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

by Dr. (and SB) Steven Shepard

Most of the time, people who want to write a book don’t really want to write a book. What they really want is to see their name on the cover of one, and be able to say that they wrote it (past tense). I would love to be able to tell people what it’s like to stand on the summit of Everest and look down on the planet from the roof of the world, but there’s no way in Hell I’m crazy enough to actually go there. That’s the difference. Writing is hard work—HARD work. It requires effort, confidence, truckloads of humility, doggedness, and commitment to craft and process. It also requires the writer to eventually give up a great deal of control, not of the story, the narrative, but of the road that leads to it.

It requires editing.

My email signature line says this: Writing is my craft. Reading is my gym. I mean that in the truest sense: the single greatest contributor to whatever skill I have as a writer comes as much from reading as it does from writing. Yes, it’s true: If you want to be a better writer, write. That’s true of every skill or craft. But one of the things that turns a good chef into a great chef is their willingness to eat anything and everything to learn what’s out there, to explore the culinary possibilities that lie before them.

So, don’t just read the genre you want to write in—read everything! I read a lot—I average about 130 books a year—and I read it all: fiction, non-fiction, history, poetry, romance, mystery, technology, political intrigue, nature essays, and lots and lots of classics—Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and Robert Service and Jack London and Jane Austen and William Shakespeare and Robert Louis Stevenson, have all been on my reading list in the past year. I read them because I want to experience the way they write, how they use language and sentence structure, and how they create plot and flow and tension and story.

Reading matters to me because it makes me better at something that’s important to me professionally. That, combined with a desire to write something, anything, just about every day, and the unceasing, dedicated efforts of my editors, make me a better writer. Does my stuff emerge from the process, perfect? Of course not. There are still errors—there always will be. But I know that there were a lot more before the process started, and that the book would be far less readable had I not gone through it.

I was lucky: My first major book got picked up by a traditional publisher in 1998. I had submitted it to no less than 35 publishers, and so far, I had received 33 rejection letters. Then, sitting at the desk in my hotel room in Perth, Australia, where I was doing some work for the national telephone company, Telstra, I received an email message from a publisher, telling me that they would like to publish my book. I stood up, and I cried. I earned those tears.

Had I known what was yet to come, though, I might have saved them for later, because the editorial process had not yet begun.

Editing is a form of literary vivisection. You have created your baby, and you just know, deep inside, that (1) it will come to be known as the greatest book ever written and (2) will require a slight bit of polishing by the editor.

You, my friend, are delusional.

What happens in the editing process is easy to describe, but horrible to experience. The editor carefully takes your baby from your arms and gently places it on a warm table. Then, with deft skill, the same editor takes a linguistic rapier and chops off the head, legs and arms of your baby. They then disjoint all the limbs, remove the fingers and toes, enucleate the eyes, sew the nose closed, remove the ears and hair from the head, and then put the whole thing back together—the way it should have been assembled in the first place.

The first time this happens, the writer feels violated, defamed, defaced, invaded, desecrated. Clearly, they did something to this editor in elementary school, something unspeakable but not remembered that was indescribably horrible and that they have been carrying around with them for just this moment. Revenge is a dish best served cold. The writer gasps, and postures, and utters bombastic arguments, and then notices with great reluctance that the book is better than it was when they turned it over to the editor. The baby is prettier, and healthier, and happier.

You may have heard the old joke that says that there are two things you never want to watch being made, with sausage being the first thing. The other thing, in this case, is a book. Editing is a messy process, not for the squeamish or faint of heart. The dismemberment of a baby is not pleasant, but it is necessary. Stephen King once observed that sometimes, you have to kill your children (talking about manuscripts, of course). Editing is the process of taking raw material and turning it into a finished, sleek, elegant product that you will be proud to have others read. Editors don’t do what they do to make the author feel as if they should perhaps seek a career in the commercial food industry; they do what they do to give the writer their best possible chance of being in the writing industry.

I’ve been lucky. As I said earlier, the vast majority of my books have been published through traditional channels, which means that I had the opportunity to work with teams of professional editors who existed to make my books as good as they could possibly be.

But somewhere along the line, I decided to self-publish one of my books. It was a small collection of essays about the natural world, and I couldn’t get a publisher to look at it. But I believed it was good, so I decided to self-publish, as much to experience the process as to get the book out there (it sold well, by the way).

I quickly realized that I was swimming in the deep end of the pool without flotation and without a lifeguard. I was on my own. Here’s what I knew: I’m a decent writer. I’ve had three bestsellers, so I must have SOME skill buried in there. But I didn’t have access to an editorial staff, and I quickly realized that I also knew next to NOTHING about formatting, cover design, layout, marketing, pricing, distribution, sales strategy, or the myriad other things that create the sausage, as it were, because all those things were done behind the scenes by my publishers. I never saw them; I just benefitted from them.

So, I had to tackle the learning curve of learning curves. It took months, and I got there, and I have now self-published six books, all of which have sold well—including one novel that became a global bestseller on Amazon. But the learning effort was significant. I don’t tell you this to discourage you; I tell you this because of how I started this article. The authors of the books I read and quickly dismissed paid good money to have creative, compelling covers designed; formatted them reasonably well in the (most likely) Amazon-provided book templates; and uploaded them to Amazon using the self-publishing tools provided free-of-charge by Amazon. When viewed online, they look as attractive and professional as any other book on the Amazon site, but with books, it’s what’s inside that counts. Remember: You can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter. If you self-publish, great. But do the hard work to ensure that your book’s quality is as good as it can possibly be. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it can be a soul-sucking process. But this is your baby. Do everything you can to make it something people will want to hug and coo over, and that will motivate others to buy it from you.

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.

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

  1. Great pair of pieces! I’m gonna get MJ to read them and substitute “art” for writing. FWIW, she just finished editing an art book for an English writer/artist. Dave

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