 of them were so poorly written that I didn’t make my way through the first chapter before discarding them. Basic editorial process should never have allowed them to see the light of day. (At right SB Steven in the field doing audio recording.)

When I write a book, or article, or script, or white paper, the first thing I do is hand it off (and it’s never my first draft—it’s usually my fifth or sixth rewrite) to my ‘Council of Druids.’ This is a small group of people whom I’ve known for a long time and who have been editing my writing since 1978. They constitute a collectively annoying pain in my ass and are also one of my most treasured gifts as a writer. Why? Because none of them are afraid to say to me, “Steve, with all the love in my heart, you need to take this piece of crap and put it back under whatever rock you found it under. This is NOT ready for public viewing, and here’s why.” It’s that ‘here’s why’ part that is most important. There is nothing more useless to a writer than a raised thumb in front of a half-crazed smile, delivered by a well-meaning person who didn’t really read something a writer asked them to read with a critical, editorial eye. My Druidic editorial council are the people who make my writing as good as I can possibly make it, and they’re the reason that all of my books go through no fewer than 35 complete rewrites before I will even consider publishing them. That’s a real number: Beginning in 1980, I have written 100 books and countless other pieces, and on average, that’s the number of times my work gets a complete rework to make it ready for the world to see. Why? Because these editors see things that I don’t. They catch misspellings that I miss. They spot flow issues that work beautifully in my head (because I know what I’m saying) but that move around on paper or screen like the ball in a pinball machine. They catch technical errors that I pass over. They chastise me when my choice of vocabulary doesn’t jibe with the character using it, or when I make mental leaps that don’t translate to the page.

I know what some of you are thinking: I discarded the books because they weren’t my style, or because the plot was too simple or too complex, or because I didn’t bond with the characters. None of those are true. Some of them had very well-developed and likeable characters. I discarded them because:

  • One book had 15 misspellings in the first chapter, which was 13 pages long. Spellchecking is free, people!
  • Another, which had a SCUBA diving theme (and you should know that I used to be a professional commercial diver), kept referring to the divers’ oxygen tanks. NO: SCUBA divers breathe air, not oxygen, because pure oxygen at depth is toxic. On the same page, the author had the main character lift their mask off their face and raise it to their forehead. Again, NO. The first wave that comes along will grab that mask and remove it from their head, never to be seen again. Experienced divers, who this character was supposed to be, pull their masks down below their chins if they don’t want them on their faces. Get your facts straight. If you don’t have firsthand experience with the subject you’re writing about, find someone who does and ask them to edit the piece.
  • Another book had such awful dialogue that I just couldn’t bear reading it. PEOPLE DON’T TALK LIKE THAT. Buy a copy of the book, “Shut Up! He Explained,” and read it. Better yet, read your own manuscript to yourself out loud and pay attention.
  • Yet another book kept changing the narrative form. One chapter started out in the first person, but by the end of the chapter it had switched to the third person. I felt like I was reading a book by someone with multiple personality disorder.
  • And another? A whole range of things: Excessive use of the passive voice. Improper use of commas, semicolons, em-dashes, and colons. Wrong placement of quote marks. And an important character’s name that was spelled two different ways in the first chapter.

All of this boils down to one simple thing: laziness, with some impatience thrown in for good measure.

Look: Many people want to write, and I celebrate that. In fact, I encourage it in others every chance I get. But I do so with a caveat: writing the story is only half of the effort, and unfortunately, it’s the easy half. Hemingway is credited with once saying that “Writing is easy—you just sit at your typewriter and stare at the paper until droplets of blood form on your forehead.” And yes, sometimes it feels that way. But here’s a critical dose of reality. The other half of giving birth to a book is the editorial process, the moment when the author relinquishes control of his or her baby to the editor, whose job it is to turn the literary fetus into a laughing, smiling bundle of literary joy, ready to face the world. And that’s a very hard thing to do.

Dr. Steven Shepard is the Vermont-based author of more than 100 books, including Communicating the Write Way. He can be reached at Steve@ShepardComm.com, and his Web site is http://www.Steven-Shepard.com.

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